‘I’m not like anyone you’ve met before. Not in Europe, America or anyplace else.” Rider, my unexpected travelling companion for a sizeable tranche of the train ride from Washington DC to New York, is not delivering an idle boast — just the opposite, in fact. At 6ft-plus, with lank, straw-coloured hair and a wide-rimmed Panama hat, he is Crocodile Dundee if Paul Hogan had arms like tree trunks, a southern drawl and a mischievous glint in his eye.
Rider and I have only been sitting together five minutes — I was forced to switch carriages when the air-con in mine packed in before we had even left the District of Columbia city limits — but already he is halfway through the Cliff Notes version of his life story.
As Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, drifts past our window, and we slip seamlessly from Maryland into Delaware, Rider solemnly recounts his annotated successes and failures: he became a furniture maker after he lost his job (and his marriage) in the aftermath of the financial crash; he now lives in Kentucky, but is headed for Philadelphia to see his sister’s newborn baby for the first time; he’s 38 and would dearly like “to kick my 19-year-old self’s butt”.
Rider is certainly sui generis, but his openness, his desire to tell his story, is surprisingly typical of rail travellers in America.
In a country where nobody takes the train because they need to get somewhere fast, railway carriages double up as public places, spaces where strangers meet, talk and, at times, argue. That most Americans seldom set foot on a train — the average annual distance travelled by rail per head of population is just half that of Pakistan (and a whopping 30 times less than those train-loving Swiss) — contributes to a garrulous sense of conviviality, of shared experience, that you’ll struggle to find on any European rail line.
Alfred Hitchcock perfectly understood the possibilities, both for benign chatter and malignant plotting, American train travel presents.
His classic ‘Strangers on a Train’, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its release later this year, centred on a plan for the perfect murder hatched by two complete strangers during the course of their journey from Washington to New York.
Just like amateur tennis player Guy Haines and the nefarious Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s pair of would-be murderers, my trip begins in the rather grandiose setting of Washington’s Union Station. Designed by the renowned American architect Daniel Burnham, the façade’s triumphal arch and neo-classical colonnades were inspired by the old Euston station in London. Unfortunately, nowadays the station’s interior feels a little too much like present-day Euston; glass-fronted shops, ubiquitous queues and precious little passenger information.
“The first thing you learn about rail travel in America is that the trains are late,” the acerbic English novelist Jenny Diski warns in ‘Stranger on a Train’, her singular account of travelling across America in 1997. Almost a decade and a half later, not much has changed.
After a half-hour wait, my train — the Crescent — finally appears and I gladly clamber aboard. The Crescent was once the jewel in the crown of the American railways. It still runs the 1,377 miles from New Orleans to Penn Station in New York daily, but its halcyon days are well behind it now.
The high-speed Acela does the journey from DC to New York in a little over two-and-a-half hours (my train will take upwards of five), while it’s less than an hour by plane.
A hundred years ago, America’s railroads were the envy of the world. Now, for vast swathes of the population, they are practically defunct.
Back in 1916, the US boasted some 254,251 miles of track; today, that figure stands at just 140,695. Many states have seen their public railways decimated, while two contiguous states, Wyoming and South Dakota, have no trains at all anymore. That Amtrak, the government-owned rail company, makes its money from freight (passenger trains run at a loss) is hardly a state secret.
Despite the poor condition of many US lines — or maybe even because of it — train travel is one of the best ways to see Uncle Sam in his most natural state. To stare out at an unfamiliar landscape as it goes by outside your control, in time to the rhythm of the wheels and the swaying of the carriage, is one of the few ways to truly comprehend the sheer vastness of America. And it’s only a fraction of the cost of an internal flight.
Few stops compare to spectacular Harpers Ferry, the historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet, on the DC to Chicago line.
The journey from Washington to New York is not all rolling countryside and rural idylls, however. Barely 45 minutes after we leave Union Station a view familiar to fans of HBO’s remarkable series ‘The Wire’ pulls into view: dominated by John Hopkins and tall, shiny waterfront developments, Baltimore’s skyline formed the outer edge of the dystopian world rendered by ‘The Wire’s creator David Simon.
There’s no sign of McNulty, Omar Little or Avon Barksdale — the arbiters of good and evil in Simon’s fictional Baltimore — but, as our train moves out of the station and skirts through the city’s impoverished western edge, the urban scars left behind by decades of drugs and crime are all too visible. Rows and rows of abandoned houses zip past my eyes; wide, empty streets where nothing seems to move except intermittent clouds of dust.
Even the dark underbelly of the American Dream, it seems, cannot escape the train traveller’s gaze.
“Gee, did you see that back there? That looked really rough.” Rider, with all his worldly experience, is still shocked by our five-minute glimpse of inner-city Baltimore. Not that shocked, mind — 30 seconds later he resumes the telling of his life story.
As Rider recounts his move into carpentry, I keep the corner of my eye fixed on the window, where the east coast of America drifts by dispassionately. Ours is a journey through the industrial heartland of the US, a tract of land once packed full of busy shipping lane, and tireless cities that built the America we know today.
Past Chesapeake Bay and we’re into Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware. Wilmington itself is unremarkable, its adherence to the unwritten diktat that all medium-sized American cities must have a shimmering high-rise urban core depressingly complete.
From Wilmington, it is a short hop across the invisible state line into Pennsylvania and on to Philadelphia. The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ is Rider’s destination, and my newfound travelling companion refuses to depart until he has given me some of its fabled fraternal affection.
“You take real good care now,” a lifetime of cigarettes and bourbon audible on Rider’s gravel-encrusted voice. “And don’t go forgetting me.” There’s precious little chance of that, but as the mass of concrete that entombs Philadelphia’s train station disappears from
view, I’m happy to my turn my attention once more to the blue-collar country beckoning outside my window.
Thirty kilometres or so past Philly, the Crescent pulls into Trenton, on New Jersey’s southern lip. “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” reads the large lettering on the two-lane Lower Free Bridge that crosses the Delaware river.
Installed in 1935, the slogan is a throwback to better times: remarkable as it now seems, in the late 19th and early-20th centuries, this sleepy, rather ramshackled town was a manufacturing powerhouse, where vast quantities of rubber, wire rope, ceramics and cigars were produced.
By the early 1960s, America’s manufacturing industry — and with it Trenton — was in terminal decline. In 1950 the town’s population was almost 125,000; now barely 80,000 hardy souls call it home, the decaying chimneys and abandoned factories reminders of its former glories.
Trenton, in many ways, is a microcosm of much of modern New Jersey. Although one of the wealthiest places in America by average income, the south-east coast of the much-maligned Garden State is no thing of great beauty. From New Brunswick to Elizabeth then Newark, we slowly plod past remnants of a rich, productive past lost forever.
This is classic rock country — Bruce Springsteen grew up in nearby Long Branch, Bon Jovi emerged from down the road in Sayreville — and I can’t resist humming ‘Glory Days’ as the train shuffles down the rail.
Finally, over an hour north of Trenton, the majestic New York skyline appears, almost out of thin air. Where scrapyards were, just moments before, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the iconic lower Manhattan skyline now fills my vista.
As our train ambles into Penn Station — some 70 minutes shy of our scheduled arrival time — a much smaller coach passes, heading in the opposite direction. ‘Hicksville’ reads the sign on the front carriage.
I’m about to step out into the probably the most vivacious city on earth, but a little part of me wishes I was riding the rails to Hicksville. Just imagine who you might meet on that train!
This article first appeared in the Irish Independent 12 February