Tag: travel

Post Semester Travel

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My semester in Rome concluded on April 30. Before returning to the States I spent a little over a week in Germany and two days in London. I had a Deutsche Bahn six day rail pass so traveled to several places in Germany including Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Kandel, Karlsruhe, Munich, Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Zugspitze mountain peak), Berlin, and Dessau (Bauhaus). It was a lot to take in, but my week was fairly relaxed and most of my time was spent simply walking around and exploring different places. It was very interesting to see the contrast between cities and towns in Germany compared to Italy, and of course the U.S. Most places I saw in Germany were extraordinarily clean, orderly and organized. Given my family’s mostly German heritage I really enjoyed visiting Germany and felt pretty comfortable with the little bit of German I retain from high school and was able to fit in pretty well.

To present my travel experience most effectively I’ll break up my posts by city, rather than a strict chronology or conventional “travel blog.” That said, I list below a brief summary of my journey schedule, mostly for my own documentation. See all my photos from Germany and London on Flickr.

30 Apr        Flight from Rome to Frankfurt Hahn –> bus to Frankfurt –> train to Stuttgart
 1  May        Train to Kandel, day exploring
 2  May        Train to Munich via stop in Karlsruhe
 3  May        Day in Munich
 4  May        Train to Garmisch-Parenkirchen –> Zugspitze (highest peak in Germany)
 5  May        Day in Munich, Deutsches Museum
 6  May        Train to Berlin
 7  May        Day in Berlin
 8  May        Train to Dessau (Bauhaus)
 9  May        Flight from Berlin to London Stansted, day exploring
10 May        Day in London, London Transport Museum
11 May        Flight from LHR –> DTW –> CID (home)

Umbria Trip

Hillside dwellings

Last weekend was full of travel. Last Thursday to Friday (Feb 4-5) we had a short overnight class trip to Perugia, Umbria, followed by a three day weekend for travel on our own. I headed up to Norway with three others and it was a blast, but I’ll talk about that in my next post.

We left Rome around 8am on Thursday aboard a double decker charter bus, which was kind of fun. It was my first time out of the city since arriving about a month ago, so I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and just somewhere else besides Rome.

Palazzo Farnese in CaprarolaOn the way to Perugia we made a few side stops along the way. First in the small hill town of Bagnaia to visit Villa Lanta (16th century) with an elaborate formal garden with fountain and water features flowing down the hill above the town. We stayed there for a little over an hour to explore and do some sketching. Our second stop was at Palazzo Farnese (photo to left), an enormous 16th century mansion in a very rural town Caprarola. Similar to Villa Lanta, it sat above overlooking much of the small town. On the short walk from the bus we had majestic views of the deep valleys and hillside dwellings (photo at top). We only went through one floor of the Palazzo, which were all elaborately decorated with frescos painted on just about every wall and ceiling surface. Then we made a quick stop nearby for food tasting of a few different local foods, wines, and naturally carbonated water.

The next leg of the bus trip was longer, going through very hilly and forested areas. The road had very sharp turns, switching back and forth up and down terrain. The countryside was beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the dense grittiness of Rome. Despite winter, much of the ground was still mostly green.

_DSC0123.JPGWe arrived in Perugia around 5:30pm, just as it was getting dark. Outside of town there were occasional small industrial buildings along the highway. Entering the city was actually quite sudden. I was surprised by the size and modernity of the newer areas, with more towers, glass and steel than can be found in Rome. But this certainly did not characterize all of Perugia, which originated as a medieval fortress atop a hill. The old historic center remains a vibrant place, connected to the newer city below by MiniMetro, an automated people mover system, as well as an extensive escalator corridor going up the hill.

A wide pedestrian street Corso Vannucci at the top is flanked by several tiny “streets” that crawl up and down the terrain, winding around agglomerations of buildings. Unlike most of the medieval streets in Rome, the majority of these were completely inaccessible except on foot, many only a meter or so wide. A lot were also built over, either partially or completely, making the typical meaning of street even more inapplicable. They were very foreign, especially since they are all still functioning, providing access to operating businesses and residences. The multidimensional, multilayered urbanism here simply cannot be found in America.

StreetHilltop Perugia was very posh with several stylish outlets along Corso Vannucci. It was very clean compared to Rome and the small side streets were very well lit. The paving material was also a lighter stone and brick compared to the standard dark gray cobblestone used most everywhere in Rome.

Our hotel (Hotel Priori) was just off Corso Vannucci on one of these side streets. That evening we had a group dinner with all students and professors at All Mangiar bene (translates: “All Eating Well”) located down one of the side vias. It was a multi course Italian dinner with two appetizers, soup, spaghetti, salad, turkey dish, pork chops and sausage; followed by dessert, coffee, and a lemon liquor. Needless to say, it was intense and very filling. A brick arched ceiling characterized the dinning room, with only a few small windows at one end, giving it a very medieval, almost dungeon-like vibe.

The following day on Friday was left for exploration and sketching. I walked down the hill first to find the train station with a few friends who needed to catch a bus there later to get to their own weekend travels. I then wandered around the modern city around and took the MiniMetro back up to the top. It was drizzly, gloomy and cold that day so everyone was pretty much ready to leave when we the bus came back around 3pm. The bus trip back to Rome was pretty uneventful with one quick stop at an AutoGrill truck stop. Back in Rome it was pouring rain, not making for a fun way back to the apartment. We were dropped back off at the Piramide Metro station where we had met the bus on Thursday, despite driving right by the apartment where the majority of us live. Waiting ten minutes in the pouring rain for a local bus to come was no fun at all, but hey, its Rome.

Perugia was a nice short trip outside of Rome and neat to see a smaller Italian city. See photos here.

DC Chillin’

I returned last Tuesday from a week in the Washington, DC, area. My friend Cece and I went to visit another friend Spencer, who goes to school there. This was my fifth time to the nation’s capital, while it was Cece’s first, so it was a good mix of seeing different neighborhoods and the obligatory museums and monuments.

We flew into BWI Wednesday, Aug 5, and took the MARC Penn Line to Union Station in downtown Washington. All previous times visiting I’ve flown into Reagan National Airport, which is literally across the river from DC, in Virginia. It has Metro service on the Blue line so getting into the city is a breeze. From BWI, we first had to take a shuttle bus to a remote parking garage where the MARC stop was at. Then we waited about twenty minutes for the train; meanwhile a few Amtrak Acela trains zoomed through. It look 30-40 minutes to get to Union Station in DC. Our first day was spent just walking around downtown and the Mall area.

The next two days, Spencer had reserved a Zip Car, so we ventured into Maryland and Virginia, far beyond the Metro lines. On Thursday we drove to Annapolis and spent a few hours exploring the historic capital city and enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local seafood restaurant, Backyard Bar & Grill. Annapolis is a beautiful place with brick everywhere. The scale and density of buildings in the city’s historic center is so unusual compared to what is typical in much of the country, particularly outside the east coast. On Friday we went to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where we took a nine mile hike up Old Rag Mountain.

Saturday morning we spent a couple hours at museums and the National Mall. In the afternoon we had a corn party grill out at a townhouse in Georgetown where a friend of Spencer’s was getting ready to move out of. It wasn’t “Iowa sweet corn from the back of a pickup truck” but it was good nonetheless. On our walk back to GWU, we passed through the new Georgetown Waterfront Park, along the Potomac River that most recently was used for parking lots. It was refreshing to see a modern, urban park in Washington, where most public spaces are decidedly more formal.

That evening we went to a Nationals Game at their brand new stadium on South Capitol Street by the Anacostia River. I’m normally not a huge fan of baseball, but I enjoy the atmosphere and it was neat to see the new stadium. The area surrounding the stadium is undergoing intense redevelopment with a number of new, large office buildings replacing mostly run-down housing.

Sunday was spent visiting a few other museums including the Renwick Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, neither of which I had been to before. The Renwick, sitting at the corner of Pennsylvania and 17th, just across the street from the White House, had a delightful collection of American folk art. At the National Portrait Gallery I enjoyed seeing the infamous presidential portraits and WPA era paintings. In the middle of the museum is an enclosed courtyard (see image to left) with a beautiful undulating glass and steel ceiling. Designed by Norman Foster and constructed in 2004, it reminded me of the Great Court at the British Museum in London, also designed by Foster. Despite being an extremely hot day outside, inside the courtyard was very comfortable. With a cafe and lots of seating it would be a pleasant atmosphere to have lunch or meet someone for conversation.

Capitol Hill
That afternoon we took a walk around the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, stopping by the recently reopened, historical Eastern Market which was severely damaged by a fire in 2007. Inside the building is mostly meat counters and perishables, while other market vendors set up along the exterior and a parking lot across the street. The market was closing up for the day, but I managed to get inside behind two other explorers to see the refurbished space. We then headed further east along residential streets. Away from Pennsylvania Avenue the neighborhood is almost entirely residential, with a few corner stores, laundromats, etc. every here and there.

Nearly all the housing here is in townhouses, mostly attached. Unlike older neighborhoods like Georgetown and remaining houses closer to downtown, this area had a little more room to breath. On many streets the houses were actually set a good distance (10-25 feet) from the sidewalk so they had private front yards. We all agreed it would be a nice place to live. It has historic charm with strong urban qualities, but calm streets with tree shaded sidewalks.

On our way back toward downtown we walked a few blocks north up to H Street NE, where rail tracks are being laid for one of DC’s new streetcar lines. H Street is a wide, commercial street with a mix of large and small storefronts, some newer strip centers, and an unsightly public storage facility. Most businesses were gated up and closed for Sunday. Despite its seedy appearance, H Street is up and coming, and the streetcar line should help accelerate even more improvements.

Rosslyn – Ballston Corridor
Monday morning I went on my own to explore the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington. I took the Metro out to Ballston and then started walking. As walking around became tiring, particularly in the 90 degree heat, I grew apathetic to explore much more. The massive extent of metropolitan sprawl here clearly can not be comprehended with one week visiting and walking around. Outside of the District, the non-gridded, non-contiguous urbanized region goes on for miles. There are many instances of urban form outside the city, some new and artificial, and some long established. It is a very different scene than metropolitans, large and small of the midwest. Admittedly, I would love to be able to drive all around this area in a car just to get a better comprehension of what the many places and spaces in between are like. Looking at a map or even satellite images is simply insufficient to grasp, and one certainly could not see everywhere by transit either.

Most of the large office buildings are clustered within 2-3 blocks to a few major thoroughfares. Despite wide, busy roadways there are wide sidewalks with decorative streetscaping, a good amount of pedestrian oriented ground-level businesses, and a general feel of real urbanism. In a couple places I strayed off the main road by a few blocks to see the “real Arlington” where large office buildings quickly transitioned into single-family residential. A lot of the houses were characteristic of mid 20th century East-coast suburban development, mostly with brick veneers in reverence to the more traditional Colonial Revival style. On other streets, though, homes were more characteristic of late Victorian and craftsman, that are common in older neighborhoods around the midwest. Some homes appeared to be renovated or possibly completely new, some keeping with the craftsman style, with others more contemporary, as pictured to the right.

I met back up with Spencer around lunchtime, while Cece was spending more of the day visiting museums. We went up to U Street for lunch and continued walking north passing through Meridian Park, all the way to Columbia Heights Metro. The station is located by a major retail center on 14th Street NW. The DC USA development includes a Target store, Best Buy, Staples, and fitness club among other stores and restaurants. I have always found big box retailers in urban contexts very interesting, so this was fun the check out. Target seems to be leading with many urban stores around the country, and inventive architecture at their newer suburban stores as well.

Silver Spring
After this we hit up Silver Spring, another major “downtown” in the region, just outside the northern limits of DC. Silver Spring, along with Bethesda, is one of the shining stars of Montgomery County, Maryland. Amidst more single family housing, the urban business district merges subtly with surrounding neighborhoods. A major destination is “Downtown Silver Spring”, a former enclosed shopping mall that has been mostly redeveloped into urban blocks of retail storefronts. A plaza area and fountain on Ellsworth Drive, the mainstreet of “Downtown” acts as a centerpiece. But downtown Silver Spring is much more than this shopping mall disguised as authentic urbanism with many additional businesses, restaurants, and housing in new and old buildings.

Near the “Downtown” shopping area, an open half-block lot had been artificial grass turf for a few years and was quite successful as public space, where people gathered and children played. I remember visiting the turf in 2007, and was surprised by how active it was. Now the site is under construction for a new Silver Spring Civic Building on the far end of the site with a Veterans Plaza in place. The plaza will act in many ways like the turf did, as a public space for people to gather informally and for events, such as the Silver Spring Jazz Festival. It should be noted Silver Spring is not actually an incorporated city and is governed by Montgomery County. There are few incorporated cities in Maryland’s Montgomery and PG counties that surround the District, but many places are considered towns or cities informally, such as Silver Spring.

National Cathedral
Tuesday, our last day in DC, we took a tour of the National Cathedral in northwest DC. It is an incredible building with several unique and characteristically American quarks. While most cathedrals were built hundreds of years ago, this one was only completed in 1990, after a long construction span of 83 years. Imagery and symbolism represent not only historic Christian stories and ideals, but also include modern elements of national and cultural significance. For example there is one stained glass window illustrating the solar system with a real moon rock brought back on Apollo 13. Also there is a discrete gargoyle of Darth Vader, expressing pop culture contemporary with the cathedral’s construction.

The cathedral is not directly adjacent to a Metro station, so it afforded us a short walk through a quiet residential area from the Cleveland Park station to the east. The walk back was quite a bit longer with a missed turn on the way to the Woodley Park – Zoo station, one stop south of Cleveland Park, for reasons none other than to see something different than the walk there. Nevertheless it was interesting to see a less dense, yet undoubtedly stately residential area of Washington.

Rockville Town Square
When back to the Metro, we rode up to Rockville, a few stops out into Maryland. I was interested in seeing the Rockville Town Center redevelopment that commenced in 2004, to replace a long ailing shopping center that in a previous decade replaced the city’s original downtown in the name of urban renewal. Much of the mall was torn down, with parts of it remaining that include a row of restaurants and a movie theater, though it’s not obvious to the unknowing visitor that it used to be a mall. Phase 1 of the town center project was Rockville Town Square, a four block area that has been built up with urban-scaled buildings connected with the existing town street grid with a wonderful public plaza as its focal point.

The view from the Rockville Metro station gives no indication of a walkable, welcoming urban space just a few blocks away. The Rockville Pike thoroughfare creates a minor barrier, along with a large, bland concrete office complex. A semi-enclosed pedestrian bridge over the road at least provides a safe means to cross on foot. We actually crossed the road on foot, not knowing exactly where the town square was, and passed the large office structure to where you could get a glimpse of something more humane and inviting. From our approach, we first came to the old mall remanence containing some restaurants and cinema, a block before the actual brand new development. I could tell this strip wasn’t as new as the town square developments. Across the street from the restaurant row is a large parking lot taking up the entire block. New buildings in the town square development were on the other side of the parking lot, so we headed in that direction.

The actual Rockville Town Square plaza is surrounded by the new buildings, all around five stories tall, so it is almost hidden. The new buildings stand in pretty stark contrast with existing Rockville Buildings that are mostly bland concrete boxes and towers. One calmer city street goes right through the town square development, where it becomes much more decorative and pleasant. With relatively narrow street widths and buildings built up to the sidewalk, the town square is revealed and opens up as you approach it.

The square was quite active today. There were a few restaurants facing the square with outdoor seating. Others were eating or just relaxing on one of the many benches and seats. Kids were playing in the fountain. We got burgers at a Five Guys and ate on one of the benches. Besides retail and restaurants, and of course apartments and condos on upper levels, a major tenant at the town square is the Rockville Public Library, also in a brand new building. The two-story library building is situated at the corner of the plaza next to the one traversing street. At the corner on the first level is a restaurant. The actual library entrance is on to the square. Inside is a large two story atrium with stairs to the second level. One exterior facade is undulating, giving the library a fun and modern aesthetic, standing out from the other more traditional looking buildings around the square.

I really enjoyed visiting Rockville Town Square. Despite being brand new, it felt mostly like real city streets, real public space, not like a corporate “town center” shopping mall or completely separated New Urbanist development. With that, it felt a little hidden away behind larger, existing buildings and barriers like the Rockville Pike. Also since the town square is almost fully enclosed by new stylized buildings, it seems almost isolated from the rest of the actual city. But if this form of redevelopment continues I imagine it could provide a better connection between the square and surrounding neighborhoods. I look forward to visiting Rockville again someday.

Overall another enjoyable visit to DC and surroundings, though my past two visits were in March, so I wasn’t quite ready for the extreme heat and humidity. I think DC would be a neat place to reside someday, so whenever I visit I try to see different places and experience what it could be like to live there. I like to see the different neighborhoods and different lifestyles they encourage, because the city is much more than monuments.

See all photos from the trip on Flickr. By the way, the title of this post refers to this.

About New York

About five weeks ago, now, I went to New York City for a third year arch studio field trip. Now that it’s spring break I believe I have some time to write about it in more detail. The trip was Thursday, February 5 – Monday, Feb 9th.

We flew out of Des Moines at 6am, Thursday with a quick layover at O’Hare, arriving at LaGuardia in NYC shortly after 11am Eastern. Flying in over the city was amazing. Once on the ground we went outside on the frigid, but sunny day and waited for our shuttle buses to the Westside YMCA – our quality lodging for the trip. The ride took probably around a half an hour and was a sensory overload – so many little buildings, big buildings, different people, hundreds of side streets to peer down. I ended up dozing off briefly once we arrived in Manhattan as I got very little sleep that night before.

After the charade of checking in and assigning rooms to sixty plus arch students and profs we headed down to our project site in SoHo at the corner of Broome and Crosby streets, just east of Broadway. This project, that we are currently working on now in studio, is for a 24-unit residential development with a public / community / commercial component at ground level. The site is currently a double stacked auto park operation in an open lot about 110 by 70 feet. As individual studios we took about an hour to document the site and surroundings through observation and photos (later turned into photo stitches used to size and build four separate 1/8″ scale physical site models – one for each studio). Unfortunately it was extremely cold this first day, despite the sun, so I don’t believe the site visit was as effective as it could’ve been.

Following documentation we broke into studios and went on a walking tour of the area with our respective profs. This area was near the convergence of Little Italy and Chinatown. Along Broadway there are trendy retailers at the ground floor of older buildings with upper floors generally residential.

That evening after finally regrouping, some friends and I walked down Broadway from the Y (only about 15 blocks from Times Square) to find something for supper. We went through Rockefeller Center on our way and ended up eating at a pizza joint nearby that I had eaten at previously when Spencer and I went for a day two spring breaks ago. Big slices for cheap, can’t argue with that. After we ate we kept on toward Times Square – pretty sterile, predictable, not much to say. One thing to make note of, however, the recently opened red tkts stairs held up by structural glass. I was very tired so I ended up calling it a night by around 10, which I felt was a little unfortunate for my first night in New York, but was glad I did the next day.

Day 2, Friday, I went on an option tour / trip to New Haven, Connecticut, to see some significant buildings at Yale University. We took the Metro North commuter line from Grand Central – an enjoyable hour and a half ride, passing through upper Manhattan and New York and various stops in Connecticut. I really enjoyed New Haven, the first smaller, established city I’ve visited on the east coast (all the others have been large – DC, New York, etc.). I will go in more detail about New Haven and Yale in an addition post.

We arrived back in NYC sometime around 7pm – our train was absolutely packed due to the train ahead of us breaking down so we had to make room for all of its passengers. For dinner a group of friends and I went to the Heidelberg restaurant where we enjoyed some Wiener Schnitzel, German beer, and a charming old man in lederhosen playing the keyboard and singing along. We requested “Roll Out the Barrel” and he continued with some more good ones: “Sweet Caroline” (an ISU favorite), and appropriately “YMCA.” Good times had by all.

Saturday started out with prof-lead walking tour around Midtown Manhattan and a visit to the Folk Art Museum. We walked by Paley Park, which was closed for maintenance, and the Lever House, among other recognizable buildings. After lunch we regrouped around Greenwich Village to see some residential high rise precedents. We walked past the new Gansevoort Plaza in the Meatpacking District, which I recognized from PPS, and the High Line, a new public park / greenway being developed on a 1.5 mile long elevated railway. The High Line influenced one of my 2nd year studio projects in Hyde Park in Chicago.

That evening I met up with my friend Spencer and some people he was in town visiting at a Sushi bar near Astor Place. Later that night I met back up with a bunch of people from studio at Dive 75 on 75th Street.

Sunday, two others and I went over to Brooklyn to visit the New York Transit Museum, underground in a former subway station. It included an extensive exhibit on the subway system’s history and day to day operations of the nation’s largest transit agency. At track level were a number of retired subway cars. Definitely a fun afternoon for me. That evening after regrouping with some others we went to see STOMP – quite the show.

Monday morning I got up early so I had about an hour to walk in Central Park. Even though we were staying a block away, I had yet to go inside the park on this trip. As I walked out of the Y, I could tell the city was bustling; the work week had begun. Around the corner was a school. I passed parents dropping off their children, some in SUVs, some in taxis. I saw other children walking. I thought to myself how profoundly different those kid’s lives are from mine as a kid.

I didn’t have a lot of time to go deep in to the park but walked over to the Mall and made it to the Bethesda Fountain. I stopped and sketched a moment along the Mall. A lot of people were out with their dogs. Soon enough it was time to head back and go to the airport. I got some breakfast at the terminal while we had about an hour to wait for departure. Our layover in Chicago was much longer this time, nearly three hours, so I walked through most of terminals – no small feat. We arrived back in Des Moines around 7pm, and carpooled back to Ames.

New York was a great trip. I got to do and see a lot, but missed a lot too. Certainly a city that warrants multiple return visits, but I have no desire to reside there. See all my photos on Flickr.

Travel by Train

Denver Union Station

I arrived back in Cedar Rapids this afternoon (Tuesday) after riding the Amtrak California Zephyr overnight from Denver to Mt. Pleasant, about an hour south of CR. The train was already running about three hours behind early on Monday when I checked the train status online. Scheduled to depart Denver at 8:10pm, the adjusted time was about 10:30. Around 10:15pm, the train had arrived and conductors began checking tickets and issuing boarding passes. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Almost an hour went by before we boarded, as they were having some trouble adding an addition coach car to the train. Unfortunately no formal announcement was made concerning the issue, so the 50 plus passengers waiting to get on were unaware of the cause of delay.

When I finally boarded I got on car 611, second from last and went on upstairs to find a seat. I didn’t see any empty row so I took a seat near the middle of the train by the stairs, next to a man who had been riding since Saturday all the way from Seattle, heading home to Kentucky. Not sure why he was on the California Zephyr (he must’ve gone from Seattle down to California, then eastward on the Zephyr), when the Empire Builder is much more direct to Chicago going through Montana, North Dakota, and down through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The train began moving by about 11:30, and I soon made my way two cars ahead to the lounge. At this point the upper observation level was pretty empty and the cafe on the lower level was closed until morning. The lounge car was peaceful and more comfortable than crowded coach. I also planned to watch some movies on my iPod and did not want to disturb my elder seat mate.

Heading out of Denver, eastbound, the train goes through rail yards and passes mostly industrial sites in Commerce City. The TAXI redevelopment caught my eye in particular, which Will Bruder discussed in his keynote speech last Wednesday at FORUM. The eastern gateway into Denver via rail is not particularly inviting, but most aren’t. Denver Union Station is impressive, though, providing a grand gateway right in to the heart of downtown. The interior is large, but pretty plain and outdated. The elegant exterior is more dramatic at night with the charming “Travel by Train” neon sign and colorful spotlights on the building’s stone walls.

Denver plans to turn Union Station into the city’s prime intermodal transportation center, centralizing Amtrak, SkiTrain, intercity buses, RTD transit bus and light rail. This is already in progress with the C and E light rail lines terminus, endpoint for the Free Mall Ride shuttle, and several RTD bus routes. When completed it should be quite the place.

I woke up this morning around 7am, from the breakfast announcement. The northern sky to my left was a dim, gray blue, and a warm yellow glow from the sunrise to my right. It’s a pleasing view to wake up to – if you were able to fall asleep in the first place. I eventually went to the lounge car and had a hot breakfast sandwich. After reaching Lincoln and Omaha, a number of seats opened up so I moved across the aisle to two opens seats and was able to sleep for a few more hours.

I arrived at my destination, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, around 4pm, just about five hours late. An announcement had been made earlier by the conductor that nearly all connections would be missed in Chicago, and emphasized our safety was their top priority. He asked us to, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy our train trip through the breadbasket of America” – how cute.

Overall I was satisfied with my experience this time on Amtrak, but then again I was anticipating delay and understand their current situation. The consistent issue of lateness on certain Amtrak routes is somewhat out of their control. The majority of trains, especially cross-country ones like the California Zephyr, operate on track owned by freight railroads, whose operations get priority over Amtrak. As far as service, all train attendants were generally pleasant and tried to keep passengers happy considering the significant delay. In today’s case, they were offering a complementary meal in the afternoon (served after I deboarded), but I was able to benefit from a complimentary snack just before reaching Mt. Pleasant.

I have ridden Amtrak in the past, mostly on the California Zephyr, but also once on the Three Rivers (now defunct I believe) to Pennsylvania, and one short trip on the Empire Builder from LaCrosse to Fargo. It is quite obvious Amtrak service has gone downhill over the years. It is not terrible, but there are a lot of band-aids, it is merely getting by.

Passenger rail service is a critical part of our nation’s transportation system and needs to be reinvested in and expanded. Amtrak provides transportation access to numerous small communities that may be hours from a commercial airport. Train travel is also much more efficient and more affordable than flying. While cross-country train travel is no longer practical for most people, it makes a lot of sense regionally between distances about 500 miles or less. Not only is it easier and less stressful than flying, rail typically takes passengers right into the center of cities, unlike airports that tend to be located miles away from downtown.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Several states, such as Illinois and California have partnered with Amtrak to expand passenger rail service. Regional associations have been established to promote regional high speed rail networks around the country. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which includes Iowa, promotes an expanded regional network originating from Chicago and providing more frequent service to more locations throughout the midwest. The proposal includes a new line that would run through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines, through to Omaha. A new line from Chicago to Dubuque is currently the most promising for Iowa in the works right now.

Amtrak and passenger rail service deserves much needed investment and support from the federal level. It is a matter of national security, sustainability, and accessibility. It is my hope that we will see much greater support for Amtrak and alternative transportation from the new Obama administration.

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