Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ridin' the Rails, part 2

On a train you experience the contrasts between the grubby and the grand, the seamy and the sublime.

To ride the rails is to understand the meaning of “the other side of the tracks.” You see the backsides of houses and businesses: junked cars, dilapidated buildings, tarpaper shacks, debris-strewn yards. (The graffiti is outstanding, however). And in these post-modern railroading years, you pass railroad depots in all stages of disrepair. Even some of the stations where Amtrak stops look like sets for a Stephen King movie.

On the other hand, to take the train is also to see grandeur from vantage points the automobile cannot provide: the untamed woodlands and rapids-laced streams of West Virginia, the sprawling cornfields and wheatfields of the Midwest, the raw majesty of the towering Rockies. The surgical cut made by the railroad right-of-way inserts the traveler shoulder-to-shoulder with the surrounding landscape. You feel like you could almost reach your hand out the window and touch that scampering deer or shake hands with the farmer on his tractor.

The train itself is a study in contrasts. Amtrak uses the names of glorious streamliner routes of the past such as The Crescent, The Empire Builder, and The Hiawatha. In reality, Amtrak service is more freightliner than streamliner, a Greyhound with flanged wheels. The facilities are adequate, the food is mediocre, and the staff ranges from gracious to grouchy. All this is not surprising, given the paucity of federal support for passenger railroading.

On one leg of my trip, the snack bar menu posted on the wall had cancellations and price changes scribbled in ink. As I sat waiting for a breakfast table, I heard a woman behind me exclaiming to her traveling companions, “In the brochure it all looked so nice.”

In addition, trains run habitually behind schedule. My eagerly awaited visit to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is scuttled due to the hours we sit waiting behind a broken-down freight train on a single track main line in southern Indiana. Even without such mishaps, passenger trains often run infuriatingly late because of the heavy freight traffic on the lines Amtrak leases from railroads such as CSX and Union Pacific. It’s more cost effective, a conductor tells me, for those roads to keep their lucrative freight traffic on schedule and to pay Amtrak the contractual penalties for the delays.

Nevertheless, it’s still a lark to take the train. I love the size and power of those diesels. The rocking and lurching of the coaches. The excitement of racing past grade crossings with their flashing gates and lines of cars. The sights of wide-eyed children running toward the tracks and construction workers laying down their tools to wave.

All of this reminds me why a place like VMT is so important. The railroad is wound tightly into the strands of America’s DNA. At levels deeper perhaps than we sometimes understand, trains still lure us, charm us, and speak to our hearts. You cannot really understand this nation until you understand its history with trains.

In the last couple years, congressional funding for Amtrak has become more generous. Given the concerns about global warming and fossil fuels, perhaps some of the more fascinating chapters of America’s rail history have yet to be written—a dream both grand and sublime.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Ridin' the Rails, part one

I anxiously drive north from Roanoke on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. My train is scheduled to depart Clifton Forge at 4:08 and I can’t afford to miss it—the next one won’t come for two more days. I whip into the CSX parking lot and hurry with my luggage to the makeshift waiting area.

I needn’t have worried; the train is running 30 minutes late. After all, this is Amtrak. The half-dozen waiting passengers have plenty of time to gab, and we do. It’s my first reminder today of how different train travel is.

We talk of freight cars and end-of-train devices and reminisce about previous rail journeys. You seldom find airline passengers engaging total strangers in conversation like this. Besides, what can you tell about a previous airline journey: how much turbulence you encountered or how stirringly the flight attendant gave the mind-numbing safety recitation?

These people are the first of many I will encounter on my trip to St. Louis. Many of them are not riding the train just to get somewhere but to get there by rail. Whether they prefer the meandering pace and unique panoramas or seek a slice of nostalgic Americana, how they get there is almost as important to them as the destination itself.

Some pretend the golden age of American streamliners still exists and they have boarded the posh Broadway Limited or the gleaming Silver Meteor. Others relish the chance to see the countryside from a different perspective, glimpsing towns and fields and mountains from angles you can’t reach by car. The serious rail buffs among us are delighted to watch train operations at point blank range—rail yards, sidings, spurs and the “business” side of industries.

In the diner I meet an 81-year-old lady, who obviously doesn’t lack for money and who can barely walk. She has had joint replacement surgery on her knee and needs it on her hips. Yet she is determined to have what she calls her “last hurrah,” one final glorious train trip. In Chicago she will board the Empire Builder for Seattle, then roll down to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight, and finally reach Reno via the California Zephyr. She doesn’t sound nearly as excited about her two weeks in Reno as she does about the process of getting there.

Back in my coach I converse with my seatmate, who is from Wyoming. The county. In West Virginia. She regales me with tales of growing up as one of 15 children of a coal miner and moonshiner and of her 20 years as a long haul truck driver. She is headed for Kansas to see her first great grandchild.

And my destination? I am traveling to St. Louis by way of Chicago to spend a week with my daughter and son-in-law. For me also the ride is half the fun. I haven’t been on a passenger train since my trek from Richmond to Orlando years ago. Too cheap to reserve a sleeping berth, I will ride in my coach seat all night long. My body will get too little sleep and my clothes will get too many wrinkles. By the time I reach the windy city, I will have been aboard for 19 straight hours.

And I will not care, for I am riding the train.

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