Amtrekking, Complete

I stopped live blogging my Amtrak trip after New York City, but what follows is the complete travel journalism story that came out of my journey. The story contains information and excerpts from the previous live blogs in addition to original material.


by Miles Schneiderman

There are strange noises coming from the seat in front of me. Some might call it music; I would consider that a charitable description. I think it’s some sort of ringtone or musical alert, emitting from a fellow passenger’s phone. Every few minutes, the air around me is assaulted by noise, as the phone goes off and the passenger in question just lets it play. It’s the same tune over and over again, and it’s driving me insane.

The train, moving steadily along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route, has been delayed now for two hours in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The story going around is that a non-passenger freight train derailed, blocking the track for the previous Southwest Chief and subsequently for ours, as well. The track has been cleared, but our train is picking up the unfortunate passengers of the previous one, along with its cars. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not this extra weight will further delay our arrival into Flagstaff, a much-anticipated homecoming that gets further away with every motionless moment.

The noises from the seat in front of me are soon joined, as if in chorus, by the shrieks of an unhappy infant somewhere behind me. If I could, I would try to sleep (despite the early state of the evening) in order to escape these headache-inducing sounds, but of course, those very sounds keep me awake, and it’s probably going to be midnight before I get home. I’ve spent seven of the last eight days on some kind of train or another, and as much as I’ve loved the experience overall, at this point I am beyond ready for it to be over.

It was two days ago, I suddenly recall, that I went through another minor trial involving loud music. A nearby passenger on the Capitol Limited route from Washington D.C. to Chicago sported huge headphones and blaring rap music that everyone around him could hear, even when he was asleep. I was the one who finally woke him up to politely ask if he would turn his goddamn volume down, seeing as he wasn’t even listening to it at the time. There was a brief moment when I thought the entire car was about to burst into applause.

Several days before that, also on the Capitol Limited but going the other way, a woman told me how she had once dealt with the screaming baby problem. In deliberate grandmotherly fashion, she asked the child’s mother if she could hold him, putting it on as though the squalling infant was the most adorable thing in the world. Within minutes, the baby was asleep, and the woman promptly handed him back to his mother and went to sleep herself. Mission accomplished.

Then, of course, there were the words of David and Susan, the first people I talked to on this trip. It was on the first train out east on the Southwest Chief, not long after we had left Albuquerque. After telling me about their numerous train trips and all the reasons they love traveling by train, they admitted their plan was to fly back to Denair, California after their vacation. At some point, they said, it’s just time to go home. Quickly.

* * * * *

I don’t remember the last time I was on an airplane. I gave up flying years ago, the decision already made, at least subconsciously, after my first experience on Amtrak. Most other Americans don’t understand it. How, they ask, giving me a look of undiluted incredulity, could I possibly prefer this strange, outmoded form of transportation? The truth is, I’ve never really been able to give them an answer. Train travel has always been more about feeling than logic for me. I don’t know why I prefer Amtrak, I just do. And I can’t possibly be the only one.

In attempting to fully understand my own passion for trains, and that of others, I spent seven days on them, moving through sixteen states: from Flagstaff to Chicago to Washington to Philadelphia to Trenton to New York and back the same way. To say it was an educational experience would be one hell of an understatement.

Amtrak’s official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Established in 1970 following passage of the Rail Passenger Service Act, it is a public service subsidized by the government and paid for with taxpayer dollars. It’s managed like a private corporation, however, which is ironic considering the history of American railroads. All railroads were originally for-profit business ventures, until the rise of the automobile and, later, the airplane destroyed their ability to compete. The Rail Passenger Service Act was a mechanism to prop up the industry until it could become independent once more, or, as its detractors believed, to definitively demonstrate that train travel was a thing of the past. Oddly, neither result occurred. Amtrak continued to enjoy immense popular support, but has never been able to support itself financially and thus remains controversial among fiscal conservatives in politics. As a native of Arizona, I was disturbed by Senator John McCain’s ultimately unsuccessful crusade against Amtrak in the early 2000s. McCain wanted to get rid of all Amtrak subsidies, but had no response (at a congressional hearing) to the notion of doing the same to air travel. In fact, Amtrak has not cost nearly as much as airline subsidies or the interstate highway system, and moreover, it has recently seen a jump in passengers, with Amtrak’s website claiming a record 31.2 million passengers served in 2012. Also in 2012, a survey by SilverRail Technologies found that respondents wanted to see investments made in making trains faster and cheaper, saying they would prefer trains to planes under those circumstances, particularly considering the rising cost of air travel and the invasive practices of the Transportation Security Administration. Indeed, I spoke to several people who cited avoiding the TSA as a primary reason for taking the train.

* * * * *

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I asked David and Susan where they were from, but California was not on the list. Their style of hair and dress made me think more along the lines of Salt Lake City in the 1800s. They were clearly Amish or Quakers or one of the other religious sects that places a high emphasis on conservative appearance; I didn’t ask them about it because I didn’t care. What interested me was what these two veteran train travelers, along with their young grandchildren (already on their second train trips, themselves) had to say about why they chose this method of transportation. In many ways, what they told me that first day was the last original response to this question I heard. Almost everyone else I asked said something similar.

“When you get on a plane, you’re sitting right next to somebody, and basically you won’t even talk,” David says. “When you get on a train, because you’re traveling together for several days…those kind of barriers sort of break down.”

This breaking down of barriers is the defining narrative of train travel. Introverted behavior, for the most part, simply isn’t feasible. There’s almost always someone sitting right next to you, and because the journey takes so much longer than it would by plane, it’s almost impossible to avoid some form of conversation with them, even if you’re trying to. The length of the trip also necessitates taking meals in the dining car, where community seating is Amtrak policy. If you’re not with a group of three or more, you will be eating with strangers and talking with them over breakfast, lunch or dinner. The most unique aspect of taking the train, and the most valuable, is the way in which it forces real communication and demands that we have human moments with people we don’t know, if only for a few hours. Some Amtrak trains have WiFi now, but I was glad none of mine did. If anything can kill the greatest virtue of train travel, it is internet access.

The connections made between train passengers vary in duration and intensity, but they are almost always there. They often transcend differences in age, sex and race (sadly, differences in class remain the same even here, as exhausted coach travelers brush up against those who can afford to buy beds in their own train cars). The man sitting next to me on that first train, from Flagstaff to Chicago, was a 67-year-old black man named Willie. I could not have asked for a kinder or more interesting travel companion. Willie is a retired General Motors man who has traveled around the world and loved every minute of it. He is brimming with stories, laughs easily, speaks intelligently and, during the brief time I knew him, never seemed anything less than thrilled to be alive.

“I think this is the way to go, man,” he says when asked about the train. “You know, you sit back, you relax, enjoy your trip, you meet a lot of nice people. It’s not like a plane, you know, hustle-bustle. Train kinda laid back.”

One of those nice people was Nelson, seated across the aisle from us. Somewhere in Kansas I had fallen asleep to the sound of Willie and Nelson (yes, really) talking late into the night, despite the fact that they were strangers. The three of us had breakfast in the dining car the next morning as we started making our way through Missouri. Meals in the dining car are not cheap, but no more expensive than a decent restaurant, and I had no problems consuming the eggs, potatoes, coffee, bacon, biscuit and more coffee that I was served. The price of taking the train is frequently cited as a point against it, but I found it to be an affordable experience, and I met several people who travel this way because of the price.

Thanks to community seating, Willie, Nelson and I were soon joined by John, a man around the same age as Willie with an odd, almost child-like kind of speech and a Kentucky Derby hat. He’s a medical veterinarian for horse races, the man in charge of inspections and drug tests. “I test the urine of the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby,” he told us with pride.

Willie, Nelson and John were my companions all the way to Chicago, where Willie and Nelson exchanged phone numbers. Nelson and I passed the time together in Union Station while waiting for our next train. The people that I sat next to later, both in my coach seat and in the dining car, were not quite their equals, but were still interesting. Liz, the 18-year-old Chicago girl taking the train for the first time; Cher, the beautiful South African banker who was much too excited about shopping at TJ Maxx in New York City; Frank, the New Yorker whose foreign accent I couldn’t place and who, after I fell asleep and unconsciously (but still rudely) draped myself across both seats, opted to spend the night in the lounge car rather than wake me up.

During my second layover in Chicago’s Union Station, I spend two hours talking with an elegant and elderly Virginian lady who regaled me in turn with religious propaganda, shocking revelations about President Obama’s Kenyan heritage and Muslim faith, and dramatic stories of train travel. “Over the [intercom], they asked if there were any nurses or doctors,” she said. “I was a nurse, I went up there…there was a woman who coded and died. She had been taking prescription drugs and alcohol, and it reacted and killed her….For one hour, we waited at a little train station [outside Chicago]… for the EMTs to come to remove the body.”

Perhaps the best of example of the train’s power to humanize was a thin, wary young woman named Sophie, the only person who sat with me twice in the dining car. The first time, she was nervous and distracted, unwilling to offer more than a few cursory sentences whenever she was engaged in conversation. She was so withdrawn that I was actually disappointed when I saw the train attendant seat her at my table again the next day, already knowing the poor quality of conversation she would provide. To my surprise, however, a full day on the train had made her much more open and talkative. She smiled, laughed and told the rest of us about herself. The train would not allow her to stay in her shell for long. Her barriers had been broken down.

* * * * *

The appeal of train travel is emotional, in that it meets a human need for communication and interaction, but there is also a very physical aspect of it that can be more difficult to understand.

“I’m one for being on the ground,” Liz told me when I asked her why she had chosen the train. It’s a sentiment I can relate to, and one that helped us connect: we just don’t like flying, not because we’re afraid of a plane crash, but simply because we prefer being on the ground. In that regard, the train also has an advantage over driving or taking a bus. Someone else is doing the driving and you’re free to walk around.

Walking on the train is, I imagine, like walking on a ship at sea: it takes a while to get your legs. You have to be quick on your feet in case the floor decides to move, and keeping an arm or two out is a good idea in case the motion of the car sends you lurching to one side or another. After a while you get into the rhythm, and your walk becomes a rolling, adaptive gait, in tune with the train itself. The best description of this process is one I overheard as a fellow passenger bounced past my seat, regaining his balance after the train nearly sent him flying. “Wobbly-wobbly-wobbly-WOW,” he exclaimed, dancing across the car, “lord have mercy, help me, Jesus!”

Liz also told me she has no trouble sleeping on the train, because she can sleep anywhere. For those without her gift, however, sleeping can be difficult. Unless you’re fortunate enough to not have someone next to you, you’re sleeping in a reclining chair with very little room as the train squeals and shakes beneath you. Most people seem to sleep in short bursts; an hour here, two hours there, the day broken up into several alternating periods of waking and sleeping, as opposed to a large chunk of one followed by a large chunk of the other. As it was with walking on the train, however, so it is with sleep. After a while you get used to it, and the sound and motion becomes almost soothing. Upon my return to Flagstaff, I found I actually had difficulty sleeping in my own bed, I had grown so comfortable with life on the train.

Walking and sleeping on the train are things that passengers become accustomed to, but looking out the windows of the observation car is a central reason for traveling by train. I asked Delgado, a train attendant who has worked for Amtrak for five years, why people travel this way.

“I think people travel this way to see the country through the windows,” he said. “The railroad is all about community. I don’t expect one passenger to be sitting in the seat where they’re scheduled, when they have an observation car…where they can look out the window and meet their fellow passengers. That’s the whole thing about community and railroad.”

Seeing the country through the windows, as Delgado puts it, is not a minor perk. Those who fly see a vague, spread-out tapestry of a country when they’re not looking at clouds; motorists are confined to the highways. They can’t know the visual delights of train travel, the fascinating details of the countryside, the colors more vivid than anything on an LCD screen. People who have never been on a train have never seen the vast wheat fields and solitary farmhouses of Missouri, the narrow dirt tracks stretching on through yellow grass, the tall stone tower that seems lonely without some 16th century watchman at the top. You can’t fly over the Mississippi and understand its grandeur, staring out at a seemingly endless body of water and wondering how it can possibly be real. The highways don’t run along the Monongahela River and through the Appalachians, mile after mile of forested mountain country, so pristine at times that it feels like the Capitol Limited houses the last survivors of human civilization. I can’t imagine any other kind of traveler having the experience of moving through history that the train provides as it passes through rural Pennsylvania where the houses are ancient and solitary, into Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where John Brown made his famous stand against slavery, and finally arriving at Union Station in Washington D.C., a beautiful building constructed by legendary architect Daniel Burnham in the heart of the nation’s capital. For someone like me, whose opinion of his native soil degrades with each new daily headline, the journey between Chicago and Washington was almost a spiritual experience, the view from the train window overriding political and social intellectualism and infusing me with a fresh, intuitive love for America.

* * * * *

Was I completely done with the train by the time we finally left Albuquerque on that last stretch back home? Yes. Seven days of whirlwind travel punctuated by long delays, annoying ringtones and screaming babies will do that. In no way, however, does that diminish my dedication to train travel. The few people I met who didn’t enjoy the trip were mostly young; teenagers or twenty-year-olds impatient with the slow pace. They didn’t understand the real reason we travel this way. Train travel isn’t an inconvenient period of time between points of our lives; it is the act of fully living in that period. It is the last bastion of the journey for the journey’s sake, the appreciation of the act of traveling as opposed to sleeping through it, the forced connection between strangers and the full experience of our own humanity. It is falling in love with distance while the destination becomes incidental.


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