Roanoke has been filled with excitement over the new Amtrak train station opening. Mrs. JumpStart, JS Jill, her friend, and I took a quick train trip from Roanoke to New York City, at Christmas time.
After waking up a little before 6 AM, JumpStart Jack dropped us off after the 5 minute drive downtown, which was followed by another 5 minute wait before boarding. We had our pick of empty seats on the train, and 10 minutes later we were off.
The train has new leather seats, and seemed to have a little more leg room. The departure from Roanoke was a breeze, and we were out of the city soon.
Approaching Lynchburg Station is a little awkward, and we almost stopped a few times. It had lots of twists and turns, and I thought we would pull into the station any second, but it took 20 minutes to get through Lynchburg.
Until Halloween, Lynchburg was the closest station, and required taking the Smartbus, a 4$ fee, a 75 minute bus ride, and the stress of another connection.
Lynchburg is the coolest looking train station on the whole trip. It is an old beautiful brick two-story building with black wrought iron railings.
After Lynchburg, the first half of trip goes quickly. There are stops at Charlottesville, Culpepper, Manassas, Burke Centre, and Alexandria, before arriving in Washington, D.C.
Half Way Point
In DC, there is a 40 minute delay where the train power goes down, and they switch from diesel to electric. On earlier trips, we have sprinted inside Union Station on a food run, but it is kind of stressful. For this trip we came prepared with food, and so I only got out to stretch my legs for a few minutes.
You may notice, that I haven’t mentioned security yet. After leaving Roanoke, a guy scanned our tickets, but that was it. We brought a cooler with bottled water, Diet Pepsi, pimento cheese, cheese cubes, OJ, and ice. With our luggage, we had a food bag with plates, utensils, bread, chips, crackers, nuts, candy, and a jar of combo PB&J. Maybe there was also some stuff to mix with the OJ and ice. On Amtrak, there are no restrictions about plastic bags, or amounts of fluid, to worry about. We even brought a bottle of Champagne in my hard case bag.
While I was stretching my legs at the DC stop, Mrs. JS made four sandwiches, and a couple of strong drinks. The train does have a cafe car, with a decent set of food and drink options. The cafe car doesn’t gouge you too badly, but we had everything we needed for a nice lunch.
The next stretch from DC to NYC is smooth, and the view is fun, but weird. It is mostly the kind of cheap land located near train tracks, and includes junkyards, trailer parks, graffiti, and backs of buildings. There are also sections with beautiful bridges, rivers, and wooded areas.
Wifi absolutely sucked was kind of slow, and I believe is somehow based on a carrier pigeon. We did manage to watch half a movie on my phone, but I think it came through T-mobile, not Amtrak wireless. Amtrak wireless repeatedly made you reconnect to their network, and I would consider it useless. Next time I’ll download some movies ahead of time.
Passengers continue to board in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and a few other stops, and the empty seats disappear as the ride goes on. Anticipation built as we passed through Jersey, and finally we arrived in New York about 3:30.
Penn Station is located in the basement of Madison Square Gardens, and we exited onto 33rd street in the heart of Manhattan. I announced to the girls that it was only 20 blocks to the hotel. The blocks north to south are pretty short, but East to west blocks are much longer. We walked uptown slightly over a mile, with rolling bags bumping over the bricks and rough sidewalks. Part of the walk went through Times Square, and we saw 8 Elmo’s.
We tend to pack based on airline requirements using one carry-on and one personal item per person. My family is accustomed to being responsible for carrying their own two pieces. Without the plane restriction, we had an assortment of small lunchbox sized coolers, extra bags, and pillows. On future train rides, I’ll bring the bigger suitcase, so I can load more of the stuff into one case, for the walk. All of Mrs. JS and my clothes could have easily fit into the larger case along with some of the food.
Twenty minutes later, we walked into the Sheraton Times Square at 53rd street and 7th Avenue.
I’m planning a second post about our time in NYC.
We began our journey home with our first taxi of the trip returning to Madison Square Gardens at noon. Our driver clearly took the direct route, and she drove like she willing to crash her car to get us there fast. It was as exciting as any roller coaster ride, and I believed we might actually crash several times. The taxi cost 8$ plus tip.
The boarding process for the return train trip is a different story altogether. The train coming from Boston is already partially full, and there is a crowd of adversaries fellow passengers waiting to board the train. I had prepared the girls with instructions to grab seats quickly, and accept that we might not get to sit together.
My friend Andy had told me about the Amtrak Penn Station Hack, and I planned on giving it a try.
Apparently everyone waits in a large holding area in the middle of Penn station watching a screen that gives a track # minutes before boarding. Once a track number pops, people rush to get in line at that corresponding downward escalator, which causes a massive bottle neck. People get stabbed, old ladies are shoved down, and a demonstration of survival of the rudest fittest takes place. I’ve always been in a pretty good mood, and too polite at the end of my vacations, to fight for a good place in line.
We never get to sit together, at first. After a few hours on the train of stalking people wearing Eagle hats, we pounce on their seats when they get off at Phili.
I was excited about testing the Amtrak Penn Station hack, and possibly grabbing 4 seats together.
The perimeter of the room has escalators with signs for different tracks numbers. An unlabeled central escalator supposedly leads to a lower floor with a crappy TV screen, that displays the same info about train boarding. This lower floor is surrounded by escalators with matching signs leading to the same tracks. According to the hack, if you wait downstairs, you’ll take a different escalator and beat everyone to the track.
After circling our luggage, Jill and her friend sat on the floor leaning against a pillar. I was watching the board, and a new boarding announcement popped up. Track 14 to somewhere. I walked toward the central escalator as a crowd hurried toward the track 14 escalator.
A mother and her toddler son beat me to the central escalator. They didn’t have any luggage, and the little boy was repeating “track 14” over and over, as they road the escalator down.
Were they executing the hack?
Mom was calm and deliberate, and seemed to already know the way, turning left at the bottom of the escalator. I followed as they got on a second escalator labelled track 14, and headed downward. I wasn’t going to follow them all the way to the tracks, but after bending down, I could see the tracks on the lower level. A line had formed a story above me, and the mother and son were already on the sidewalk beside track 14. I could not see a train, as they walked out of sight.
I looked around and spotted the crappy tv screen, and a few people standing around. There were a some security guards, and one guard seemed to be looking at me. I smiled, turned, and walked to the up escalator, and returned to the family. The hack looked promising.
As I walked back toward my family, I noticed an officially dressed Amtrak guy talking to my family. He had a loud booming voice, was looking at Jill and her friend, and lecturing them about how his father taught him good grades should not be rewarded, but were expected.
I wasn’t sure what was happening, and I walked up beside the man. He shook my hand, and asked about our destination.
After my reply, he said, “I want your lovely family to be seated together. Follow me.” As he cut through the crowd, he seemed to know half the people we passed. The man barked out an order for Philip to grab a cart. Philip returned, threw all our bags on a cart, and wheeled our luggage around to a roped off section that actually has seats. The section was labelled “passengers needing assistance”, and contained some families and old people.
The great man told us to have a great trip, and said Philip would be back to get us on the train in 15 minutes. We thanked him, and he told us to pay it forward. He walked back into the crowded area to help out more people.
We waited 20 minutes, and Philip came back, loaded our bags along with two other older couple’s bags onto the cart. We were escorted around and boarded an escalator. The track number for our train still hadn’t shown up on the board.
Minutes later the train pulled up. There were a few people aggressively trying to board the train, but were blocked by passengers coming off of the train. We stood back and let the rude pushy people board. Once on the train, the entire back row was empty. These seats are slightly bigger, and we claimed them. The trash chute is nearby, but the bathrooms are at the front of the train car.
I wish I could report on the Amtrak Penn Station hack, but I did not get to try it.
Our boarding method was probably a one time lucky maneuver, but it can’t hurt to gather near the assistance needed area early, and try to look adorable, pitiful, or elderly. I am very aware that I was absent when the girls charmed the Amtrak guy.
After we were seated together across the back row, we saw the slightly panicked people scrambling to find seats and their disappointment realizing they were not sitting together. Even after the train pulled out of the station, we saw people walking toward the back of the train, only to return walking forward a few minutes later. It was a crowded train, and I did not see empty seats anywhere.
The return trip was similar to the inbound trip. The same view, useless Wifi, and all the same stops in reverse order. We did have a 20 minute delay, due to a freight train on the tracks in front of us between Charlottesville and Lynchburg.
Toward the end of the ride, I wish they had shut the lights off, because there was a spotlight shining right down on us.
Unloading at Roanoke was a Christmas scene. It was a little after 10:00, Dec 22, and everyone seemed to have family there to greet them. There were hugs, smiles, and laughter everywhere in the parking lot, as we walked toward JS Jack’s car.
The train is an easy convenient way to travel. Come prepared with downloaded media, food, and drinks. It is a huge advantage arriving in the middle of Manhattan, instead of airports outside of the city. Bank of America has several credit cards with Amtrak points bonuses, and our train trip was free after redeeming points.