Waiting for the passenger and freight trains to move through downtown Fayetteville each afternoon gives me plenty of time to look around and think about the time-honored form of travel, but the view from inside the train is much better than the view of it — slowly — passing through town.
The barn-like Dutch Colonial Amtrak station on Hay Street is quite historic and was first known as the A.C.L. Depot, built in 1893 by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. Originally there was just a single track, but it was later joined by another. At the A.C.L.’s peak in 1934, 30 passenger trains made daily stops in Fayetteville. The famous Palmetto Limited was the New York-to-Florida train whose route stopped in the heart of the downtown.
Late on a cold evening last January I had my first experience as a train passenger, instead of just a train watcher. Many passengers were waiting inside the Fayetteville Amtrak terminal for the 1 a.m. train heading south to Florida. It was to be my family’s first time boarding a passenger train and an adventure to check off our bucket list. For others, it was simply a means of transportation to come visit grandchildren and other relatives. One young soldier stood in a corner kissing his wife and baby goodbye as he sent them back to visit her parents. He later explained that they are a one-car family and he knew the train was safe means of transport for his precious cargo.
As my husband, two sleepy-but-excited kids, and I boarded the dimly lit silver train and picked out our velour-covered seats, I was impressed by the amount of space and semi-privacy the fully reclining seating provided. The amount of leg-room made me recall airplane seating, but it was as if the row in front of us missing, a very pleasant surprise. Bringing along a pillow and blanket made the trip even more comfortable.
The neatly uniformed conductor came through the cabin to punch our tickets, just as you might expect. He was accustomed to moving through the swaying train and was careful not to wake those who already drifted off to sleep and left their tickets sticking out on top of their seats.
The gentle sound of the speeding train lulled most passengers to sleep, thankfully, my kids included. Having just picked up my husband hours before at the airport as he traveled back from Iraq, we were heading to a promised trip to LegoLand, by train. Fearing that the trip might seem endless, stopping through all the towns en route to Florida, I booked us one-way airplane tickets on the way back. Just in case.
Guilty of over packing again, my carry on bag was loaded down with books, magazines and snacks. I felt prepared for the scheduled 10-hour journey that actually took 11. Not altogether sure that train food in the morning sounded desirable, I was prepared to settle for coffee or tea.
In the morning, as the sun peeked through the dark window coverings, some passengers were stirring while others were already getting their morning coffee fix. I was pleasantly surprised by the full menu selection and the quality of food. The tables inside the dining car were set like a fine dining establishment down to miniature champagne style glasses for juice. Eating breakfast on the train as small towns passed by in a blur was a memorable part of our train experience.
Travel by train allows a view of the country that you don’t see from the interstate, and certainly not from the air. Tiny towns whose names slip across your tongue, learned and forgotten in the same moment, pass by in a parade of depots and signs. Every so often the conductor’s voice would come through the overhead speakers announcing the train’s arrival before each small town along the Florida coastline. All of the communities looked similar with the towering palm trees and wooden or metal signs posted designating their town’s name as the train slowed down as it pulled into each station. The train station structures were all different, though. Some were painted in pastel hues, while others coordinated with the nearby town’s muted earth tones.
Passengers were waiting in line to board the train, while others were anxiously awaiting the arrival of loved ones with flowers or balloons. When we arrived at our destination, the conductor obliged us by posing for a photo, a souvenir marking the end of our journey riding the rails.
Don’t spend Thanksgiving alone, look up Amtrak’s online schedule at http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak. On Thanksgiving day you can buy a ticket to D.C. for $63 and be there in six and a half hours, just in time for a feast with family or friends.
Looking for a Christmas treat? Plan a two-day, Big Apple excursion that includes tickets to see the 2012 Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
With more than 30 train routes throughout the United States, Amtrak travels to over 500 destinations in 46 states, giving you the best views North America has to offer.
Discounted fares are offered for kids, seniors, military and students and there are even group rates.
Amtrak online can even help you plan a multi-city rail tour or vacation destination getaway featuring five itineraries with 20 different destinations.