Never taken the train before? It’s as easy as ripping off a savings and loan. Passengers may board departing trains at Union Station 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure; tickets are taken by the conductor once the train is under way. Boardings and track numbers are announced on the PA at Union Station, but you probably won’t be able to understand them; they are also shown on the TV screens located here and there in the waiting room, which sometimes work. Signs identify trains by name, number, and major stops on the Union Station platforms. (These signs have lights that are turned on when the train is boarding.)

Keep in mind that reservations for coach seats are required on some popular trains: such New York-bound trains as the Broadway Limited, which goes through northern Indiana; the City of New Orleans, which runs south through Champaign; and westbound trains through Galesburg.

On-board facilities vary with the train. Trains that originate in Chicago run the gamut from commuter to continental routes and are equipped accordingly; the latter include sleeping and full-service dining cars. All have at least snacks and beverages for sale. (Some trains come equipped with an Amfleet Lounge, others with an Amfleet Dinette; but the distinction is minor–it’s all still microwaved.) Amtrak schedules note which services are available on which trains. Baggage can be checked only on cross-country trains, but carry-on luggage is unlimited, even on unreserved coach seats.

Because Amtrak lacks sufficient federal subsidies, it’s obliged to recover more of its operating costs from fares than most other national passenger services, but fares are reasonable nonetheless. Round-trip “excursion fares” for unreserved seating are cheapest; for example, Chicago to Galesburg is $53, and one-way is $35. Children 2 to 15 can travel at half fare when accompanied by an adult paying full fare; discounts on certain fares are available to those 65 and over and to groups of 15 or more. Tickets for unreserved seats are good for 180 days.

For information, call 1-800-USA-RAIL. A free booklet on the Amtrak system is available from Amtrak Distribution Center, PO Box 7717, Itasca, IL 60143; from Union Station; and from the better class of travel agents. It includes some route information, descriptions of services, and facts about various Amtrak tours and hotel packages.

A final word: It used to be that one of the great things about trains was that they generally took you right downtown, where everything was. Today in the midwest’s small cities, downtown is where everything used to be. (Springfield and Galesburg are among the exceptions.) Cabs or rental cars may be necessary; most larger cities have information about local bus service posted in the station. Good luck.