The Rails

“Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans…”

“Let the Midnight Special shine its ever-lastin’ light on me….”

“I hear the train a comin’. Its rollin’ round the bend….”

Riding aboard a long distance train just seems to conjure up all kinds of songs about trains. At least it does for me, aboard this Amtrak train called the Palmetto, from Charleston, South Carolina to MetroPark, New Jersey. Almost thirteen and a half hours to think about, well, train songs.

Oh, there is plenty of time to think about other things, too. And thinking is easy aboard the train. It is so quiet. For the first leg or three, I was nearly the only passenger in this car. That’s news I suspect Amtrak will not want to hear. An article in the “The National,” Amtrak’s magazine publication tucked neatly into each of the seat pockets on the train includes an interview with Wick Moorman, the new President and CEO of the railroad. Moorman speaks almost wistfully about long distance trains becoming profitable someday. “Having said that,” he continues, “we clearly have to work as hard as we can to reduce the losses of our long distance trains, while keeping our eye on delivering good customer service, which as all of you know is a tough balancing act.”

As we reached such stops as Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Alexandria the seats began to fill so that this car is pretty full now. And as for the customer service Moorman talks about, the crew aboard this train is attentive, extraordinarily friendly and polite. The car is clean, equipped with WiFi and power strips at the seats to keep this laptop I’m using from running down its battery.  Fellow travelers are respectful, speaking in hushed tones, even when they talk on their cell phones. Odd.

This blog was started in an  equally odd darkened, deadly silent Union Station in Washington DC as the Palmetto sits, unmoving, on its tracks. We will sit here for a little more than an hour before resuming the journey north. “If you get off the train to wander around the station,” the conductor intones over the PA system, “be sure to be back onboard five minutes before departure.”

We are underway again and I hear a new voice over the PA system. This sixty-minute pause in the nation’s capital obviously allowed for a crew change.  Another three hours and we arrive at MetroPark. It is evening now, so other than by the lights of cities, towns and villages whizzing by, it is tough to see what is outside the Palmetto’s windows. In the darkness, my mind drifts back to memories of my father who, as a Depression Era teenager “rode the rails” in search of a job, desperate to somehow make a living. I am mindful that his onboard accommodations in boxcars were far distant from the comfortable Amtrak seat on which I am sitting.

Much has been written about “America’s backyard” by other folks who have ridden lots of other trains. During the day, when the sun is up, you do get a glimpse of how people live behind their houses, behind their garages, in the expanses of their farming fields as the landscape speeds by. It is a chance to see how the other half lives. No, that’s not right. It’s a chance to see how all the halves live. I’m ready to do it some more.


Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

One thought on “The Rails

  1. Jim, I look forward to your articles…very entertaining, descriptive and insightful. Hope we see you soon.


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