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Opinion: The train may be the safest way to go

(The Kansas City Star posted the following editorial by Mike Hendricks on its website on August 14.)

KANSAS CITY -- First 9/11, then the shoe scare, and last week the bedlam at the airports continued. Now you can’t even carry bottled water on a plane.

I know, I know. They can’t be too careful, even if it is silly that they’re still patting down little old ladies.

Still, it’s worth remembering that that there’s an alternative to being treated like cattle at the airport.

There’s always the train.

Dear old Amtrak. It won’t rifle through your carry-on luggage, not seeming to care whether your bag is jam-packed with scissors, box cutters or tubes of potentially explosive toothpaste.

Maybe it should check more.

But give the Islamo-fascist suicide bombers some credit. They probably know better than to waste their martyrdoms blowing up a train in the middle of Kansas or Missouri. How would their 72 virgins find them, after all?

Nobody rides the train. You get that impression, anyway, from talking to folks, despite the fact that Amtrak ridership has hit records in each of the last three years.

Tell someone you’re taking the train anywhere, and they look at you as though you’ve told them you read Proust in the bathtub. Then they tell you that they long to take the train somewhere one of these days.

My wife and I have been riding the rails off and on since the ’70s.

This summer we took two of the kids to see Chicago via rail. There are two ways to take the train from KC to Chicago: the smart way and the dumb way.

We were smart and avoided the train that goes there via St. Louis.

Even before the track repairs that are diverting rail passengers onto buses, delays were common on that route because of all the freight trains with which the passenger cars share the rails.

The curse of Amtrak, in other words.

The Southwest Chief, on the other hand, takes the more direct route, avoiding St. Louis entirely. It makes only two stops in Missouri on its journey from Los Angeles to Chicago: Kansas City and the village of La Plata, south of Kirksville.

If it’s on time, the Chief gets you to Chi-town in eight hours, and it was mostly on schedule on both ends of our weeklong visit.

Eight hours is faster than you can drive it, but longer than it takes to fly, even with the security delays.

Still, on the train you’ll hear no complaints about legroom or seat width. Even in coach, every seat has leg rests for crying out loud. It’s like riding to Chicago in a La-Z-Boy.

I doubt it’s as roomy even in the first-class section of a 747. Not being a big shot who flies first class, I couldn’t tell you for sure. But that’s my guess.

In short, it was a fine trip, with plenty of time to read, enjoy the scenery and eat a decent meal served on a white tablecloth — all for about the price of a plane ticket.

Even with four of us, we probably spent on tickets about what we would have spent on gas to fill the tank we drive.

So if you haven’t taken the train lately, give it a try, especially if you’re a little hinky about flying right now. And who wouldn’t be?

Be warned, however, that not every trip goes as well as ours did. Sometimes there are delays and worse.

Just as when you fly, sometimes in a train you wind up sitting near someone who snores like a jet engine — or smells like one that has sucked in a flock of geese.

But that’s travel for you. Never leave home without earplugs and a can of Lysol, I always say.

Monday, August 14, 2006

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