Riding Trains A Lifelong Passion

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Metro Creative Services

Riding the rails has been a passion for Ken Brooks since he was a small boy.

I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when the streamliners were coming into service with the various railroads. Ever since I was a young boy I have been interested in trains, planes, ships and automobiles. As I look back I probably should have been a pilot for an airline or train engineer.

At the age of 3 or 4 my father would drive to the Los Angeles Union Station and I would watch people board the trains from the train platforms. I was most fascinated with the new streamliners carrying passengers north and south as well as to the Midwest and East. One of my first thrills was to ride Southern Pacific’s new Daylight Limited, which cruised daily between Los Angeles and San Francisco up the spectacular coast route. The train was new from the Pullman/Standard Company with corrugated sides, ultra modern interiors and painted in dazzling red, orange and black. The engine was a streamlined steam product that was also painted to match the train.

When I was 4 years old I had my first train ride on the Daylight Limited. We had relatives living in San Francisco and my parents would visit them twice a year. This was the first time I was able to join them. I didn’t sleep for two nights because of the anticipation and excitement of riding the new streamliner and visiting San Francisco.

We arose early in order to get to the station for the 8:15 a.m. departure. I remember sitting on a small suitcase placed on the seat in order to sit at window height so as not to miss any scenery or activity. Right on time I heard “all aboard” from the conductor and in moments the beautiful, new Daylight Limited began moving away from the station through the rail yards and down the tracks to reach our destination of San Francisco at 6 p.m.

Shortly after departure the voice of a passenger representative came on the public address system in each car informing us of the various amenities offered on the sparkling train and times the dining car would be open for breakfast and lunch as well as the location of the lounge cars and snack and coffee shop car. To a young kid, this all sounded like a traveling dream.

We soon found our way to the dining car and were seated for breakfast. Since we had gotten up so early, we were starved! We ordered full breakfasts and I was amazed at the fine, complete service rendered by the wait staff. And, there was more silverware than I had ever seen in my life.

We made a stop in Glendale followed by the train speeding through the southern end of the San Fernando Valley to reach the Pacific Coast. After an hour or so of dining service we decided to stroll through the train. The train consisted of mostly coach cars with a lounge, dining and first class parlor car. The last car was a round-end lounge/parlor, which also had one drawing room to house movie stars, which frequented the train.

Soon, the Daylight reached the stunning coast and the Southern Pacific tracks ran right alongside the water. By mid-morning we pulled into beautiful Santa Barbara, 90 miles north of Los Angeles. We had 10 minutes here to allow for a brief walk while more passengers boarded the streamliner. It was then on to San Louis Obispo, the halfway point where the train changed steam engines. Here, we returned to the dining car for a sumptuous lunch. Two engines were coupled to the train to pull the train up a steep grade and to accomplish the famous horseshoe curve. The train was 13 cars long and from the front you could see the last car as we negotiated the curve.

The train was now inland a bit from the coast and we continued up through central California for afternoon stops in Salinas, San Jose and into San Francisco to arrive on time. The 400 miles seemed to a 4-year-old like a trip to Canada.

We had a great week visiting our relatives in San Francisco. I was taken to the famous zoo, aquarium and parks as well as on several drives through this most interesting city. I rode the ferryboats across the bay to Oakland and we had dinner one night at Fisherman’s Wharf. We ordered cracked crab. Although I was having fun touring San Francisco, I was looking forward to the train ride back to Los Angeles on the Daylight Limited.

This trip began my love for passenger trains and transportation in general.

My parents were from Nebraska and they had come to Los Angeles in the 1920s to seek their fortune. They were both raised on the farm. Dad started with a battery business in downtown Los Angeles and moved to opening an auto parts business, which bloomed into several around the city. He later purchased two new automobile dealerships.

Father felt that since I was a city kid, I should spend time with his brother and sister on their farms during the summer in Nebraska. Guess what, this meant that I was able to ride the streamliners to Omaha from Los Angeles and do it alone. Dad would purchase a roomette for me to travel in and I would ride to Omaha on Union Pacific’s yellow and grey City of Los Angeles. This was probably the railroad’s best train at the time. Imagine, putting a 6-year-old on the train to ride 1,500 miles alone today. You wouldn’t do it, but in those days it was considered safe.

My aunt and uncle would meet the train and drive me to the farm where I would spend at least eight weeks with them. I loved it! They raised wheat, corn and cattle. My morning chores consisted of gathering the eggs in the barn, feeding the chickens and giving water to the cattle. On Saturdays my uncle would take me with him to the cattle auction. I really enjoyed this.

Often on weekends their friends and our other relatives would gather on one of the farms for a picnic under a large tree. One summer I even saw a tornado crossing our field near the house. I’ll never forget that experience. The little town nearby, Fairbury, was where we shopped on Saturdays and met the farm neighbors on the street. It was all very pleasant.

The Rock Island Railroad, which ran through the town, had recently started one of their new streamliners, the Rocky Mountain Rocket, which ran between Chicago and Denver daily. One of my thrills was to be taken to the Fairbury rail station to watch the train pull in and board passengers. The diesel powered train with silver sided cars would stop for about three minutes to accomplish the boarding.

At the end of summer it was time to return to my parents in Los Angeles and that meant another ride on the City of Los Angeles. For several years I would spend summers on the farm in Nebraska. I loved the farm experience as well as the train rides.

During my teens, when I had time away from my radio duties during summer hiatus, I would ride trains with parents and friends to such places as New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Seattle, Minneapolis, Florida as well as other wonderful destinations. Trains we rode were: The Empire Builder in the northland; California Zephyr from Oakland to Chicago, which had new dome cars to see the world from; the 20th Century Limited from Chicago to New York; the Champion from New York to Miami; the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans; the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles; the Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans and many more in between.

These trains were clean, colorful, deluxe, modern and fast. The railroads prided themselves with their streamliners.

Of course, the roadways were improved after World War II and the automobiles were more solidly built for longer distance drives.

And, let’s not forget the aircraft — after the war, aircraft builders made larger, faster and more reliable planes and by the late 1950s and earlier 1960s trains were losing their passengers to these other modes of travel.

Today, passenger train travel has changed to be a “land cruise.” Not many passenger trains operate now in the United States and most are in the east where the population is rather dense. Amtrak, the government operated system throughout the nation, is improving equipment and purchasing new cars and engines to make the train travel experience worthwhile again. There are fine trains operating up and down the west coast and across the country with double deck Superliner equipment. Fresh food service has been re-introduced to some of these trains in the dining cars and the onboard service improves with every day.

Train travel in the Pullmans is not cheap, but usually a fine, “cruise” experience. In Arizona you can board transcontinental trains in Maricopa and Flagstaff as well as a couple other locations. Park the car in one of these towns, board a modern Superliner and live it up. I know you will fully enjoy the experience.

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