Saturday, April 22, 2006

Train 49: Welcome to Chicago

I return to my seat, and read, listen to music on my iPod, and watch the scenery roll by. Sitting near me are a mother and daughter who are returning after a trip to visit some colleges for the daughter. Mother is getting increasingly flustered because of the delay, and can't bear the thought of not making her "guaranteed connection". I hope she takes the plane next time. She is, however, very happy with schools they've seen ("very nice, very safe, and it's all included...") and feels that $20,000 a year is a very reasonable price.

And to think I'm still naffed off at having to pay any tuition fees...

We catch first sight of the distant skyline of Chicago almost an hour before we arrive. We're close to Lake Michigan, and slow to a crawl as the line carries us past the industrial plants and oil refineries south of the city. I'm still calm, collected, and looking forward to an afternoon in Chicago, but I can understand the frustration of many passengers. We are so close, yet so far, still the pawns in the game of a freight railroad dispatcher.

The line crosses into more densely built areas, and soon we are curving past green suburban neighbourhoods. Small ramshackle houses are built close to the tracks, but it's not long before I realise that the reason it's so green is that so many of the plots are vacant. Old houses have been or are being ripped down. The ones that remain gain a lot of open space, but a sense that the city is hollowing out from the centre.

The sign of an imminent arrival is marked as we slide past the Amtrak marshalling yards just south of Union Station. Dozens of silver coaches are here, being shunted around to form trains to every corner of the country. Maybe of some of these will be the ones that carry me west tomorrow.

Our coach attendant comes through the car to direct connecting passengers to this afternoon's long distance trains. The man headed for New Mexico who I first met on the Adirondack yesterday afternoon is quite relaxed: he has a couple of hours until his train departs.

We slide into the dark underbelly of Union Station almost four hours late. I 'detrain' and haul myself and my overpacked bags along the narrow, dark, crowded platform, and into the concourse. I emerge a few escalators later, dazzled by the sunlight, and cross the South Branch Chicago River on Jackson Boulevard. Below me, tour boats are chugging along, dozens of tourists gazing up towards the dazzling glass skyscrapers.


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