YOU CAN SET YOUR WATCH by Amtrak’s trains. You’ll be late, but you can still set your watch by them. Of course, as every veteran train traveler will tell you, “If you’re in a hurry, don’t take the train.” Yet this throwback to the days when travel and Xanax weren’t inseparable has an undeniable nostalgic appeal. On the other hand, is such a leisurely mode of travel remotely practical here in Texas, where the tracks go on forever and trains are scarce? To find out, I decided to jump aboard the Los Angelesto-Orlando Sunset Limited in San Antonio. And although my destination was action-packed New Orleans, the focus on this trip would be the (scheduled) fourteen-and-a-half-hour journey itself.
Boarding the train at five-thirty in the morning, half an hour before the departure time, wasn’t as painful as I’d imagined. With no metal detector and no one inspecting my stinky shoes or ordering me to display my embarrassment of electronic doodads, my sleepy stupor was almost enjoyable. Besides, once aboard I could fall back into bed, since I’d reserved one of the smallest sleeping pods, called a Superliner standard, for my husband, Richard, and me. (Don’t tell him, but I took him along because the price of a room is the same for a single or a double and includes three meals a day for two travelers.) An amazing number of conveniences were crammed into this compartment, which wasn’t much bigger than an instant-photo booth: two facing recliners that converted to one comfy single bed, a pull-down bunk overhead, a foldout table, and lots of cubbyholes and coat hooks. (Warning: As you and your traveling companion make up your beds in the tight space, your relationship may change.)
With Richard safely stashed in the top bunk, I slipped under the sheets, but I couldn’t sleep; I wanted to watch the world go by. I stared out our window for a while as the sky lightened, but my worldview was limited to the edge of the depot roof, the Tower of the Americas, and an occasional flock of grackles. Somewhere around a quarter to seven, we left the station and began inching through town. Richard and I moseyed to the dining car and had eaten most of our French toast and pancakes before we finally put the Alamo City behind us.
Welcome to Train Time. As one conductor said, “I tell all the passengers that the train is always on time. Sometimes the schedule is wrong, but the train is always on time.” And the longer you’re on the train, the more you come to enjoy this laissez-faire attitude toward punctuality. Harried clock-watching is for all those poor air travelers. On the train, you trade speed for comfort. The size and the cush of the seats rival an airline’s first-class offerings. There’s lots of roaming space and leg room, even in coach class, and a dining car with white tablecloths, real cutlery, and food that’s cooked to order, like Richard’s medium-rare filet mignon that came with a baked potato and steamed broccoli. If all that isn’t cause for celebration, the $2-margarita happy hour kicks off at three o’clock.
Although passengers packed the lounge car to watch the movie Sweet Home Alabama at four, I preferred the pointless but fascinating documentary that played continually just beyond the window: primordial swamps laced with flowering wisteria and dogwood, manicured industrial parks, gritty urbanscapes, and tidy small towns hugging the tracks. Almost every person the train passed smiled and waved, even some guys in a junkyard who were whacking on cars with crowbars. Horses and cows stopped eating to look up. And as Richard said every time we chugged through the intricate geometric framework of a river-spanning trestle, “You wouldn’t see this if you were on an airplane.”
You also wouldn’t see so many strangers interacting. A dreadlocked Rastafarian played with two towheaded kids, a good old boy bought a yuppie couple a round of margaritas, lots of card games were played in the lounge car, and everybody on the train was yakking away. Maybe it was because they knew they had the freedom to move if the company grew tiresome. Or maybe it was because they didn’t have to be on guard for someone lighting his shoes.
After all, terrorists aren’t the greatest threat to Amtrak; our own government is. Although the national railroad was granted a reprieve last fall, thanks to a $1.05 billion federal subsidy, the Sunset Limited—Amtrak’s poorest performer in 2001, with a loss of $347 per rider—is still squarely in the administration’s sights. We made the mistake of mentioning this to the retired couple from Los Angeles who shared our table at lunch. The response of these avid train buffs was terse and well rehearsed: No other developed country in the world has a train system that’s not subsidized. The government has hamstrung Amtrak with marginal funding for years—a mere $25 billion since its inception in 1971, compared with the $750 billion spent on highways and air travel combined.
The evidence of this bare-bones funding was everywhere. Although the bustling New Orleans terminal was fairly swank (and like most train stations, conveniently located in the heart of the city), San Antonio’s depot had no parking and Houston’s was a surreal and desolate spot under Interstate 10 in the midst of a freeway spaghetti bowl. Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have dreamed the place up. As for the train itself, it was clean and staffed with friendly employees, some in their third decade with Amtrak. But most of the cars were scruffy inside, and their infrastructure was fragile: The communal toilet in our sleeper car began to perfume the air sometime after lunch, and our pod’s air conditioner didn’t work (not a problem until we outran the cold front somewhere near Lake Charles, but we could always escape to the chill of the dining car or the spiffy glass tube called the Sightseer Lounge).
This lack of funds also results in a lack of trains, which results in a lack of riders, which results in—surprise—a lack of funds. So there we were, having to catch the train before sunrise in a town an hour from home. The Sunset Limited serves San Antonio only three days a week in either direction: the westbound train on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (3:40 a.m. departure!) and the eastbound train on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. Returning on the train would have meant a 2:28 a.m. arrival, an hour no amount of leg room can make up for. And I confess I wasn’t able to book us a flight home. So what did we do? We rented a car for the 550-mile trip back. If I had any doubts about the train’s superior ability to induce Zen-like repose when compared with driving, they were erased after nine hours on the road.
Of course, practically speaking, traveling by train in Texas is ridiculous. Ridiculous, but alluring nonetheless: There was an electrical outlet for my laptop and the elbow room to use it, I could choose between camaraderie or solitude, and—I loved this—I could even take a hot shower before arriving at my destination. I’ll go out on a limb here and pledge that, from now on, whenever possible, I’m going by train—which is not saying much, I admit, considering that the Texas Eagle is the state’s only other Amtrak train (and, natch, it’s also on the hit list). But it can take me from Austin to Fort Worth in four and a half hours or all the way to Chicago in only 28. Okay, so it might take a bit longer than that. Maybe we were an hour late arriving in New Orleans. So what? I don’t own a watch anyway.
Amtrak’s fare structure is quite complex. Prices vary according to a mysterious sliding scale linked to demand, but promotions and discounts abound. Our one-way coach-class fare from San Antonio to New Orleans, with a AAA discount and the current promotion (half-price for a second passenger), was $84 for two adults plus $179 for a standard sleeper, all meals included; 800-USA-RAIL (872-7245), amtrak.com.