Our journey began in the waiting room at Penn Station, a drab and depressing subterranean space whose posters, endless video loops played back on flatscreen televisions, and automated intercom announcements, gave me the impression that a terrorist attack must be imminent. I dread to think what the result might be if London’s rail termini should ever try to engineer a similar, sustained high level of paranoia.
Wait over, and on a dark and dingy platform, our train was ready for boarding. If Germany’s ICE trains look as if they had been squeezed from a tube of toothpaste, then the USA’s Amtrak trains—like this one we were about to get on to, with their ridged, shining metal exteriors—look as if they were extruded from a single piece of metal in some colossal iron foundry. The dimensions inside were just as disarming, with economy seats in which scrawny types like myself might get lost.
The trains that depart from Penn Station towards Boston run underneath Manhattan, before they emerge from the darkness to pass through Queens and the Bronx, and then onwards, pressing further north. The weather that day was not untypical for the middle of November: grey and cold, and as the train passed through the bleak industrial landscape of the East River, I was struck by how everything outside the train window was tinged the colour of rust. Beyond the city we passed through neighbourhoods whose names were new to me—New Rochelle, Mamoroneck, Harison, Port Chester—catching glimpses of Interstate 95, the New England Thruway, shopping malls, and an American suburbia characterised by generously proportioned wood-panel houses, golf courses, and flagstaffs fluttering with the stars and stripes.
Beyond Fairfield we saw our first glimpses of the Ocean, though at this stage it was still little more than a narrow strip of grey underneath a leaden sky. But, as the train glided onwards, and the weather became brighter by degrees, the calm, silky surface of the Atlantic became steadily more ubiquitous, and the towns that we passed through became less suburban and more autonomous in character.
These were seaward-looking towns, and I was struck by an uncanny sense of familiarity. As we passed through Bridgeport, New Haven, Old Saybrook and New London, I felt as though I were passing through towns that, through half-closed eyes, might be mistaken for the likes of Dawlish, Teignmouth, Plymouth and Penzance—towns and cities on the Cornish Riviera railway line that links London to the southwest of England. I felt as though I were travelling by train through an alternative universe, a distorted mirror image of a journey with which I was very familiar. And when we passed through New London, where the train negotiated a tight bend before climbing up and over a high bridge spanning the Thames (!) river, I might as well, in my imagination, have been heading east across the Tamar, from Cornwall into Devon.
Shortly after passing through Mystic the train veered inland, whereupon it set out in an almost straight line towards Boston. The sun was out now, hanging low in the western sky, and setting fire to every leaf and blade of grass that we passed. Having left behind the rusty hues of the East River, and the battleship greys of the Atlantic coast, we now found ourselves in fields of red and gold, from Providence and Pawtucket, through Attleboro, Mansfield and Canton, onwards, silently and effortlessly, towards Boston.