The train rumbles through the darkness along Pennsylvania’s southern edge before curving north towards Pittsburgh. It’s the middle of the night, and the sleeper cabins are lulled by the low hum of the engine and a rhythmic click-clacking from the tracks below.
These pleasant noises are interrupted every now and then by the blast of the train’s horn and the clanging bells of a crossing guard as we barrel through one small town after another. Their street lights flicker through the cabins for a moment before the darkness and the low hum returns.
Long-distance rail travel in America today is for romantics. Taking this old train between Washington DC and Chicago isn’t the fastest, the cheapest, or even the most comfortable way to get between the two cities. To travel this way, you have to love these sounds, or at least have plenty of time to kill.
Pete Buttigieg, the new transport secretary, is one of those romantics. But he has nonetheless expressed a desire to drag this country’s rail system into the 21st century. Americans, he says, “have been asked to settle for less” when it comes to rail travel. He advocates massive investment to build high-speed rail and upgrade existing regional lines, and he has the full support of ‘Amtrak Joe’ Biden, perhaps the most train-friendly president in US history.
But this is a country of monster highways, cheap air travel, and a generation of young people who have never known trains to be anything but uncomfortable and inconvenient. Buttigieg’s only governing experience was two terms as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, population 100,000 – now he heads a department with a staff half the size of the city and a budget of $87bn.
I wanted to get a sense of the challenges he’ll face and experience long-distance rail travel in America in 2021. What needs to be done to fix them? Could this 39-year-old former mayor really make Americans fall in love with trains again?
It made sense, then, to take the long and winding train to South Bend.
The Amtrak Capitol Limited is supposed to depart at 4.05pm, but that time comes and goes. The distinct metallic silver train hasn’t even left the platform when I get my first taste of what it’s like to travel by rail in America today: the trains are old, and they break. Ten minutes pass, then 20, before I set out to explore.
I had booked a “roomette,” which is a cute name for a closet-sized room with two seats that fold out into something resembling a bed and a bunk above it. There were seven other rooms on my level on both sides of a narrow corridor. When everyone had settled themselves in their cabins, people left their doors open and began to chat — not just idle, getting-to-know-you chat either. In the first two minutes I learn that my cabin neighbour Roger, an incredibly friendly and energetic man with a bushy white beard, is going to meet his grandson for the first time up in Minnesota, that he had retired in 2009 and that his ex-wife got the lake house in the divorce.
Roger tells me he has travelled all the way from Florida. It will take him three days to get to his son’s place. I assume he must be a lover of trains, another romantic. But his reasons for taking the long way instead of the plane are much simpler.
“I got plenty of time. I’m retired so I got nothing happening,” he says. “It takes me three days the whole way, that’s about the same amount of time it takes me to drive.”
It’s a good job Roger has time, because the engineers tell us it will take about an hour and a half to replace the front engine. Some of the passengers step out to stretch their legs before the 17-hour journey.
Out on the platform, Lamar Chupp is holding his young son in his arms and watching them work. He has also travelled from Florida and is on his way to Elkhart, Indiana. That’s 40 hours in total. He is a long-distance train connoisseur.
“The best thing is the people you meet,” he says. “I used to do more of these long-distance journeys but now with the family it’s harder.”
He says he has been riding long distance sporadically for around 15 years and has noticed the standards slowly decline.
“The food has gotten worse. You used to have full meals on the train, you’d have railroad French toast and good American meals. But now you get a microwave meal.
“The equipment is wearing out, too. Fifteen years ago when I took these trains it was in much better shape. They’re still using the same cars, the same engines. It’s wearing out and they haven’t replaced it. It’s time for an upgrade,” he adds.
This will become a running theme throughout the trip. Buttigieg has promised bold and imaginative investment in America’s railways. He wants the US to “to be leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail.” But almost everyone riding the train today just wants the current ones to work better.
A conductor I meet on the platform, who asks to stay anonymous, puts it bluntly: “The equipment we have is dinosaur-like. We need new equipment.”
He says he has heard all the big talk about investment in high-speed rail, but seen little action. He is not optimistic that a nationwide infrastructure project running through red states and blue states could ever get off the ground.
“It’s all politics,” he says. “You’re likely to never have high-speed rail coast to coast down here.
“Coast to coast would take a good 50 years. You’re gonna have to build all these bridges, build all these rail beds. We could do it, but the United States is like a dinosaur when it comes to these things. You’ve got two parties and everybody is always fighting and the people always suffer.”
Rail passenger groups are also pushing for Buttigieg to start small. Sean Jeans-Gail, of the Rail Passengers Association, argues doing so could have a dramatic impact immediately and give passengers an early win.
“A lot of the stuff people are currently riding around on in the US was built in the Eighties. That’s one of those easy things that you can do to immediately bring people 40 years in the future – just by buying a new rail car,” he says.
“Germany doesn’t have a massive high-speed rail network, but they have a really good passenger rail system. And I think a lot of the places in the US are dealing with such sub-standard transportation systems that even just that little bit of an upgrade is going to be seen as a huge victory.”
The train gets moving around 5.30pm, roughly an hour and a half late, and the light is fading fast. We head out of Washington past the graffiti covered walls that seem to line train tracks all over the world. It’s not long before the buildings spread out and trees start flying past the window. Soon we are rolling through small towns.
One of the differences between travelling by train and by car is that highways in America have a uniformity to them. If Jack Kerouac were to cross the country again today it might make for a very dull book. Highways skirt over or around towns. They are lined with the same chain restaurants and the same superstores.
Trains, on the other hand, clang their way through the middle of these same towns — so close that you can see into people’s living rooms. They roll by factories and bus depots and schools, through the less visited parts of town. Most tracks are raised above road level so you get a sweeping view over the landscape.
The Amtrak Capitol Limited, which I’m on, runs overnight from DC to Chicago, before turning around and heading back in the other direction. It goes for 780 miles through Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, through the Allegheny Mountains, coal country, stopping at Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toledo.
The tracks that we’re riding on aren’t owned by Amtrak — which is a state-owned profit-making company. Amtrak was founded in 1971 and set to work using the lines built by freight companies and much of their hand-me-down equipment, too. Passenger trains have been running on this particular line since 1981.
As far as Amtrak sees it, trains have been an afterthought for successive governments for decades. Due to a focus on roads and planes, and subsidies to match, Amtrak has been fighting with its hands behind its back, according to Marc Magliari, with Amtrak’s public relations.
“We began in ‘71 with someone else’s map and someone else’s equipment. And some thought it wasn’t going to last very long,” he tells me.
It wasn’t always this way. Before World War Two, the US was a global leader in rail. That changed when cars became more readily available. Massive public funding flowed into building highways: $21bn for 41,000 miles, to be precise. Most of that was paid for by the federal government, while states picked up around 10 per cent of the cost.
“[President Dwight D.] Eisenhower looked at the Autobahn and decided it was a great thing, so the federal government invested many millions of dollars building a freeway system with lots of lanes and unlimited access across the country. If a mountain was in the way, they took it out. Highways were built through mountains at public expense and were built very well. When the railroads were built they went around, or tunnelled through,” he says.
The federal government not only subsidised highways but airlines too, he added. Meanwhile, Amtrak was subject to all kinds of regulations that inhibited growth and investment.
“The airlines were getting subsidies while the privately operated, privately run, property tax paying railroads were required by law to run passenger trains whether they made money or not. As the options for driving and flying increased in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s, people who had other options who could afford a car or airfares, some of that business went away. Right now most people travel intercity on the ground, in their own cars. Those people who can’t or won’t, come to us.”
Buttigieg has previously noted the disparity, saying that “Amtrak has done a heroic job with the constraints that have been placed on them. Now, we’ve got to take things to the next level.” Whether he can get Republicans to agree is another story.
In the first hour and a half of the journey we pass through Rockville in Maryland, Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg in West Virginia. Here we take the first of several stops for smokers; they are allowed to step off the train for a few minutes.
I’m eager to test the food which my friend from the platform had told me about. Up until last year, Amtrak’s dining car was a central part of the long-distance rail experience. It was essentially a restaurant, complete with white linen table clothes, a kitchen and a cook — a place for people to meet and talk with other passengers. But you can add the dining car to the long list of things that have been killed by millennials. Last year, in a bid to appeal to younger customers (and no doubt to save money) Amtrak got rid of it.
Peter Wilander, who oversees Amtrak’s customer experience, told the Washington Post at the time that millennial customers “don’t like it so much. They want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to people” they don’t know. In the place of freshly prepared meals and Railroad French Toast came pre-packaged meals.
My “flexible” and “contemporary” meal was red wine braised beef with pearl onions, carrots and mushrooms served with polenta and haricot vert. I ate in the more modern version of a dining car, which is a simple diner-like seating arrangement. But I also had the option of eating in my room. The food was as good as you might expect for a microwaved meal.
Here, and several times on this journey, I find myself repeatedly comparing my experience to other modes of transport. This food is better than airline food, marginally. I wouldn’t be able to stretch out like this in a car. The only metric by which a train loses every time is … time.
One of the most striking things about America’s rail network today is its inconsistency. It takes around three hours to travel the 230 miles from New York to Washington DC on the faster Acela service. The line runs from Boston all the way down to DC, and is the only line that could currently be considered high speed. To travel roughly the same distance on the Capitol Limited it takes nearly seven hours.
Alongside rebuilding and upgrading existing intercity routes, Buttigieg has talked up the possibility of building new high-speed lines that would encourage more people off of planes and into the greener trains.
Biden is reportedly considering a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that would help to meet his campaign goal to spark “the second great railroad revolution." He said he wanted to "make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world – for both passengers and freight."
Anyone dreaming of a coast-to-coast high-speed system that could rival Japan’s bullet train is likely to be disappointed, however.
“It’s a little complicated,” says Richard Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, based out of Chicago. “We need to have a national system. Now that doesn’t mean we’re building a completely new 2,000-mile railroad from one end of the country to the other.”
Instead, Harnish argues, a high-speed rail system in the US would link up major cities with high-speed lines from which smaller and slower lines can branch off from. That would mean making 20 per cent of the network high speed lines with trains are going 200 miles an hour, and funding to make passenger trains run faster and more frequently on the rest.
“It starts with a national vision that has a lot of different things in different places. And the truly transformative piece are those new high-speed lines which provide the trunks of this really vibrant and ubiquitous network,” he adds.
It’s not as if this hasn’t been tried before. Barack Obama set aside $10bn from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to improving America’s railroads. “There’s no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains, when we can build them right here in America,” he said. While there were small wins along the way, his ambitious plans were derailed by the rise of the Tea Party movement and the reluctance of red states to sign up for billions of funding for new tracks if it meant they would have to maintain them with their own money.
There may have been lessons learned during those years. Experts advocate a focus on shorter but heavier traffic high-speed lines between big cities like Miami and Orlando, Dallas and Texas, New York and Boston. Construction is currently underway on a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles — it’s the only such line being built in the US today and it’s facing funding difficulties as increasing costs and politics have got in the way.
Philip Stein has been a conductor with Amtrak for 23 years, most of them spent on this route. He can tell you when and where to look out of the window, when to eat and when to sleep to get the most out of the trip — after Pittsburgh, is the answer to the last one, because “it’s mostly cornfields.”
He tells me that in the winter, when the weather is particularly cold, between Pittsburgh and Chicago, you can sometimes see little fires along the side of the tracks which engineers have lit to stop the switches from freezing over.
“The best part is when you’re coming eastbound in the fall. You get down around Connellsville, Pennsylvania, all the way down close to Rockville, it’s like an oil painting,” he says.
In the quiet moments, in between tending to the passengers, he finds himself staring out at landscapes he has seen countless times before.
“I like to catch myself looking out the window in the mountains. It’s like a picture; you can look at a picture a thousand times and see something different.”
The level of service for the roomette passengers is something akin to a first-class cabin on an international flight. He comes round periodically to check on you. There’s a button on your cabin wall to call him. He thoroughly enjoys talking to people.
He says that in normal times about 15 per cent of his riders are regulars. Amish people, who generally eschew most forms of modern technology, are a regular sight on this route. In the off-season the crowd is mostly older, and in the summer time the carriages are filled with families, with a smattering of Australians and Brits.
“For a family, this is the best way to go. It’s time and patience with train travel, especially in the United States. I understand it’s a lot different in Europe and Japan. Here, you gotta have time and patience,” he says.
He starts to talk about other routes, and the benefits of trains versus planes.
“You know what’s great? A lot of people who ride [fast connection between NYC and DC] are business people, so they can do their work on the way. You’re downtown when you get off the train versus an airport where you’re out of town. That alone is a wonderful thing.”
But he says there aren’t many commuters on this route. Given how long it takes to get to Chicago, it’s no surprise. One of the arguments for improving tracks like this is to encourage more intercity rail travel, and also to open up economic opportunities to people who live further away from big urban areas.
As mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg pushed for the extension of a commuter railroad that connects to Chicago from the airport on the edge of the town into the heart of downtown, with a new station to go with it. At a predicted cost of $100m, it may have seemed like an expensive extravagance, but the idea was to give more of the city’s residents the chance to find work in Chicago. "Think of the possibilities, if the heart of our city was 90 minutes away by train from the heart of one of the most dynamic economic centres in the world," Buttigieg said in 2018. He said federal grants could help fund the project. He was also an advocate of adding another set of tracks to the exurban line.
While he was being considered for the role of transport secretary and during his confirmation, Buttigieg talked up his experience as a small town mayor trying to secure funding from federal agencies for local projects as a selling point.
“I’m arriving with something of a bottom-up perspective on what it’s like to engage federal agencies like the Department of Transportation,” he told NPR. “I think having that perspective of having interfaced with enormous federal bureaucracies from the local perspective will be something else that I can offer in the department.”
But there is another part of this job that might speak to Buttigieg’s talents.
“He’s a really effective communicator,” says Jeans-Gail, of the Rail Passengers Association. “He is able to take complex ideas and translate them into terms that people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about transportation can understand. And that is really a lot of what the job of secretary of transportation is. I’ve been doing this for about a decade and he is far and away the most high-profile secretary of transportation that I’ve seen — that’s going to be an asset.”
There are two beds in the roomette. One is a bunk bed that you pull down whenever you’re ready to retire. The other is made by pulling the two seats in the cabin together. There’s a mattress to go with it and bedding, too. You’re also provided with a blue blanket that gives off enough static electricity to power a Japanese bullet train, but the cabins are heated, cosy even.
I drift off somewhere after Pittsburgh, but due to my unfortunate placement in the cabin closest to the driver’s carriage at the front, I am woken by the blast of the train’s horn. I later learn that the driver has to sound it every time they pass through a crossing in a town, which is every few minutes, all through the night. No ear plugs or headphones can protect me from the horn, and so I use the time awake to watch out of the window for the little fires at the switches.
I wake up just outside of Toldeo, Ohio, at around 6am. The sun hasn’t risen yet and I pull back the curtain to see we’re crossing a bridge over the Maumee River, which has frozen over.
When the sun comes up, it reveals endless snow-covered fields. The driver is still hammering the horn as we pass through small towns just waking up, but it sounds less menacing in the day time.
For breakfast, we’re given the choice between a continental, cereal, a breakfast sandwich or an omelette. Again, it’s not so dissimilar to what you might get on a plane but you can eat it while watching the Indiana country fly by your window.
A few hours out from South Bend, I start to thinking about the difference Buttigieg could make on this route. Would a business traveller travel between DC and Chicago by train if it was a little faster, or more reliable? Probably not. For all the added comforts compared to a plane, this way of travelling takes it out of you. You may get some extra work done in the cabin, but you run the risk of arriving for your meetings tired.
But speedier service might encourage more business travellers to take the train to Cleveland, or to Pittsburgh, or from those cities to Chicago, or any of the stops in between.
“Most of the people on the overnight train aren’t riding the full distance. They are riding from medium city to small city, or medium city to big city,” says Magliari. “They don’t care that it came overnight from DC.”
It might also encourage more non-business travellers. A 2015 survey by the American Public Transport Association found that 63 per cent of Americans would use high-speed trains if they were available. That number stands at 71 per cent for millennials and young people (18-44).
I thought back to my friend on the platform at the beginning of the journey, when I asked him why more Americans don’t take the train.
“I think a lot of it is because Americans are impatient and it’s a big country,” Lamar Chupp told me. “If there was a connection from South Bend to Sarasota, a bullet train and you could do it in 20 hours I think a lot more people would take it. I think if there was better timing and faster trains more people would use it. I know I would.”
So what are the road blocks, so to speak, to Buttigieg’s grand vision? Two powerful industry lobbies, for starters, in car manufacturers and the airlines. Republican states less than eager to commit their own money to a giant infrastructure project under a Democratic president. The intricate rules and regulations governing the purchase of private property needed to build new tracks. The incredible costs involved.
Getting people out of cars is something Buttigieg has experience with. During his two terms as mayor, he advocated a city space that was less focused on cars and more on bikes, or at least sharing their rides with each other. “[He] articulated a big-picture vision for moving the US transportation system away from the chokehold of car culture,” the High Speed Rail Alliance said.
Any progress he can make doing the same nationally will have a positive effect on the Biden administration’s environmental goals.
While others who have come before him have failed, Buttigieg does have some things going for him. First among them is Amtrak Joe. Not only is the Biden administration pushing a massive stimulus bill with a focus on infrastructure, the president also has a personal connection with trains that will almost certainly lead to added focus.
For 36 years, then senator Joe Biden took the train to and from his home in Delaware to Washington DC — an estimated 7,000 trips. During that time he formed a deep emotional connection to rail travel. In 2010, while vice president, he wrote a piece for Amtrak’s ‘Arrive’ titled “Why America Needs Trains.”
“Amtrak doesn’t just carry us from one place to another—it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. For 36 years, I was able to make most of those birthday parties, to get home to read bedtime stories, to cheer for my children at their soccer games. Simply put, Amtrak gave me—and countless other Americans—more time with my family. That’s worth immeasurably more to me than the fare printed on the ticket,” he wrote.
“In 1830, the first steam-engine locomotive, the Tom Thumb, graced America’s railways. Its first run was a rickety 13-mile trek from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, Md., but it became much more than that. It marked the beginning of a new journey, heading straight into a better, more imaginative American future.
“We are on a similar journey now. We are at the dawn of a new age, where the very best ideas of today will shape our tomorrow, where renewable clean energy and new transportation systems and more efficient technology will revolutionize American life the way the Tom Thumb did some 180 years ago,” he went on.
With a hopeless train romantic in the White House, and another heading the department of transport, this may be the best opportunity in a generation for America to catch up with the rest of the world.
Only a handful of people step off the train with me in South Bend. The station is small, about two miles from downtown. There is a regular bus into the city centre but after 22 hours on a train I decide to walk to my hotel instead.
I’m sure the transport secretary would approve.