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July 20th, 2017

The Dining Car

BY Christian Ford

If you’re anything like me, you were scarred in your youth by the golden age of travel.  It was the imagery that did me in: glorious ocean liners where the captain dined at your table; overnight trains with immaculate service and possibly a spy aboard; the dawn of transoceanic passenger flight, when flying boats epitomized modernity even as they flew directly to an exotic past.

Those days are so gone it’s hard to imagine that they ever existed.  But their ghosts still walk.  You might spend a fortune for a simulacrum of ocean liner travel on the Queen Mary 2, the sole liner still working the trade.  You could spend a lesser fortune on first class aboard the flagship airline of a petrostate like Emirates, where poshness aloft helps erase memories of the Soylent Green re-enactment continuously playing at the airport.  Or, more modestly, you can board an Amtrak sleeper.

I’ve ridden the rails at various intervals, and on my most recent trip, I noticed changes.  The staff, for one thing, is now sprinkled with millennials.  The china in the dining car has become plastic.  There’s WiFi, sort of.  But on balance, the train remains the same, including a propensity for delays.

Amtrak, created out of the remnants of various passenger lines in 1971, began as a railroad without rails to call its own, and most of Amtrak’s long-distance runs still rent rail-space from freight operations.  In theory, freight trains should yield to passenger trains.  In practice, your train is more likely to arrive on time if the economy is in the tank and fewer freights are running.

The delays that do occur, however, also stem from something more fundamental.  Airports and freeways are twentieth century transportation systems, segregated from the rest of our infrastructure.  Railroads are from the era when much of that infrastructure was created.  Towns sprouted from railroad stations, factories and businesses flourished along the rail line and generations of children (myself included) used trains as unsafe playthings, flattening pennies on the tracks.  Railroads are the warp to the city-and-town weft and it’s one of the reasons train travel can be so fascinating; the view out the window is often a cross-section of what is — or once was — important.   This integration also means that trains are susceptible to the happenstance of other lives.

On a recent trip, our train glided to an unscheduled stop in the middle of a modest neighborhood in Albany, Oregon, the hulking superliner tucking itself in among quiet streets and small houses settling in for the evening.   I only half-listened to the conductor’s announcement about the delay until I heard, “…and I promise I am not making this up.”  There was, it turned out, a police foot pursuit on the tracks.  You could almost feel the train lean as everyone peered out their windows.  Our outlaw was apparently fleet of foot, because when we finally eased out of town, we passed a repeating tableau of cops blockading the track crossings, all wearing uniformly annoyed expressions.

On my northbound return, I arrived early for a midnight boarding in Sacramento, only to be greeted by a clerk who I thought was wishing me a happy new year, but was really asking, “Do you want to hear the news?”  It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d said no: the train was three hours late.

There’s an inclination to be defeated by something like that, especially when your party includes two grade-schoolers whose departure to the Land of Nod is overdue.    There was no reason given, the train was simply delayed.  But my children — and for that matter everyone in a waiting room surprisingly crowded for a Tuesday night in Sacramento — met the challenge gracefully.  A few minutes before three in the morning we stepped aboard the Coast Starlight and were welcomed by our car attendant, who’d been on duty for something close to twenty hours before she wryly wished us — and herself — goodnight.

I awoke in a world I’d never seen before and shouldn’t have seen, because this section of track was scheduled for the hours before dawn.  Instead, last night’s delay midwifed a morning’s revelation, a high grassland of vibrant red earth, studded with desert chaparral hills.  There was brilliant winter sun in a blue sky and fog in the hollows, cattails sprouting from frozen marshes and shaggy-coated horses nibbling at their forage.  It was stunning, the kind of landscape that pushes aside ordinary thoughts and leaves you wondering about people you don’t even know, the ones who chose to make lives here.

Awakening in a new world meant new plans, so we decided against sleeping through breakfast and found our way to the dining car in time for the very last seating.  In the “consist” of the sleeper train, the dining car is inevitably placed in the middle, and it’s the heart of the train for more than just logistical reasons.  The dining car separates the experience of the sleeper train from long-haul buses, whether on the highway or in the sky.   Taking your seat in a restaurant that streaks through tunnels, and backyards, mountain passes and shimmering desert creates a strange sensation, as though body and mind were being nourished both at the same time.

Or almost at the same time, because Amtrak trains are stocked somewhat like ocean liners; no resupply will occur until the final destination is reached.  Consequently, any delay substantial enough to put an additional meal into the journey will also cause food stocks — even, as we discovered, pancake stocks — to run low.

It’s small, as tragedies go, but as our journey went and more stocks ran dry, I began to notice that, culturally, we do not do handle this sort of thing very well.   Blame it, if you will, on an app-enabled American inclination to hurry, but whatever the reason, we are conditioned to believe that if something can be had, it should be had in a hurry.

Only not on the train.  This provoked a variety of responses beginning with disbelief and progressing through disappointment, dismay, and even a hint of despair.  It’s a recipe for a surly review on Yelp, texted in a flurry from the safety of one’s Uber.  But you’ve already hailed your ride on the sleeper train, and though you may still try to crowdshare your pique, it’s going to happen on the WiFi’s enigmatic schedule, not yours.

So what I saw, over the course of a day’s journey into night, was a small transformation.  The longer passengers remained aboard, the more their unthinking sense of expectation was replaced with something different.  What it was, I’m not quite sure, but it showed itself as an increased sense of humor, a tendency to prefer the the view out the window over the view of a screen, and a greater awareness of one’s fellow passengers.

The dining car will always be a nineteenth century experience dressed in twentieth century garb making mischief in the twenty-first and that, it seems to me, is a good thing.  It’s difficult to imagine the mindset of the first generations to take their seats in dining cars, but I’d wager that our nineteenth century boy or girl would understand that both the menu in their hands and the one in their heads could all be rewritten at any moment, no reasons given.

For us, it’s different.  We have become habituated to ordering our daily lives from internal menus of likes and dislikes, habits and compulsions.  We are ever more catered to and tailored for, producing a state of emotional comfort.  But it is a tailoring possible only with the most restricted of menus, which becomes quite clear when your steward informs you that you can’t always get what you want.

All these thoughts squeezed in on the seat beside me as I sat in the dining car, eating an unintended meal and gazing at a landscape I hadn’t imagined.  And I thought about one other thing, too, about the murmur that moved, softly, through our last minutes in the midnight waiting room.  The rumor, which in the end was not a rumor, said that train was off schedule because, hundreds of miles and many hours before, a 50-ish man had perused his internal menu and found on offer a bottle of spirits and a picturesque place to enjoy it, a spot which turned out to be a railroad trestle.

So the last day of his life touched what was just another day in the lives of the few hundred aboard the Coast Starlight.  You could call it a failure — of infrastructure, of service, of policing or planning or provisioning — and it was all of that.  But the missing pancakes in the blinding sun of a never-to-be-seen vista were something else, a reminder that things you never wanted can be a gift.


The Dining Car by Martin Cathrae
Coast Starlight in a Winter Landscape by Bruce Fingerhood
The World Goes Past by Rennett Stowe