Sometimes I’m just too lazy to actually travel. But, I love travel. Almost as much as I love travel stories. And living vicariously through authors who love travel as much as i do. Jane Fishman is one of those. And curling up with this book had me feeling like i was there, on the train, talking to strangers, seeing parts of the country you just never see otherwise, riding the rails. Thanks, Jane! – Editor
So, What’s the Hurry? Tales From the Train by Jane Fishman
Trains are a hard sell. We are car people. We want to throw our gear into the back of a vehicle that sits right outside our front door. We want to bring our dogs, our pillows, our blender, maybe a third or fourth pair of shoes. We like to be in charge of our outings. We don’t like delays. A cow’s in the middle of the train tracks? Ridiculous. Move him.
We’re airplane people. Zip, zip, zip. Who has time for trains?
We’re a car culture. We’re entitled. That’s why we have all these highways, so we can get places. Fast. Except it’s not always faster. It’s counter-intuitive. As it turns out, building roads increases congestion. A section of Interstate 10 in Houston is twenty-six lanes across. After it was built, the morning commute got worse in both directions, same with the eastbound in the evening. The new phrase for this is “induced traffic demand.” The good news is a few years ago folks in Los Angeles, citing “induced traffic demand,” voted against adding more lanes to a freeway.
Trains are old-fashioned, so nineteenth-century.
So what if nearly 85,700 people – some 31 million a year – ride the train every day.
How many people know more people (as in 650,000) pass through New York’s Penn Station than through LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Airports combined? It’s a good thing the city is transforming the 105-year-old James A. Farley Building, an architectural gem built as a post office in 1912, into a grand hall train hall for passengers of Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road. Whether it will outdo the magnificent Grand Central Terminal remains to be seen.
It’s not hard to see what happened with trains. Sometime in the 1950s folks in the car industry got together with folks in the oil industry and said, “Let’s bypass the trains. All right, so the trains got us out West. They expanded the country. They moved the cotton. But right now? They’re not doing either of our businesses any good. They’re passé. We need to sell cars. We need to sell gas. Let’s build highways.”
And that’s what happened. In 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act, officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, was enacted. Trains, while still carrying passengers, got nothing. No more track. No more locomotives. No more attention. The inner cities, where most trains start and end, got nothing. It became popular to move to the suburbs. This translated into single-family houses, roomy garages, one and two cars per family and, of course, highways.
Goodbye, trees. Goodbye, open space. Goodbye, downtowns.
Enter: the airline industry. Enter: subsidies. Need a boost, Boeing? We’re right here for you. Now, people are starting to move away from suburbs. Now, airports are jammed, despite the cost, the remote locations, the security issues. Government subsidizes airports and highways. Railroads pay for their own infrastructure.
Today for the most part we can’t build highways fast enough to hold all the cars. This same phenomenon occurs when you move into a new house. With more rooms, you spread out. Then you get more stuff and you run out of rooms again. So you build add-ons, rent a storage unit, fill up the garage, leave the car outside.
But here’s the thing: Despite the hype of the highway and the lure of the jet, people still love to take trains, no matter the cost, the inconvenience, the time. No matter how hard the folks in charge try to shortchange, underfund, undermine their base or how much Amtrak charges for sleepers (which, by the way, are always sold out), people still buy train tickets. No matter how much Amtrak, a corny portmanteau of two words – “America” and “track” – struggles with its ornery heating and air system (should we turn the cars into a terrarium or the Arctic Circle?), we still keep coming back. For some people living far away from airports, trains (and cars) are their only option for getting anywhere. They find their way to itty-bitty stations in the middle of nowhere at all hours of the day and night. They step up on that bright yellow stepstool, hand over their luggage to a conductor and enter the train car. They navigate their way to a seat in coach or a sleeper car while the train starts moving to its next stop.
If the intended city doesn’t have a train station, Amtrak has instituted, from my experience, a very reliable bus connection system as part of the ticket. If you’re headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, whose passenger depot was discontinued in February 1, 1984, you detrain in Tampa’s historic and beautiful depot, which dates to 1912. Then you board an Amtrak-contracted bus to a designated bus station in St. Petersburg. The bus waits for the train to arrive; it will not leave without ticketed connecting passengers.
When I wanted to take the train from Phoenix to San Antonio, I waited in a creepy deserted mall parking lot that looked like a set for a zombie movie to catch a van appropriately called the Stagecoach. The only people I saw were some homeless kids on bicycles tending to their phones in a public charging station. The van brought me through the desert to Maricopa, a farm town some forty-five minutes away, the former home of politician Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, where the Sunset Limited stops three days a week at 3 a.m. I was happy for the connection (if not the departure time), but for a city the size of Phoenix – the sixth largest city in the country and about to pass Philadelphia – not to have Amtrak service is crazy.
Even people who don’t take trains grow misty-eyed at the sound of the whistle, even if the train pulls through their neighborhood in the middle of the night or if it’s carrying flammable explosives, toxic waste or kaolin (as it does in Savannah), and drivers have to wait fifteen minutes in their car for the train to snake by. The whistle is enough of an aural memory to remind people of their grandfather or uncle working as a welder, a switchman, a diesel mechanic, a lineman or a conductor or the time they rode the train with their grandmother.
If the industry could just get more money, more respect.
We thought we had a chance when Joe Biden was in office. For forty-four years the former Vice-President and Congressman rode the train roughly 8,000 times, back and forth between Washington, D.C. and his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Surely, the man known as “Amtrak Joe” could have squeezed some money out of Congress. He couldn’t. The only hint we got of Joe in the past year was a poster of his new book, Promise Me, Dad, a memoir about his son’s fight with brain cancer, his family and his time in office. Some employee tacked the cover on the wall of the snack bar of the Capitol Limited. Amtrak employees love Joe.
Granted, Amtrak is trying to sharpen its game. Now you can go online and track the whereabouts of your train in real time. Plus, the quasi-governmental company puts out a ton of statistics on the promising side. On any given day, 300 trains run between 46 states, a far cry from the 2,000 that ran at the turn of the century. Here’s what Amtrak doesn’t tell you: South Dakota and Wyoming have no service at all. Aside from Phoenix, neither do three other pretty good-sized cities: Louisville (population 760,000), Nashville (685,000) and Las Vegas (584,000). Cincinnati, a town with a metropolitan population of two million, gets a train three times a week. That sounds pretty good until you check closer; they all arrive in the middle of the night.
The following number explains why trains are so often late: Freight trains own ninety-five percent of the tracks traveled by Amtrak passengers.
It comes as no surprise that of the six busiest trains, four run along the Northeast corridor: Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Chicago and Los Angeles are next. Those six account for forty percent of all tickets sold.
I take the train because highway driving is boring. Drivers tailgate. They pass on the right, hang out on the left. They’re rude. I hate adding to the congestion when there’s an alternative way to get somewhere. Flying is boring, too. I feel like a second-class citizen, boarding with the hoi polloi. It’s a hustle. Airport parking lots are boring, too, and they’re expensive.
Trains are never boring. They’re irritating, vexing, annoying. They’re too hot, too cold, too late or sometimes too early. When the Sunset Limited Maricopa-to-San Antonio train pulled into the south-central Texas town three hours early, at 4 a.m. – it happened to be a light freight day, I was told – you’re stuck.
Plus, heading through small-town America and looking out the window at all the trash is disturbing, all the plastic containers, glass bottles, discarded tires, metal shopping carts, dismantled bicycles, abandoned cars, leaning houses, Big Gulp Styrofoam cups, plastic buckets, six-pack beer boxes. Not pretty.
My fellow passengers can be irritating, too. On one twenty-two-hour ride between Dallas and Chicago, I sat two seats back, on the opposite side, of a woman and her two young kids. I get it. She was overwhelmed, impatient, short tempered. Still, it didn’t take long to pick up on the only two commands she uttered to her children: “Go to sleep” and “Shut up.” I won’t lie. I was wishing for the same two actions myself. All I could think about was the W.C. Fields’ line: “Go away, kid. Ya’ bother me.” I caught up with the irksome threesome again in the Chicago station long enough to hear the younger child, maybe three, return his mother’s admonishment when she started yelling at him.
“Shut up, mama.” Same words, same intonation, same enunciation.
That was hard to hear.
Yes, trains can be late (or early). That can be irritating. No one takes a train if he or she is on a tight schedule. But the people who work at the stations are pretty upfront with expected arrival times. They don’t sugarcoat the facts.
People take the train for a variety of reasons. They don’t like to fly. They can haul more stuff without additional charges. They can travel with their little kids or grandkids without breaking the bank. Maybe it’s easier to get to the train station than the airport. Maybe they lived in Europe where trains are more common and they know from experience how much more of the country they can see from a roomy seat in a car than a cramped seat above the clouds on a plane or trapped in lanes of traffic.
You get to talk to people. When’s the last time anyone had a conversation with a stranger in an airport?
Just when I thought I had heard all the reasons for taking the train, I shared a dinner table with a man somewhere in the Midwest. He was returning from San Jose, California, to take care of his mother. She had just had a small stroke, he said. He could have flown. He’s not afraid of flying. He had the money for the ticket. He was a housepainter with steady work. But he didn’t have a driver’s license and you need one to get on a plane.
He said his name is Billy the Kid.
He told me you don’t need a driver’s license on a train. “A birth certificate and/or a social security card will do the trick.”
He lost his license a few months ago.
“A cop confiscated my license when I was stopped for resembling someone who had just broken into a house. I was never charged, but as it turns out my license was expired and I never bothered getting another one.”
He went on: “I sprung for a sleeper because I’m hauling all my stuff back east and it felt safer that way. But the space feels like a phone booth. The worst thing of all? The door rattles. But I knew that. That’s why I always travel with a piece of cardboard, to slip under the door.”
I took a sleeper once when I was on a long-distance train to Los Angeles. I didn’t like the tiny room. I felt claustrophobic. I felt as if I might be in a tomb. I lay flat out on my back with the ceiling inches away from my head as if I were undergoing an MRI scan.
The price of a sleeper included three meals. But for my tastes the menu wasn’t varied enough. You can end up eating too much. I didn’t like the porter sticking his head in my compartment in what felt like every ten minutes asking if I was OK, either.
By now, it’s become predictable. I bring up trains in a conversation and wait for the criticism, the grimace, the raised eyebrow. The complaint is not far behind. They’re slow!
That’s when I say, “I wish they were slower.” Then I could linger on the details, the streets, the signs, the bridges, the rivers, the mountain of rock, the human element. That’s when I ask, “What’s your hurry, anyway?”
I mean it, too. I look out the window and I feel frustrated. I want to look a little longer at what’s ahead of me, what’s next to me, what’s passing by. But I can’t. Seventy-nine miles an hour may seem sluggish but to me it’s fast. Either that or I’m sitting on the wrong side of the car. Near the Great Pee Dee River in South Carolina, the Silver Star passes what looks to be hundreds of flattened cars heaped on top of one another, stacked like pancakes. I’m sitting in the lounge car with one other person sometime in late afternoon. We both see the squashed cars at the same time. Our eyes meet. “What the heck is that?” I say. My fellow passenger has already pulled it up on Google Earth. We are looking down on a car graveyard. I want to be out there talking to the workers. I want to know more. Stop the train!
I’m still kicking myself for what I missed on that Sunset Limited trip to San Antonio. Somewhere near Alpine, home of Big Bend National Park, and Valentine, Texas, in the middle of the desert, of yucca, creosote bushes and pale green agave plants, we passed a permanently installed sculpture of two large framed windows displaying actual Prada shoes and handbags. It was a statement, some say, on consumerism and gentrification. And I missed it. I was either looking out the other side of the train, reading, sleeping or practicing French on my phone.
Sometimes, when I get home, I look back at the photographs from my trips and ask myself what was so compelling that I had to take them. Most of what I see in my photo queue are people. There’s that grinning fellow in the Savannah station. He’s got an open, happy face with gray whiskers. He’s wearing a black hat with Sugar Ray Robinson printed in white on the bill. Then there’s the trim, stylish woman who once sat across from me on the Capitol Limited. She’s wearing tall leather boots and a suede purple skirt. An open laptop sits on her knees. Why is she there? She looks like an airplane person. Or is that profiling? In the Chicago station I see a trim, tall man in sneakers, short socks down rolled down around his ankles and a sleeveless vest. His legs are crossed; he’s reading a paperback. The elderly man in that beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia, station has been sitting on a simple wooden bench for hours. He has a trim beard and is wearing a black cap. His large hands, a gold wedding ring nestled between his knuckles, rest on a walker that doubles as a luggage cart.
I realize it is more fun being in the moment than trying to fit that moment into some meaning. Trains are good for finding the moments.
Jane Fishman is a columnist, a gardener, an author. “So What’s the Hurry? Tales From the Train” is her fifth book. She’s also written, “I Grew it My Way, How Not to Garden,” “The Woman Who Saved an Island, Sandy West and Ossabaw Island,” “The Dirt on Jane” and “Everyone’s Gotta Be Somewhere.” She lives in Savannah, Georgia.
Publisher: Real People Publishing; price: $15; size: 6 x 9, 145 pages
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, Ga., 31404, $18 (includes shipping) or Amazon