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Reflective journey

"Reflective journey" Continued...

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

Departure sign.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Departure sign.
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apartments, and office buildings for banks; out the right, flat-roofed adobe houses with tin-sheet walls, and rumbling, outdated public transportation buses that were once school buses imported from America.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.

Louisiana as seen from a train.
Sophia Lee
Louisiana as seen from a train.
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.

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