Why I Like to Ride the Train
Presenting a personal and adventurous mode of travel that does away with the cramped anxieties of road and plane.
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Ask a railroad traveler what he likes best about the train and his answer will almost invariably include two things. “I can relax,” he will say, “and I can see the countryside.” The Amtrak trains that pass through Texas verify both observations.
Northward to Chicago on the Texas Chief (now the Lone Star) one sees the countryside change in a hundred subtle ways. Kansas and Iowa pass by in the dark. Signal lights flash past the window. If the stopped train blocks a city street, frustrated drivers begin to make U-turns. Role reversal: the day before at home I had done precisely that. Why don’t they learn a little patience? Trains put patience in context, make it a virtue again.
Morning comes in Illinois. A flatness altogether different from Texas—corn-fed, prosperous, with the look of the North to it. Painted barns and working farms appear with regularity between highways straight as a rifle shot. On a grassy slope six piglets and their parents flee the diesel monster with squeals of horror. With a lurch the slowing train switches track and glides into a small town, a community of perhaps three hundred souls, with low frame houses and deserted dirt streets. A railway sign copies into view: VERONA.
Why here, on the prairies of Illinois, should a village bear the name “Verona”? Shadows of the Castelvecchio and the Scaligeri tombs extend across an ocean to the door of the Merchants’ State Bank. The train pulls on and the mystery recedes. When travelers say trains bring them closer to the diversity of America, this is what they mean.
Highways come to front doors. Railroads, it seems, come to back doors, slipping unnoticed behind homes and stores and factories that do not expect the visitor there and so leave themselves exposed to inquiring eyes. Uglier but more honest. Passing along the back fence one knows the Wiebold Iron Works as it really is, not as cosmetics make it appear from the Interstate around in front. Oblivious to automobiles, people still stop and stare as the passenger train—the unexpected guest—goes through their town.
A trip from Chicago to Washington, New York, and Boston penetrates the core of the Northeast Corridor. Vividly it conveys the difference in pace between the East and the Midwest. Industry crowds in against the tracks like energy itself; loping through Oklahoma one had a sense of distance and quietude entirely missing from this frantic place. There the towns had a sense of separation and individual identity; in the Corridor they are a blur. No wonder people in New Jersey have never been much concerned with “state’s rights.”
The Sunset Limited offers an entirely different vision of the land. In 34 hours it travels from Houston’s lushness across the bleak southwestern desert to the very different lushness of Southern California. There is no better way to feel the desolation of the Trans-Pecos than to follow this route that Chinese laborers first laid down more than 90 years ago. The tracks and ties they shouldered have long since been replaced, of course, but nothing has arrived to fill the vast emptiness of the despoblado as they saw it. Traveling westbound in April one sees the Pecos River High Bridge at first light, an engineering marvel so indispensable to transcontinental railroading that special Army detachments were assigned to guard it from sabotage in World War II. A few minutes later Langtry is visible in the distance, although the tracks now bypass Judge Roy Bean’s Jersey Lilly Saloon. The train outraces the 55-mph cars beside it. Sanderson, the lonely plain vanilla rail town with its inexplicable blend of Iron Horse nostalgia and West Texas ingenuousness, is the only stop between Del Rio and oddly collegiate Alpine. Not far past Marfa the traveler who knows just where to look can see the weathered skeletal remains of the false-fronted great house that served as the set for Giant. Trails of dust five or six miles long hang behind pickup trucks that seem to be careening across the desert every bit as recklessly as Jett Rink. Warner Brothers wanted empty land to shock Leslie Lynnton Benedict on her arrival by Pullman from Maryland; this is where they found it.
Between Deming and Lordsburg, the Sunset slips imperceptibly across the continental divide. No barrier mountains rise up to interfere as they do on more northerly routes. The wasted land grows ever more barren, a reminder that this is not the Great American Journey. Those who migrated across the continent in pursuit of California’s Eden chose other paths: the Platte River and the Prairie; Fort Laramie; Fort Hail; the Great Salt Desert; the Humboldt Sink; places which, for all their hardships, accommodated human frailty more charitably than this. The railroad, not the covered wagon, claimed this region. Much of the territory between El Paso and Tucson would still be part of Mexico had not the Southern Pacific noticed that no better route existed for its tracks, an observation that culminated in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. In those boundless days, ten million American government dollars paid to Mexico for the benefit of a single railroad track was little enough to confirm the nation’s manifest destiny.
In the century since we bought the land, no one has yet figured out what to do with it. Towns that came into existence as water stops for the railroad now serve the more profitable purpose of pit stops for highway traffic. Food, fuel, and shelter: they satisfy the mortal and mechanical needs of travelers without whose constant passage they would wither. Where the Interstate bypasses Deming, the business route is posted: Exit: Motel Drive.
Night falls before Phoenix. In the morning an insistent buzzer and the porter’s voice—“Los Angeles in thirty minutes, thirty minutes to Los Angeles”—announce that the desert is far behind and the ticky-tacky jumble of well-watered Southern California lies on the other side of the roomette’s blackout window shade. Los Angeles’ splendid timbered railroad station was built in the Twenties to signify that the traveler had at last completed his long cross-country journey and was now in a great city whose accoutrements of civilization did not prevent it from displaying a distinctive character of its own. Los Angeles has lost much since those days, but the station remains.
The relaxed, convivial atmosphere of a long-distance train trip is as appealing as the scenery. Both are at their best on the Coast Daylight/Starlight, Amtrak’s run from Los Angeles through San Francisco-Oakland to the Pacific Northwest. Hugging within twenty feet of the picturesque coastline near Santa Barbara and Ventura, the tracks climb inland across green grasslands over a mountain pass to San Luis Obispo, while passengers fill the club car drinking Coors, carving steaks at tables with fresh flowers in the diner, and making friends in a casual atmosphere as quintessential Californian as the sunshine. Trains are friendly places, and the Coast Daylight/Starlight exceptionally so. Wander to the diner, to the dome car, to the lounge and visit with just about anyone aboard. Air travel has its advantages, but conviviality three-abreast is not among them. Is there any place in an airport that encourages informal human interaction like a railroad club car? Thrown together in a delightfully unreal and temporary mini-society, passengers drop their emotional barriers and view each other as individuals, not as units of baggage being transported from place to place. The trip itself, the act of being in transit, becomes something to be savored.
Partly this is due to the absence of what writer Bill bridges has called the “No-No Syndrome,” the multiplication of many tiny irritants until the airline passenger is beaten into submission: From the boarding pass one receives at ticket check-in, which one may not lose or even misplace on the pain of being trampled by the boarding stampede, the pressure [of airline travel] builds in small increments. By the time one is sharply reminded to snuff out a smoke before boarding, has flunked in the arrangement of underseat luggage… been inspected for proper seat-belt connections, gone through the drill of upright seat back and tray tables for takeoff, received instruction on emergency oxygen… been denied the use of the lavatory by the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign and warned to ‘return to seat’ once there, the passenger has been sufficiently brain-washed to react numbly or not at all as the stewardess assumes total control for the rest of the flight.
To this one can add the most recent (and apparently permanent) humiliation, the airport ‘security check’ of carry-on luggage, complete with X-rays and occasional brusque rummaging through handbags and parcels.
None of these problems exist for train riders, whose tickets are not even examined until the train is under way. They can eat when they want, drink what they want, smoke what they want, move around at will, and do just about anything they choose. If they have a private room in a Pullman car they can… yes… they can do even that.
The Pullman cars—or as they are now more properly called, “sleepers”—make rail travel unique. There is nothing like them anywhere else except on steamships, a similarity that causes some connoisseurs to regard rail and’ sea as the only remaining ways to travel elegantly. In contrast to the airlines, a “first class” rail ticket actually buys something fundamentally different from the ordinary coach ticket. On a plane the differences are limited to seats a few inches wider and a fancier meal from the same warming oven: largely superficial. A train has two worlds in one. Coach cars compete with buses but are better (ask anyone who has ever taken a transcontinental bus trip). Sleeper cars afford the ultimate in sedate nostalgia, providing comfort as the Thirties understood it.
Amtrak’s sleeper cars are old (few date from as recently as 1955). But they are substantial in a way that flimsy new equipment like the Turbotrain is not. And they are quaint.
A simple roomette is a veritable Disneyland of marvelous panels, instructions, and cabinets. Separated from the hallway by both a curtain and a sliding, latchable door, it contains a seat designed for one but wide enough for two, a full-width window with a blackout shade, a private toilet, a folding lavatory that dispenses steaming hot water, a faucet for drinking water complete with a personal supply of paper cups, a six-foot bed that folds into the wall, a closet, and two mirrors. Beside the closet is a cabinet marked SHOE LOCKER with a second little door that can be opened from the hall, the better to allow the porter to shine one’s shoes at night. “I’m one of the few that shines ’em anymore,” opines W. Brown, the bilingual black who has worked the Sunset Limited for 32 years. “These youngsters now, they ain’t gonna shine ’em.”
Each panel of instructions is neatly fastened to the wall with two screws. ADJUSTABLE SEAT proclaims one, although the seat resolutely refuses to reveal the riddle of its adjustability. TO RAISE BED says another, with an inch-long arrow pointing helpfully to a small latch. HOOK SAFETY LINK OVER HANDLE WHEN BED IS DOWN, warns another, ominously.
There are buttons to call the porter, switches for the lights and fan, knobs for the recalcitrant air conditioning, outlets for 110 volts, and near the toilet a small drawer discreetly labeled, PAPER. Beside the door is a trim panel that must have been a radio and public address system, now long fallen into disuse. Individual buttons gave the passenger the choice of hearing “popular music,” “classical music,” “radio program,” or “train announcements.” But the best of all is this: low in the comer, on the wall near the floor, is one strange grated box inscrutably labeled:
If quaintness were the only thing that trains had left to offer, Amtrak might deserve the quiet burial that so many railroad company executives wish for it. But the tens of thousands of passengers who have crowded aboard this summer have not gone to such trouble with advance reservations and patient tolerance of malfunctioning equipment merely in order to indulge a nostalgic fling. Trains are popular again because they are such a decent and civilized way to travel. The critics who prophesied the passenger train’s demise did so because they knew it was more practical and more efficient to transport people like units of cargo, strapping them into closely-packed seats, tending to the minimum needs required to keep the shipment from spoiling, promising prompt delivery. Their miscalculation was in assuming that people would continue to be so preoccupied with speed that they would willingly allow themselves to be moved around like so many crates of avocados. The energy crisis popped the bubble of speed-for-its-own-sake, reminding travelers that their destination need not be their only goal.
“The supposed great mystery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that … is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things—as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning flash.” — John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman)
The assumption that the object of travel should be to catapult the traveler from his origin to his destination in the shortest possible time is a peculiarly modern idea. Perhaps its most extravagant manifestation is the supersonic transport, the beneficiary of millions of dollars, francs, and pounds sterling, subsidized for its irresistibly attractive capacity to hurl human beings from London to New York in three hours instead of six. Three saved hours in a lifetime is not much. Only people unconsciously repelled by airline travel would work so hard devising a way to reduce its duration.
And that is the point. Most of our “improvements” in travel turn out to be ways of exchanging “getting there” for “being there.” Our preoccupation with speed conceals an unwillingness to see travel as an end in itself, as an intrinsically pleasurable experience that ought not be lost in the haste of leaving wherever it is we are and arriving wherever it is we would rather be. Conceals and causes: for if we want to get there quicker our technology can easily gratify our wish, and we soon forget that anything interesting might have transpired along the way.
Travel as a process. The suggestion sounds quaintly antiquarian, summoning images of musty steamer trunks and formal dinners at the captain’s table. Anxious to consign passenger trains to the dustbin of human locomotion, railroad executives curtly compare them to the stagecoach. The comparison is apt, though not for the reason they suppose. Rocking along remote trails with its mixed load of travelers far from their familiar surroundings, the stagecoach epitomizes travel-as-process, travel as an adventure altogether separate from either the place of origin or of destination. Whether it was really pleasurable to these who rode it is beside the point; as an image of travel-as-process it lingers indelibly in the American mind.
Airborne, we approximate science fiction. Mr. X steps into an electronic cylinder in Houston. As we watch he dissolves, reappearing instantaneously in San Francisco, chromosomes intact. Whoever patents that cylinder will be a billionaire. Meanwhile the jet is the best we can do. The difference between making that trip in a few hours by air and making it in a few days by land is more than a matter of arithmetic and elapsed time. The difference is immense—in the way the traveler sees himself in relation to his surroundings, in the way others see him. The experience of being a true traveler is unique, as fragile as glass, easily shattered by a casual decision to disregard anything that lies between us and our destination. If rail passenger service in this country has any single best reason for existence, it must be to keep that fragile option open.