The day is finally here and Silver Streak has been published. I really hope that you like it. Written in lockdown, it has kept me occupied whilst being a prisoner in my own Engine Shed. It took much longer to write than I had anticipated, mainly due to the the amount of research that went into it, but I also found it hard to keep motivated to write in isolation. You might find it strange, but I normally write in a public place like a coffee shop or a bar – being left to my own devices at HQ seems harder.
Many thanks to those of you who asked a question about the book via social media. I have combined these with a recent Q&A pulled together by my PR people:
What’s the book about?
In early 2020 I completed a 6347-mile trip around the United States, following up on a shorter 3400-mile trip a couple of years before. The book is all about life travelling by long-distance train, the history and workings of the railroad, and the people and places I met along the way. I have also linked many of these places to well-known Hollywood films, and tried to find the exact locations where they were filmed. I also had some fairly weird weekends trying out things off the rails that took me right outside of my comfort zone.
Why did you choose America for your latest adventure?
I’ve spent quite a lot of time on trains in Central and South East Asia. I wanted to experience something totally different. The United States has a good network of long-distance trains, and there is of course huge physical and cultural diversity across the country. Interestingly, with English as the main language, I also liked the idea of being able to talk to a wide range of people without an interpreter – that’s very different from being in the middle of Siberia.
What about Covid?
I was extremely lucky. My journey was planned for January and February 2020, long before the world knew about Covid. I heard about the virus whilst I was in California, but only isolated cases in the north-east of the U.S. were being reported in the media at that time. Within two weeks of my return home we were in the first shocking moments of the original lockdown.
Is it different from your other books?
It’s very much life on the rails with me as always. But I have been able to research the history of the railroad more easily than was possible in Russia and the Far East. This was actually the first trip I have been on when I have known I would be writing a book about it, so I came back with several notebooks full of the detail of my travels, the places and the people. Perhaps the biggest change is the inclusion of the film content, which I really enjoyed writing about.
Is this a history book then?
Not really, but it recognises the influence of the railroad on history and life in America. The development of the railroad from east to west ties up with everything I came across so neatly. The railroad opened up the west of America, which also brings into focus a lot of the western and cowboy films. The Amtrak trains of today have evolved from services by multiple smaller companies which competed to transport passengers over large distances in real style. Originally some of these rail companies even went to war with each other to capture vital routes.
What sort of films have you written about?
Lots! Most people might think of films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Midnight Run or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but some of the locations I come across are less immediately obvious. I also touch on some well-known television programmes like Breaking Bad. And throughout the book the plot of Silver Streak is not far away.
Do you have a favourite film?
That’s almost impossible to answer! In the book I actually talk about two of my favourite war films, Apocalypse Now and Das Boot – you have to read the book to understand how they connect with my journey. I also explore the connection of Houston to Local Hero and New York to Live and Let Die. All top films in my opinion.
Which was your favourite film location?
The search for Jim Rockford’s mobile home from The Rockford Files was great fun, but Twisters, or Los Pollos Hermanos, from Breaking Bad was just as special. From a film point of view, those stairs in Chicago Union station where The Untouchables shootout took place are just amazing. You feel that you’re right there in the movie with Eliot Ness and Jimmy Malone.
What was your route?
On the first trip I went coast to coast, via Denver, finishing in San Francisco. But on the most recent trip I set out from New York and headed first to Chicago, then south, looping around from New Orleans and Houston, and across to Los Angeles. From there I travelled all the way back to Chicago again, via New Mexico and Colorado.
Do you like Amtrak trains?
I think they’re wonderful, especially if you’re solo in what they call a roomette, a small two-berth sleeper that converts into comfy seats during the day. Of all the trains I have been on in the world they convey the closest thing to a private train experience that you can have on a regular train. They provide so much space for their passengers, who enjoy not just their seat or room, but also a sightseeing lounge with café, and of course a proper dining car.
Which was your favourite train/route?
Based on the landscape and a simply amazing crew, it was the Sunset Limited from Houston to LA. A close second would be Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Chicago.
What sort of people did you meet on the trains?
Everyone! Film directors, start-up CEO’s, special forces, Amish groups, actors, native Americans, rocket scientists – they will all forever stick in my mind. You get to meet so many people in the dining car, because passengers get seated together as a matter of course. It’s called community seating, and it’s a proud Amtrak tradition.
You mention being pushed outside your comfort zone. Can you give us an example?
I tried to ‘deep dive’ into local ‘happenings’ whenever I got off the train. In Houston I spent time in mission control at the Johnston Space Center, in New Orleans I performed in a second line parade, and in Albuquerque I fired the most powerful rifle the world. Some of the food was a little out of my normal repertoire as well!
Did you have a favourite meal?
I had many excellent meals. Bar food in Chicago was dominated by their love of hot and spicy (chicken) wings. The Creole and Cajun food of Louisiana was perhaps the most interesting, followed closely by New Mexico and its love of chili! I love the bar scene in America – it’s so friendly, and the quality of food and locally brewed beer is simply amazing.
Will you be going back to America?
Definitely. I really want to try the Empire Builder, and also the Alaska railroad. I’d like to go back to New Mexico too. Something just clicked with me there. I like everything about the place, almost even more because no one seems to understand why!
What’s next for you?
I’ve got so many ideas. I had to postpone a trip to the iron ore railway in Mauretania at the start of the year, so I’d like to get that done. I also wanted to do some train stuff in Myanmar next, but that’s looking like it’s on hold right now. Maybe Indonesia or the Philippines.
What advice would you give someone wanting to take their first big rail adventure?
There are some great resources available on the internet allowing a lot of research to be completed from the comfort of your armchair. But don’t ignore the help of destination country travel agents. They can often help when railway ticket systems don’t work well. Try not to think of it as one trip, but several legs, so that you can focus on the next stretch rather than worry about the whole thing. Then you can just sit back, talk to fellow passengers and have some fun! Oh, and bring a book too.
Where do I buy the book?
It’s on sale right now at Amazon, both as a paperback (£9.95) and a Kindle book (£3.99).
If you have any other questions, please do let me know.