Long-haul train travel is the best way to see the real America

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We were somewhere between Meridian and Laurel in eastern Mississippi when, not for the first time, the words of the 1973 Arlo Guthrie hit came into my head. The City of New Orleans it’s called – it was a number one single only in this country – and it’s a wistful hymn to the train it is named after, which plies each day the 1340km line from Chicago to the fabled Louisiana city.

I wasn’t actually on that train at the time, but on the Crescent, which joins the Big Apple (New York) to the Big Easy (New Orleans). And as night fell, with more than four hours to go, the song’s best line rang in my head: “Through the Mississippi darkness. Rolling down to the sea.” I dialled it up on my phone and watched as the passing landscape faded into night.

I was most of the way through an epic journey which had taken me to all the great US cities I had never seen, riding the rails all the way: 12,583km over 175 hours, and I loved every arse-numbing minute of it.

My meticulously plotted route took me in a great loop from Los Angeles to Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso – all for $US500, which at the time I paid was a lot less than the $NZ800-odd it is now.

That was the cost of a USA Rail Pass, which allows 10 trips in 30 days: with careful booking (keeping in mind that a short hop and the 3550km marathon between Seattle and Chicago both clip that ticket once) that gets you a long way.

In our age, where instant gratification is highly prized and next-day delivery is considered laggardly, rail travel may seem a long-winded way to get anywhere. Flying from Seattle to Chicago, you’ll spend barely three hours in the air; Amtrak’s Empire Builder took 47.

A rail traveller can really claim to have “seen” the country.
PETER CALDERA rail traveller can really claim to have “seen” the country.

The railroad, which once slashed the travel times achieved by bone-rattling horse-drawn transport, is the slowcoach of the modern era. As a result, Americans mostly fly or drive or fly-drive wherever they want to go. The train and its dirt-poor cousin, the long-distance bus, is for the travelling underclass – or those, like me, who are in no hurry.

And in no hurry is what you need to be. Those used to the high-speed inter-city trains to be found in the UK, Europe and East Asia need to leave their expectations at home. The trains I rode seldom averaged more than 80km/h (though the big east coast services topped 100) and there were long stops on sidings to allow 300-car goods trains to pass (they have priority; it’s a long story).

You book tickets, via an app, for each service.
PETER CALDERYou book tickets, via an app, for each service.

But the upsides are immeasurable. Air travel, especially long-haul, has always felt to me a violent assault on the sensibility. Hurtling across time zones, we are disgorged, sleep-deprived into a swamp of culture shock: an alien culture and climate, with unfamiliar currency, customs and language.

You don’t have to resort to Taoist proverbs about the journey being the reward to appreciate that train travel allows us to savour the movement in real time, to get a sense of movement that agrees with our own internal rhythms.

The rails agree too. The development of continuous welded track brought an end to the clickety-clack of childhood storybooks, but the gentle rocking of the carriage is restful and, when you need it to be, pleasantly soporific.

And while you’re awake, America passes by in all its varied glories: the dazzling Glacier National Park in the Rockies; the endless cornfields of Minnesota; the smoke-belching Rust Belt factories; the bayous of the South and the deserts of the Southwest. Rail lines commonly pass backyards, too, giving the passing traveller a glimpse into private lives. A rail traveller can really claim to have “seen” the country.

Seats are assigned, by guards, as you board the train.
PETER CALDERSeats are assigned, by guards, as you board the train.

An Amtrak rail pass doesn’t get you on the train. You book tickets, via an excellent app, for each service – the earlier the better since busy routes have a limited number of seats for rail-pass passengers. Your coach-class ticket (there is no sleeper upgrade option) gets you a confirmed spot, but it doesn’t get you a seat and there is no option for the online seat selection that is available to airline passengers and concertgoers.

Seats are assigned, by guards, as you board the train. Channelling their 19th-century forebears, they mark off spots on a paper chart (this system could only be more analogue if it were a model carriage) and give you a coloured tag with your car and seat number on it. On quieter routes, you grab your own spot and you’re likely to have an empty seat beside you.

True romantics may want to shell out for a sleeping compartment – it costs about 10 times as much as an air ticket on that Seattle-Chicago route – but the coach-class seats are excellent. Once you’ve cranked them back almost as far as a lounge recliner and extended the padded footrest, your stretched legs will barely reach the seat in front. I slept long, well and often.

Better still, you are not confined to your allocated seat. The long-distance trains have a “sightseer lounge” – once called a club or lounge car – whose seats face the side windows so you can take in the view while chewing the fat with a stranger. The standard opening, “How far y’going?” gets the ball rolling.

And those strangers, united by the shared endurance test, offer plenty of variety. I was surprised at the number taking their first rail trip (a sign of the times, perhaps) and by others making long, multi-train runs.

Groups of Amish, whose beliefs forbid them from driving, were conspicuous across the Midwest. Braying, cellphone-brandishing Millennials were blessedly rare. Instead, grandmas, white and Black, gave me good recipes for meatloaf and gumbo.

The downside to train travel is the ultimate version of the downside to being anywhere in the US, where good food is hard to find (except in New Orleans) and good coffee scarcer than free medical care. On the train, the coffee plumbs depths that even gas stations don’t stoop to and the food is mostly cellophane-wrapped. Think of a two-day-old fast-food-chain hamburger wrapped in cling film and microwaved and you’ll get the idea. The dining car is open only to sleeper passengers (three meals are included in the ticket price) but, having seen the food, I pitied them for having to eat it.

El Paso marks the end of the journey.
PETER CALDEREl Paso marks the end of the journey.

The secret is to stock up at delis and supermarkets before boarding. I feasted on cold cuts, cheeses, fruit and fill-your-own containers from the by-the-pound buffets in big groceries. I got boiling water from the café car for my tea and a little chiller bag kept real milk fresh: to a Kiwi traveller, that non-dairy creamer is intolerably offensive.

My ticket ran out in El Paso, where I rented a car to drive slowly back to LA. But it’s a trip I won’t forget and would do again in a heartbeat. Maybe I’ll still make it onto the City of New Orleans.

Source : Sttuf