Train Travel

I’ve always loved trains. It’s kind of puzzling, actually. Even long after I should have become jaded to them, by living not two hundred yards from a track on which two or three go by every day, they still make me happy. So I decided someday I ought to take one to get between Cincinnati and Grinnell.

I couldn’t find a ride who would take me to Cincinnati for spring break, so instead I looked for a ride to Chicago, so I could take the Amtrak from there back home. Looking for this ride coincided with midsems week, so it took some effort to do both at the same time. I ended up sending out an APB to all the students from Chicago in the directory, and asking everyone I knew if they knew anyone riding to Chicago on Saturday morning. My search turned up two cars. Upon trading e-mails, I discovered both were completely full. It would be tmpossible for me to get to Chicago on Saturday morning, and I didn’t want to spend the night there. Luckily, I also came across a shuttle going to Ottumwa, Iowa, on Saturday morning, from where an Amtrak could take me to Chicago and transfer me to the Cincinnati-bound train. So I did that instead.

The shuttle was a small bus driven by a nice old lady; including the two Latina girls who set up the shuttle, there were just three of us. We got to Ottumwa in plenty of time for the 10:09 California Zephyr, and the guy at the desk informed us that the Zephyr would be arriving sometime around 12:40 due to delays.

I was expecting that. The impression that I’ve gotten from online recountings is that, these days, Amtrak is pretty much always late. Ben, who lives across the hall from me, had told me he figued the train took about eleven hours to do a ten-hour schedule, and so on accordingly. The Zephyr had come from California, so it was bound to be a good deal late. It’d be nice if the trains could always be on time, but I recognize that that’s improbable, giwen how marginalized Amtrak is by all the freight companies. Freight trains are way more numerous, so Amtrak has to yield to them all the time. Additionally, trains have had a sharp decrease in popularity as a means of transportation, so there are fewer and fewer, and delays have to build up instead of being overflowed into the nekt scheduled train, because it would be too long a wait. And then fewer people want to ride, because the train gets a reputation for being late. It’s a vicious cycle, and a shame. But I wasn’t in any hurry. I wanted to ride almost as much for the experience as I did to actually get somewhere. Lateness didn’t bother me. It gave me and Laura and Viri some time to eat breakfast at the 2nd Street Café.

We came back to the station and waited. Viri slept; Laura and I played some cards, and then she braided my hair, which was pretty nice. As she finished, it was getting time for the train to come. Everyone waiting in the station stepped out into the bright, cloudy morning – it had recently snowed, but all melted – and stood under the concrete canopy watching for the Zephyr to arrive. It came about when the old guy in the booth had said it would.

I had to take a little stuff out of my huge backpack to fit it into the overhead stowage, but then I settled down no problem. A girl named Alisa was sitting next to me; she and a few friends were coming from Omaha, where they were in grad school. We were on the top floor of the double-decker car. It was pretty special. The first thing that impressed me was the legroom. On a bus, I’m never comfortable. On the train, I was really comfortable. The seats didn’t suck; in fact, they were a pleasure to sit in. For a while, I just watched out the window. The first thing I saw from a moving train was a flagpole with waving US and Iowa flags. The scenery was typical midwest fields, mostly – I’ve heard people complain about ut, but I mean, really Amtrak can’t help what the scenery looks like. Actually, I liked getting to see an aspect of cities that a lot of people don’t get to see – namely, the area around the railroad. There are all sorts of buildings and other structures there that you just don’t see elsewhere. Another thing is that it’s nice and uncrowded. The only company you’re bound to get is a freight train, passing by on the parallel track. When both trains are traveling at a pretty good clip, this results in a combined relative speed of approximately race car. So about three freight cars a second go by your window, probably less than two fet away from it. That’s another thing I like: everything fits really closely around the trains. So as we were crossing the Mississippi River, the big iron bridge support beams rose up close enough to us that, if we could open the windows, we’d be able to reach out and touch them and get our hands messily chopped off, which is why the windows aren’t openable, but coming back to my point, it’s pretty cool how it’s all so precise. It also meant that I could look almost straight down into the brown Mississippi water.

But I wasn’t staring out the window all the time. Mostly I read the books that I’ve been meaning to read all semester, but haven’t found time for. I finished House of Leaves during the trip, and also How We Are Hungry. Until the train ride, all the reading was very piecemeal, taking what I could get. By the way, House of Leaves is definitely something to look for if you want something different. It’s also really freaky and pretty unnerving as well. How We Are Hungry is more normal but still not quite normal. It’s a collection of short stories, the strangest of which is “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself”. It’s five blank pages. The rest are real stories, and (incidentally) good ones. I spent most of my time finishing these, not getting done until the middle of the night somewhere in Indiana, after transferring in Chicago.

When we got to Chicago, we slipped under the city into Union Station, which is a nicely spooky place full of brown-colored light and chamber echoes of trains shifting around. We were late getting there, of course, but the connecting Cardinal train had been held up for us, so we were all able to get onto it if we needed to. When the Cardinal started moving after we got on, the passengers who’d been waiting since 17:45 (it was now 18:15) there started cheering. We traveled about five minutes out, and then waited for freight trains. We did a great deal of waiting. Amtrak really gets the shaft when it comes to right-of-way on the tracks, and it’s hard not to get a bit of a sour taste in your mouth. We finally got moving properly fr the night at 19:45. But, as I say, I wasn’t in a hurry, so I just read.

Once I finished the books, it was about 01:00 or 02:00, so I decided to get some sleep and wait for Cincinnati. A couple times I woke up worried that we may have passed it already, but we hadn’t. The train was scheduled to get to Cincinnati at 03:17; delayed in Connersville, Indiana, it pulled in finally at about 06:00 and let me off. And Mom picked me up, and we had IHOP for breakfast.

File under: trains, reading


Anonymous

History

I can understand your frustration about freight trains. The actual reason is that the railroad companies own the railroads outright. They lease the tracks to Amtrack per trip (as well as other railroad companies). So, Amtrack is at their mercy.

It is important to realize that Railroads are THE ONLY form of transportation NOT subsidized by the government. Airports, roads, Shipping canals & docks, are all heavily subsidized. Why should the railroads cater to Amtrack? If Truckers had to pay for their own roads, they wouldn’t be able to, and we’d have one hell of a railroad system (again) in America. It’s a shame.

Dan

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Anonymous

History

You may find this hard to believe but I used to work as a cook on that double decker train. Those cars were a part of the Santa Fe railroad. I love to ride on trains but alas, it is not to be. it is most difficult to devise a schedule…..Glad you enjoyed your ride. g.Pa.

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Anonymous

History

You bring back such memories. I used to take the train to and from college, and the train went through Grinnell. Sometimes Ellen was with me as far as Grinnell. And I did what you did one time, when I was thinking about going to Wittenberg College. I rode the train to Chicago, changed stations, got on another train, rode all night to Cincinnati, then took a train to Springfield. It was exhausting. It’s a good thing I didn’t like doing that, because if I’d chosen Wittenberg I wouldn’t have met Grandpa so there wouldn’t have been an Ann and therefore there never would have been a Nathanael! Grandma

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