Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Trainblogging, American edition

En route from Durham NC to Trenton NJ, driving up the eastern seaboard (though at present far inland) in overcast and light rain; it's 10:45 a.m. and the carriage is close to full. The train is small by European standards, for such a distance: two locomotives, baggage car (how quaint), cafe car, six coaches. There are no tables on Amtrak, all seats are in airline-like pairs, all facing the same direction. The fold-out tables are oddly high, about four inches too far above my lap for comfortable typing.

There are no over- or underpasses on train routes in the US (outside of major urban areas), every road we've passed so far has been a level crossing with barriers and flashing lights, which means that the train has been whistling pretty well nonstop. I like listening to the strange moaning roar of a train whistle, when I hear them at night or in the city, but this constant noise is going to get old pretty fast.

Raleigh NC.

On the other hand, given that there is only one train per day and direction on this section of the route, it would be absurdly expensive to build and maintain overpasses at every road. (Oh, that's right, Americans don't maintain infrastructure; but even so…) This stretch is single-track only, there is no provision for more than one train at a time to travel here. This means that the stations all have only one platform, which I find really odd: in Europe even hundred-person pissawful villages on the far periphery of civilization have two platforms.

I'm listening via iTunes and headphones to music that I acquired (cough piracy cough) in Milwaukee at the wedding. The song of the moment is "Willie the Pimp" by the late, sorely missed Frank Zappa. This song may need to go onto repeat for a while.

Well, that was interesting. In addition to the working train staff who punch tickets, there is a Volunteer Train Host on board, who seems to be here to walk about and chat semi-idly with passengers — no, sorry, I meant customers. I'm not sure why we are not "passengers" but it is clear that we are not, that word has not yet been used today. Presumably there is some dire legalistic-horseshit implication in the difference. Bah.

Wilson NC. Wow, quite a crowd waiting to board. I shall probably lose the empty seat where my backpack rests. On the edge of town, a huge and largely empty cemetery. No European cemetery would have so much empty space between stones, nor paths between the rows that were large enough to drive a golf cart down. [Later: having seen several cemeteries, I think that the difference is not the spacing but the typical size of the average memorial, which in Europe would be much larger.]

Outside Wilson, there is a double-tracked section. We waited ten minutes for a southbound freight train to pass by, then continued north on the single track.

Rocky Mountain NC. Boxy building by the roadside proclaims itself the home of the Improved Order of Redmen. Yeah, whatever.

Petersburg VA. Had lunch (hawt chickn sammitch) and a coffee from the cafe car. It was adequate, reminded me of British Rail food (which is not a recommendation).

Just saw my first kudzu infestation, a whole creekbed covered in the stuff. I can't figure out why people aren't worried about it. But then, there is much that I can't figure out, for instance why nobody seems interested in the sudden increase of food allergies during the last two decades. There was no such thing as being allergic to food when I was a kid, people would have thought it was a joke. Today, every second child is allergic to nuts. Why does this not strike anyone at all as being unusual and potentially significant? Is it that worrying might interfere with the food industry's dividends? Bah.

Richmond VA, and the smokers are stepping out to get a fix. Amtrak doesn't post the names of the stations, presumably they are so few and so far apart that there could be no possible uncertainty (hollow laughter). For a country founded by immigrants and whose national mythos is of the Drifter, it is surprising that America cuts absolutely no slack for people who lack local knowledge. Signage in public spaces (parking lots, streets, airports) is minimal by European standards, and worse it is sometimes false. It took my parents and I twenty minutes to get out of an underground garage in Toronto last week, because the way to the exit was not signposted. "Everyone knows that!" seems to be the attitude. Bah.

Fredericksburg VA. A pair of buzzards circle low over Main Street.

Quantico VA, home of the FBI and the Marines. Steward tells a pregnant woman waiting to disembark "You know we don' actually stop here, right? We jus' open the doors an' you jump an' roll." Hilarity ensues.

Alexandria VA. A real city, with suburbs and double-decker local commuter trains.

Washington DC, where half the passengers customers disembark. I'm surprised what an enormous city Washington is. Coming into the city from the south, past the Lincoln Memorial and the Needle, I find myself thinking of Lincoln, King, Kennedy and yes of Obama, and choking up.

Remind me to look up "Acela," that looks like a long-distance high-speed train in the European sense, which this sure ain't. We have been travelling at 60 mph or below for most of the day.

Population density is increasing rapidly as we get further north. Maryland is at least one order of magnitude more densely settled than NC.

Baltimore MD. Good god, this is a bleak city, entire districts seem to be boarded up.

Several long causeways across water; are these estuaries? Google will know.

(At this point I had to pack up and prepare to disembark. The post is (a) missing the last three or four stations, but (b) already quite long enough. It remains only to say that despite dire predictions of Amerian friends, the train arrived in Trenton nearly 10 minutes early.)

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Blogger Bruce Oksol said...

That was the most surprising datapoint in your blog: arriving early. Out west during the winter, Amtrak is often 12 hours late, and can be as late as 24 hours.

The boarded up sections of Baltimore; true in so many cities, towns and villages. I don't understand; maybe consistent with America's throwaway mentality.

I assume you got used to the train's warning "whistle." In Europe, in every pension, hostel, or hotel, it was the local church ringing bells on the hour, sometimes more often. I understand now we have peace and quiet interrupted by calls to prayer.

Nice post. For another wonderful blog on European traveling, see Rachel Lucas' blog. It's also one of my favorites.

July 21, 2009 at 3:23:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous Sis said...

What a Grumpy Gus you are. You used to enjoy the journey, not just sit there complaining. There is a crude North American expression to do with ruining Cornflakes which might fit here.

July 22, 2009 at 2:33:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Zhoen said...

Yeah, but then you are in Trenton ten minutes early.

Rail travel here, especially in the east, sucks mightily.

It's actually a bit better heading west, scenery is, at least.

July 22, 2009 at 8:10:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Lioness said...

Oh, I love trains, ad I've always wanted to visit the Carolinas - well, the South, really. Uninterrupted whistling would drive me a bit mental as well though. But all in all, I envy you!

Now I'll go google obscene cornflakes.

July 23, 2009 at 11:52:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Trinity Annabelle said...

Hi Udge!

Here in the US, people are no longer "citizens", or even "people"... we're "consumers". We apparently exist only as a supply of money for others. This almost certainly explains the use of the term "customer" while you were on the train.

And speaking of trains, I think it's really neat that you went around the US by train while you were here. It seems like a largely forgotten mode of transportation in this country. Cars and even buses are faster and more convenient, but then traveling isn't always about the speed or convenience.

July 23, 2009 at 7:54:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Oh but I did enjoy the journey, I hadn't realized that I was being so negative about it.

July 23, 2009 at 10:08:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous cate said...

hello Udge-man! it sounds like you are having the same love-hate relationship with America that i have. i once did LA to Chicago by train. it was both awesome and terrible at once. best ride on a train in the US? chicago to DC and back. gorgeous.

July 26, 2009 at 11:46:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Hello Trin, nice to see you here! Thanks for the comment.

Bruce, thanks for hte suggestion, I will google Rachel Lucas.

Zhoen: how true, how true.

Lioness: when you figure it out, let me know :)

Cate: good to hear from you again.

July 28, 2009 at 9:51:00 p.m. GMT+2  

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