People of an age will remember when if you wanted to go somewhere you took a train. It was inexpensive, convenient, comfortable, and civilized. Being of an age myself, I dislike air travel: being herded like cattle, and then being encased in a metal cigar for miserable hours on end, pathetically looking forward to the next tasteless meal.

So, when I was recently planning a trip to San Francisco (from Vancouver, BC), I decided to take the train. Way back in the late 1940s, when I fled home in Portland and lived in San Francisco, I travelled back and forth by train many times. It was always pleasant, fun, and very inexpensive. Imagine, even as a kid, being treated nicely by polite attendants, having one’s luggage looked after, and being able to walk about, have a drink, have breakfast, lunch or dinner, and enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.

I can say right now that nothing about train travel has changed much. The Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Oakland, is beautiful, quiet, and—dare I say it—civilized. Unlike the way it used to be, the train does not depart from Vancouver, so one must get on a bus (at 5.30 a.m.) to connect with the train that departs from Seattle at 9.00. Not too bad, really, because the Amtrak bus is considerably better than the Greyhound, and it’s quite easy to snooze most of the way.

Once on the train, you find your assigned seat—yes, I went by coach because of the price, not just reasonable, but cheap—then you are free to walk about, have breakfast, sit in a special “observation” car (comfortable seats, some tables, and plenty of company), have a drink or snack in the bar, or chat with your seat mate. I certainly did all of the above, meeting and talking with any number of interesting and varied travellers, having a beer or two (or three), and several excellent and inexpensive meals. I needn’t remind you that these are activities that you cannot perform on an airplane. (Ivan Illich said that flying is not travelling, it is being shipped from one place to another.)

If cost is no object to you, you can have a sleeping compartment, meals included, for around $500. The round-trip coach fare was under $200. For sure I didn’t get much sleep, but enough so that when I was dropped off, by bus from Oakland to downtown San Francisco, I happily walked the ten blocks or so to the hotel and was ready to enjoy a delightful dinner with friends.

The only thing you have to have in order to travel by train is time. That is something we had plenty of back in the 1940s and 1950s—time and civility. The airlines and contemporary life have convinced us to be in a big hurry all the time. As a result, we’ve lost the ability to enjoy getting from one place to another, actually traversing geography and sharing the company of fellow travellers. Highly recommended!


About tdurrie

An aging radical with thoughts about society, education, arts, politics, and food.
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  1. Sounds great; we’re sold on the idea. We’re planning a trip to Los Angeles next year (probably March) and have pretty much decided on taking the train.

  2. John McLachlan says:

    And here I have been planning a trip to visit my brother in LA by taking the train when out comes your post. Great to hear. Darren and are looking forward to it.

  3. Very compelling. I have always enjoyed the few train trips I have been on, and I now find myself wanting to pursue more. And, if you could see about requiring Vancouver to have more train options, I might just follow through.

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