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. …”
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.
But I did enjoy most of the scenery, especially while on the Sunset Limited. On Sunday evening from Union Station in Los Angeles, we passed the cement-throttled Los Angeles River, then the frosted green slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains, which shaded into greenish blacks as the sky darkened. I woke up to a dusty Monday morning in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona: scorched earth with shrubs, high glimmering skies, and tall cactus saluting prickly arms—some as tall as a house and bloated with more than 2,000 gallons of water. As we chugged through New Mexico, the earth reddened. The land looked like a clay sculpture of Mars—barren but spectacular with lava rocks, sand dunes, and craggy hills striped red, orange, and beige.
When we drew near El Paso, Texas, the train attendant informed us that to our right sits the border city of Juarez. I was at the observation car at the time, and like me, every passenger dropped their books, iPads, and laptops, and scrambled to the right window to peer over the border. The contrast was stark: Out the left window, we saw highways, high-rise apartments, and office buildings for banks; out the right, flat-roofed adobe houses with tin-sheet walls, and rumbling, outdated public transportation buses that were once school buses imported from America. A U.S. veteran next to me let out a low whistle and said, “Wow. Strange how all that separates two lives and economies is about 150 yards, huh.”
Overnight, the landscape shifted. Tuesday morning, I peered out the window with bleary eyes and saw lush greens and waters for the first time in 24 hours. We were now near central Texas under misty skies, crossing velvety plains, passing tiny springs and creeks and lumbering cows. At some towns, I was thrilled to see Western saloons and faded signs, Clint Eastwood–style. But as we approached Houston, we passed a blanket of suburbia and SUVs. The landscape turned considerably wetter and rural through Louisiana, with coastal marshes, steamy swamps, bogs, and bayous tending to bald cypress trees. Even inside an air-conditioned compartment, I could almost taste the salty humidity in the air.
In a way, I met all my gritty, bravado expectations. The coffee tasted recycled, my hair looked recycled, and my throat felt like a can for recyclables—but those tics were easily tolerable. On the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Houston, the old woman who sat right in front of me emanated such nose-sputtering body odor that the train attendant gifted her a Febreze air freshener.
On the Crescent from New Orleans to Greenville, a sleepless lady in my car babbled and spewed f-bombs for 13 hours straight in her nail-sharp, ear-raking voice. Even from several seats away, I indeliberately learned that she’s vegan and agnostic, bore a child out of wedlock, and no longer speaks to her “Bible-pounding” parents. Fellow passengers piled to the snack bar to escape her incessant chatter, and then herded back to their seats when she moved in for Coke and chips. “Good lordy, does she ever stop talking?” one woman whispered to another man, and somehow we banded good-naturedly against a common nuisance.
Inconsiderate passengers are just one of many reasons why Amtrak doesn’t attract more travelers. Americans prize predictability, convenience, and time efficiency, but Amtrak cannot guarantee any of these. While I was stuck in travel purgatory somewhere along the Georgia/South Carolina state line for three hours, groups of future passengers were also waiting for hours in tiny, minimal-service stations past midnight. Many of Amtrak’s passenger cars and locomotives are outdated, hampering Amtrak’s speed and aesthetics; doors between cars that are supposed to swing open sometimes refuse to close, blasting cold air into the already chilly compartments.
Amtrak operates at a yearly net loss of about $1.2 million. The biggest loss comes from long-distance passenger trains. To be fair, no passenger train system in the world earns a profit. As a federally chartered corporation, Amtrak receives funding from the federal government to help cover operating, capital, and debt service costs not covered by revenues—but the funds are never enough, and Amtrak constantly lives in danger of not receiving sufficient dollars.
Still, ridership is going up. Amtrak has been consistently breaking ridership records over the last decade. Its audited financial report for fiscal year 2012 showed another all-time ridership record at 31.2 million passengers—a 3.5 percent increase from previous fiscal year 2011. Of those 31.2 million, 4.7 million were long-distance passengers, a 4.7 percent increase from 2011. Amtrak collected a record $2 billion in ticket revenue and about $2.9 billion in total revenues, enough to help cover 88 percent of its operating costs and reduce some of its incurred debt.
Amtrak offers several explanations for these achievements: stronger economic environment, higher gas prices, declining air travel quality, and continued growth in business travel on Amtrak’s improved high-speed rails. But it still faces persisting deterrence: the sprawling American landscape (getting to the train station can be costly and cumbersome), the infuriatingly slow speed on certain tracks (especially in the South), opposition from conservative governors and airline lobbyists, and the widespread car culture, to name a few.
Despite its issues, I loved my Amtrak adventure. After spending a day in the train, you instinctively develop ways to cope with the dampers. I learned to dim talkative passengers into some far corner of my mind. I nonchalantly wiped misaimed pee from toilet seats, automatically held my nose when I used the bathroom stalls. I figured out a way to fluff my pillow and curl up in just the right position to avoid neck cricks and a sore spine.
Then I discovered a second home in the sunny observation car, where seats face floor-to-ceiling windows. Some seats are large enough for me to stretch out and nap without pretzeling like a yogi. The Crescent doesn’t offer an observation car, so I camped out at the café lounge area, where cafeteria-style tables and cushioned benches make a rather comfortable work/nap space.
On one trip, a train attendant of 15 years spent more than an hour explaining the Basque history to me, sketching out timelines and maps on an Amtrak napkin. Turns out he’s an Eastern Orthodox former high-school teacher with a Ph.D. in theology (eschatology) and two bachelor’s degrees in international relations and history. He apparently speaks nine languages, including Russian, Greek, French, and Spanish, and is now writing a history book on Louisiana’s Basque origins.
But the best moments were the quiet hours spent in retreat of prayer, meditation, and study. On a plane, I’m too uncomfortably cramped to read or think. On the bus or in a car, I get carsick or fall asleep. But on a train, the gentle swaying feels more like a slow-motion rocking chair, and in unison with the occasional hushed choo-choo whistles, they create an unconscious rhythm for great focus.
I first read A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God on the Sunset Limited, a fitting starter that whetted my appetite for a personal intimacy with God. To my great delight, I later discovered that Tozer wrote the entire book during a single train ride from Chicago to Texas. The next morning, I read Lord, Teach Us to Pray by Andrew Murray and pondered what it means to enter the inner chamber, where sincere, private prayers shed off self-righteous morals and legalistic duties. Then I ached with grief while reading Ruth Tucker’s Walking Away from Faith, in which she honestly researches people’s crises of faith.
On the Crescent, Paul Tripp’s Whiter than Snow revived my spirits with his meditation on sin and Christ’s mercy, while Paul Washer’s The Gospel’s Power and Message challenged me to stay on the true course of Christian study as he unapologetically cut down today’s superficial, attractive repackaging of the gospel. I also reread favorite portions of John Piper’s When I Don’t Desire God, always a joy-frothing well of encouragement and power.
These books had been on my reading list for months, and the train turned out to be the perfect place to plod through them. It’s easy to flip through a paperback fiction in the weekends at home; it takes more intentional effort and dedicated concentration to finish theological writings, and then unhurriedly reflect on them. Being cooped for days inside a tube with no Wi-Fi meant I gained ample time and ability to be dexterous in my study. I also had the leisure to chew through the contents like a grazing cow instead of my habitual speed-reading, thus avoiding indigestion.
Apparently I wasn’t the only Christian on the train. While I was reading Murray on my reading tablet, a young man in army uniform sat across from me reading a King James Bible. In the same car, a bespectacled graybeard shared testimonies from his prison pastoral ministry. He too had a stack of Christian books for reading. On the way to the lavatory, I heard a young man practically preach a sermon to his seatmate, attracting a small crowd. And on another train, I eavesdropped on an all-night discussion between two men, in which the elder one was defending his Christian faith to the young agnostic—rather poorly, I thought, but passionately.
In Amtrak, I found a wonderful haven to replenish the soul. Like all retreats, it was a privilege—I had the flexibility of time, the lack of family commitments, and the youthful ability to sleep anywhere. But that spiritual leisure I enjoyed on the train became unsustainable once I returned home to Los Angeles (by plane) and dived back into my galloping lifestyle. I still spend each morning reading the Bible and participate in church activities, but it’s harder to make Jesus Christ your Lord and King of everything when you’re no longer holed up in a ventilated casket with bare minimum amenities.
From my apartment near downtown L.A., I can still hear the battle cry of the train: choo kchoo choo choo, kchooo—and I catch myself stirring with wanderlust again, that belly-deep desire to drop everything and hop on Amtrak with just one bag stuffed with books and peanut butter. But I remind myself that this life is my true battlefield, where the same God who was present on the train with me is still working, breathing, and supplying all my battle needs. Of course, I also wouldn’t mind if God decided I need another cross-country retreat on Amtrak.
■ Bring a blanket and thick socks—it gets chilly.
■ The café/lounge car sells a “passenger comfort kit” for $8 that provides a blanket, eyeshades, ear plugs, and an inflatable pillow. Skip it: The blanket is too thin, and you need Michael Phelps’ lungs to inflate that neck pillow.
■ A fluffy pillow makes a world’s difference.
■ Every seat has its own outlet, so bring your charger(s).
■ Pack snacks to save money, but nothing that needs to be microwaved. At the café, a candy bar costs $2.75, a can of soda $2.25, a microwaved pepperoni pizza $5.50. Dining car meals costs $8-$13 for breakfast/lunch, and $17-$26 for dinner.
■ Alcohol (beer, wine, cocktails) are sold onboard.
■ All major credit and debit cards accepted. So is cash.
■ Download the Amtrak smartphone app to check on train status, look up station amenities, and book or modify reservations.
■ The California Zephyr train from Chicago to San Francisco has the most scenic route, but you’ll usually need to reserve weeks ahead.
seat61.com/UnitedStates.htm has more great detailed guides and tips for traveling on Amtrak.