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A Social Experience?

I'm a train person, but I'm not a social person. I'm writing this little entry for the benefit of those of you that like the idea of trains, but from all the books you may have read about train travel, have concluded it is a single's bar on wheels or some other fantasy.

Many of the books on train travel are about the experiences the authors have had interacting with the many interesting people they have met on trains, both other passengers and the train crew and staff. From this you may have erroneously concluded that you will be spending most of your trip talking with other passengers and the train staff.

You could do that, but my experience has been that very few people on the train run around introducing themselves to everyone and striking up lengthy conversations with staff members. Considering that authors of train travel books do need something to write about, you should expect they are likely to be aggressive in seeking out stories from the train staff and other passengers.

If there was any "requirement" to socialize on a train, you would never find me on a train at all! I detest any situation in which I "must" interact with other people. I don't even like to be in circumstances where I will be forced to be in close proximity to total strangers, even if there is no requirement for me to interact with them. Probably one of the reasons I prefer rail travel to plane travel, and why I prefer private accomodations on the train over coach accomodations. Actually, I've only visited the coach cars of Amtrak intercity trains and have never taken a trip in one. I've heard the coach accomodations are almost as good as, or even better than, first class accomodations on a plane. Still, I think I will stick to my private accomodations.

Once I board the train, I usually head straight to my private accomodation, usually the Economy Bedroom. If there is coffee available, I'll grab a cup and bring it to my room. Then, I'll close and lock the door and then close the curtain. From then on, I'm in my own private world! It's just me, the view out my window, the amenities in the room, and my cup of coffee!

The Car Attendant comes by shortly after boarding the train to see if there is anything he or she can help with, or anything that needs to be explained. I exchange freindly greetings and explain that I'm a veteran Amtrak traveler. At that point, the Car Attendant will usually move on to explain anything that might be different about this particular trip than the norm and remind me to contact him if I need anything at all. The conductor will also come by in a short while to collect my ticket and welcome me aboard. The Dining Steward will eventually make his way to my room to find out what time I would like to eat diner and to give me my diner voucher. That is it! Nobody else will usually come to my room during the entire trip unless I ask for them!

Better yet, I can relax and don't have to interact with anyone unless I chose to. I can chose to explore the train and meet people, or to just stay in my room for the entire trip. It is totally up to me.

So what do I do? Usually, I spend the entire trip in my room behind locked doors and closed curtains except for meal times. If you are at the extreme end of the introvert scale, you could buy something to eat from the Cafe in the Lounge Car and take it back to your room. For me, meal time is the one time that I chance meeting new people and head down to the Dining Car to eat.

To you extroverts, I probably sound like a real recluse. Maybe. But I don't view myself that way. I do know of people that are far more introverted than myself. To them, the idea of going to the Dining Car, siting and eating with 3 total strangers, would be a nightmare beyond belief! If this were a requirement of train travel, you would never get them on a train!

For me, it is a social situation in which I feel totally comfortable ... even as an introvert. It is not like any other social situation in my life that I can remember. In the Dining Car, I meet 3 other people that I have never met before and will probably never meet again once we each leave the train. But, we will sit and eat and talk with each other for the next hour or so. Whatever it is that I don't like about interacting with strangers just doesn't seem to be there in this situation.

Quite often, I'll be either the first or the last to be seated at a table and find I'm at a table in total silence. In a crowd, I'm often the least likely person to open my mouth. But the "table of silence" won't do. I'm often the first one to speak up and get a conversation rolling. I usually break the ice with a question that I genuinely want the answer to: "So, where did your trip on this train start?". If they started ahead of me, I ask them what happened on the train before I got on. If the train arrived at my station late, there is usually some interesting story about how the train lost time.

From there, we get into more interesting topics, such as: (1) How long have you been riding Amtrak, (2) Is this your first trip?, (3) What do you think of train travel today compared to when you were a kid?, (4) What do you think the future holds for Amtrak?, (5) Where are you taking the train to?, (6) How do you like this trip so far? Usually the conversation wanders into many directions before I get anywhere into this list of questions, but I've always got more ammunition if the conversation sinks into a lull. The thing is, I'm truly interested in the answers to these questions!

I've met quite a few interesting people at Diner in this way and I will continue to write about those experiences in these travelogues. However, I still enjoy just siting alone in my private accomodation watching the world go by.

If you are extroverted and like meeting lots of new people, you certainly can do that. You can meet new people all day long in the lounge car, or the Cafe downstairs in the lounge car which I guess literally is a bar on wheels. You can meet them sitting in a seat in Coach Class, or at your table in the Dinig Car during meals. You can meet new people in the Pacific Parlor Car any time of day or evening when you travel on the Coast Starlight in First Class. Plus, when they are not busy with their duties, most of the staff are always willing to lend you an ear!

Those of you that find nothing more relaxing than spending time alone with your own thoughts as the world goes by, there is a place on an Amtrak train for you too!

If you are hesitant to travel by Amtrak because of any anxiety or fear over what the trip might be like, please do send e-mail to me at steve@trainweb.com. I'd really like to know some of the reasons that hold people back from traveling by train and to answer some of those concerns if I can.


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