Forging a track home in the Big Apple

When train travel brings people together

dsc-5538

Jacqueline Kester is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

As the train pulled away from the Providence station, I shifted back in my seat and popped in my headphones in hopes of a little shut-eye on the 10-hour train ride back to Charlottesville. I was drifting off into that subpar sleep of travel where the closest thing you can get to a nap is to close your eyes and drift off for a moment before your head slips from the window and begins to tilt forward. I was just raising myself back from one of these periodic jolts when an announcement over the loudspeaker caught my attention. 

“Due to a downed power line, all stops in between New Haven, Connecticut and New York City have been halted indefinitely. This train will go no farther than New Haven — everyone must get off there.”

Even before the conductor finished speaking, a chorus of curse words and exasperated sighs rang through the air. The conductor announced that the closest they could get any of us was New York City. We were to get off the train at New Haven and take a local metro line to Grand Central Station. However, I still needed to get to Virginia, and the only other southbound trains came out of Penn Station. I would have to find another train out of Penn and then walk between the two stations.

The girl sitting next to me looked to be in her early 20s. She had been busily typing away up until then but now turned to me and asked where I was going. We spent a few minutes exchanging travel plans and current frustrations, and I soon gathered that she was on her way to Philadelphia for her brother’s surprise birthday party. As the train pulled into New Haven, I prepared to collect my bags and line up for the exit, when she asked, “Hey, since we are going the same way, do you want to travel together?”

My face lit up at the prospect, and I felt relieved that I would not have to navigate the cityscape of New York alone. We left our train with the others and boarded the local commuter train to the city. There, we grabbed what available seats we could as the cars were quickly becoming overcrowded. A college student sitting next to us — who was on his way back to school in Virginia — explained that he was similarly derailed by Amtrak’s schedule change and was also attempting to make his way across NYC in time for a southbound departure.

And so our travel party grew.

It soon occurred to me that with so many people trying to rearrange their travel, we should call ahead of time to get our new train tickets. I made a quick call to the 1-800 number, bypassed the automated recordings and spoke to an agent. Just like that, my ticket was fixed free-of-charge, and I secured a spot on the last southbound train out of Penn Station for the day. I encouraged my travel mates to do the same. Within half an hour, we all had successful calls and new tickets — except for me. I was the only one who did not receive an email confirming the switch. Frantic voices around me also indicated that the last train was now sold out, and I worried that without a new ticket, there was no guarantee I had actually secured a spot. 

Four desperate calls to Amtrak, three ticket agents and two dropped calls due to tunnels later, I finally had confirmation that I had a spot.  

Relieved that the only task left was to walk the mile in between the two stations, we exited our train at Grand Central Station and walked up the stairs towards the pavement. We walked out its doors and immediately the sounds of the urban landscape engulfed our ears. The city chimed with cliches like car horns and taxi drivers’ shouts — it was stunning. 

Our vagabond trio made our way through the city.  My hat and gloves still in the bottom of my suitcase, my icy hand gripped the handle and alternated with the other hand every now and then, which I kept in my pocket for warmth. The cold air bit at my ears and tangled my hair, but the whirring sound of suitcase wheels was our anthem as we sped along the sidewalk with a pace faster than the locals. 

Of course, we were relieved when we finally reached Penn Station, but as I parted with my new friends, I felt a different emotion arise. I was proud that three complete strangers — all in that no man’s land between adolescence and adulthood — came together. Although our generation’s social presence is mostly online nowadays, and we do not cultivate spontaneous conversations with others in person as often, our ability to do so certainly is not dead. The truth is, I probably could have done it alone, but instead, I shared an adventure with some strangers and have a great story to share.

Jacqueline Kester is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories