Amtrak is an oddity in the US transportation system, some considering it an anachronism, a holdover from days long since past with the advent of air travel. A voyage by train is not so much about swiftness as it is about the journey.
After a few days in Seattle, I booked passage aboard Amtrak’s Cascades service destined for Vancouver, BC, and my first foray out of these United States. After a brief sprint from breakfast to Seattle’s King St. Station, I managed to jump aboard train 510 as it departed right on time and began to wind its way northward along the Puget Sound. I’m used to seeing Amtrak’s California Zephyr arrive in Denver 5 hours late, so this (and I mean this term in the traditional sense) railroad efficiency was a pleasant, if not almost ruinous, surprise. When I say ‘managed to jump aboard’, I mean that in the most literal possible sense.
The tracks that the Cascades runs on are laid right up against the icy waters of the sound. As the train speeds northward towards Everett, one can look out from the observation car across the sound, with only mere feet separating them from the astonishingly clear waters. Since Amtrak does not own the track that it runs on, freight traffic has the right of way, and knowing this, I had expected to be waylaid by freight trains several times by now. This was not the case, however, and as 510 continued northward through Washington, the train picked up the pace as it pressed on toward Canada.
So far, this trip has proven two things: that travel by train in the United States is occasionally on time, and that it is, in fact, able to go more than fifty miles without stopping. It certainly does not lack for scenery, either, for as the train turns back from the low forests south of Bellingham and back towards the Puget Sound, one can see so much more than possible if traveling by air. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t sleep on airplanes because I’m too busy looking out the window, but this is entirely different. I-5 doesn’t get anywhere near this close to the water, so travel by train is the only way to see this kind of scenery. It’s a view that no wide-angle lens can do justice to, and it might even fall into the category of trying to grab an all-encompassing image of the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Badlands of South Dakota. No matter how many times you see pictures of it, you can never truly know what it’s like until you’re looking right at it.
Train 510 rolled past the busy US-Canadian border south of White Rock, BC, and I watch out the window at the long line of cars queueing at the crossing. A passenger next to me strikes up a conversation. Her name is Monet, like the painter, and she’s here from Seattle visiting friends who are attending an archaeological conference in Vancouver. She’s originally from Florida, but tells me that in the two years she’s been living in the northwest, she’s gotten used to the persistent cloudiness. It’s her first time in Canada as well, and she tells me her friends know a good pho restaurant on Granville Street. Finally, train 510 rolls over the Fraser River and into Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. Monet and I deboard the train, say our goodbyes, and head through customs and on into the great white north.