My most memorable train trips

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, September 04, 2018

This year marks two decades since my first Amtrak ride and 17 years since I started riding trains with regularity. I think it’s safe to say that I’m no stranger to train travel. I take at least four intercity train trips each month, not to mention my regular use of rail transit at home in Washington, D.C. and while on the road. I have ridden trains in 47 U.S. states and 16 other countries. Nearly every train ride brings a new experience: ever-changing views out the window and meeting interesting people on-board. There’s something about the rhythm and spirit of train travel that keeps calling me back to the rails and compels me to keep exploring new routes, equipment, etc. In the tens of thousands of track-miles I’ve ridden, a handful of experiences on board trains stand out in my memory, and I’d like to share some of these with you:

A July 2001 scene at New Haven Union Station that I snapped on a Sony Digital Mavica camera at the age of 15. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
My earliest train travel memories: I grew up in Greensboro, N.C., but my aunt was (and still is) in New York City and my grandmother spent the summers in Madison, Conn. Starting around the age of five (around 1990-1991), I would fly to New York (it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I started taking the train there from Greensboro) and my aunt and I would take the subway and ride the Metro-North commuter train to see my grandmother. I remember the excitement of Grand Central Terminal and being glued to the window as the train emerged from the tunnel and passed through a canyon of tall buildings, then watching as the landscape became greener and the train picked up speed to the point where we outpaced the cars on parallel Interstate 95. I also remember the distinct smell and the worn-out seats on the M2 EMU coaches, which were then already 15 years old and would continue to be the workhorses of the New Haven Line for another two decades. I also fondly remember the rattling of the Redbird subway cars on the elevated no. 7 train line, which I rode a number of times to Mets games at Shea Stadium.

View from the rear of a New York City Subway 7 train in Queens in July 2001, including the Twin Towers two months before they were destroyed.
I also remember childhood visits to the N.C. Transportation Museum and its on-site excursion train in Spencer, to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in western N.C., and to the Essex Steam Train in Connecticut. Aside from my trips to New York and D.C., where I also had and still have family, these were my only experiences with passenger trains for the first 12 years of my life. For part of my childhood, I lived with my father not far from the Norfolk Southern main line and enjoyed watching freight trains, but never saw a passenger train as the Amtrak Crescent passes through there in the middle of the night.

Interior of an Amfleet I coach in mid-2001.
My first Amtrak ride was in 1998 at the age of twelve, with my father from Greensboro to Raleigh and back in a day on the Carolinian, which I have ridden dozens of times since. Greensboro’s station was then in a Norfolk Southern yard office building in a residential neighborhood at Pomona, and the trains would come screeching to a halt from full track speed there. I remember the Phase IV paint schemes on the locomotive and cars and the red-and-yellow-striped seats (which at the time impressed me by being bigger and more comfortable than commuter and tourist train seats) and the austere white-over-black signage in the original configuration of the Amfleets. I also seem to remember the Raleigh station (which was replaced just over a month ago) having pay toilets at that time.

When my father and I started taking Amtrak from Greensboro to New York around 2001, we would go to the station in the wee hours of the morning to catch the Crescent. I remember being enchanted by seeing the sun rise over the misty Blue Ridge foothills of central Virginia, then going to the Heritage dining car for breakfast and hearing the kitchen staff (who were more numerous then) singing spirituals while the warm smells of food wafted through the air. The Crescent also carried a Heritage dorm car behind the baggage car in those days, which I sadly never got to enter.

A scene inside the Wisconsin Valley, an ex-Amtrak cafe-lounge car owned by Friends of the 261 in Minneapolis, during the September 2013 Station to Station 'mobile happening' tour.
A ‘mobile happening’: The most surreal train ride I ever took was when a friend and I won a contest to join the final leg of visual artist Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, a chartered transcontinental train tour that took place in 2013. We flew to the West Coast for a long weekend and rode an all-private-car train following the Coast Starlight on a gorgeous day up the Coast Line from Los Angeles to Oakland, along with artists and musicians of all types who were performing and creating mixed-media artworks all throughout the month-long journey. We spent most of the ride in the ex-Milwaukee Road Skytop observation car Cedar Rapids. Among those with us there were roots-reggae band The Congos. The entire weekend was so fanciful that neither of us are convinced that it actually happened, except for the Station to Station poster that still hangs in my bedroom. It is highly unlikely that anything like it will happen again, especially given Amtrak’s tighter-fisted stance towards charter trains since March. But even with a cooperative Amtrak, it was a gargantuan and hugely expensive undertaking that required over a year of planning, coordination and fundraising to pull off.

Open vestibule through the Cascades: An equally memorable experience was being part of the Millennial Trains Project, a short-lived series of transcontinental private-railcar (pulled by scheduled Amtrak trains) journeys designed to aid the personal and professional growth of entrepreneurial and civic-minded members of the Millennial generation for which aspiring participants had to raise $5,000 through online crowdfunding. I raised the funds to participate in 2013 and was invited back in 2014 to blog about the experience here. The most amazing day of that trip was going from Seattle to Whitefish, Mont. behind the Empire Builder in August. At that time, due to BNSF track work, the Builder was leaving Seattle three hours earlier than normal, which meant we had the entirety of an absolutely stunning afternoon to go up the Skykomish valley, pass through Cascade Tunnel, then wind across the desert of central and eastern Washington. I spent nearly the entire time in the open rear vestibule of our dome car, the ex-CB&Q Silver Splendor. In 2013, we rode behind the eastbound California Zephyr and had great weather crossing the Rockies, but as storm clouds gathered on our entry to Denver, a rainbow appeared overhead as we pulled into Denver Union Station and detrained to go to that evening’s Colorado Rockies baseball game.

Alpine wonders: My aunt treated me to a two-week rail-based tour of Switzerland in August 2015. The mountainous country is a train lover’s paradise known for cleanliness, efficiency and punctuality. We took many gorgeous train rides, but some that stand out are the Bernina Express (a narrow-gauge train that changes 6,000 feet in elevation over two hours and goes through many spirals), the Glacier Express (which has you glued to the window the entire time), the Appenzeller Bahnen (a narrow-gauge network featuring many steep sections of cog railway) and the ride to Zermatt and up to Gornergrat, amidst glaciers in the shadow of the Matterhorn.

The Joliet Rocket nearing downtown Chicago at dusk on June 18, 2017.
Crossing the Andes: I got to take part in Trains’ rail tour of Peru last October. While the deluxe Belmond Andean Explorer and the narrow-gauge train from Cusco to Machu Picchu were remarkable, the most special part of the trip was the first half, when a couple dozen of us rode a private chartered train over nearly the entirety of the Central Andean Railway hosted by the president of the American company that owns it, veteran railroader Henry Posner. Being able to stop the train for runbys and photo shoots wherever we wanted added to what was already a spectacular trek from near sea level up to an Andean pass above 15,000 feet (the second highest point reachable by rail in the world) and across the altiplano.

Track-speed steam in a thunderstorm: Last summer, a friend and I volunteered to be part of the crew for the Joliet Rocket, four weekend round-trip excursions from Joliet, Ill. to Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, pulled by NKP No. 765. Each run went off without a hitch and the passengers were well-behaved. The job entailed very little sleep, with cleaning and prep work lasting till the wee hours of the morning in the yard, and a good workout, as I had to walk the entirety of the lengthy train several times and bend down to empty trash cans. But a huge payoff was on the deadhead run from Joliet back to the Rocket Yard in Chicago’s south side, during which a thunderstorm raged, but the mighty Berkshire muscled through the downpour at up to 70 mph. I thrilled in this experience from a darkened dome car.

What are some of your fondest train travel memories?

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