For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard trains in the night. Railroads snake all along the Mississippi River, through Memphis, past its hallowed streets of soul music. The tracks run up the Hudson, through Rhinebeck, past its Dutch barns and vast orchards.
Only now, in Ann Arbor, where I hear the bells and whistles on the banks of the Huron, the sounds of cargo hurrying to its destination, do I finally realize how empty my nights would feel without the sounds of trains.
I’ve relied on the railroads for most of my life: not just for white noise while I sleep, but for travel. My dependence on the Amtrak system led me to wonder what motivates others to embark on a train, and what specific pros and cons accompany rail travel in a small city without a subway system.
To investigate the stories of those who rely on long distance public transit, I set out to the Ann Arbor station, positioned at a quaint corner of Kerrytown, under an overpass. The little brick station is familiar, but tonight, eerie. It seems almost abandoned, walls swimming in the fading autumn light.
Once there, I wait for trains, but more importantly, for those embarking on them.
Clutching tight to my mother’s hand, I waited for my first train, in Upstate New York, almost a decade ago. It came in an instant, kicking up shrouds of dust and a great clamor. At my eye level, sturdy steel wheels loomed and immense, miscellaneous cogs and gears assembled tenderly in a great mass, as if some great mechanical beast had thundered into my path.
The conductor, clad all in navy, topped with a signature cap, emerged though the widening door, arm outstretched to welcome us aboard.
“Hurry,” he seemed to say, “I couldn’t stop this thing even if I wanted to.”
The warm wooden walls evoked great spectacle, as if men in tuxedos were soon to serve us steak on little silver platters. Someone had carefully laid out carpet long ago, all along the aisles, and though the seats were covered in protective plastic, the train car screamed of magnificence, of great days long since passed.
The beast chugged steadily, every hour of every day, to and from New York City, to the south. It made for great company, this great mechanical beast, and I grew and changed alongside its plastic seats and fading carpet. Through teenage angst and newfound confidence, I rode ceaselessly, back and forth, up and down the river, all the while resting my head against a sweaty backpack or fiddling with a new day’s crossword puzzle.
This summer, I decided, it was time to let the train carry me back to Ann Arbor.
With bags packed and a family wished goodbye, I boarded again, tentatively, headed north, not south.
When the ticket collector appeared, I asked her, “Can I just stay in this one seat? All the way to Ann Arbor?”
“Sure,” she explained, “The train decouples and reassembles at specific stops. This segment is headed all the way through to Chicago.”
As the miles passed, at first, I simply put in earbuds and watched the land fly by outside the window. I saw more of the northeastern countryside than I’d ever seen, distracted as I usually was by traffic and the distinct concentration that comes along with the operation of a motor vehicle. Herons flew low over the marsh. Rows and rows of crops grew ever steadily toward the sunlight.
As dark settled in, I turned inward, toward books and movies, rising only occasionally to stretch my legs or purchase a snack from the kindly man working near the front.
My evening was sleepless: a marked con, I will admit.
Try as I might, twisting my neck to and fro at different angles, I could never quite get comfortable against the unforgiving glass panes of the window. Strange to think I had more legroom than an airplane, a lower angle to recline my seat.
Perhaps the excitement of the train journey kept me awake. Perhaps the prospect of Ann Arbor. Who could say?
I discovered the long-range public transportation in Ann Arbor my freshman year, when I found myself lonely, stressed and desperately in need of a weekend vacation.
Luckily, a friend at the University of Notre Dame offered to put me up on his couch, and I commenced planning an affordable travel plan. As an out-of-state student, my family was 600 miles away and couldn’t be relied upon to provide me with airfare or a car to borrow. After a night of hasty internet research, I set off to South Bend, printed tickets in hand, with a meticulously planned web of Amtrak trains and charter buses.
Since then, I’ve increased my weekend wandering to Columbus, Kalamazoo and Traverse City, almost entirely via public transit. The stations where train cars stop along the way, waiting to be decoupled and reassembled at half a hundred stations, are brimming with distinct quirks.
Ann Arbor’s is no different.
It’s quiet inside. The ticket office within appears closed, the waiting room vacant.
Fading light of evening trickles through tall windows, overpowering the fluorescent lights inside the waiting room. In lieu of any music in the lobby, background noise streams from the traffic on Depot Street, a chorus of mechanical growls. The abrasive sound outside feels almost a mockery of the more ancient method of travel fostered within these walls.
A University of Michigan doctoral student, Traci Lombre, is the first to arrive. She tells me she always travels via train when her schedule permits it. The company she works for flew her to Michigan, and offered to fly her back, but she refused. “(The train) gives me more time to stretch out and get work done while still heading somewhere.”
“It’s just efficient,” she explains. “Sometimes you just don’t want to drive.”
Another traveller, Reid Charles, used to be a licensed pilot, but he hasn’t flown in three years. “I’ve got over a million miles in the air,” he says, “but (planes) are too crowded. Lousy. I prefer Amtrak.”
Many of those I spoke with were frequent commuters on Amtrak trains. None mentioned feeling any insecurity over their safety, instead criticizing the scheduling delays or surge ticket prices.
While comfort and convenience are crucial, I was shocked to discover that no one cited environmental concerns as their motivator, despite an amassing pile of evidence on public transit’s potential for reducing carbon emissions.
Though it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect others to base their travel plans on climate sustainability, (particularly in the wake of news that many celebrities’ private jet emissions can dwarf an average citizens’ lifetime emissions in a single year) I maintain that reduced carbon output is a key factor in the necessity for public transportation.
Content in the knowledge that you’re enacting a small positive change, spending the day watching the miles roll by, has always been, for me, well worth any minor hassles that may arise.
Our Ann Arbor station is the epitome of functional. Neither pretty nor ugly, it simply rests there, as if anxious to hurry on with its proceedings, just like the many passengers I encountered.
Distinct from an airport, however, it emanates a quiet sense of charm.
While everyone I spoke with criticized delays or prices, they did so with smiles on their faces, as if they were clued in on a secret, and I knew it too. The antique magic of the train station was a rare gem, and we were all lucky to have discovered it.
As I prepared to walk away for the night, letting the glass door close behind me and bracing against the chill of the night air, a thundering rattle came upon the station suddenly, followed by the occasional screech of scraping metal and the soft, and periodic blaring of the horn I can never quite escape hearing in my sleep.
The train hurtled past with all the might of the Industrial Revolution, rusted steel crates smattered with the new age graffiti of a hundred cities’ trainyards, and watching it pass, I was overcome with a childish glee. This machine would keep on chugging. Long after I’m gone.
Statement Columnist John Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.