It’s quiet hour on the train as I write this. The lights are dim and the rail car gently shakes as it hurdles down the track. A flurry of snow whizzes by outside in the dark night air. Most of the people among us are asleep, but here and there a baby coos, a solitary passenger walks by on the way to the bathroom, and the train stops to pick up a new set of excited travelers.
The time is twenty minutes past midnight, but in our home state it’s 1:20 AM. When we first boarded the train in Detroit it was 6:30 AM.
That leaves us with about 22 and a half hours to go until we reach Flagstaff, Arizona.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to spend a whole day and a half on a train, this article is for you.
Do People Really Still Ride the Train?
You might think that trains are mostly used by our European neighbors and you’d be (mostly) right. While North and South America contain nearly 34 percent of the world’s railway systems, their ridership only equates to about 1 percent.
In truth, however, it’s Asia and not Europe that sits on top of total passenger count – roughly 80 percent of global ridership.
So why do people still ride the train in the US with state of the art systems like flying metal birds, giant mechanized earthworms, and the all-too-familiar suburban with tinted windows and a heated seating system guaranteed to give you toasty buns in five minutes or less?
The majority of people that ride trains in the US are traveling 400 miles or less. In this fast paced economy, most of the people who ride trains today in the US do so out of business or personal reasons.
In other words, if you’re going to be riding a train, you’re probably not going to be using valuable vacation time.
But for those who are going long distance, the situation is perhaps, a rather different story.
For all of the conversations we’ve overheard around us, there seems to be a commonality between long-distance travelers.
They all chat as if they simply love the journey.
People may board a train for a number of different reasons when it comes to what awaits them at the end of the line. Maybe it’s a business conference. Maybe it’s a newborn grandchild. Maybe it’s for some kind of activism.
But train travel offers something uniquely different from other modes of transportation.
It’s as if people board the train for the meditative act of slowing down and taking some time to reflect.
Most of the rail cars have a spotty (or inexistent) WiFi connection, and traversing through highly rural areas means that sometimes there’s not even a cell phone connection. And then there’s the scenery.
Remember those days when you were a kid and most of your time spent in a vehicle was in the back seat? Being in a train is a lot like that. There’s no stress of avoiding semi-trucks, or dangerous distracted drivers swerving into your lane.
You just get to look out the window and let your thoughts go free.
Heather and I both opted for coach seats on the Amtrak Southwest Chief running from Chicago to Los Angeles. If we wanted to pay an extra 500 each, we could have reserved a tiny room with bunkbeds. Though, we have heard that if you’re lucky and you wait until the last minute, sometimes you can reserve these rooms for last minute deals with hundreds of dollars off.
While 500 dollars may seem like a lot, you may consider it more strongly while attempting to receive a sound night’s rest. It’s not that the people are especially bothersome at night, our biggest issue sleeping was with the seats themselves.
Each seat does recline, and there’s a decent leg rest that folds out, but the seats are certainly an awkward shape to sleep in. If you can tolerate a moderately stiff neck and waking up a few times tossing and turning, catching some shut-eye isn’t the most difficult thing in the world.
Our favorite part of the train was probably the observation car. The entire upper deck of the railcar is lined with four foot by six foot windows, along with some additional windows where the ceiling and wall meet.
During the day, we spent most of our time in the observation car; even though the conductors advise that it’s for temporary seating, everyone does it. Up here, you’ll get a whole scenic view of some of the most beautiful lakes and mountains that the countryside has to offer.
There is also a cafe and dining car, as the PA system will continually make known. Although we advise bringing a bunch of snacks for your comfort and using the free ice water stations provided, you can also sit down for a more wholesome meal, or grab a few sandwiches from the cafe.
So What Did We Really Think Overall?
Although at times we felt a little claustrophobic, and at other times a little annoyed, we would do it all again.
If we could get the kinks worked out of the sleeping situation, possibly by throwing in a little more money for a personal room, we’ve talked about attempting to ride all of the Amtrak long distance routes.
The truth is, we found plenty of enjoyment gazing at the countryside plains and mountains. It was also nice knowing that we didn’t have to feel rushed in our journey from the midwest to the southwest.
Among the sights to be had outdoors, there are also many interesting types of people who travel long distance on a train.
We sat near a man with a therapautic pitbull, a group of amish families, a Russian yogi, a woman who was going to the US-Mexico border to “see how she could help,” a man who had a supernatural ability to snore, and a toxic mother who kept telling her kids to shush while in turn being the loudest on the train (sorry, Mason and Peyton).
If you’re planning on taking a long distance train within the next few months, bring something to work on! After all, I wrote this entire article on the train and dreamed up a few ideas for some additional new content.
Legends of Locomotion
The beauty of taking a train to the southwest is that we could not help but imagine what such an experience must have been like for the nomads of the 1800s as they followed their call to the west. We could almost imagine barely colonized towns of adobe houses, herds of buffalo roaming the plains, and remote cabins of wooly men and quiet solitaires.
There’s simply something sumptuous about the landscapes of the southwest.
Maybe in a past life I was a European who went west for the sake of manifest destiny, or maybe it’s the fact that my parents named me after a cowboy movie (“Don’t hurt him, Shane!”), but there has always been an alluring pulse, an astounding romantic revelation, a moving recognition that I’m deeply enamored with the sights to be captured in the southwestern states.
As this article wraps up, nearing our final destination of Flagstaff, Arizona, I’m resonant to the motion of the train, it’s sporadic shudders and occassional toot (not the bad kind).
I reflect on the thought that the point of travel is not only to move from place to place but to be moved.
Heather and I have eagerly awaited this train ride to Arizona for months now. In so many ways, it’s like the opening chapter to a magnum opus of memories. It’s the self-affirmation of learning to live by the saying, “why rush?”
There’s always a way to make your life a little more monumental, even through incremental daily choices.
If you want to take some time to shake things up a little bit, consider taking a train ride out to a new location; you might just find that there is more see the slower you go.
Fun Facts About Time
The first organization to adopt standard time zones was the Great Western Railway in Great Britain during the mid-1800s.
Before there were tried and true time zones, each city operated on its own apparent solar time. Time was generally measured by crude sun dials, and was based on the longitudinal location of the city.
When more accurate mechanical clocks became more proficient in the 19th century, individual cities began to use a local mean time, which allocated each day to a 24 hour cycle starting at midnight.
Mean time largely differs from the apparent solar time because it can more accurately account for the elliptical orbit of the Earth and the tilt of the Earth’s axis. As rail transport and telecommunications were popularized in the 1800s, a more accurate method of tracking time between cities was needed. Thus, the railway system popularized the use of local mean time with its various divisions between time zones.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to go take a nap. Train lag is no joke.