Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Reflective journey

Travel | A cross-country train trip proved to be unpredictable, uncomfortable—and an unmatched period of spiritual focus

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

It was around the thirteenth hour, on the third segment of my journey, when I finally questioned my rationality in traveling cross-country on Amtrak.

I was at the café section of the Crescent, slumped over the table with my chin stuck to a book. We had been on a steady speed of 0 mph for two hours since 10 p.m. A freight train had broken down on the rail ahead of us, obstructing the Crescent’s way, so Amtrak called a crew to come haul it away.

At 11 p.m., the intercom crackled. All the other passengers around me perked up like prairie dogs, eyelashes fluttering and eyes brightening. We all but slobbered in anticipation of good news. I saw the train attendant at the end of the car, leaning into the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen … unfortunately we’re still waiting for the crew to come remove the freight train. ... We don’t know when we’ll be able to move again, but expect significant delay. …”

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Everybody groaned. The train attendant gave us a “Yeah, what can you do?” shrug. She later told me such delays happen all the time. “We could wait 15 minutes or three hours,” she said. “You never know. It’s always unpredictable.” A number of other issues can pop up that cause delays: The engine might break down, a crew might be cleaning up the tracks, a nearby construction site may require slowdowns, a cow or a drunk sometimes wanders onto the rail. Because Amtrak borrows most of the railroads from freight companies who own them, it’s treated like a second-class citizen: Any time an Amtrak and a Norfolk Southern train cross the same track, the freight has the right of way.

My companion sitting across from me stared impatiently at the spinning wheel on her iPhone that signals the lack of cell phone service. “I’m never riding the Amtrak again,” she declared. This was the first time she had ridden Amtrak long-distance, and she worried about the friend who had already driven over to the Greenville, S.C., station to pick her up. I checked the time: It would be past 2 a.m. before we reached Greenville. 

There’s a reason why the clichéd saying “Life is a journey, not a destination” frequently uses a train metaphor. You’ve really got to enjoy the whole riding experience to do long-distance travel by train. Otherwise, it simply doesn’t make sense; flying saves money, energy, and time. Flying is also safer, at 0.003 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles, compared to 0.06 on passenger trains, according to a 2011 report by Politifact.

Established in 1970 by Congress, Amtrak is a national rail operator that operates an intricate spiderweb system of 21,000 miles to over 500 destinations, including three Canadian cities. Each day, about 300 trains crawl all over the continent, many of them the main mode of transportation connecting rural communities to urban cities. That night, I was on the Crescent, named after the “Crescent City” of New Orleans, a daily-operating train between New York and New Orleans.

For some, being sealed 40 hours in a moving tin box may sound like a claustrophobic nightmare. But for me, riding the train from coast to coast had always been the classic, quintessential American dream—perhaps because I grew up in Singapore, a city-state the size of earwax compared to the vast, resource-heavy, multiclimate terrains of North America.

This spring, I fulfilled that dream by booking multicity Amtrak tickets to travel mostly by myself from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Over a period of two weeks, I rode the Sunset Limited with a stopover at Houston, then switched trains at New Orleans to the Crescent with a stopover at Greenville. The total cost was about $400 for coach seats. Without the stopovers at Houston and Greenville, tickets would have cost about $300, or about $150 per ticket. Booking a room in a sleeper car would have meant a convertible bed, a fold-out table, cost-included meals, fresh towels, morning coffee or juice, and room service—but the price is over three times more than coach.

When I shared my travel plans with friends, they looked either impressed or flabbergasted. All worried and advised bringing pepper spray and a padlock. Meanwhile, my parents as usual mainly worried about whether there would be enough to eat. I pooh-poohed all their concerns. Instead, I imagined meeting interesting characters and sharing kooky stories. I was even eager to endure the backaches and wedgies, fancying myself a great adventurer.

That chutzpah abated a little when all throughout my travels, thick low-hanging clouds veiled any majestic sunrise or sunset I had so anticipated. The romance of a train adventure bruised blue-black like the starless sky I gazed at mournfully. 


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