America is ready for high-speed rail. It has been ready since 2009, when President Barack Obama’s stimulus promised $10 billion in rail infrastructure projects, which have since been delayed or aborted. Climate change adds a layer of urgency, and the proposed Green New Deal a window of political opportunity. Amtrak’s famous unreliability can certainly be improved, but no amount of adjustment on the margins will turn the 50-year-old rail system into the bullet trains we need for viable, aggressive competition with major airline routes.
However, it doesn’t follow that we should simply abandon Amtrak. Since air travel travel went mainstream, Amtrak has not been the efficient choice for long-distance journeys. High-speed rail would only underline this fact. But an Amtrak trip has its own peculiar virtues unrelated to efficiency, and it would be a shame to lose them in the onward march of civilization.
For one thing, Amtrak offers a more accessible luxury option.
I have no firsthand knowledge of what first-class air travel is like, nor am likely to any time soon. Still, as I imagine many others do, I craved the glamor of travel that wasn’t scrambling and disheveled, a series of exhausting and progressively demoralizing transitions. I craved travel that never required me to be barefoot. Which is how I found myself standing on a Seattle platform one crisp April morning, preparing to board the Coast Startlight. My first-class ticket cost around $350, about what I would have paid for a flight given my typical last minute buying habits. For that, I got a sleeper compartment, a shower, and three (surprisingly tasty) meals a day.
Coast Starlight! Listen to the magic in that name. Imagine an engine, silvery by moonlight, snaking its way down the edge of the Pacific. Listen to the steady rhythm of the wheels, traversing the earth, right at the place where it melts into the widest ocean. Imagine all this, and then you will perhaps agree with me that the claims of speed are not always paramount — or, less abstractly, why on earth I paid the same amount to travel to my brother’s wedding by a two day train trip as I would have for a three hour plane ride.
Trains offer luxury for regular people, not a stratified mini-dystopia in air.
This is one of the great democratic advantages of Amtrak. A first-class ticket on any flight worth the expense is prohibitive for everyone except the truly wealthy and the management consultants racking up miles on a business credit card. An Amtrak sleeper car is a stretch, a genuine luxury; but it’s a luxury you can save for on human timescales.
The floor of dignity for Amtrak travel is also higher than on planes. A motherly attendant whisked my bags and I to my little bedroom, but the coach class peons boarded without hassle, herding, or pat-downs, to seats larger than on many business class flights. Similarly, the heights of extravagance are more modest: you get a little bed that folds back and some space to yourself, the same meals in the same dining car that everyone else eats in. Planes tend to sell luxury with a combination of stick and carrot: this is the only way to get treated like a person, but if you shell out for it, you will be treated like the most important person who ever lived. Trains offer luxury for regular people, not a stratified mini-dystopia in air. By nature of the enterprise, the daylight between the haves and the have nots can’t widen beyond a modest upgrade.
And what is most wonderful about the Coast Starlight cannot be purchased via upgrade. On the first day, you pull away from the mists rolling in over the fingerlets of the Salish Sea. The track wends inland, through the farms of Washington and Oregon — impossible shades of green dotted with buttercups, a white line of laundry snapping in the breeze, a cedar roof, a green painted farmhouse. Later, the train will pass under the Portland Oregon sign, a white stag leaping across neon lettering framed by an outline of the state. It was built by a now vanished manufacturer, and the effect is post-industrial scrappiness crossed with a Works Progress Administration-era National Parks poster.
This is perhaps the greatest luxury Amtrak offers: bounteous, undivided attention to the world; useless attention, that accomplishes nothing and makes no one money; attention neither coerced by the necessity of labor nor marred by the compulsive mindlessness of the amusement industries.
Before and after Portland we pass through smaller towns: Vancouver, Albany, Salem, Klamath Falls. These little clusters of late Victorian storefronts are snuggled away between mountains and forests. Surrounded by Western larch, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and Western red cedar, they sit on the banks of rivers spanned by covered bridges, fed by craggy waterfalls covered in lichens and mosses. The forests grew when glaciers rolled back or melted away; they attracted a logging industry which pays the rents for those outside the craft-beer-tech-startup nexus. It’s the forest that colors town and city. It imbues them with the gravitas of people quietly living their lives in intimate proximity to and delicate tension with primeval actors and tectonic forces.
Each little town has a brewery worth visiting, a trail worth walking, a vignette worth a longer look. As the train pulls out, the lights twinkle in the darkness for a long time.
You can see all this from your compartment window, but the glass-domed viewing car (open to all) is the better spot. The seats in the viewing car are arranged around little tables, and face the outside of the train. The carriage is almost entirely translucent, an equally good spot for playing cards, chatting with fellow passengers, or simply sitting mesmerized by the world outside. If the train is more democratic in its luxuries, so too is its philosophy of travel. On a plane trip, there are two important places: where you start and where you end up. Both are usually large transit hub cities. Everything else, however beautiful, you view from a position of godlike remoteness, where only the largest landmarks and cities are distinguishable from each other. Our social geography has even come up with a name for this phenomenon: flyover country.
Connecting America’s major cities by high-speed rail will be a valuable investment in urban and rural communities alike. But the rural communities will still need an equally reliable if less dazzlingly swift network of interstate transit to connect small cities and micropolitan areas to the transit hubs, and to each other. And expanding the slower, more local routes does something for rural areas besides combat decades of transit disinvestment: it restores them to their rightful place in the American imaginary, as legitimate objects of the romance of travel.
By train, every place is surprising, every place is worth seeing — as, in fact, it is in real life. You see the country on a human scale, each glade and wood a different delight. You see it from the same vantage point as its residents. And you often see the places that do not appeal to travel websites or Instagram: junctions, depots, industrial quarters, working neighborhoods, back alleys.
The necessary assumption for enjoyable train travel is that interesting things lie near at hand. Everywhere is interesting, which is why it’s worth seeing the route you take up close. Everywhere is interesting, which is why travel need not always cross vast expanses of ocean to delight and inspire. Both sides of this assumption militate against the experiential arms race, wherein young professionals can barely consider themselves cultured unless they make biannual pilgrimages to hike a volcano or snorkel with sharks.
By train, every place is surprising, every place is worth seeing — as, in fact, it is in real life.
There is no place on the Coast Starlight for this kind of hustling. You have already chosen the sub-optimally efficient method of transport from point A to point B. You might as well relax and enjoy adventures on a smaller scale. At dinner, solo travelers are seated with strangers. You eat mussels or steak with a glass of wine on a white tablecloth, and enjoy the opportunity for quick character sketches created by ephemeral intimacy. And the backdrop to all this is the evening fog, rising up through the pines from the terrifying drop where the track cuts into the Cascade mountainside.
After dinner, your snug berth awaits. There isn’t room to do much besides sleep, rocked by the swaying of the carriage, lulled by the clack of the wheels and the whistle of the train as it passes over water and under tunnels of cedars, out of the dark mountain pass.
In southern California, the forests begin subsiding into scrabbly hills dotted with poppies. Occasional live oaks dot the landscape, but where trees are dense they’re in orchards. And the orchards are rapidly giving way to developments. The mission tiled three story houses, identical in rows and cul-de sacs, seem to have sprung up overnight, with nothing around them. They are ghost towns in reverse. But soon after Santa Barbara, something magical happens. The train veers towards the edge of the coast, closer to the ocean than any car can drive, closer than any plane can fly. It runs silver to silver, glint to glint, divided by a narrow cliff from the cresting waves of the Pacific. The last leg of the trip is marked by the nodding heads of thousands of wildflowers.
The selling point of American rail as it currently exists is not scalable or practicable: trading slowness for a more leisured and gentle way to travel is, understandably, not a winning proposition for those compelled more by circumstances than aspiration of a journey. To decarbonize the economy, we need a network of high-speed trains as fast as we can get them. Amtrak cannot compete with air travel: the trains are too slow, and there are too many local routes and too few hub connections to serve travellers legitimately crunched for time.
Still, I hope that when hyper-efficient rail is slicing its way past the wheat fields (or whatever route gets you fastest from Seattle to New York), Amtrak is able to complement fast trains rather than compete with them, providing an affordable means of leisure travel and a reliable connecting service.
This will involve some changes in goals. Self sufficiency is a pipe dream — perhaps inevitably, certainly with current American habits. Tough luck, budget hawks: civilization costs money. The aim should be to increase use, not cut costs. And since competitive speed is out of the question, the focus should be on reliability and comfort. Amtrak (and ultimately, the public) should ensure that however long the journey, it only takes as long as advertised. And they should invest in making the point of access as easy and safe as possible (under the current regime, for example, the Spokane train’s 2:00 a.m. boarding takes place on a deserted platform, with no waiting room or station attendant).
Finally, they should embrace their role as the leisure option. I hope Amtrak gets a clue and stops cutting meal service out of some phony deference to millennial desires; I hope they lean into white tablecloths and retro-Pullman interiors. I hope that even when trains are a synonym for efficiency, an improved and expanded Amtrak still exists as a democratic luxury for those who want to see Nebraska, or Louisiana, or New Hampshire, slowly. I hope I can still fall asleep in a little berth, listening to the clack of the wheels as the train pulls out from dark cedar canopies, wending its way into the night.