Good times with fellow wonks

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, August 25, 2017

Those of us who are connoisseurs of train travel tend to seek out and most look forward to unique trips — either an unusual route (rare mileage or more common mileage that one is traversing for the first time), special equipment or other out-of-the-ordinary experience. But sometimes a trip familiar, more mundane (albeit fairly scenic) route with good company and fun group activities can be just as enjoyable.

#NerdTrain founder Matt Johnson photographs the P42 diesel on the point of the Southwest Chief during the station stop at La Junta, Colo. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
One such trip that happens annually (and in which I am participating for my second time this year) is #NerdTrain, an informal group of mostly Millennials who work in transportation planning, policy or management. The group, organized by Matt Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation planner, took its first long-distance Amtrak ride in 2009. The group picks a different (usually Amtrak) route each year, as well as a date for the trip, using online voting, and then each participant grabs a sleeping car room. I wrote here of my participation in the August 2015 #NerdTrain eastbound ride on the Empire Builder.

The chosen routes have so far been confined to North America (last year was the first one on VIA Rail Canada), but the group has ambitions of organizing train rides overseas. The endpoints are generally cities with new or extensive rail transit systems that the group explores before or after the main ride. Some also take trains to the group origin and from the group destination to extend the experience, while others who are more pressed for time away from work and personal commitments fly.

This year’s trip was timed to coincide with Monday’s solar eclipse, and was thus dubbed “Total Eclipse of the Nerds.” We gathered in Kansas City, from whence we went to various spots in the area that were in the path of totality on Monday, then departed for Los Angeles on the westbound Southwest Chief on Tuesday evening. We’re already planning to do “Total Eclipse of the Nerds, Part 2” for the next eclipse to be visible from the US in 2024. I’m writing this as the twelve NerdTrainers on board this year take a break from group activities in the Sightseer Lounge car while the Chief winds through Glorieta Pass (taking breaks from typing on my iPad to snap photos). 

Playing a Game of Thrones card game with Johnson and Joey de St. Aubin in the Chief's Sightseer Lounge while crossing northern New Mexico.
So far, the ride has followed the same pattern as our Builder ride two years ago. During the day, along with enjoying the view and taking photos, the group plays board and card games (this morning, it was hearts and a Game of Thrones card game). 

The evening’s entertainment, fueled by adult beverages (the engineer is doing the driving after all), is Cards Against Urbanity, a game based on Cards Against Humanity, but with scenarios familiar to urban planners and transportation & built environment policy wonks. We played until a drunken but genial fellow passenger (a UPS truck driver, he told us) insisted on being dealt in, but didn’t understand the in-jokes contained in its cards’ prompts.

Upon our 45-minute-early arrival at Los Angeles Union Station (amazing considering that we were told to expect delays of upwards of two hours due to track work between Lamy and Albuquerque), we closed the trip, as is #NerdTrain tradition, with Johnson reading aloud Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Travel.”

NerdTrainers enjoy an on-time fresh air stop at Gallup, N.M.
I’m happy to report that there are still a number of semaphore signals remaining on the Chief route between Raton and Lamy, N.M, though a number have been replaced. Also good to see is that some track work is being done on the once-threatened section of the route between Albuquerque and central Kansas via Colorado. 

One welcome addition is the provision of WiFi service to sleeping car passengers using one Verizon mobile hotspot in each sleeper, a commendable initiative of the Los Angeles crew base that others using Superliner equipment (the only part of the fleet that Amtrak has yet to equip with WiFi) should emulate. But I’m most pleased that all the train’s equipment is functional, the train is clean, BNSF dispatch is treating us well, and everyone (with the exception of a passenger who had a medical emergency causing a 50-minute delay at Las Vegas, N.M.) is enjoying the journey.

#NerdTrain is a simple, rolling social gathering of like-minded folks that will give me at least one excuse to take a long-distance train ride each year, as long as time and money permit. It is a kind of use of trains that Amtrak, VIA and other operators should continue to promote to show the many possibilities that trains permit for group or theme journeys. Sure, groups can also travel by bus or plane, but these modes provide nothing comparable to a lounge or dining car for socializing and game playing while en route.

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