Trains Are Cool

I feel compelled to follow up on our wonderful Editor’s April 6th column on trains. I am thrilled to hear about the cash infusion for Amtrak. Rail travel is much greener than flying; it is also simpler, more relaxed, and far more beautiful. Yes, of course it’s slower – but if you have the time to travel by rail, it’s a lovely and incomparable experience.

As I mentioned in a previous column, I take a major rail trip every summer: I travel from Albuquerque, NM, to Chicago, IL, on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief; following an afternoon layover in an attractive part of downtown Chicago, I take the Lake Shore Limited to western Massachusetts. The trip is not short (particularly for a smoker; Amtrak trains are non-smoking) but it is stunning, and it takes me through a variety of landscapes and experiences that I could never enjoy from 35,000 feet.

Amtrak trains usually include a lounge and viewing car, dining car, and sleepers. The sleepers are expensive — and know that the smallest compartment is approximately phone booth-sized — but it’s worth it if you have the cash. It’s also worth it to take a trip even if you don’t. My own journey takes me through New Mexico, eastern Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa (very briefly — hello, Fort Madison!), and Illinois – and that’s just the first half. I see the high desert, western plains, corn country, and peeks into the back streets of small, unknown towns. It is intoxicating. It is inspiring. And it feels worth every minute of a not very fast trip. (Have you heard of Harvey Houses? And did you know there was an especially fine one in Las Vegas, New Mexico? Or even that there is a Las Vegas, New Mexico?)

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I am sitting at home tonight in far southern New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert, enjoying a very rare springtime rain. I can hear the mournful but ultimately seductive siren call of the whistle as a train trundles through town. I wish I were on board that train right now, setting off on an adventure, not caring what the destination is, because getting there is so, so fine.