Writing on the Train

Posted on March 17, 2014 by

More than thirty years ago, Amtrak paid for my train fare and sleeper in return for a travel story.

This week, the rail passenger service rolls out a promotion which will select 24 writers for an “Amtrak Residency.”   A December New Yorker story about writing on trains created a social media buzz which Amtrak has latched onto.  A requirement that participating writers surrender publishing rights and allow their musings to be used in a future marketing or advertising campaign has garnered additional publicity for Amtrak.

I was mildly interested in the controversy but what captured my attention was that the last leg of my big move west in 1981 was – thank you very much – courtesy of Amtrak.

I was leaving behind Vermont, New York and other points east for California.  At the time, I had been covering the politics of passenger rail, had many contacts at Amtrak and took up the fight when President Reagan’s first budget cut its federal funding.

So before leaving, I arranged to do a travel piece for my former employer, the Vanguard Press, an alternative weekly published out of Burlington.  For three years, I had been writing news, politics and culture from the nation’s tiniest capital city, Montpelier (pop: 8,000).

I was in D.C. than South Florida before boarding the Sunset Limited in New Orleans for my free-bee two-day trip to L.A.  Though I didn’t know it then, this train was famous for, among other things, helping African Americans leave Louisiana and Texas to work in the war industries in Los Angeles during World War II.

Three months later, from my apartment in Santa Monica, California, I wrote this piece for the July 17, 1981 issue of the Vanguard Press.  It began:

“It’s like fishing” explained a passenger aboard the Sunset Limited as we rolled through bayou country near Lafayette, Louisiana.  Holding that rod and reel for hours without a bite teaches patience, and so does long distance train travel.  Looking out the window of the observation car we devised our own quiet sport, scanning the swamps for alligators, but it was hard to distinguish them from soaked logs.  “They’re out there,” insisted another traveler, a local boy.  “They were put on the endangered species list so you can’t hunt them and now they’re all over the place.” 

Not only were we trying to spot an endangered species [I wrote], we were riding one.

A little contrived but not bad.  And then came my segue:

The Sunset Limited and dozens of other passenger trains will vanish into history with the steamboat and the stagecoach if the Reagan Administration gets its way.

The President’s warriors on government spending have opened fire on Amtrak…

… etc., etc.

The rest of the piece touched on economics, transportation policy, energy, political posturing and finished with anecdotes about bad plumbing in one of the train’s cars and the kitchen running out of butter.

Looking back, I’m surprised the article didn’t focus more on the the enormous change I had made in my life, leaving cozy rural Vermont for SoCal’s anonymity and sprawl.

That’s what I was thinking early in the morning, 40 miles east of  Los Angeles, looking through the window at the back side of what I would learn to call the Inland Empire.

Soon we’d be snaking through the freight yards and pulling into the Amtrak platform at L.A.’s Union Station.  It was a dramatic opening scene – almost cinematic – filled with promise.

I’d arrived well-rested and in style, ready to take on the town.

Comments (4)


  1. John Hora says:

    The only way to travel!

  2. Christina Perez says:

    Amtrak from Richmond to Sacramento at the crack of dawn is
    equally memorable. The coast, estuarys, delta region and farm land are a sight to behold. I always eat the microwave breakfast burrito ( my Mexicam grandmother must roil her grave!). Amtraks version of a ” meal” unlike that on The Renfe bullet train in Spain! Christina

  3. First time I ever set foot in L.A. was in 1977 at Union Station, as I, too, had traveled on Amtrak from New Orleans, LA. (LA to L.A. — must be a joke lurking there somewhere, reminding me of a rhyming plane flight I once took from Boston to Austin.)

    But I had the good sense one day later to flee L.A. and again to board Amtrak to S.F.

  4. Rick Chertoff says:

    I share your enthusiasm for trains. One of my earliest memories is a trip from Houston to L.A. when I was 4 in 1949. I’ll never forget waking up looking at the New Mexican desert. More recently I’ve been on trains in Europe. The contrast is amazing and illustrative. Consider the paucity of train alternatives in L.A., the U.S. second largest city. For 2 of the 3 largest cities around us, San Francisco and Las Vegas, there is no real train travel. How nice and easy it would be to get on a train to SF and be there in a few hours and not go through the hassle of the airport or a 6 hour drive. There is no comparable insanity from any major European city where you can’t go from one to the other quickly with a choice of many departure times every day. L.A. is to trains what Topeka is to major museums.

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