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Amtrak Dispatches Day 1: Masks still required, while meal service is a thing of the past

UPDATED: Sun., May 23, 2021

Editor’s note: Reporter Orion Donovan-Smith is traveling by train across the country from Washington D.C., to Spokane to mark Amtrak’s 50th year of service. This story is part of a series of dispatches along the way.

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. – The coach section of the train was nearly full as we rolled through this historic town where West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia meet at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

But as the Capitol Limited emerged from a tunnel and glided across a bridge over the Potomac and into town, a conductor reminded us that despite the increase in passengers – Amtrak’s ridership dropped by 95% amid the pandemic a year ago – we were still far from a return to normal.

Masks are still required on Amtrak, he reminded us – interstate travel is subject to a federal mask mandate even though the states we’re passing through have relaxed their rules – and the lounge car would remain closed. The sole exception is for “actively eating or drinking” the takeout-style provisions from the cafe car, which those of us in coach have to bring back to our seats.

“An occasional sip or bite of your favorite food doesn’t constitute actual eating or drinking,” the conductor intoned wearily, no doubt repeating the reminder for the umpteenth time.

Most of the passengers observed the mask requirement. The few who didn’t were not reprimanded.

On the other side of the cafe car, passengers with sleeper car tickets sat at diner-style booths to which us plebes in coach didn’t have access . Their microwave meals, a far cry from the dining cars Amtrak eliminated in 2019, probably weren’t worth the premium they paid for those tickets, though the chance to sleep horizontally on the overnight trip to Chicago may have been.

As I write this, a coach ticket for the nearly 18-hour Amtrak trip from D.C. to Chicago next Sunday costs $84 and a sleeper car “roomette” $450. By comparison, a direct flight from Reagan National Airport outside D.C. to Chicago takes a little more than two hours and runs $185 for coach and $350 for business class.

Despite the slowness, lack of amenities and high cost of comfort, there’s something oddly luxurious about taking the train. As we rolled out of the nation’s capital, away from the din of the incipient cicadapocalypse, there was no roar of jet engines, no stop-and-go traffic. We glided near-silently out of the city and through the Maryland suburbs, the car rocking gently from side to side, and I felt more at ease than I ever have on a flight or a long car ride.

(What’s more, one of the perks of riding in coach is that you’re a few cars removed from the locomotive where the engineer blasts the whistle at every road crossing.)

With my journey just beginning, I gazed out the window at the dense West Virginia foliage until the spotty internet connection let me file this update, looking forward to the first scheduled “smoke and stretch break” in Pittsburgh a little after 11 p.m.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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