(james benedict brown) on the road

Train 19: breakfast, lunch and Tuscaloosa

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 29 August, 2006

My overnight train ride from Washington DC began its second day somewhere around Gainesville, Georgia. Having avoided the overprice and over microwaved evening meal that Amtrak offers in its restaurant car, I gave breakfast a go. The plates are cheaper, and Amtrak’s policy of sitting you with other diners always makes for interesting early morning conversations. My dining companion this morning did not sleep too well, having been unable to get the thermostat in his sleeping compartment respond to his desired temperature. This is the great joy of being a coach class passenger on Amtrak. Having not spent the additional accommodation fare for a ‘roomette’ ($111 for Washington to Tuscaloosa) I can enjoy some early morning schadenfraude while listening to the disappointments of passengers from the sleeping car. I am not going to make a good travel writer, because I have forgotten the name of this friendly gentleman already. But he is returning to Baton Rouge from Lynchburg, Virginia, where he has just deposited his son at college and where he and his wife are considering moving to. We talk about the differences in house prices, climates and cultures, both between Louisiana and Virginia, and between the USA and Great Britain. Can the average price of a house in Great Britain really be around £200,000 (about USD$400,000)?

The scenery has changed overnight. The train is creaking around twists and turns along a single track, occasionally passing freight trains that have had the rare dignity to pause for us in sidings. I am finding it hard to be a polite participant in the breakfast conversation: outside our window are deep forests of tall green trees that have been draped in the fast and dense growing kudzu, which my breakfast companion tells me is a plant first introduced from Africa. I have never seen this ivy-like plant before: it seems intent on world domination, spreading itself across forest floors, up tree trunks and down drooping branches. In many of the small valleys that we cross or pass alongside, it appears to be the only plant visible.

We are slightly late through Atlanta. To our left I can see the grand shimmering skyline of this big city. It’s a good view, because as with many cities outside the north-eastern states, Atlanta’s Amtrak station is a depressingly hovel of a place, out in the suburbs. It’s smaller and less well equipped than many commuter rail stations I have been to. I walk up and down the platform a bit, and help Tabitha unload some rubbish sacks from one of the coach cars. It’s only just nine o’clock in the morning, but it’s already hot and humid. I normally say that I like to step off the train ‘to get some air’. Here, I decide to get back on to get some cooler air conditioned air.

I read, and doze my way through the morning. We’re scheduled to arrive at Tuscaloosa at 13h11 (or as Amtrak call it, 111P, because Americans don’t seem to like the twenty-four hour clock). I conservatively add an hour to that, and spend the rest of the morning watching the green plant life and red soil of the scenery go by. When we pass through a town, we usually get treated to a view of the ugly, industrial side of it. Not having had the time to bring a snack for lunch on board with me, I find myself back in the dining car after just five hours for lunch: a Caesar salad and the same dining companion. There only seems to be a half dozen passengers who frequent the dining car. We are all men, and probably all rush too quickly to announce how much we prefer taking the train to other forms of transport.

Birmingham is the last stop before Tuscaloosa, and it reminds me of Birmingham back home in England. It is grey, ugly and has a lot of rail yards (apologies to residents of both Birminghams, I will return one day to make up for that dismissive statement). I go back to my coach seat to gather my belongings together and to wait for the next stop. By now, I have followed Paul Theroux as far as Guatemala City, and having read his account of travel on Guatemalan railways, Amtrak feels like the Orient Express. Less than twenty minutes from Tuscaloosa, we come to a halt. After a few moments, the conductor announces that this is to allow the north bound Crescent to pass us in the opposite direction. We wait in a rocky cutting for a while, watching the same rocks, stones and trees outside our windows for about ten minutes. There is a roaring crescendo of sound to our right, and a flash of silver, blue and red flies past, carrying a few hundred passengers back towards Washington and New York City.

We creep forward, and Tuscaloosa soon emerges on either side of our train.

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