Train travel enriches the soul and saves the planet. That’s it, in a nutshell.
I needed no hard sell to convince me that trains are magical. Riding the Rock Island Express and Super Chief trains every summer between Minnesota and New Mexico in the 1960s as a child prepared me for a lifelong love affair with them.
My most recent journey in June 2021 was deliberately chosen to experience new routes and scenery. My planned itinerary was Albuquerque to LA, then LA to Seattle, and finally Seattle to Minneapolis. Not the most direct route, but I was eager to ride Amtrak’s Coast Starlight which, I was told, has magnificent views of the California coastline.
I also wanted to ride Amtrak’s Empire Builder across Washington State, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. My great grandfather, Albert H. Hogeland, was the chief engineer for many years on the Great Northern Railroad, the predecessor of the Empire Builder, and was instrumental (or so I was told as a child) in laying out where the tracks would be placed.
There’s a litany of reasons why =you= should ride the trains. My personal list includes (in no particular order of importance): meditating on the scenic wonders as they unfold; reading a good book when the landscape is not so wonderous; meeting new friends and some crazy characters who might take the seat beside me; capturing amazing memories on camera; writing on a project if a deadline is looming; supporting Amtrak so that Congress knows Americans care and want train service prioritized; giving psychic space to the people and places I’m leaving as well as preparing for the new energy of the people and places I’m expecting to meet at my destination; and so much more.
Without a doubt, the most important reason to ride trains, is to reduce our carbon footprint. We must give the Earth a fighting chance of recovering from the harm we’ve inflicted on her since the beginning of the “industrial revolution”.
Anyone who cares about reducing CO2 emissions and the climate chaos that is bearing down on us more severely and rapidly than even the climatologists predicted, should be riding trains. There’s no serious dispute that air travel has a super bad carbon footprint. Really bad! Trains are the smart mode of travel in this Anthropocene era. There’s no debate.
The downsides of train travel are huge, I admit. Chief among them is the time involved. Other challenges include: unreliable schedules (Amtrak is notoriously late); no Wifi onboard, the food in the cafe is mediocre; the cleanliness varies widely from train to train; and it’s chilly at night (bring a blanket).
Of course, your seatmate on the train might be a weirdo. Unlike air travel, you can usually move to the Observation car and avoid the crazies.
Despite these challenges, I’d step onboard a train rather than walk down the jetway any day of the week.
My recent Amtrak itinerary (June 16 – 21) was the longest train journey I’ve taken in the US, and included some bumps and many highlights!
The Southwest Chief from Albuquerque arrived into the Los Angeles Union Station 4+ hours late, and I missed my connection to the Coast Starlight traveling up the California coast. Amtrak guarantees that connection; and I finally caught up to the Coast Starlight more than 12 hours later in Sacramento. Amtrak put me on two buses and a train to make my connection — a long and weary day. I never saw the California coastline but I enjoyed the beautiful LA Union Station, and the interior farmland scenery, and talking with California commuters along the way.
I’ve had the joy of riding many trains around the world, including the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Norwegian Railways, the ScotRail in Scotland, the Eurail, ItaliaRail, the Malaysia train and the Egyptian National Railways. The Bullet train in China was the fastest. The train through Mongolia and China was the biggest eye-opener!
So I speak with a measure of experience when I say that Amtrak in the USA has to scale a very steep learning curve in order to compete and become a serious 21st century mass transit system.
Some of the most memorable conversations have occurred on a train. In June, I met Osamu on the train when he glanced over and noticed the book I was reading. “Our History is the Future — Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance” by Nick Estes (2019). He had read the book too, and then I learned he incorporated the book into the class he taught at MIT about Indigenous Environmental Planning. Serendipitous! I mentioned that I was a city planner in an earlier life, and that I was traveling to Minnesota hoping to hook up with the Native Peoples resisting Line 3. Our conversation took off from there.
In the middle of the night, the train stopped at the station in Spokane where we waited for another train to arrive and connect up with us. Most passengers were asleep, but I was curious about what the train personnel were doing outside. I walked through the station to stretch my legs, and then stood on the platform to watch them preparing the train for the additional train cars that would be joining us. Then my jaw dropped. They were switching out engineers at this stop, and the new engineer climbing up into the cab appeared to be no older than twenty-something. GOOD FOR HIM!
On Father’s Day a young father was sitting in the Observation car with his toddler daughter. He was pointing out to her the community and farm where they lived near Glasgow, Montana. He spoke with so much pride. Listening to their conversation, I suspect that he purchased tickets for them to just ride from one station to another so she could see their farm from the train, another perspective. My heart melted. That’s when I thought that each and every member of Congress should be required to ride Amtrak across the USA. They could learn so much from people and places along the way.
Traveling during a pandemic requires extra precautions; Amtrak requires everyone to wear a mask unless eating or drinking, and the conductor announces this requirement at every stop. When we reached North Dakota, the typical announcement became much more stern. “If you fail to wear a mask, we will remove you at the next station, and you really don’t want to be dropped off in the middle of the night at ___ . So wear your face mask, no exceptions!”
I asked the conductor how many passengers were typically removed. Not many in other states, he said, but passengers boarding in North Dakota and Minnesota were stubborn and there had been a number removed for refusal to wear their masks. That explained why the announcement sounded more stern.
‘Amtrak Joe‘ Biden is a big fan of passenger trains and wants to build Amtrak’s golden age. This should be a no-brainer but the big stumbling block will be the private freight companies that own the tracks on which Amtrak runs. The notorious Amtrak delays are usually due to freight trains on the very same tracks. They have priority use, and Amtrak trains must scoot over to a siding and wait. That explains why the Coast Starlight train I was riding was more than 6 hours late arriving into Seattle.
Freight traffic is important and needs to move efficiently. People are important too. If the private & public sectors can’t compromise in order to improve rail service for both, the freight rail service needs to be nationalized. A 21st century public transit system requires both people and goods to get where they need to be efficiently and safely. I suspect this means the US needs to put much more $$ into improving the railroad tracks, rail stations and signaling, and modernizing the rail cars themselves, and also building new tracks to presently unserved communities.
The U.S. has provided trillions in subsidies for the production and consumption of fossil fuels. We need to do an about face . . . pronto. Soon after taking office, President Biden proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, of which about $80 billion would be directed towards improving Amtrak. Now (August 2021), our leaders are discussing the $550 billion infrastructure bill, of which $66 billion would be targeted towards Amtrak improvements.
Amtrak passenger service is the future; and it’s time for all of us to climb onboard and advocate for Amtrak’s good health.
Contact President Biden here.
Contact your member of Congress here.
Contact your U.S. Senator here.
Contact the U.S. Department of Transportation here.