On an Amtrak Long-Distance Train, There’s Scenery … and There’s Scenery.

I don’t know if there’s ever been an actual scientific survey, but I’m quite sure that most people riding across the country on an Amtrak train will say what they enjoy most is looking at the scenery.

It’s certainly out there in abundance and that’s certainly how I feel. I’ll never get tired of the six hours it takes the California Zephyr to make the run from Denver to Glenwood Springs … climbing up into the Rockies, through the Moffat Tunnel and over the Continental Divide, then following the Colorado RIver through more than a hundred miles of spectacular canyons.

And there’s also the Empire Builder and the Sunset Limited and the Cardinal … and a dozen  more trains, all with the USA rolling by outside their windows. But after a while, after you’ve been gazing out the window for six or eight hours, it hits you: there are a helluva lot of poor people in this country.

 Every town you go through has trailer parks and whole neighborhoods comprised of manufactured homes all crowded in together just a few feet apart. It’s the same for rural areas, except that their shoe-box homes sit forlornly in the middle of a big dusty yard, with clothes flapping on a line out back and perhaps with a horse wandering around. You see all of that, too, from a train. 

You see little houses in New Mexico made of adobe as you roll past on the Southwest Chief. From the City of New Orleans or the Texas Eagle you pass weather-beaten shacks teetering on squat posts or stacks of bricks. In the east you see the dingy tenements as you flash through Baltimore or Bridgeport on an Acela.

But the train rolls on past, crossing over bridges that need replacing, stopping at unattended stations, passengers in a 40-year-old sleeping car sweltering because the air-conditioning system isn’t working. Again. And you think, for the umpteenth time, we’re all in this together. Why don’t our elected leaders get that?
The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye was a hero of mine. Heck, Dan was a hero to a great many people … and with good reason, too. He was one of the many thousand AJAs (that’s Hawaii shorthand for American of Japanese Ancestry) who enlisted in 1943, went to Europe, fought gallantly and lost his right arm in Italy. He was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, too.

Anyway, several years ago, I was in Washington and up on The Hill representing the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) and stumping on behalf of that year’s appropriation for Amtrak. I had an appointment with a member of Inouye’s staff, but ran into the senator as he was leaving his office. He stopped and we chatted for a bit. He said he was on his way to some committee meeting where a bill he favored was going to be discussed.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I don’t think this bill is going anywhere and that’s too bad. Too many of my colleagues just don’t realize that a lot of people in this country are having a hard time.”

That’s when the idea struck me. I told him all we had to do was require every new member of Congress take a long-distance ride on Amtrak before they can be sworn in.

He had no idea what I was talking about, of course.