Sunday, November 22, 2009

Travels

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.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Romance

It’s almost midnight in Pittsburgh this brisk November evening in 1996. My breath hangs in the air as I step out of a cab and walk quickly into Penn Station. The single escalator is moving the wrong direction so I take the stairs up to the old platforms. A lonely Amtrak diesel, number 310, is idled peacefully on a spur, retired for the night. As I wait on the platforms of Pittsburgh’s Penn Station I stare eastward, looking for the late Capitol Limited. Snowflakes slowly drift down through holes in the old train shed.

The Capitol pulls into the station one hour late lead by a new Genesis locomotive. 838 is its number and it leads a set of double-decked Superliner cars on an 800 mile sprint from the nation’s capital to the capital of the heartland. The stop in Pittsburgh is just one of many scheduled throughout the night before arrival in Chicago. The Capitol is nothing like an airplane or bus. You never meet the engineer, reasons for delays are guarded secrets, and the passenger is usually wrong or in the way. But to some, train travel still has its magic.

The Pittsburgh skyline and Golden Triangle slip away as 838 heads us west along the Ohio River and beside old US highways. Near Sewickley the falling snow makes the lights of Conrail’s massive Conway yard soft and diffuse.

The Capitol’s next stop comes at Alliance in the wee hours of the morning. No one is there waiting. Only a few parked cars, a tool shed, and a sign that reads “Chance takers are accident makers” greet the train. With no passengers on or off the Capitol is ready to head west but the snow has become too deep. The automatic switch machines are frozen and one of the crew must wade through the snow and throw them manually. His comment is well received, “someone owes me a cigar for that.”

Cleveland’s distinctive skyline rolls into view as the Capitol creeps its way into the city. Speeds are usually faster here but tonight there are twelve inches of snow on the ground, frozen switches, and long slow freight trains. Leaving town two hours late, we cross “Bridge 1.” This old lift bridge has seen many snowy nights like this one. Fifty years ago, a crack passenger train named the 20th Century Limited waited for a half hour at Bridge 1 while a novice bridge operator let a barge pass beneath it. Those were the days when trains like the 20th Century didn’t wait for anything and the operator was fired. Those were also the days when trains had sleeping cars called Pullmans and didn’t stop in Toledo or Pittsburgh for half an hour to unload mail and packages. But such is the progression of time and there are few on this train who know how different it used to be anyway.

The train is late enough out of Toledo that dawn breaks in western Ohio. The countryside is now distinctly Midwestern, full of harvested cornfields and gently rolling hills. The sun is rising and as the train races along at 80 it kicks fresh snow up and into the orange sky. For me, this is the romance and magic of railroading; a connection to the past and a forgotten soul of a nation. Chicago is still five hours to the west and we’ll pull in 3 hours late but it doesn’t matter, the trip has already been worth it.

Nighttime in Chicago is a beautiful collage of color and people. In Union Station the scene is more subdued. The stately marble and granite give the old Grand Concourse an impersonal and intimidating feeling, recalling times when the Pennsylvania Railroad called itself “The Standard Railroad of the World” and its pride was the Pullman only passenger train named the Broadway Limited. In 1902 the train was premiered in New York as the Pennsylvania Special just a short distance from the New York Central’s own premiere festivities, kicking off the storied 20th Century Limited. And so a great rivalry and race was born as the two legendary trains ran the gauntlet between New York and Chicago. The Century ran along the Water Level Route via Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toledo. By contrast the Broadway headed out across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh and Ft. Wayne. The rivalry lasted until the late sixties when the Century was pulled from service, leaving only the Broadway to soldier on. Amtrak inherited the train in 1971 making it their own premiere eastern train and benchmark for quality service. It was the first train to get matching passenger cars in the seventies; a symbol of progress over the rainbow of colors Amtrak collected from the freight railroads. It survived Penn Central, Conrail, and the rise of the Capitol Limited to the position of “premiere eastern train.” But it couldn’t survive the budget cuts of 1995 and after 93 years of continuous service, the operation ended quietly in 1995.

A million years from streamlined Centuries and Broadways and just off the Grand Concourse in a small waiting room with worn brown carpet and plastic foliage, I stand with a small group of people. We are waiting for the call to board the last train in the station. Yesterday this train wasn’t here, in fact, not since The Broadway has there been a train to New York via Pittsburgh. Even though this train isn’t named the Broadway Limited, the schedule and train numbers are the same. Traditionally train 40, The Broadway, was the last train to depart Chicago and this new train, The Three Rivers, is set to pick up where the Broadway left off. Most passengers waiting with me aren’t aware this is a first run. Fewer are aware that it is the second coming of a railroad legend. I guess it’s understandable since unlike 1902 New York, there is no fanfare.

The train is going to make only one stop between Hammond and Pittsburgh in a little town called Nappanee, Indiana. With so few passenger cars and so many express cars, it looks more like a freight train than an old benchmark for quality service. Leaving Chicago on time behind two venerable F40 locomotives we make our quick stop in Hammond and leave Lake Michigan behind.

The single level Amfleet cars pitch and roll as we outpace the schedule across the dark northern Indiana countryside. The Three Rivers turns out to be a little train with an attitude all it’s own. People stay up all night and play cards in the cafe car but never ask for names; it doesn’t seem important. Farm houses with lighted windows and dark vacant towns with single blinking four way stops slip by outside the window, bearing silent testament to our passing. Unlike the previous night, snow is no problem and the Three Rivers pulls into Pittsburgh twenty minutes early. It’s good to have this train with us again. Pittsburgh is cold and gray and the first flakes of the next snow blow through the station platforms, hurried by a sharp and cutting wind. Only thirty hours have passed, but the ride on the Capitol Limited seems years away as I walk the length of the Three Rivers back into the station. Hailing a cab we pull away from Penn Station and leave 1000 miles and a new beginning behind.

Epilogue: The resurrection of a disbanded railroad icon is a rare thing indeed, but the Three River's time proved as limited as everything else. The abandonment of mail contracts in 2005 led to its demise in March of that year. I wasn't able to share in the last run as I had in the first; time had placed me far away in the lands of the western Hiawathas. Still, the memories of that snowy night and the crisp coolness of the Pittsburgh platforms remain vivid and heartfelt. God, has it really been 13 years?