Marco Werman: Crossing America on steel


Amtrak in Chicago

An Amtrak train pulls out of Chicago. PRI's The World host Marco Werman traveled through the Windy City on his cross-country rail adventure. 


Chris Smith / Flickr

Time was running out. I had less than two months to take Amtrak cross-country — at their expense — and be reminded of the joys of train travel. I wanted to set aside two weeks from hosting The World, and go as far as my Amtrak writer’s residency would allow me.

I was one of 24 self-described scribes who were awarded these junkets by Amtrak last year.

I came up with a hasty plan to triangulate from Boston to New Orleans to L.A. and back, via Chicago in six days. I picked Saturday, May 16, to head down to New York and picking up The Crescent for the 36-hour run to New Orleans. It sounded pretty cool.

But that plan would be overtaken by events. On the Tuesday before, Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 left Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and about 13 minutes later, it headed into a sharp turn, 52 mph over the 50 mph limit. It jumped the tracks, and killed eight people.

I had spent a lot of time pondering what I would write about on this trip and where I should go to find a story. But the Philadelphia tragedy landed it right in front of me: A train trip through an America slowly collapsing around us. And a chance to capture anecdotally and visually — because in two weeks, what could I possibly research objectively? — how my country seemed to be caving in, and yet still standing.

Boston to New Orleans

The Train 188 crash meant that all routes going through Philadelphia, including my train from New York, were out of commission until the following week. So Amtrak suggested I stick to my plan, and figure out a way to get to Washington’s Union Station where The Crescent would be originating until the Philadelphia tracks were ready for business.

So I cobbled together the first leg of the trip with Uber to Logan Airport, JetBlue to Washington, and the Washington Metro to Union Station. It was already starting off as a very American train ride.

Amtrak’s Metropolitan Clubs — and there is one at Union Station in Washington — are one of the company’s attempts to burnish what little elegance remains of traveling higher than coach class on the American rails these days. You can access them if you’re traveling in the sleeper cars. They offer free snacks and sodas. CNN drones on a flat-screen in the background. And then a porter instructed the room to follow him.

We dragged our rollers through a hallway with beat-up linoleum tile and skid marks on the wall from luggage trolleys, and exited through two large swinging doors onto the same platform that the rest of the passengers would walk down in a few minutes.  We made our way to the sleeping berths.

The porter assigned to my car was a muscular but baby-faced African American woman with short hair named Candy.  She, along with the rest of the porters and crew are New Orleans-based. “Only the dining car people get on in Washington,” she told me.

My sleeping compartment was for two people, but when you travel alone, Amtrak burns the other seat so you don’t have to share the sleeping space with a stranger. Thankfully, because it would be cramped even for two people used to being in close proximity.

Candy showed me how a few things in my compartment work. “You’ve got your own toilet,” she said proudly, as if the setup is preferable to using a toilet down the hall, and as she demonstrated it, it was clear that it was not.

I would find out later from the conductor that these sleeper cars were introduced in the 1970s, and that Amtrak has simply maintained them as best they can in the years since. But to even the most-germ-tolerant people, placing the toilet right next to the lower sleeping bunk seems like a bacterial disaster waiting to happen.

Puzzling then the frequent announcements for new passengers getting on board: “You must wear shoes when walking about the train. Bare feet are not allowed.”

As I settled in to my roomette, or “spacepod” as I called it, the skies across the capital grew dark, and fat raindrops began smacking against the window of the railcar as The Crescent pulled away from Union Station. The storm sucked up the remaining daylight. I wandered back to the dining car, and a waiter seated me at a table with a couple in their twenties. I had a passable veggie burger, but it was clear all three of us were doing our politest to find the right words to praise the food.

I got a beer to go. I opted to sleep in the upper bunk, and thought a drink would relax me for what might be a rocky night. Before I went to dinner, Candy had offered to turn down my bunk for me, another one of those nostalgic details that Amtrak still has in its arsenal.

The Crescent hurtled through the Blue Ridge darkness — I vaguely registered the stop in Charlottesville — and around 6:30 in the morning, I woke up in Atlanta to the quiet of a still train, the engine cut, and just the nearby hiss of cars along I-85, an early light bouncing off their side panels.

Deep South

I grew up in the South, in North Carolina, and whenever I return, it is both to something familiar and comfortable. But at the same time it is uncomfortable. Especially now, with datelines like Ferguson and Baltimore, and the general slippage in civil rights. And as the poverty began to unfold before me as the tracks led further away from Atlanta, the discomfort of being in the South began to set in.

I went to breakfast, and immediately noticed how the 20 or so people in the dining car had self-segregated. Maybe the waiter arranged them that way, unconsciously. In any case, I was hoping that my meals in the dining car might be a moment to have some real conversations with real people. But I was seated at a four-top by myself.

We stopped in Birmingham for 30 minutes, and passengers got out of the train to stretch and smoke. Two tracks over from us next to a warehouse, I was surprised to see a disused railcar with the old Civil Defense logo on it. It seemed to want to have a role to play, even though the graffiti on it and the wheels seemingly rusted to the tracks suggested otherwise.


From civil defense to graffiti, this car has been through a lot.

A photo posted by Marco Werman (@marcowerman) on

The thing I’ve often noticed taking Amtrak up and down the east coast — which I’ve done regularly since I was a teenager — is that you are constantly on the other side of the tracks. When you’re in a car on the highway or a secondary road, you’re seeing the face of rural and urban planning. When you’re in a train, you’re seeing the backside of development, whether it’s a loading dock, a slurry pit, or a cluster of shotgun shacks. Admittedly, from a car, box stores and yellow and red fast-food signs have their own special brutality. And of course, there are long stretches of beautiful untouched land across the US that you can stare at until you’re in a trance.  But there is nothing like poverty, industrial collapse, degraded infrastructure, and seeing the staging grounds for the material needed to make this country function — all at once — that will really sock you in the gut.

Leaving Birmingham, the rusted bridges were the first exhibit in this trip down the other side of the tracks. And in Amtrak’s observation car, you can actually take in a 360-degree sweep of both sides of “the other side of the tracks,” because in the US today, the rails no longer are the precise dividing line between success and deprivation.

In Mississippi, the Confederate flags — flying in yards and occupying as it does the upper left corner of the state flag — added to the dystopia. A couple of weeks before my trip started, two policemen had been ambushed and shot to death in Hattiesburg, where the train made a brief scheduled stop. One of the cops was white, the other black. Flags had been ordered to be flown at half-staff across the state. And as The Crescent came into the Hattiesburg city limits, I spotted an old building that looked like it had once been a small church but was now a residence. In front was parked a banged-up 70s-era Buick. Next to it, a long tree branch stuck in the ground served as a flagpole, and on it, a Confederate flag at half-staff. 

Selective memorializing, I suppose.

In Lifestyle & BeliefLifestyle.