Slow Train

Jennifer Pahlka
4 min readJul 12, 2021

The people in sleeping compartments on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles see each other mostly in the dining car, which feels pretty fancy as far as American middle class travel goes. White tablecloths with coordinating blue napkins, real flatware, stemless glasses holding decent wine. There are those awful creamers but if you ask for milk for your tea they’ll bring it to you, real milk in the tiny cartons from grade school, and you get the whole thing. I think we are friendly to each other in part because we want a witness to our moderate luxury. The waitresses are chatty and give you the last glass of wine in the bottle for free at the end of the night.

There’s the couple who prays loudly over each overly salted meal, and I avoid them because the husband is a talker but the wife looks embarrassed. But the other couples crack me up. There’s a middle aged Black guy traveling with his mother. He treats her as elderly but she’s sharp as a tack and pretty spry too. At lunch she takes a call from her daughter, who puts a grandson on the line, and her first question is “Hi, sugar, did you go to church?” Did he? I wonder. At dinner, the middle aged son starts joshing with the overweight white couple who are sleeper car veterans and eager to let everyone know it. “Is this man bothering you?” he kids to the wife, the preposterousness of it being how visibly the two have grown together over the years, through train trips and who knows what else they’ve made of their lives, like tree roots wrapped around a sidewalk.

The wife thinks it’s hysterical, and so does the husband. “What, you gonna call the cops on me?” he comes back. A white guy teasing a Black guy about calling the cops? But it seems okay. We’re on a train, in the middle of nowhere, in a kind of fancy dining car. Everyone’s laughing. The Black guy doubles down on the joke. We all order another round.

At night, they don’t make any announcements so you can sleep. The train stops for hours and we don’t know why. By day, the conductor explains the frequent delays. “Last night we lost quite a few hours stuck behind a disabled freight train. We should be able to make up some of that time today.” “It looks like the crew will time out before we reach Alpine. We have to stop working after 12 hours on the clock. We’re going to have to wait here until the new crew can reach us, and then we’ll get going again.” “There are flash flood warnings ahead so we’ll be going slowly for a while.” The sky darkens and mothball-sized hail begins to hit the desert floor.

The conductor and the hostess in the dining car and the other woman in the club car and the attendants all use the loudspeaker liberally. “Did anyone find a pair of earbuds? A young man has lost them and let’s all help him find them.” “The club car is still open but I’m mostly down to just hot dogs now. We’ll load in more food in Tucson, though, so don’t worry.” There’s a vibe of “We’re all in this together,” but those of us in the sleeper car have our own dining room, and plenty of food. On plates. There’s even steak.

During the day they let you know if there’s something noteworthy to see. “Off to your left, since we’re going so slowly, you can see the Prada Store. That’s right, I said Prada store. Yes, we’re in the middle of nowhere, but we’re passing a Prada Store.” I always pop out into the hallway when they announce something on the left, since my “roomette” is on the right. The wife of the couple down the hall does too, and we smile at each other.

I’m trying to use the time to write, but I check Twitter. Richard Branson has launched himself into space. There he is, standing next to Elon Musk, who looks like an overgrown child. They are showing us that the competition is friendly, that Branson wasn’t being petty when he rushed to go up first. He’s gone very fast, I imagine, but returned to exactly where he started. I boarded the train in Houston and 24 hours later we’re still in Texas, but hey, it’s a big state. The waitress tells a heavily tattooed couple who get on in El Paso that our top speed will be almost 90 miles an hour, but most of the time it looks like we are going about 35, when we’re moving at all. You can see the land as it goes by. It’s beautiful. We spend a lot of time near the border with Mexico, and there the beauty is tinged with sadness. Eventually, we will get to Los Angeles, where I’ll give up my sleeping compartment and take a Southwest flight the rest of the way home.

So far we are 6 hours behind schedule. The waitresses tell us they’ll serve breakfast tomorrow since we won’t get in at 6 am as planned. I hope we are even later. I hope we get another lunch too. I’d even be okay with dinner.



Jennifer Pahlka

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists