Taking a train in the Midwestern United States isn't a popular option. I'd been warned off the idea a few weeks beforehand by a friend in Dallas who I was hoping to visit. She recommended taking a flight instead. But I was curious as to what could be so bad, so I booked a ticket and showed up at the small, inconspicuous shack that passes for the railway station of the capital city of one of the most prosperous and populous states in the USA.
One track, overgrown with weeds, runs alongside a hut that contains a pair of vending machines, some seats, and a pot with nametags that must be attached to all "hand baggage" carried on the train. I begin wondering if my friend was right and this was a terrible idea.
When the train pulls up, however, perfectly on time, my mood lifts. The gleaming Superliner is a double-decker, with seating on the top deck and space for luggage and crew quarters below. The passengers form an orderly queue as they're admitted onto the train by a proud, bearded conductor, who checks their ticket and then points them to where they need to sit.
Only one train goes between Austin and Fort Worth in Texas on a Sunday. The line, run by Amtrak, weaves alongside highways, farmsteads, and woods, and calls at places with names like "Taylor", "Cleeburne" and "McGrath". The conductor takes great delight in his role of communicating where the train will be stopping next, stretching out the names of the stops like a wrestling commentator: "The next stop is Taaaayyyllooooooorrrr, TEXAS!" he shouts happily.
On the upper deck of the Superliner, all the essential ingredients for a good train journey are present and correct: a big window to gaze out of, plenty of leg-room, power sockets, and seats that recline so far that they could practically be used as a bed. Looking around, several people are doing just that, despite there being a dedicated sleeper carriage further up towards the front of the train.
A few hours into the journey, as we're passing the town of McGrath, the conductor's voice roars out of the speaker system again. "Ladies and gentlemen!" he proclaims, "In a few minutes time, we'll be passing a point of local interest. If you look out of the left side of the car, you'll see the Yellow Rose cafe in Crawford, Texas made famous by the wife of President George Bush!" I crane my neck to look, but all I can see are farmsteads with neat picket fences and windmills turning lazily in the breeze.
I get peckish and head up to the "lounge car" to find some food. What I discover is rather amazing. A car filled with unreserved seats and windows that stretch from the floor to half-way along the roof, permitting more than 90 degrees of visibility of the vast Texan skies. If a regular train window is a cinematic experience, this is an IMAX theatre. The carriage is almost empty but a few kindred souls are gazing out of the windows, transfixed by the beauty of passing landscape, which is a mix of decaying industrial wasteground in the towns and farmland out in the countryside.
The only downside of Amtrak's service in Texas is its speed. The trains are slow. A journey that takes around three hours by Greyhound bus, or a mere three-quarters of an hour in a plane, takes the hulking Amtrak Superliner around 5 hours, complete with ten-minute smoking breaks at some stations. As a consequence of the scarcity of passengers that take the train in Texas, luxuries like observation cars and sleeper carriages can be heaped on those who do - luxuries that would never be seen on a crowded train in Britain.
While the Superliner carriages clearly aren't too new, they're kept in impeccable condition and it's hard to see why more people don't take advantage of the surprisingly cheap fares that Amtrak offers in advance. Perhaps it's a cultural difference: one American I met in Austin was utterly incredulous that I had never driven a car. She immediately tried to get me to drive hers, and I had to tell her that I wouldn't know how -- I'd never taken lessons or passed my driver's test. Her jaw dropped even further.
While in England, even after Beeching's dramatic cuts to the railway system in the fifties, a local train passes reasonably close to even the most rural of communities, the same has never been true in the States. Many communities in the midwest don't have a rail link at all, and without impossibly vast investments in infrastructure, that isn't going to change any time soon. For the majority of people living in these places, travel by train is merely a curiosity -- not something that's practical on a regular basis.
Essentially, with only a few exceptions found mostly in the North-East of the country, rail travel in the States is stuck in a vicious cycle. No-one uses the train because there aren't many services, and there's so few services running because no-one uses the train. Instead, the car rules -- fuelled by an expansive road network and cheap petrol, and funnelled down endless corridors of gaudy fast food restaurants, garages, and billboards.
In fact, it's a miracle that the line still exists at all.