Riding the train across the USA: Part 1 — Little Rock, Arkansas — Washington, DC

Amtrak Capitol Limited Sightseer Lounge interior in western Pennsylvania

The waiting room is open and lit, an island in dark night. A few people huddled outside in the dark, warm humidity (July in Arkansas). Inside, rows of solid wood, high backed waiting room benches.

As the clock ticks on, the waiting room fills. Clearly there are a bunch of people taking this train tonight. Parents with young children, older couples, young men looking disaffected. The poor, the middle class. People with time to take it a little slower to get to Chicago or any other town up the track. Blacks, whites, all mixed. The kids are doing well for it being almost midnight. Maybe it is all a big adventure to them.

“Train will be here in 10 minutes.” The ticket agent walks around the waiting room making the announcement. Everyone forms a tidy queue on the walkway to the platform. A conductor comes through and checks passengers off against a list on his mobile device.

The train comes in, bells clanging, slowly rolling along the platform. It stops. Checked luggage is exchanged at the baggage car. Passengers get off.

Then finally, a go ahead and we walk down the platform towards the coaches. All I have is a tag that says “CHI”. No seat number. No car number. Wonder how this will work out, with lots of memories of boarding overnight trains in Europe, pushing into half-full compartments with sleeping inmates. I make it to the appointed, next to last, coach. Waiting behind a group of people loading their suitcases into the already mostly full lower luggage area, I decide to take my chances finding space for my backpack upstairs.

The upstairs in the Superliner is very dimly lit. I spy empty seats down the aisle and quickly get my backpack stowed in the luggage rack overhead, before grabbing a window seat.

With no signal and almost imperceptibly, the train starts moving. Very gently it eases out from the platform and minutes later crosses the Arkansas River. Occasionally the horn blows way up at the front of the train as we wind our way into the night. People settle down to sleep. I have a nice big seat, with footrest and lots of space to the seat in front, and at least for now, an empty seat next to me. It feels good to be on a moving train again.

Amtrak operates a network of 15 long distance routes, from coast to coast, plus a number of regional services. Taking the train from Little Rock to Chicago does take longer than driving, but you’re not driving! You get there having spent travel time doing whatever you want to do.

Morning on a train somewhere in Missouri. Lots of trees and hills. Curvy, single track line. Houses dotting the landscape here and there. This is very rural. I’ve gone camping and canoeing here.

I slept good during the night. When booking this trip, I decided against the extra cost of a roomette in a sleeping car. Figured that if sleeping in coach worked for me years ago when traveling Europe with my backpack, it would be fine now too.

The seats in Amtrak coach are very comfortable. The back reclines (no, not like on an airplane — really reclines) and there’s a foot rest and a leg rest, plus plenty of space to the seat in front. So no need to feel cramped or stuck in one position. I brought a jacket that I use for a cover, and another works as a pillow.

Other passengers have brought full-size pillows and blankets to make themselves seriously comfortable.

The scenery changes as the tracks now parallel a very rain-swollen Mississippi River. The website says we’ll be 40 or so minutes late into St Louis. That means we’ve picked up a little of the delay from Little Rock. At least the train keeps moving at a decent clip. This seems to be a quite long single track line with no sidings for meets. I wonder how many freights are in the hole to let us through.

This is all Union Pacific territory, meaning that trains here are dispatched by people in front of computer screens in a converted freight-house complex in Omaha, Nebraska. I don’t envy them the challenge to mix a fast moving passenger train with much slower and longer freights that may or may not fit in sidings on the line.

St Louis, Amtrak's The Texas Eagle station stop, people on platform
Station stop in St. Louis – The Texas Eagle for Chicago is on the right, a River Runner for Kansas City on the left

The Texas Eagle has a long stop in St Louis. For some passengers that means smoke break, since there’s no smoking anywhere on the train. I take the opportunity to stretch my legs and check out the entire train.

Two diesel engines, baggage car, some sleepers, dining car, sightseer lounge car and a couple coaches. The train started in San Antonio and will end in Chicago. 3 days a week, it carries through cars from Los Angeles.

Across the platform is another train, waiting to head for Kansas City.

Back in my seat, I watch intently as the train moves again, onto an elevated structure that once held a number of other tracks, but now just displays empty girders where those tracks used to be. I can see the River beyond all the rusted steel. Soon we’re out on the bridge, crossing the Mississippi. The train pauses briefly before rolling on into Illinois.

Illinois farm country: a farmstead, fields and crossing a county roadSo I’m in Illinois now and the landscape has changed to flat corn fields, dotted with tidy farms and frequent towns shaped by agriculture. It feels like home to roll by farm supply dealers along the tracks.

The normal route from St Louis to Chicago is a straight speedway, but today we’re taking a scenic detour due to construction. The Texas Eagle winds its way northeast before heading due north towards Chicago.

On the way we pass many Union Pactific freights, all sitting on sidings to give clear way. When crossing the mainline from Champaign to downstate in Tuscola, our train has to stop to allow a freight to clear the diamonds. So far it’s been a good detour line, decent track, but all single track territory.

Computer on my lap in the sightseeing lounge carI do a bit of writing this morning. I decided to leave business projects at home. A break for a little while is a good thing. Instead I brought a novel I’ve been working on off and on for a long time, to maybe reconnect with it and see where it might go from where I left off.

Checking on Amtrak’s website tells me we’re going to be 1 hour 20 minutes late into Chicago. I’d prefer to be on time, but I’ll still have plenty of time to make my next train.

Out the window I happen to see a deer running through a field next to the tracks. Awesome.

Closer to Chicago, things slow down. We’re still on single track and end up having to wait to meet the southbound Texas Eagle. Then there are freights crossing our path and finally it’s Metra rush hour.

As we roll through suburbs, I put my things away and grab my backpack. The game plan is to not get stuck behind the horde of people who will all be downstairs trying to get their suitcases off the luggage shelves. By the time those folks come down, I’m already by the exit doors, watching the city roll by and catching the occasional glimpse of tall buildings in the Loop up ahead.

It’s 5:20pm as I stand on the platform at Chicago Union Station. Instead of a layover of several hours, I’ll have just enough time to look around the station a bit. The Great Hall is awesome, as always, although restoration has made it really shine. I head up the stairs to the corner of Canal and Adams. This is the corner where I got my first views of Chicago back in 1978, having just come in on the Lakeshore Limited from New York. The Sears Tower (yes, I know it has another name now, but to some of us it will always be the Sears Tower) is still there, but so much is new around here. It feels really good to be back here.

Chicago Union Station, Great Hall
Chicago Union Station, Great Hall where people wait for trains in all directions

Shortly after 6pm the boarding process for the Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, starts. Passengers line up in the Great Hall and then we all walk together down to track 28 where the train is waiting. Seat numbers are assigned prior to getting on the train. Mine is an aisle seat, but in the window seat is a woman traveling with her 2 small children who have seats across the aisle. We both figure out that a trade would be a good thing: I get the window seat and she’s right across the aisle from the kids.

Yay — I’ve got a window seat on a full train and it’s on the interesting side, towards the lake as the train speeds out of Windy City, skirting Lake Michigan towards the Indiana border. The train left exactly on time. The next part of the adventure has begun.

Going through the area of old steel mills, I’m stuck at the window. Old industrial buildings that nature is taking over fascinate me. Plenty of that along here. And occasional glimpses of the lake.

I’m in the 9pm dinner seating, but they are running late, plus we crossed time zones, so 9 is really 10. Fashionably late dinner I guess. You get seated with strangers to fill a table of 4. My table mates are 2 women traveling together and a man from Colorado. We have a lively conversation about travel experiences and the meaning of life. (No kidding.)

Morning in southern Pennsylvania. The train snakes along a river surrounded by tree covered hills. I woke up around 7am, realizing I totally missed the stop at Pittsburgh during the night. Must have slept good.

Breakfast in the cafe care at the window as the train snakes along a riverThe dining car has both full dining as well as a café/lounge section. In the latter, I get breakfast: yogurt with granola, a bagel and orange juice. Pretty awesome to enjoy that at a table while watching the river outside snake by. Sometimes the curves are tight enough that I can see the engines up ahead.

After breakfast I make my home in the sightseer lounge. Comfortable chairs and panorama windows make the trip a delightful spectacle. We roll through small towns that look like time passed them by years ago. Some rock cuts we pass through seem close enough to almost touch the train. I’m not sure when we pass into West Virginia, but at some point we leave the river we’ve followed and eventually start descending on the other side of the mountains.

I get some writing done on my computer, but honestly, it’s hard to focus on that when there’s ever changing scenery outside. Martinsburg, WV, has an amazing new/old station building, combining recent construction with an old railroad hotel, from before the civil war. Across the tracks are the historic Martinsburg Shops built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as part of the early efforts to connect the interior of the country with the Atlantic coast. What was it like when the railroaders built the original B&O line through the Alleghenies in the infancy of railroading in the early 1800s?

The train rolls on and a little later we stop at Harper’s Ferry. That’s another place that I’ve never detoured off the Interstate to visit. Now I get to ride through it and watch happy rafters on the Potomac River below the train bridge. There’s history everywhere you turn around here.

Walking back through the coaches, I see a bunch of people still trying to sleep even though it’s almost lunch time. I think that says something about how worn out many of us are these days.

This train runs once a day, each direction, Chicago to Washington, DC and is almost full. So much for the idea that no one or only few take the train. If this route was upgraded to allow full use of 79 mph, wherever possible, travel time would be less.

Taking the train is already almost competitive with driving from Little Rock to Washington, DC, which requires 2 full days of driving and an overnight stay.

Real high speed trains would be a giant step forward, but that’s so far off in this country, it’s not even funny. So until we have stomach for that investment, I’d love to see continued incremental improvements to ensure trains run on time and with a bit higher average speeds.

Washington, DC, Union Station platform, passengers walking towards the station building
Arrival in Washington, DC – passengers heading for the terminal building

It’s an easy run into Washington DC. We roll into Union Station about 30 minutes late. Not bad at all. I walk through the concourse full of shops and people out in front of the station. The time on the train has been revitalizing. I’m starting to rethink my book-in-progress and getting more in touch with myself.

Later in the evening, I walk the length of the Mall, from the Capitol down to the WWII memorial. A nice evening stroll enjoying a summer evening. Tomorrow is the meeting I came here for, but right now I’m just soaking in being present in this place.

Do you have a favorite mode of travel?
Is there a journey you’ve made that stands out to you? What made it special?

Other parts in this series:
Find all the posts in this series here