Running between New Orleans and Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited isn’t just the oldest continuously running train line in the US—it helped build the country as you know it today. Leon McCarron hops on board.
“It’s its own little place here,” says Terrance. He wears a dark-blue shirt, and has a beanie pulled down over his ears. We’re in Texas, but it’s December, and the cold wind whips off the desert and gets into your bones.
“It’s like a bubble,” he continues. “You step onboard, and you have no idea who you’re gonna meet. They might be a millionaire, or a runaway, and they might vote left or right or not at all, but they all get on here and ride the train together. And you know what? They get along, for the most part. Because they’ve all chosen to be here, rather than driving or flying or taking a bus or whatever. And somehow that’s all it takes to bring people together, at least for a little while.”
Terrance is a conductor on the Amtrak-run Sunset Limited, the oldest continuously running train line in the US. Since 1894, the route has been going between New Orleans to Los Angeles (initally, onwards to San Francisco), rolling through the bayou and deserts and mountains of the south. In its prime, it was the fastest way across the nation.
It took four days then, and it takes almost as long now. These days, of course, that makes it just about the slowest way you can choose to travel—short of walking. And yet, people still ride the train. Along with filmmaker and friend Rupert Clague, who introduced me to the idea, I set off for New Orleans to find out why, chasing the sunset heading west.
It’s raining on the evening we arrive in New Orleans, and the air is sticky and warm even in the midst of winter. The lights of the central drag of the city—Bourbon Street—still shine brightly, but the rain has washed away some of the enthusiasm. The doors and windows of the bars, usually open for music to flow out and people in, are pulled to, and we’re forced out into the network of alleyways that make up the French Quarter.
It’s here that we find Frenchman Street, which we now know to be the beating heart of downtown. “Bourbon is only for strip joints and hard drugs,” says Loretta, who works the door of one of the venues and plays in a punk and blues band on weekends. “Frenchman is for the real stuff!”
For the rest of the night, we bounce between sounds; raw guitar and screeching sax and whiskey-soaked jazz with frantic, sweaty drum solos. We’re fully caught up in the almost impossible energy of the city until day breaks, and the spell is broken. We head across town under a moody orange sky and step onto the train for the first time. The other passengers also look like they’ve had a long night.
“I live in Louisiana, way in the countryside, and even I’m seeing something new from this train.”
Quincy, Sunset Limited passenger
“Welcome Aboard the Sunset Limited,” we’re told. Does everyone turn up like this, asks Rupert? “Everyone except me,” smiles the lady at the ticketing desk. “If you don’t leave New Orleans with a sore head, you’ve probably done something wrong.”
The train is a blissful oasis, and we ride under morning light across the bayou. Either side of the track is swamp, with twisted trees and dense forest stretching out behind. The aesthetic of the trains no longer carry the romance one might hope for—they are double-decker steel tubes, and look much like passenger trains anywhere else.
The oldest named train in the US (it began life as the Sunset Express), it’s been going since 1894 and was operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad as an all-sleeper train. It was a pioneering journey as unlike the other two gateways to the West Coast (from Chicago and St. Louis), the Sunset Route was year-round as it didn’t have to contend with snow and the Rockies en route. It also provided a much-needed shortcut to the West Coast—New Orleans had become a recognized seaport for ships coming in from the Atlantic, and passengers could now spend days, not weeks, traveling west.
While it’s no longer all-sleeper, there are comfortable cabins with bunk beds, and a dining car that throws all the passengers together to talk across burgers and tacos. Then there’s the lounge car; a viewing carriage on the top level, with seats looking out from the floor-to-roof windows. Two passengers behind us say they saw an alligator on the bank outside. Another says he saw something else moving in the forest.
“I live in Louisiana,” says Quincy, “way in the countryside, and even I’m seeing something new from this train.”
Where’s he going, I ask? “Just outta here,” he says. “I gotta move states, leave my worries behind.”
We cross the Mississippi, and roll along parallel with the Gulf of Mexico. Beside us in the lounge car are a couple in their 50s returning to LA from a honeymoon in New Orleans. They borrow my guitar and go from zero to rock pretty quickly, before working their way through a bottle of whiskey at the same speed.
“When you ride the train, you understand this country a little more. It’s so big, but there’s so much beauty here too. I would hope that even with all our other disagreements in the United States, we can at least agree that it’s a special place.”
Suzanne, Sunset Limited traveler
Nearby is a man called Bill, who studies desert tortoises and is heading back to California, then all the way up to Alaska for Christmas. He sits beside a woman who’s scared of flying, but wants to visit family out west. On the next level down is Steve in the snack car who nearly made it as a pro baseball player before taking a job on the train.
Everyone has a story. We move into Texas and through Houston, San Antonio and El Paso. There’s a huge amount of nothing for hours on end—vast, monochrome desert—and at each crossroads the deck is shuffled, and a few passengers hop off never to be seen again by us.
Rupert and I also jump off at a couple of places in each state, and try to stick to the theme of the railroad to guide out experience. In Houston, we find more blues. In San Antonio, it’s artists with studios built alongside the tracks. In El Paso, we visit a famous cowboy boot factory that straddles the space between the train line and the Mexican border and supplies boots to Billy Connolly, Willy Nelson and Julia Roberts, among others.
“The train connects things,” says Mike on our next ride towards Arizona. He’s retired, but used to be a pastor. “It’s still got that spirit that took people out west across this country. You get a sense of perspective on here.” Suzanne, traveling with her husband towards Tucson, agrees. “When you ride the train, you understand this country a little more. It’s so big, but there’s so much beauty here too. I would hope that even with all our other disagreements in the United States, we can at least agree that it’s a special place.”
It’s beyond doubt that the train is intrinsically tied to modern America; it helped build the nation from east to west, and plays a central role in much of popular culture, from the cowboy movies like ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ to Johnny Cash singing about that old train a-coming in Folsom Prison Blues.
By the time we roll into Los Angeles, just as the first light of day ignites the glittering jungle of concrete, I am convinced that there is still a place for train travel. It’s not the cheapest nor quickest, but it gives ample time for reflection, and connects a traveler to those around them.
As we disembark, Terrance the conductor gives us one last piece of advice. “We’re still figuring something out here. And to have everyone all going in the same direction for a while, and passing through this great country with time to think … well, that’s a good thing. Now more than ever.”
This journey was made with the support of Shure. Rupert and Leon are currently working on a film from the trip.