Letter from America, 2

Now in Seattle, and its raining which apparently it does all the time. American railroads are indeed fascinating.

 Freight first. I spent a day being shown round some of the yards in Chicago which is the railway capital of the US. Much freight – and indeed all passengers – still transfer from one train to another in Chicago where the main station, Union, still has east and west platforms which are only 100 yds apart or so, and face in the same direction but do not connect.

The amount of freight carried on the railways is amazing. I passed a 130 wagon coal train which apparently is commonplace, carrying coal from the Powder Valley Basin mines in Wyoming. Then there are the double stacked container trains.

I visited a humping yard – no not that – where they break up and reform freight trains in the traditional way, except that this is a bidirectional facility, working both lines at the same time. It is, of course, all computer controlled. Then we went down to Joliet, 30 miles south west of Chicago where huge freight yards have been built by two railroad companies, United Pacific and BNSF, in order to allow them to bypass Chicago. The BNSF yard adjoins a huge Wallmart warehouse, sending trucks to the whole mid west and there are three half mile long buildings. There was a queue of 50 trucks to get into the yard, and traffic cops had to control the traffic.

I travelled from Penn Central to Pittsburgh, a journey of nine hours perhaps three slower than the road. Both Penn Central and Pittsburg are sad remains of stations, hidden from public view although Philadelphia, between the two retained its magnificent turn of the century building, 30th Street station. The train ride was pleasant without being spectacular, although some of the Pennsylvania countryside, as one climbed through the Appallachians, enlivened by the autumn colours, made the ride worthwhile. Then it was an overnight in the train from Washington to Chicago.

Sleeper compartments on Amtrak trains are minute, offering just enough space for the bed and perhaps six inches for a side shelf. It is cosy, though and the service from the attendant was very helpful.

Chicago was actually quite wonderful, a grand city with the wonderful El that has survived, even though it is unsightly and must be awful for people working on the first or second floors of the offices alongside which it runs.

Then it was a two day trip on the Empire Builder to Seattle, about which more next time, except to say that Amtrak has got the timing all wrong. It leaves Chicago at 2 15pm, which means  it was  dark by the time we reached the Mississippi, light for the endless dull plains and prairies of Montana and then only offered a glimpse of the sun setting through the Rockies – what an unimaginative name for a mountain range rather like calling a lake wet or a forest treelined – before it got dark again. So it was not a very scenic ride, as had been promised.