Riding the train across the USA: An antiquated mode of travel?

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September 23rd 2010
Published: September 26th 2010
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In America, many people I meet can’t understand as to why anybody would take the train. It takes longer, can be more expensive, and the service, is, quite frankly, pretty limited. Rail travel is seen as something of an oddity, something either eccentrics or old people do. Though I must be one of the world’s biggest train loyalists, I begin to understand why when I plan my train trip across the USA towards New Mexico.

I want to travel from Charleston in South Carolina to New Orleans (also on the South Coast), and then westwards from New Orleans across to El Paso in Texas. Simple enough. But is it possible? No. Instead, Amtrak (the US train company) wants to send me all the way up to Washington D.C., then across to Chicago, and from there on an overnight train to Albuquerque in New Mexico. A detour of, oh, only a few hundred (or thousand?) miles. It's a bit like travelling from London to Wales and taking a detour via Edinburgh first. Why? It doesn’t make sense to me, as I can see that there’s a train line that goes across the South coast.

‘I’m sorry, Ma’am, that train line
Hmmmm.... not sure about this....Hmmmm.... not sure about this....Hmmmm.... not sure about this....

photo by Michael Murray
was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and never rebuilt’, explains the apologetic Amtrak phone assistant. Ok, I understand, but wasn’t this five years ago? ‘The trains here are government-run. Nobody takes them’, my host Michael shrugs. ‘I personally have ridden the train once in my entire life. Here, people either fly or take the car.’

Ok, so what are my options? I’ve come this far without flying, I am not going to cave in now. I consider the Greyhound bus to New Orleans for a split second, but being crammed into a tiny seat on an American Highway doesn’t really do it for me. Alright, Washington D.C. and Chicago it is, then. Even if the whole trip will take something like four days and there is only one (one!) service a day from Chicago to Albuquerque, and that is overnight.

And now we come to the most bizarre aspect of train travel in America: the purchasing of ‘rooms’. Now in Europe, or anywhere else in the world I have thus far travelled by rail, it is possible to book a single berth in a shared train compartment. Not here. If you want to spend the night in a bed
The glorious inside of Charleston's Amtrak Station...The glorious inside of Charleston's Amtrak Station...The glorious inside of Charleston's Amtrak Station...

the grimness doesn't quite translate in the picture. (photo by Michael Murray)
instead of a seat, you are obliged to buy an entire room, which has between two or four berths in it. These rooms cost from $279 (the cheapest one) upwards, up to $600 or more if the train is busy. Surely this can’t be? Surely it must be possible to book just one bed instead of four?

Again, I reach for the phone to quiz my trusty Amtrak assistant. She just laughs at me. ‘You want to share a room with a complete stranger?’ She is utterly astonished when I tell her that in Europe, we do exactly that. ‘My, you learn something new every day’, she drawls. ‘No, Ma’am, in America, we don’t like to do that. I’m sorry, but you will have to buy a room for yourself.’ Even if that means that I have four beds to frolic in all by myself.

For the sake of research and experience (of course), I book one of the cheapest 'roomettes' on my overnight train from Washington D.C to Chicago, and consider putting the other bed up for bids on ebay. Or maybe I’ll just walk around the train on the night and auction it off to the highest bidder. Now this might be interesting: ‘Sir, would you like to share my bedroom tonight?’ Amtrak - please! Get your act together on this one. At least the option of sharing sleeping compartments should be there, even if people choose not to take it.

Ok, so after all this rambling, what is it actually like to travel on an Amtrak train? ‘It won’t be what you’re used to’, warns the ever-observant Michael Murray. ‘Probably mainly black people, people with low incomes. I couldn’t get my own parents to set foot on a train, and I really tried to convince them to do so.’

On Tuesday morning, Michael takes me to the Amtrak train station. This is just as well, as it’s hopelessly out of the way in North Charleston in a shabby, desolate area. We pass cheap supermarkets, petrol stations and industrial wastelands. Finally, we see a little green steel sign that has ‘Amtrak station’ written on it. It’s so small that we nearly miss it and points us down a little track. Bemused, I look at Michael. ‘I’m scared’, I joke. ‘I told you!’ he retorts. ‘This is what train travel is like in America.’
Ladies and Gentlemen: Washington D.C.'s Union StationLadies and Gentlemen: Washington D.C.'s Union StationLadies and Gentlemen: Washington D.C.'s Union Station

So this is where all the money goes.

The train station itself is housed in a building that resembles a former Soviet Union block. It’s an ugly washed-out green and yellow and not particularly inviting. Compare that to the Metro Stations in Moscow. The train tracks look so old and dilapidated that I start to laugh. Michael only raises an eyebrow. Inside the train station, it isn’t much better. It reminds me of a National Express bus station (very cheap bus company back in England), with nasty decor, a broken TV and broken vending machines. It really looks like it has seen better days. I peruse my fellow passengers. A few elderly ladies, some of them disabled. A handful of black people. Two smoking women with a gang of children.

I collect my ticket from the window and here I come across one thing that actually really impresses me. It is possible to check in a suitcase and have it arrive at your destination - free of charge. This is fantastic: no heaving of baggage onto the train, no finding a space for it on crowded trains, no worrying about it. No - you simply check it in and collect it at the other end. Marvellous.

Finally, the train rolls onto the platform. It’s charming, really, the way it honks its way towards us, just like in those old US films. And it damn well looks like it, too. Then something even funnier happens: they only open one door of the entire train. Everybody has to stand in line and enter through that one door, past the uniformed lady conductor with the Afro who checks our tickets and instructs us where we need to go. We don’t have allocated seats but have to go into designated compartments. ‘Washington D.C.? To the right’, she tells me.

I enter with keen anticipation and choose a seat. Or shall I say throne? I am absolutely blown away by the size of the seats here. They are humongous, around twice as large as the ones back home. The seat ahead of me is so far away that I can’t even reach it with my hands. When I open the fold-out table, I have to stretch out my arms to reach my laptop. Neat. But I soon understand why these seats are that size- there seem to be a lot of large people on this train. The lady in the seat across from me is so big that she hardly fits into the chair.

The train starts to move and a jolly male voice reveals the rules and regulations of Amtrak travel. ‘Your cell phone may lose reception along the way - yelling will not help’, he advises. Laughter ripples through the carriage. Michael has been wrong on one count: people do take the Amtrak train. This one is fairly full.

When the proprietor of the jolly voice comes around to check our tickets, I am pleased that he looks just as charming as he sounds. He wears a white shirt, a red tie and a very strange dark blue hat with a silver Amtrak logo attached to it. It almost looks like those Moroccan hats in Casablanca. This striking outfit is complimented by a wonderfully thick moustache.

I settle into my large and comfortable seat and start to enjoy the journey. I might as well - I am going to be here for the next ten hours. And, disregarding all of my earlier complaints and observations, I do love this way of travel. Train trips, for me, are just the best way to go and see the world. I adore it when the train moves and the landscapes fly by. It’s meditative and soothing. There’s nothing pressing to do on the train, and most of the time, I just look out of the window and reflect. It’s a great space for writing, too.

My new friend James from Philadelphia, the train’s cafe attendant, agrees. ‘People love riding the train’ he says after I have recovered from the fact that he sells vegan burgers. ‘They relax, look out of the window, think. Some work with their laptops, others play cards. It’s a nice way of travellin’. But I tell you what, the trains here, they are not good. They are very, very old. But soon they’ll be replaced.’

And indeed, the train ride itself is beautiful. In the afternoon, all the writers - mainly young women - seem to gather in the cafe and gaze dreamily into the distance as they tap away on their laptops. And as we travel towards Washington D.C., the train stations start to look like train stations and not warehouses, and Washington D.C.'s Union Station.... well.... it's a palace. It couldn't be more of a contrast from Charleston. I am appeased. At least until my next trip from Washington to Chicago, during which I will get to sample Amtrak's famous 'roomettes'. But more about that in the next blog....


25th July 2012
Charleston's famous Amtrak Train Station

Train is the cheapest transport system in usa millions of people using trains for their journey

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