Baseball fields, sweeping coastlines, highways and scrapyards, graffiti-coated concrete, rows of yellow school buses, stars and stripes flying from flagpoles, clapboard houses and deep forests as painted by Edward Hopper, boarded-up redbrick terraced houses as filmed by The Wire’s David Simon, skyscrapers in New York as framed by a million camera clicks.
I grew up in Britain but such is America’s cultural reach: these images have always felt familiar. On Thursday I saw them all, and many more, from that seemingly most un-American means of transport, in the land where car is king: the train.
The Acela Express, Amtrak’s high-speed business class service, runs 457 miles (735 km) from Boston to Washington and along the way takes in five states – Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland – that will have their say in the US presidential election on Tuesday. In what has been dubbed the “Acela primary”, Democratic and Republican frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are expected to prosper.
The trip from Providence, Rhode Island, to Washington, the city that all the candidates are striving to reach, may not help us discover America, the sentiment of the Simon and Garfunkel song deployed to such effect by Bernie Sanders. Let’s just make do with looking for Acela; a single, elite train journey down the north-east corridor might tell us something about the presidential election.
It’s a short walk from the Rhode Island state capitol, boasting the fourth biggest self-supported marble dome in the world, to the modest railway station in Providence. This is America’s smallest state, only 48 miles long from north to south and 37 miles wide from east to west. It votes overwhelmingly Democratic and its former governor, Lincoln Chafee, made a quixotic bid for the 2016 nomination.
I boarded the Acela Express at 9.50am to a surprise announcement: all 304 seats across six carriages had been sold. So much for the slow death of the American railroad. As people struggled to wrestle luggage into nooks and crannies above the blue leather seats, I walked the aisle observing men in shirts and khakis, women in trouser suits – the Acela dress code appears to be smart casual – and an array of earphones, iPhones, iPads and laptops making use of onboard Wi-Fi and power sockets. Later I would find former Republican candidate Carly Fiorina expensively attired and playing a card game on her phone; she declined to be interviewed for this article.
I thought back to my first day as the Guardian’s Africa correspondent in 2009, when I was the lone white passenger on a metro train from Johannesburg to Pretoria, a painfully slow and crowded service used by the black working class. People had warned me I was in danger of getting mugged but I encountered the kindness of strangers. On Acela’s New England leg, the demographic was almost exclusively white and affluent, except for train staff, and nobody talked about mugging.
Like South Africa, America has preoccupations with inequality and race and a healthy thirst to talk about them. During the six-hour journey south, I interviewed 18 passengers, many of whom said this was the wackiest and worst election in their lifetimes, with a dearth of viable candidates leaving them short of choices. None complained about their fortunes during the past eight years under Barack Obama. Among this highly unrepresentative sample, Clinton enjoyed a narrow lead over Sanders on the Democratic side; one passenger said he would vote for Trump, while Ted Cruz polled zero.
Most of the passengers heaped praise on Acela – “There is absolutely no better way to travel in this country,” said one – but bemoaned the government’s neglect of public infrastructure in general and railways in particular, and the candidates’ failure to pledge fresh investment. Their comments could have stood for America as a whole; it’s OK, but it could be a lot better, and just look at how we’re falling behind the rest of the world.
Similar to Uber, which captured a market that previously never used taxis, Acela’s branding has struck a nerve with business travellers and is competing hard with airlines. Dan Lovy, 55, a Sanders voter, takes it three times a month. “There’s a class aspect to railroad,” he said as ravishing Atlantic vistas sped by the window. “The north-east regional service doesn’t have the cachet that Acela does. Before Acela, I would never consider taking the train; I would fly or drive.”
But like much else that frustrates Americans, it’s good but not great, reaching speeds of up to 150mph. Lovy reflected: “If the service ran an hour faster, I’d use it more. I look at the Europeans and Japanese who can do it faster by force of will. It’s frustrating how we can’t work out the economics or the will to make it happen. Japan has 300mph bullet trains; the north-east corridor would benefit from that.”
Pointing through the window towards a naval submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, he went on: “You can work out the infrastructure to build nuclear submarines but you can’t build a high speed train. You can build a billion-dollar aircraft carrier but you can’t lay new track. Is this the way we want to organise ourselves? You can’t have this conversation because you’re seen as weak on defence. You can’t go there.”
Becky Juchnik, 40, spent the journey from Providence to New York alone in the cafe car, her blond hair falling over a tight-fitting blue dress, her right arm displaying a tattoo – “RIP Deven” – in tribute to her six-week-old son who died in 1996. The fitness model, cleaning company owner and single mother was on her way to a studio photo shoot.
“It’s the most comical election I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “The bashing of each other is the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s over the top.”
How will she vote? “I agree with a lot of what Donald Trump says but there are things I don’t agree with as well. I do like Bernie Sanders but I do not agree with taking away from people who are successful. They got there for a reason.”
The trees that raced past the window were spindly, not yet the glorious riot of coppers and reds that comes in the fall. Connecticut was won by Barack Obama at the last election. At 11.13am, in New Haven, Bob – a fiftysomething banker who did not wish to give his surname – boarded Acela for the first time in his life. “I didn’t feel like driving,” he explained, dragging two suitcases and bound for Washington on business. “But I’m disappointed I didn’t find a seat.”
He intends to vote for Trump, explaining: “I like the way he is not owned by anyone. He’s paying for his own campaign and is not beholden to special interests. It’s unusual that someone like him could get this far without the backing of the establishment.”
Bob espoused rugged individualism and self-reliance that has become a conservative touchstone. “I imagine I’ll be fine either way, whether it’s Hillary or Trump. I don’t rely on any handouts or that bullshit.”
Forty-five minutes later at Stamford, Connecticut, new passengers included Nate Luce, 34, an IT consultant on his way to Washington. “It’s the most pleasant commuting experience I have,” he said. “I fly as well but this beats it by several measures. It’s a civilised form of travel.”
The railroad was once dominated by Gilded Age tycoons whose private carriages boasted mahogany interiors, glass skylights and copper-lined showers. Presidents have used the train as a symbol of power – Lincoln toured the country by rail ahead of the 1861 inauguration. But operator Amtrak makes huge losses every year and relies on congressional subsidies. The rail network has fallen behind other parts of the world, including on safety: 10 people have been killed in two separate incidents near Philadelphia within the past year.
Luce would like to see more investment in railways nationwide. “Infrastructure is a huge problem that will come to bear in the next one or two decades,” he said. “It’s a budget issue and people are just sticking their heads in the ground rather than dealing with it.”
Married with a four-year-old daughter and another child on the way, Luce feels that he has done well during the Obama years and will probably vote for Clinton. As for Trump: “Personally, I just think he’s an idiot but his success in this election is a product of the Republicans alienating a midwestern Christian base that 15 or 16 years ago they decided to capitalise on but did nothing for. People on the Republican side are furious and Trump embodies that fury quite well and plays up to it.”
Carolynn Baker, 61, an artist travelling from Providence to New York, said: “Donald Trump is a train wreck, since we’re on a train. I’ve loathed him ever since he built Trump Tower. As soon as his name comes on, I tune out. There are amazingly stupid people in this country. If you ask them why they support him, including Hispanic people who support him, they say he speaks his mind. I don’t really know what’s happened in America. I don’t think it’s bad that it needs to be made great again. I think it’s pretty darned good.”
She added: “This is the worst election I’ve ever witnessed. It’s appalling because of the Republican candidates: they’re being pretty true to what Republicans are. I never really felt proud of America until Obama became president. I felt pretty embarrassed really. Now I’m one of the old women who likes Hillary Clinton.”
At 12.49pm, the train pulls into that divine symphony of chaos, Penn Station, New York. More people pile off here than at any other station on the route, and more pile on because many have business in Washington. After 10 minutes or so we set off to New Jersey and then on to Pennsylvania, birthplace of James Stewart, star of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and another Democratic-leaning state that votes next week. The city of Reading, which in 2011 was ranked the poorest in America, having seen manufacturing jobs wither, would appear to be fertile territory for Trump.
Jim O’Connor, 53, a barrister travelling to a social reception for lawyers in Washington, admitted: “I think of myself as astute politically and yet I know absolutely nothing about politics: that’s what the Trump experience has shown me. I can’t explain the Trump phenomenon but I also can’t ignore it.”
Trump has scored well among white working-class voters who lack a college degree. O’Connor said: “Maybe they don’t look like me or sound like me, or have the same educational background or social background as me, but they are engaged in the process. I think that’s a good thing. He’s not my guy but I admire him for it.
“I think we would all be foolish to ignore the fact that folks who otherwise feel disenfranchised feel engaged by Trump’s candidacy for right or wrong reasons. He is not my cup of tea and yet at the same time I am amazed and admiring how he has jumped into a system where he’s not a professional and had the success he’s had. I don’t like his message but I can’t ignore that fact there are a lot of people out there – my neighbours – who do.”
With the train so full because of school holidays, several passengers congregated in the cafe carriage. Beers flowed and conversations started. “Did you hear Prince died?” one woman asked of the cafe manager. It was a different experience from the atomised one of commuting alone by car every day.
By the time we reached Philadelphia – the former capital city where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and where a statue of fictional boxer Rocky was erected – the train’s racial diversity had gradually increased. Among the African American passengers was Rodney Elliott, who disembarked there, and Lanette Reese, who boarded there on her way to Washington, where she lives. Both intend to vote for Clinton.
For Elliott, 47, the key issues in this election are the economy, foreign policy and race relations. “I don’t think Obama was able to improve race relations and that wasn’t really his assignment,” said Elliott, who himself works for Amtrak as a train master. “It has to be a collaborative effort. That’s not the president’s job; that’s the people’s job.”
Asked what she thinks of Trump, Reese, 39, an educational consultant, replied: “I don’t think about him at all. I don’t spend energy on him. People are fed up with the party and the way government operates but what he is saying are things that are democratically impossible. Now, if he wins, that would terrify me.”
The train pushed on through Delaware – second smallest state and home of Vice-President Joe Biden – and along low bridges with vast and gorgeous expanses of water on both sides, dotted with cottages and boats on the shore. But further on, into Maryland, the imagery became less serene. The line runs through bleak inner-city Baltimore, where cramped terraced houses have boarded-up doors and windows and some structures that are cracked, crumbling and abandoned. These largely black neighbourhoods endure sky-high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime, including murders. America’s inequality rhymes with South Africa’s.
Tom Zayko, 71, who retired from financial services company Citibank a month before the financial crisis hit in 2008, said: “I’ve been lucky, I did not lose. But we know many wealthy families and it just amazes me they don’t have a clue how difficult getting on with it is for many people. My daughter is a social worker and she deals with families who are financially strained and emotionally strained.”
Clinton and Trump lead the polls in Maryland, birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner, and appear poised for victory there. And so the final stretch to Washington. Electricity pylons and trees whizzed by. A redbrick school. A multi-storey car park. A junkyard. The Days Inn and the Marriott. Cash-and-carry stores. The golden arches of McDonald’s.
Then the beaux-arts Union Station, the biggest railway terminal in the world when it opened in 1907. For many, at 3.47pm, it was just the end of a routine commute. But not for Erin Barry’s children, aged eight and six, here for the first time in their lives.
“Why are we going to Washington?,” the 34-year-old speech pathologist asked. “To show the children the nation’s capital because it’s important, especially during an election year when there’s a lot on the news and they’ve expressed interest to see the White House.”
Barry added: “I find it inspiring. That’s why it’s sad what’s going on. It’s depressing. It’s turned into a circus. It’s not what the country was built on. I think Abraham Lincoln and other great presidents would be disgusted.”
But the optimism was undimmed for her son, whom Erin did not wish to be named. “I’m excited because we get to see the president’s house and do a lot of fun stuff,” he said. “The Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum.”
In this handsome city of monuments, the Rome of the modern world, there is a cast-iron dome that surpasses the spectacle in Providence. The US Capitol is another of those American artefacts that we all grow up knowing from afar. It was built in Lincoln’s time, like the transcontinental railroad, which he intended to unify a divided nation. Come January, it will witness the inauguration of the 45th president and, whoever that is, a grand unifying project would seem like a good place to start. This is a country whose citizens still like to think big, even when its politicians don’t.