In my many years away from home, travel by train has always held an excitement as part of the holiday journey. In November, thoughts turn to Thanksgiving and the end of autumn weather. Cool nights and warm days give way while the colors of foliage drift from their lofty perches to a sea of browns on the ground.

A Thanksgiving trip many years ago brings back memories of a speeding California Zephyr under the care of three Genesis locomotives, number 1 running point. It was a cool day in 1997 and the low southern sun gave the train an unparalleled look at a beautiful sight occurring to our southwest. It glistened as far as the eye could see on the distant, and flat, Illinois horizon. West of Sandwich, the train kicked those fallen leaves into the orange sky of the November sunset as old line-side poles flipped by outside the Zephyr's windows. The train ran a losing race that day, into the low and setting sun. Just one memory of Thanksgiving travels from times past.

Passenger trains have run a losing race for many years in the U.S. Where travelers used to line trackside and await the coming of the holiday trains, stations are closed and rails are gone. In Miles City, MT, those closed and locked doors stand beside America's final transcontinental railroad, the Milwaukee Road. The old platform on the far side still rests next to the remnants of the old double track mainline, but the presence of the rails is deceptive here. They end just west of town, and extend only to the old shops to the east. The rails are rusty, weed grown, and quiet.

Another year is upon this old gateway in Miles City, and another season of holiday travels will pass without the rush of anticipation that is a coming passenger train. The Columbian and Olympian have not called here for decades, and it seems likely these locked doors will not open for holiday travelers any time soon. The quiet in these old gateways, bereft of holiday bustle, seems especially pronounced in a season of family memories and travels.


SDP45 said…
I had no idea the depot at Miles City looked like this. Very ornate. Too bad there are no trains to board there.

Oil-Electric said…
Yet another "Amen," Leland. You got me thinking about my last train ride, five years ago this week, from Vancouver to Seattle to spend Thanksgiving with friends. My ride was the "Cascades." To begin with, it was two hours late arriving from Eugene. I could have driven to Seattle in that time. But I wanted a train ride. Duh. Finally we shove off heading north and pick up speed for about - uhm - ten minutes. And stopped. I asked a trainman "what's up?" Yielding to a freighter. "Since when does varnish yield to a peddler?" He just shakes his head and wanders away. That happened two more times in the run up to Seattle. I did not enjoy the ride one damn bit. Cell phones ringing, bleep bleep of video games, goddam kids running up and down the isle playing hide and seek, and a bozo behind me with a hideous laugh. Sliding doors banging, DVD players on speakers instead of head phones. It was probably quieter at Chuck-E-Cheese! As I was de-training, a trainman handed me a complaint form, without me asking. The return trip a few days later was not any different. In some respects, worse. A woman about my age sat next to me, and it took me about five minutes to realize she was bombed out of her mind! Thankfully she got off in Tacoma. I don't know if she was destined for Tacoma. But that is where she got off ... We were an hour late getting into Vancouver.

Perhaps the trains and railroads have nothing to do with the service, perhaps its the class of people traveling?
Anonymous said…
As if the "Cascades" are varnish, as if commuter trains are varnish, period. They're transit for the dirty masses with hardly any level of concern for passenger comfort in those beer can tubes they call coaches. At least previous generations didn't have to deal with cell phones, DVD players, video games . . . but the idiotic kids have always been a problem.

I rode them once when visiting from the eastside. Not something I'll make a habit of; the complete opposite experience of my many trips on the Empire Builder.
LinesWest said…
Yeah, I'd have to agree with you gents -- the memories of train travel aren't always rosy. Even taking things like cell phones and DVD players out of the equation still leaves you with "Don't do that " speeches that blurt from the PA system and crew members that aren't always "fun" to be around. Not all of them of course, but the memorable ones are unfortunately the bad ones. Some dining car crews come to mind.

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