Five minutes before we were due to leave, while 40 or so of us were gathered on the open station platform, beneath the big Montana sky, the train exploded. Well, not the whole train. Not even the whole engine, a huge two-storey Amtrak beast with stairways and running boards, pulling 20 double-storey carriages and another engine. But they'd started the electrics up, the lights had come on and pftttang, a huge burst of sparks and bits of flying metal had come out of the stairwell we were about to board through. The conductors, burly men in their retro-chic choof-choof peaked caps, paled a little and looked at each other. One of them put on thick boots, and thick gloves to the elbow, climbed gingerly aboard, and switched the whole thing off.

There's something weird about a whole actual train being switched off. It turns the whole world around into a giant train set. The old platform, and the clapboard station, the passengers black, white and Latino, with their suitcases tied up with rope, and striped bags of clothes, the scrubby Montana street that  ran along the rail ... suddenly it all looked like plastic accoutrements bought in packs of six from hobby shops. Still, there was no denying the seriousness of the situation -- or at least the nuisance of it.