Do you like striking up a conversation with a total stranger? Maybe you like people watching. In either case, you should consider a trip on America’s trains. It’s a great way to meet and observe fascinating people while seeing a lot of scenery.
America’s trains are not as fast as Japan’s and not as luxurious as the Orient Express, but they offer a unique charm. They usually have quiet cars where people aren’t supposed to talk loudly, so work or sleep comes easier. There are snack bars and some have white tablecloth dining rooms with white-gloved waiters. Amtrak could be extended to go more places, but there is no way you could ride the entire system as it is today.
Many a novel is centered on the rails. Stories about runaways, crime, intrigue and love. Consider making your own memories on the train. At least along the East Coast and especially during “rush hour” — which usually lasts several hours — finding a seat can be difficult. You will probably be forced to sit next to a stranger at least until the train empties a bit when you can spread out. But this has a lot of exciting possibilities. Single? Pick someone you’d like to know better. Tired? Pick someone who is focused on work. Many foreigners favor the trains. On a long distance train ride, you’re bound to run into folks from other parts of the world. You can learn a lot and make new friends. The forced together time can even form the basis for a good romance, and many have started on the trains, both in story and reality.
As you ride through green landscapes and blighted urban centers, perhaps a little something by Mark Twain will help the clickety-clack of the railcar on the tracks lull you into another time and place. You can avoid the expense of a hotel room if you’re traveling overnight as many trains today have cabins with beds. Of course, we’d all like faster trains in the future, but taking advantage of a slow ride allows you a better opportunity to do some excellent photography right from the train window. The train staff and conductors have tons of great stories they’ll gladly share about some of the crazy things passengers have done or places they’ve been. Just ask.
The U.S. coasts are the densest part of the rail system. Many commuters come from as far away as Baltimore to work in New York City, for example. They take advantage of cheaper housing “in the country” and a work schedule bookended by fixed train schedules for time to read the newspaper or their favorite novel, watch a movie or catch up with the day’s spreadsheets and reports on the way home. The trains of today mostly have Internet connectivity, and AC inputs to charge your devices. Many riders along the congested East Coast have their noses buried in laptops.
At the train stations you hear world languages, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation. A smile and a “Where you headed?” can lead to hours of entertainment. Penn Station and Grand Central Station in New York City have a buzz and excitement to them. Both are mini-cities with almost any sort of retail you might want. Grand Central has a food court where you can sample foods from around the world. Penn Station’s modern, clean, air-conditioned Amtrak waiting area is filled with French speakers as trains leave regularly for Quebec. You’re also likely to see geriatric tour groups headed out with huge suitcases (way too big for an airplane) for a month’s vacation. Alongside them, you might find immigrants headed to meet their sponsors somewhere in the country mixed in with Europeans and Asians visiting the U.S. during their two week vacations.
Whatever you want, you can probably find it on the rails. Consider making a train ride part of your next vacation.