This Thursday I am leaving on a rail odyssey that will take me from Bellingham to Seattle, to Chicago, to Buffalo, and finally to Toronto. Four days of trans and layovers crossing Washington State, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York before crossing into Canada and arriving in Toronto, Ontario. The trip is quite inexpensive, at less than 300$ for the ticket, and it’s no good to assume that either the price or the train itself will be in operation indefinitely. Spending so much time on the rails should allow me time to read and write, and prepare for the upcoming term – but I’m also very much looking forward to the spontaneous conversations which other train-travelers say tend to spark up along the rails.
Taking the train today can’t help feel nostalgic, or at least this has been my experience riding the rails in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor. Despite trains out there being quite practical (and profitable for the operators), there is something old world about getting onto the silver liner in the grand central stations (Ottawa’s suburban nightmare station aside). The other side of that nostalgia is, however, that trains fit uneasily into the mainstream of contemporary travel in North America. One thing I hope to learn on this trip is how does Amtrak fit into the American transport psyche – since unlike Canada’s Via it is properly subsidized so it is not more expensive than flying. It cannot, however, be considered a serious alternative to flying – no one who really values the convenience of getting on a round machine and getting out again 5000 miles away 5 hours later would seriously consider spending the same amount for a trip taking ten times longer. Because of the time commitment, the train can only be taken by those who seriously value something about the train journey or trains themselves. What is this value? Hopefully I will have something to say about this during or after the trip.