Distance travelled: 675 miles (San Antonio to Little Rock), 634 miles (Little Rock to Chicago)
Journey duration: 17 hours (SA to LR), 14 hours (LR to CHI)
States travelled through: Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois
The Texas Eagle holds the delightful title with me for being the train with the longest delays. Apparently there were some engineering works on the line somewhere but whereas in the UK they will close the line to do this, it is not needed for a daily train. Cue long periods of just waiting on the tracks while the workmen up ahead got all of their equipment out of the way so the train could move.
As the train ambled along, I discovered that it is common for the railroad tracks to run pretty much straight through the high street of smaller towns, which makes sense – the towns were built around the railroads. Amtrak trains have to load and unload passenger luggage at stations, and sometimes also stop for longer to allow people to get off for cigarette breaks – affectionately called smoke stops. This means that the train could sometimes be sat at a station for up to half an hour and in the smaller towns, the poor cars could be waiting at the railroad crossing all that time. Occasionally I waved to them to show solidarity but this may have also antagonised them – impossible to tell, really.
I also discovered just how large the state of Texas is. Twelve hours after leaving San Antonio, the train was STILL in Texas. Eventually the train moved into Arkansas, where I would make my next stop to visit a friend in Little Rock.
The journey to Little Rock was also where I had a slightly odd experience and I realised what a strong sense of identity many Americans have. I was wearing a cheap and cheerful t-shirt I’d bought in New York, so had ‘CONEY ISLAND‘ emblazoned across my chest, but thought nothing of it before boarding the Eagle. I’d been wandering around the train and chatting to people in the viewing car before visiting the cafe bar to buy food and drink. As the Amtrak attendant was serving me, he said that I’d caused ‘quite a stir’ with a few people. I immediately wondered whether I was in some sort of trouble or had committed an American faux pas, but the explanation turned out to be amusing.
As the attendant told me, a man had gone to the cafe bar and asked him, “have you seen that young lady on the train? She SAYS she’s from London but she’s wearing a t-shirt with Coney Island on it!” (Please read that in your finest American accent.)
Apparently, the man could not understand why I would wear a t-shirt bearing the name of a place I did not originate from or currently lived in. No surprise at all that the man was from Texas, where people routinely wear clothing proudly declaring their allegiance and love of the Lone Star State. Yet for British people, it would be quite absurd to wear an item of clothing declaring where they were from.
The train ended up being over 2 hours late reaching Little Rock which would be OK during the day, but it was scheduled to arrive at 11.30pm so did not reach the station until the clock was ticking towards 2am. It was over 30 degrees C when I got off the train, with the humidity at around 80%. So my first thoughts of Arkansas were that it was just like Texas.
My second trip on the Eagle from Little Rock to Chicago turned out to be in bright and sunny weather and contained a few landmarks, notably the Gateway Arch of St. Louis and also passing through Springfield, the home of Abraham Lincoln.
The slow amble into Chicago was rather lovely – as a city I’d never visited before, it felt warm and welcoming. The Windy City is the major Amtrak hub for long-distance trains and almost all of them start or end there.
Chicago station also had the best departures board, because American trains all have very cool names, rather than ‘times’ like they have to be identified by in the UK. After disembarking the train and acclimatising to the searing heat, I headed to my hotel and began to explore the city.