Chicago to Washington DC

On the Capitol Limited

Financial Times, 15 November 2008

Train No. 30, the Capitol Limited, leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 7.05 every evening for Washington, DC. Should you miss this one, you can always catch another – at the same time tomorrow.

Three days a week, you might also take an alternative train, the Cardinal, which travels a more southerly route into Washington. That, however, is slower, taking 24 hours over the journey, where the Capitol Limited races through in a mere seventeen-and-a-half.

Some travellers… OK, most travellers… well, all right, nearly all of them, actually, might prefer to fly and get there in two hours. What fools these mortals be! American airports and planes are now so disgusting, dictatorial and demoralising that every journey ages you by a month.

It is true that my trip on the Capitol Limited was half-an-hour late, a difference so piffling that no one thought it worth mentioning, never mind apologising for. This was partly because Amtrak, the nationalised passenger network, has to use the lines owned by the private freight railroads which means, in practice if not in theory, that its trains end up giving way.

But then all those wagonloads of lumber, girders and coal probably had places to go and people to meet. On the Capitol Limited we were happy where we were.

The uplift of the spirit begins in the art nouveau Great Hall of the station in Chicago. It is like a magnificent, empty temple to a religion that has lost its adherents. The moment I walked in, I instinctively took off my hat. Even the local indicator boards have poetry to them. The services run to Antioch, Aurora, Joliet, Fox Lake and Big Timber Road.

And the names of the Amtrak trains are even more awesome: the Illinois Zephyr, the Wolverine, the Hiawatha, the Lake Shore Limited and the City of New Orleans, immortalised by the bard Steve Goodman: “Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders, three conductors, 25 sacks of mail.”

We didn’t have that many cars on the Capitol Limited: just half-a-dozen – a couple of sleepers, a diner, an observation car with buffet and three coaches. I fancied one of those sleeping roomettes of the sort Marilyn Monroe used in Some Like it Hot. But I had to settle for a coach seat – comfy enough, with business-class legroom – next to Adam, an e-commerce guy from Minnesota. By the time we got to West Virginia, I knew just about everyone’s name.

In one sense, this was very American. From their earliest days, the trains that trundled across the prairies were sociable and congenial, due to a combination of national character and the distances involved. Their European equivalents had closed-in compartments. In the British case, this meant passengers in situ glowering at potential interlopers to make them go away.

But these modern travellers were not typical Americans. The first person I spoke to turned out not merely to be English, but to live a few villages away from me. There were several other Brits on the train, perhaps imagining this was a serious means of transport.

The home team tended to be either retired (“I’m not in a hurry, this train’s not in a hurry, so it works out,” as one woman put it) or to be the kind of American who marches to a different drummer, like Miriam, the gentle Quaker schoolteacher, or Eric the hempmaker and 9/11 conspiracy theorist. (He was wearing a T-shirt saying “Remember, remember, the 11th of September, the government’s treason and plot.”) Years ago, I travelled across the Rockies with a bloke whose great cause was votes for children.

Merely going on this train gives these Americans a certain distinctiveness. Most of their compatriots would not even know it exists. I once asked a taxi driver in Bangor, Maine, if the town had a train station. “How should I know?” he replied. Rail travel is a feature of American life that, if not exactly illegal, is certainly eccentric.

Long-distance railroad travel finally fell apart when modern jets arrived in the 1960s. Freight trains still play a big part in the economy, but since its foundation in 1971, Amtrak has held the passenger system together with bits of string – sometimes literally, one suspects.

As we left Chicago, the double-deck Superliner lurched gently and bumpity-bumped – in Europe, the prelude to picking up speed. But we never did pick up much speed. The sluggishness can go too far. Kathy from North Carolina had arrived in Chicago 10 hours late from Denver on the California Zephyr. “It’s a long way from Wyoming, whichever way you travel,” she said, “but when you go backwards for, like, 45 minutes, you know you’re in trouble.”

John the dining car steward claimed we would get up to 79mph, which seemed implausible. But he served a decent steak and a more agreeable Merlot than is generally available in Indiana, and did it with a smile, so I could forgive him anything.

I slept through most of Ohio, missing Cleveland (though not a lot). I woke at the mean, cold, concrete station in Pittsburgh and was glad – because dawn broke as we followed the route along the Youghiogeny River and climbed into the Appalachians. Cezanne could have painted these wooded hills – and if he had, the result would have been just what I saw through the train window, since this landscape has suffered no torment since the railroad was blasted through.

As we went up, the autumnal lowlands gave way to three inches of late October snow. Then we descended towards the Cumberland Gap, America’s oldest station, at Martinsburg, and the trot in towards Washington. Somewhere out there was the America of strip malls and Sarah Palin. And eventually we would have to face it.

There are two great mysteries about American trains. The first is why no one (except the 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis) has grasped that the north-east corridor between New York and Boston and Washington is the world’s most obvious place for high-speed trains that could save hundreds of take-offs a day.

The problem is that Amtrak has been such a political waif it has been unable to make such a bold case. “It’s been hanging on by its fingernails for so long,” explained the railroad historian John Hankey, “just hoping nothing goes wrong and that we don’t kill too many people. Amtrak’s strategy has been to fly below the radar screen until something major changes.” Like the arrival of President Obama, perhaps.

The other mystery is why the obviously non-viable routes have survived. The answer seems to lie on Capitol Hill: “The attitude is ‘I won’t cut your train if you don’t cut my train’,” says Hankey.
In the meantime, it would help if more ordinary Americans took the train. Even the e-commerce man, Adam, turned out to be unusual. As we headed towards Washington, he told me he intended to home-school his son, because he never wanted him to be given orders. Most American parents I know would be happy if their kids ever took any.