Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Riding the Rails

Grand Central Terminal, 2007

My father worked almost all of his career for railroads, most of that time for just one, the Norfolk & Western Railway. When I was a kid, family members of railroad employees got passes that allowed them to travel for free anywhere on the line. My sister came along just in time to take advantage of this when she was in college. But the time I came of age, the passes had been phased out and the whole concept of passenger rail was undergoing change. The once genteel passenger rail service on the N&W—on trains named Powhatan, Pocahontas and Raleigh—was disappearing and would be eliminated or substantially reduced by the time I got to college and could have used one of those passes to see the country.

But those years of riding the N&W up and down the track between Norfolk and Roanoke left their imprint on me. To this day I can think of no more civilized way to travel than to step on a train, take a comfortable seat by the window and watch the view as the train glides down the tracks.

Of course, rail travel isn’t what it used to be. When I was a child and rode the train back and forth between Norfolk and Roanoke to visit my father, the passenger cars were becoming worn looking. But the dining cars were still shiny and were staffed by proud black men who were not only thoroughly serious and professional in their jobs, but also had pride of being among the most respected members of the African American middle class. On the N&W, the dining car service was impeccable and you ate off real china and used real silver flatware. In my mind’s eye I can still see and hear those silver pitchers from which they served ice water and tea.

I’m far from a serious rail aficionado. But when there is a good opportunity for me to take a train instead of flying or driving, I’ll be on the train. My friend Greg Ward wrote the other day about a trip he and his son took to and from Washington by train. This is a trip I’ve taken a number of times, and extended as far north as Boston and, on VIA Rail Canada, across Eastern Canada from Toronto to Quebec.

Union Station, Richmond, 1970

Trains are great places for stories because you’re generally seating around a lot of people for several hours at a time. It’s also my experience that train people also tend to be more sociable than airplane passengers, too. One time I got on the club car headed north out of Newport News, Virginia, and the only other passenger in the car was a woman freshly released from a psychiatric hospital. She was clearly nervous to be on her own and had the slight difficulty walking that people who use lithium to stabilize their mood sometimes have. But she was friendly and harmless. The two of us rode alone in the rail car for the first twenty minutes of the ride up to Williamsburg. But in that twenty minutes the woman managed to tell me her entire life story, all of the protocols of her most recent hospitalization and all about the relatives she was going to stay with in Philadelphia. While doing this, she also managed to dump everything in her purse and suitcase out on the floor of the rail car. I mean everything. The floor around her seat was awash with eyeliner pencils, lipsticks, coins, pens, train tickets, Chap sticks, candy wrappers, all kinds of scraps of paper, cigarettes, keys and underwear.

When more passengers got on at Williamsburg, I was relieved to have someone else on board to keep the woman occupied. Several very proper Southern ladies—the kind who still wore white gloves when they traveled by train—looked as the woman as if she was dangerous. By the time the train pulled out of the station and headed for Richmond, though, the woman had gathered up all her belongings, the porter had helped her pack them back into her bags and settled the woman back into her seat, where she was much calmer now that we’d gotten a few miles closer to her destination. Every now and then for the next couple of hours, I’d hear her laugh out loud as she described to seatmates who got on in Richmond, Washington and Baltimore how much fun she was going to have when she got to Philadelphia. But by then hers was just one of many conversations floating among the congenial band of travelers in the last car on a train headed north.


  1. Awwww--you painted a lovely picture of that woman. Bob's dad had worked for N&W railroad--he was Director of the IT division. He'd been with IBM up in NY state and was moved to VA and then N&W liked him and hired him on, so he stayed. We could NEVER complain about being held up at a train stop--that was how he made his living!

    I love the train--back in the 70's, when the "gas shortage" was going on, I took the train back and forth to VA with TONS of other people, to get back to school.

    I also laughed to remember that when I was growing up, we literally used to wear white gloves into NY City as kids. I am cracking up to think of that now.

  2. One of my fellow bloggers from the UK is always posting stories detailing her adventures by train. This got me to thinking about the subject and I realized that, while I've seen many trains consisting of coal cars, automobile carriers, box cars, tankers, etc, I've never seen a passenger train and I've traveled all over the country in my 50 plus years!