What’s it like to ride the train?

Commentary and Trip Report by Dana Hawkes

I am taking the train from LA to Houston. It is nearly universal that people are surprised, they have never taken a long distance train ride, and they are very curious about what it is like, and when they learn it takes longer than a plane they wonder what you do with all that time.

So I thought I would give you a description of my ride thus far today on the Sunset Limited Amtrak train.

The train left from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. I got there by taking the local Pacific Surfliner train from Oceanside. Union Station is a historic, beautiful landmark that was built in the late 1930’s at the height of train travel in America. I came by train to Los Angeles with my parents in the early 1940’s and actually arrived in Union Station. People say, “why didn’t you fly?” Easy to answer: the airlines had not been invented yet!

So I spent the hour and a half that I waited for my train to depart, touring this beautiful building and the well manicured grounds that surround it.

By 2pm the train was ready to board in anticipation of a 3pm departure. Since the trip will last two nights and one and one half days, I chose to book a sleeper rather than coach (the only way to go on a long distance train). The sleeper cars are large two story affairs. The upper story has two types of accommodations; the bedroom, which is larger and has its own bath, and the roomette which I am riding in which is smaller and uses common restroom and shower facilities. The room itself is 6 feet 6 inches long and 3 feet 6 inches wide. There are two facing seats which are about 2 times the size of an airline seat. The room is enclosed and has a sliding glass door that can be closed for privacy. Curtains can be pulled to cover the inside and outside windows, and the door. Real cozy. It is air conditioned, the seats recline and at night they fold together to make about a twin sized bed; an upper bunk that pulls down for a second person if needed. The porter comes at night and makes up the bed which is complete with sheets, pillows and blankets, washcloths and towels. There are reading lights, a small closet, 120 ac power for running computers and charging phones, a small fold out table that is being used to hold the computer on which I am typing this, and the entire wall to the outside is a large picture window. There is room under the seat for my small carry on (I checked my other bags that I will need in Houston). The room is comfortable, cozy and private. The ride is smooth and quiet; punctuated with the romantic wail of the engine’s whistle, blown at crossings.

Leaving Los Angeles you do encounter some of the seamier, graffiti emblazoned neighborhoods, but over all those account for less than 5 % of the total trip.

Soon we moved through the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley toward the more rural areas approaching Palm Springs. I am not sure how to explain my fascination with traveling by train. Perhaps it is the motion; perhaps it is the size of the window; perhaps it is the connection to history; perhaps it is that usually when I drive…I drive! Even when I ride, mentally I still drive. But in the train I truly ride. I feel that I am a part of the landscape; a moving, ever-changing landscape.

When on a train, especially a cross country one, mostly what you see is landscape; beautiful, uncluttered and expansive, fascinating and intriguing countryside…we DO have a beautiful country! The photo shows the crossing high above the Pecos River in Texas. I know it sounds mystical, but truly it feeds my soul; I sense the majesty of God because I know He created it all; I feel my horizons are enlarged and magnified. I have traveled every Amtrak long distance train except one, The City of New Orleans; most of them more than once, and have been on the Canadian across Canada. In the hundreds of hours of train travel there is one emotion I have never experienced…boredom! Not that I am against flying, it is different. Flying is transportation; a way to get quickly from point A to point B. Traveling by train is genuinely travel; it is a way to enjoy the journey.

Well, shortly after departure from LA the dining room steward came around to take reservations for dinner. I ate at six with three delightful people from Las Cruces New Mexico; stimulating conversation. Had the opportunity to share with them what I had been doing in China.

After a restful sleep, rocked by the motion of the train, I opened the curtain to the outside. It was still dark, but perfectly framed in the window was the Big Dipper; its outer rim pointing directly at the North Star. Of course at that time I was in the New Mexico desert, and the sky was awash with millions of stars. Nice.

Well, off to breakfast; but that gives you a little slice of train life. I don’t think it is the only way to travel, but it is a desirable and valuable alternative that needs to be supported.

Mr. Hawkes is a retired Professor of Communications at Palomar College, San Marcos, CA. (Photos by Russ Jackson)

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