By: Grainne Rhuad
I can remember it clearly; it was Halloween 1992, around 3:00 in the morning and freezing cold. I can see the breath coming from me and was playing a game of taking deep breaths and making dragon-ish puffs to pass the time as I waited outside. Out of the corner of my eyes I see hobgoblins, superheroes and zombies stumbling home after a night of revelry. None of them seemed to see me, or maybe I just blended in being dressed all in black with a large and heavy cape. Finally I hear a deep earth moving horn and turn to see a train approaching, it’s like something out of a movie, a dark exciting gothic one. Me, alone on the boards next to the train stop. The train pulls up to the station and lets off its steam to the night and an older man climbs down and grabs my luggage. He doesn’t bother to check my ticket until much later, after all why on earth would anyone wait for a train in the early morning hours if they weren’t intended to take it? He tells me to find any comfortable spot and my ticket will be checked later.
This was my first train ride and I fell in love with train travel that night. It was everything I expected it to be, romantic, fun and restive. I was heading to Austin, Texas to visit a good friend of mine and as I hate flying I had opted to take the train even though it would mean two and a half days on board.
The sights that I was privileged to see on this trip will always be with me. The run-down but once great train stations like the one in Los Angeles. The vaulted ceilings giving it a feeling of sanctuary, cathedral-like. It made me want to stop and stare for hours imagining the ghosts of the many people who had been through the place. Sharply juxtaposed against its ancient grandeur was the outside world. The train station was now in a rundown area of town, there were homeless people on its doorsteps, and a lucky few inside who had not yet been rolled out by the authorities. There were prostitutes and music of all sorts blaring from cars driving by.
The train also crossed over San Andreas Fault giving one the dizzying sight of one of the worlds barest fault lines. It passed through deserts full of Saguaro cacti standing stately as they have for centuries. On one side American desert on the other side the Mexican border.
I awoke one night to a loud crash and an abrupt halt. Not being terribly concerned I headed to the restroom and on my return heard the news over the loudspeaker. It seemed we had hit something on the tracks and were going to be stalled for a while. As nobody was hurt I went back to sleep. In the morning I awoke to one of the more surreal sights I can remember.
People were alongside the tracks pushing huge yellow wheels. They were at the train doors trying to navigate them inside and some were strolling up and down the aisles with stacks of round packages. It seems we had hit a cheese truck during the night and after the driver of the truck had left, the passengers of the train looted it, grabbing as much creamy gold as they could. I was somewhat amazed that the train conductors and officials did nothing. I was further amazed when on the menu that night there were a lot of additional cheese courses from appetizers to chowder. Maybe a deal unbeknownst to sleepy me had been struck. But I never will forget those huge wheels rolling alongside the track and the look of cheesy glee on passenger’s faces.
These aren’t things you would experience on a plane flight. Nor are they probable to happen on a car trip, the sheer numbers of differing individuals on a train changing reactions and outcomes to everyday and extraordinary occurrences.
Since that time I have been in love with train travel, taking trains whenever I can. It is a sad thing that that turns out to not be very often. In the past decades trains have turned into luxury types of travel. Since the interstates opened and Americans developed their love affair with the automobile, trains have taken a hit and not just with passengers. Interstate highways also offer faster and more diverse options for moving consumer goods and mail via trucking. Train lines have systematically been torn up all over the nation, leaving precious few cross-continental connections and also few commuter options within states. It seems the only way they have stayed alive is by cashing in on their romantic nature and charging more. They also I think make a good deal with their captive audience through food service with a pancake breakfast costing around $12. And upgrades, if you want to lie down to sleep in a sleeping car you are going to pay $427.00 a night extra for a two berth room without a shower.
All of which is too bad. For those of us who are energy conscious it is a lower environmental impact to take a train on long trips and share with a lot more people than it is to put your family and or friends into a car and make the same trip. What you miss in exciting roadside attractions like Vernal Utah’s purple 7-11 you make up for in the people you meet, the stories you collect, the scenery you are actually able to see because you aren’t focused on driving and staying awake.
Recently we found out first hand that the train in some situations is actually the most reliable mode of transportation. On a holiday weekend stuck in Salt Lake City we were shocked to find out yes we could rent a car one way to California, but it would cost us a $350 displacement fee. That’s in addition to the regular rental fees and the 50 cent a mile fee after 100 miles. Stumbling out of the car rental agency into the snow laughing the thought finally hit, now what? Checking the planes was no help. While there were some available in the next two days they were just as expensive and they weren’t sure things. See, planes overbook themselves. They do this on purpose and make those unfortunate enough to be late-ish or have a staple in their pocket wait around for the next flight which they don’t actually have a ticket for and may or may not get on. This happened to someone else we knew flying out of there at the same time we were checking options. This poor soul waited through three flights before she finally got on one and she had bought a ticket ahead of time!
So Amtrak it was! Packing up the one bag for a supposed overnight trip one of our avid readers, Hubbleboy sat at the train station an hour early. He really didn’t know if he was supposed to go through any kind of security or not as he hadn’t taken a train since 9/11. It turns out no. His bags weren’t scanned; he wasn’t subjected to x-rays or invasive pictures of his pelvis. What did happen though was the computer shut down an hour before he was scheduled to board.
The great thing about the train is they still have a chain of responsibility and a Conductor to oversee things. So when the computer went down and shivery travelers began to freak out all was calmed by a man in a medium tall hat and a black jacket with bright buttons who in the old way hand wrote out the tickets for each passenger and took personal responsibility for their boarding. It’s the nice touch of low tech that may in the end save us all.
After boarding the train things went pretty smoothly as far as trains go. It did get stopped due to frozen tracks in Nevada and the train had to wait for a crew to drive out and defrost the track. If we had a better train system that was set up as it had been in earlier days there would have been someone living close by in charge of this job who would have responded earlier to the freeze, watching the weather and trudging out when it got below freezing to keep the trains going on time.
Travel was smooth and more interesting than a night spent in a car by one’s self with talk radio. Class and other prejudices came down as observed was an openly affectionate gay couple talking musicals with a middle aged Mormon professional sporting Brigham Young University gear. Walls come down when people are put together for lengths of time and people can be themselves and appreciate one another.
Hitting more urban areas travelers begin to see that the rail system is being used more often than in the past by those having to go back and forth between California’s state capitol of Sacramento and its money making centers of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Bikes are being loaded on in the early morning hours and commuters are settling in to check their emails and begin their workday while still on the train. It is for this reason that Amtrak has overhauled its web accessibility installing plugs for charging at every seat and making wifi available free and easy where it is available to them. It did go out in certain desolate areas of Nevada.
Back to the issue of prices, it may be evening out for us. With gas prices rising depending on where you go and what your travel plans are it is coming closer to being comparable to ride the train as opposed to driving. Out of interest I tried booking a faux round ticket to California to New York for a family of five. The cost was $4876.00 with three nights in a deluxe sleeping room. I figured the other nights wouldn’t matter as they were ones in which we would be changing trains anyway. The cost included meals while you had the room and a private shower and bath. I know it sounds like a lot but when I did a ticket prices for a plane for the same amount of people it was $2500. (Via priceline.com) and that is without food and lodging. One also misses out on the experience of seeing our vast country, something too many of us in fact end up not ever doing. It helps to understand ourselves if we get out and see our country and meet people from different places and have time to enjoy discourse with them. The train offers all of this. Whereas the stressful, fear inoculated experience of a flight just doesn’t.
It has always been one of my great sadness’s that unlike European countries, we do not have a good rail system connecting us in our country. It’s not easy to travel here. My feeling…okay my hope is if more of us made use of the trains we had on a regular basis perhaps it would get more price friendly. Perhaps we would even begin to approve the adding of commuter rails between cities and towns within states.
Then again maybe not, but it would still be a romantic singularly American experience to travel this great land viewing it as a lot of our settling forefathers and mothers did, by rail.