I came close as a part of this tour, but I didn’t quite make it. I didn’t cross the country by train. I’ve long wanted to try to do it, but this trip didn’t require me to head toward the west coast. I still have that to look forward to.
There is some residual romance in train travel. On some level, it’s still a leftover vestige of a long gone time when movie stars took gleaming stainless steel trains on vacation. But the truth is another thing.
Amtrak likes to say it is America’s railroad. Our American railroad is tired and run down. It’s easily outclassed by almost any train in Europe. It’s given short shrift by the host railroads, who seem to go out of their way to push passenger trains on to sidings and make them wait. I remember once waiting on the City of New Orleans in Memphis and being able to see the train, but it was stopped just outside of the station and held so a freight could go by on another track. If they’d let it move a train length, it could have been in the station on time without holding that freight up for more than a minute. This sort of absurdity is how our railroad is run.
Stephanie had never gone on a long distance train ride before this tour. I wanted her introduction to go smoothly. It didn’t. The train was dirty, the crew was tired, and because it was almost eight hours late, they ran out of food. I was half way expecting her to demand we get plane tickets for the rest of the way. It says a lot that she was still game to get on the train the next day.
A few years ago, Amtrak ran more on time. They weren’t perfect, but they had a better chance of making it. The freight railroads sued to get out from having to help move the passengers along and won the first round. Amtrak is still fighting, but it’s been hurting them at a time when ridership is up. Congress, who could help with this situation, instead has been cutting Amtrak’s budget. Congress is the best hope of fixing Amtrak, which is why it’s in sad shape. America deserves a better railroad. I think it deserves a better Congress as well.
But on some levels, Amtrak succeeds in spite of itself. When the train was too late to help, they put us up in the Swissotel on Wacker and it was far better than any hotel I expected. Customer service is still alive on America’s railroad. Last time I was on a flight that was too late for connections, I wound up sleeping in the airport.
In spite of all the issues, I still want that cross-country ride. I want to meet people in the dining car, to travel relaxed, and see the country in the way that only rail travel allows you to. I’ll get that ride one day, and I’ll get to take pictures of places I haven’t seen before.