News flash: You can still travel by train. Many probably thought that passenger trains disappeared a long time ago. Didn’t they go out with World War II, big bands, whistle-stop campaigns, and the Orient Express?
Well, there is still an Orient Express and there is still a railroad passenger service. To ride a train is to take a trip back to a time when life was a bit slower and, some would argue, a little more relaxed and civilized. A train ride gives you a chance to contemplate just exactly where it is you are going. You can absorb the countryside as you glide through it on silver rails.
Even the names suggest romance and adventure: The Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle, and the City of New Orleans. These are all passenger trains that are operating today. The Empire Builder will take you across the great northern plains. The Southwest Chief, descendent of the famed Sante Fe Chief, rockets through the west past the Grand Canyon and on into Los Angeles. The Coast Starlight has one of the most beautiful rail routes in the country, down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to LA.
My wife and I are recent converts to rail travel. We took our first long-distance train trip a couple of years ago when we rode the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles. It took us two and one-half days. We could have flown the same distance in four hours, but time was not of the essence. We enjoyed the opportunity to read and relax all the way across the country, immune to television and cell phones and e-mail messages.
Overnight trains all carry “sleeper” cars, which provide private (and very compact) compartments for a unique and cozy bedtime experience. Novels and movies have long assigned romance and intrigue to railroad sleepers.
When we were on the Southwest Chief, I was half-way expecting a knock on the door from a dapper detective. “Sorry to bother you,” he would say, “but the crown jewels are missing and we think the thief is aboard this train. Would you mind answering a few questions?”
When you ride the sleeper, your meals are all included in the price. There’s nothing in the stationary world to compare to eating on a diner. It takes a little skill, but you soon learn how to sway in rhythm with the car and not slop coffee down your shirt or drip gravy on the linen tablecloth.
One neat thing about eating on a dining car is that you are usually seated with strangers. A bit intimidating at first, you soon learn that this is one of the accepted amenities of train travel and that your dinner companions are quite adept at conversations about any and all things. There is a certain ritual involved. As you are seated, you are expected to introduce yourself and give your first name. From that point, the conversation can go wherever you take it. It’s funny how fast you can become friends. You chat tentatively through the salad, but by the time the main course arrives you are on solid ground. When dessert arrives, you find yourself regretting the fact that you will soon go back to your compartment and never see these nice people again.
Our second rail adventure found us aboard the Empire Builder, a two-day, two-night trip from Chicago to Seattle across the northern border of the country. As twilight fell on the second night, we entered Marias Pass, the “mystery pass” through the Rockies sought by Lewis and Clark. The next morning, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise on the snow-capped Cascade Mountains. What a way to start the day!
There’s nothing like sleeping on a train. I compare the fold-down railroad bed to a cradle that gently rocks you back and forth into dreamland. On a recent overnighter on the Lake Shore Limited, I had the upper berth next to the window during a thunderstorm. How snug it felt to charge through the dark countryside as rain splattered the glass pane and lightning flashed in the distance. Up ahead somewhere, the muffled blare of the locomotive whistle accentuated the rumble of thunder.
When we’re back home in the workaday world, there’s a mournful quality to a distant train whistle. Maybe it’s because the train is leaving without us. We want to pack our bags and hit the rails.
All aboard? You bet. Wait for us.
All Aboard! The fun and romance of train travel