007 on the Silver Meteor, by Tristan Rutherford
Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2019
In 1943 an Allied conference was planned in Kingston, Jamaica to assuage Nazi U-boat threats to the Caribbean. In attendance was Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming. The trip so inspired Fleming that the ‘Train Of Tomorrow’ that carried him from New York to the Jamaica-bound aircraft in Florida featured in several Bond novels: the Silver Meteor.
Fleming would still recognise the gunmetal grey leviathan. Like an endless airstream, today’s Silver Meteor is taller, broader, longer and stronger than any European train. Its double-diesels hum in readiness to thwack the 1,389 miles down to the Miami sun. The 28-hour route allows for holiday stops in 33 cities across 11 states. My wife and I booked with Great Rail Journeys - but tickets for Bond and escaping siren Solitaire were sorted by Felix Leiter: “Pennsylvania Station. Track 14. Very luxurious. Car 245. Compartment H. Ticket’ll be in the name of Mr and Mrs Bryce.”
Our Silver Meteor sways out of New York’s Penn Station like a dancing heavyweight. Skyscrapers are obscured by cloud. Interstates ribbon like ticker tape. We charge through a backdrop of Americana with a pummelling gait. Baseball diamonds. School buses. Marshalling yards (“Freight Can’t Wait”). Junk crushers (“New York Collision Center”). There’s Republican and Democrat. Anti-Trump signs and stars’n’stripes. Clapperboard houses and lonely ghettos. Black and white. Rich and poor. The train bolts undescrimatingly through it all.
Every 10 miles brings the continent a day forward: there’s more sunshades and less jackets as we plough relentlessly south. A pageant of boats paddle in the Susquehanna River after Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Atlantic-going yachts ply the lakes near Wilmington, Delaware. Fortunately Amtrak’s Viewliner bedrooms offer panoramic windows. Plus ensuite showers, a double-bed day sofa and another single that unfolds from the roof.
Our cabin attendant introduces herself and unclips the swing-out armchair. “There’s coffee and apple juice in the hall, y’all.” The dining car forms a glass frame around a green and pleasant Maryland. The glorious thing is that the Silver Meteor’s route is far lengthier than board-at-night, disembark-at-dawn European sleepers. That means we have hours to tuck in.
Better still, cabin passengers like us eat for free. There's black angus steak grilled under a flat iron. A Norwegian salmon with rice pilaf. Sadly all is served with plastic forks on plastic plates. Boldly named portraits of other Amtrak greats line the dining car, summoning a bygone era of railroad style (The Southwest Chief to Albuquerque and Flagstaff; The Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle).
Outside street signs spotlight the quickening night. “We Pay Cash”. “Kennys Gym”. “Mason-Dixon Line.” Sunset ushers last drinks. In a 1955 postcard of the Silver Meteor the lounge complement is all caucasion, barring an African-American waiter. Now an entire continent offers reasons to railroad along the Eastern Seaboard. There’s the lady from Wilmington with airplane phobia. The family decamping to Jacksonville with 50kg of luggage - each. Plus a Mormon couple on a proselytising mission south. Two single travellers, of differing race and sex, mix over $16.50 half-bottles of Californian Merlot.
Yet outside a blood red sky reflects into the Potomac River at Washington, DC. This ring of fire encircles the Capitol Building, home of the US Congress, as if its divisive politics seethe from within. During the 20-minute stretch-your-legs stop at DC’s beaux-arts Union Station it’s tempting to stroll to the National Mall. Equally alluring are the crisp sheets of our freshly made double bed, towards Richmond, Virginia - where a cigarette break is scheduled in Philip Morris country.
Now the Silver Meteor snorts and fumes like a mustang. The sleeping cars buck and rattle with an untamed fury that would put a Deutsche Bahn techniker off his bratwurst. The water in our washbasin swings like the Bay of Biscay. We need earplugs too. But the thumping rattle rings with the vivid dreams of a thousand other occupants as we gun past Selma, Fayetteville and into the Deep South. Like 007, aboard the fictionalised Silver Phantom in Live and Let Die, we sleep deeply: “The great train snaked on through the dark...the long shaft of its single searchlight ripping the black calico of the night.”
Service at the brand new Amtrak terminus at Charleston, South Carolina, is suffused by languorous Deep South fug. It’s one of two stops we’ve planned enroute to Miami. Speech here is slower. Highfalutin’ manners and blasphemous cusses are best left in New York. Grammar at our breakfast diner is questionable: “Employees Must “Wash Hands” Before Returning To Work”. But our breakfast of chicken and waffles and coffee-rubbed bacon, served by the team of Leslee, Bree, Raquel and Cheree, is a Southern classic.
Named after Charles II of England, this Atlantic city is one of America’s oldest and most gorgeous. A House Museums tour with the Historic Charleston Foundation showcases preserved anglo-tropical mansions - alongside garden yields that include a pipe from Cornwall, a plate from the Potteries and a 6-pound cannonball from the Royal Navy. Among the finest pre-Civil War mansions is the Aiken-Rhett House, former home of William Aiken Jr, a Governor of South Carolina. His papa, William Aiken, laid the city’s wealthy foundations by building America’s first steam powered, scheduled passenger train here in 1833. Although like much else the Charleston track was built using slave labour; between one-half and two-thirds of African slaves entered the United States via Charleston’s port.
The following morning early birds commute one state south to Savannah, Georgia. The Silver Meteor’s café car - as opposed to the ritzy sleeper diner - is burnt coffee and blue collar. Outside a glorious sunrise highlights a Kalahari safari of ochre sand ripening to emerald forest. From Savannah’s art deco station the city looks pretty from the taxi window. “That’s ‘cause it’s the only place that General Sherman don't burn,” says the driver. Although the Civil War ended over 150 years ago, resentment burns hotter than the Deep South sun.
Yet Savannah is another dazzling showcase of Southern charm. Drooping oaks that recall British royals and French Huguenots form a guard of honour over every piazza. Other trees planted for seasonal scents - sweet gum, magnolia, crepe myrtle - promise a revolving carousel of tropical bloom. One restaurant warns: “Kitchen Closes One Hour Before, Folks!” Another: “My Oh My, We Got Key Lime Pie!” Lunch is a $10 blowout of clam chowder and snow crab. On sultry afternoons Christian sects promise salvation from stone benches studded with oyster shells. Each one is shaded by Spanish moss and palmettos. It’s a fine place to be a Jehovah’s Witness.
Riding a sleeping car by day is an uproarious treat. We take in our final state of Florida - advertised in vintage Silver Meteor posters by orange orchards and pink flamingos - from the comfort of a bed on wheels. Our attendant confirms a cheeky sleeper is a popular treat for businesspeople. “They can sleep off work while avoiding them crowds, sir.” Yet unlike the latest trains in continental Europe, Amtrak offers no push-button waiter service nor at-seat movies. Our attendant is shocked that Italy’s two largest cities are connected by train quicker, and faster, than by air. The speed on Amtrak’s flagship route from New York to Boston averages 68mph. In China, Beijing to Shanghai tops 200mph. The Silver Meteor is a comely cruise through the American soul, not a rocketship to the stars.
James Bond was in a hurry at Jacksonville, our next station stop. After cheating Mr Big in Live and Let Die he rejoined the train for views of swampy lakes and - had he been travelling today - Orlando for Walt Disney World, Tampa for St Petersburg and Winter Haven for Legoland. Then a cross-state saunter through an urban jungle of swimming pools and shopping malls: “Dental Excellence”. “Worship Center”. “Do Not Feed The Alligators.” We arrive in Miami on time. In place of historical legacy, there’s galleries, rollercoasters, Cuban sandwiches and golden sands. Indeed before the Silver Meteor arrived in 1939 Florida’s population was under two million. Now it’s 22 million. It’s neither North nor South, just a sunny state of mind.
Fleming rode the Silver Meteor a final time in 1953. However by then there were BOAC flights from London to Jamaica on the Boeing Stratocruiser via Lisbon, the Azores and Bermuda. Now it’s far quicker and cheaper to fly across the USA, but the train still unites a disparate, welcoming and intensely vast nation. Furthermore, Bond remained a fan. After outwitting Auric Goldfinger at a Miami Hotel in his 1959 novel, 007 railroaded north. “Book me a compartment on the Silver Meteor to New York tonight. Have a bottle of vintage champagne on ice in the compartment and plenty of caviar sandwiches.” Make it a Taittinger, James.
Tristan Rutherford writes about great train journeys for The Daily Telegraph