The beauty of Amtrak and our obsession with efficiency

For years, the passage of Amtrak trains through Durham have helped me to mark key timepoints of the day. 

Living in the 300 Swift apartment complex as a sophomore and junior, I was roused by the Amtrak’s harsh horn at around 7:00 a.m. and later cued to prepare for bed by the seemingly more dulcet tones of the 9:30 p.m. train. Even after I moved away from Swift and lived in various parts of Durham, the train schedule continued to assert its presence in my day.

Ironically, I hardly used the train for its primary purpose — as a means of transport, not a timer, as my only Amtrak trip from Durham was a brief day trip to Charlotte in 2022. When I was looking for a way to get to Washington, D.C. for the ACC men’s basketball tournament last month, it seemed like a great opportunity for a train ride. 

There are a lot of good reasons to take the train. These range from the conscientious (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) to the practical (driving from Durham to D.C. is an objectively awful experience) to the whimsical (maybe there will be a murder on the train and you’ll get to work alongside a world-famous detective interviewing suspects, revealing a vast web of lies while also unveiling fundamental truths about yourself and human nature). It was some combination of the three that persuaded me to book the ticket.

If you’ve heard anything about the Durham-D.C. Amtrak route, it’s probably that this stretch — like many other passenger train routes across the country — is quite slow. While the drive generally maxes out at five hours depending on traffic, the train takes more than seven. 

Some of these time limitations are intrinsic to rail. Trains can only go as fast as the class of the rail on which they run, which is determined by the specifics of how the tracks were constructed and maintained. Most of the Durham-D.C. route is on Class 4 tracks, which have a maximum speed of 79 mph, meaning that the fastest you’ll be going on a train is about the speed of an average driver on I-95. These tracks are leased from other companies, such as the state-owned North Carolina Railroad Company from Durham to Selma, N.C., and private CSX Transportation from Selma northward. Such companies don’t always have an incentive to devote additional funding to develop and maintain the tracks to increase their class, especially when they profit primarily from freight traffic.

The other interesting twist to the Amtrak route to D.C. is that it dips south of Raleigh, taking a tortuous path through the North Carolinian towns of Selma, Wilson and Rocky Mount before bending northward toward Virginia. It seems rather absurd that the train goes out of its way to hit low-population centers instead of following I-85, though a recent project to redevelop part of the so-called “S-line,” which was dismantled in the late 1980s, would create a more direct connection from Raleigh to Richmond. The bottom line is that the current circuitous route adds a considerable amount of time for those coming from the Triangle.

Anyway, enough with the details about railroads. I’ve learned that the more you talk about trains, the more people curiously nod and start asking whether you have special routines you feel compelled to follow or an intense fascination with specific topics, so we’ll skirt those questions for today.

Despite the relative inefficiency of taking the train over driving, I opted for the Amtrak. When the day finally came and I boarded the train, many of the seats were already taken. As I approached the back of the train car, I saw that the only section remaining was marked “reserved for parties of three.” I turned to a couple random people and asked, “Would you like to be a party of three with me?”, and after they took out their headphones and mumbled unintelligibly, we took our seats, thereby forming an undying bond.

As the train began its journey and we passed the bucolic scenery of North Carolina and Virginia outside, I flitted between doing schoolwork, reading a book and gazing wistfully out the window. I felt transported back in time while strolling down the ‘80s-like corridor of the train and to the cafe car, whose prices seemed immune to inflation. The conductor and staff marched around the train in their cute little hats, scanning tickets and telling people which exit to use for the next stop. The woman next to me kept talking to me about birria tacos and how she couldn’t wait to eat a bunch after she got off the train — she gave me recommendations of where to get the best birria tacos in D.C., and I nodded encouragingly since I didn’t have the heart to tell her I don’t eat meat. It was all so fanciful, so carefree.

Seven hours later, I stepped out onto the platform at Union Station in Washington, D.C. We won’t talk about the rest of the trip, but I remember how fulfilling that journey felt even though driving would have been the more efficient option, cutting two hours off the trip and giving me more flexibility for when I could return. It’s no secret how obsessed society has become with efficiency, whether it’s cutting out unnecessary stops in travel or leaving behind once-cherished childhood hobbies to focus on more “adult” obligations. 

In medicine, my chosen profession, efficiency allows for treating more patients in a more organized way. A wistful surgeon who spends hours using a more complex method for the same operation would not stay gainfully employed for long, and an emergency department that couldn’t quickly triage emergent concerns from lower-priority issues wouldn’t be providing the best care.

But while we often trumpet what’s gained with efficiency, we fail to consider what’s lost. Sometimes we have difficulty parsing the tasks requiring efficiency from those that offer opportunity for discovery, enjoyment and whimsy. A drive to D.C. would have bought me a couple of hours, but the train ride gave me the joy of relaxing as I observed the countryside, chatting with my fellow passengers and experiencing something new. Shorter appointments in doctors’ offices may decrease wait times but abbreviated conversations may erode the patient-physician relationship, requiring quick fixes due to the lack of time for more meaningful dialogue to address root causes.

This isn’t to say that the Amtrak has to be slow to be enjoyable — it’s possible to create a faster route from Durham to D.C. that captures the same whimsy of my experience. Sometimes life is more about enjoyment than optimization, or vice versa, and the trick lies in finding the most opportune moments for each.

Nathan Luzum is a third-year medical student and a member of the DSPC Board of Directors. His column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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