Trains in the Americas

In the early 1990s I did guest research at the University of Washington in Seattle. As it happened, I had friends in Vancouver, BC, not that far away, so a visit was indicated. Therefore I looked up Amtrak in the phone book and called them to ask about tickets. (The first web browser would be made public later that year, and of course it would be much longer before Amtrak had a web presence.) I could hear through the phone how the person at the other end eyed me suspiciously, of course there was no such thing as a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver. I for my part was equally taken aback, how did people then travel? Somehow I found out that if you didn’t have a car (in itself a weird idea) you would go by Greyhound Bus, which of course was an important part of America.

The Greyhound bus station turned out to be indeed populated by people who couldn’t afford a car. Drugs, possibly, but not cars. In the event, there were more travellers than fit on the bus, so we, the OBS, OBCM, and I, had to wait for quite some time for a second bus and a driver to be procured from somewhere before we were on our way. We travelled northwards and eventually stopped at a bus stop in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Apparently our bus had had a mechanical breakdown and we had to wait for yet another bus and driver to be located and ferried up from Seattle. There was a coin phone so I could call our Canadian friends and tell them we would be late. (This was long before mobile phones were common, and in the Americas they didn’t exist at all, as far as I knew.) A new bus did arrive, we boarded and continued our journey. Finally we got to the Canadian border, where we passengers by all means were very rapidly cleared by customs, but our bus turned out not to have a traffic permit in Canada, so now we had to wait for a bus and driver to be ferried down from Vancouver. Eight hours late we finally pulled in at the bus terminal in Vancouver and could call for our friends to come pick us up.

“Oh, good that you are safe, we thought you might have been shot at.”
“Didn’t you know? The Greyhound bus drivers are striking and they’re shooting at the strike breakers.”

Oh. Clearly very many things were different abroad. After our visit we did get safely back to Seattle, but in the future we used one of the competing (Canadian) bus companies.

Now it seems that Amtrak actually has gotten their act together and introduced a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver (and beyond). Interestingly enough the trains are described as ”European style”, whatever that means, say I who have travelled on European trains from Wales to Romania, but admittedly I have not travelled by train in the USA, maybe their trains have some peculiar features that are not present on European trains.

This recollection was triggered by the news that one of these new high-speed trains had derailed outside Tacoma, south of Seattle.

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