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.
“I had assumptions about which parts of the country are best and worst. But actually getting to see those places has shattered my ideas.”
It was after bedtime, but I couldn’t bring myself to call my daughters into our camper. Occasional bursts of giggles and beams from a flashlight told me they were fine. Our RV was parked at an alpaca ranch in Montana, and my girls were scaling hay bales and chasing barn cats with two Black sisters from Chicago and a gaggle of Mormon brothers who lived on the farm.
This moment — watching my kids explore new cultures, places and experiences — was exactly what I envisioned when, months earlier, I had decided to pack up my family and leave our rural New Hampshire home for an open-ended road trip around America.