Folio — From the July 2014 issue

21st Century Limited

The lost glory of America’s railroads

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.

A dining car is attached at Albany — a delay that takes an hour. For that matter, we are not actually in Albany but in Rensselaer, across the river, where in 2002 Amtrak completed the largest train station built in this country since 1939 — a structure that has all the individuality of a shopping-mall Barnes & Noble. But we gladly seize the opportunity to stand on the open platform and stare across the Hudson at the capital. It’s a splendid early-fall evening, and we’re at the start of an adventure. We smoke and stretch our legs, and I chat with Derrick, our sleeping-car porter, who is in charge of providing for all the passengers in his five compartments and ten “roomettes.” He tells me he emigrated from Uganda and has been working for the railroad for the past two and a half years.

Empty café car near Tomah, Wisconsin, on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago. Unless otherwise noted, photographs by McNair Evans from In Search of Great Men, an ongoing project documenting long-distance travel on Amtrak.

Empty café car near Tomah, Wisconsin, on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago. Unless otherwise noted, photographs by McNair Evans from In Search of Great Men, an ongoing project documenting long-distance travel on Amtrak.

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. A high percentage of them are people of color, an old railroad tradition. (George Pullman, searching for an uncomplaining workforce to service his new cars, began the practice of recruiting former slaves to work as porters soon after the Civil War. Yet they did not prove as pliable as Pullman would have liked; though it took them decades, they organized their own union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, under slogans such as “Fight or Be Slaves,” and hired a socialist firebrand named A. Philip Randolph to run it.)

By the time we step back on the train in Rensselaer, we can hear the dining-car crew setting up for the evening meal. 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.

My first night I sit with a merry retired couple, Mark and Linda, a former middle-school teacher and an accountant from Hyde Park, New York, who love train travel. They constitute, I will discover, one of the three leading categories of long-distance train passengers: train enthusiasts, derisively called foamers by Amtrak crew members. (The others are tourists from Britain and those who, for one reason or another — physical or psychological — cannot tolerate the many inconveniences of air travel.)

Mark and Linda are foamers. They buy everything on their Amtrak credit cards in order to run up rewards points, as do many of the enthusiasts I encountered. Mark is also a model-train buff. They are New Deal liberals, and though outright politics is almost religiously avoided around the close quarters of an Amtrak dining table, most sleeping-car passengers will let on quietly, almost conspiratorially, that they believe in things like public investment, and not just for trains.

Mark can reel off the names of the towns we are passing in upstate New York even in the darkness — “Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse!” — from his time spent camping in the area with his two sons. But he and Linda are disheartened by the economic disaster that has hit much of upstate, and wonder what is to become of the region where they’ve spent so much of their lives.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His latest novel, The Big Crowd, will be out in paperback from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

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