What I Learned From Traveling Cross Country on Amtrak
A few days ago I took a cross country train excursion from New York City to Norman, Oklahoma. The events leading up to the trip are varied, and frankly, none of your business. But for transparency sake two main points forced me to do this: my mother’s rapidly declining health, and my Oklahoma driver’s license expiring. The aforementioned license kept me from taking an airplane, so I was left with either train or bus. 70+ hours on a bus sounded absolutely miserable to me, so in my heart I knew it was train times. The Train Saga? Avengers: EndTrain? Trainhard 2: Train Harder?
Purchasing The Tickets
Total price of the one-way trip was around $260 for coach seats. Having done a few short trips to Vermont from NYC to visit my partner’s family, I knew what I was getting into with coach seats. Which, to be fair, are pretty comfortable. I do wish they were a little softer, but otherwise they fully recline, with lay-z-boyesque leg support, and plenty of room. Prices for a half-room no private bath was just shy of $900, and the full private room with private bath at nearly $1,300.
Having been through the process before I knew that actually boarding a train is fairly quick and simple. You want to show up around half an hour or so before departure to begin boarding. Tickets aren’t even checked until you’re already in your seat and the train is moving. They have the option to check your luggage if it’s too large, but at a 50lbs weight limit. I took one large suitcase and two small bags. I think you’re only supposed to have two bags total, but no one said anything to me.
When boarding they divide people by destination. I guess it’s easier to keep track of everyone on the train. When getting on the train at Penn Station they made sure to announce quite loudly that this train was going to be packed, so to not take up more space than you are allotted. I wore comfy clothes. A knit cardigan, scarf, beanie, and sweatpants.
NYC to Chicago
I was lucky that this train had wifi, as not all trains do. I sat with a nice lady, and we had a few pleasant conversations. I then snatched up the first available window seat at Schenectady, which luckily was just across the isle. A young man sat next to me and then complimented the French braids my partner had done for me. I somewhat rudely played Zelda:Breath of the Wild while watching American Dad on my laptop with headphones on after that; but it was late and I was tired.
The young man got off at Syracuse. As he left, he turned to me and said quite confidently, “We’ll meet again someday, Sonny.” I nodded and said, “Yeah, sure.” I have no clue why I left such an impression on him. After that I did not have to sit next to anyone until my transfer.
As soon as we arrived in Ohio about 20-30 Amish boarded the train. This detail is not important in anyway. I just wasn’t expecting it. By that point it was after midnight, and the train had dimmed its lights and no longer made announcements. If someone’s stop was coming up, a conductor person(?) would gently come into the car and inform them. I would definitely say that the staff certainly tried their best overall.
There was a time as we were passing through Ohio I looked up into the night sky. It was pitch black in every direction. I could see clouds emanating a red light. I could not determine where the light was coming from. Aliens? Toxic chemical spill?…Jet pack man????
Sleeping could have been worse. I would usually get about 20 minutes or so at a time, but at least I could use both seats on my row. I was actually pretty fortunate to have my own row a lot. We arrived to Chicago on time.
Chicago to Fort Worth
Chicago’s train station is much, much smaller than Penn. I figured it would be, but I was honestly surprised by just how much smaller it is. The only food court options I saw open were Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, Chik-Fila, and Sbarro. I opted for Sbarro, and choked down the irony of going so far from NYC for a piece of subpar pizza. I ate half and then saved the rest for later.
When I got to the waiting area first thing I noticed was no outlets. Then I saw a tv mounted to the wall. It played a loop of commercials produced by Amtrak. 90% of these videos assumed that Amtrak was going to be attacked at any moment. They never said “bomb” or “active shooter”. Instead they implied such things with the grace and nuance of a Gary Busey during his drunk uncle, or “drunkle” years.
I boarded the train with ease, but there was a different air. This crew seemed defeated. Like a submarine crew on a suicide mission. They’re gonna do what they have to do, but they’re not happy about it. My speculation would be that they aren’t being treated well by their company. This train was one with the coach seats above the private rooms. This meant that I had to leave my suitcase in a cubby on the first level.
As we left the station I noticed I couldn’t find the wifi network. I asked the next conductor person I saw if this train had wifi. He said that it did not. I spent just under 25 hours on that train. So without wifi I read this Moon Knight collection of first appearances my partner gave me. Which was confusing. In the show his suit is like mummy cloth, but in the comic it’s pure silver.
But I digress.
After getting settled into my seat with the row to myself, the conductor person came through and stated that a large family was coming in and would be taking up the entire car. We all had to move to another car. This didn’t sit well with me at first, as I didn’t like the idea of leaving my suitcase in the cubby of a different car. It ended up being fine. Luckily a few hours later I once again had my own row.
Once I got to the window seat I started to notice a few things as we traveled through the Midwest. There are tents in the woods everywhere. There is also trash everywhere. Many small towns and areas I have seen before looked so much worse. Abandoned cars. Abandoned houses filled with trash. Sometimes you would see a person standing in the woods by the tracks. Almost always an old white man with a beard. If I had known I was going to write this article I would have taken more photos. But the heartland is barely beating.
Then it started to get bumpy. Real bumpy. Sometimes the train would lean so far I thought we were going to flop over. It was clear that every so often the wheels were not on the tracks.
When it got to be quiet time on this train, instead of dimming the lights they turned European night club blue. I was a fan.
Somewhere around 1 am I noticed we were slowing down in the middle of nowhere. We then came to a full stop. The night was pitch black in all directions. Then another train heading north started to pass by. I noticed that it said it was from Union Pacific, and that it was carrying oil and other toxic chemicals. This happened several times before I got to Fort Worth.
When the train was no longer on quiet time the engineer made an announcement. “Due to a mix up with the train signals, we were forced to standby for several Union Pacific trains. Because of this we are now 2 1/2 hours delayed.”
My stomach suddenly had a weight in it. My layover in Fort Worth was just over three hours. If it’s delayed anymore I would miss my train. I checked the schedules and only one train left Fort Worth to OKC that day. If I missed the train I would be stuck for the night.
All of the conductor people came out to explain the situation. As they told it Union Pacific ignored safety and scheduling, and decided to do whatever they want. I flagged down one of conductors. I explained my situation as calmly as I could, less I be written off as some Karen. I asked her if Amtrak would help or offer accommodations of some sort, as this was not my fault, and she said she couldn’t make any promises.
Luckily we made up some time, but that meant going faster on bumpy tracks. The rest of the ride was not comfortable. As we entered Texas I saw the most amount of trash. I even took video of a river filled with trash and nearly glowing green water. You can even hear the two women behind me talking about how awful it looks.
My favorite parts were riding around Dallas. Frequently I would see two cars in an abandoned parking lot with two men clearly making some sort of illegal deal. There were more tents in wooded areas, abandon cars littering trash riddled ravines, and houses that looked more like a county dump.
We arrived in Fort Worth about 1 1/2 hours late.
Fort Worth to Norman
Fort Worth’s station was the smallest so far. It had a small indoor waiting area, a Subway, and the tracks were all out in the open. I got a sandwich and a couple drinks, and waited outside. I did watch as two people with a mutual friend run into each other at the track. They stood right next to me at a mostly empty track and had a very personal conversation.
The next train talked a big game about having wifi, but could not back it up. I spent most of the time staring out the window. As we were pulling out of the station one of the conductor people said that everyone in this car had to get out at OKC. I flagged him down and said that I would be getting off at Norman. I didn’t know Norman had it’s own station when I purchased the ticket. He seemed annoyed but otherwise they obliged.
This train was in fact the worst. Several times I thought I was going to die. One time when the train slammed down after skipping a track I sent my partner a text saying that if I die I want her to do everything she can to sue Amtrak and the state of Oklahoma.
We arrived in Norman on time.
Overall I would love it if trains were the predominate means of transportation in this country. The pretense associated with flying is just too much at this point. And after living in NYC for a few years and having access to 24/7 subway I do not miss owning a car. Really one day I hope to do a private room trip down the West Coast. But I’ll be flying to Seattle.