Tech Travels

Ridin’ the Rails

When your country spans an entire continent, as does the US and Canada, rail travel is destined to play a major role in its development and growth. Until the mid-1800s, traveling west was a long term and risky proposal. With the intercontinental railroad and advances in steam locomotives the prospect of going west became less and less daunting. Soon, the entire continent was accessible by rail and car. The jet age seemed to be the death knell of rail travel, and it very nearly has been. However, Amtrak and Via Rail both still offer rail service that is at once modern and classic.

This last weekend, my wife and I spent the weekend in Toronto, ON. Rather than drive the 5 hours or so, have to deal with Toronto traffic, and pay upwards of $30 per day for parking, we let Via Rail do the driving. Rail travel has not been affected by the same security measures as airports, and you pretty much walk right onto the train. Stow your bag in the baggage area, and find a seat. Any seat.

The General Motors Diesel Division’s F40PH-2 that provided traction for our journey is powered by a 3,000 hp generator driven by a V16 two-stroke diesel engine. This is enough to get a train of modest size up to 90 mph. With several stops along the way, the trip still takes about 5 hours.

However, you’re not driving. No messing with GPS systems going wonky because you forgot to load the Canuckistanian maps. No fighting between you and the significant other because you can’t figure out a maze of streets. Just sit back, watch the scenery, take a nap, read a book or play on the computer thanks to wifi and power supplied by a 500kW generator.

More importantly, you can sit there and feel a connection with past generations. This was the primary mode of long distance transportation for over 100 years. The tracks follow the same routes as people did 50, 75 or even 100 years ago. You are, in a very real sense, following in their footsteps.

We celebrate old, lost and forgotten technology here at Atomic Toasters. Riding the train is, should be, something we celebrate. Now go!

[Image Credit: engineerd™]

  • Jon

    I love rail travel. Many times, we've looked at what it takes to ride the train from Portland, OR, down to Disneyland.

    And every time we find that it's at least as expensive as flying, and takes 2 full days.

    I wish the situation were different, because — while I love to drive — rail travel is one of my favorite methods.

  • I always take the Downeaster when I go up to Portland to see my folks. It takes a bit longer (maybe 15 min over 120 miles), and the schedule is limited, but it's so worth it. Even on a bus I'm a bit antsy about other drivers and the havoc they can wreak on my person, somehow being in a bazillion ton machine on a right of way banishes that anxiety.

    The train runs through all the parts of cities you never see from the highway, but you can tell they used to face the tracks. The Downeaster runs through my hometown and those railroad tracks were my playground as a rotten little kid. I can see my old schools, the center of town and even the 100 year old factory I got my first job in (Sadly no longer a manufacturing center). Best part is I rocket straight through that idiot town and never have to look back.

    Strange fact: Boston has no direct rail link between South Station and North Station, a gap they didn't bother to fix during the Big Dig. So you can take a train from Florida to So. Sta., but if you want to continue on to Portland or anywhere downwind you have to navigate a bizarre system of buses (none of which go direct), subways and some that are both to get to the Amtrak again. Or walk, it's frequently faster.

  • FuzzyPlushroom

    I only ever have the opportunity to take the train when I go down into Boston. Usually this means parking in Fitchburg or Lowell and heading into the city itself on the commuter rail. It is always a nice experience, though… well, aside from the one time there was a three-and-a-half-hour delay, followed by the police having to escort someone off the train shortly after our journey began, but that date still went well, despite everything.

    The United Kingdom seems to have it together, more so, where rail is concerned. Being able to sit back with my partner (at the time), watch the scenery, and relax on a journey from Livingston to Dundee was far superior to – and cheaper than – driving, even if we'd had a car available.

    Also, since this is AtomicToasters, I feel obligated…

    <img src="; alt="Cheers, Dan.">

    • fodder650

      I've built my fair share of Via systems back in the day but it does look like there might be a bit of a trademark infringement here.

  • Great write up on my favorite way to move around!

    • FTF! Nice to hear from you again!

    • fodder650

      I agree its good to see you are alive. Now to get you to join the other 400 of us over at Google+ from the old website.

      • I hope to be more active. I've been crazy busy with college. What is this Google+ thing now?

        • fodder650

          Its Google's answer to Facebook but more important to you its the face a lot of people you knew from Jalopnik are hanging out. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred of us or so are overthere posting.

          Go to and create an account. Post something to… and I will make sure that the group knows you exist. Its free.

          Still make sure you frequent here as well.

          • Will do Holmes, no promises on how active I'll be though. It seems these days the old timers at Jalopnik have scattered to the four corners of the internet. Hooniverse, Atomic Toasters, a plethora of Facebook groups and pages, its all hard to keep up with, ya know? I'll create an account though! I'm going to try to be more active here as well.

          • fodder650

            Well we are more active there then on Facebook. Look forward to seeing you there

  • The only time I have ridden an actual passenger train was in the UK. From Birmingham to Lodon a couple of times in 2000 and from London to Hampton Court in 2004. Overall cheap and efficient for the most part. Something strange was going on in 2000 and had to take a bus partway and got delayed several hours on one return trip. Something to do with Virgin taking over from Britrail.

  • Tiller188

    My family and I have traveled on Amtrak quite a few times, several of those cross country (well, California to Indiana — close enough) and the others mostly California-to-Colorado or up and down the California coast. I've really enjoyed those trips, so I'll take the opportunity to plug rail travel… The trip takes much longer than flying, of course — if memory serves, it's the better part of 3 days, so 2 nights spent aboard, to get to Indiana, and a little over a day (one night aboard) to Denver. That having been said, it just feels so much more…"civilized". None of the security theater, much reduced hustle and bustle, and at least on the routes we took, no connections/transfers to make. Not to mention the accommodations aboard are much more comfortable/roomy, and there's room to get up and walk around. For a guy my size (6'4"), the train is rather more inviting.

    If you're willing to make the trip a part of the vacation, and plan for a couple of days of just relaxing with a good book, some music, or the scenery, the train is a great way to go. The scenery, I should mention, is also a great draw — sure, you'll pass through some trainyards and industrial areas that aren't much to look at, but a lot of it, especially the segments running through the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies, is beautiful.

    • I've taken the Boston – NYC train and very much enjoyed it. We 'snuck' a six pack of Sam Adams on board and no one hassled us for drinking a couple at our seats. Try that on an airplane! The seats were bigger than my couch, practically, and I had to reach to touch the one in front of me.

      I'm seriously thinking about a trip on the Coast Starlight, either north to Portland or south to San Diego. Maybe bike to San Louis Obispo or somewhere and pick it up there.

      • I highly recommend the Coast Starlight. I feel its as close as you can get to the vintage streamliners of the 1940s and 1950s.

  • fodder650

    I like to take my kids on stream train rides and I keep telling my wife that I am going to take them on a passenger train at some point. I just never pull the trigger to do it. Now that we have the dog that seems even less likely but I know they would enjoy it.

  • Jeb

    There's a regional run between Richmond and DC (and on into the Northeast, but I digress) that I've taken a couple of times. The ride is MUCH nicer if you spring the extra $15 for business class and get into the quiet car. I'm not sure if it's really a time-saver relative to driving, assuming you're not mired in horrid traffic (and that's always a gamble), but there are times when it's useful. I wish we had higher-speed rail options, though, or more AutoTrains.

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