“There's no there there.”
The 4:40 Empire Builder to Chicago
I didn't set my expectations too high, as I boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder at Seattle's King St. Station bound for Chicago. I'd already gotten an email informing me there'd be a one hour delay due to track work. Hey, that happens. Generally, you don't learn of airline delays until shortly after you’ve already left for the airport, and you wait out what becomes rolling further delays from the comfort of a straight-backed gate seat, landscaped with squalling children and families traveling with a small petting zoo.
My Seattle train was delayed a total of five hours by the time we arrived in Chicago. Since I was not one of the dozens who missed their Chicago connections and had to spend the late evening hours rebooking with Amtrak’s harried customer service office (no doubt performing its best imitation of a border detention facility), I was not bothered by the delay. After all, I'd already been traveling for 48 hours to cover a distance that a flight would have covered in about four hours. The five-hour delay merely exceeded total flight time by an hour. And I'd been ensconced in my own private roomette, which was as cozy and concealable, with its dark blue curtains and locking steel door, as if it were my own personal fort.
No, what turned out to make overnight travel with Amtrak a true schlog were the countless, unscheduled stops made necessary by the right-of-way of any and all freight traffic occupying our tracks at the same time. That's because when we were setting up passenger rail to fail, we turned over ownership of the tracks all trains run on to the newly formed private freight companies, instantly turning passenger service into the red-headed step child of American railroads.
Besides the overused tracks creating swaying cars that guarantee all martinis served on board will be stirred and not shaken, the constant giving way to any freight line operating on this tracks has managed to recreate on rails what the country has done with its highway system: stop and go, gridlocked traffic.
The whole romance of the train is a function of the rhythm of the rails. Turning that rhythm into the equivalent of a two-year-old transitioning from crawling to walking is exciting only if you're watching your own two-year old performing the feat. Experiencing it on a passenger train in the 21st century is watching that child and realizing there are serious developmental issues. As for the five-hour delay, I could simply stretch out and nap in my little fortress of solitude, But there was no way to enjoy the spirit of smooth, uninterrupted motion that rail travel promised compared to the slow and stop time to make way for a freight train hauling Chinese knockoffs, fracked oil and choking coal passing by, and turning our “magic carpet made of steel” into a reviewing stand for the crassification of the country.
Which is a damn shame, because two days aboard a train will show you what a great, diverse and beautiful country this is, one far too expansive to be brought to its knees by one spoiled and lowlife lunatic. (Although I do have to say that if this is truly God's country, He definitely ran out of ideas when He got to eastern Montana.) And doing their utmost, the Amtrak staff, to a person, devotedly treats everyone as if we're all aboard the Titanic, and the band has just struck up “Nearer my God to Thee.”
But it's all for a Lost Cause. To recreate the romance and spirit of passenger rail service in this country would take what it took to accomplish that in Europe: a world war fought on our soil. (That we have a megalomaniac at the helm who might just accomplish that offers, upon reflection, small comfort.) Unfortunately, as Arlo sang, “This train has got the disappearing railroad blues.”
Gertrude Stein wrote her oft-quoted dictum, not as a dismissive, but as a nostalgic sense of loss of the Oakland, CA of her childhood. For someone whose best remembered toy was a Lionel train set, and for whom the distant shrill of a train whistle conjured the spirit of travel to new destinations, the quote works equally well for the sad state of affairs of passenger trains in this country.