What I'm looking forward to in 2021

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, December 28, 2020

The southbound Crescent stops in Manassas, Va. Photo by Alex Mayes
One of my favorite ways to experience an overnight train ride, when I travel by sleeper, is to close the curtains to the hallway, turn off all the lights to completely darken the room, and enjoy the nighttime views. Without any lights reflecting off the window, one can see elements of the passing landscape surprisingly well, especially when the moon is out. There’s a particular moody quality to this experience that is not present in daytime viewing and is nearly impossible to capture with a camera — and the presence of holiday light displays on homes and small-town main streets this time of year adds a special zest. 

I found myself in a comfy, cheery, and reflective mood as I rolled south across the north-central Virginia piedmont on the old Southern Railway main line in a Viewliner Roomette on Amtrak’s Crescent on Tuesday night — the stretch of track I’ve ridden more often than any outside the Northeast Corridor as it connects my old hometown with my current one. I had a playlist of holiday jazz tunes on my phone and a rum & ginger ale to go with my “flexible dining” in-room dinner (the Crescent is operating without a dining car at the moment). The downtowns of Manassas, Nokesville, Culpeper, Orange, Charlottesville and other smaller communities were aglow with festive lights. At a time when so much of that which gives life fullness is diminished, and despite the enjoyable social aspect of train travel being absent, this particular experience is still just as rich as always. 

I know we’re all looking forward to putting 2020 behind us. While it hasn’t been the year any of us had hoped for, I’ve made the best of it and have still managed to get in some new train travel and train watching experiences. A friend and I did a southwestern circle trip on Amtrak (San Diego-Los Angeles-Dallas-St. Louis-Kansas City-Los Angeles) in January, and another friend and I explored past and present railroad sites across Massachusetts in late May. In August, I got in my second ride on the beautiful Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad and hiked up to Maryland Heights to photograph the eastbound Capitol Limited rolling through Harper’s Ferry. 

In October, I got to experience four new (to me) tourist train routes in the spectacular White Mountains of New Hampshire, and friends and I chased Joe Biden’s campaign train through Ohio and Pennsylvania, catching a glimpse of the next president and first lady at the rear window as the train pulled out of Pittsburgh. I took seven trips on the Crescent, two on the Carolinian, five on Northeast Regionals, five on Acela, two on the Capitol Limited and one each on three long-distance and three short-distance routes in 2020.

Another exciting train-related event for me and six friends happened late in the year. I can’t unveil too many details yet, but I can say that it’ll involve a great deal of labor — both physical and in front of computers and on the phone and videoconferences — in the next four months, but will mean more time out on the rails and the opportunity to do unique trips and rail-bound events in the years to come.

In the wider world of passenger rail and transit, 2020 was likewise not without its highlights. New or extended transit lines opened in the San Francisco Bay Area and Denver, and progress was made toward potential 2021 openings in Miami, Boston, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. Work began on major extensions in Kansas City, Seattle, and a few other cities, and work continued on California High Speed Rail, Las Vegas-Victorville high speed rail, and the Texas Central Railway. The final commuter railroads completed positive train control installation, testing and crew training before the end-of-year deadline. More passenger train operators are taking advantage of the latest technology to empower riders and employees to enhance safety and collect revenue in a contact-free manner.

We don’t know what new challenges 2021 and the coming years will bring, but we can be reasonably confident that railroads and transit will help us meet them. There is one overarching, ever-worsening predicament toward mitigating which we know that the growth of, and shift of passenger and freight traffic to, rail is making an impact: climate change. Luckily, the incoming presidential administration takes climate resilience seriously and seems to realize the potential for rail to play a key role. That, and bringing the pandemic under control with vaccines, widespread rapid testing and other measures, are what I’m most optimistic about in the new year. 

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients have included Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, DB Engineering & Consulting USA and ELERTS Corp. He also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his current or former clients or associations.

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