New Tropic member Natalia Napoleon De Bens told us a couple weeks ago that she was taking a train from Miami to New York City — a trip that would take roughly 11 times the time it takes to fly from MIA to New York. We thought this was nuts, so of course we asked her to write about her experience. The Silver Star line carried about 400,000 passengers along its Miami-New York route last year, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers (PDF). Only 2.3 percent of them — some 9,177 people — braved the entire 1,480-mile journey. What follows is one irreverent account of that trip. We have to hope there’s a better way.
I have a weird relationship with airplanes, in that although I am terrified of flying, for one reason or another I am on a plane once or twice a month on average. My pre-flight routine is pretty standard: no sleep the night before while I toss and turn, vividly imagining all of the iterations of tragedy that could occur; low-level anxiety attacks the day of; a post-boarding series of ritualistic prayers followed by an exercise in spotting babies and hot
Yes, the Amtrak train still exists and yes, although it will take some time, it can take you across the country. Think of it like the Pony Express, but for moving people in the most inefficient way possible. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of taking the train in Europe — a lovely experience often with nicely appointed cars, decent wines and high-speed rail systems available in many countries. But this is not Europe. Even with the added expense of a sleeper car, my experience was markedly different than even my worst Eurorail trips, and thanks to the lack of high speed trains, I had more than 33 hours to fully appreciate and journal riding the rails the American way.
Day One: Early morning
I run into the Miami Amtrak station at 7:57 a.m. for my 8:20 a.m. train to New York, Penn Station. Noticed there wasn’t a boarding line, checked the departure board (which is manually updated by staff) — delayed by an hour. Not a great way to start my 27-hour ride up north. The hour passes quickly while I respond to work emails, and pretty soon a nice young guy walks up and asks to escort me to my train car, using his lovely golf cart so I didn’t have to actually carry my own bags. Super classy. I walk with him outside as the rest of the people in the station watched; waiting to be called for boarding and, presumably, wondering who I was to be getting the “VIP” treatment and why the hell an actual VIP would take a train from Miami to NYC.
After getting settled into my cabin, I asked my room attendant for the wifi information. I knew some trains had it, and I assumed that a long distance train most certainly would. This one, however, did not. Too late to shift gears now, so I decide to take the glass-half-full approach and welcome it as one of the few times in my everyday existence that I will be completely cut off from Internet access. How refreshing! We’ll see how this goes. The attendant notes that I may take my meals in the dining car or in my own cabin (room service!), so that’s cool, I guess.
Day One: Mid-morning
It’s remarkable how many people still use the train for long-distance travel in the U.S. [Ed. note: About 4.5 million people used long-distance Amtrak service last year, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers.] The trains are low-budget as hell, so it’s not the most comfortable journey. I’m convinced that the hydraulics on this thing have either been completely worn down or never existed in the first place — I feel every mile of track whizzing by below.
The food is troubling, all pre-packaged and microwaved, like the economy class food service on long-haul flights but, surprisingly, of even poorer quality, which I didn’t realize was possible. They do have a random mix of booze, thank God. I ordered the French toast; not great but not terrible either. Alone in the dining car, I enjoy my breakfast, Don Grey tea, and a book in bumpy peace and quiet.
Day One: Midday
I spend the rest of the morning on conference calls, made lengthier due to bad cell reception, and reviewing and responding to emails when I get a signal that is strong enough to support such activities. Nothing stirs an appetite like battling technology fails for several hours, so I was ready for lunch. Being the productive corporate citizen I am, I decide to lunch and work from my cabin. I press the assistance button and keep plugging away.
About 30 minutes later, I realize that no one has come to my cabin – very strange. I peek into the hallway and see no one, just a row of closed doors exactly like mine leading to the passageway into the next train car. I cut my losses and decided to make my way to the dining car. Unlike the morning, the car is now poppin’, but I finagle a solo booth and order an angus burger and a half bottle of wine.
The burger is ready in 5 seconds. (Their microwave is serious). Even better, the aggressive midweek, midday wine bottle, plus my dark shades and comfort book ensure that nobody f*cks with me. I am clearly not here to make friends.
Day One: Afternoon
With a light wine buzz, I proceed to prep for a call with an investment funds group. Around 4 p.m., sans-buzz I take the call as my cabin turned into a radio dark zone — service in and out like crazy. I put my headphones in and make my way to the passage area between train cars which, although very loud, has decent reception. For over an hour in the dark passageway I make my points, hear their responses, shut down their responses, and close the call, leaving the ball in their court. As Olivia Pope would say, the call was handled. Feeling quite proud of myself, given the extreme circumstances, I decide it is quittin’ time. Now for some R&R with my IPad and some on-demand TV shows. And a glass of wine.
Day One: Evening
Watched 3 hours of Mistresses — really only 2 episodes because cell service blows and, of course, no wifi. Also, given the data needed to watch all of this on an iPad, I spend an extra $30 to up my plan. My attendant comes to check on me. I ordered a half bottle of wine and pasta for dinner (the safest choice). Apparently the intercom/buzzer thing wasn’t working, surprise, surprise, so good thing he popped in.
He’s actually pretty cool, really chatty, wants to come “kick it later” when his shift ends. I am getting gay vibes that I hope are spot-on, but even if he’s not, I figure it isn’t a huge deal to hang for a few. Anyway, I’m bored as hell and trapped on a train, so let’s get weird.
Day One: Night
Around 11 p.m. my new attendant friend shows up, bearing more vino, and sits across from me in my tiny little cabin — our knees are maybe 4 inches apart. We’re chatting, sipping wine, swapping life stories and talking about the weirdos on the train. It’s super fun actually. Then randomly he starts asking me about my height (5’8″), do I model (no), are my feet as pretty as my hands (no. Wait, what?). I shut down when he starts explaining that although he doesn’t have a foot fetish, he really wants to see my feet. I obviously decline and also ask him to leave so I can sleep. He obliges reluctantly, and I lock the door behind him. Let’s hope I don’t have a new #trainstalker.
I’ll sleep with one eye open tonight — which shouldn’t be difficult given that I’ll have to proactively try not to fall 7 feet from my elevated bunk bed to the floor while this train barrels and bumps along.
Day 2: Morning
I wake to my stalker/attendant knocking on my door about breakfast service. I play dead. When I finally make it out an hour or so later, I was sat with a lovely couple from Orlando. Turns out the wife is also afraid of flying, and has never actually been on a plane. Further, she tells me that most folks she meets on the train also have a fear of flying. I know that Amtrak has been in financial trouble for some time, and after this it seems apparent that the use of the train for non-commuter purposes would probably be obsolete if fear wasn’t a factor. It takes a lot of angst to make someone choose 30 hours on a train over a three-hour flight. Why did I do this again?
My breakfast companions also inform me that the train stopped for 2 hours around 2 a.m. in the middle of the woods — I have no idea what that was about. Creepy …
Day 2: Midday
I work the rest of the morning, and take breaks to read my new book on Churchill’s travels. (Thanks Bookleggers!) I make the trek to the dining car and my assigned lunch companions start speculating (reporting?) that we lost some staff in the woods last night somehow — mainly because there is only one pretty, useless girl and a 300-year-old man on duty in the dining car. Both are on that permanent struggle. They keep giving everyone side salads but won’t take our orders. When they finally break down and come to our table, I order the microwave burger again. The cheese is only half-melted this time; clearly Amtrak has zero f*cks to give today. Also we are now 5 hours behind schedule. This is insane.
Shortly after lunch, I develop a massive headache — probably due to dehydration and stress over when the hell I’ll actually make it to New York. The couple I sat with at lunch are apparently in the sleeper cabin next to me and I bum some Advil from them. Yay, drugs.
Day 2: Afternoon
We are now stopped in D.C. for 45 minutes or so, apparently to change the engine. The freaking engine! Is this real life? I walk further up the train while we’re stopped, discover the bar car, and order a double Bacardi and diet Pepsi. Delicious? Absolutely not. But screw it, I am trapped on a train. Let’s do this.
Day 2: Sometime after 5:30 p.m.
Sweet lord we made it, almost 6 hours after our scheduled arrival. I say goodbye to my new Orlando friends and gleefully enter the chaos of Penn Station. After this, I think I can successfully suppress my fear of flying for at least another decade. So, thanks, Amtrak!