Domestic Migrations, Train Travel in the United States 2012-2022

From their inception and race across North America to the promotion of Manifest Destiny and contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, trains and train travel have shaped what it means to be American. While the US freight industry operates more than 139,679 miles of track, today Amtrak is only a skeleton of the passenger service that once connected the county. In today’s world of mobile devices and ‘on-demand’ everything, many in the United States view public transportation as an impersonal, perhaps even a dehumanizing experience. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. 

This paper examines passengers’ perspectives on interstate Amtrak travel through a comparative analysis and summary of passenger-written interviews. Over the course of ten years (2012-2022), the author traveled annually to meet fellow Americans, record stories about their lives, and take pictures. Consisting of approximately 135 days, 44,300 miles, and over 1,050 hours on trains, the ethnographic research included 11 trips and systematically covered every route within the Amtrak passenger rail system. The research collected more than 6,000 original photographs and 2,000 handwritten pages.

This article shares original photographs and direct quotes from passengers along with principal investigator conclusions drawn from the research. An analysis of passenger writings reveals a shared search for connection, a desire for something to happen, or situations passengers wish to rectify. Also included are select experiences of the principal investigator while gathering research, and relevant conclusions on the contemporary role and effectiveness of Amtrak within interstate travel.

Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility
San José State University
Principal Investigator: 
McNair Evans
PI Contact Information:

San Jose State University

Total Project Cost: 
Agency ID or Contract Number: 
March 2023 to July 2023
Impacts/Benefits of Implementation: 

Many in the United States view public transportation as an impersonal, perhaps even a dehumanizing experience. This paper reveals how train travel provides an atmosphere of social adjacencies, ways in which people encounter one another that they wouldn't in their daily or digital lives. Interstate trains in America are inefficient in a way that few other national train systems are. In that inefficiency, while adjacent to people of differing backgrounds and viewpoints, there's a space in which to reconnect with a slower pace of life, a slower pace of thought, and a slower pace of interaction. This paper may not provide resolute solutions to the increased effectiveness of rail travel or the incredibly complicated problems that we face as a country, whether we're talking about systemic racism, automation, the hollowing out of manufacturing jobs. However, it does clearly demonstrate how train travel, a collectivist project for common benefit, fosters empathy, patience, and solidarity. The primary research (writings and photographs) and accompanying analysis provide non-solicitous gifts of beauty, human connection, and moments of contemplation that reinforce the worth of each individual and passenger.

Project Number: 



Contact Us

SJSU Research Foundation   210 N. 4th Street, 4th Floor, San Jose, CA 95112    Phone: 408-924-7560   Email: