I am not a train nut. But riding in Amtrak’s private sleeper car for the daylong trip from Atlanta to New Orleans – the old Southern Crescent – has me in an unusual state of elation. The perfect tracks bend out away from the dense plumbing of Atlanta traffic. The city acquires a more likeable personality from this sound-buffering window. The whale-like power grants me a security, unbelted, that I never feel in a car. Gathering speed, the train seems almost magic in its defiance of the physical forces that bind a city to a killing routine. Curving through the disenchanted woods of Georgia’s countryside, Train 19 seems immune in this pace from the way time has frozen in the small towns, as if they were halted by the red-flashing gates. Whoever designed the universal train whistle was a musical genius. Or is it America’s train songs and childhood memories that make it such a tender call?
In the age of insomnia, I understand the NextDoor social-media app complaint I read from someone against that train whistle in downtown Decatur at 2 in the morning. Was this necessary, the person wondered. I don’t mind it. My subconscious is comforted by the sound. What is it that stirs me like this?
I remember an almost religious experience I had near Atlanta’s surviving train station – a little architectural jewel on Peachtree Street between Midtown and Buckhead that was recently renovated. Through a window at the station this morning as we waited for the delayed train, I could see the exact location: the bridge on Peachtree crossing over the eight lanes of Interstate 85. Although it’s now decorated with steel glitz from the 1996 Olympics, I recognized the spot. I was not yet 20, and had dropped out of college in Florida after five months studying in London. Back then, I was in that mood of anomie that makes young people know they are “lost” before they give themselves to Jesus or lifelong sobriety. But my identity crisis had a strong sense of place. Atlanta was where I grew up, so like Dickens in London, I was walking its streets when nobody walked them, at night. I walked all the way from my childhood home on a duck pond in Peachtree Heights (Buckhead) downtown and back. I stopped on the Peachtree bridge over the Interstate (a block north of where my mother had attended Washington Seminary) and stared down at the cars zipping by, north and south. Something was very wrong, I felt in that eternity of looking down over the bridge’s side. It wasn’t me that contemplated jumping. It was as if the city had already jumped, and had killed itself under that bridge. I wept.
This morning, I was remembering my bridge experience when a character with a gold front tooth and a saxophone necktie showed up to entertain us in the First Class sitting area. There was something magic about his showing up, like the conjured conductor Ringo Starr played in the TV show “Thomas the Train.” His name was Robert West. “I’m a little late, like the train,” he said, but he was going to fill the half hour with amazing facts about trains and about his life in their midst. He was a graphic designer for the GE contractor for Amtrak, drawing engineering for next-generation locomotives and doing PR on the side. He is also involved in something called Steel Rail Galleries in College Park and is an encyclopedia of train history. He is writing a book about trains and race he says he’s calling “From Chains to Trains to Change.” Both his grandfathers had belonged to the Pullman Porters, the legendary union of Black men who cooked for and served white First Class train passengers in the pride of their dark uniforms and cylindrical caps (still worn by Amtrak conductors), but who also won decent wages from the powerful train companies and quietly brought Black weekly newspapers South from cities like Chicago and Baltimore. Pullman Porters are said to have nourished the Great Migration and laid a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. A. Phillip Randolph and Thurgood Marshall were both Pullman Porters. Mr. West said one of his grandfathers, in particular, taught him everything.
I asked him about how and why the great private railway companies of America had abandoned passenger rail service. I didn’t know this history, but suspected that they had stopped using their public-rights-of-way for a public good only to rake in more private profit. Mr. West said the private railroads had indeed abandoned passenger rail service, which is why the federal government created Amtrak in 1973. It was originally an emergency response to a crisis. That crisis – the near-death of passenger train service – was coming to a head around the time I stood on that Peachtree Street bridge. Maybe my despair over watching the endless flow of cars below me was a blind grief over what cars had finally done to my hometown. Atlanta had started as a railroad terminus and in the heyday of passenger trains had two huge stations downtown, Union and Terminus. Mr. West described the architectural features of those two stations as if they were the two cathedrals of this secular city, now gone. The private railroad companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern, he said, have made tons more money (though freight fell in the pandemic and is weak in the current economy). Why did they abandon passenger service? One word, he said: Greed. Not just the greed of the railroad companies, but the demand for the individual freedom of cars for everyone, for every need.
Amtrak survived the emergency and is looking even better today, Mr. West said. It has received $66 billion from the infrastructure law signed by “the current Administration.”
The private freight lines still have their dominance and lobbyists. We had to stop several times on our way to New Orleans so that freight trains could move first, even though Amtrak pays to use the rails that the private corporations have managed to secure for themselves over the decades. As I learned at a neighborhood hearing last week, Atlanta’s proposals for light rail rapid transit must play supplicant in a similar fashion to use CSX’s rights-of-way.
But the ride was an epiphany, a sacrament of transportation. I unfolded a hinged leaf on my little side table for a card game of solitaire, and admired its thick steel, like something out of the Bell Bomber Plant of the 1940s. To lock our sliding door, there was an ingenious double mechanism of steel, like nothing I’d ever seen in door locks. “I wonder if Mr. West drew a graphic design of that before it was put on all the latest sleeper cars,” my wife said. The last time we had the satisfaction of unlocking that device, we heard a conductor whoop it up, “We’re in New Orleans, hoo-ee, end of the line.”