Train — The New Way to Travel (Part Two)

BLOG #23, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Two)
June 4, 2014

Please refresh your memory by glancing back at Part One of this tribute to trains, on May 21.

Now, let’s get back to the pluses and minuses of Amtrak travel. A huge plus has to be the seats. In recent years in air flight, the so-called “friendly skies” have become anything but. In order to cram more and more people into these flying cattle cars, seat-size continues to shrink. Width too. Worst of all, knee room. Once a plane is in motion, and the person in front of you reclines the seat, you are lucky if you have an inch or two space between your knees and the seat in front of you. And width-wise, if your seatmate is large (which is more than likely given our national obesity epidemic), you are forced to scrunch and contort your body in order to fit in the remaining space. Needless to say, the combination of the two, bad enough on short flights, can be a recipe for hell on longer ones.

Not so, Amtrak seats: they are wide with plenty of leg room: thus you are free to really stretch out.

As for the nights, that extra space really helps. One serendipity in transcontinental train travel is that when you leave major urban hubs such as Denver or Salt Lake City, enough passengers will have disembarked to enable you to stretch out across two seats. No one tells you that you can, but rarely will anyone stop you from doing so. Of course, if a large number of passengers boarded somewhere in the middle of the night and space became a premium, you’d probably be informed that you would have to surrender one of the two seats.

I’ll do one thing differently next time, however: I’ll take an extra blanket and a pillow. They do turn the lights way down low, which makes it easier to sleep. Sleeper cars, of course, are better. Complete with bedding, bunk beds, toilet, sink, shower, and porter service. But unless you are traveling clear across the country (taking three days), one night in a coach seat is not bad at all. That’s confirmed by the people who, in spite of being awakened by car attendants, sleep through the stops anyhow. But they are the exception, not the norm.

DAY ONE

Since we were late pulling out of Denver, we missed breakfast in the dining car. Consequently, we cobbled together enough items from the Snack Car to get us through. For hours we climbed, along rivers, streams, and canyons, through multitudinous tunnels. But none longer than Moffatt Tunnel (the second longest rail tunnel in the United States). The giant bore was the realization of the dream of David H. Moffatt, a Denver banker, who began in 1902 to construct a railroad west through the towering Rockies. It soon became clear that deep winter snows would bring travel to a halt unless a six-mile-long tunnel could be drilled through the heart of James Peak. Finally, in 1922, the Moffatt Tunnel commission was appointed, and bonds were issued to finance the work. Originally, it was assumed that since the mountain had a granite core, $6,720,000 ought to be enough to complete the project. Once inside the mountain, however, engineers discovered they’d also have to dig through muddy shale, every foot of which would have to be timbered. Result: the price-tag tripled! Even with the tunnel, the elevation is 9,094 feet. To passengers today, it seems to take almost forever to get through it.

Coming out finally, there below was Winter Park Ski Area, one of Colorado’s largest. Passengers had front-row seats as they watched hundreds of descending skiers, and more coming from the far distance. It would be a winter wonderland for some time to come.

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No one wanted to surrender a seat in the Observation Car during the gradual descent through Gore Canyon, following the Colorado River; at Dotsero Junction, where the Eagle River joins the Colorado, the train turns west again, and soon, sheer walls towering over a thousand feet above Glenwood Canyon, almost stops conversation in its tracks. Easily one of the greatest scenic sights in America. In the middle of it, Connie and I were called into the Dining car. What a view! Our entranced table-mates were retirees from West Virginia; a lovely college freshman attending Mesa State in Grand Junction completed our fivesome. Daughter of a professional artist, she was majoring in art herself. So fascinated was she by our travel-related conversations that her eyes widened in wonder as we took her with us all around the world. I shall return to her before I complete this Amtrak series.

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By the way, the highway through Glenwood Canyon took close to twenty years to construct, disrupting traffic for an entire generation.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped briefly in Grand Junction, the state’s fruit-growing heartland. Its Palisade peaches are known nationwide. Also more and more vineyards are being planted here.

Night fell, as we rolled through the Utah mountains. Then came a delicious vegetarian repast in the dining car. Since we’d left home at 5:00 a.m., we were very tired and decided to call it a day at 9:50 p.m. Because we’d gain an hour when we entered the Pacific Time Zone, it meant it was 8:50 p.m., making for a very long night. For even with two seats for each of us to stretch out in, it most certainly was a long ways from our king size bed at home. Our dreams were haunted by the sound of the horn at every railroad crossing and road intersection. Surprisingly, it didn’t keep us awake but rather filled the interstices of our dreams.

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TRAIN — THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (part 1)

BLOG #21, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part One)
May 21, 2014

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Yes, trains, long considered antiquated and a quaint holdover from the past, have quietly and unobtrusively in recent years become the “in” thing with thousands of travelers. Hadn’t realized it until Connie and I boarded The California Zephyr at Denver’s rapidly changing Union Station on April 20. Actually, “rapidly changing” is a major understatement, for it is a stunning transformation. Even though the construction is still going on, it is the talk of the plains: A new upscale hotel is going in, buses from all over the region have been rerouted so they disgorge and pick up passengers in a large state of the art underground terminal directly below the train waiting room. Same for light rail. As a result, already over a billion dollars of new construction is changing the city skyline of what locals call “LO-DO” [lower downtown].

The initial news that Sunday morning was not good: the train would be two and a half hours late. We later discovered that a big fire had broken out near the tracks in the vicinity of Omaha. But not to worry, the train would make up a lot of the time later on. And it did: an hour and a half of it before we reached Sacramento. But the delay didn’t appear to bother anyone very much. Just accepted it as another example of what regulars label “AMTRAK time,” the result of freight train corporations owning the tracks, and consequently having priority over passenger trains. But, in reality, as everyone knows all too well, air travelers face jammed skies and weather-based delays and cancellations virtually every day, not counting mechanical problems—so, delay-wise, it can be a Hobson’s choice.

ALL ABOARD!

Since it had been some years since we had last traveled by train, we wondered what it would be like in the Year of our Lord 2014. It was enough that finally here around the bend, the long silver city on steel wheels backed into the still-under-construction station. We were surprised to see how excited we were–it had been a long time since we’d experienced anything but dread and distaste over the prospect of boarding yet another flying cattle-car. So this was different. How different we didn’t yet realize.

We quickly discovered that, as through-travelers to California, we were assigned a through-car. Not so for shorter-distance travelers who had to settle for potluck car-wise. But not to worry: they could later change seats if they so desired.

Downstairs (adjacent to the restrooms) were storage facilities for large suitcases. No charge for them such as is true with most airlines today. The smaller case we could stow in the overhead above our seat upstairs. After picking just the right seats for the anticipated view, and then positioning our smaller suitcase or bag overhead, with a giant sigh of relief we took our seats and watched the scurrying around, including the boarding of the last passengers and train attendants–and the journey began.

Unlike air travel, where only the person sitting next to a window can see out, here everyone can see. Furthermore, passenger jets fly so high today that rarely can even those sitting next to the windows see what is passing below; whereas in trains, the continually unrolling of the travel scroll reveals a world that’s only feet away–and not 40,000 feet away such as in airplanes.

After a while, an attendant came through, checked to see if we were through-passengers, then wrote our destination down on a card and attached it to the overhead rack. Later on, we learned the reason for that: late at night, unless aroused by an attendant, some people sleep through their destinations. One young woman in our car, who was supposed to get off in Elko, Nevada, dropped off to sleep after being awakened, and didn’t get off until Reno; there she had to wait for the next eastbound train the following day.

After we had been checked in, we were free to wander. What a difference from air travel where, most of the time, you remain strapped to your seat, and only get up for potty breaks. Even then, in the forward compartment, no one is allowed to wait in line. No such restrictions on the train. The most popular place to be is the observation car, for there you can look up as well as out. In our case, since passengers see two of the most beautiful mountain ranges in America (The Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas), in consecutive days, almost everyone jockeys for a seat in the observation car during those stretches. Especially was this true when traversing Colorado’s iconic Glenwood Canyon.

The snack car too was almost always in use by someone. And then there was the Dining Car, where three meals a day are served. Reservations are easy to secure. Only when your number is called do you enter the Dining Car. Then you are seated. Unless you specifically ask to be seated alone, generally you join others already seated. We always prefer to thus get acquainted with our fellow travelers, for that’s what makes train travel so fascinating. Reminded me of the long-ago days when air-dining was such a pleasure; today, you’re lucky if you get pretzels, peanuts, or crackers. On the train, it is a leisurely affair–no one hurries you. Though you don’t dine on fine china, at least you have clean white tablecloths, and can order from a surprisingly large array of options. Even for vegetarians such as us. And the food was certainly good, and those who served us most gracious and interesting to talk to. And it was clear that they–and all the other train attendants we chatted with–loved their job. Many had worked for AMTRAK for much of their entire careers!

So what a different world! No reason to be struck with deep-vein thrombosis that happens on long air flights, because everyone is free to wander. Children love it, for it’s like the entire train is just one long fascinating moving playground. In fact, a good friend of ours, who when he heard we were traveling by train to California, asked what we thought of train travel. After listening to my answers, he booked The California Zephyr west to Emeryville [San Francisco], and the coastal AMTRAK south. He and his family of four got off at Santa Barbara and drove up to President Reagan’s mountain hideaway; then drove on to Disneyland, after which they headed home by the same route. Later I asked him what he thought of train travel. He had booked a family sleeper [though AMTRAK travel is generally cheaper than air travel, sleeper compartments cost considerably more – sort of like traveling business class by air]. He said his kids loved train travel! In fact he said, they’d asked if they might always travel by train from here on!

But our journey had just begun. Part two of “Trains – The New Way to Travel” will resume on Wednesday, June 4; as next week we’ll break for Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club June book selection. By the way, there’s always lots of time to read on trains.

I have so much more to share with you about why so many people – including young people (college age and young adults) – are gravitating to train travel today. See you June 4.