John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers New York City transit for VICE and frequently contributes to the New York Times. He is based in Queens, NY.
Chef/transit advocate Madison Butler landed a paid internship to ride Amtrak around the nation to eat local food—and convince Congress to boost passenger rail funding.
If you tell someone in the U.S. that you’re taking a long-distance train trip on Amtrak, as Caity Weaver recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “their reactions will range from amusement at your spellbinding eccentricity to naked horror that they, through some fatal social miscalculation, have become acquainted with a person who would plan to cross the United States by train.”
Don’t tell that to Madison (“Madi”) Butler, though: She’s embracing the tattered reputation of America’s passenger trains and spending her summer riding the rails. An Austin-based consulting chef, Butler is participating in the fourth incarnation of the Summer by Rail internship, an initiative by the Rail Passengers Association, a passenger rail advocacy group. Over the course of 50 days starting in late June, Butler is hopping Amtrak routes from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco, stopping off at cities along the way to meet with local transportation advocates, highlight the modality around America’s national network (or lack thereof), and, of course, eat. Butler is cataloging her culinary adventures in words and videos. “You need to get a little bit outside of the station to find the local food,” she says. “But it can be found.”
Today Butler’s in the Amtrak waiting room of New York City’s crammed Penn Station—no one’s idea of a glamorous culinary destination. But it’s only a short subway ride to Frankel’s Deli in Brooklyn. At this point on her journey, she raves about eating “the best oysters in my life” in Portland and house-made pasta at Trattoria Zooma in Providence, Rhode Island. Next up is Virginia. “I’m looking forward to getting back to the South—not gonna lie. New Orleans is a great food city, and I’m going to Charlotte, too, which is super-underrated.”
The restaurant business may not be the first field that comes to mind when one hears the words “rail advocacy.” But good food and good transit are closely intertwined, Butler says. “In big cities like New York, everyone uses the train, the subway, the bus, whatever. You have multi-modal sources of public transportation. But in smaller cities, if you work second or third shift—if you’re a late-night bartender, the first guy in the morning for prep, work at a bakery—you can’t necessarily get there if you don’t have a car.”
Those are the gaps she’s seeking to highlight along her eating odyssey: Except for a handful of late-night ride-hailing trips, she’s been getting around in the cities along her route via subways, buses, and other public transportation.
If you’re looking to send a transit-oriented chef around the nation on a goodwill eating-and-advocacy train tour, Butler would be an excellent choice. She came across a posting for the Summer by Rail internship in transit groups online; previous participants have toured minor-league ballparks and national parks. This year’s food theme fit her background—she’s an Escoffier-trained chef who’d also been involved in online transit advocacy, and knows how to speak the discourse of young progressive activist groups like the NUMTOTs. (“I am huge on historical materialism and intersectionality,” she says.) She applied, flew to D.C. for an interview, and got the gig.
Before taking off, she spent about a month in D.C., meeting with the members of the respective transportation committees in the House and Senate, or their staff, to discuss the 2020 federal budget. The Trump administration is calling for a more “rationalized” Amtrak network, which would emphasize the money-making Northeast Corridor, and wind shorter routes off into separate state-supported lines. Amtrak may boast record-breaking ridership—2018 saw 31.7 million passengers—but the latest threats to cut routes and operational funding cement a legacy of a country that has made rail transportation something of an afterthought at a time when it appears most crucial for sustainability.
Even as Amtrak expands its Northeast Corridor offerings—the agency just announced a new nonstop NYC to D.C. option on its higher-speed Acela, for example—Butler’s trip is partly about making the case for the survival of lesser-traveled intercity routes. “There are places like Lamy, New Mexico, and Cut Bank, Montana, that have recently established Amtrak service, and they’re seeing massive infrastructure changes happening within their city,” she says. “People are paying and investing in these small rural communities. When you talk to the people in these small towns, they’re like, ‘This is holding our economy up.’ It sustains small business, and it cuts down on the number of predatory franchises that take over small towns, which I’m all about. I don’t want to go to Applebee’s.”
In Butler’s experience so far, these smaller cities are also where the local transit needs are greatest; stations are often deserted at night, and lack connections without the aid of for-hire vehicles. “That’s why we need last-mile solutions,” she says. “You should be able to hop off the Amtrak, hop on a scooter or bikeshare that’s hopefully publicly owned, and then get to your destination and drop it. We already have the technology, so might as well use it to our advantage.”
Instead of eliminating long-distance routes to less-accessible destinations, Butler argues that they should be upgraded to Acela-level speed and service levels, so they can better compete with interstates and airlines. “I’ve interviewed people who are taking [Amtrak] for the first time, that rely on mostly Greyhound before, and they’re like, ‘This is way better,’” she says. “But then I met people who live in the Northeast Corridor, where the service is historically very on-time—you’ve got the Acela, the high-speed routes—and then they leave the Corridor, and they’re like, ‘This is awful.’” Butler cites the BrightLine train in Florida—the first private U.S. rail line in a century—as one potential bright spot for intercity rail fans. “I’d advocate for public over private, but anything that looks like a reduction in carbon emissions that’s accessible and affordable is good.”
As she talks to passengers, business owners and workers, and political leaders on her travels, Butler’s conversations mix transit advocacy with culinary matters; her model, she says, is the late chef-traveler Anthony Bourdain. “I think that breaking bread, eating at a table, is the oldest way to bond. It’s better than cornering someone, and asking, ‘How does your bartender get to work?’”