Dream of the Rail

Tampa station.

The Amtrak station in downtown Tampa had seen better days.  A coworker dropped me off in front late Thursday afternoon at the start of my weekend trip to Raleigh.  The lobby was a historical landmark, recently refurbished and maintained, but beyond the polished wood interior and brick facade were dilapidated awnings covering bare concrete platforms.  There were three tracks behind the station, but only one was used regularly, the other two delegated to backup duty, left to rust in the humid Florida climate.

A crowd gathered outside the steel gate as an attendant announced the impending arrival of my train north to Raleigh.  “Okay, we’re taking sleeper cars first, sleeper cars first!  Everyone else be patient, we’ll get you on soon.”  Middle class families were escorted in golf carts to the far end of the arrival platform as our train arrived.  It was a workhorse, built on twentieth century technology, long in the tooth but having lost none of its usefulness.  It will take you where you need to go on time.  It always had.

I followed the crowd through the gate.  The attendants passed me down the platform from car to car, finally placing me adjacent to the lounge car.  I stowed my duffle bag above and took my seat next to a drowsy middle-aged single mom.  She was doing everything in her power to keep her kids in line through a fifteen-hour train ride.  The interior was spacious by modern travel standards: most small jet planes were like flying coffins with what little breathing space you have.  In constrast, the train seats have leg and foot rests, and room for both up at the same time.  I put mine to use.

As we pulled out of Tampa past Ybor, I noticed a hen running alongside us.  I mentioned this to the single mom beside me.  “Hey, there’s a chicken outside!”  she said to her children.  “Looks like it missed the train!”

The train rocked lazily through southern Florida into the afternoon, reaching Orlando by sunset.  It was as slow as driving the same distance, but there’s no rush, no stress, no half-asleep drivers to dodge on the interstate.  It’s the luxury of a leisurely pace.

You don’t need to have heard of Platform 9 3/4 to fantasize about trains.

Since the invention of the steam engine in the early 19th century, trains have been a staple of literature.  Literary fiction adores them; whole books have been written around them.  The fantasy genre makes good use of trains; apart from the Hogwarts Express, there’s the evil monorail from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and the magical Polar Express.

But science fiction has little watned trains.  Jules Verne liked them, but he was more interested in the flying machines of his day.  By the twentieth century most SF writers were more interested in rockets than locomotives.  Nonetheless, the train as a narrative device remained alive into the end of the twentieth century, even as trains themselves were dying in America.

Sleeping on a train is an ordeal.  If you’re lucky to have a sleeper cabin, all you will need to contend with is the occasional shudder as the train rounds a bad stretch.  In coach, you’re given a tiny head pillow, and you must do the best you can in your reclining seat.  And that seat cushion is the worst.

I spent the five hours departing from Tampa reading a Game of Thrones.  When the lights were turned off in the car by 10 PM, and everyone was looking as drowsy as I was, I pulled up the leg and foot rests, put my dinky pillow under my pointy head, and shut my eyes.

An hour later, my bottom was sore.  I looked to my right: the single mother had fallen asleep, as well as her kids across from us.  Careful not to wake her, I turned my body towards the window, laying on my left side.

This worked for another two hours, until the side of me began to cramp.  I was in a bad way.  I couldn’t recline further without bothering the sleeping passenger behind me, but I would face a night of aches if I didn’t get some kind of relief.  I resolved to live with the pain, at least for the night.

I slept fitfully for the next six hours.  I woke the next morning in a cloud of ache and disappointment.  I had to find something to fix the sleeping situation on the way back.  There was another fifteen hour trip back from Raleigh to Tampa, and I needed to find a way to sleep comfortably unless I wanted to give up sleep altogether.

Well, that could wait a few days.  The train arrived in Raleigh not long after.  I met Teresa at the station, and we departed on our adventures together for the weekend.

Hollywood loves a good train.  As a period setting it can be luxuriant, nostalgic, full of intrigue.  Imagine an old-fashioned locomotive charging into the old west at the end of the 19th century; among its passengers are the closest thing to gentry America has . . .  at least in the sleeper cars.  In the back are the ruffians and low-lifes.  There has always been coach seating.

But add a robbery to this idyllic scene, and the story becomes a chase.  Robbers escape the coppers by climbing through the windows to the rooftops.  The train continues to chug forward; is the track ahead twisted and gnarled, or is it a trick of the light?  The bandits jump from car to car, pursued by the gunslingers, all of them wary of the shaking beneath them.  And the locomotive pulls the train faster and faster.  The train chase is such a good formula for drama that it is used even today.

Raleigh, NC from the train.

Raleigh station was the opposite of Tampa: midway point to Tampa’s terminus, ancient wood siding versus restored brick facade, urban instead of genteel.  Teresa drove me to the station late Sunday night; we made plans, said our lingering goodbyes amongst the half-asleep waiting passengers lining up at the gate.  The train had been overbooked; station attendants arranged us passengers by party size, final destination.  I felt like some item in the middle of a computer sorting algorithm, tossed around by a logic I couldn’t fathom.

We waited for half an hour on the platform until one of the attendants spoke into a megaphone.  “The train didn’t make the platform,” he said, meaning the train was too long to fit, with several cars jutting out at the end into a field beside the station.  “We need to move the train up before you can board.”  He continued saying this into his megaphone for another fifteen minutes, until finally the train pulled forward and we were rushed into our seats.

This time, I came prepared.

Before arriving at the station, I packed my sweater in my backpack instead of my duffle bag.  Now, as I settled into my aisle seat, I pulled out the sweater and laid it on the cushion.  It wasn’t much more cushion than before, I knew, but it would do better than the bare seatback.  I sat down and resumed my reading for another two hours, until the lights went out again at 10 PM.

It was not the blissful experience of sleeping on a regular bed, but I felt much less pain when I awoke the next morning.  I still had to shift positions during the night — a tricky proposition, with a larger woman sitting beside me that I didn’t wish to disturb — but I managed, and awoke less miserable than I had on the last train ride.

We passed through Jacksonville around 6 AM that morning, the first I had seen of North Florida in daylight.  Cityscapes were few; the route avoided downtown areas, instead hugging industrial zones, low-rent commercial districts, and rural country.  Older stations littered the route, some built as late as the 1950s, some much earlier.  They were all overtaken by brush, deserted, with not even a sign left to mark them.

With such a formidable presence in popular culture — film, literature, and music from the past two centuries — what happened to trains in America?

Planes happened.

Air travel doesn’t require the extensive infrastructure and maintenance that rail does.  All a plane needs is a clear sky, a place to land and a fuel reservoir to fill its tanks.  Planes are faster, too.  It currently takes four days to travel from New York to Los Angeles on Amtrak; it takes twelve hours by plane.  Sure, the price is higher for airfare, but everyone has such tight schedules now, so who would want to spend hours riding a train?

Yet the rest of the world enjoys their use, in Europe and Japan especially.  Japan is a country too small for intranational air travel to be very popular.  The European Union makes international travel easy within its borders, and the continent has always had a legacy of rail travel.

But trains aren’t dead in America, not yet.  Amtrak lives in a state of limbo, kept alive by the federal government, too popular to die, but not popular enough to be self-sustaining.  Many Americans in metropolitan areas take trains of a different sort: subways, commuter rail, light rail, monorails.  Not everyone can drive a car to work in our increasingly crowded cities, and not everyone should.

As fossil fuels become a more precious commodity in the next century, America will return to the rails.  Air travel has its place, crossing distances too far or over too difficult terrain for rail.  We’ll return to the cities away from the suburban sprawl, where the legacy mass transit will be waiting — for those lucky cities that have it.  The recent political backlash against rail in some states will force some to wait a little longer.  But the train is our future for local travel on Earth.

My coworker waited inside his massive land yacht outside of the Tampa station as I disembarked.  I noted the irony of having to ride an SUV back to the office from a train station.  I changed my clothes and washed up before meeting him outside.  He asked how my ride was.

“It was fun.”  I was too tired to think of much else to say.

“Almost everyone I’ve asked who’s been on a train has enjoyed it,” he said.

I nod, staring at the highway as we drive back to the office.

Tampa has no commuter rail, only the aging fleet of buses with too few routes around the city.  Through politics and resistance to change, no one’s willing to invest the money in commuter rail.  Tampa remains tied to an overwhelmed highway system.  No one knows what a joy it is to ride the train here.  No one knows what a necessity it will be one day.  For now, it is my private joy.