July 21, 2022•747 words
With a two hour delay...
Grants, New Mexico - 6/20/22, 10:00pm - Amtrak Observation Car
While I'm slightly dissapointed that we missed some daylight, really I'm not stressed about it. Traveling by train in the US is an exercise in going-with-the-flow. There's no point in getting angry or frustrated when all it does it close you off to the experience you're having.
My row-mate (is that a term?) is a lovely person named Pat. She's traveling with her sister, Ana, who recently suffered a loss of a loved one. They're going on a trip to visit family in California, taking the train because of the experience it offers.
I'm still weighing the ethics of and my feelings about writing about conversations, because they offer windows into the lives of other people. Besides the question of consenting to sharing, there's a sense by which I don't yet feel confident that I can do those conversations justice. But, I do feel moderately more confident that I can write about trains.
I've spent most of the trip thusfar in the Observation Car, and it's here that I find that hard-to-grasp aspect of why I've chosen to travel in a way that's slow at best.
The experience of train travel in the United States is, in my limited experience and understanding, very unlike most of the rest of the world. Our Federal and State governments are very hesitant to spend money on trains, and that's reflected in the structure of Amtrak itself. Very roughly, it's a privately owned service in which the federal government is a majority stakeholder. Amtrak very rarely owns the rail lines it operates on, instead having contracts with freight rail to use pre-existing lines. Theoretically, Amtrak is supposed to have priority, but in practice the passenger trains often yield to feight, lest the freight rails refuse to renew those contracts. The result is that Amtrak is often delayed, and even when it's not it's still just not going that fast. The freight lines weren't built to support high-speeds, and thus the train is only ever going about 70 miles an hour at most. (Fun fact, a good chunk of this was written while at a standstill as we were waiting for a freight train to pass)
Yet, here I find myself, truly relaxed for the first time in awhile. I have nowhere to be, I have no tasks to accomplish, I can just chat with other passengers, and when I'm alone I can sit back and relax. To be clear - I absolutely believe that we as a country need to invest in rail infastructure, because it won't ever be a viable alternative to flight or driving for most people if it stays prone to delays and crawling speeds. But in the meantime, it offers something of an experience that's very unique.
And, at least for now, that experience still feels special. On the train, I find I can access the kinder, gentler, and friendlier version of myself. This isn't plane travel, where we're all competing with each other to scramble to our respective gates, being crammed though a boxed sidewalk into a drinking straw, silently judging the person causing a human traffic jam just because they're not as comfortable with lifting things over their heads, sitting down next to two people who may or may not acknowledge your existence, and then doing it all again in reverse. Rather, while things can be chaotic at times, it's far more often relaxed. We're all in the same railcars, we're all going in the same direction, there's room to get away from each other for a bit if we're driving each other batty.
I recognize there's an element of privledge in taking this stance. Time is money, and when you don't have much money time matters that much more.
I have the luxury of taking a long week off. Sure, I definitely feel the crunch of having 30 or so hours of that vacation being dedicated to travel time, but it's not a question of "how many years will it be until I can take time off again?" like it is for some, if not most. But to me, the proper response to that is to advocate for more humane working conditions, as well as to advocate for the investment into our rail infastructure, to make it faster and cheaper, to make it something to be proud of, something that can help us be the best versions of ourselves.