From their inception and race across North America to the promotion of the idea of Manifest Destiny and their contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, trains and train travel have fundamentally shaped what it means to be American. This project posits that public transportation, particularly intercity passenger train travel within the United States (Amtrak), fosters empathy, patience, and solidarity among its riders through both intentional and inadvertent circumstances. Over the course of ten years (2012-2022), the author traveled annually to meet fellow Americans, record stories about their lives, and capture train passengers' portraits. Consisting of approximately 135 days, 44,300 miles, and over 1,050 hours on trains, the project included 11 trips and systematically covered every route within Amtrak’s passenger rail system. The project collected more than 6,000 original photographs, 218 passenger interviews, and approximately 400 handwritten pages from people of different races, genders, and backgrounds with varying reasons for travel. The effectiveness of public transportation is routinely measured through quantitative methods (e.g., ridership statistics, trip durations, on-time versus delayed arrivals, operating budgets, etc.) while qualitative analyses often focus on passenger reception of intentional services such as food and beverage options or negative impacts of inadvertent circumstances such as delayed arrivals. This long-term qualitative analysis provides unique insight to the perspectives of those currently utilizing America’s intercity passenger rail service.
McNair Evans is an independent artist, photographer, and educator. His work appears in numerous publications and exhibition settings and has been recognized by awards such as an Innovation in Documentary Arts Award from Duke University, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a John Gutmann Photography Fellowship. His books and prints are held in public and private collections including SFMOMA, BAMPFA, and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.