I’ve previously criticized Amtrak on this blog as junky, inefficient, and a ripoff. That criticism has been justified, in my opinion. For traveling distances of 200 miles or more, Amtrak won’t get you there faster than a bus (unless you pay extra for Acela) or cheaper than a plane.* With no private sector competition, Amtrak has little incentive to improve its reputation or convince travelers not to drive or fly.
However, I recently found a pleasant exception, which is Amtrak’s Hiawatha line that runs from Milwaukee to Chicago and back. I had business in Chicago, and definitely wanted to avoid the Windy City’s horrible auto traffic (I think it’s worse than New York’s). The Hiawatha seemed like a practical alternative.
It did not disappoint. The Hiawatha was noticeably cleaner than other Amtrak trains I’d taken, and the seats were wide and comfortable. It was early afternoon and hardly anyone was on my Chicago-bound train, so the ride through the Midwestern flatlands was quiet and relaxing. (Quiet cars are available if you find your car is crowded an noisy.) On the return trip, there were a few more passengers, mostly business travelers clacking away on laptops and engaging in friendly chatter. A food cart made its way up and down the aisle with snacks and drinks.
In less than 90 minutes, I had gone from Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport, the Hiawatha’s second stop after downtown Milwaukee, to Chicago’s Union Station. The Hiawatha only makes two other stops between the two metropolises: Sturtevant, Wisconsin and Glenview, Illinois.
(Side note: if you’re going to Chicago and have to fly, consider using Mitchell – it’s a much nicer and friendlier airport than O’Hare, and a free shuttle connects the airport to the train station. Two low-cost airlines, AirTran and Frontier, fly into Mitchell; My AirTran ticket from New York LaGuardia to Mitchell cost me $98 round trip including taxes an fees (!). Unfortunately, Frontier announced last week it will be cutting back on Milwaukee-based flights and jobs. Hopefully, another discount airline will fill the void. JetBlue, are you listening?)
There are seven daily round trips, and at $23 each way it’s a sound alternative if not exactly a steal. Tickets may be bought online or at electronic kiosks. If you’re traveling on business it’s a great way to go, and you can get some work done on the way. If you’ve never visited either Milwaukee or Chicago (I highly recommend you do – they’re great towns) and want to knock off both in one trip, the Hiawatha is also convenient and relaxing.
*I searched for Amtrak tickets and airfare between New York and Washington for March 2 – 4. The prices were identical: $130 round trip. The difference is that Amtrak will get you there in no less than two hours 55 minutes. A flight takes a little over an hour.