We were a little apprehensive taking a train in the US. Amtrak, the dominant train operator there, has a bad reputation for long delays and cancellations. In fact just a few days before the journey, they emailed us about a planned 20 minute delay. We were boarding our train from Utica in New York and that didn’t help ease our anxiety either. Utica felt like an old manufacturing city on decline – one that people go through but never go to.
The waiting room of Utica station was an enormous columned hall with long wooden benches that was clearly built in a bygone era. Ironically, in one corner of the station was the DMV office! The station also housed a restaurant with indeterminate opening hours, a quaint barber shop (complete with a barber’s pole), a couple of small administrative offices and a ticket counter cum enquiry window. The person on duty at the window also had to update a manual display (by pinning cut out letters from a tray below it) with latest train arrival/departure information received over a landline.
The station had only two platforms and there was no way of knowing where your train would leave from until 15 minutes prior the departure. There was a digital display just above the enquiry window but it was hard to say if it could be trusted. Overall this place felt less like somewhere in the US and more like a train station in rural France.
Our train kept accumulating further delays on its way to Utica and arrived an hour later than the times printed on our ticket. Only a handful of us were boarding the train. We were segregated into different coaches depending on our destination and within a minute of us boarding the train began its lumbering, five hour long journey to New York City.
The train was quite spacious from inside. There was ample space to stow our suitcases and we had no trouble finding a place to sit (tickets don’t carry seat numbers, another reason for our anxiety). The ticket checker examined our printed e-ticket and slid a couple of green tabs in the overhead luggage rack, probably to mark that we had been already checked.
Given how cold it gets in New York, we weren’t expecting to be able to open the train windows. Sadly the window panes were tinted and grimy making it nearly impossible to snap any decent pictures on the way. New York at this time of the year puts up a glorious display of fall colours. Throughout the ride, we kept passing distant rolling hills covered in shades of orange, maroon and yellow. The sky was a dull grey throughout, but it only served to accentuate the colours of the landscape. Vegetation closer to the tracks would occasionally hide everything from the view and when it would disappear, we would be riding along a river.
I held my phone’s camera against the glass window and tried shooting some high frame-rate videos. The results surprised me. There is something hypnotic about seeing the trees, bushes and fall foliage glide past in slow motion. The landscape in the background creates a strong parallax and gives the illusion of the recording being three dimensional.
Our journey was punctuated by various small stations (we were particularly excited about Amsterdam, NY) every 30-40 minutes. The train had pantry service and a respectable menu but they were out of practically anything we wanted to have. Thankfully they did carry plenty of black coffee which we washed down our own stock of potato chips, fruits, nuts and granola bars with.
One of our co-passenger was extremely friendly and handed us a fistful of candies for no reason at all. In India, one hears grim tales of people being drugged and robbed in trains. So for us, eating something handed to you by a stranger in a train is a rookie mistake. We left the candies in the seat’s pocket. I can’t help but feel sorry about the world that makes us wary of a random act of kindness by a stranger.
As we drew closer to New York City, the hamlets along the way started turning into towns which then became cities. The train made up lost time along the way and by the time it came to a halt in the underground tunnel at Penn Station, we were just 15 minutes off the scheduled arrival. It was a memorable ride. I am already thinking about the footage I could get in winters.