From 1948 through the late 1960s train travel in the United States was very comfortable, convenient and safe. The major railroads were ordering lightweight, streamlined equipment from the manufacturers as well as phasing out steam locomotives for the new and more efficient diesel engines. Air travel was moving ahead, but the trains still offered the luxury of private Pullman rooms in which to relax, read and watch our great country pass by the train window.
The railroads touted their streamliners in large print ads and were boasting speed, safety and sightseeing.
By the end of the 1960s the automobile ruled travel using great highways and the airlines, with improved aircraft and jet engines, changed our method of travel. The railroads were now operating passenger trains at a deficit and letting the once great streamliners fall into disrepair with poor service and schedules. Finally, the government came to the railroads’ rescue in 1972 and formed a government funded AMTRAK corporation to run most passenger train operations in the United States. AMTRAK got off to a slow start with the old equipment it inherited as it tried to tie the large American network together into a workable, useful passenger-oriented operation. In the more than three decades since it began operation, AMTRAK has been underfunded, but has carried the fight to improve service forward to today with considerably improved equipment, service, food and schedules.
AMTRAK now has a new CEO, Joseph Boardmen, who has helped acquire more operating funds to better the corporation. The new stimulus bill will provide additional $8 billion dollars to purchase new equipment improve tracks and build on the high-speed Acela service now operating in the Northeast corridor. In the future, high speed rail is planned for the San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco segment. Imagine getting on a comfortable train in Los Angeles and getting off in San Francisco two-and-a-half hours later. This would be city to city service without airport hours of waiting. Other high-speed service is being looked at in the central Midwest out of Chicago, as well as through Texas and Oklahoma. Other high-speed services will probably include Washington, D.C. heading south into Florida.
Today, AMTRAK offers services up and down the West Coast, across the U.S. between Seattle and Chicago, Oakland to Chicago, Los Angeles to Chicago, as well as north and south routes out of Chicago and Chicago east to New York. There is also frequent service from New York and Washington, D.C. south into Florida. There are additional routes that can be traveled by train today, but the above are the principal ones.
A couple years ago, AMTRAK decided to experiment with service improvements and began with the Coast Starlight, which travels between Los Angeles, the Bay area through Portland into Seattle. This is a beautiful route up many miles of California coastline, then into Northern California’s mountainous country into Oregon and Washington State. This is a two-day, one night passage in either direction. The train consists of Superliner two-deck equipment with Pullman and coach service. Pullman service passengers have a private room with enclosed facilities, included meals and access to the train’s glass dome roofed lounge car. Movies at night are also available along with a tavern facility. Coach passengers enjoy wide, stretch-out seats with leg rests, car attendants and may use the dining car and lounge facilities as well. Food is prepared onboard per order which is new for AMTRAK.
This is one of AMTRAK’s premier trains now.
Another fine train is the Empire Builder, which travels between Seattle, through Glacier National Park, on to Minneapolis and into Chicago. This train also uses the Superliner equipment and offers about the same amenities as the Coast Starlight.
For those of us in Payson we can drive to Flagstaff and board the Southwest Chief early in the morning heading east through Albuquerque, Kansas City into Chicago on what was the old Santa Fe tracks. If you wish to go to Los Angeles by train, you can also board the same train heading west out of Flagstaff in the evening with morning arrival in Los Angeles. This would then connect with the Coast Starlight at which time you could head north to the Bay area and beyond.
If you are going to Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio or Houston, board the Sunset Limited in Maricopa, about 30 miles from Phoenix, and head southeast. The Sunset Limited will also take you to Los Angeles on an overnight schedule.
I yearn for the day when I can board a nice train and just ride for a few days through our beautiful countryside seeing America from a train window while enjoying fine food and a good night’s sleep in my private compartment and being rocked to sleep with the wheels clickety clacking down the rails. I can almost hear the conductor say “All Aboard”!
The government of Canada also took over passenger rail service a couple of decades ago and they call it VIA Rail. Several years ago VIA Rail completely refurbished their Budd built, stainless steel rail cars, which had been placed in service back in 1952, and are now using them in deluxe service between Toronto and Vancouver. They have retained the wonderful dome and round end Pullman and lounge cars. They call the train The Canadian, which is what the equipment was principally used for back in the ’50, ’60s and ’70s. Now, The Canadian offers very upgraded services with included meals for first class passengers and other fine amenities. This is actually a land cruise today.
There are a few tour companies that are offering some very interesting tours that include train travel. One is Train Holidays, which has a nice trip that visits the Copper Canyon in Mexico. This fully escorted vacation begins in San Diego where passengers first board Holland America Line’s Oosterdam for a sail down the Pacific Coast to Mazatlan. After a short stay there, you’ll board the Chihuahua Pacifico Railway for the trip to the spectacular Copper Canyon. There are stops along the way for sightseeing and some overnighting and the tour ends in El Paso. The 10-day tour departs Oct. 9 and Nov. 20. Fares begin at $2,495 plus taxes. Call: 1-800-543-2846 for more information and reservations.
Another very reliable tour company specializing in train tours is Uncommon Journeys. It is offering a 13-day train tour in the Canadian Rockies departing May 14. This fully hosted trip features an overnight stay in Niagara Falls as well as Toronto, then boarding VIA’s deluxe The Canadian using first class sleeping cars with meals included. You will cross the prairie and enter some of the most beautiful scenery in North America, the Canadian Rockies. The tour has scheduled a four-night stay in Banff, a visit to the Columbia Icefields, Lake Louise, an overnight stay in Jasper National Park and then by train to one of the most beautifully situated cities in the world, Vancouver. The tour provides a wonderful city tour as part of the itinerary. This great trip is priced from $3,895 plus taxes. Phone: 1-800-323-5893.
Vacations By Rail arranges other great train vacations. It offers a National Parks of the Rio Grande lasting 11 days. It travels through New Mexico and gets into a detailed itinerary in that state. You can check them out by calling: 1-877-929-7245. It also provides quite a few specialized tours using AMTRAK.
Look at The Society of International Railway Travelers at www.irtsociety.com or call 1-800-478-4881; this company features some of the most exotic rail journeys on the planet. One that interests me is a Zambezi Steam Express aboard Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa train. This 1,300-mile journey begins in Pretoria, South Africa to join the Cape to Cairo Railway that uses the route through Botswana, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls with stops for game viewing in the velt. You’ll have a ride on the Victoria Falls Safari Express before departing for London and home. You will never forget a trip like this, believe me. It has been my good fortune to have enjoyed rail travel through South Africa in the past using the famous Blue Train as well as some of the others. This is a special part of the world to be enjoyed by all.
There are fine trains all over the world. Check into them, for it’s a great way to see the world. At home, you can dial AMTRAK at 1-800-RAIL. Or visit with your favorite travel professional. Happy railing!