2022 US Trip – Day 28 (Amtrak Train Journey : Birmingham to Newark – Over 24 hours in coach)
I’d had just under 24 hours in Birmingham and I have to note that I got the impression that the Magic City felt troubled. It’s been depopulating for decades and the urban core feels quite hollowed out. Property prices are startling low, the homeless population seemed substantial and I didn’t get the impression that they got large numbers of tourists visiting the city. There were inevitable high points such as the Birmingham Museum of Art, but parts of the city felt on edge. I had visited to get an understanding of the civil rights history of the city, which was told well with information panels in the centre and I learned a lot. However, that was nearly the entire story that Birmingham seemed to be telling, as if it is still struggling for a new identity.
With that visit completed, I was going from Birmingham to Newark, which is a journey that is I suppose possible in the UK. It would though be a much quicker rail trip, the one that I was about to undertake in the United States was going to take 24 hours and 30 minutes. In coach.
The Amtrak station doesn’t open until two hours before the train departs, which is something hard to imagine in a European rail station. A security guard bounded up to me when I entered and asked what I was doing, which is again something hard to imagine at Norwich railway station. I replied that I was getting an Amtrak train and so he pointed towards the ticket counter, which I acknowledged but ignored as I already had a ticket. He seemed surprised that I had a ticket, despite that clearly being what most travellers have. It’s really not the welcome that any public transport facility should have, but it’s going back to that troubled city status I mentioned. The staff here are on edge and they’re trying to stop people coming in who might want to harm them. Just as with the bus station, they threw several people out whilst I was waiting, something dramatic has to change in Birmingham for this to stop happening.
The staff weren’t actually unfriendly and one came over to me and asked if I happened to have a cable for a phone that another passenger on the Greyhound service needed urgently. He said he understood that I wasn’t local and so it was unlikely, but by good fortune I did have the cable he needed. There were three security staff and so it was hard not to feel safe inside the Amtrak station and I felt that I did my civic duty and duly received the cable back just before I needed to depart for my train.
Then it was announced that the train would be boarding in five minutes so the doors were unlocked and we were finally allowed to go to the platforms. It felt like a hospital.
I wouldn’t have minded a sleeper service, which I’ve never gone on in the United States, only in Ukraine.
A few decades ago platforms in railway stations across the United States would have been bustling and busy. It seemed like those days were long ago, but the services are still running and passengers are still coming, but there’s a lot of work to do in the United States to improve the rail network. There are areas of the country where it does well, not least on the east coast connecting large cities together, but the coverage nationwide is poor. High speed rail services in the United States really aren’t a thing, getting planes for domestic journeys is how that’s done.
I could hear the train coming before I could see it, as they’re not subtle things, and I got my usual childlike sense of excitement that I get when Amtrak trains come charging into the station.
And here’s the beautiful lump of metal. I do adore these things.
I was at the back of the queue to board as I had been faffing about with taking photos, but it wasn’t a particularly long queue and why rush when you’ve got 24 hours on the train?
This was to be my seat for over 24 hours, or at least, the one I’m sitting in when taking the photo. The guard was nonplussed with my long journey to Newark, there were many doing similar trips including those going a little further into New York.
Laptop attached to the power, connected to the wi-fi and I was good to go. The train was the Crescent, a 2,216 kilometre (1,377 mile) long rail service which goes from New Orleans to New York and it has been in operation in some form since 1891.There are 33 stops along the route and for anyone taking the service for its full length, it takes just under 32 hours end to end.
I had acquired a two litre bottle of Fanta from Publix, I thought that I’d need it to stay hydrated.
It’s not the best photo that I’ve taken of the buffet car, but there were seats here for those wanting to dine whether that be snacks or full service meals.
The prices on board, which weren’t unreasonable.
Who needs a full service meal anyway? Doritos, coke and noodles, the food of champion long distance rail passengers. The noodles are $2.50, so around £2, it’s an affordable hot option.
There’s something a little charming about returning to a location from earlier on in the trip and that was the case here in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d got the train here a few weeks earlier on during my US trip and this was when I started to feel that the trip was coming to an end and I was coming home. It was also where I got someone sitting next to me for the first time as the train filled up, but he was marvellous company, polite and he didn’t cause me any disturbance. He was going to New York, so his journey was hardly a quick jump either.
I spent nearly the entire trip either dozing off, working on my laptop or staring out of the window. To be fair, there’s not much else to do, but I was certainly well rested by the end of it. There’s no rush when you’ve got 24 hours, everything is leisurely and I was surprised just how quickly the time went by. It also feels like an adventure, albeit a passive one where I didn’t have to do much, although there’s a lot to be said for those.
Arriving into Greensboro in North Carolina as dawn breaks. A little earlier there was some excitement on the train, which I videoed and might well upload at some point, when the police boarded the train. A male passenger had been accused of exposing himself to a female passenger (I’d better add here that I didn’t video that bit, not least as I was asleep when this whole incident started to kick off) and the Amtrak conductor was there saying he wanted the police to remove him. The passenger was keen to explain his rights and say he wasn’t leaving. The police said they weren’t taking any further action, but he was being removed from the train as that was the law when Amtrak staff made that decision. This went on for a few minutes before the guy gave up, protesting his innocence. He made a good point that what was he supposed to do in the middle of the night at a railway station in what was in relatively the middle of nowhere. The police said they didn’t mind what he did, which isn’t quite what he was asking. Worn out with all this unexpected excitement, I went to sleep again after he had been booted off.
If you travel across the United States you see a lot of trees, water, fields and settlements seemingly miles from anywhere. It’s not as barren as when I’ve travelled in more westerly parts of the United States, but it’s glorious to travel by small towns with their nineteenth century buildings and streets that look remarkably unaltered.
This looks oddly cramped, but it wasn’t, there is more than enough space to lie back and be nowhere near the seat in front.
This is Washington DC where they have to do technical things to the train (the line is only electrified between Washington DC and New York), so passengers can have twenty minutes to wander around. I didn’t intend going off to investigate things on the concourse as we were told we could, and being naturally cautious this is as far from the train as I deemed it safe to go, just in case it rushed off without me.
I’ve been to Baltimore a few times, I’d like to go back and I always slightly regret going through a city that I don’t get the chance to visit properly.
Philadelphia is another city I’d like to visit again, but it was so near, but yet so far.
This time though, that’s pretty much all that I was going to see of the city.
Some very American messaging there, diets don’t work….
And that’s that, I arrived into Newark as timetabled, 24 hours and 30 minutes after setting off from Birmingham. The journey cost me around £90 which isn’t cheap, but I felt it was very reasonable given the huge distance covered. The time had melted away, I was refreshed and felt that the seat was sufficient and I hadn’t needed a sleeper carriage. Obviously the sleeper carriage and full service meals would have been a different and more decadent experience. But, it’s not authentic to me, like being in a car it’s just shutting off from the real people and the exciting events that happen. I accept that watching a man be arrested for exposing himself isn’t really a fine example of that, but I very much liked the conversations, the excitement and the experiences.
This was my final expedition on Amtrak on this trip, but I hope to be back in 2024 as I want to be back there on another rail service. I have fond memories of this rail journey, it felt like I suspect a cruise would if I had experienced one. It’s watching the world go by whilst being comfortable, relaxed and productive in terms of work. I read books on my phone, listed to podcasts and was just a little bit jealous at every stop when passengers got off at towns and cities that I wouldn’t get chance to on this journey. The staff on board were relentlessly friendly, visible and it felt a safe environment. Well, other than the dodgy man who was arrested. But everything else was magical and just as I hoped it would be.