Big diesel idles quietly by the platform, its immense power merely a hint in the regular tick of the engine. I pause as I walk past, anticipating its waking to full, thundering power so that it can haul us on the transcontinental journey soon to come. ‘All aboard’ is the call, echoing within one of those glorious railway stations with their elaborate and symbolic architecture – Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington. We make our way past the engine, past towering double-decker carriages made to last through the ages, and to the glowing doorway and its attendant.
A show of tickets, detailed instructions from the attendant, a climb up the stairs – so we find our accommodation for the next couple of days. ‘Intimate’ is a generous euphemism for the close quarters. Officially, it is known as a ‘roomette’, a cute title that suggests a room, only slightly more cosy. ‘Cell’ would be more appropriate, except that prisoners have more space. Yet I gain immense pleasure in such spaces, marvelling at the creative arrangements of compact space, realising how little room a human being needs in order to be comfortable.
I set out to determine how the beds fold out. They seem to emerge from impossibly tight corners, unfolding like a piece of origami to stretch out and invite one to lie down. Soon enough one settles in, finding it more than enough. Above all, the feeling of falling asleep on a racing train that dances on the rails in its passing is extraordinary. To fall asleep in one part and awake in another never ceases to delight. I peer out of the window (curtain always open) at first light to ascertain where we might be. Or if I wake briefly during the night, I watch a heavy diesel goods train emerge from the pouring rain to thunder past.
Outside the Window
We are on the Southwest Chief, one of five transcontinental crossings of North America (including the Canadian Pacific). By now, I have travelled on all but one of these. The Southwest Chief needs two days for the run between Los Angeles and Chicago. Another day on the Capitol Limited takes you to Washington and then a local train to Baltimore on the Atlantic Coast. From the arid landscapes of California to the lush slopes of Maryland, we pass through deserts, prairies, rolling farmland, deep forests and snow-capped mountains. Our stops have legendary place names, such as Albuquerque, Dodge City, Kansas City, and even the Santa Fe Trail (which we follow through the mountains. Desert heat beats on our carriage, as does rain and even an early snowstorm. At one point, snow gathers on our windows and the engine is encased in a shield of ice. Human habitation changes as we pass, from dusty trailerized towns in the deserts of Arizona, to the orange and yellow adobe houses of New Mexico, to the pastel boxes and phallic silos of Missouri and Illinois, and then the faux European sensibilities of the of the old towns on the Atlantic seaboard.
The train not only roars through this vast landscape, it also whistles – endlessly. Initially, the train whistle is but one noise among many – the clacks and creaks and rattles of a heavy iron and steel machine in motion. But at each change of driver, I begin to notice distinct signatures: a short with three longs; long, short, short, long; four shorts and a long. I imagine drivers discovering and then practising their distinctive whistle in the driver training school before hitting the tracks. Once in command, they are supposed to give the whistle a blast at level crossings, when passing through human habitation, and as a warning. But they seem to delight at any excuse, whether hearing the sound itself, or waking sleeping passengers, or announcing our passage to the big skies with their streaks of cloud.
Inside the Window
As always, inside is arguably more intriguing than outside. The feel of each carriage is determined by the attendant: one obsesses about the ice chest and the inspectors; another’s brittle humour soon gives way to swearing after someone leaves the shower running and floods the lower floor; and another loves to talk any time of the day or night.
For me, the dining car with its community seating provides an extraordinary insight into this strange country. We meet a pair of older black women, who are lovers of trains, their grandchildren and Hugh Jackman (what a relief it is no longer Paul Hogan). We engage with a hipster couple with pierced tongues and beards (both of them). They are into edible forests, corduroy pants and soviet-style time banks. We talk with two young Japanese men – here for a year on a work posting – with a burning desire for decent coffee. One tells a story of how he spilled a cup of coffee on his jeans only to find no stain when they dried. ‘Real coffee would leave a black stain’, he says. ‘Not this stuff. It’s mostly water’.
But I am most intrigued by the 80-something newly-weds, the in-bred religious couple, the Obama disciples, and the charming man with a disconcerting passion. As for the newly-weds, youth is a distant memory for both of them – she is 81 and he 83. She is also cross-eyed, with limited vision and some very dodgy pegs. He is a Korean War veteran, equally wobbly on his feet but full of redneck observations on politics, the free market, and undesirable ethnic groups. I am tempted to mention that the Russians really won the Second World War, or that China has the best railway system in the world, but hold my tongue and listen in wonder.
A meal or two later we are joined by the fundamentalist religious couple, who seem as in-bred as they are opinionated. His comb-over hangs down to his armpit while he growls about ‘them environmentalists’. She has pencilled orange on her crooked eyebrows. After they lean in close and pray for an eternity, he says, ‘I am a religious man’. I almost ask: ‘Are you a Christian conservative, a Christian liberal, or a Christian communist?’ But I think the better of it.
Then there are the former teachers with a love of hiking, shouting and Barack Obama. They may have been tentative at first, with teacherly mannerisms to the forefront and discussions of wildernesses and the hiking of which they were fond. But then they warm up. Committed Democrats, they loudly praise Obama to the skies, bemoan religious nut-jobs, as also the minority Tea Party who try to hold the country to ransom. Is there something wrong with the brains of these folk? At the next table sit the fundamentalist couple with whom we had dined earlier. Their squirming and sour looks indicate that then can hear every shouted word. It strikes me that both couples believe deeply in their ‘great country’. They share the feeling that evil continues to threaten it, that good requires fostering through unwavering vigilance. Above all, they agree that something has gone wrong with the place and needs urgent repair. Why? To restore a fading Golden Age. The catch is that in the midst of this politics of nostalgia, their diagnoses of the illness and their prognoses for recovery are wildly divergent.
The highlight of almost a week on trains is a charming and gentle man whom we join one day at lunch. We are last of the diners, so we have the place to ourselves. Full of stories, he tells us of the conflicts between river-boat companies and the new railways in the nineteenth century. On one occasion, in 1856, a new bridge over the Mississippi was struck by a riverboat. The boat sank, the bridge pylons caught fire and the bridge itself collapsed. The shippers brought a case against the railways, so the latter engaged in their defence a prominent local lawyer, one Abraham Lincoln. His success in the case was, suggests our friend, a major factor on his path the presidency a few years later. It all began with a railway bridge. As he winds up his story, told in loving detail, he peers out of the window and observes simply, ‘I’m watching out for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. Apparently, he is serious.
On this long rail journey, we gain some insight into the back yard of the United States. One is reminded again and again of the brutal economic system in these parts. We pass through one dusty trailerized town after another, where the supposed wealth of the United States is but hearsay. In the cities, homeless people shuffle about and seek either a comfortable corner for a snooze or a traveller who might succumb to a hustle. Of course, they are the ‘necessary collateral’ of a ‘free market’, a constant reminder that such a life awaits anyone who displeases a boss or becomes ‘redundant’. Car and industrial wreckage is strewn over the countryside, as are the ruins of buildings and lives. It is nothing less than a sea of poverty dotted with islands of immense privilege.
Increasingly, I find the United States an alien place, like Mars perhaps or an even more distant planet. Despite all the Hollywood and TV propaganda, to be here and see it in this way is thoroughly estranging. How can such a mix of people from all parts of the world stuff up a national project so badly? Seeing the evidence of ever-present poverty along the route, I become ever more puzzled as to how anyone else in the world can believe that the ‘free market’ is a good thing, that it leads to the enrichment of all. The next time someone utters such a line in my presence, I will grab them and take them on a rail journey like this.
My puzzlement increases when I consider the train and the network on which it runs. When Americans put their mind to something worthwhile, they can do an amazing job. Amtrak is one of the best kept secrets of this country. Panned by most of the locals who know only cars and planes, it spans a comprehensive network throughout the country. We find that it is efficient, comfortable, and relatively cheap. We also find that more and more people use it. A few years ago on one of our other cross-country runs, we met quite a few who were trying it for the first time. Economic downturn, the cost and weariness of driving, the frustrations and discomfort of air travel (on an air network that is one of the worst in the world), the desire for a slower pace of travel – these and other reasons have led to a jump in passengers of more than 15% after 2008. On this journey, most of those we meet say that the train has become a habit. You need only spend some time in one of railway stations to see how rail is emerging again as a preferred mode of travel. Whether Los Angeles Union, Chicago Union, Washington Union (the three hubs of this journey), each station has a constant flow of people embarking, disembarking, or waiting for the next train. For instance, at Washington, 100,000 people pass through the station every year.
The trains themselves are union built. Downstairs in our carriage, a metal plaque reads: ‘Brook Field Shops. 100 years of construction’. Beneath the words are a string of coats of arms of trade unions involved at the workshops. The stainless steel, tough fabrics, thick glass and heavy iron continue to be the material the workers produce for running the ‘railroads’, as they call them in these parts. Here still is one of the union strongholds in a country notorious for crushing unions.
A sign, perhaps, of what Americans can achieve. The problem is that they rarely set out to construct anything worthwhile.