Culture Magazine

Long-Distance By Train

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
From New Orleans to Los Angeles by train, and interesting story in the NYTimes:
The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind. There are several reasons for this. While it might be socially uncomfortable to speak with a stranger during a short trip, the scale seems to tip for trips longer than six hours, at which point it becomes significantly more awkward not to speak to your fellow passengers. Besides, if you’re taking a 47-hour train ride in 2013, you probably have an unusual reason for doing so. Train stories are much richer, more emotionally pitched, than airplane stories. And the train offers the possibility of cheap therapy: there’s ample time to relate your entire life story to a stranger, and you can do so in confidentiality, because you’ll never see the stranger again.
This kind of encounter is further encouraged by the tendency of Amtrak conductors to seat long-distance passengers next to each other, even if the next car contains 20 rows of empty seats. This policy is designed to keep rows open for passengers who board at later stops, but sometimes those anticipated passengers never materialize. The two communal cars also tend to encourage interaction: the Sightseer Lounge has open seating and is especially busy after lunch, and in the dining car, the host will combine any groups smaller than four people with strangers in order to fill every booth. Groups also coalesce at stations like Beaumont and El Paso in Texas and Tucson and Maricopa in Arizona, where the train stops for cigarette breaks. And at longer stops, like the nearly three-hour wait in San Antonio, passengers often venture out into the city together, heading to Denny’s for a midnight meal or to Alibis’ Sports and Spirits bar. Nobody on a long-distance train is ever really alone.

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