#NerdTrain: An annual rolling hangout for transit buffs

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, August 7, 2015

Five years ago, Matt Johnson and Ashley Robbins, friends who were then living in Washington, DC and Atlanta respectively and who were (and still are) both involved in urban planning and transit advocacy, had a Twitter conversation in which they issued one another a friendly challenge to see who could ride the most miles on Amtrak that year. That evolved into planning a train trip from Minneapolis to DC, in which another friend, Adam Froehlig (who grew up around the Twin Cities), invited himself to join. They wound up being bustituted from Midway Station to Chicago that year (2010) due to a very late-running Empire Builder, but did share a ride on the Capitol Limited the rest of the way.

Matt Johnson (far left) chats with others in the 'NerdHerd' in the Empire Builder's Sightseer Lounge, heading east across central Montana on Aug. 2, 2015. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
The next year, more people joined Johnson, Robbins and Froehlig on a trip from DC to Montreal via the Northeast Regional and Adirondack, and (thanks in part to Froehlig's insistence that the group be broadened) the journey began to take on its own identity encapsulated with a hashtag: #NerdTrain. Now, it has become an annual rolling hangout for those with passions for trains, transportation and cities whose ranks grow every year. A Facebook group was set up to organize each year’s trip, with the group determining the routes and the date democratically.

While #NerdTrain has become somewhat of an institution that has taken on a life of its own, while Johnson still plays the role of lead organizer and “cruise director.” Many of the group members, known as the “NerdHerd,” are also professionals working in government or advocacy around transportation and placemaking, but some are simply buffs. 

Planning for each year’s journey begins in January, when Johnson sends a message to the Facebook group soliciting route and destination ideas for the summer’s trip. Once these have been nominated, the group conducts two rounds of voting to whittle down the choices. Each round has a deadline by which each group member’s preference must be voiced in the comments on the post. 

NerdHerd member Dave Stroup photographs a flaring at an oil refinery east of Williston, ND from a Bedroom on the eastbound Empire Builder on Aug. 2, 2015. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Once the route is selected, the next step is to pick the travel dates. There is always one core segment, usually one long-distance train from end to end, that the entire group rides on. Before or after that, members of the group who have the time and inclination often ride other segments to connect with the core one. Johnson gets an idea of each member’s rough summer schedule, then he picks three possible weeks, and the members vote to select one of those.

Next comes booking travel for the entire group on the same train, almost always in sleeping car accommodations. Knowing that fares rise as more rooms are sold on a given departure, Johnson instructs members who plan to redeem Amtrak Guest Rewards points for their rooms to wait until everyone who is paying for a room books. That way, those paying can take advantage of the lower bucket fares, and those using points can take advantage of the fact that the number of points required for a particular accommodation (Roomette or Bedroom) is constant, regardless of the going fare for the same accommodation on the same date. Once everyone who is able to join has booked a room, group members plan how they will get to the city of origin and home from the destination city — either on other trains with or without other group members, or flying.

Another advantage of this process is what has been dubbed the “NerdTrain Scholarship,” whereby someone who might not otherwise be able to afford the trip is able to join, if he or she is willing to share a room with another group member who is traveling alone. Since the accommodation price and the number of points required for a room is the same whether the room is occupied by one person or two, a second traveler can room with one who is paying the full cost (dollars or points) either free (if using points) or by only paying the lowest bucket rail (i.e. coach) fare (if paying).

Three train-themed board games are laid out for the evening's entertainment in the Sightseer Lounge after the Empire Builder departs Minot, ND on Aug. 2, 2015. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Members of the NerdHerd pass the time on the train, in part, by playing train and city-themed games. One of these, just developed last year, is Cards Against Urbanity. It is a version of Cards Against Humanity that uses terms familiar to urban planners and those involved in urban design and city politics, as well as transportation issues. Others include Transamerica and Catan Histories, a version of Settlers of Catan that is set in mid-19th-century America and revolves around westward expansion. Members also plan transit excursions, sightseeing and other group activities in the origin and destination cities.

This is the first year that yours truly has been able to join #NerdTrain, and also the NerdHerd’s first official appearance aboard the Empire Builder. Past focal routes, in addition to the Adirondack and Capitol Limited, have been the Sunset Limited and California Zephyr. We rode train 8 from Seattle to Chicago, departing Seattle on Saturday, Aug. 1. Several members started in Los Angeles or the Bay Area and rode the Coast Starlight to Seattle, and a few made a one-day stopover in Portland and took the first morning Cascades train to Seattle on Saturday. I flew to Seattle on Monday, July 27, to do some sightseeing in the area (including Seattle’s urban park network as well as Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks) before the Builder ride, including a quick day trip on the Cascades to Vancouver, BC to see a friend there. 

After a little mid-day touring in Seattle on Saturday, with many getting around on Pronto Cycle Share bikes, the whole group gathered at King Street Station and boarded together. Even though we were spread out between three Bedrooms and six Roomettes in both the 0830 and 0831 Superliner sleepers, the on-board services staff were great about accommodating us as a group. Johnson coordinated with the Lead Service Attendant in the diner to allow us to have lunch as a group (arriving in the diner at 11:45 AM both days, 15 minutes before the first general call for lunch service), and coordinating dinner reservations so that we could sit with other NerdHerders. 

NerdHerd members squeeze into Bedroom B in Superlunar sleeper 0831 on the eastbound Empire Builder as it approaches Milwaukee on Aug. 3, 2015. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
When we weren’t socializing in the Sightseer Lounge (or couldn’t, because it was on the Portland section of the Builder), we were mostly able to fit into two Bedrooms (B and C) with the door between them open for an en-suite arrangement. We took advantage of every fresh air stop on the route (including some who went to a local bar during the 90-minute layover in Spokane) and took copious photos, posting them to Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #NerdTrain whenever an Internet connection was available (a few members brought mobile hotspots and shared their WiFi with others, though we prioritized in-person connectivity). 

As veteran Amtrak riders, we were all prepared for our Builder to be several hours late into Chicago. We had taken the attitude expressed to Johnson by a Coast Starlight sleeper attendant with a Spanish accent and a laid-back attitude, who told him “the train does what the train will do.” Luckily, we enjoyed a fairly good run. The train was on-time or early into every station until Malta, MT, and only lost an hour between there and Williston, ND, and then another hour between Devils Lake and Grand Forks, both due to freight congestion. (We were still up playing games when we reached Devils Lake around 1:00 AM). We were able to make up some of that time, leaving St. Paul around 9:30 AM (1 hour & 30 min late) and arriving in the Windy City just before 5:30 PM.

Upon arrival, we gathered in the Great Hall for a group photo. Before we dispersed to various activities (including a Chicago White Sox baseball game that evening), Johnson continued the NerdTrain tradition by reciting the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “Travel.” Indeed, I doubt there’s a train any of us wouldn’t take.

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