Thursday, July 29, 2021
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Life in the Slow Train

ON BOARD THE COAST STARLIGHT, SEATTLE TO OAKLAND – We left Seattle at 9:45 a.m. on Sunday, scheduled to arrive in Oakland at 8:30 Monday morning. That’s a lot of train time. It’s also a lot of mask time: We’re expected to keep mouths and noses covered for the duration, except when we’re eating or drinking. 

And those 23 hours are if there are no delays. My friend Chris just took the same Amtrak line from Sacramento to Los Angeles and got in five hours late. Then he took the Texas Eagle from Tucson to Chicago, arriving six hours late. 

“On the plus side,” he writes, “rail is the best way to see the country – slow, at ground level, and not behind the wheel. Enjoy!”

I hope to. Pleasure is the only reason to travel by train in America. One expects it to take longer to go by rail than by air, but 20 hours longer? 

Oakland is 800 miles from Seattle. If we get there on time, we will have averaged about 40 miles per hour, even allowing for the 17 station stops along the way. There are trains in Japan and France that go five times faster than that. 

Here in the greatest country in the world, trains are to cars and planes as Major League Baseball is to the NFL and the NBA – a slow, distant third. Amtrak’s detractors say if demand were greater, more money would flow into the system, which would lead to better service. 

Defenders say Amtrak has never been given a fighting chance. If it weren’t perennially starved by the anti-tax and therefore, anti-infrastructure, governing philosophy that has dominated Washington since the Reagan years, it could offer the kind of speedy and comfortable service that would once again make it a viable alternative to driving and flying. Instead, we have 2021 trains that poke along at 1921 speeds.

That would be fine if Amtrak charged 1921 prices. They don’t, though. If you book a room, it’s actually more expensive than flying economy class – a lot more. 

My friend Steve urged the splurge. “You won’t regret it,” he said. So I asked about a sleeper at King Street Station in Seattle before we boarded and was told it would add an extra $465 to my fare. “I think we’ll suffer,” I said.

It remains to be seen how much we’ll suffer, but it’s got to be less than if we flew from Seattle to, say, Hong Kong, for several reasons. First, train seats are way more comfy than plane seats. With footrest up and seatback tilted, I can stretch my legs all the way out and almost lie flat.

Second, there’s a lot more strolling-around room – and a lot more freedom to stroll. The fasten-your-seatbelts sign is never illuminated on a train for the simple reason that there are no seatbelts. 

If you get tired of your assigned seat, you can also repair to the many-windowed lounge car, which brings us to the third joy of riding the rails: scenery peeping. Just in the first hour we saw snowy Mount Rainier looming over Puget Sound. Later, we’ll hug the Willamette River. In southern Oregon, we’ll cut through the Cascades. And on this week of the summer solstice, we’ll have maximum daylight for seeing it all.

Which may explain why just about every seat is taken. In the lounge car there’s a young couple who can’t keep their mitts off each other; a woman who feels the need to narrate, loudly, to people she just met, every moment of her waking life, including her trips to the bathroom; three young cyclists who plan to get off in Klamath Falls and ride to Bend; and an apparent COVID denier who gets a stern talking-to from the conductor after repeatedly ignoring a crew member’s insistence that he mask up.

Some of these people are surely rail buffs, like my friend Chris. Some, I suspect, are travelers like me who hate airports, airplanes and above all, the airlines, which give no thought to passenger comfort or convenience. (One reason I decided to take the train: When I checked flights from Portland or Seattle to San Francisco or Oakland, the most affordable ones went by way of Las Vegas, Salt Lake City or Los Angeles. That’s like driving from State College to Pittsburgh by way of Philadelphia.)

One guy walked into Portland’s Union Station, looked up and down and all around and exclaimed, “This is so much nicer than an airport.”

The little platform where we disembark on a foggy Bay Area morning has none of the grandeur of Portland’s or Seattle’s imposing depots. No matter. The main thing is, we’re on time! I even slept a little, thanks, perhaps, to a chewable sleep aid obtained from a Portland marijuana dispensary.  

Would I do the Coast Starlight again? Probably not. But I’m glad I did it once. And I’d gladly accept a tax hike if it would bring some bullet trains to America’s rickety rails.