I'm writing this somewhere in a swamp in Georgia, chugging northward on the Auto Train, the world's longest passenger train.
At full capacity, the train carries 650 passengers and 330 vehicles, its 18 passenger cars and 33 vehicle carriers stretching for three-fourths of a mile.
Amtrak runs two Auto Trains, each scheduled to depart at 4 p.m., one from Sanford, Florida, the other from outside D.C. in Lorton, Virginia. With everything on schedule, the trains pass each other at 11:30 p.m. at the half-way point in Florence, South Carolina.
Ticket prices depend on demand, like concert tickets. With the train packed with snow birds on our way down to Florida after Christmas, we paid $782 for a bedroom with a restroom/shower combination and a couch and chair that converted into bunks. The larger one's on the bottom. Forget feminism and equality -- I get the top bunk every time. I feel like a tuna in a can.
Coming back on a less crowded train, leaving most of the snowbirds in Florida, the price for the same room was $406.
The car, additionally, is $152 each way, plus there's a $70.65 rail fare each way.
Altogether, that's $1,633.30 --- not bad if you're staying for the winter and saving the cost of a car rental for 15 weeks or so. If a car rental is $200 a week, the train ends up as more than free, plus there's a complimentary wine tasting party in the lounge car during the first hour (this time with salmon appetizers --- usually it's only carrot sticks and those little cheese crackers), a free dinner at five or seven o'clock, a movie at seven and nine o'clock, and a complimentary continental breakfast (orange juice, coffee, a banana and those little boxes of Special-K and Rice Krispies).
It's nice, but maybe not as good as Amtrak sells it, i.e. "The journey is every bit as much fun as your destination!" That might be true if you're jobless and going down to pick oranges or do some guppy scooping before the next frost hits.
They also promote the "panoramic views of America's southeast through picture windows." Except it was dark after the first two hours of the 17-hour ride, so what you see are red blinking lights at railroad crossings in five states.
But it's efficient. Where else can you simultaneously read, drink, smoke, eat, talk, write, e-mail, and meet dozens of new characters, all while going 70 miles per hour? Plus you aren't blasted out into the air at 35,000 feet if one of the co-passengers ends up as a successful crotch bomber.
For trivia fans, Amtrak provides some details on the towns we pass through. Heading north, the first town is Deland, Florida, home of Stetson University, named after the hat guy. Next is Pierson, "the nation's fern capital" (all you see are miles of black tarps; the ferns are underneath). Then it's Palatka, "a haven during the 1850s for invalids escaping northern winters." The last town before leaving South Carolina is Dillon, the place where financial non-guru Ben Bernanke went to high school and worked as a waiter at South of the Border, a road stop near the North Carolina border.
The last town is Lorton, home of the Lorton Reformatory, a correctional facility that produced fire hydrants and fire call boxes for D.C. "In 1917, it held 170 women arrested and detained in the suffrage movement for marching in Washington."
The facility closed in 2001, so there's little chance that Obama will be sending over any tea-baggers to make fire hydrants, unless he decides it's a good spot for some "shovel-ready" stimulation.
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Ralph R. Reiland