Writing About Long-Distance Train Travel … and Getting It Right.

I use Google Search to keep up with stories in print and on line having to do with train travel. Every few weeks, up pops a piece written by someone who has just taken their first long-distance ride on Amtrak. Predictably, they all talk about getting used to the leisurely pace, describe their accommodations and the dining car meals, and of course they rave about the scenery.
There are almost always errors, too, and it drives me crazy. One woman, writing about her Amtrak ride from Los Angeles up to Portland, Oregon, kept referring to the train as the “Coastal Starlight”. It is, of course, the Coast Starlight. Seems like a rather basic point to get right.
In another story, the writer praised the “porter” in his sleeping car for being so pleasant and accommodating. That was nice, but the official Amtrak job title for those folks is “car attendant”.  It’s not such a small point, either. Back in the so-called Golden Age of train travel, the Pullman porters were all black males and, while those jobs were highly prized, much of the work was demeaning. For instance, passengers turning in for the night would put their shoes in a little compartment that the porter could open from the sleeping car’s corridor. While passengers were sleeping comfortably, the porters were busy most of the night shining all those shoes.
And having no interest in knowing their porter’s actual name, many passengers in those days had the unfortunate and insensitive habit of simply addressing all porters as “George”, after their employer, George Pullman. In fact, that’s one reason why Amtrak has always made a point of requiring their car attendants to wear name badges.
But getting back to the articles by first-time train travelers, the one thing they always write and rave about is the experience of meeting and chatting with other passengers during their rail journey. It’s quite true: you meet and actually get to know people over leisurely meals in the dining car or relaxing in the lounge car. It is, in fact, what I enjoy most about long-distance train travel.
Funny, isn’t it? On a five- or six- hour flight across the country in a jet airplane, you can sit next to someone in quarters so confined that you actually have to share an armrest … and never exchange a word.  I wonder why that is.