Today is the first day of a long summer weekend trip to Chicago for our family. We live in the Twin Cities – just about 400 miles away – but haven’t gone to Chicago for fun in more than 15 years. I’ve been there dozens of times on business – we even used to fly down and back for lunch meetings at our ad agency regularly.
The last family trip we made down to Chicago was a driving trip. According to Google Maps, it is about a 7 hour trip through Milwaukee. With stops for food, gas, road construction, and rush hour – we’re staying right in the Loop – I think 8 hours would be about right. I have a speedy friend who says he can do it in 5 hours, but that would require an 80 mph average speed – without stopping or road construction, which is an inevitability this time of year.
Since we’re not working now – I thought it would be a great time to try out passenger train service from St. Paul’s recently restored Union Depot to Chicago’s proud old Union Station. The Amtrak Empire Builder SuperLiner left this morning at 8am and will pull into the Windy City 7 hours and 55 minutes later (3:55pm). The fare – for the three of us – was $420 round trip ($108 each). With the IRS mileage rate at $0.535, the price over 800 miles is almost perfectly a wash with driving ($428). Three plane tickets would have been about $150 more, but shaved the hours off considerably. That said, my experience has been that plane fares often look cheap, but there are an unbelievable amount of extra taxes, fees, and charges that tacked on.
I don’t think I would have chosen to take the train if I had still been working. We probably would have spent the extra money and taken a flight. Time is more important than money when you are working – you are happy to throw a little extra money at a time crunch.
Paradoxically, while most people retire to get more time, it also changes the way you use it. In our new lifestyle, time is more something to be comfortably used, and less something that gets ‘burned’ moving from activity to activity. That’s the idea behind the train today – time to sit, read, surf the web, or write this article. From the train, we are quietly chugging alongside the Mississippi River – nearly a mile wide in some places – with an interesting view of rugged limestone bluffs, morning fishing boats, and American bald eagles who seem to enjoy swooping by the SuperLiner.
The Amtrak passenger train service recently got a new CEO – Richard Anderson – who formerly ran Delta Airlines (and Northwest Airlines from the Twin Cities, before that). While the Empire Builder today is on time and reasonably efficient, I hope he will be able to take a few lessons from the European and Japanese train systems we have enjoyed in the past.
Many of those rail systems are amazingly clean, efficient, and enjoyable to ride versus plane travel. I was amazed in Tokyo last year that they have a 200 mph Shinkansen bullet train leaving for Kyoto every 10 minutes (even on a Sunday afternoon). They clean the cars, load the passengers, and shoot out of the station like nothing you have ever seen. I’m not sure we will ever have – or will ever need – efficiency like that, but I’m sure there are lessons that can be incorporated here.