No. There is Not Anything Even Close.
A Life-Long Love Affair Continues
I suppose I tipped my hand a bit in the opening lines for this post. I do indeed love just about everything related to trains. There have been times when AMTRAK tested that love mightily (more on that later, with good news).
Much of my life has been spent in one form of transit or another. A lot of it in airplanes (sometimes landing with them, sometimes jumping out before they landed). More miles than I can count on roads and highways, mostly in cars, but some in busses or trucks. And no small amount of getting somewhere by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.
All travel has its charms and its curses, but for me rail is king of the hill on so many levels. I have ridden steam trains, been on bullet trains, walked the remarkable tunnel when it was being drilled to connect Europe and the UK by train. I love it all.
What is the Attraction?
The appeal of railways is actually a bit hard to define, given its many elements. For me, there is the mix of utility, history, romance, ambiance, and efficiency that no other transportation mode comes close to matching. If a train is an available option, I will most often choose it. Sometimes I don’t really need to go anywhere, but if an interesting train is available, I will take a trip just because.
An Important Part of History
Trains have a unique and powerful role in US history (and for other places, too, of course). The saga of the transcontinental railroad is a classic American story. It is a story of vision, daring, perseverance inventiveness, and creativity. It is also a massive story of sacrifice, corruption, mistakes, and politics. In short, the nation summed up in one extraordinary event.
There are lots of good materials out about this particular story. I heartily recommend Stephen Ambrose’s book, Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 and if you can find it the semifictional TV series Hell on Wheels (available on Amazon, Prime Video, and AMC).
Both the book and the series capture the spirit and flavor of a remarkable thing done at a time in which there were multiple opportunities for this NOT to happen. In many ways, this was the defining element that made the USA a continental nation (helped along with the telegraph).
What Do I Really Like? Let Me Share the List- At Least the Short One
Train Museums: A fine place to start. I have lost count of how many I have visited but they all do a fine job of bringing close to us these remarkable machines. By far the best and most comprehensive I have visited are the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, CA (https://www.californiarailroad.museum/visit/general-information)
and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, in Strasburg, PA (https://strasburgpa.com/see-and-do/railroad-museum-of-pennsylvania/ ). Both are worth a trip just to visit them. The PA museum offers the bonus of steam train trips through the nearby scenic countryside.
Steam Trains: The most magic element in the mix. Steam locomotives are at once old fashioned and futuristic, powerful yet delicate in the balances they strike. Many are the perfect blend of engineering, design, and vision. I never tire of touring them and riding with them.
Train Clubs: Some of us never outgrew our love for model trains. There are countless clubs across the country that celebrate and educate. More than a few have taken up residence in what once were actual train stations (here is a link to one of them, for example, that I have enjoyed on several visits: https://avmrc.com). Go ahead, visit one and be a kid again.
Bullet Trains: The new kids on the block. I have ridden so-called bullet trains in Europe and in Japan. China has a new one I would like to try. These are sleek, smooth rides of remarkable grace and power. I remember my first bullet train, going from Paris to Geneva. We were doing something like 140 MPH and taking pretty sharp turns without so much as spilling a drop from my full wine glass. Maybe someday here, America. People do have hopes and plans.
Special Purpose Cars: Trains have a lot more room than airplanes, and they use them well. I really love a first-class dining car, complete with linens and crystal. We have eaten like kings all across Europe in such cars. By the way, there are quite a few cookbooks out there with recipes and menus from the railroads. And don’t forget Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls. They represented the only fine dining for hundreds of miles along the early transcontinental route through the American Midwest and Far West.
A bar car is always welcome, too. Everyone loves the observation cars, with glass all around. AMTRAK has a wonderful innovation in the Quite Car – no loud talking or cell phones allowed. It is an oasis for the weary traveler or for one just looking for somewhere to contemplate peacefully.
The Rhythm of the Ride: Even the smoothest train has a certain rhythm to its motion, unlike any other conveyance. It is a soothing feeling. I almost always come off a train ride feeling more rested. Been known to have been rocked to sleep more than a few times by that motion.
Train Stations: America has several storied and lovely stations. Some have been restored, others kept up all along. Among my favorites are the Richmond VA Main Street Station, New York’s Grand Central Station, and Washington DC’s Union Station, as well as a couple in Paris. All are functioning stations, with delightful architecture (all very different) and a fine mix of shops and restaurants as well.
The Music: Railroads and trains are popular settings for both movies and music. Let’s close today’s What I Like segment with clips of two such songs that stand the test of time. Enjoy the links:
My favorite, Arlo Guthrie singing The City of New Orleans. I may wear this one out on my phone, I play it so often.
Gladys Knight & the Pips, A Midnight Train to Georgia. Easy to envision the train and them boarding it.
Amtrak Finally Gets a President Who Loves Them
The heretofore odd American approach to train travel has been to starve it and to insist it make a profit. No one else in the world does this for passenger travel. It is a service, not a business. And an important service at that.
Joe Biden has spent much of his life on AMTRAK. He knows its value, cherishes the tradition, the transportation, and the people who make it all work. Expect good things (some already promised) for passenger train travel under this president. I am delighted to see it coming (said the man whose current hometown does not have an Amtrak station but is trying to get one. We even offered to build and pay for it ourselves).
Amtrak and others are currently doing some very impressive investments in train travel in the US right now. New routes, equipment, and amenities are rolling out regularly. Train travel hit the perfect balance of travel and nostalgia.
Hope to see you soon on a train going anywhere. First drink in the bar car is on me.
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