Train Travel: A Very Moving Experience

Train Travel: A Very Moving Experience

In America there is no Orient Express. I call it the Occidental Express. That’s Occidental, not Accidental – if you’re oriented properly.

Nowadays they just call me crazy to my face. And why? Maybe it’s because I enthusiastically purchased a $480 one-way AMTRAK ticket for me and my wife on a scheduled 26 hour 36 minute journey from Reno to Denver – a ticket that would cost half as much and take 24 fewer hours if we were to travel by air. You remember AMTRAK don’t you? They’re the ones that use those bright and shiny, parallel metal thingies we all drive over at railroad crossings. Oh, how quickly we forget. For 100 years these track-borne conveyances (often referred to as “trains” if I remember correctly) were this country’s life blood – connecting people and businesses in a generative web of travel and commerce. It was the original World Wide Web. The World Wide Web of wailwoading. Railroading’s antique charms beguile me. Though you may have relegated train travel to the dust bin of history, I have elevated train travel to the must spin of this-story.  

If life is about the journey, this is a journey I long to take. Think of it as the road less traveled. The rail road less traveled. As Robert Frost wrote with such evocative homespun eloquence in his poem The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

And I am eager to take that road less traveled – the railroad.

The cozy Superliner Roomette: Snug as a bug in a glassed-in casket.

 

I am unaccountably giddy to undertake this 26+ hour journey aboard the California Zephyr, happily ensconced in my cozy little Superliner Roomette. And my wife is such a good sport by allowing me to go dreg-deep into my bucket list and subject her to 26+ hours of tedious overland travel to a place we could easily jet to in about 2 hours. But she’s in luck, because while it’s a scheduled 26 hour trip, I hear it goes by like 57 hours. And yet I have every confidence we will arrive refreshed and exhilarated…if we arrive on Opposite Day. Depending on the hardship of our journey I may want those 55 hours back.

Since you weren’t told, “there wouldn’t be math.” Here’s the math:

The 55 hours I may want back = the 57 hours (26 hours of the actual train trip + the 31 hours of the perceived extra time it took aboard this laborious locomotive)  – minus the 2 hours we subtract a plane trip would take that I couldn’t get back anyway. Just be grateful I didn’t present you with one of those If a train leaves Station A at 2:00 pm traveling at 40 mph…problems.

 

“Why Are You Reviewing this Train Experience Before It Has Happened?”*

Good question. And I’d like to thank the caller for asking. Well, as I sketched some preparatory notes for this travelogue, I found the process took on a life of its own and built up a head of steam that simply could not be resisted. These thoughts had to be expressed immediately, in raw and urgent ways. In a perfectly apt metaphor, it was as if the train had left the station and there was no stopping it – and, more importantly, no purpose in stopping it. 

Where this antiquated desire originates, I cannot fathom. But then again it makes perfect sense, for there is no accounting for taste. And if you’ve ever seen people eat snails or collect Pez dispensers you know what I’m talking about. So it’s not exactly a stretch to think a middle-aged man might have a fierce interest in something so unsexy and analog as choo-choo trains. Paraphrasing JFK’s 1962 rousing Moonshot Speech in which he gushed about the possibilities of NASA’s nascent space program might provide some insight into my railroad fervor. Again, I’m paraphrasing JFK here: “We choose to go to Denver not because it is easy, but because it is hard. It is my hope to send my wife and me to Denver and to return us safely to Reno before the decade is out.”

Motivating stuff. Why do I train my sites on rail travel? Am I cuckoo for choo-choo-trains? No – I’m eminently sane. So much so that I am well inside of sane, rendering me completely in-sane. But the lovable-crackpot-inventor kind of insanity and not the disruptive I-need-to-control-the-world kind of insanity. Otherwise I’m a regular contributing member to society – the Railroaders’ Society of America, to whom I contribute $200 annually to be a member in good sitting – which is how we roll.

Since the Internet Age has forced us all to become digital travel agents, I personally reserved my Superliner Roomette accommodation aboard the venerable California Zephyr. The California Zephyr runs daily service between San Francisco and Chicago. The California Zephyr. Now there’s an old-fashioned moniker that conjures up romantic images of sleek, gleaming train cars rumbling like gentle thunder over the silvery rails. I find myself drawn magnetically to these dreamy depictions of a rolling convoy, speedily darting through an untamed wilderness, while my wanderlust is securely housed in a steely cage booming through the night. What a privilege for anyone so lucky to be on earth the last 150 years to experience passage on this protective and fleet form of transportation. This is especially poignant when laid against the previous 200 million years when we mammals had to schlepp our bony endoskeleton through a wild and wooly wilderness in search of food, safety or girl mammals. If ever there was a game changer, the Iron Horse was it.

*Well, why am I reviewing this trip before taking it? Find out at the end of the story.”

 

A Deep and Abiding Appreciation for Man’s Ingenuity 

It is a quantum leap from the track-guided, wheels-on-the-ground mechanization of the Railroad Age to the inexplicable airborne sorcery of the Jet Age. But I believe it is an even quantum-er leap (Einstein’s phrase, not mine) to transition from walking step by laborious step to the California gold fields during the Gold Rush of 1849 vs. taking a smooth, safe train car to that same destination after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868. Building this ribbon of rails was the original moonshot. Instead of trudging over the plains in a fraught 5-month journey to the Golden State with your cranky family and a milch cow, you could now take a protective coach with all your baggage aboard and arrive in 3 days – if not refreshed and exhilarated, at least not mud-spattered and body-battered. When comparing the speed of hooves vs. the speed of the external combustion steam engine…well, this is a quantum-er transportation leap of epic proportions.

And this is not because I said so, but rather because it is so. In this case the truth does not require your belief. In fact that’s true in all cases. At the risk of going off the rails here, suffice to say it’s one thing to compare relatively speedy train travel to extremely rapid jet travel and it’s quite another to compare agonizingly slow and eminently dangerous wagon trains to ultra-convenient steam trains. For a pioneer to take a Conestoga Wagon (and maybe a milch cow) and walk across the Plains on a rutted path where horsepower meant horse power, is a feat of perseverance and fortitude. Now to make that same 5 month journey (if you made it) in 3 days without fear of Indian attacks or being stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is the stuff of dreams.

From this perspective wagon train to railroad train seem an outrageous quantum leap easily eclipsing the incremental convenience of leapfrogging from rail travel to air travel. I identify with my ancestors plight and revel in my good fortune of being alive at a time when the Iron Horse has replaced the Wagon Train. My fears melt away when I realize the only Cowboys and Indians I have to worry about on this trip are in Dallas and Cleveland.

I’m a Renaissance man, but of the 19th century. The notion of traveling with my wife 1029 miles in smooth, climate controlled comfort while we dine, sleep, read and maybe try to join the 10 Foot High Club, brings me no small measure of pleasure. And the bonus part – I don’t have to bring my own milch cow, just my water bottle. Turns out there are plenty of dairy products in the snack car. Some say I’m easily wowed. I say I have a deep appreciation for technology that takes us from the plodding speed of hooves to the swift steadiness of steel wheels. Where instead of a spattered and battered refugee, I’m a pampered and unhampered passenger. With train travel we transitioned from Muggle to Magician.

There’s your paradigm shift. Not from train to plane, but from trudging to train-ing. Let me concretize this with a more specific example from 1849: “Hey there’s gold in California. I’m bringing the family to Independence, MO where Abigail and I will load our wagon and 3 kids and lay in a 5-month supply of raisins. We’ll leave right after the Spring rains stop and begin our walk to the Golden State, hoping to arrive before the snow flies. If I stick to the Oregon Trail. It should only take about 5 months. We’re lucky though  because there’s a shortcut through the Sierra Nevadas a party we’re traveling with knows about – the Donner Party. California, here we come.” Twenty years later after completion of the Transcontinental Railroad the calculus had changed manifestly:  “Martha and I will be tranquilly locomoting across the Plains while sitting comfortably in a chair. In just a few days we’ll be arriving safely in Sacramento, kids, baggage and all. California here we come.”    

  

The Days of Now

$480 was the sale price for the usual $800 Superliner Suite. It’s ridiculously expensive, unacceptably time consuming and the accommodations are less spacious than convicts get in solitary confinement, and yet I’m giddy with excitement in subjecting myself to its medieval charms. Medieval in the sense that instead of traveling through the wilds in a suit of armor under horse power in the days of yore, I’m traveling through the wilds in a suite of armor under horsepower in the days of more.

This unalloyed enthusiasm I present you is not for the sake of a rollicking spoof or a one-off lark. This is genuine reverence, affinity and interest in the railroading experience. I’m not going back to cancel or even reconsider an alternate form of transportation that is 24 hours faster and half the cost. No cancel culture here – that train has left the station.

But in a larger sense I can no longer deny who I am – I’m a railroad buff, a train aficionado, one of those people who enjoys the company of trains more than planes (and to think, this heretical thought coming from a former air traffic controller). God made me this way. Every day is railroad pride day and I’m coming out of the caboose now to admit as much. I shall hold my head high and march in RBPD (Railroad Buff Pride Day) with my red suspenders, engineer’s cap and pocket railroad chronometer. And I’m not one of those nerdy scale model railroaders. I like a full-sized 85 foot, 160,000lb. diesel electric train car with a brawny 4000hp per engine.

Many hear the siren call of the railroad. Unfortunately sometimes those sirens are associated with a derailment. They’re working on it.  

 

All Aboard a Railroad Car Named Desire

Those who would prefer to see my enthusiasm applied to something more productive, like foster children or nasal health, just don’t understand how I can thrill to the sound of the conductor bellowing, “Awwllll Aboard!” Oh how I marvel at this magnificent work of staggering genius that is the majesty of the Iron Horse with its pungent aroma of new train smell – a smell only a welder could love (or even sense). Yeah my affinity for trains is positively genetic. Maybe I was a caboose in a previous lifetime. Then again, maybe I was just a horse’s ass – I don’t know. You either have what geneticists call the “choo-choo gene” or you’re a very sad individual doomed to a life of being unable to grasp the awesome eternity in a railroad track as it recedes into infinity. It pains me to witness this avoidable deprivation with which some people contend. 

This rolling city on steel wheels featuring the stately and predictable Newtonian movements of its connected cars speak to me in ways Britney Spears gyrating body did to a generation of teenage boys. OK, not exactly, but you get the idea. And the idea is that someday this kingdom will be known to everyone. Meanwhile, there but for the grace of god go I – fully imbued and invested with a deep appreciation of railroading.

 

The Accommodations

For travelers seeking both privacy and savings, Roomettes feature two comfortable seats by day and upper and lower berths by night. Each room includes a big picture window. So says the AMTRAK website. And I believe them. They can’t steer me wrong. How could they? They’re operating on rigid tracks.

It’s a little unnerving to learn that the Superliner Roomette measures a snug 3’ 6” by 6’ 8” for our 26 hour, one way trip. The condemned on death row are allotted more than twice that amount for their one way trip. The difference is I can leave my cell whenever I want and, when I shower, I’m never afraid to drop the soap. The streamlined Roomette is climate controlled and has room for not one but 2 convertible sleeping berths. You’ll enjoy spacious comfort as long as you don’t  meet the height requirement for Disney rides. It is also suggested traveling companions stagger their breaths so they don’t suck out all the air  in this cozy room which is about the size of 3 stacked coffins.

I may rail against this compact and intimate space, and yet I crave the ultra-cozy, womb-like accommodations. I’m drawn to this metallic snuggery like a bee to its comb, a joey to its pouch or a dog to its crate. This securitizing cubicle allows me to feel like a quasi-governmental agency is wrapping its loving and protective arms around me. Who knew AMTRAK could be so embraceable? The upper berth is amply spacious provided you’re able to sleep in the equivalent of an overhead bin. And so what if you have to brachiate like a gibbon to swing into that berth. This kind of maneuvering lets us channel our arboreal primate ancestors. Thank you AMTRAK for making me feel like I’m in a habitat at the zoo.

 

Amenities

The amenities included in my upscale Superliner Roomette package are unsurpassed in both comfort and convenience:

  1. Complimentary Meals – Elegantly served in the posh AMTRAK Dining Car. This tastefully decorated and culinarily dedicated car is a stylish tribute to a bygone era. It is literally a movable feast. This gastronomic haven features fresh flowers and crisp linens – which is perfect if you’re on a fresh flower and crisp linen diet. And, as befits my outsized sentimental view of riding the rails, I’ll be dressing for dinner in a formal suit and tie commensurate with the opulent service so conspicuously offered aboard AMTRAK. There are sophisticated standards to uphold and abide by on the California Zephyr and I intend to honor them. The dining car is so classy I might even start smoking Chesterfield cigarettes to perfume the setting with the cloudy, stale smoke long associated with classy joints like this. Just how complimentary are these meals? I’m told these meals go above and beyond in ingratiating themselves into your dining experience by making such flattering remarks as, “Have you lost weight?” and “You attended Yale. Am I right?” Yes, these are very complimentary meals. 
  1. Dedicated Sleeping Car Attendant – A dedicated sleeping car attendant will provide turndown service, assist with meals, help with luggage and share great stories of life on the rails. A word to the wise though: I’m told you should make sure your dedicated sleeping car attendant actually works for AMTRAK before entrusting him with these duties. Unwary passengers have woken-up to find him sleeping in the berth with you. Although it rarely comes into play, I’m told the “turn down” service also comes in handy if your boyfriend unexpectedly asks for your hand in marriage and you don’t want to hurt his feelings by directly declining his offer; dedicated sleeping car attendant to the rescue with this “other” turn down service.
  2. The Vista Lounge Car is a moving greenhouse where you can cultivate wonderment or drink yourself silly.

    Vista Lounge Car – Drink in eyefuls of intoxicating scenery while you drink in mouthfuls of intoxicating martinis. After 15 minutes of jaw-dropping and drink-swilling scenery, you’ll be slurring, “Alright already. Enough with the god-d*mned scenery.” You may even rave aloud while looking out the window, “Hey! Why are all the animals naked?”

  3. Fresh Towels and Lustrous Linens – Previously AMTRAK economized by providing shabby towels and soiled linens, prompting some of the wittier passengers to throw in the towel and wryly complain, “These sheets look like sheet.”
  4. Priority Boarding – This handy little amenity allows you to board the train before any moonshiners, hillbillies or service critters. This amenity is a “must have” when traveling through Appalachia.
  5. Semi-Private Lockable Shower and Restroom – You’ve never lived till you’ve dashed dripping wet from the downstairs train shower back to your 2nd floor roomette; up the stairs, down the public corridor of a train, wrapped only in an AMTRAK-provided See-thru Towel. These thin and thirsty towels are so absorbent they’re like a wet napkin pressed hard against your skin. Complimentary shower room is equipped with a handy webcam easily accessed from the privacy of your roomette. It lets you know when and by whom the shower is occupied. It can be viewed for informational purposes only with pixilated private parts fully fig-leafed for personal privacy. As mentioned, the showers are also complimentary and enhance your bathing experience by making such flattering remarks as, “Have you lost weight?” and “What gym do you work out at?” Yes, even the showers are complimentary. While there is a shower, there’s no bath.

 

Some Specs (Not the eyeglasses kind. The kind that are an abbreviation for “specifications.”)

Most passenger rail cars are 85’ long, 16’ high, 10’ wide and weigh about 160,000 lbs. By comparison the average Boeing 737 is around 130’ long and weighs around 135,000 lbs. A rail car can accommodate about 90 passengers per car while the 737 can seat about 130. Of course a train might have 8 or more cars so – well, you do the math. And don’t tell me you were told there wouldn’t be math – I never said there’s no math. I said there’s no bath. The 737 is also much more aerodynamic than the slab-sided rail car and is somehow able to takeoff into thin air and stay aloft for hours even though it might weigh over 85 tons on departure. I’ll never understand those “heavier-than-air-machines” and fortunately I’m here to talk about very down-to-earth railroad cars operating on track 4’ 8½“ wide – a width that is derived from the traditional height of the King’s mistress.

A quick explanatory note may be in order here for those who haven’t thought this much about trains since…ever. Except for a few tourist trains dotting the nostalgic railroad landscape, steam engine trains became obsolete in the 1940s with the advent of more efficient diesel electric trains where a diesel engine spins a generator to produce electricity. That electricity powers “traction motors” on each axle of the locomotive. And voila! No further need for jerk water towns (Think: the introductory bathing scene in TV’s Petticoat Junction) and no more trailing tender (fuel) cars full of combustible wood and later coal.

 

Some Perspective

I’m not sure if I anticipate eagerly or eagerly anticipate AMTRAK’s Superliner Roomette train service (I was told there wouldn’t be grammar). Let’s just say I look forward excitedly to feeling like a pampered guest residing in a grand hotel whizzing down the tracks in hushed elegance. Some praise AMTRAK’s Superliner Roomette service a little less extravagantly calling it a Motel 6 clickety-clacking o’er the rails in punch-drunk shabbiness. And while the view from the Vista Car may be magnificent, it’s a different case in Coach, where dust bunnies rule the aisles and tumble about the cabin like a drunken marching band. Dust Bunnies seemed to have formed in between Amtrak’s mandated cleanings which, as far as I can determine, have been just the initial factory cleaning. So what if on my last trip I found a crushed wrapper of Chesterfield Cigarettes wedged into the crevice of my coach seat, right next to an I Like Ike button. Amtrak is going to great lengths to update their passenger service by adopting the template of the bus lines modernization program. AMTRAK executives call it “Greyhound Chic.” Motor coach executives call it “Lipstick on a Pig.”

When a passenger sits back and communes with their railroad car, they can almost hear the distant echoes of a bygone era. These echoes embody an innocent and benighted time before technology was advanced and people were woke. Let’s listen in to some of these conversation snippets wafting through the trains’ corridors of time: 

  1. From 1866 “Gosh Rhett, now that the Civil War is over, isn’t it wonderful to see Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima working in the dining cars, happy to be off the plantation.” – This, of course, doesn’t fly anymore, and neither do trains.
  2. From 1938 “Gosh Gladys, these Chicken Croquettes are delicious. These are Chicken Croquettes, I hope?”
  3. From 1954 “Gosh Harriet, it’s amazing how these glass-lined Vista cars fill with so much smoke you can’t even see the scenery outside. And isn’t it nice when you enter one, you don’t even have to light up? You just inhale it right in. The tobacco industry is our friend indeed.”
  4. From 1958 “Gosh Elvis! You mean right here…in the Superliner Roomette?” – Elvis may have left the building, but he’s heading to Memphis with Mabel on the midnight special.
  5. From 1961 “Gosh Shirley, I can’t believe the toilets flush directly out onto the tracks.” – This is true.
  6. From 2021 “Gosh Kiesha, I can’t believe the toilets still flush directly out onto the tracks.” – This is still true in 110 AMTRAK “Hopper toilet” rail cars.

 

Caveat Railroad Passenger

For those considering a train trip, such as my Reno to Denver sojourn, I would ask them to ponder the following outcomes:

If a train leaves Reno Station at 4 pm and chuffs into Denver’s Union Station at 6 pm the next day, you will arrive:

  1. Refreshed and exhilarated, if it’s Opposite Day
  2. Wishing you had curbed your train enthusiasm
  3. Reeking of new train smell
  4. Wishing you hadn’t accidentally flushed your sunglasses onto the tracks somewhere east of Ely, NV
  5. Having joined the 10’ high club
  6. Wishing you could get back what seemed like the 57 hours you were on this 26 hour train trip

 

Well, Why Am I Reviewing this Train Trip Before It Happened?*

*Because it ain’t happenin’.

After doing extensive research on the Superliner Roomette experience I opted out of my dream trip (there’s a hole in the bucket list?) I immediately incurred a whopping $120 cancellation penalty on my $480 ticket, but that’s how much it meant to me not to take this trip. After reading numerous One-Star reviews I not only had second thoughts, but I also had 3rd, 4th and 80th thoughts on boarding this Fright Train. Words like dingy, cramped and bloodstained kept creeping into the reviews. Let’s put it this way, you know passengers have had a bad experience when all the One-Star reviews begin with, “I’d would’ve given it No-Stars if I could’ve.” So it looks like I am going to get those 55 hours back after all even though I never actually lost them. Whoopee!

Superliner Roomettes are a long way from the glamorous and plush Pullman cars seen in the movies. And Denver is a long way from Reno. A little too long for an overnight train ride. Heck if it was a choice between taking a Superliner Roomette or taking a wagon train, I might be in the market for a milch cow.

Sorry to say, but as of this writing an AMTRAK sleeper car is the little engine that couldn’t.

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