Recommended: “21st Century Limited”

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Novelist Kevin Baker’s report on the present state of the American passenger train, in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine that goes on sale next week, begins thusly: “We start in darkness. After fighting our way through the dingy, low-ceilinged, crowded waiting room that serves as New York City’s current Pennsylvania Station, we pull out through a graffitied tunnel that follows one of the oldest roadbeds in America. Freight trains once clattered along open tracks here, spewing smoke within a few dozen yards of the mansions along Riverside Drive and attracting one of the most dangerous hobo encampments in the country, before it was finally all buried beneath a graceful park in the 1930s. Today, we emerge into sunlight for the first time in Harlem, following a route up the glorious Hudson River, past Bear and Storm King Mountains, and the old ruined Bannerman castle on Pollepel Island.”

Do you want to read more? I sure did.

“21st Century Limited: The lost glory of America’s railroads” may confuse some readers. We are in the early stages of the second Age of Railroading, more glorious in many respects than the first. Railroads, in fact, appear to be the only mode of transportation in America today that work as intended. But the restored glory belongs wholly to the freight railroads, a distinction that Mr. Baker does not appear to fully grasp. But if you can get over this shortcoming, and a slew of factual errors, you will be wonderfully entertained by his account of traveling from one end of America to the other and back, on Amtrak.

What Baker does best is capture what it is like to ride Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Such as this: “Once, railroad-dining-car chefs produced some of the best food in America at almost any time of the day or night, serving up regional specialties on real china, with glass, silver, and fine linen napkins. Today the food is prepackaged and warmed up, airline-style meals served mostly on hardened paper or plastic dishes. All across America the menus are the same: a choice of reasonably edible steak, hamburger, chicken, salmon, or pasta, accompanied by a couple of dinner rolls and an anemic salad. But the real attraction is the strangers you’re seated with.” Wow, dead on, Kevin! Introvert that I am, almost anyone can draw me out of my shell from across a dining car table. The first night in the dining car he meets Mark and Linda, two train lovers who “buy everything on their Amtrak credit cards in order to run up rewards point.” Does that sound familiar?

Or here is his take on a place I’ve entered dozens of times this year, the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station: “Only Amtrak could turn a luxury lounge into a refugee center. Most of the passengers struggle and sway hauling their baggage down to the train, then up the twisting stairs inside the double-decker cars.” I laugh at “refugee center,” because his term for this rather ragged room that begs for renovation is so on target.

Lest you think this is just a critique of Amtrak, it is not. Throughout this long account it’s evident that Baker is enjoying himself. He says this about the Sightseer Lounge on the western trains: “Amtrak’s observation cars today are built with no equivalent sense of artistry—or any artistry at all—but they are comfortable, maybe the most agreeable means of travel aside from ocean-liner staterooms.” And I would also agree with what he says about the on-board employees. “Amtrak’s long-distance dining and sleeper-car crews tend to be efficient and almost indefatigably friendly, despite the long trips and the relentless demands of their jobs.”

Harper’s core readership I would describe as politically liberal, and these readers will enjoy Baker’s accounts of the campaigns by conservative Republicans, starting with David Stockman during the Reagan presidency, to do away with Amtrak. Fair enough, I thought. But he is just as critical of Barack Obama for botching the rollout of his high-speed train initiative, so mishandled that high-speed trains are today politically toxic.

On and on he travels, enjoying most of all the Coast Starlight and its Pacific Parlour Car. Headed east from the Pacific coast, Baker unloosens this delightful paragraph: “The headlines on the bundles of USA Today brought aboard read, ‘House, Senate parry on Obamacare as shutdown looms.’ It’s not of much concern on the California Zephyr. At breakfast, I reminisce with Gene—a devout Nebraska Cornhuskers fan wearing a bright-red team jacket, on his way back to Lincoln, where he has been teaching mathematics for fifty-three years—over Johnny Rogers’s greatest game. At lunch, I talk to Leah and John, both of whom have their pilot’s licenses and have lived and worked all over the world in public health, about Mayor Dick Lee and his struggle with the Model Cities Program in New Haven, Conn. We speculate about a middle-aged couple who hold hands everywhere they go on the Zephyr, and whom everyone wonders about until we realize that the man is blind. I marvel anew at the range of conversations you can have on the train even as you’re being Archimedied into collectivism.”

If I picked apart all of Kevin Baker’s factual errors, you would gain the wrong impression; forgive him and get over it, because the errors aren’t really that important. What is important is what he does right, which is describe the good and the bad of life aboard an Amtrak train crossing this country, with an affection and warmth that tugs at you.—Fred W. Frailey

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