Notes From a Train


Yes, literally from a train.  I’m writing this on Amtrak’s #5, the westbound California Zephyr, on my way home from Omaha for Passover.

 

I’ll confess a weakness for trains.  In this, I’m not unlike most Americans, although unlike the Americans running the government, I recognize the economic limitations of passenger trains in a country with a relatively low population density.  But hey, if I’m already subsidizing the thing, I may as well use it, especially if planes are more expensive and buses are dirtier, more expensive, and take longer.  Driving, in this day of $4-a-gallon gas, just means I’m spending too much money to also lose 8 hours of productivity.

With all but the northeast corridor reduced – essentially – to tourist service, Amtrak has scheduled the dull parts of the ride at night.  The train goes from Chicago to San Francisco, and as there’s a fair amount of majesty in Colorado, and not so much on the fruited plain, the segment from Omaha to Denver is mostly at night both ways.  This makes it the rare practical alternative to flying.  I can leave Omaha at 11:00, and (usually) be in Denver by 7:30, and leave Denver at 7:30 PM, and be in Omaha by 5:00 AM.

It’s also a better class of passenger than on the bus, even with the lower fares. The problem is sleeping. When I was just out of college, I took a long train trip from DC, up to Toronto, and then across Canada on the Canadian, all the way out to Vancouver. I came back from Seattle to Washington. Another time, I took a trip down to Orlando to visit my parents. On both trips, I got a sleeper car.  (On the second one, I took my electric typewriter with me and wrote a twenty-page term paper in my berth.)  I can tell you that sleeping in a chair, even when you get both of them, with a CPAP, is a somewhat different experience.  In any case, train travel has always been less North By Northwest, than our romantic imaginations would imply.  For one thing, in that shot, it’s the scenery that moves.

The other thing I’ve re-discovered is that it’s easier to take pictures of trains than to take pictures from trains.  When you’re driving, you can stop the car, maybe double back to take a shot you saw from the road.  The train frowns upon that sort of behavior.  Added to that, in recent years, Amtrak has changed its rolling stock on its cross-country trains.  When I took that cross-country trip, the observation car looked like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, the trains are all double-decker:

You can see the problem.  When the whole train is double-decker, you can’t see ahead, you can only see out the side of the train.  You can’t see as much to begin with, and by the time you see something worth photographing, your shot ends up be perpendicular to the train’s motion, leaving you with a lot of blurry pictures.  It also had the side-effect of slowing us down Thursday night because of high winds, costing us about 90 minutes into Denver.

The thing is, despite the somewhat newer rolling stock, the train still has an air of faded glory.  The bathrooms are clean enough, but often not fully stocked.  There seem to be plenty of staff, but on the train, it’s not entirely clear what they do when not at the station.  The first time back at Denver, it took 30 minutes to move the luggage across the street from the train to the station.  The one thing they don’t do it grope you on the way to your destination or make you stand in line for 2 hours, and I overheard a number of conversations that indicated Amtrak was benefiting from that behavior at airports.

The fact is, the train is an anachronism.  It’s fun, it’s less money and less work than flying.  But because it takes more time, it’s not how people travel these days.  Most cross-country routes are tourist trains, and so there’s sense of guilty luxury, in spite of the price.  And if you’re going farther than overnight, the cost of a room really does turn the trip into a luxury outing.  These routes couldn’t exist with taxpayer subsidies; even with a fairly good ridership, I doubt they come close to breaking even.  And they’re only half-full because there’s only one train a day, which limits your options.

But if it makes economic sense, it’s still a great way to go.

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