My friend Scott Buchanan says, “When we rode trains, we were more civilized.” I recently tested his proposition, riding a train home from a conference in Houston. If you’re in a hurry, don’t take the train. I’ve often used trains, but this was my first “local” trip. And the train is a trip.
There are three dimensions to taking the train: price, service and the experience.
As to price, it cost $80 to ride home from Houston. If my wife, Kim, and I take a trip to San Antonio, two round-trip tickets cost $212. That’s a bargain.
Airplane service is universally mediocre, and the in-flight experience is cramped and uncomfortable. Trains offer no seat service, but you’re not confined to your seat, which is large and fully reclines. On a long trip or traveling overnight, there are inexpensive sleeper compartments that afford comfort and privacy, meals included. The train traveler can go to the club car and watch Texas through huge windows. On the ride north, I played cards with two Vietnam veterans and a farmer in the club car. Families with kids watched the scenery, including rural wildlife.
In the dining car, tables have linens and fresh food that is prepared by chefs trained at culinary institutes. A variety of meals, desserts and wine is available. At lunch, I dined with Bob, an accounting professor, and Sondra, a retired businesswoman.
However, the service left something to be desired. When Bob asked what was good on the menu, the steward responded, “I don’t know, I don’t eat much.” There’s really not a lot of charm on the railroad.
The off-train experience is where the adventure exists. I arrived at the Houston station at 9:30 p.m. and boarded the Sunset Limited ” an Amtrak train that runs from Florida to California ” to San Antonio, arriving there at 3 a.m.
The stations in Houston and San Antonio have all the charms that discomfort white-bread American suburbanites. There were beggars and hustlers of various sorts around all the major stations, but that’s just urban America after dark. The Texas Eagle that would take me toward Fort Worth was scheduled to depart at 7 a.m. I sacked out on the chairs by some students headed back to Austin.
Travel tip No. 1: Carry a blanket and travel in groups. It’s a good idea, especially at night, because it keeps the scammers and grifters at bay.
Arriving in Fort Worth, I had a three-hour wait for the Heartland Flyer. I met Sam, who owns Munchie’s Hot Dogs in the station (have the brats), then walked with local friends to the Flying Saucer pub for bruschetta and beer. I caught my train and arrived in Norman after dark.
Train travel makes you see more of America. Trains attract more than their share of people with little money and limited interpersonal skills. There were plenty of travelers who looked like they’d taken more than their fair share of hits from life. I met a Ninth Ward evacuee from New Orleans, three disabled veterans, a family from Chicago and a group of musicians returning from the Big Easy to Austin.
Gaddie is professor of political science at OU and the new general editor of Social Science.