In 1995 I had taken the train on a trip from Kansas City to Seattle that included a stop in Los Angelas where I met my cousin for the first time. I also met her “roommate” and 13 year old son all sporting noserings and coexisting in a small apartment. I got back on the train to Seattle with my head shaved and a nose ring of my own after a day with them in Venice Beach. On the train from LA to Seattle I also got to meet Bob, a cinematographer on “Dances With Wolves” and a card carrying member of Hollywood. We shared the same birthday and spent the two day trip frequently hanging in the viewcar with a Sikh University of Oregon student named Ravmir. Bob provided the beer, Ravi provided some avocados, and I bought everyone potato chips. Ravi got off in Eugene, OR then Bob in Portland, OR which left me a little more time before Seattle to hit on the art student that had been in the periphery of our viewcar conversations while drawing in her black sketch book. The time in Seattle was spent with my friend Rachel and her boyfriend in their claustrophobic apartment. During the day while they worked I hiked the city in the rain, exploring the many markets and bookstores, slamming Starbucks coffee along the way when Starbucks was still just a Seattle phenom and hadn’t taken over every street corner in the world. The first night there they took me out for my first sushi experience and it was so good that we decided to do it each night. That trip left me with a respect for trains and although I had meant to take another train trip ever since, it wasn’t until April of 2011 that I did it again. This time I was going from Miami to Kansas city to see my parents and my sister’s family. You would think that with the miles and miles of trackage in this country, there would be a commuter train that would take a direct route from Miami to KC. But with one of the world’s most underdeveloped passenger rail systems and Amtrak, the goverment funded rail company that was assembled to fail in 1971, it just isn’t so. Amtrak takes a most indirect route from Miami to KC in 3 parts: Miami to Washington D.C. then D.C. to Chicago, and finally Chicago to KC. There is an option for the 1st leg to go to New York, NY and then to Chicago if you like.
Many countries around the world and our own citizens see our passenger rail system as majorly flawed, but it’s a wonder we have a system at all. The railroads were all built by rail companies and financed with private money in the pure free enterprise system of back room deals and pissing contests that was the 1800’s. The automobile and airplane that almost completely took the train’s place were funded in large part by our government. One of the 1st big blows to the railroad was the automobile and it’s increasing affordability and popularity in a post WWII economic boom. The Interstate Highway System enacted by Eisenhower in 1956 pushed the hubs of cities away from the rails and new services were built along this new highway to accommodate the car boom. Companies began using trucks to transport goods and many of the emerging single family units each had their own car and could now travel farther cheaper and on better roads. A few years later, another blow came from an emerging aviation industry that could ship goods and transport the public light years faster. This industry and the airports that served it were largely subsidized by the government and when the US Postal Service made the decision to utilize planes instead of trains in 1966, it seemed the end of the railroad was near, as profits from passengers had been steadily declining for decades and transporting mail was about the only thing keeping the rail companies in business. Facing criticism from the railroad companies who were demanding federal aid to keep them afloat, coupled with pressure from a nostalgic public and their representatives in Congress that refused to be the ones that killed passenger rail service, Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1971 that formed Amtrak and gave the rail companies a little help and a little time (4 years) to stop the financial hemorrhaging and become private again . It never did. As a stopgap measure that was supposed to be the deathbed for rail travel in America, Amtrak has managed to stay afloat. It still receives support from government and is now our only way to travel the country by rail.
The 1st leg of the trip was on the Silver Meteor from Miami to Washington D.C. This train was the little cousin of the other freight liners that I would be on later, Amtrak’s flagship liners the Capitol Limited and the Southwest Chief. This was a one level train that had a pitiful excuse for a lounge car but it did allow me to stretch out a little bit more than in the seats and besides, it was the 1st leg of the journey and I would wake up in D.C. The major stops along this route are Orlando, FL, Jacksonville, FL, and Savannah, GA. There are 2 seats in each row and for much of the trip I had the row to myself. You are not assigned a seat so it’s luck of the draw. The seats are pretty wide so you don’t have to be afraid to make eye contact with that fat person getting on. Chances are that if they sit next to you, you’ll still be comfortable unlike in a plane. For a couple hours I was next to a 40 year old man battling skin cancer that makes the 2 hour trip from Winter Park, FL to West Palm Beach, FL for 4 days each month to hang out with his buddies and get away from the “old lady.” He was on his way back to Winter Park. He sold his painting business when he had to start battling the cancer 5 years ago and he thinks it’s mostly beat. He works part time and also travels to North Carolina frequently to visit his 24 year old son and check on the house that he owns up there. In Savannah, a young Latino man sat next to me but we did not speak until early the next morning when we were approaching the D.C. station. He and his wife commute from Savannah to D.C. each week for work, he going up Monday through Friday, her Tuesday through Saturday. They have Sunday together with their 2 kids before he has to catch the 9pm train in Savannah to start the work week all over again. Rolling into D.C. I thought about the day ahead and what I would do. That wore me out and after a while I decided to do what I always do: wing it.
The heyday of passenger rail service coincided with the prominence of the Beaux Arts style of architecture. Grandiose stations were built to reorganize and house an antiquated system of competing tracks and make the experience of rail travel safer and more efficient than ever for the passenger. These Union Stations are marvelous architectural achievements. They have to be seen to be believed and time spent there will reveal the ghosts of travelers past and help you to understand why a public in 1971 would feel a nostalgia to preserve and save the trains. I would be passing through 3 of the greatest of these stations:Washington D.C. Union Station, Chicago Union Station, and Kansas City Union Station.
In 1901, The Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 2 of the largest railroads decided to construct a new station in Washington D.C. which meant that tracks would be removed from the National Mall and housed in the new station, giving the city it’s solution to the dilemma of how to make the National Mall a monument worthy of a world power. Daniel Burnham was commissioned to design the station and the Beaux Arts masterpiece was completed and opened in 1907. Today, 32 million visitors pass through the station each year and it holds the central offices of Amtrak. The layover in DC was 8 hours and Union Station is a 10 minute walk to the National Mall, passing the US Capitol building on the way. 8 hours in DC is only enough time if you don’t plan on hitting any of the museums but I had plenty of time to see what was happening in our capitol and not enough money to get into any trouble.