Tag Archives: rail travel


Carol came to the church last night at about quarter to ten to pick me up. We got in the car, and we both suddenly realized the headlights weren’t on. “I was sure I put them on,” muttered Carol, and sure enough, she had put them on — but both bulbs were burned out. She backed up, back to the bright outdoor lights near my office. I rustled around in the glove compartment, hoping against hope that I had a spare bulb for at least one headlight, but there wasn’t one. I fiddled around under the hood of the car, wishing I had replaced that one headlight as soon as it had burned out a week or so ago. But there was nothing to be done now; we were stuck.

“Let’s drive back anyway,” said Carol, but I wasn’t brave either to drive on brightly-lit roads with no lights, or to leave my high beams on all the time. We found the train schedule on the Web, and had just enough time to walk over to the station and catch the last train home that night.

The train was packed, but we managed to find two seats together. “Was there a game or something?” Carol said. “I heard someone say it was the Sharks game,” I said. Two guys wearing hats with Sharks logos walked into the car and stopped to say hi to some other guys. They jammed themselves into some seats and all opened beers. In Boston, if you’re on a train after a hockey game and a bunch of guys open up some beers, you’d expect things to get loud and you might even worry about fights breaking out; but this being California, all the guys did was stand around and talk quietly and happily to each other about the game.

A thin, young-looking man walked into the car. He was wearing an elaborate headdress made out of balloons. He stopped just inside the door, next to a seat with two children and their parents, and started making a little tiger out of balloons. He talked to a couple of guys standing at the end of the car, talked to people walking by, talked to the children, all the while pumping up balloons and rapidly twisting them and shaping them into a tiger and a turtle. One of the parents gave him some money. He gave each kid a high five, and walked on.

Two young women sitting across the aisle from us stopped him to talk. “I’ll make you a tiger bracelet for three dollars,” he said. One young woman said she guessed she wanted one. “Two for five dollars,” he said, and the second young woman said she guessed she’d take a turtle bracelet. “Put them in the freezer and they’ll last two or three months,” he said. By the time he was done with theirs, someone else wanted a big turtle for his daughter. The man asked him if he did events. “Call my agent,” he said, “that’s my mom. My mom does all my bookings.” How long had he been making things out of balloons? “Since I was six,” he said, “for five years now…” — a pause while he waited for the laughter, then he smiled, all the while twisting balloons together.

At last he left and went on to the next car, and somehow he left some of his cheerfulness behind. Carol said, “He’s good.” I agreed. Carol said, “This was the right train to take.” I felt the same way, and was just as glad that the headlights had burned out so we had had to take the train.

Epilogue: We found an auto parts store open today, got two new bulbs, and everything is back in order now.


On the train this morning, I was trying to read an article about recent research on adolescent brain development. In a seat somewhere behind me, a cell phone rang. A woman answered the phone. “I’m going to change my phone number,” she said, “I’m serious. I don’t want to talk with you any more. I’m done with you.” It sounded as though this woman had just dumped a man, someone she thought of as no good. “I go off to work, and you just go out on the streets, having fun, getting drugs, doing whatever. I sick and tired of it.” She talked to him for a while, then ended the conversation — I was cheering her on in my mind, even though I was only hearing her side of the conversation, even though I didn’t know either one of them. A minute after she ended the conversation, her phone rang again. She delayed picking it up, but at last she answered. She was less polite to him this time. After a short time, she ended the call. A moment later, her phone rang again. Don’t answer it, I said to myself. She answered it, but barely let him get a word in edgewise. At last she told him why his mother didn’t want him around either: “That’s why she doesn’t want you there, you’re always disrespecting her, if you can’t respect your mom, I don’t want to deal you. Good bye.” She hung up. Her cell phone rang again. She talked to him, and ended the call quickly. By this time, I was just tuning out the conversation — she had to know that you can’t have a private conversation on the train, but I still didn’t want to listen. I’d guess that her cell phone rang a few more times, but I wasn’t paying attention. Then it was quiet behind me, and I realized that she was gone.

Monday evening en route to Millbrae

I’m trying very hard to cut down on my driving, so when I needed to go to Berkeley last night, I decided to take CalTrain commuter rail to the Millbrae station, and transfer there to BART for the rest of the trip.

After we left the San Mateo station, we were scheduled to go express to Millbrae, so I got up to stand near the doors. Not far from the San Mateo station, the train came to a dead stop. I looked out the window, and we weren’t near any station.

Then one of the train crew made an announcement over the public address system: “Ahh, we are stopped here because the train has just hit a white male,” he said. His voice sounded a little unsteady. “We’ll have to stay here until the police come….” The man was under the fifth car of the train.

I sat back down again. Years ago, I was on the train heading into Boston when the train hit someone, and we had to wait for over an hour before we got going again. I remembered hearing then that the police treated the train as a crime scene, which they had to document before the train could move again.

I sat and read a book. Every once in a while, a member of the train crew would walk up or down the aisle with expressions that ranged from blank to unhappy and sick at heart. After a while, I saw police and EMTs walk by. They did not hurry, so I assumed the man was dead. A member of the train crew announced that we would have to wait for the coroner to come and make his investigation. We waited. A couple of southbound trains passed on the other track; there had been no trains moving at first, but now the dispatcher was letting the southbound trains go. I saw more police walk by, and a couple of people with the word “Sheriff” on the back of their shirts. We waited. I saw Amtrak personnel (I guess Amtrak had the contract to run CalTrain’s service) walked by, wearing hard hats and carrying clipboards.

Around me, people were talking. You could tell that we were all thinking about the recent spate of CalTrain suicides, and we were all thinking that this must have been another suicide. Some northbound trains passed us on the other track. Finally, more than an hour after we had stopped, the announcement came that we had a new train crew on board — presumably the other train crew had to stay to answer police questions — and we got underway.

I felt crummy the rest of the evening. It was like passing a really bad accident on the highway, only worse because I was pretty sure that whoever had died had committed suicide. In a way, committing suicide by throwing yourself under a train is an incredibly selfish thing to do — from the expressions of the CalTrain crew, you could tell that they were sickened by what had happened. And what a horrible way to go. I couldn’t get rid of the bad feeling all evening.

Cell phone conversations

Standing waiting for the train this morning, I became aware of a young man walking towards me, talking on his cell phone. I glanced at him: in his twenties, long black t-shirt with a fanciful design over his belly, long black shorts down to his knees, a set weatherbeaten face with a little bit of facial hair, intense dark eyes with bags under them.

He was speaking quite loudly and forcefully into his cell phone: “…and she’s on probation too, and she’s like, oh my God I’m going to jail I’m going to jail, and so I…”

Fortunately he walked by me so I could stop listening to his story.

On the train

I caught the 9:53 train from the San Antonio station, found a seat, and sat down. I tried to read, but it had been a long day at work. I put my book down and stared at nothing much. At each station, one or two people got on, and one or two got off.

A woman got on and sat down in the seat across the aisle from me. She was talking to someone on a cell phone, and her voice sounded odd. At first I thought she had some strange foreign accent, but then I realized she was crying and sniffling a little bit as she talked.

I stopped listening to her. Then her voice rose, and I couldn’t help but hear her say, “…but he doesn’t. I’m always giving and giving, but when I need help, he isn’t there for me.” Her voice grew softer and all I could hear was an occasional “fuck him” or “fuck that.” Curious, I stole a glance at her: her hair was dyed red, her arms were completely covered in gaudy tattoos, she had two piercings just above her left cheekbone, she carried a zebra-print bag, and she looked prosperous and relatively affluent. She was curled up in her seat, looking dejected but not particularly sad. I thought she might be in her early twenties.

My thoughts drifted on to other things. I don’t know when she got off the train.

Missed connection

In an effort to cut my carbon emissions, I’m trying to commute to the church by train as much as possible. Last night, the meeting of the Board went later than I had expected. I asked if I could leave a little early, and started walking to the train station at about 9:35 p.m., thinking that I had plenty of time to get there. But when I was still a couple of blocks away from the station — too far to try to run — I heard the train pull into the station, and then pull out of the station. I had misjudged the amount of time I needed to walk from the church to the train. So I had to wait another hour for the next train to arrive. At least I had a good murder mystery to read, so the time went quickly.

In another few months, I will know exactly how long it takes to walk to the train station. But right now, I’m unsure of that, and unsure of lots of other things; I often feel stupid because I just don’t know the simplest things. That’s the hardest thing about moving to a new place: so much of what we do is governed by habits, by small bits of knowledge that we aren’t even aware we have.

Video postcard: The California Zephyr

A video postcard filmed on board Amtrak’s train no. 6, the California Zephyr. The postcard is of the segment of the trip from Green River, Utah, to Denver, Colorado.

Some background information as you watch the video:

  • Ruby Canyon is a beautiful red-rock canyon near Green River.
  • Glenwood Springs (photos of Amtrak locomotive and train) is a pretty resort town in the mountains. As its name implies, it boasts hot springs.
  • Glenwood Canyon carries both the railroad and Interstate 70 (the bridges and roads you see in this stretch are I-70).
  • The only way in to Gore Canyon is by rail or raft. The rafters like to moon the trains.
  • As the train passes into the Moffat Tunnel, what you see is the infrastructure for the Winter Park Ski Resort.
  • The Moffat Tunnel is 6.2 miles long.
  • The “Big Ten Curve” goes through 270 degrees, giving a sweeping panorama of the sunset sky as the train slowly negotiates the turn.
  • Denver’s Union Station has been beautifully restored. Today, unfortunately, only two trains a day use the station (plus a few weekend ski trains in season).

More about the California Zephyr on Wikipedia.

Home again

The train arrived in Providence right at the scheduled time of 11:27 p.m., and now I’m home. I have a cold that seems to have turned into bronchitis. The charger for my cell phone died, and until I can find a replacement for it, I have no cell phone. In spite of all that, I feel relaxed and re-energized by an amazing three-day train trip that covered three-quarters of the continent.

More later.

Traveling companions

The last four presidential administrations poured money into highways and air travel, while starving passenger rail travel for funding. Indeed, the Bush administration made no bones about wanting to kill off passenger rail travel in the United States — not surprising when you realize that the Bush administration was run by oil company interests, and rail travel is the most fuel-efficient form of travel we have right now. So I was not surprised when the conductor announced that the dining car had to be shut down, but that they would get us sandwiches in Denver.

We had half an hour in Denver while they serviced the train, so I got out to stretch my legs. I wound up talking with Simon, and when the engineer blew the whistle and we trooped up to get our sandwiches, I followed Simon to the observation car to eat. Almost all the seats were taken, but there was only one person sitting at one of the tables.”Mind if we sit here?” we asked. He did not.

We introduced ourselves. He was Will, a high school student on the way to Salt Lake City with his family. He had a copy of The Two Towers, and we all got to talking about Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. The train was rolling along and we sat there eating lunch and talking about other fantasy series we had read — Narnia, Harry Potter — and comparing them. From fantasy the conversation turned to education, and then to Australia (Simon was from Australia), and a whole host of other subjects.

Suddenly we realized that we were climbing up a steep slope via a series of switchbacks. We could look ahead and see the locomotive, look back and see the last car, and look down and see the last switchback we had just come up. We were going around the famous Big Ten Curve, ascending the Front Range of the Rockies. At some point, Will’s brother Wes joined us, and joined the conversation. When we passed by the most spectacular views, the conversation consisted of pointing out the beauties of the scenery through which we were passing; when we were in one of the many tunnels on the route, the conversation returned to more mundane matters.

After the Big Ten Curve, people started leaving the observation car. But the scenery kept getting better. We passed under the Continental Divide through the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, and into Glenwood Canyon, with thousand-foot canyon walls rising almost vertically on either side. We craned our necks back, and pointed out particularly marvelous rock formations to each other. And all this time, the conversation continued: two middle-aged men, and two young men in their late teens, carrying on an extended conversation that ranged from the trivial to the profound. Simon told us how he lost his leg, as a physician volunteering in Afghanistan in 2004 and Will told us about his artistic ambitions. We talked about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary society. We talked about other trips we had taken, or trips that we dreamed about taking. It turned out that Simon had never smelled sagebrush. Will, Wes, and I tried to describe the smell — an impossible task — and finally at one of the stops where they let us out to stretch our legs, I found some sagebrush, broke off a branch, and gave it to Simon.

At last it grew dark, and we saw the new moon rising over barely-visible buttes and mesas. Finally, at ten thirty, I said I had better get some sleep. We were due in to Salt Lake at three in the morning, and I needed to take a nap so I could be marginally functional when we arrived. Will and Wes said they were going to stay up until they arrived in Salt Lake. Simon, although he was continuing on to Emeryville, California, said he thought he’d go to bed, too. We shook hands all around, and went our separate ways.