I’ve ridden trains around the world–Europe on a rail pass too many times to count (especially while working on Frommer’s Europe by Train), Shinkansen bullet and commuter trains throughout Japan, in India through the desert to Jaisalmer, on old-fashioned steam-engine trains in Switzerland and Japan, and many other trips–but I recently took my very first long-distance train ride in my own country. I don’t know why it took me so long.
I boarded the Southwest Chief in my hometown of Lawrence KS for the nine-hour trip to Chicago for a family reunion. The
train was more than two hours late, which would cause apoplectic fits in Japan and Germany. But the good thing is that I could follow the actual status of my train on a mobile app, which meant I could enjoy another cup of coffee from the comfort of my home instead of waiting fitfully at the station before dawn.
Although there are assigned seats, I spent almost the entire day in the light-filled observation car, where large windows provided panoramic views of Midwestern fields and tidy small towns, many with diminutive and quaint depots. One of the best things about traveling by train is the mobility it provides, especially if you’re traveling with a group. I played Yahtzee with my nieces at one of the tables in the observation car, shared a lunch with my mother at our seats, and visited with my cousin, who had boarded the same train in Flagstaff and had reserved her own sleeper compartment.
A highlight was the dining car, where we had the choice of everything from steak and salmon to chicken and pasta. Diners are assigned tables with strangers, which makes for an enjoyable way to pass the time, especially for solo travelers.
What surprised me was how crowded the train was, filled with students traveling between their hometown and university, grandparents on their way to visit family, and a variety of people who find trains the most effective and economical way to travel in the U.S. And of course there are train fanatics, those who ride trains just for the love of it. One of those self-professed fanatics is Allan Labrozzi, whom I met on Southwest Chief traveling with his wife. Since taking his first train trip in 1975, followed a few years later traveling with an Amtrak rail pass, Labrozzi takes multiple trips every year, meticulously keeping track of each journey in notebook after notebook.
“No two trips are alike,” he told me. “Traveling by train allows you to relax and get away from the stress of life, and there’s always something to see. But the real plus are the people you meet. Everyone has a story. And the memories stay with you.”
There are numerous train trips Labrozzi recommends for the novice or for international travelers wishing to see North America, including runs between Schenectady and Montreal, Seattle and Los Angeles, the California Zephyr between San Francisco and Chicago and the four-night Toronto-Vancouver trip on Rail Canada.
Though we can’t compete with the extensive train networks of other countries, there are many more lines than I’d imagined, and now I’m interested in exploring more of them. Traveling by train is also inexpensive ($112 round trip between Lawrence and Chicago), with discounts given to seniors, children, students, military personnel, veterans and AAA members. For people with time, a USA Rail Pass is available for 15, 30 or 45 days.
Although there are many freight trains that rumble through Kansas, my international friends are amused to hear that only two passenger trains stop daily in my hometown, one going east and the other going west.
One of the most long-lasting affects of taking the Southwest Chief is that I now hear the whistles of trains passing through, something I had grown too used to since childhood. If I happen to be awake early in the morning (5:47am if it happens to be on time), I listen for the Chief’s plaintive short and long whistles as it comes into town and approaches the station. Pausing just one minute to unload and board passengers, it’s whistle sounds again as it continues on its journey, first loud, then dimmer, dim and gone.