Amtraks Across America: All Aboard With Vladimir Putin

This is the second part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

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A glimpse of the rotunda in Washington’s Union Station. Successive presidential administrations have poured millions into its endless renovation, although the traveling public is left with what feels like the cross between an abandoned Greek temple (“In cronies we trust”) and the railroad depot, which consigns train travelers to stockades of plastic chairs. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I ride trains all over the world, and one of the features of Amtrak that distinguishes it from its global peers is that its schedules (aside from high-speed Acela trains) are padded with all sorts of layovers at intermediate stops, not to mention its endless delays (as freight trains take precedence over passenger service and deteriorating’s rails often limit passenger trains to intercity bus speeds).

My New York to Harrisburg train, for example, spent ten minutes in Philadelphia, which is more time than is needed to unload and load passengers. Later on in my travels, my train from Chicago to New York paused in Albany-Rensselaer for almost ninety minutes while passengers smoked on the platforms and the train crew stared at their iPhones. It’s one of the reasons why, outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has few business customers. Where’s the urgency of Casey Jones?

Harrisburg: Abraham Lincoln Steals Through the Night

I do like everything about the Harrisburg train station, a remnant of the late, great Pennsylvania Railroad that, when I was child, operated the Broadway Limited between New York and Chicago (that train connected the two cities in about sixteen hours; Amtrak now makes the run in twenty-one hours and, instead of an observation car, drags along an AmCafé with nuclear-strength Amburgers).

Harrisburg still has some of its old train shed, and inside the elegant (if forlorn) refurbished station there’s a well-stocked bookstore that even sells railroad books and mugs, and a map of Pennsylvania’s rail network (mostly it’s now freight lines, such as the Union County Industrial Railroad).

Most of all I like Harrisburg’s association with President Abraham Lincoln, who came here in 1861, on his way from Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in Washington. (At which he said: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”)

It was on his way to address the Pennsylvania legislature in Harrisburg that Lincoln was informed of a plot to kill him when he changed trains in Baltimore.

Lincoln went ahead with his speech in Harrisburg (saying “It shall be my endeavor to preserve the peace of this country so far as it can possibly be done, consistently with the maintenance of the institutions of the country…”), but then he secretly took another train directly from Harrisburg to Washington, bypassing Baltimore. His flight embarrassed him, and he said: “What would the nation think of its President stealing into its capital like a thief in the night?”

His next visit came on his funeral train back to Springfield. In April 1865 his body lay in state under the Pennsylvania capitol rotunda. A local diarist, Charles Rawn, noted:

The body of Prest (sic) Lincoln arrived here under Heavy escort at 8 P.M. to remain until tomorrow and to be seen at the State Capitol. Wife and Daughter have gone out but I am entirely too unwell [unreadable]—raining at this noting at 8 ¼ to 8 ½ P.M. extremely hard. Cannon are Firing and bells are tolling – solemn, solemn, scene!! But God makes and directs and this solemn death is a part of his mysterious ways past our finding out.

When I am in Harrisburg, I reflect also that it was the railroad bridges here across the Susquehanna that were the object of General Robert E. Lee’s invasion toward Gettysburg (which is 38 miles to the southwest). Who in a car thinks about anything except “getting there”?

Amtrak Omits the Corridors

Unlike Lincoln, I would have been thrilled to take Amtrak from Harrisburg directly to Washington, my next stop, but that line no longer operates, and I had backtrack through Philadelphia and that assassin’s den in Baltimore.

If there’s one great failing of Amtrak (or American rail passenger service), it is that the country has abandoned many corridor routes that could compete well with journeys now undertaken in cars in five-to-six hour drives.

With traffic the 120-mile drive from Harrisburg to Washington, D.C. take about three hours, but a well operated European-style train could cover than distance in less than 90 minutes. (The Chinese would do it in 45 minutes!)

Here are some other obvious Amtrak corridors that the system ignores: Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati; Atlanta-Nashville-Louisville; Houston-Dallas; Las Vegas-Los Angeles; Kansas City-Omaha-Minneapolis; and Memphis-Little Rock-Oklahoma City. I could go on, but you get my drift.

(Amtrak would defend itself by saying it’s up to Congress and the states to fund additional intermediate services.)

Instead Amtrak persists with its long-haul service (Chicago to Seattle, Los Angeles to New Orleans, etc.), which wanders along gerrymandered routes to please congressional interests, but which adds almost nothing to the transportation infrastructure (other than giving people like a me a chance to commune with the American landscape, and that counts for something).

Surprisingly, the Amtrak route map was first drawn—as if on a napkin—by a few railroad men in 1971, the year the company was founded. They viewed the network as makeshift, until the company got its footing, although that never happened. Instead Amtrak remains a fledgeling, unchanged from its baby pictures, which explains why there is no train between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis nor any trains at all in Wyoming or South Dakota.

In Switzerland, where I live (in part because I love the transportation system), a train or post bus calls daily at every village or town in the country, and usually throughout the day.

The little mountain village (population 534) where we go on weekends, for example, has twenty-six trains stopping there each day. By comparison, the state of Texas (population 29 million) has four Amtrak trains that pass through it, but not every day. And we wonder why the planet is choking on exhaust fumes.

For fun (or maybe despair), I asked Amtrak via its website to take me at Thanksgiving from Dallas to Houston (one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the country), and the result I received got me there in 23 hours and 20 minutes, which includes an eight hour layover in San Antonio.

Nixon’s Union Station

I paused long enough in Washington to brood on how, in terms of congressional swag and sweetheart contracts, Union Station is the gift that keeps on giving, even though as a railroad station it remains something of a rat hole.

When I was in college in the 1970s (during Amtrak’s infancy, when it should have been strangled in its crib), President Richard Nixon renovated the crumbling Union Station in time to celebrate his 1973 inauguration under the rotunda, which began leaking as soon as Nixon’s plumbers left town for prison.

In the 1980s, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, Union Station got another makeover, this time to serve as a shopping mall and restaurant venue with some platforms off the back.

Outwardly, Union Station is an elegant public space, but it fails as a train station. The Amtrak departure gates are nasty affairs with clumps of moulded plastic chairs, while in other parts of the station there are vaulted waiting rooms that serve no purpose at all—once they had lined the pockets of the parties that undertook their refurbishment.

Vladimir Putin Comes for Lunch

In between trains in Washington, I did have the good fortune to meet three friends for lunch at a restaurant near Capitol Hill, and while eating I discovered I was the only person at the table who had not met Vladimir Putin.

One of my friends had met him while working as a journalist. Another knew him from summit meetings dating back to the Clinton presidency. My other friend, a lawyer, had represented Putin when he was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg and the city was trying to attract foreign investors.

The Putin with us at the luncheon—at least his disembodied spirit—didn’t sound like the cluster bomber of Damascus and Kiev so much as a wily operator on the make in the saloons of Russia’s Wild West capitalism.

He had (after a while) paid his legal bills, made gracious small talk at the diplomatic round tables, and responded to journalistic questions, although no consensus emerged at the long lunch as to whether American exceptionalism and NATO expansionism, or some deficient tsarist genetic code, could explain Putin’s quest for lebensraum in Ukraine.

I had time in my travels to think about Putin, as at one of my whistle-stops a friend gave me his autobiography, published in 2000, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President.

The book is a series of interview with Putin and his then wife, Lyudmila (the family Lada later traded in for a sports car), although the only subject ever under discussion in the book is the importance of being Vladimir.

Putin’s Ego War

I know there are CIA analyses that say Putin is a Soviet revanchist, a Russian nationalist, or perhaps a Communist nostalgic, but I came away from the book persuaded that he’s more a Dostoyevskian nihilist who is angry at everyone and everything, and believes only in the supreme being of the self.

Putin wants his readers to believe that he’s Russia’s Eagle Scout master, there to assist a doddering old socialist republic across the busy streets of the modern world. But beyond the hollow campaign-like rhetoric (“I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education…”), there is a cavernous abyss of human emotion that allows him to pose as a Russian patriot while stealing billions from its public treasury or killing off a generation of young Russian conscripts in what might well be called The Ego War.

Reading about Putin’s career, I got the impression that he views the FSB (successor to the KGB and Stalin’s NKVD, where he started his career) as being as benign as some mid-market home insurance company, although one way to look at the war in Ukraine is as an endless intelligence operation designed to terrorize Ukraine and the West. What otherwise would explain the strategic merit of firing cruise missiles into Ukraine’s electricity grid or the massacre of civilians in Bucha?

When I finished the Putin autobiography, I could better understand why he gets along so well with Donald Trump, as both embrace the gangsterization of politics—the idea that power is a golden ticket for personal enrichment and that the state is best understood as a dummy corporation to be drained of all assets.

Next: The train to Charlottesville, VA. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.