The beginning of everything was in a railway train …There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King.
The quality of train travel has improved somewhat since Kipling wrote that amusing paragraph. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the fortunate circumstances of ample spare time and a convenient ultimate destination permitted me to travel aboard AMTRAK, America’s taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service, a first for me as it was for numerous other travelers, judging by the many people who asked the same question I did to the attendant at the embarking station: “How does this entire process work?”
Indeed, for one used to air travel, the surprising ease and convenience of train travel was refreshing: at no point was my person or my baggage searched by TSA personnel, tickets were examined in only the most cursory manner, and regulations on the size of luggage were not enforced at all. A traveler on AMTRAK can print his ticket from his home computer – just as he would an airline boarding pass – go to an AMTRAK station, and board the train directly without having to deal with the 3 layers of bureaucracy and security theater institutionalized at the nation’s airports.
My own journey took me eastward along the “Empire Builder” line, which runs along the northern border from Seattle to eastern North Dakota before turning southeast and terminating in Chicago. The variety of terrain and scenery on this route is remarkable; in two days of travel, a passenger goes from the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, across the Rocky Mountains through Glacier National Park, down to the plateau and prairies of Montana, to the alluvial flood plains of North Dakota and the agricultural lands of the upper Midwest, with 3 major metropolitan areas along the way: Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago. This offers a perspective on the United States unattainable from both the Interstate and the airplane. In my case, long hours of darkness confined visible scenery to the length of Montana, dawn breaking on the second day of travel near Whitefish, leaving me with about 50 miles of mountains before the very rapid transition to the plateau and the seemingly endless prairie beyond. Still, I appreciate all types of geography and the vast open space of Montana had its own appeal; I did not share the sentiments of the train staff, who dismissed everything between Glacier National Park and Chicago as “wasteland” (though to be fair, they endure the trip much more often than myself).
Unlike the Interstate, which is clogged with signs, advertisements, and chain restaurants, AMTRAK utilizes existing freight lines that traverse very remote areas and are serviced by much smaller population centers. There was certainly a feeling of juxtaposition when looking out upon the cold and unpeopled countryside from the relative comfort of a modern passenger train.
Trains are much slower than airlines, but the upshot is that you are treated as a human being and not a piece of cattle. Passengers with a first class ticket have private rooms, sleeping accommodations, access to shower facilities, and all meals in the dining car are complimentary. This sparked a minor scandal recently when certain lawmakers discovered that AMTRAK passengers were getting “free” meals. The cause of the outrage confuses me, because the cost of the food is reflected in the much higher price of a first class ticket; coach passengers still have to pay for their meals.
Dining car staff prefer to minimize the number of tables in use at any one time, and diners are seated at any available table. Thus you are often eating with total strangers; awkward it first, but it allows you to meet some interesting people. In my case, I dined with a Canadian couple on their way to New Orleans to celebrate their 58th anniversary (!) with a Caribbean cruise. Both were former British citizens who emigrated to Vancouver decades ago to take advantage of tax incentives. The man had served in the British Army and deployed to Suez in 1956.
There are plenty of reasons not to take AMTRAK, despite the relative inexpense of even first class accommodations. The limited number of destinations is one, as is the fact that most Americans simply do not have the time to spare. It was certainly worth it in my case. Is it worth about $1.3 billion from U.S. taxpayers annually? That is a more difficult question, but with all the frivolities and waste in the Federal budget, it does not seem an unreasonable sum to keep trans-continental passenger rail a viable transportation option.