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Take a Trip Down Memory Lane…And Get On A Train

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons

California Zephyr: here come your game boys and microwaves

The odyssey began in early 2007 when I got a magazine-writing assignment that would take me from my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Seattle, Washington. I could have flown, but I asked the editor if she would pay for a train instead. Sure, she agreed, if the cost didn’t exceed a jet. It was a bit more, but I made up the difference because it was a chance to climb aboard a long-distance train again.

I also wanted to bring along Kelly, my oldest son, then thirteen, to introduce him to the landscapes of the West and to train travel, too. He barely remembered the trip we had taken from Toledo to Harrisburg when he was five, and I had not been on a train since.

When we boarded the California Zephyr at Chicago’s Union Station that March, I didn’t know this one trip would encompass so much of the promise in, and the trouble with, passenger-train service in the United States today. Having ridden Amtrak for some thirty years, I knew we would likely encounter some poor service, missed connections, long waits, and run-down equipment. Still, the train offered great scenery, the camaraderie of fellow passengers, a reprieve from driving or flying, a great safety record, and an exotic experience.

So few intercity passenger trains run today that most Americans have never boarded one. Amtrak doesn’t come through their town, or it comes just once a day—perhaps in the middle of the night—or every other day. Rarely is the train on time, and more recently, it’s often been filled and with no available seats. Where I live in the Upper Peninsula is isolated, and no matter how great a renaissance rail may undergo in this country, I don’t expect a passenger train will come that far north again for a long time.

Until 1969, the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Peninsula 400 ran between the Upper Peninsula and Chicago, making the trip in about six hours, an hour quicker than I can drive it doing the speed limit. But no more. The nearest railhead for a passenger train to me today is Milwaukee, 273 miles to the south. There, I could pick up the Hiawatha, an Amtrak success story. Making seven trips daily to downtown Chicago and back, the Hiawatha is a corridor train between major cities that are too close for efficient air service and connected by a deteriorating interstate highway filled past capacity.

The departments of transportation in Illinois and Wisconsin subsidize the Hiawatha service and have spent millions building stations and helping the Canadian Pacific expand its track system to accommodate both freight and passenger trains. The DOTs want to lure some commuters off the roadways, and also give people another mode of travel. The trains run on time. They are clean, filled with passengers, and increasingly popular since gas prices skyrocketed in 2008.

We boarded the train at the Amtrak station near Milwaukee’s airport, Mitchell Field, having left our automobile in long-term parking. Commuters jammed the Hiawatha, tapping on Blackberries and yakking on cell phones. An attendant wheeled a cart down the aisle, and I bought a coffee and opened a newspaper. Frozen farm fields rolled past the window. Now, all we had to do was sit back and ride—first to Chicago, then to Sacramento by sleeping car, and then, after a few days in California visiting a childhood friend, north through the big woods and Coast Ranges to Seattle. Thousands of miles, eighty-plus hours on the rails, a panorama of western landscape, and a melting pot of human characters to encounter along the way—the trip guaranteed adventure. I told Kelly, “By the time we get home, you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.”

I had pulled him from school for ten days. He carried a knapsack of comic books, an iPod and Game Boy, school texts, and a thick folder of homework. But he was too excited that morning for algebra and instead peered out the window looking for the Sears Tower and Chicago skyline.

At Union Station, we checked our bags at the Metropolitan Lounge, reserved for first-class sleeping-car passengers, and went upstairs to the Great Hall with its Romanesque columns and hard, wooden railroad benches.

Because of its central location in the Middle West, Chicago has long been a railroad town. At one time, the city had five railroad terminals, but Union Station was the busiest. In the 1940s, it handled more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers a day. Today, it’s still busy, with commuters riding Metra and a few thousand passengers traveling on one or another of Amtrak’s 50-odd trains that run in and out of Union Station each day.

The Great Hall was cut off from the regular flow of passengers when Amtrak remodeled the station in 1989 and moved its waiting areas and lounges belowground. Amtrak constructed the comfortable, classy Metropolitan Lounge for first-class passengers, but herded its coach passengers into the unimaginatively named Lounges A and B, which are frequently jammed with passengers and luggage, and claustrophobic in comparison to the airy, cavernous Great Hall. Veteran passengers flee to the hall and wait up there for their trains, but unsuspecting newbies, who want to stay close to the boarding areas, miss one of America’s great indoor spaces.

Kelly and I sat on the benches, tilted our heads back and looked at the winter light filtering through the overhead skylights. Homeless people slept on nearby benches, their faces and hands obscured beneath soiled jackets, sweaters, and blankets. They resembled long piles of unwashed laundry. They smelled, too. Train terminals offer refuge during the day, and in my travels I encountered homeless lying in Oakland’s Jack London Station, sleeping upright in the art deco chairs of the L.A. terminal, and squatting in corners of New York’s Penn Station. Kelly’s sad expression and stolen glances at those men were disquieting. What could I say?

We boarded the train as an ice storm whipped into the city, jamming up rush-hour traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway and delaying flights out of O’Hare and Midway. Sleet pelted the train as it gathered speed through the western suburbs and onto the frozen cornfields of northern Illinois.

After the conductor punched our tickets, we walked forward to the dining car and ordered dinner. While we ate, the storm morphed into a full-blown midwestern blizzard. Looking into the blur of snow, I told Kelly stories about other train journeys.

His mother, Elise, and I, were once aboard a train traveling from Detroit to Chicago. The locomotive stalled for hours in a sweltering cornfield. And there was that cold night we spent riding across Kansas when the heat failed in the sleeping car. As compensation, the sleeping-car attendant brought us bottles of red wine, which we drank in sleeping bags zipped up to the neck.

In the early 1970s, Amtrak ran the “Rainbow Trains.” The consists—a technical term railroaders use as a noun to describe the composition or arrangements of the locomotive and cars—were a hodgepodge of old, hand-me-down equipment inherited from a dozen different railroads. The toilets, known as “holes in the floor,” flushed right onto the tracks, and you could watch the wooden ties rushing by underneath. In 1978 on the Sunset Limited in west Texas, I watched cooks working over smoky stoves fired by charcoal briquettes. The air-conditioning and exhaust fans had broken down, and the dining attendants threw open the windows at the ends of the car to clear the smoke. Heat from the Chihuahuan Desert blasted through the windows, and I ate with an old railroader who reckoned the engineer had the train running 95 to 105 mph.

I was in college then, on my way to Arizona to drive an elderly aunt and all her belongings back to a retirement home in Pennsylvania. In the lounge car, I met Sigrid, a blue-eyed, freckled blond running away from a possessive boyfriend in Florida. A friend had gotten her a job in California on a sprawling farm in the San Joaquin Valley, where she was to stand at the row end of a broccoli field and vector in crop-dusting planes.“I’ll need to wear an aluminum suit with a mask. You know, because of the pesticides. And I have to wave these flags to signal the pilot.”

“Those are semaphores,” I said, remembering a vocabulary word I’d picked up in an English class.

During a fueling stop in El Paso, we stepped onto the oven heat of the railroad platform and took pictures of one another standing outside the stucco-covered station. We drank cold beer in the lounge car as the train ran through Deming and Lordsburg.

In Arizona, right at dusk, we reached the ranching town of Benson. I was the only passenger getting on or off. The conductor looked me over and said, “Young man, this will be easy. We’re going to slow the train to a crawl—but not stop. When I say ‘now’—you step off. Take a big step forward and then turn around and I’ll toss your knapsack.”

When I caught the pack, he gave me an approving nod and then windmilled his arm at the engineer leaning out from the locomotive. The train throttled up toward Tucson. These days, Amtrak employees aren’t allowed to step on or off moving trains, but back then a lot went on, including running trains 100 mph over tracks rated at 50. Nowadays with global positioning systems on every locomotive and central dispatch—where a person thousands of miles away can track a rolling train like an air-traffic controller—there’s less freelancing.

When I looked up, Sigrid had her face pressed against the back window of the train. She waved good-bye. A dust devil scurried along the tracks. My aunt was nowhere in sight. I glanced across the street to a feed store where some good old boys sat on a bench regarding me as another long-haired curiosity.

Sigrid got smaller and smaller and then disappeared into the desert. And I knew I should have stayed on the train. Even now, I wish I had.


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