On The Rails: Trains still appeal to some travelers

On The Rails: Trains still appeal to some travelers

By Sophie Higby

A train pulls into an empty Amtrak station.

85 year old David Yarbrough sits patiently, waiting for the train to arrive at the station. With his bag propped up next to him and a newspaper in hand, Yarbrough is ready for the adventure before him. It has been years since the last time he stepped foot on the platform, but memories of riding it throughout his youth jump to the front of his mind. 

“It’s been a few years since I took a train ride, so I was interested in what the trains are like now. I rode them a lot when I was a youngster, all the way across the United States,” Yarbrough recalls. 

Born in 1937, Yarbrough has watched as transportation methods have transformed throughout the years. Today, he is riding the train out of pure curiosity of what modern day trains look like and offer to patrons. It is his first time taking Amtrak, one of the largest passenger train companies within the U.S., marking over 500 destinations. Yarbrough’s adventure begins in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Amtrak opened their Birmingham location in 2017 as part of the intermodal facility on Morris Avenue. The trains run down to New Orleans and up to New York City.  According to the Amtrak Fact Sheet, in 2021, Birmingham had 14,935 passengers. 

Amtrak announced their plans for the Birmingham station to include a new platform with ramps, stairs, railings and signage. Though Amtrak is taking these strides, Yarbrough does not expect to see a rise in usage of passenger trains due to longer travel times. 

While other forms of public transport, such as Greyhound exist, buses do not appeal to Yarbrough. 

“A train has got some character. A bus is just a big car. A train is a machine that has a history,” Yarbrough states. “It’s a more comfortable thing to travel in and much more of an experience than a bus. A bus just goes down streets. A train goes through towns and through the woods and over the hills. It has a pathway of its own that’s unique.” 

Growing up, Yarbrough viewed trains as almost magical. “You got to see things from the windows of the train that you didn’t ordinarily see. We weren’t quite used to things like television, so this was an experience to see parts of the country that were new to me.” 

When he was not looking at the countryside, Yarbrough interacted with other passengers. “It was somewhat of a social event. People talked to each other. A lot of train rides people would play cards, for example, or checkers. And the dining cars were fairly nice. They were like restaurants. They had tablecloths and napkins and crystal glasses with water in them.” 

Amtrak pulling into the station
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While Yarbrough is just beginning his journey with Amtrak, Birmingham locals Louise and Norman Rose are beyond familiar with the company. The Roses have been traveling via Amtrak since the start of the company over 50 years ago. 

“Louise and I have adopted the notion: you have to be prepared for adventure if you’re going to use Amtrak,” Norman said. “When you’re riding the trains you always have to be prepared for something unusual to happen.” 

Similar to Yarbrough, the Roses grew up traveling by train and even using them as daily transportation. While the two admit that planes are quicker and a more efficient way of traveling, the Roses continue to choose Amtrak as their main form of extended transportation.

“It is something we have always done,” Louise said simply. But while she continues to hold onto the dying form of transportation, she longs for it to return to what it was. “The trains just have changed over the years. Everything has changed. It was very elegant in a way to have dinner in the dining car,” Louise said. Now, she compares the options to airplane food.

While people such as the Roses and Yarbrough long for the original design of trains to return, Amtrak is racing toward the future to help solve modern day issues. Amtrak stated, “According to the 2021 U.S. Department of Energy Data Book, Amtrak is 46% more energy efficient than traveling by car and 34% more energy efficient than domestic air travel.” 

In addition, Amtrak stated that from 2010 to 2019 they reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, claiming the best way for someone to reduce their travel carbon footprint is by using Amtrak. 

While there are no longer lively conversations with strangers or crystal glasses onboard the train, the familiarity of the track and the promise of adventure are what keep people on the rails.