A Year On The Ground: Riding the Rails

by Sallie Bingham

Train travel is becoming, rapidly, as comfortable as an old shoe, and it takes the elegance of Union Station in Washington to remind me of the miracle of this way of moving along the ground.

But first, we stand for a long time in freezing drizzle in the Amtrak station in Richmond, modernized to dreariness, although the old photographs on the walls of the waiting room attest to the day when this was a major terminus. In those decades, eighty or more years ago, three train tracks crossed here, bearing engines and their massive loads, human and material, north, south and west. During the War, as my a historical Richmond grandmother called it, a major Union objective was to choke off these rail lines that were carrying supplies to the beleaguered Confederacy. All that is reduced to a shadow, now; only a few travelers wait to board when the train crawls in from Newport News.

The roommate and I are growing particular. The bedroom I reserved, which seemed so well appointed on the leg from Florida to Richmond, now promises to be horribly cramped. We try, at the ticket window in Union Station, to upgrade—in airline lingo—to a bedroom, which has actual beds and a bathroom, but the additional cost would be almost a thousand dollars, out of reach for nearly everyone traveling by rail. These bedrooms remain mostly empty, and it seems to me that Amtrak might reconsider what they are charging.

Then we wander bemused among the shops in Union Station, under the high, cream-colored, vaulted and festooned ceiling, set with marble or apparently marble replicas of anonymous knights in armor. How beautiful it looks in its fortunately preserved spender; even the chain stores seem special.

The station dining room is so splendid we are aware of being in the nation’s capitol even more forcefully than when, crossing the Potomac on our way in, we saw the capitol in the distance. At these beautifully appointed tables, eating the delicious Southern food—hot biscuits and muffins, kale, fried green tomatoes—I’ve long forsworn, I understand, briefly, why my entire biological family mired down for generations in the south. Hot biscuits would almost make the sacrifice worthwhile.

And the diligence, the friendliness of these Amtrak personnel, almost all of them black, all bent on helping us! This is a  gracious service we’ve long since forgotten, and no longer receive even in overpriced restaurants. I would love to know how these tireless workers are trained, how they preserve their graciousness in the face of crowds, delays, and the surliness of exhausted travelers. The airlines have never learned this secret.

We are ensconced in our cramped roomette by the time the train pulls out and begins its slow progress through West Virginia and Maryland, the spindly woods and long grey rivers of too-early spring. Only the weeds along the track are green, although cherry and pear are in bloom. I remember these late springs—as they seemed—in Kentucky, preceded by weeks of monumental rains.

Outside of Cumberland, Maryland, we stop to change engineers and then charge on into the thick dark, the whistle’s wailing sharper, more plaintive than it was further south. It now remains for the upper berth to be let down, the shower down the hall attempted, and night spent crossing Pennsylvania  to veer on toward dawn.


to be continued...


Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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