The magic of Amtrak’s cafe cars

I’m currently on an Amtrak train from Philadelphia to DC. I am sitting in the cafe car as I usually do. Trains — especially in the afternoons and evenings — are beautiful because they offer new encounters with interesting people in cozy settings. The cafe car is where I like to imagine the train’s weary intelligentsia gets to lounge, probe around, and converse. Conversations are light, fleeting, and have no strings attached.

I’m dressed in what I think Amtrak chic would be — a soft, horizontally-striped grey crewneck shirt, slim khakis, comfy baby blue socks, and dark burgundy chukkas. If Amtrak had a fashion magazine, many of my cafe car compatriots would be prominently featured. The delicate balance is to be polished yet casual, sophisticated yet carefree. You should look intriguing enough to generate interest but not intimidating enough to cause inhibition.

Last year, I sat across from a Republican Congressman headed back to his suburban Philadelphia district. We spoke off the record about the Freedom Caucus and his colleagues’ struggles to choose a new Speaker. Another time, I spoke with a young man who worked at a real estate private equity fund. As one of the few African-Americans in private equity, we talked about race, business, and educational inequity. Another time, I chatted with a director at Save the Children about refugee assistance. And, yet another time, I spoke with an emergency room doctor about the trials and tribulations of a high-adrenaline yet sacrificial career.

Why do conversations like this happen on the cafe car of the train but not in a street cafe or airport? I think it has to do with a certain legacy romanticism of riding a train that occupies the popular imagination of the well-educated elite.

People in the cafe car are open to a conversation though not overeager for it. The train internet is so crappy that few companies expect their employees to get meaningful work done on a train. People are captive for a few hours, and even the most interesting book or podcast series doesn’t quite hit the spot after an hour or two. And, finally, it finally seems like a relatively safe space. No one is going to solicit anything from you, and you don’t expect to see anyone again. You can step into a space of full anonymity.

And, the journey itself is comfortable — dare I say, enjoyable. The wide, cushioned seats, the relative quiet, and the lack of strict rules makes the journey a happy one. There are no metal detectors, pat-downs, luggage weight hassles, take-offs and landings, safety videos, and constraints on the freedom of movement.

We are pulling into Union Station, and the conductor just thanked us for choosing Amtrak as our mode of transportation this evening.

No, thank you, Amtrak. You are underfunded and slow relative to the rest of the industrialized world, but you offer the best random conversations in your beloved cafe car.