The Usonian Interviews, No. 15: Clean energy advocate Graham Turk on Amtrak across America
The beauty and challenges of riding the rails cross-country in the States
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with clean energy advocate Graham Turk about his recent transcontinental “circumnavigation” of the lower-48 United States relying predominantly on Amtrak, America’s quasi-public passenger rail service, who also documented his experience on Instagram. You can also find his electric-vehicle blog on Medium.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: Tell us about your background as a clean energy advocate.
GRAHAM TURK: I recently worked at an electric utility company, where my focus was on developing programs in electric vehicles, heat pumps, battery storage, all under the broad umbrella of electrification—the idea of trying to electrify our heating and transportation systems as a means of decarbonizing them.
Before that, [I had] various forays into climate action of several types, including the divestment [movement regarding] Princeton’s endowment, and a couple other initiatives. I’ve also tried to make personal lifestyle changes in line with the work I’ve been doing. One of the big ones has been trying to fly less, and while I know it’s kind of a small portion of global emissions, it’s also a feasible behavioral change. I have no illusions over the actual impact of one person’s decision. But [in traveling across the country by train] I wanted to highlight how it could be fun to to travel in a different way. And even though it was by no means an emission-free trip, I did a little bit of math and [the carbon footprint] was significantly lower than what it would have been to fly to all those places.
TU: I’ve heard of some people before who take the train, one-way, transcontinentally across America—but never someone who takes it the whole way back, too. Tell us about your decision to take the train.
GT: If the trip had just been a means to get from one place to another, I think the full loop would have been tough if you were time constrained. I made it a bit of an adventure. I had basically two months between when I left my job and when I’d be starting school, and wanted to visit a bunch of friends anyway. So the train wasn’t a means to get from from one place to the next, but part of the experience. Amtrak has a pretty awesome pass, known as the “USA Rail Pass” where you get 10 trips, 10 legs over 30 days, for $500.
I was also traveling solo. So the prospect of driving it alone and having to stay awake, and check in and out of hotels was a lot less enticing, going all the way. Also, I ended up doing six overnights on the train. I sleep pretty easily, so it’s a way to save a little bit of money versus booking hotels.
TU: Living on the train is something we might read about in Agatha Christie—it seems like a great opportunity to solve a murder. So what was the day-to-day life like, being on the rails for an extended period of time?
GT: So my situation, when you do the [USA Rail Pass], is that I did not have a sleeper car. So I was in coach. And in coach, people would picture maybe an airplane, but on Amtrak, there is much more legroom, and you can move your seat back quite a bit. So picture business class on a plane, but two seats on each side. It’s not cramped, but definitely a little bit less spacious. And then there’s a lounge, which has a cafe with tables and then a full wraparound-glass with seats facing outwards. The lounge becomes an observation car where people will funnel in and out throughout the day and come to eat their meals—they have a snack bar in the bottom level.
The lounge was where I spent most of my time. I would read a lot, write postcards to friends, write in my journal, look out the window, take pictures when we were going through particularly nice stretches—someone gave me a tip early on that if you put your camera up to the glass, the flat glass, you’ll get the glare, but if you put it up in the curved glass above your head, you can actually take pretty good pictures.
There are some cool stretches along the Colorado River where I was doing that and taking a bunch of photos. You’re going through certain stretches where you can just look out the window for hours and not get bored. I’d never been to huge chunks of the West and Southwest. I was blown away by how vast it was. You could look as far as you could in both directions and not see any evidence of human impact. Wide open spaces, gorgeous vistas.
We traveled places where there aren’t even roads, because the train tracks were built alongside rivers before the interstates were developed. There are a couple pockets where it’s just a train track surrounded by some valley or river basin. I never got bored of that.
I got better at food prep throughout the trip. The Amtrak dining car has some decent options in the snack bar, like breakfast sandwiches and bagels, but before I would board I’d pack some snacks or get sandwiches to put in the bag before I got rolling. The one night I did stay in a sleeper car, from LA to Albuquerque with my sister, we splurged a little bit.
That was really cool because you get your own car. You have the full down beds. And then you get dining service. So there’s a high-end white tablecloth dining car for those in the sleeper cars. They serve a three-course dinner, and the food was shockingly good. Three meals a day. So for those who go in style, they’re fed pretty well. It’s just the plebes in coach who only have access to the snack bar.
TU: Amtrak owns their rail lines in the Northeast Corridor. So it’s pretty reliable in the Northeast Corridor. But once you get outside of that, then Amtrak often “borrows” the track of freight rail companies, which can lead to significant delays. Did you experience any major delays outside the Northeast Corridor?
GT: I did. I believe Union Pacific owns a lot of the rails in the West. Between Denver to Salt Lake City, we were delayed two hours. On the way back, there was another delay about two and a half hours, something like that. I think if you were doing these long-haul trips, and you had to get to somewhere at a certain time, it's probably not the best itinerary, but this time I didn’t have to be anywhere on a particular timeline.
It just gave me a little extra time to explore each city at which the train stopped. Unlike air travel, where people are very suspicious of each other, jostling for overhead space and giving everyone dirty looks, on the train it was a very friendly vibe. People were always excited to talk in the observation car, especially to sit down next to someone and say hi.
I met some really fun people. I met one guy on my way back east, during the stretch between Albuquerque and Cleveland. This man was coming from Rochester, visiting his brother in Topeka, Kansas. He’d been in the Air Force and his brother was in the Army. He gave me his whole life story. He had traveled a lot in Germany and loved taking the train when he was in the Air Force. It was always a colorful cast of characters.
Graham Turk is a graduate student and researcher in MIT’s Technology and Policy program. Previously he worked at Green Mountain Power, where he developed innovative customer programs in battery storage, electric vehicles, and demand flexibility. He can sub in to play goalie at your weekly hockey skate with a few hour’s notice.
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