Working In An Unusual Environment

This is being written in an unusual location. Not my office, not home, not even sitting in the passenger seat while Kit drives. Someone else is driving on our trip to Reno for the Mensa “Annual Gathering” (read: national convention), where Kit and I are speaking. We’re on the California Zephyr — a train (yeah, in the United States!)

There’s More than Cars

Trains are normal in Europe, I know (we’ve been on them), and a fairly usual choice in the eastern U.S. But not so much in the western U.S.

Yet the choice was simple: a 14-hour drive to Reno, or catch the train in Grand Junction (75 miles north of home), enjoy the view as the Zephyr chugs (OK: rumbles) through the Ruby River Canyon (the river: the Colorado), stroll down to dinner later in the dining car, sleep overnight while still rolling, and arrive in Reno in the morning, refreshed after a quick breakfast.

Pretty much a no-brainer, eh? It’s about the same cost as flying — or less. It’s our third time to train to conferences in Reno.

Yeah, I know that this being a novel idea is a head-scratcher for those of you in other parts of the world, but in the U.S., we let the Automobile Culture take over, and lost most of our passenger rail capacity.

Everyone is in such a hurry that the thought of taking awhile to just “chillax” on a trip is a forgotten concept. Kit and I didn’t forget. (My favorite Amtrak story from This is True, from 1994.)

California Zephyr in Utah. Photo: David Gubler/Wikipedia

Most Americans have completely forgotten how civilized it is. There’s no strip search, manual or techno. We brought a flask of martinis (my fave: vodka and espresso. Yes, it’s within the rules if you have a sleeper.) It’s roomy enough to roam around, and quiet enough to talk to other passengers. Want to get away? A private cabin awaits (at least, if you have a sleeper). Airliners, meanwhile, are a place of stress and confrontation, since after all, the terrorists won….

Technology: What a Concept

I’ll never forget our first train trip to Reno, in 2004. It was my first cross-country trip on a train in the U.S., and I enjoyed every minute. We struck up a conversation with an Amish couple who were also heading to Reno. He was an onion farmer who sold his crop to Wendy’s for hamburgers.

The Amish don’t fly, but the train is apparently OK. What made him so memorable? He proudly showed me his Nextel cell phone — the one with the push-to-talk walkie-talkie feature. He just loved that feature. That’s when I realized that the world is really, Really changing, even for the tech-phobic Amish.

The changes brought by technology have also been fantastic for This is True too, of course, even beyond just making it possible in the first place. In 2000 we went to Eastern Europe for several weeks, and I worked like a dog to pre-write True’s issues, set them up on the server to come out at the right time, and hoped everything would work OK. I not only didn’t count on finding Internet cafes way back then, I gave up completely: I didn’t even bring a laptop. Everything worked out just fine.

Work Anywhere…

But now, while being on the road slows the workflow down a bit, it doesn’t really change my work schedule. My assistant still enters your orders for Premium subscriptions, GOOHF cards and whatever, and my own tech-wonder tool of choice, an Android phone, gives me a WiFi hotspot that allows me to get online with my laptop to post this from the train.

It’s something the richest man in the world couldn’t do in our father’s time: do productive work while simultaneously interacting with the outside world.

Yet that can be a trap. Because we can work anywhere, we often do. I am because tonight’s my deadline, but once I post this I’m going to shut down, and take my time at dinner in the dining car. If an error is reported on the Errata page, I may deal with it …or I might just let it wait until morning (or until I get to the hotel).

…and Then Play

The important thing is to remember to take time off, to relax, to recharge. Kit and I remember that, too: she tells people “we work every day — but we also take time to play every day.”

That “play” time is important. Reading, reflecting, even just lying awake in bed and thinking. That’s when our brains get to put pieces together, where insight gets to pop up. It’s vitally important time. I hope that True is part of that time for you: reading about things that don’t have anything to do with That Big Deliverable you have for work on an impossible deadline. When you “chillax” and let the juices flow, there’s no telling where it can lead you.

Randy and wife in dining car

That’s why companies like 3M make it a part of their culture to allow employees to spend 15 or so percent of their work time to just chill, to talk to other employees, to pursue random ideas that they have. (That’s right: Google didn’t invent that, 3M did.) And that is why 3M is so innovative, and has been for generations. Time not concentrating is sometimes the most productive time of all.

Morning Routine

Kit razzes me because after I wake up, I’ll lie in bed for as long as an hour to just let my brain work on whatever it wants to. No TV. No phone calls. My cat likes to come visit because the “energy” is so calm. She’ll lie there, attached like Velcro to my hip, gently purring, and I’ll idly pet her (she’s really soft, even for a cat). And I simply think about whatever needs to be thought about.

Do you take time like that? I highly recommend it. If True is part of that time for you, I’m honored. I hope that the “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” does just that for you — provokes thought. Whether it turns out productive or simply insightful about The World doesn’t matter; what you do with it from there is up to you.

Woo Wooooooooooooo!

My kind of unusual environment. Another perspective to provide more inspiration.

Wildfire as seen from train.
Wildfire as seen from train, this one outside Price, Utah.

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49 Comments on “Working In An Unusual Environment

  1. I travel from north-central Montana to Portland, Oregon and back once or twice a year. I tried the train about three or four years ago and have been taking the train ever since.

    The train trips I’ve been on have been really pleasant and every trip I’ve met really nice people. I’m glad you and Kit are enjoying your trip as well. 🙂

    (And I didn’t know it was 3M who came up with dedicated down time for employees to take a break and pursue whatever they wanted.)

    Reply
  2. I definitely take that time. In fact, since I don’t have a job that I can take home with me, that’s what most of my off-work waking time is spent doing. I reflect while driving, that’s 10 hours a week; I play video games; I browse the web, and sometimes I just sit and think, whether in bed or not.

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  3. I traveled on Amtrak a good 15+ years ago, and I loved it. (With one caveat: We were 6 hours late each way, thanks to the fact that Amtrak operates on Freight Company lines, and so we had to pull over for sometimes hours to let the freight trains pass. Also, not under their control, there was some extreme cold going on that actually warped the rail lines on the second half of our trip.) Luckily at the time, our train had an observation car, and there was a lunar eclipse we were able to watch at the time. But we both enjoyed it a lot, being about 10 and 12 at the time, traveling with our mother. And this was before such things as WiFi!

    My brother and I are actually planning a trip to visit family in California and Colorado via Amtrak this year or next, and if you don’t need to adhere to strict deadlines, it’s honestly a fantastic and relaxing way to travel. You can bring all kinds of stuff on board with you in coach (unless it’s changed since I was on; we brought pillows, blankets, coolers full of food and drinks, and personal bags; actual luggage was checked under the train), unlike on a plane.

    I only wish we would invest more in a Eurorail type of system here in the US that would make rail travel much cheaper and faster for everyone. But then, I’m one of those crazy people that thinks spending tons of money on infrastructure is a good thing. 😉

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  4. We’ll be driving to the AG, but a few years ago my sister and I took the train from Sacramento to Portland for a jazz festival. We enjoyed sitting down to the dinner table with strangers and finishing dinner with new friends. One described us as “two middle-aged sisters off on a spree.”

    I’m looking forward to meeting you and hearing your presentation. It was your report on the RG in Reno that encouraged me to attend my first Mensa gathering.

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  5. Haven’t ridden a train in years, but my bride has made several short trips recently from central Calif. to the San Francisco bay area to visit our daughter and she loves it. No stress, no strain and NO TRAFFIC! My main reason for commenting is to advise you, Randy, how much I enjoyed this issue. Just reading it seemed to allow me to relax. Thans again for all you do for us.

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  6. Amtrak’s awesome. My brother and I visited the US a few years ago and spent probably half our overnights on the train – why pay just as much to fly AND then have to pay for a hotel as well?

    We were basically flying economy the whole way (it’s expensive enough flying from Australia to America to England and back via America again!), but with the trains, we were treated like First Class. That’s conceptual and also literal; we made use of the ClubAcela facilities and such.

    Ah, memories. “And wait……………….. to be seated.”

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  7. I’m a convert to the train for long journeys – where it is practical. Over here on the other side of the Atlantic, we have the Eurostar service which runs primarily between London and Paris via the Channel Tunnel. That is, by the time you factor in airport security, actually faster than flying. The train runs at very nearly 200mph for most of the way in smooth, quiet comfort. Not quite the relaxed pace of the Zephyr and certainly not as long – although you can reach much of Europe on TGV routes from Paris – but no less pleasant a way to travel.
    Enjoy!

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  8. The train is fine unless yours gets sidetracked. My wife and daughter were twelve hours late. We canceled the rest of the train tickets.

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  9. Thanks for bringing this up. I haven’t traveled by train since I was in the Navy and took Amtrak from San Diego to South Dakota for Christmas. We’re planning a trip to Disney World in the Spring for our daughter’s 3rd birthday, and this gives us another option, and an opportunity for my immigrant wife to see more of the country without the stress of driving, and my daughter loves trains. We’ll just have to decide if she can better tolerate a cramped 5 hours in the plane or a more leisurely 15 hours in the train.

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  10. I think you might have met Mennonites on the train back in 2004 not specifically Amish. Amish are a sect of the Mennonite Church that reject technology and try to limit contact with the modern world. So I sort of doubt you met an Amish on the train with a cell phone.

    Then again I never met a Mennonite or an Amish so I could be wrong.

    I trust him to tell me exactly what he was. -rc

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  11. My sister and I traveled to Ireland a couple of years ago and since we were in the “neighborhood” we visited London, Paris and Madrid. The train ride from London to Paris was one of the highlights of our trip. If we had trains like that in the US, I would only take to the air to travel across the oceans. Of course, our plans had to be adjusted to account for an unanticipated rail strike, but if we had been locals, we probably would have been aware of the impending labor action — or inaction, as it were.

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  12. Like Mark in Maryland, I too first started riding trains when I was in ther Navy. Once out of bootcamp in San Diego, I would travel back and forth to Los Angeles on Amtrak to visit my folks. When I graduated from school and had to go to Chicago for another school, I took Amtrak. That was a 2-1/2 day trip and I loved every minute of it. I didn’t have a sleeper because the seats would recline back to an almost completely horizontal position! Beautiful scenery, intersting people along the way, I certainly miss it.

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  13. It takes me just short of an hour to commute to work by bicycle. I use this time to let my mind wander, to let all the ideas that had been cooped up in their pens to roam free in the paddock, interact, and bump into each other. From this are born solutions. It is sometimes the most productive part of my workday.

    The best thing about it is, if I cycled at full speed, and took the shortest route, my commute would be less than twenty minutes. !-)

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  14. I’ll agree to your point about working anywhere being a problem. I have no tablet, smart phone, or even a laptop. When people joke about the 25 year old techno-geek who doesn’t have anything other than a desktop, I reply simply “I am working on a computer 16 hours a day. When I am not at a computer, I have no desire to be on a computer”.

    It pains me to see a table of people at a restaurant happily clicking away on their phones and ignoring their real company.

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  15. Nobody mentioned that a train is one of the most serene ways to travel with kids, at least ones who are not hyperkinetic. Unlike a plane, trains have room to move around; there often are even other kids to interact with. My children spent hours in the observation car watching the scenery roll by and playing cards with kids from all over. It was easy to check on them there, and in the meantime their dad and I could chat and read in peace.

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  16. Creating the time & environment to allow for the sifting and mixing of thoughts, dreams, plans, worries, and ideas ultimately helps me be creative.

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  17. The first time I rode the train I was part of a Boy Scout troop traveling from Tucson, AZ, to the 1956 Jamboree at Valley Forge. We had one- or two-night stops for sight-seeing in New Orleans, Washington DC, New York, and Chicago. It was a great trip, but frustrating for the number of times we sat on a siding waiting for a freight train to pass. That has been the continuing problem with rail service in America, though the trip itself is both comfortable and civilized.

    Since the late ’60s, I have lived several times in Europe doing historical research, and I often used the train to travel widely, especially when I had a Eurailpass, and could simply hop on at any time to go anywhere in western Europe (though I could also make reservations, which I did when I was going to taking an overnight trip and wanted to sleep). That experience was wonderful! I happen to speak German and Italian, and I had some very interesting conversations with other travelers in the car, and in two cases exchanged contact information and stayed in touch for years. I loved visiting my exchange-student “sister” from many years before in Germany on the weekends, then heading back to Italy on Sunday night for a week’s work in the archives.

    The special high-speed trains that run on a time schedule like clockwork, often remaining in a station for only 2 to 5 minutes, were most amazing. I traveled from Munich to Hamburg in one of them one day, and we were smack on time at every stop! How I wish the US had such a passenger rail system, especially has flying has become increasingly uncomfortable, crowded, and expensive.

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  18. Nice story! It makes me want to take a ride by rail, even if just on the Cumbres and Toltec. I like your suggestion about taking time to simply think in the morning before arising. I believe my day may go a bit smoother if I take the time to do so.

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  19. When I was growing up, I either wanted to be a railroad conductor or an orchestral conductor. Music ultimately won out, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for train travel, since it was my means to access to NYC. A few years ago I wrote a song about it and last year we made a video of that song – the “trio” courtesy of green screen! (ain’t technology fun?) Thanks for your always-thought-provocative posts! Having recently liquidated some of my dear departed mother’s IRA for unexpected expenses, I think it’s time to upgrade my subscription to full-tilt-boogie — Mamala would have approved! 🙂

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  20. It’s how I moved from Orange County, California to the Seattle, Washington area about six years ago — we took the Coast Starlight up. I honestly miss doing this, but with my state of being unemployed and going to school, it’s a prospect that I cannot readily pursue at this time.

    Still, enjoy the trip to Reno, and have a fun trip back.

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  21. I drive for my next door neighbors sometimes. They are Amish and they often travel by train or car long distances. My Amish friend says she really enjoys the trip from Colorado to New York. I do find their use of technology confusing. Many have fancy cell phones yet my neighbors don’t use buttons. They have a gas powered lawn mower and LED lights in their home. My understanding of their use of technology is that it must be helpful for business but it cannot take away from family time. They also cannot be tethered to it. (Electric lines, phone lines, etc.) Also each community has its own customs and rules.

    There’s certainly something to be said about not letting a phone get in the way of family time — whether it’s “tethered” or not. -rc

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  22. Trains are a great way to travel. It can take longer, but, like you pointed out, it’s far less hassle than flying and generally less expensive. We really need to update and modernize train transportation in America, but with as attached to our cars as we are, it’s going to be a slow process. With all the hostility toward Socialism in America, and the fact that many European nations with excellent rail travel are Socialist, I wonder how much American prejudice against Socialism might be playing a role in our reluctance to follow the European and Japanese example.

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  23. Randy, is this work philosophy of your one of the cornerstones of your Mastermind group? (Something’s telling me I know the answer already, but I’d like to hear it from you — WHEN you have time, that is.)

    It doesn’t have anything to do with Masterminding per se, but it’s the sort of advice you’d get from a good group. -rc

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  24. I occasionally have to travel to Sydney from Bathurst — only about 160 Miles/200 Km, but up to 4 hours or more driving, depending on the traffic on Sydney’s dysfunctional motorways. I’ve recently used the train a few times — not much time saving but a whole lot less stress.

    Someone (Might have been Arthur C Clarke) once said “I refuse to travel on any form of transport in which I cannot read.” He had the right idea.

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  25. Lyrics from a song popular back in “The Day” went…”Slow down; You’re movin’ too fast. You’ve got to make the moment last…” or words to that effect. A major problem with travel these days is that it is focused on reaching the destination as quickly and economically as possible, with little or no regard for the potential ambiance of the trip itself. I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the trip to Reno on board the Zephyr; it awakened memories of my having boarded an Amtrak train with two high school teaching colleagues in the late 1970s for a trip to a NABT Biology Concention in New York City. After departing Canton, Ohio (the nearest connection), we spent most of the night in the Bar Car, where my friend entertained other riders as he played the upright piano which had been thoughtfully provided. We rolled into Pennsylvania Station in the morning having had little rest, but much enjoyment.

    “Slow down you crazy child / You’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid? (Hmm?) / Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? You better cool it off before you burn it out / You got so much to do and only so many hours in a day (Heyy)” —Billy Joel, Vienna (1977) -rc

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  26. I’m glad you took the train; I agree completely with your comments about the US vs European view of trains. Tonight I am taking a train from where I live down to Lugano, in the south of Switzerland. It might be faster to drive, but only slightly, but I will have lunch en route to Zurich, and then sleep and work and relax and probably finish my book before arriving in Lugano, precisely on schedule. That’s the Swiss for you.

    Also, I like your discussion about relaxing. I think dreaming / thinking / vegging, has a real role in getting the mind to sort things out. I think my wife is constantly stressed because she doesn’t take the time to step back and contemplate.

    Oh, and to Cheryl in NY, Switzerland is not socialist in any way. BUT they have a ‘social compact’ that recognizes the role of government (of the people for the people) to provide for the people (as a group). Infrastructure is absolutely something for gov’t, and the free market will never do it in a way that works for everyone. Free market is how we ended up with the Grand Central Station on one side of Manhattan and Penn Station on the other side, one of the most ridiculous in the modern world. When all trains come in Zurich HB, life is good and interconnected.

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  27. The train is, in my opinion, the most civilized way to travel. The best part is that, in most cases, the station is located downtown, whereas most airports are located on the outskirts of the metropolitan areas they serve. Factor in road congestion, and the travel time from downtown to downtown is usually actually shorter by train than by plane.

    Contrarily to planes and (god forbid!) buses, you can actually socialize and walk about on a train. And one added bonus is that you often go through and see places you couldn’t access with a car.

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  28. Another improvement over air travel is the ferry. My wife and I use the ferry to get between our home in Wales and our home in Spain. 24 hours on board, during which we have dinner in the nice French restaurant on board, watch the dolphins and whales, maybe see a movie or some live entertainment, sit out on deck with our own bottle of wine (absolutely no problem, you can buy it on board in the duty-free shop if you like), and watch the sunset, then arrive around 11 am after a leisurely breakfast. The cabins have private bathrooms, and of course there is no need to hire a car: we drive ours on board, with the luggage in it, and just take an overnight bag to the cabin. This means we load the luggage in at home, and unload it on arrival: we don’t have to endure the airport baggage-smashers or think about what we are packing, we just take whatever we want. Of course there are no body searches, no stripping yourself down to the canvas, no baggage searches.

    I would MUCH rather have 24 hours of pleasure than have 12 hours of misery and stress shuffling around an airport like a cow to the slaughter before being stuffed into an aluminium tube. And it works out cheaper too.

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  29. I DO take that time in the morning, nearly identical to the time you described! I’m not the only one!

    I have, over the years, gently and firmly persuaded my friends and family not to call before noon. So no phone, no TV, just the cat, who totally understands my need to lie there and collect my thoughts.

    I am not a ‘morning person’, but it turns out that I get a great deal of work done during that time of the day, just collecting my thoughts, making decisions, replaying something pleasurable in my mind and petting my cat.

    BTW, I’ve seen several in-depth essays, polls, online discussions and quotes from many, many authors, all of which claim that people who write must have cats. They can have dogs, too, but a cat is necessary to the writing process. LOTS of quotes from authors substantiate that. Here’s an example: when asked by a fan how one could get started in the cartooning business, Scott Adams replied, “First, get a cat.”

    Here’s an interesting thing. Often, in a novel, there will be a paragraph or two about the author. It will usually tell you the approximate area in which he/she lives, whether he/she is married with kids, etc. — and how many cats he/she lives with. I don’t know why. There are, of course, many notable exceptions. Dean Koontz, for example, loves his golden retrievers and never has cats. But lots and lots of authors are owned by cats. Does anyone know why?

    Not sure, but yes, I had a cat when I started TRUE; he died a few years ago. I now have another…. -rc

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  30. I used the train to transport myself and three grandchildren to visit my parents. I considered flying as it would have been cheaper and faster at that time. Then I looked at the three small children (one still in diapers and not yet walking) and at the fact that I only had two hands. The train was an easy choice. We had the handicapped accessible room at the end of the car with our own bathroom. The kids had plenty of room to play and could make normal kid noises without disturbing other passengers. They got their first exposure to upscale dining in the dining car and we got first class treatment at the waiting area in DC. It was fun for the kids and for me. We arrived in New Orleans rested, well-fed and ready to have fun with the great-grand parents.

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  31. My dream is the combination of train and ferry. I have so much “stuff” I want and need at each end of the trip (including an electric scooter I need for a medical condition) that I usually stick to my car, but I would love to take the train to get from this end to that. I understand Amtrak runs one “car train” a year from NY to FL, and one return. If they did that on every trip, I’ll bet more of us would sign up. I just endured a flight to the East Coast and back: nearly pure misery the whole way. I’ve really enjoyed the trips I’ve taken by train, but they are nearly as expensive and take a lot longer.

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  32. Interesting comments about how much time it takes using trains/ferries rather than flying. My view is that going by train and ferry takes NO TIME AT ALL because it doesn’t put my life on hold while it happens, whereas flying does. Flying takes two to three hours at the departure airport, plus the flying time, plus the arrival time (especially international, which is pretty much every flight for us Europeans), so I have maybe twelve hours taken from my life, never to return. If I use the ferry, I have maybe an hour hanging around waiting to board, maybe half an hour waiting to drive off at the other end, but the rest is living — nothing unpleasant about it! I realise other people think of travelling time as being wasted, and calculate the time as wasted from time of leaving house to time of arriving at destination as, but when I use the ferry I figure the travel time as time it takes to start the engine. Life begins again immediately afterwards.

    I figure that’s what my Kindle is for: I can read books while waiting to board a plane, and (after a brief period turned off for takeoff, as if it matters one whit) during the flight. But yes, I understand your point! -rc

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  33. Some day I may have to try this train travel. My parents took an Amtrak trip several years ago and loved it. My Aunt and Uncle have gone often to visit their son (It was them, talking about it, that convinced my parents to try it) on Amtrak. I haven’t read all the post, but I did notice a mention of socialism. I remember reading an article that blamed socialism for the death of passenger rail. It held that since the government dictated where the trains would go, and what they could charge, the railroads couldn’t organize the traffic in a way to be profitable. I wish I could remember where I read it.

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  34. I don’t know if you’re a “Seven Habits” person, but it sounds like you appreciate the value of Habit 7 — “sharpening the saw.” If we don’t take time to renew ourselves — physically, intellectually, socially, physically — we won’t be effective in our lives. Thanks for reminding us of that!

    I haven’t read the book, but I think I’m at least Fairly Effective. -rc

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  35. About 10 years ago I took one of the best vacations of my life I spent two weeks basically just riding the train and looking out the window.

    From Boston, MA to Chicago to Toronto, then took a sleeper across Canada to Vancouver (and if you want to be SPOILED, take Via Rail’s “Canadian” cross-country — the service was fantastic and my toughest decision in those three days was whether I wanted the venison or the fresh brook trout for dinner as we cruised through the Rockies!), then Seattle, San Francisco, Denver back through Chicago to New York and back to Boston. Most of the time was spent just riding and looking out at some truly magnificent scenery, but I had time to wander around in some cities that I’d never visited and spend a few days visiting with friends along the way.

    As the saying goes, “It’s the ONLY way to travel!”

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  36. Unfortunately, the reason many ‘Murricans have forgotten about the train is because in many areas, Amtrak just doesn’t function well. This is due to the nature of Amtrak, which was an agency founded by the govt. to maintain passenger rail service at a time when the airlines were forcing the railroads to restructure on a purely cargo-carrying business model. This led to a “railroad” with no actual rails; Amtrak rents rail access from the actual companies that own the right of way. Ultimately, this means that passenger rail service anywhere near an active port of entry or areas with a great deal of cargo movement is hobbled, as the passenger rail service gets shunted to the side for the cargo [which is carried by the actual rail-owning company.]

    This is why passenger rail works so splendidly in Europe & elsewhere [passengers have priority] and why so many people have given up on it here in the States [it has taken me approximately 5 hours to get from Orange County to Santa Barbara, which is a drive of less than 3 hours normally.]

    I love rail travel when it works, but too often it is a disappointment due to inconvenient scheduling, poor service, relative expense [ie: a rail ticket shouldn’t regularly cost significantly more than the incidental cost equivalent of travel by car.]

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  37. The song that you’re thinking of is Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 song “Feelin’ Groovy (59th St. Bridge Song)” with the chorus:

    “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last
    Just kickin’ down the cobble-stones, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy”
    I’m probably not the only one to answer that question which wasn’t asked.

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  38. That was the song triggered in my mind, too, when I saw the comment. It was originally written and performed by Simon & Garfunkle 1966, but it was Harper’s Bizaar (yes, correct spelling) that released their version as a single in 1967. It hit #34 on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year.

    Back to the trains, when I had to travel on business, airlines were the only choice for the speed of travel necessary. And trains are extremely limited in schedules. For personal travel, such as family vacations for 4 or 6 of us, airlines were too expensive, and so were trains. A car was much cheaper, plus we could stop along the way to check out any interesting attractions.

    Now, with just my wife and me, a train for the two of us costs about the same as a car, and takes about the same amount of time. But we don’t have to concentrate on driving the entire distance. Trains are pleasant. You don’t have to arrive at the airport 3 hours early for a 1-2 hour flight. You can move around on trains. It’s like a baby buggy ride, you get rocked in your ride. And if there are delays, so what? We weren’t in a hurry, anyway. Some people takes cruises for a vacation; I find a long train ride enjoyable.

    The only problem with trains is that I’ve never been able to get a sleeper compartment. Apparently they’re like trying to get a hotel room on Bourbon St during Mardi Gras. You have to book it more than a year in advance.

    Probably depends on the route. We haven’t had a problem getting them. Still, I don’t get it: if there’s demand, why don’t they just add another sleeper car? -rc

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  39. Oh yes, the train. One of my favorite things to do when I happened to travel by day in a train with dining car, was to go to the dining car, and have something to eat just as we pass under the magnificent scenery of High Tatras. And possibly make some friends. Like when our regular car broke down, and I moved with the couple seating opposite to spend some quality time in the dining car.

    Unfortunately I cannot do this when I travel overnight, but I still preffer the train to the coach — at least I can lie properly and sleep. That is, if I can get a good price on the train, which is, unfortunately, normally about three times as much as the coach. But I wouldnt dismiss air travel completely either — when a low-cost carrier flew on my usual routing, it was great. With good timing, I could leave home in the morning, be driven to the airport 10 minutes away, and with ours being a tiny, European airport, be boarding as soon as 30 minutes after departure. Couple with an hour of flighttime, and a bit of travelling around Prague, and I can be in school before noon. Which was great, since I could spend one more evening with my family and be in school at about the same time I would be by train. A handy rule for flying — only take your carryon with you. Alas, the LCC has folded, and legacy carrier tickets go into hundreds of dollars — not flying anymore….

    Regarding what one of previous posters wrote about motorcar cars — that is a great thing. Shame it is not offered regularly. I would use it, when moving in or out of dorm — it was perfect. For basically the same price as two regular tickets, I could take my dad and go to Prague with the car fully loaded. Much better than getting a taxi or whatever to move all my stuff. And its also great for vacations — since you are mobile, you can wander about into less known, less connected areas, as you please.

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  40. I’m 53 now and riding the California Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake City is on my bucket list for next spring. I’m planning on an observation car seat to take in some of the best scenery the USA has to offer. I love train rides.

    Thanks for validating my desire.

    We always go west from Grand Junction (western Colorado), so I haven’t ridden it over the Rockies yet. That’s on my list. -rc

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  41. OOOO, I just loved the story. I began reading the comments and found them interesting, skipped a whole bunch then started reading again.

    I am a sudden, recent paraplegic (still trying to cope). I have been on a train, VIA Rail lo those many years ago.
    I thought all vacations were out of the question, however, I have this fabulous cruise ship agent whose husband is in a wheelchair and just returned from Rome!

    So, after reading the comment re: handicapped cabin has REALLY given me some hope. Both the rail and cruise travel which have right now become significant options which make my heart go pitty-pat.

    Thank you for the story and the most helpful commenters. Needless to say, i shall not skip comments again! 🙂

    There is sometimes gold in the comments. Sorry about what happened, but as you’re finding, you’re not stuck in a room by yourself for the rest of your life. Plan carefully, and get advice from those who have gone before you. And enjoy! -rc

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  42. I have crossed North America four times by train — three times with Amtrak (from Chicago to Seattle) and once with Via (from Vancouver to Toronto).

    Every journey has been enjoyable and, when the fact that all meals and sleeping accommodation is included in the fare, not expensive. Oh, and I have never had trouble booking a sleeper — although I do make my plans some months in advance.

    One problem with both services is that they are infrequent. The US train, the Empire Builder, is only daily and the Via train, The Canadian, is only thrice weekly. Since they have to give way to the (2-mile long) freight trains they are also very slow and, even with a timetabled average speed of around 40 mph, have always been late when I have travelled on them.

    Both US and Canadian railways were the envy of the world in the 1920s and 1930s — now they are amongst the world’s worst — which is a real shame since, as so many who have posted here have averred, train is one of the most civilised ways there is to travel. Just compare the experience of having a silver-service meal at a full-sized table with its linen cloth, watching the countryside pass by through a full-sized window — with that of eating a nasty plastic wrapped piece of sustenance from a minute tray fixed to a seat that is just inches from your face.

    In most of the world the railways are considered part of the country’s infrastructure and are centrally funded (as are the roads). Even in the UK, where the railways are nominally private, there is significant government support for them and significant government investment in new railway infrastrusture — and this is as it should be.

    Amtrak receives much US government support as well — but there still seems to be a feeling amongst many Americans that this is somehow wrong and against the “capitalist ethic”. But if a country needs public services then it needs to spend public money. And the first use for that money shouldn’t be to keep patching up the half-century old trains and dreadful stations, it should be for bulding new lines, trains and stations to the same kinds of standards that new airports and aircraft enjoy.

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  43. Apart from ferries, I habitually use the train for the two-hour ride from Cardiff to London. This is much quicker than driving, and for those of you who have never been to London, it’s a fine city to drive around but not one where you can actually stop driving, because there is nowhere to park. Plus there is a congestion charge if you drive into the city. I work on the train, the rail company provides power sockets for laptops, mobile phones, whatever you need for work, and there is food and drink available (including alcohol if you feel the need for a couple on the way back home after work). It’s cheaper, and quicker by both measures — elapsed time from home to University (about 3 hours in total by train, takes 4 by car) and by my measure (which is how much of my life has been wasted) which is around twenty minutes if I use the train, four hours if I drive/park in the burbs/take the Tube the rest of the way.

    The trains are rarely late or disrupted (less often than motorway hold-ups and traffic jams, anyway) and are of course a lot less stressful. Not to mention the after-work beer with colleagues before heading home. This is such a no-brainer! I could go on forever about the pluses — it’s a lot safer than driving, I don’t risk getting my out-of-town car broken into while it’s parked in somebody else’s neighbourhood, I get time to prepare for whatever meetings I’m going to, immediately before I go so it’s all fresh in my mind, and so on and so on.

    I think the US has lost a lot by letting its train service go, but it will return as aircraft fuel becomes too expensive or unsustainable: the country is ideal for transcontinental high-speed trains (200 mph plus). This would mean New York to Los Angeles in around 15 hours — think about it!

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  44. What’s often overlooked when comparing the US to European countries is the sheer AREA of the country. The continental portion of the US is nearly 3.2 MILLION square miles, while the largest European country in area accounts for a mere 640,000 square miles. So naturally, it’s cheaper to build railroads to accommodate the population.

    Sure, the US also has more citizens to tax than France; however, there is much more to transportation than simply its citizens. There is also products and commodities. And that, really, is the primary reason for the vast highways built in America. Trucking and cargo companies pay high taxes for the maintenance of those highways, and if those taxes were diverted to railroads, then they’d become just as congested and subject to delays as pavement travel is today.

    I agree that rail is a very comfortable and enjoyable method of travel, but it’s not a high priority for citizens as are highways for cargo and skies for speed. Some of us enjoy what’s available because we CAN. We’re not constricted to time, delays, and schedules, and can afford to take the road less traveled.

    Agreed, and pretty much that’s what I was pointing out. If you have time, there are alternatives. Don’t forget to look at them all. -rc

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  45. I don’t agree that railways make more sense in smaller countries than in larger countries. Why should they? What really matters is the numbers of people around to use the railways. In other words, population density — which has no automatic relationship to country size — although smaller countries do tend to have higher population densities than larger countries (although that correlation is not exact either — Bangladesh is a much larger country than Luxembourg but has a much higher population density).

    The UK in general and London in particular has one of the highest population densities in the world; it also has one of the most dense rail networks. The UK’s population density is 660 persons per square mile. The USA’s population density is a mere 83 persons per square mile and Canada’s is even lower at just 9.1.

    Obviously the correlation is not exact since there are other factors such as a country’s wealth that will affect the amount of work done on infrastructure.

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  46. AMTRAK – BAH!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed you and Kit had an enjoyable experience with AMTRAK. We were not so fortunate.

    Let me first state that I am a lifelong (65 years) Railfan. I travel hundreds of miles to see, ride and photograph trains. Absolutely love ’em! When in Europe my wife and I have traveled almost exclusively by train through Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy, and The Netherlands. Trains there are enjoyable, comfortable, reliable, speedy, economical and convenient. Dinner in the diner and, at 200 MPH the water in you glass hardly ripples. With welded rail joints and perfect roadbed I do miss the clickety-clack of the wheels. Missed the train? There’s another coming in 15-20 minutes. We don’t take sleepers. Who wants to sleep while Europe is passing by your window? When it gets dark we get off the train, check into a hotel by the station, and continue our journey the next morning. (On most long distance routes in the U.S. there is only ONE train a day. So the train you get off in the evening will be the train you get the next day.) Every experience with Euro Rail has been an absolute pleasure.

    Contrast that with the two experiences we’ve had with AMTRAK:

    (1) We were due to leave Salt Lake City at 9:00 AM and hurried breakfast so as not to be late. When the train finally departed at TWELVE NOON we thought it was ONLY 3 hours late but in talking with others waiting at the station we learned that this was YESTERDAY’s 9:00 AM train. So it was actually 27 hours late. We left SLC without any electrical power; No lights, no automatic doors, no toilet flushing and, of course, no kitchen as these ‘modern’ cars are all electric. (I remember when each car had its own generator and batteries. Now it’s all ‘head-end’ power.) At every stop an army of technicians descended on our train to try to find and fix the problem. Of course this made us later and later. They even tried changing locomotives, without success. The problem was finally fixed in Grand Junction. So we traveled the most beautiful, scenic rail route in the United States IN THE DARK. I actually fell asleep in the Moffat Tunnel and missed the descent down into Denver, where friends were waiting to meet us.

    Incident #2 was when we were waiting for the train from Solana Beach, CA back to San Diego. The 12:15 AM train (the last train of the day) NEVER CAME, forcing us to pay $70 for a taxi back to the city. At that hour even National car rental won’t “pick you up”. (At least AMTRAK refunded our ticket.)

    AMTRAK? Nay, AM-TRASH. Our government is talking about High-Speed trains. I would be THRILLED with a low-speed train that was reliable.

    No one ever said Amtrak was perfect. No mode of transportation is. USAir left me stranded in Pittsburgh overnight, to sleep in the airport, without even an apology or refund. That doesn’t mean that others haven’t had wonderful experiences with USAir, eh? -rc

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  47. Comments Hey. Saw that you took the Zephyr connect to Reno. You’re right that Americans don’t normally travel by train but I happen to love it. I’ve crossed the country si times on the train now. I live in Los Angeles these days but I still have to go to Silicon Valley / San Francisco / Santa Cruz a few times in a year’s time for conferences, to see friends. If the situation calls for speed, I take a plane out of Burbank ($75/50 minutes), and if it’s something that can be planned and is or can be leisurely I grab Amtrak ($75/7 hours).

    Now, I can make that drive in 5.5 hours and break quite a few laws doing it (haven’t been caught yet) but realistically it should take about seven. So my logic runs like this: I can spend the same amount of time doing the traveling bit and I can sit strapped in the drivers seat stressing about what the other fools on the read are doing/about to do for almost a “Work Day” or I can…

    + Plug in my laptop and work (power outlets).
    + Get on the internet and work (WiFi on the train or from my phone if I need security) and chat.
    + Meet new people from the pool of my fellow travelers (I always make a new friend no matter how or where I travel).
    + Have a beer or four.
    + Have a leisurely meal rather than stuff fast-food garbage in my face while barreling up I-5 (eating is unwise at high-speeds on Highway 1 [The PCH}).
    + Take pictures of the lovely coast.
    + Read a novel (oddly, the fastest way to get people to talk to you).
    + Sleep (also unwise while driving at high speeds).

    I attended an energy conference at the California NanoSystems Institute a few months back where a speaker (pro Mass Transit) said “The perception in the United States is that “Cars are Freedom” and when it was my turn to deliver my segment I threw half of it out and explained that cars are The Opposite of freedom: You suddenly are beholden to the State (Licenses), City (Meters or Tickets), Insurance Company (Bastards), Bank (More Bastards), Mechanic (I can sort of live with this one), and Oil Companies (Bastards Supreme). I finished by asking how six people with their hands in your wallet is “Freedom”. The room was silent.

    My Uncle Don and Aunt Kate live in Ouray and I love my uncle dearly and there is only one (minor actually) rift between us…He worked for GM (when that truly meant something) and loves cars. I get it, I really do. I happen to think they’re fodder (I like aircraft … a Cessna’s stall speed is a Ferarri’s top speed). There is a growing movement here in LA of people who refuse to Join the “Car Culture”. Those that believe that a car is a measurement of their “Status” or “Success” we believe is a measurement of their irrelevance as a member of productive society (and it is almost always a fine yard-stick for measuring their level of ass-hattery). So I live in LA, refuse to own a car and, as a running joke, I seem to be the only person in LA that can make a meeting on time. Occasionally I rent a U-Haul truck or a ZipCar but usually I get about just fine via my Mountain Bike, the Bus or Subway, and the train or a plane if I need a distance jaunt. My “regular” travel expenses for a month are around $200. One cannot own a car for $200.

    So, I’m glad you guys took the train and I’m even more pleased that you felt compelled to write about it in This is True.

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