Amtrak vs. German Trains (die Bahn)

My son and I took Amtrak from Milwaukee airport to Chicago’s Union Station nd back over the weekend. Having used the European trains extensively and American ones rarely, I found some interesting contrasts.

My son and I took Amtrak from Milwaukee airport to Chicago’s Union Station nd back over the weekend. Having used the European trains extensively and American ones rarely, I found some interesting contrasts.

First of all my buddies, Mark and Mary Beth met us at the airport with a few Weissbiers and the proper glassware (if you know Mark, this goes without saying) and a few pieces of chicken he just did on his grill at home. It was a great little tailgate party in an uncommon spot – we sat on blankets in the parking lot, ate good food, drank a few good beers, and told a few good stories. We were only bothered once by security – “Oh my God, people are drinking beer and , <gasp> enjoying themselves in our parking lot. We must assert our authority and stop this!” USA drinking in Public is stigmatized. In Germany? No one cares – it’s just beer!

Next we needed to board the train. Amtrak has a beautiful little station at the Milwaukee airport and it’s convienient enough to reach by catching a well-marked shuttle right from baggage claim. It’s literally less than 5 minutes away from the main terminal. We entered the terminal and there were at least 5 TSA agents waiting for us.

They searched our baggage and then allowed us to pass. We walked through the doors to the platform, past 4 more agents – two of them were cops wearing body armor. And there was another security officer at the north end of the platform aleady. All this for about 10-15 passengers. I mentioned to one of the agents that we weren’t accustomed to such treatment when simply trying to catch a train. He asked, “Don’t they have security over there?” Answer, “Ah, no.”  I admit that I am biased against making TSA a federal agency and I really think we’ve gone overboard on security. Do we really need to check Grandma in her wheelchair?   To be fair, Germany does have a lot of police presence at the big stattions like Munich and they are often carrying some sersious weaponry. In the smaller stations – nothing. (There is often a lot of camera surveillance). After all, trains are so pervasive there that they are more like a subway system on steroids.

Getting on the train was also a lesson. We stood at the far north side of the platform. Train arrives. We try to board, but the doors don’t open! The conductor whistles to us. We all have to enter the train through the same doors. In Germany, you simply get to the platform and can hop on through any door on the train.

The Hiawatha service doesn’t have any frills – the ride is only somethign like 90 minutes. There were menu cards in the seat pockets offering snacks, soda, and beer, but we didn’t try it. I thought it was great that they had two 110 volt power outlets at each row of seats – that’s a great idea. The windows are smaller than in Germany, but the bathrooms are biggest and certainly better kept than some of the German regional trains. (However Germany’s ICE and EC/IC trains are outstanding!). The price was $66 for 2 of us, round trip. In Germany, we could get one day of unlimited travel including mass transit in the cities for 27 Euros per person.

Arriving in Chicago, the view is really interesting. Unfortunately the last stretch is all undergound. Getting off the train, everyone has to exit through a common exit.

The condition of the terminal was good, but it’s unfortunate that the “Great Hall” isn’t better used – it’s a spectacular space!

On our return from Union Station, things were a little more chaotic. Unlike German stations, you aren’t allowed access to the platform until they open the doors. That caused a big line at the end of the track and becaused it sa serpentine layout, there was no way to know if we were standing in the correct line. Once we were allowed on the platform, we had a slow walk because, again, passengers can only enter through the same set of doors.

Now the good news – it surely beats driving into Chicago – hand’s down! And, they left me alone when I was drinking my beer. The personnel on board were quite friendly in fact and the cabin was clean.

I’ve been thinking a little more about Amtrak since reading Arthur Frommer’s new book, “Ask Arthur Frommer & travel better, cheaper, smarter.” He makes a passionate defense of a national rail system. Gas prices are climbing, pollution is a concerns, flying is no fun and the airlines are shambles. He cites that most people say, “Amtrak cannot make a profit.” Frommer makes an interesting point to this argument: “The interstate highways system does not run a profit.” In fact, Frommer says, “Congress appropriates literally tens of billions of dollars for the maintenance and expansion of our interstate highways.” Further, “Congress appropriates at least $3 billion (annually) for air traffic controls.” I, for one, would love to see better train service in the USA and leave the driving to someone else!