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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

No one's railing aboard this train
Duluth News Tribune, March 15, 2009

ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER, St. Paul to Chicago — In the federal stimulus package, $8 billion is slated for high-speed rail.

This is the slow train. It’s an hour and 20 minutes late out of the Twin Cites, but we aren’t in a hurry. My wife, Julia, and I have four days, and two overnight stays, before we’re expected at an event in North Carolina.

“My favorite train. I am so jealous,” Duluth’s Rosemary Kenigsberg, a 20-year Amtrak rider, messages me after I turn on my laptop, find an Internet connection and update my Facebook status.

Try doing that on a plane.

“Did you partake of dining car?” Kenigsberg continues of another amenity unavailable in the less-than-friendly skies.

We do, as the train crosses the Mississippi near La Crosse. The dining staff directs us to a table where an unlikely couple is already seated. Strangers on a train aren’t permitted, and shortly we’re talking to Jessica and Dave, who only met each other a moment before.

It’s a small world and Jessica also is in newspapers.

“I sit right across from her!” she exclaims when Julia asks about a reporter she once worked with on a story. Dave, a semi-retired lawyer from Chicago, volunteers less but doesn’t seem to mind the conversation, which ends with only first names exchanged.

Back at our seats, we spread out, alternately fooling with laptops and dozing as Wisconsin glides by. Several young male culinary school graduates natter about the economy, their prospects, and, rising in volume as we enter Illinois, various insults of one another.

No big deal. We have to wake up anyway.

THE CAPITOL LIMITED, Chicago to Washington, D.C. — This time we’re in the sleeping car.

It isn’t cheap; at about $250, it’s almost half the total price of the trip. But it saves a hotel room, and meals are included.

And by now we know the dining car routine. We head there on the first call and meet Mark, another lawyer, who has a cabin in Duluth. I’m a little pouty, however, because the train hasn’t left when they’re taking our order.

“The whole point,” I say, “is to be moving while we eat.”

It starts in time to shut me up and let us see, but not smell, the Indiana steel mills as I finish off the trout.

Back in our berth, an attendant has turned down the room and it’s too cute: two bunks, a sink and vanity, shower/commode combo, closets and other nooks that evoke an Apollo 11 efficiency; all you need and no wasted space.

You really are rocked to sleep, and you really do sleep like a baby.

The next day we hit the diner twice and meet too many people to remember, except Uncle Bud, a 91-year-old retired chemistry teacher, and his nieces visiting relatives around the country. The scenery fills any dearth of conversation: windmills in Pennsylvania, rivers and church steeples in the Cumberland. And then we’re in D.C.

THE CAROLINIAN, Washington to Raleigh, N.C. — This is the shortest leg, about 6 hours, and, well, pretty much just a train. I now appreciate how much space we had in coach on the Empire Builder and —

Whoa. “We’re in the middle of a street!” I nudge Julia as we roll through a quaint Virginia town — Carson? Stony Creek? I miss the name — sharing its main drag with the tracks. Cars pass by like it’s perfectly natural.

We get to stretch our legs at these small stops, with the conductors telling smokers they’ll have time to take some puffs. But not too much time: “Or you might get left behind,” they warn repeatedly, leaving the impression they wouldn’t necessarily mind.

A University of North Carolina student calls to interview me about our event, and the cell phone keeps breaking up. So we do it by e-mail and finish an hour before Raleigh.

We alight and our host pulls up.

* * *

So is it worth 8 billion stimulus bucks? Romantic, yes. Efficient, not yet, and that’s the point. Most Amtrak routes operate on privately owned freight tracks that give precedence to their own trains, hence the delays. The plan is to add dedicated passenger tracks and greatly increase the speed.

The real comparison, though, comes with our return trip, by air. We go through security. Turn off our cell phones. Get served a glass of pop. Change in Chicago and walk a half a mile. Get water on the second flight. Arrive an hour late.

It was, mostly, a great vacation.

ROBIN WASHINGTON is news director of the News Tribune. He may be reached at

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