Before the Wright brothers came along, America lived on the rail. Our country’s transportation infrastructure rested on the clickity-clacks and chug-chug-chugs of rail. It was a delightful way to travel. You could see the country out your window, and stroll to the dining car for a fine meal at the end of the day. But cheap, easy air travel removed all the romance from long distance transportation, thrusting us into joyless fuselages with experiences so terrible we built an entire social platform, Twitter, just to complain.
Rail travel still survives, in small pockets and corridors, and mostly along the coasts. But today, an Elon Musk sparked idea, the so-called Hyperloop, threatens to finally kill the last graceful way to get from Point A to Point B.
Musk’s dream involves cramming a bunch of people into a tube, sticking that tube into a big pipe, and whooshing it from place to place at record speeds. A Hyperloop trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, it is said, could take as little as 30 minutes. And while that may seem convenient, just imagine the view from the Musk-tube. It will basically be whatever's on your phone. (Or perhaps, this.)
If the Hyperloop works, it will completely eliminate the need for high speed rail — and could mean passenger rail will exist solely as an image in children's books and historical texts, illustrating a grand technology that once was.
I decided to hop aboard and experience its glory while I still could. And so, on a recent Sunday, I boarded Amtrak’s Coastal Starlight, embarking on a wistful journey that would take me from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in a speedy 12 hours. Here’s what it was like.
A little after 11 a.m. Pacific Time, this technological marvel rolled into the station. It's go time.
Security line? Nope. I walked right up, wearing my shoes and belt. Amtrak recommends showing up 30-45 minutes early, which I did. But the train was just over two hours late, so I walked around in circles for a while. Solid start.
Outside the train, an Amtrak employee scanned tickets with QR codes on them. This throwback technology was a really nice touch.
To figure out where I should sit, a very friendly guy named MEL used an ancient device called a clipboard. I ended up in an already occupied seat, but it beat having to use a self-serve kiosk.
MEL wrote my seat number on a green ticket and I was cleared to board. No turning back now!
I walked up the stairs onto the second deck, where my seat was located. The car was subdued and roomy.
The legroom situation was on point. Not bad for a $79 ticket. And much needed for an estimated 12 hour train ride.
With my feet kicked up, I began to take in the great American scenery. Like this quaint swap meet in a parking lot. Pit stop please!
A few hours in, I decided to try to see if the rumors about an 'Observation Car' were true. Indeed they were. I fell in love.
The windows of the Observation Car opened up gorgeous views of the American countryside. Look at this sexy field.
A trip down the stairs brought me to the train's well-equipped cafe.
Coffee rating: pretty good!
After many hours weaving through the countryside, I began feeling like I was in the Hunger Games.
So much time alone started driving me a bit nuts. It was time to make some friends. These two were great!
The train also had a full service restaurant. AKA: The dinning car. I had to check it out.
The food, well... it was okay.
But the view was pretty damn sweet.
Unless you're a group of four, the dining car seats you with strangers. My table-mates were deeply boring, so I got the check ASAP. They wrote the damage right there on the tablecloth.
After dinner, it was back to the Observation Car. Just in time for sunset!
And this park ranger guy narrated as we went down the coast. He was into it!
This ride was longggg, so I had plenty of time to video chat with my family and show them the scenery.
I couldn't resist showing them stuff like this.
There are no photos from the final three hours because they were long and terrible. And it was dark. But, at long last, I made it to LA!
Verdict: The train is a beautiful, pleasant way to see the country. I recommend it. But it's also super slow. I am ready for the Hyperloop.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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