Inspired by the golden age of railroads, Richard Alleman takes a cross-country journey—and sees why American train travel is getting back on track
I have always had a thing for trains. Perhaps it's because I grew up at the tail end of the great American passenger train era. I remember Cary Grant's close encounter with Eva Marie Saint on a sleek sleeper in North by Northwest, the seductive magazine ads for the Super Chief, and my own travels with my father, aboard the Pennsylvania Railroad from Harrisburg to New York City. The train transported me to a magic place of live TV shows at Rockefeller Center and restaurants where meals were bought from a wall of coin-operated window boxes. Best of all was the train itself—the thrill of eating in the diner, the adventure of checking out the plush parlor car and the sleeping compartments. We always went coach, but I dreamed of someday staying overnight, on the way to an exotic destination—like California.
By the time I made it there in the early sixties, it was on a Boeing 707. Indeed, the jet age was largely responsible for the decline of long-distance train travel in the United States. So many railroads went bankrupt that in 1970 Congress founded Amtrak, to keep the industry from disappearing altogether. While the company continues to fight for government funding, it has recently been upgrading its image and infrastructure, from new tracks to the high-speed Acela train that now streaks along the Northeast Corridor. In fact, Amtrak is reporting the highest number of passengers in its 32-year history.
Recently, while researching a book about old Hollywood, I kept coming upon stories of stars in the 1930's and 40's shuttling between the coasts aboard the legendary, all-first-class 20th-Century Limited, with a staff that rolled out a red carpet at Grand Central Terminal in New York, and the Chicago-L.A. Super Chief, with its dinners of caviar and fresh-caught Colorado trout. Those glamorous days are long gone, but two Amtrak trains follow the same routes and practically the same timetables. Remembering how Anita Loos is said to have penned the first draft of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes aboard a cross-country train in the 1920's, I decide to hop aboard for a long-weekend trip to Los Angeles. Although I'm traveling solo, I splurge on a sleeping compartment for two, with facing seats that convert into a bed at night. At $1,181 (meals included), it isn't cheap—but it is some $600 less than flying one-way in business class.
Friends call me crazy to travel more than 3,200 miles by rail, but I feel like Cary Grant as I walk down the platform at New York's Penn Station. There is no red carpet, yet my welcome aboard the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago is no less cordial. George, the attendant of the stainless-steel Viewliner sleeping car, escorts me to my compartment. I bond instantly with my little room—all shiny enamel walls and built-in gadgets, like a small screen that offers new films and classic jazz.
Traveling up the Hudson River, we pass misty islands, suspension bridges, and lush lagoons that resemble Monet paintings. At times we're so close to the water that it's as if we're on a private yacht. After a brief stop outside Albany, we enter a pastoral world of meadows and cornfields. The dining car is slick but has a timeless appeal: each linen-covered table is topped with a vase holding a fresh yellow rose. I'm seated across from a choreographer who switched to train travel in 1996, following a harrowing year in the air with a dance company. "For a while, this used to be a very sad trip, but a lot more people take the train these days, and the quality of the service has improved," she says as our attentive waiter serves a simple green salad, roast chicken, Key lime pie, and potable wine in a half bottle.
Back in my bedroom on wheels I float through Buffalo, Erie, and Cleveland. I'm too excited to sleep, but the steady clickety-clack, combined with the hypnotic rocking, eventually lulls me into a childlike, almost primal slumber. Over breakfast the next day in the dining car (French toast, sausage patties, and coffee served in individual carafes with paper caps, reminiscent of fifties restaurants), I watch pasturelands dissolve into the Studs Terkelesque factories of Chicago.
The six-hour Chicago layover proves enough time for a tour of downtown and lunch at the Art Institute before I pick up the connecting Southwest Chief. The train is an impressive hulk of boxlike double-decker carriages—part of a fleet that Amtrak commissioned in the late seventies and dubbed Superliners, designed to haul as many people as cheaply as possible. It's a far cry from the original Super Chief, which in 1938 was the last word in streamlined elegance. My "roomette" is considerably older and has fewer gadgets, but it features a plasma screen-sized window. I warm instantly to the car's attendant, Pinkie, who has been riding the rails for 23 years. She is both friendly and professional; even though the train is sold out, she says, she'll do her best to keep me comfortable for the next two days.
Making my way to the glass-topped lounge car, I entertain fantasies of spotting Marilyn Monroe jamming with her girlfriends in Some Like It Hot. Instead I encounter a troop of Boy Scouts, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days blaring from the video screen, and Paul, our singing bartender, crooning cocktail specials over the P.A. system. The dining car is equally frenetic, and the queue spills into the lounge. I learn that on a packed train, it's best to wait for dinner until right before the kitchen closes at 9 p.m.; though this means a smaller choice of dishes, at least the room will have settled down. No one dines alone, thanks to our no-nonsense maître d', Janine, who fills every seat. During my two days on the Chief, I converse with fearful fliers, serious train buffs, and first-timers, like myself, who want to see a bit of the country up close for a change.
That night, I wake up in Kansas to a thunderstorm straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Fat bolts of lightning illuminate the wide sky and the plains. It's my own private storm—and I'm happy I'm not on an airplane. The next day is like an eight-hour IMAX travelogue. The flat fields of Kansas give way to the low blond hills and rock-studded mountains of Colorado. By noon we're in New Mexico, passing trading posts, pueblos, and Spanish missions. Late in the afternoon, I sink into a swivel armchair in the observation car for a glass of wine as we travel past awesome red-rock formations.
Despite the extraordinary scenery, I keep thinking of what it must have been like in the old days, seeing all this from the cushy lounge car of the Super Chief, with a glass of port and a civilized game of bridge after dinner. Now that the movie stars are miles above us in their Gulfstreams, those days will probably never return. But perhaps an American company will hire a hip designer to rethink the look of trains and terminals, as Eurostar has asked Philippe Starck to do for its Chunnel train. And perhaps that would inspire more people to slow down and treat trains like cruise ships, actually savoring the experience of traveling, rather than simply enduring the stress of getting there.
The next morning, as we glide past the traffic-jammed freeways of L.A. and into Union Station, I'm a little sad that my American adventure has come to an end. "Hope we'll see you again," Pinkie says, extending her hand. Who knows?Philippe Starck or not, she just might.
New York-L.A. rates start at $133 per person one way (800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com).
RICHARD ALLEMAN is a Travel+Leisure contributing editor.