pointless shenanigans & quasi-poetic musings

We Got You: Thirty Hours on America's Finest Railroad

America’s trains suck. Nobody’s going to contest that–when it comes to passengers, we’re pretty shit at moving them around. (Still pretty damn good at freight, though, despite the freight roads’ best efforts to sabotage themselves.) Despite this, every year, just enough people buy Amtrak tickets to justify its continued existence. Every year, just enough Congressional funding gets snatched away from the military-industrial complex while it isn’t looking to cover the funding gaps and keep the lights on. Hell, if Amtrak proposes discontinuing certain stops, legislators will lobby to ensure that a dismal, 3 train per week service keeps stopping in their district (even if they don’t want to fund it!). Like the rest of this country’s transportation infrastructure, it’s all falling apart at the seams, and a perfect storm of capitalist interests and archaic regulations stand in the way of the kind of change urbanists and rail enthusiasts dream of. Decades of under-investment in favour of private automobiles and freight trucks have left a once-great network a shadow of its former self. Given all of this, given a passenger train’s inability to arrive on time, even given how expensive a ticket can be if you want a sleeper car, why do we keep riding the rails?

It might be a healthy dose of romanticism. Railroads built huge swaths of this country, after all. It might be that, even when it sucks, it sucks far more comfortably and more humanely than air travel does. My train was 7 hours late, but almost nobody was complaining. I started writing this post on the Coast Starlight itself, somewhere in the middle of southern Oregon, and it started out as something more like a straight travelogue. It quickly turned into some ramblings on what I consider far more interesting questions: why do people take Amtrak, and what kind of people are you going to find on a long-distance train? End to end, the Coast Starlight takes 35 hours on the timetable, under perfect conditions. A direct flight, Seattle to Los Angeles, takes three hours runway to runway. Even if you factor in the TSA’s nonsense and how long it takes to get out of LAX, a 737 wins every time.

Up to this point, I’ve spent most of my life on the Eastern Seaboard, riding the supposed shining star of our passenger rail network, a crown jewel of speed and congestion. The Northeast Corridor: four hundred and fifty-seven miles of commuter trains navigating the remnants of fallen corporate empires. Our fastest and most technologically advanced trains, reduced to shuffling along between double-deckers and diesels owned by cash-strapped, fiercely independent original colonies, each of them oblivious to the interconnected nature of even the uncrewed flag stops and glorified suburban bus shelters that lie mere steps clear of stainless steel giants and thousands of watts of power – this is the America I know best. A metropolitan axis that desperately clings to exceptionality, even if it means self-asphyxiation.

I won’t lie, it freaks me out how big the non-Eastern states are. Weekends of driving half the length of Ohio convinced me that it needs to be two states. A mad dash up the 5, from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley in a rented luxury sedan, did more to convince me of Calexit’s merits than any disinformation scheme ever could: this is a state that feels like an entire country. And yet, I’m moving west. My new home state is approximately the size of all the New England states combined. What better way to properly acclimate myself to the scale of the West Coast than with a perennially under-funded railroad? Two hundred dollars, and I had a business class ticket from Seattle to Oakland on the Coast Starlight. (I briefly considered a sleeper car, but that would have cost 4 figures. If I was doing the full length of the route and had someone with me, maybe.)

My train left Seattle right on time, but I had woken up that morning in my friend’s apartment with a voicemail from Amtrak’s guest services: my train would have “no food service available”. That sounded pretty dire, even for the mere 24 hours timetabled to Oakland. I didn’t know if that meant the snack bar would be closed, or what–there were no details available. I was able to make some last-minute preparations to survive the trip: King Street Station is a quick five-minute walk from a Japanese grocery store. Armed with a dangerously cute insulated bag1 filled with snacks and refreshments, I stepped onto the platform and hoped for the best. When it comes to travel, my philosophy is to not make too many plans, but to have some frameworks in my back pocket in case things go wrong. It’s served me well thus far, but it feels a little bit like cheating when there’s a place that sells spam musubi and delicious prepared meals that close to the station. (This falls well short of the truly bizarre preparations2 an Insider writer recently took for a trip on the very same route. I remain confused about the mindset required to do almost no research in advance but decide that a gallon of water is required.)

It turns out that “no food service” meant that the refrigeration was borked in the cafe, located on the first level of the observation car: no way to keep the infamous Amtrak cheeseburger or personal pizzas frozen. Ice for drinks was served out of a cooler shoved behind the counter, the one working refrigeration unit was devoted (correctly so) to wine and beer. At this point, I must introduce my favourite person on the entire federal payroll, a woman who I would lay my life down for: Angelica, the cafe car attendant. Unlike conductors and engineers, who have strict time limits on work hours for safety reasons3, lounge/cafe car attendants and sleeping car attendants work the train from one terminus to the other. On long trains like this, they do get meal breaks and a chance to sleep overnight, but they don’t get exchanged on and off the train like other crew does. Angelica’s announcements on the PA were a genuine highlight of the trip. Her opening spiel regarding the food situation (including a plaintive request for patience and care in “the world’s smallest shop”) ended with a promise that fresh food would be loaded on the train for us in Portland (and further points south) and these words: “Welcome aboard the Coast Starlight. We got you.”

Angelica, Our Lady of the Cafe Car, I hope every good thing that you deserve comes to you.

Since we had plenty of non-perishable snacks, hot coffee, tiny bottles of booze, and cans of Coke; and I had my insulated shiba bag; the lack of refrigeration wasn’t what turned this journey into a supposedly fun thing that I’ll absolutely do again.4 That didn’t happen until Portland: a Union Pacific freight train suffered an “upright derailment” that still managed to foul the points required to route trains out of Union Station. Stopped for approximately at two hours in Vancouver (WA), apparently the decision was made to drive the promised food up from Portland instead of waiting to see how long it would take for a route south to become clear. What did they bring us? Popeyes fried chicken. Big catering bags full of three-piece tender meals, with mashed potatoes, a couple packets of dipping sauces, and a biscuit. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a better biscuit in my life than the one handed to me in the observation car and enjoyed once we’d gotten back underway to Portland. This was around when I started thinking a little bit more anthropologically. Before the two-hour delay, I’d been sitting in the observation car: a punk who’d gotten on in Seattle with an acoustic guitar was taking requests and entertaining some booths. Unlike my previous long-distance Amtrak trips, there was no immediate pattern to the passengers: families with kids, some retirement-age couples, people of all ages. Pollsters should set up shop in the snack bar, honestly–they’d get a more representative sample than they do now with “people who answer phone calls from unknown numbers in the middle of the day” for the pressing questions of the times.

In Vancouver, most of us got off the train to get some fresh air, stretch their legs, and use a less cramped restroom. This is one of the more basic things that appeal to people about trains, I think: although a Superliner coach is extremely roomy and gives you plenty of opportunity to move around as compared to any jet, regular stops for fresh air are baked into the schedules. If you happen to subscribe to one of humanity’s most popular vices, what this really means is that smoke breaks are baked into the schedules: Amtrak is the last great refuge of the American smoker. My previous long-distance trips have been on the Auto Train5, which only featured one air break/crew change (overnight in Florence, South Carolina). For the smoker, these fresh air stops are a godsend, and many an ashtray was filled while we were stopped.

Of course, if this was an airport gate with an indefinitely-delayed flight, a queue would have instantly formed at the service counter, a thousand angry phone calls would bloom, and nobody would be happy. This? Even later on, when things got even worse, I only heard one or two people complaining. That’s all. If nothing else, it’s proof that if you give coach class enough legroom, they’ll be happier about whatever ordeals they face. I spent some time on the platform chatting with a couple from Seattle–in retrospect, this is one of the things that struck me. I am not normally one for small talk, in general I avoid conversations with people I don’t know under any circumstances, and yet I found myself chatting with people in the observation car or during fresh air stops. Whatever it is about rail travel (and I’ll tell you now, I don’t come to any satisfying conclusions as to why it has this affect on people), it affects even the most jaded of us.

Enjoying the least homophobic national-chain fried chicken in the country from the comfort of my train seat would have been enough to keep me happy. Once we got to Portland and received a new train crew, we had plenty of time to kill: to avoid the derailed freight train, a Union Pacific conductor would join us for a detour around the city on a freight line until the train rejoined its usual route south to California. Until that conductor showed up, we had an extra hour or so to stretch our legs. For me, this meant meandering around Portland Union Station: a beautifully-preserved structure from 1896 built by the Northern Pacific Railway, with plenty of late-1940s interior details and some gorgeous neon signs. Again and still, very few complaints to be had from any of my fellow travellers, nor from the many who joined the train in Portland.

Aside from the obvious suspects (railfans and smokers), I was still trying to understand what motivates someone to choose Amtrak over a car or a plane. Between a car and a train, it makes a lot of sense: driving sucks, and if you’re on a vacation in a city you’ve got to work out where to stash the car all day. I could have rented a car: depending on the route I could have spent around 12 hours on the 5 or around 14 hours on US-976–both just a little too long to comfortably drive in one day. Often overlooked is the fact that cars and their drivers need to stop every so often–if the satnav says 12 hours, that’s probably 14 hours total on the road. Once you break it up into a two-day trip, the train’s back in competition (assuming you care about yourself and don’t want to do a single-entry endurance race involving one or more hapless friends/co-drivers). Unless your car is German or Swedish, the seats probably aren’t as comfy as Amtrak’s anyway.

Jets fly the same route in two hours. I could’ve had an entire day in either my origin or my destination, and so could have everyone else on the train. Maybe it’s a luxury after all–Amtrak long-distance routes are sometimes described as a “land cruise”, a description that I tend to dislike. Free time, however, is the greatest luxury of all. Americans have fewer vacation days available to them, on average, than almost all other countries on Earth. In fact, most countries have a minimum number of paid vacation days that all workers are entitled to! With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why vacationers may favour air travel. Why waste time in transit when you could use that time wedging as many activities as possible into your meagre few days off work?

It’s not difficult to see how the cruise ship comparison gets drawn, but I genuinely think more people are using Amtrak as a utilitarian form of transport than they are a luxury experience in and of itself. Travel of any sort can be an experience, and I don’t even think I’d describe a sleeper car as being especially luxurious in comparison to even the most budget of cruise ships. A Motel 6 seems to have a nicer bed, for example.7 The answer might be boring. It might just be that it’s the least bad way to travel the country. Air travel is tedious, and driving the highways sucks. I say this as a car enthusiast, someone who enjoys driving: the sort of person who likes Amtrak is probably the same sort of person who avoids interstate highways. They’re too full of trucks, and traffic–when they’re not busy destroying communities in inner cities, the ribbons of asphalt are busy avoiding nearly anything of interest.

The Coast Starlight gave me plenty of time to contemplate all of this when our Portland crew timed out somewhere in the middle of southern Oregon. We were quite a few miles short of our scheduled crew swap and fresh air stop at Klamath Falls, and by the time they were driven up to the train, we were about 7 hours late. This persisted all the way through to Oakland, although we at least had plenty of the sub sandwiches (roast beef, vegetable, or turkey) that had been delivered to the train in Eugene.

There’s a screenshot on my phone of the Amtrak app, showing me that my train was approximately 6.5 hours late into Oakland. I felt great, though. Aside from a desperate need for a nice shower, a state I find myself in after using any form of transport, I didn’t feel fatigued, annoyed, disgruntled, or indeed any negative emotion at all. Most trips in a pressurised tube dehydrate me and are liable to leave me with, bare minimum, a cough.8 Driving for more than two or three hours–even in my beloved Golf, with the most ergonomically correct seats you can get in a car that costs less than $30k, guarantees that my knees and ankles will be miserable at the end of the day. This alone is reason enough to take the train.

I keep coming back to romanticism, though. I can’t think of any word better, and I think it describes the relationship that those of us who love trains have with Amtrak. It’s not like an unhealthy relationship–we’re fully aware of what it could be, and as such we are intimately aware of its shortcomings. If you’re even remotely pressed for time, Amtrak probably isn’t your first choice. If you do have the time, and especially if you’ve never done it: take the train sometime, for it’s the most perfect distillation of this country there is. Even if it all goes wrong, they’ll do their best to get you there. There are beautiful landscapes (punctuated by what’s left of America’s industry) passing by the train’s windows every mile. You’ll very likely be subjected to the side effects of our worst priorities as a society, but you’ll also experience more of what makes this country beautiful and good in one day than most people do in a month of suburbia. It’s broken, it’s beautiful, and it’s doing its best. Bare minimum, you’ll get a damn good story out of it.

  1. For a somewhat more traditional diary of my trip, follow the linked Twitter thread. ↩︎

  2. Link via archive.today, since I don’t feel like giving Insider any extra clicks. ↩︎

  3. This is foreshadowing. ↩︎

  4. with apologies to David Foster Wallace (pdf) ↩︎

  5. Amtrak’s Auto Train: Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA, you and your car are carried in comfort instead of having to deal with the most tedious stretches of Interstate 95. From my limited sample size, 90% of the passengers live in retirement communities and are, shall we say, golf enthusiasts. ↩︎

  6. Another quirk of having spent as much time on the Eastern Seaboard as I have and paying as much attention to road numbering systems as I do: everything’s backwards and it’s weird. Out here, we have Interstate 95, a concrete colossus linking the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis to the coastal South. In Nevada, US Route 95 is, by many measures, the loneliest road in the country. It throws me for a loop. ↩︎

  7. I have not had the pleasure of enjoying a sleeper car. If you want to make that happen, have your people get in touch with my people. ↩︎

  8. Wear a fucking mask, people. The only plane trips where I haven’t felt some weird irritation in my throat or caught a cold have been during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: in February I crossed the country to Nevada wearing an MSA 900, and this time I wore a well-fitting N95 because I honestly didn’t feel like catching any shit from flight attendants about a half-face respirator. ↩︎