Happy Rails

The California Zephyr is a Superliner that travels between Chicago and San Francisco Bay. Inset: The Wolverine passes through New Buffalo, Mich., on its way to Chicago.

Beleaguered Amtrak has finally found a white knight, or at least a white-haired knight. Vice President Joe Biden, who loves to ride the rails, has made himself point man to revive U.S. passenger-train service. His initial effort isn’t too shabby, either. Amtrak gets a $1.3-billion slice of this year’s federal stimulus plan — and a higher profile. Biden dubs Amtrak a “national treasure,” and he’s right, even if some of the jewels could use a little polish.

Trains are the civilized way to travel. They soar above annoying airport pat-downs, shoe removal, and guards pawing through your bags.

Sure, a cross-country trip takes longer by rail, but there’s no extra charge for its relative luxury. Seats accommodate even the most spacious posterior. And riders can stretch out, with footrests and separate calf rests making it a snap to nap. Want to stay connected? Go ahead and pull out that BlackBerry; no restrictions there. For your riding pleasure, some overnight trains pull a glassed lounge (observation) car, a dining car, and sleeping cars — echoes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

As riders discover, so-called “flyover country” deserves a look. My recent trips through the Midwest have included rides on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, a Superliner between Chicago and San Francisco Bay. Like a rolling scenic postcard, it offers stunning eye-level vistas of a route that pioneers followed across the Mississippi and Missouri. Also on view is the American underbelly: industrial debris and junkyards that collect along rail lines.

Inside the Zephyr’s two-story coach, there are no seat belts and freedom to roam. For the gadget-addicted, some coaches have a 120-volt electrical outlet at every seat, making recharging easy.

In the observation spaces, I find more to watch than the passing vista. A proverbial little-old lady primly reads her book in contrast to a pair of young men with backpacks and guitars who adjourn to the lounge where they sit on the floor and strum softly. Nearby, a portly gent spends an hour on his cell sorting out some problem with his condo in Maui, which suggests Amtrak has an upscale flank. On weekends, clusters of students might climb aboard at college towns. But in my rail travels, I see few children. It’s a quiet, civil, and polite scene.

One trip included a stay in Amtrak’s smallest sleeper, a postage-stamp “roomette,” where floor space measured a cozy 6-and-a-half by 3-and-a-half feet, but with stand-up headroom, at least. The roomette had two seats and devices that morph into two beds, upper and lower. A sleeper ticket comes with meals, which would otherwise be charged separately. But there’s no free lunch. A Zephyr ticket between Chicago and Nebraska costs $86, and the roomette adds another $140 to the tab. Bigger rooms are available for more money.

Metro Detroit’s Amtrak connection is the Wolverine, a day-coach train to Chicago’s Union Station. It’s not as sexy as a Superliner, but it’s comfortable. The trip from, say, Royal Oak to the Windy City typically costs around $32 and takes about six hours. Another $13 buys business class.

Opting for Amtrak avoids schlepping to and through Metro Airport. The Wolverine picks up passengers in Pontiac, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Detroit, Dearborn, and other Michigan cities to the west. The “stations” in Oakland County are hardly romantic; their trackside platforms are serviceable but nippy in winter. When you board, you tug your own bags.

Like contemporary air travel, Amtrak forbids smoking, though accommodating conductors will call out certain stations as “smoke stops.” Or not. “Creston [Iowa] is not a smoke stop,” an attendant announced on one Zephyr run, adding, “I understand what you’re going through, but we’re trying to make up time so people can make connections.”

That reminds me. Veteran “Amtrekkies” expect delays as part of a mellow, go-with-the-flow train experience. As of this writing, for example, the California Zephyr arrived on time about 60 percent of the time in the past 12 months. Amtrak reports Michigan trains are on time about half the time, depending on the train and time of day. But don’t blame all delays on Amtrak. The company leases most of its track from other railroads and, a conductor explained, Amtrak is at their mercy for clearances to proceed along a given stretch of track.

Amtrak’s speedier Acela commuter trains in the Northeast Corridor claim a much better on-time record — nearly 85 percent last year.

Overall, Amtrak crawls compared to Japan’s Shinkansen, aka Bullet Train, the newest of which flies at a top speed of 186 mph. During the day, six trains an hour (yes, an hour) run between Tokyo and Osaka. By comparison, Amtrak runs the 304 miles between Pontiac and Chicago in more than six hours, or an average speed of around 48 mph, including stops.

Biden, who estimates he’s logged 7,000 Amtrak trips, wants his favorite railroad to catch up. This year’s stimulus spending includes billions to incubate high-speed U.S. rail — a start on a national system that will take years to build.

For now, check out Amtrak’s current routes. They won’t work for every destination. But when they do, rail travel spawns an Einstein-like relativity. Yes, the trip will take longer than flying. But having skipped airport hassles and cramped airliner cabins, the ride will seem short and, odds are, pleasant.