Friday, December 18, 2015

Amtrak's Southwest Chief, and going the distance by train

Took me almost a year but I've finally gotten around to editing and posting what video I shot last February aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Compare and contrast with my video from Japan's Cassiopeia!

I've traveled long distance on Amtrak since the 1970's; I grew up with it, and still love it. People nowadays ask me "you can still do that?" Which is a little sad. Everybody's in such a rush. The world would be a better place if we all slowed down a little.

I think my video conveys how relaxing a trip like this is. And despite what you'd think, it never gets boring. You can always get up and walk around, and there's always something new to see. But mostly, it's just hypnotic - the sights, sounds and rhythms of the train put you in a pleasant trance-like state that eliminates any requirement for external entertainment. Your attention span stretches out on a train like this.

I've ridden quite a few of Amtrak's long haul trains for someone who's not really a "trainspotter" (I'm not intentionally trying to "collect" all the different routes):
  • Capitol Limited
  • Broadway Limited
  • Lake Shore Limited
  • Cardinal
  • Palmetto
  • Silver Star
  • Crescent
  • San Francisco Zephyr
  • California Zephyr
  • Empire Builder
  • Southwest Limited
  • Southwest Chief
The Southwest Limited, mid 1970's

I've also ridden every kind of Amtrak equipment imaginable. My favorite thing about Amtrak in the 1970's was that it was like a rolling museum - the "heritage" equipment was old and half-broken, yeah, but it was always really comfortable and walking through the train, you never knew what you were going to find when you opened the door to the next car.

One of my favorite equipment memories is walking into a lounge car on the Crescent and seeing a baby grand piano sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the car, just past the bar (which was closed). No one was playing it and nobody else was in the car, which was also really strange. Some longer trains in those days ran with two lounges but this train had a new Amfleet cafe car for snacks, so the second but far more interesting lounge car was being deprecated. It was a ghost car with a grand piano in it.

Crescent dome car with Southern Railway still in control - the Amtrak car is being pulled as part of a through-running agreement. Amtrak also pulled a Southern car on one of its routes.
(I later rode the Amtrak version of this same train.)

Another amazing memory was riding coach on the Broadway Limited, being lucky enough to sit in an ex-Santa Fe 40 seater and literally not being able to touch the seat in front of me with my feet. I was 6'4" even at that time, so that's something. Some of those old cars gave you an almost absurd amount of space. The car looked unfinished, like there were seats missing. I remember taking pictures of this but I probably lost them over the years.

On the Capitol Limited, I rode the dome car at night and I was the only person in that car. There was something really special about sitting up in the dome, in what was literally my own private bubble above the train, in the total darkness and silence, watching as we carved our way through the small towns of the mid-Atlantic. I also remember that car (and those tracks) being some of the smoothest riding I've ever had on a train. It felt like we weren't even moving.

Back on the Broadway Limited, I was lucky enough to ride a slumbercoach several times (the link is not mine, but I was amazed to find a newly-posted video of a slumbercoach interior). This was one of Amtrak's only (or the only?) routes that had these, because only a few were ever built for the private railroads. The slumbercoach was a small seat in a tiny room, but it was private and it turned into a bed at night, and it also had its own toilet. The added fare was only something like $30 over coach - totally worth it! I wish they'd bring this concept back.

Over time, Amtrak's trains have become a little more homogenized, though the experience is still the same minus the equipment crapshoot. It's surprising how similar riding now is to riding 30 years ago.

My Cassiopeia ride was a little different - a little "busier", not quite as relaxing. Japan's a different place. But still, night time on any sleeper train is something special, with the ghostly sounds of the train, the gentle rocking, and the vague feeling of motion as you sleep. It almost seems to tap in to some pre-birth memories we all have locked away.

In a little while, my wife and I will be taking the Silver Meteor from Fort Lauderdale back to New York. I can't wait.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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