Mention a trip to New York to a certain cadre of Washingtonians, and the next word you’ll hear is “Metroliner.” It rolls off the tongue with a haughty lilt from the same kind of people who say “ay-sap” when they want you to do something right away. Me? When it’s time to roll toward the Apple, I got two words: Peter Pan. It’s cheap, they show movies, and nothing beats the Pan for a serious rub up against humanity.
Now, sometimes this very human experience includes oversize riders who could use some deodorant and crying babies and lonely people who want to talk, but more often than not it’s a quiet and easy ride that ends with strangers wishing each other good travels.
I remember taking the Peter Pan on the day before Thanksgiving, a calamitous time of year no matter how you travel. We were practically parked on the interstate. The driver put on a movie, but nothing could drown out the sound of grumbling stomachs. Suddenly, a woman pulled out a bag of deluxe lemon-creme sandwich cookies and paper napkins. She offered treats to everyone, as though she were passing out hors d’oeuvres at a party. The driver, in a stroke of genius perhaps induced by the exquisite cookies, took us off the main thoroughfare and wound his way through the back roads of Delaware. Not only was this a more scenic trip, but we arrived well before the bus that had left an hour ahead of us.
On your return from the island of Manhattan, the Peter Pan terminal is a only a few blocks from Union Station. (It’s also directly across the street from the Greyhound station, but don’t be tempted. The lines at Greyhound are always long, and the salespeople get real salty when you ask questions.) Peter Pan’s green and white trailer is not much to look at, but the bathrooms are clean. And I find that I can literally show up five minutes before my bus is going to take off, easily buy a ticket, and hop aboard. When I did exactly that a few weeks ago, the movie was a creatively dubbed version of Get Shorty. Watching a bunch of Italian mobsters say “friggin’” and “bullspit” actually made the movie funnier. All this for a mere $56.95 round-trip (on weekendsfour bucks less on weekdays).
And trust me, I am not alone. In a given year, about 650,000 people ride Peter Pan between D.C. and N.Y., compared with 387,000 on the Metroliner. I admit there’s nothing really wrong with Amtrak. The conductors are always nice, and there’s a dining car and all. But the Metroliner is so sterile. It’s all businesspeople who conference-call on the train and pull out their laptops and stock pages. And if the class distinction between the bus and the train isn’t enough, the train comes with its own caste system. The cheapest you can ride is $120.00 round-trip for off-peak coach. Then there’s reserved seating for $134.00. The Metroliner is $224.00 round-trip. And there’s “club service” for a mere $368.00. A friend of mine told me he liked taking the train because it made him “feel like James Bond.” For $400.00 he could rent a BMW coupe, hit the turnpike, and really profile like 007.
When the feet hit New York pavement, the only difference between me and the people who took the train up is that they spent twice as much to get there. The amenities on a train are sweet, but I’d rather tuck away the money to drop on nothing in particular once I get where I’m going. That’s when going first-class really matters. Holly Bass