Mon, Feb 18 2008
Yellow Jacket Staff Writer
When I tell someone that I ride the train to get between Chicago and Longview, he or she is usually rather surprised.
One of my professors even asked me where the Amtrak station was – even though he has unwittingly passed it two times a day for the past nine years. In most people's minds, modern railroading is a collection of mile-long freights which block railroad crossings as well as short commuter trains which go to and from big cities.
People can be somewhat shocked to learn that one of the nation's busiest long-distance passenger routes almost skirts LETU. The Texas Eagle stops in Longview twice daily; once going east and north through Little Rock, Ark., St. Louis, Springfield, Ill., and Chicago, and once going west toward, Dallas, San Antonio and ultimately Los Angeles.
There are also many other smaller station stops along the way that offer bus and train connections to many different cities. The two main reasons that most people ride the train are price and convenience. Tickets are reasonable; $170 gets me to Chicago and back with my Student Advantage card.
Driving north on Mobberly Ave. a few blocks beats hitching a ride for two hours to Dallas or flying from Longview Regional Airport to a major hub, at almost the cost of an entire Amtrak ticket. In addition, Amtrak isn't very strict on baggage policies. I've carried on full-sized suitcases, and I know that items I've checked have weighed over 50 pounds. There are also ways to bring bicycles on board. Check Amtrak's baggage policy online, but in general, if you can walk it to the train you can take it on.
Many people think of trains as being a "romantic" way to travel, and even if that once was the case, it no longer is. In essence, the train that goes through Longview is a glorified stretch bus on rails. All the cars are two stories, with a connection between the two cars on the top level.
In the back of the train are the coach cars, usually three to five. Most of the seats are on the top level, with the restrooms and luggage storage on the bottom level.
The seats are quite comfortable and are equivalent to the first-class section on an airline. They differ, however, in that they have no seat-belts and have separate foot and leg rests. It is here that most people spend their time reading, listening to music and sleeping. The amount of sleeping that you do will depend on where you sit. I recommend the middle of the car since you won't get a blast of air every time someone opens the automatic doors at the end of it. Also, try to get an entire row, as it's a lot easier to sleep lying down instead of sitting up. Be sure to bring a blanket and ear-plugs.
While walking from the coach cars toward the engine, you will enter the lounge/observation car—my favorite spot. The car has huge windows with seats facing them, as well as several tables. Often, the lounge car contains the only easily accessible electrical outlets on the entire train, which is located in the middle of the car. I bring my own power strip on every trip, and on occasions I have seen it fully utilized by girls with cell-phone chargers. The observation car is where I spend most of my time, and where you will make most of your new friends.
The diner is located in the front car and I don't recommend eating there. The food is of Saga quality but costs a lot more. There is a café at the bottom of the lounge car which is better, although I usually pack my meals.
Past the diner are the sleeping cars with oh-so-cozy looking berths, usually out of reach to college students who can't afford them. I have never met anyone who has stayed in them, since most passengers who shell out the extra bucks—which vary depending on how far they are going—never leave their sealed cars.
Perhaps the greatest thing about riding on Amtrak is the people you will meet. I call it "A Blind Date with Humanity." In my half dozen or so trips on the Texas Eagle, I have seen everything from a traveling Amish choir to a bunch of "normal" 20-something college kids, who used obscenities like adjectives and who made me feel like I was living inside of an R-rated movie.
Some people are just plain weird, like two grandmothers I met who were going to a vacation in Chicago. Instead of traveling to shop along the lakefront, they were planning to drink and party with a few hot guys they had found on the Internet! Other passengers can be absolutely delightful, as I discovered during my last trip while our train was delayed. Amtrak usually runs 2-4 hours late.
As I watched a long container train pass while we were stalled, I became engaged in a theological conversation with a young Independent Baptist who could have modeled the cover of the admissions packet of almost any Christian College that was looking for English majors. We spent hours joking about our large, home-schooling farming families and had an occasional "rail" about our few theological differences. As the train pulled into Longview, we said goodbye, probably never to see each other again.
That's the magic of the train: relationships are formed, broken and forgotten with the flying of the ties and the rustling of the leaves underneath. It's a beautiful, strangely forlorn process that keeps me riding the train again and again. Perhaps, riding the train really is romantic after all.
As soon as I arrive in Longview, I always call up a friend to pick me up. Once I get back to campus, I take a long, hot shower. As I walk to class the next morning and hear an air-horn echo across town, I think back to my many hours on the train.