A Dose of Train Drama

Orlando to Washington DC, Silver Meteor, Train No. 98

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

On a hot sunny afternoon, two short whistles sound and the train lurches forward from the Orlando, Florida train station. A bulky woman with chin length blonde hair reaches over my lap while apologizing for leaving her things scattered between the seats. Cigarette smoke perfumes her canary yellow peasant blouse. She tells me her name is Sherry.

Sherry’s neck is branded with a tattoo bearing a man’s name. Three stars circle it. Other tattoos streak down her arms like rivers with boat docks. I’m wearing my conference clothes – a pencil skirt and boat-neck shirt. Small gold hoop earrings dangle from my ears.

Sometimes when on a train asking a question may lead to a complicated and prolonged account of life events. You have to be ready to listen.

“Are you going to Washington?” I ask.

“New York,” she says. “I got on at Sebring, Florida. I was visiting my 22-year old daughter. She’s having trouble with her second pregnancy. I’ve been there since early July. I have a son who is also 22, but they’re not twins. He was born nine months after his sister. My two youngest are girls, 15 and 6. They live with their father and me. I have one grandchild who is two years old. I live in a small town where the biggest attraction is the live lobster tank at the grocery store.”Continue reading

Volleying for a Train Seat

Pittsburgh to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29

Pittsburgh Amtrak station entrance

Pittsburgh Amtrak station entrance

When visiting a city, I look for hotels near Amtrak stations that offer transportation perks such as free shuttle service to and from the rail station. My stay at The Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center on Lytton Avenue included such an amenity. While I was impressed with the city of Pittsburgh, the Amtrak station is rather grungy. It feels dirty. There are no windows in its subterranean location beneath the historic Penn Central station. It’s now known as The Pennsylvanian which houses condos and ground floor commercial space.

Before I board the midnight train to Chicago people here move slowly, unsteadily in the dank surroundings. The Amtrak locomotive sounds a long blast, which means get on board now. I walk up the stairwell in the last car of the train. Most of the passengers are sleeping. I discover a large middle-aged woman sitting in my seat, awake.

Bridge view from train

Bridge view from train

“I have seat number 50,” I say in a hushed tone. From my pocket, I show her the blue piece of paper where the conductor wrote my seat number.

“I have number 52 and someone is sitting in my seat so I’m staying in this seat,” she says with confidence. I remain unrattled and volley for the seat. Turning to the elderly woman sitting in seat 52 I ask, “Do you have the blue piece of paper the conductor gave you?”

“Yes, I do. Seat 52.” But she doesn’t show me the piece of paper. I move down the car to see if there are any vacant seats. A conductor approaches.

“Someone is in my seat,” I tell him, feeling like a six-year old on a school bus. He asks the woman sitting in my seat for her ticket. He begins trying to reshuffle passengers but they are staying put.

“People have tickets but they sit wherever they want,” he says. I am confused. Do I have a reserved seat in Coach or not? My ticket says so. Lowering his chin into his collar the conductor appears powerless. Apparently, on this train there is nothing that disallows passengers from sitting anywhere they want.Continue reading

Mixing Business With Pleasure During Train Travel

East Lansing Intermodal Center

The new Amtrak station in East Lansing, Michigan

Sunday morning passengers are lining up in East Lansing, Michigan to board the Blue Water train heading to Chicago. It arrives 10 minutes early but waits until its 8:45am departure time. Like many train routes this one has a segment alongside a river. I see a ferryboat frozen in the water. It reminds me of while working at the Illinois Central Gulf railroad. We hired photographers to take aerial shots from a helicopter whenever barges were frozen in the Mississippi River. Not far from the river’s banks would be an ICG freight train rolling on its tracks. The newswire services would distribute the dramatic photos of the stuck barges to newspapers and television stations in big and small cities. The idea of course was to show the resilience of rail transportation.

The view on the Blue Water train is of ice fishing tents scattered across frozen lakes. I see a herd of deer trotting in the snow along a creek bed. Cemeteries on rolling hills give way to grain silos. The W post tells the engineer to blow the train’s whistle as it approaches a grade crossing. Seconds later I hear the whistle sounding like a whale wailing. Perhaps the cold is morphing its sound. Outside the rows of dormant crops are sheep, cows and horses grazing in snow-covered pastures. At times like this I love being a solo traveler.

Then I see him. One of the speakers at a conference I just attended is seated a few rows up from me. I casually walk down the aisle, stop, and ask him if he is who I think he is.

“Yes, that’s me.” He’s kind of excited that someone on the train recognizes him. I explain who I am – a writer curious about why people take the train.

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” He puts down his phone and moves two books from his lap. I have his attention.Continue reading

High-Speed Midwest Trains Matter

East Lansing Amtrak train passenger

Passenger arrives at East Lansing Amtrak station

Amtrak’s daily Blue Water train carries passengers departing Chicago’s Union station at 4:00pm through to Port Huron, Michigan near the Canadian border arriving at 11:38pm. Seniors, people with disabilities, families traveling with young children, military personnel and business class passengers are called first to board. The seniors are talking about their previous train trips and the weather. A winter storm is wreaking havoc on the East Coast. A middle-aged woman with long, yellow hair joins them. She slips her hands into the pockets of her jacket. Across its front in black and orange lettering are the words Harley Davidson. She has no visible characteristic for being in the priority boarding line.

On the Blue Water we are not given seat numbers. Passengers sit wherever they want. The Coach cars are old with worn blue upholstery and no foot rests. However, there is something special about this Midwest train. The Federal Railroad Administration designated a 97-mile stretch of its route as a high-speed rail corridor.

Half of the seats are facing one way and the others are facing in the opposite direction. It isn’t until we begin moving I realize I am facing backwards. The woman with the yellow hair wearing the Harley jacket is seated behind me.

“I’ve never ridden a passenger train facing backwards,” I say.

“It doesn’t matter. It will be dark in an hour or so,” she says. Her words are slowly drawn. The accent is a hybrid of different regions. I want to hear more of it.Continue reading

Introducing Who’s Taking the Train Blog

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

Who’s Taking the Train is about people who choose to travel by passenger train in America. My reporting about the people I meet on board a train will give a glimpse of why this mode of transportation is vital or just fun for so many. Some are newbies to train trips. Some are veteran train travelers. Others take the train infrequently. Travel by train may be their first choice, only choice, or last choice.

I hadn’t been on a passenger train myself for years. Once I boarded the train again, I became enamored. It’s always an adventure. You can read about my background and interest in train travel on the About page. The irony of going back to something you loved is its ability to move you forward.

The people I meet on trains are not celebrities. They read headlines but don’t make them. I think of them still. The young Amish woman traveling from Tijuana, Mexico to Pittsburgh with her elderly parents. Sherry, the tattooed woman traveling from Florida to New York. Jimmy in Washington DC going to Wyoming to change his life. And Linda heading to Flint, Michigan to help her family get through the water crisis there. In these first posts I change the names of the people I met to protect their privacy. At the time we talked I wasn’t sure what I would do with their stories, only that I wanted to hear them. These blog posts are shortened, edited versions of the original work.Continue reading