Notes on traveling by train during a pandemic

Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to ask: What am I willing to risk to see my loved ones right now? For me, it was Amtrak.

Passengers wait to board a southbound Amtrak train inside Seattle's King Street Station, July 12, 2020. (Mohammed Kloub/Crosscut)

When the pandemic restrictions started in March, it had been only 2½ months since I had seen my family. Like most people, I didn’t think a once-in-a-lifetime disaster was about to make it dangerous to travel or see them. 

I had last visited Vancouver, Washington — where I grew up and where my parents and two younger sisters still live — during the holidays in December. Any longer than three months apart is typically unacceptable for Arab parents, and even that’s a stretch. By the time June rolled around, I hadn’t been home in six months. I knew Mama would be expecting me soon.

I also knew, barring New Zealand taking over the United States, that COVID-19 was here to stay. So I finally had to ask myself the question we all might face before the end of this pandemic: What kind of risks am I willing to take to see my loved ones?

I don’t have a car because public transportation gets me where I need to go in Seattle, so I couldn’t drive home. I also ruled out taking a Greyhound or Bolt Bus because a bus feels like a fraternity basement on wheels. And airports? No thank you

An Amtrak email let me know the company was operating trains again, with mask requirements and fewer seats sold to allow for social distancing. Public health experts say those are the two most important safety measures right now, so I made my choice. 

I booked a Sunday-to-Sunday trip. The train south would be the Amtrak Cascades, which I knew well; I had taken it home plenty of times during my undergraduate days at the University of Washington. But with fewer trains running each day, the choices for the trip back north were either the Cascades at 8 a.m. or a 4 p.m. Coast Starlight, the big double-decker that travels all the way from Los Angeles — which means more geography covered, more stops, more people and more risks. Still, I booked that one so I wouldn’t have to get up early. We’re all human.

What follows are step-by-step accounts of each trip.
 

THE JOURNEY SOUTH 

  • I arrive at the Chinatown-International District near the King Street Station expecting my usual pretrain ritual — eating a ton of Hawaiian food from the Uwajimaya food court — to be disrupted. I secure my meal, but, with indoor dining a distant memory, have to look elsewhere for a place to eat.
  • I find a spot outside on some rock benches near a Starbucks and quickly devour my katsu, looking around for social distance violators, like Gollum protecting his precious. I apply hand sanitizer before and after eating, the second time as much for the teriyaki sauce as for the germs.
  • I arrive at the train station no earlier than 30 minutes before departure, as the email instructed. The first door I try is locked. A security guard opens it and gruffly asks where I’m headed before letting me in. I want to say, “Actually, I’m here to commit railway-related crimes,” but I do us both a favor and keep it moving.
    A selfie of the author, Moh, with a mask
    Crosscut audience engagement editor Mohammed Kloub masked up in his seat on the Amtrak Cascades, July 12, 2020. (Mohammed Kloub/Crosscut)
  • There’s no usual check-in, and the station is empty, far quieter and less hectic than in the Before Times. Most people are wearing masks, but too many have theirs pulled down like a hammock for the chin. I sit on a bench away from people, where I can peacefully hate myself for not wearing contacts as my glasses fog up.
  • Boarding is easy. They put me in a roomy car with clean leather seats; besides me, I count only four other passengers (though I know more will board at the stops between here and Vancouver). I can only assume this is typically the business class car, as my broke self has never seen it.
  • The conductor on the PA reminds passengers to keep their masks on while moving about the train. Apparently you don’t have to keep it on while in your seat, but I think of what Dr. Fauci would say and do so anyway. (Amtrak has since made masks a requirement for passengers the entire time they're on the train, unless they have a private room.)
  • The conductor also says: “Due to some other recent incidents, we also ask you [to] keep your clothes on, too.”
  • The train departs the station. If not for pandemic fears, this would be one of the smoothest Amtrak journeys I’ve taken so far. Alone in my leather chair, no breathing mouths nearby, I’m cool, calm and collected. Dining service isn’t fully open, someone announces overhead, but there’s bottled water and snacks. I’m probably not going to move at all if I can help it. This isn’t my first rodeo; I brought my own snacks.
  • As expected, the car fills a bit more with each stop. Amtrak typically loads people going to the same destination in one train car. I’m still not freaking out — there’s nobody in front, behind or directly across the aisle from me — but I wonder why all these people are going to Vancouver. I can’t imagine our only attraction is open.
  • I make it to my destination. Unsure of what else to do, I abandon my principles of risk management. I knew I'd be bursting my personal quarantine bubble, but how does one burst it safely? I use hand sanitizer but then hop in the car with my sister and shed my mask. When we arrive, my still-working family members, most of them in retail and food service, greet me with open arms. I wash my hands first, but of course I hug them
     

THE RETURN JOURNEY NORTH

  • This is immediately more stressful than the first trip. 
  • As I mentioned, the train back is the double-decker Coast Starlight, not the Cascades. It’s my first time on this behemoth and I don’t know what to expect. 
  • The train car is definitely not business class. There’s someone in front of me and in the seats across the aisle immediately to my right. Thankfully, the seat next to me is empty.
  • As before, passengers are required to wear masks while moving about the train but not in their seats. This is a source of great anxiety. The car is so much smaller and people are eating, drinking, laughing and generally expressing far too much happiness. 
  • I pray nobody gets seated next to me at future stations. They wouldn’t do that, right? That would violate the social distance I was promised! The distance between me and the person across the aisle is already less than 6 feet. 
  • There’s someone watching videos without headphones, so I am having a bad time for more than just pandemic reasons.
  • I resent this, but I have to take my mask off briefly for water. I chug half of it, remembering how one bottle lasted me the entire first trip. I refuse to get up and navigate this big, strange train full of maskless people just to find the car with water. I can at least keep my stress contained to this germ box. 
  • A woman boards our train car at the Centralia stop, looking terrified. The only seats available would put her next to somebody else. I hesitate, but she has to sit somewhere. Simple kindness overrides my pandemic paranoia, and I move my backpack to offer her the seat next to me. At the last minute, an Amtrak employee intervenes and asks if she’d like her own seat upstairs. I can feel both of our relief. 
  • The train car empties out in Tacoma. For the last stretch to Seattle, I’m left with one other person, a chatty drunk man who shows me his Brisk bottle full of liquid that’s brown enough to pass for iced tea. He’d been on the train since California, he tells me, and is looking for work in the Emerald City. Then he asks to use my phone. I have time only for brief panic and a few silent expletives before handing it to him. Even in a pandemic, it’s hard to say no to this simple request from a newly met acquaintance. He talks on speakerphone to his family and afterwards chuckles at my using spray-on hand sanitizer to clean my phone. I should have packed some disinfecting wipes.
  • We arrive in Seattle. I hurry off the train and away from people, eager for the solitude and safety of my apartment.

Back in my home, I think about a moment just before Tacoma when the train entered a pitch black tunnel. It took a while to pass through, much longer than I remembered it taking on the southbound journey. With so many people in close proximity, the dark felt more claustrophobic. And although the light wouldn’t protect me from the virus, I wanted it back.

The tunnel we’re all in right now will end eventually, too. But unlike my anxious self sitting on the train waiting, we can each take steps to help us escape this one — by wearing masks, keeping our distance and asking ourselves: What would I do to safely see my loved ones?
 

Correction: An earlier version of this essay misspelled the name of Gollum, originally a Stoorish Hobbit who was corrupted by the One Ring and spent most of his life in the Misty Mountains. Crosscut regrets the error.

About the Authors & Contributors

Mohammed Kloub

Mohammed Kloub (or Moh to most people) is the audience engagement editor at Crosscut.