The Millennial Trains Project: Getting The Future Back on Track

Photo: Millennial Trains Project

The following is an excerpt from journalist Nick Forrester’s experience onboard the 2015 Millennial Trains Project, where he spent 24 hours with America’s future leaders.

Hitched to the back of a standard-issue Amtrak car, the Millennial Trains Project caravan consists of three vintage Pullmans lovingly restored and operated by a Los Angeles family. The cars stand out, just like the people on board.

The oldest car, Pacific Sands, was built in 1950, at a time when the train, automobile, and airline industries were at the height of a three-way showdown for passengers. This meant rail cars were well-appointed, offering something the others couldn’t—space, a sense of calm, homey amenities, and an ever-changing bedside landscape.

When I imagine this kind of travel, I think of movies, vintage advertisements, and postcards from my grandparents’ generation. I feel a misplaced nostalgia for a fictionalized, faded-away America. The vision of stylish cars piercing through a Western landscape is intoxicating. It’s hard to resist.

I’m preoccupied with these images as I’m crammed into the back row of a delayed flight to Atlanta. We’ve been stuck on the runway for an hour, and the pilot has stopped giving his cheerful updates. I’m trying to catch the Millennial Train for the last of its 10-day journey, and I don’t think I’m going to make it. The irony of flying last minute to catch a spacious, slow-moving 1950s train is starting to sink in. The person in front of me reclines fully in his seat and falls asleep.

Dowd started The Millennial Trains Project (MTP) in 2013. A former analyst, editor, and consultant, he was inspired by a similar trip he helped lead in India in 2010. Called Jagriti Yatra, the trip circumnavigates the entire country, taking youth on a transformational journey to meet Indian business and cultural leaders in hopes of inspiring the next generation.

MTP founder Patrick Dowd (standing) founded MTP in 2013; this year marks the Project’s 3rd journey in as many years. (Millennial Trains Project)

MTP founder Patrick Dowd (standing) founded MTP in 2013; this year marks the Project’s 3rd journey in as many years. (Millennial Trains Project)

The idea is similar here. A group of 25 millennial entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and community leaders travel eastward across the United States, acquiring ideas, mentorship, and research along the way. Having each already crowdsourced the funds to embark on the journey, or, in many cases, having received fellowships for their trip from the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Program and Comcast/NBCUniversal (whose program-wide sponsorship stems from NBCUniversal’s Open Possibilities initiative), the riders hope to further develop and augment their projects in a roving, workshop-like setting.

The group is buzzing. As we’re climbing the stairs into the sleeper car, Dowd explains that they’re coming straight from New Orleans. Energy is up, attitudes are gleeful. I’m ready to meet the millennials.

But first, I’m greeted by a porter. She’s wearing a typical vintage porter’s outfit, although I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one. She asks me if I’d like my bed turned down, hands me a towel, points out the showers, and lets me know I can have an extra blanket if I’d like. This is all surprising and elaborate to me. I was half-expecting a single seat.

After settling in, I find my way to the group. It’s late, but many of them are still awake, deep in conversation in the dining car.

MTP participants meet in small groups for an hour each day to discuss how they can better lead and serve their communities. (Millennial Trains Project)

MTP participants meet in small groups for an hour each day to discuss how they can better lead and serve their communities. (Millennial Trains Project)

The Millennial Trains Project participants have an infectious optimism for the future. But it’s not without an understanding of the amount of work that needs to be done. With projects ranging from finding better models of urban agriculture to developing mobile apps that address police violence, they have a shared desire to tackle the nation’s biggest issues.

But why a train? I kept asking myself this question before the trip. On a practical level, the cars offer a novel, intimate space for the participants to collaborate and generate ideas. Several riders described the train as an “innovation platform on wheels.” It certainly feels that way—with the misty landscapes of Georgia as a backdrop, laptops left out with the previous night’s half-finished notes reflect the next morning’s sunrise. Riders wake up early, picking up conversations where they left off.

There’s a sense of the kind of spontaneous, unlikely community that forms whenever strangers are temporarily thrown together. New connections open unexpected possibilities. Even this late in the trip, I learned that two participants had just met for the first time. They were sitting close in a booth, excitedly catching up on lost time.

There’s something about the train that just makes this project work. It creates a shared experience that ties the passengers together. The changing landscape paints a bigger picture, fitting their individual projects into a larger story. Here, it’s a narrative of inclusivity, change, and meaning. It’s a story about the shortcomings of America’s past and the possibilities of its future.

Read more on Nick’s time onboard the Millennial Train—and hear from the participants themselves—here.

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