Being somewhere, even if only for a minute

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, November 19, 2019

One of my favorite aspects of train travel is that, when looking out a train window — or even better, in a dome, on an open platform or at an open Dutch door — you feel like you’re in a place rather than just passing through. This is especially true when an on-board narrator or written route guide informs you about what you are seeing. I was reminded of this when, in the middle of a two-week business trip to Oklahoma City this month, I rented a car to drive from there to the Ozarks for the weekend, primarily to experience the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad’s excursion train between Springdale and Van Buren, Ark., which I rode on Nov. 9.

The twin-Alco power for the A&M excursion train runs to the other end at the siding just north of the Van Buren, Ark. depot on Nov. 9, 2019. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
The A&M is one of a rare and laudable breed in contemporary American railroading — a thriving regional railroad whose primary business is freight, but which also takes pride in offering regularly-scheduled excursion passenger service. The A&M’s six-car passenger consist, which runs most Fridays and Saturdays, has become a fixture in the communities it passes through. Most of my fellow riders were northwest Arkansas locals. Several had ridden the A&M at least once before, while others said they’d heard of it by word of month and wanted to experience it for themselves. 

The destination town of Van Buren offers passengers a warm welcome to the small Victorian-era downtown, with the visitors’ bureau offering a free rubber-tired ‘trolley’ ride to the major attractions and most shops and restaurants offering discounts to train riders. I even heard that for certain very popular Saturday events in downtown Van Buren, rather than having to deal with parking there, some area residents will drive to Springdale and take the train, even if it’s not the most convenient routing.

The A&M's ex-Frisco main line crosses Clear Creek on a high trestle in northwest Arkansas' Boston Mountains.
The experience begins in the A&M’s small company museum next to the small downtown Springdale depot (across the main drag from the railroad’s corporate headquarters and lone maintenance shop). The exhibits tell the history of the line and how it came to be what it is today, and include an interesting assortment of model trains (mostly O scale and larger) and railroad memorabilia. The line was built in the late 1880s, part of a north-south stretch of the St. Louis & San Francisco (Frisco) system that connected Monett, Mo. (junction with the main line from St. Louis) with southeastern Texas. The family that owns the line now bought it from another family, which bought it from Frisco successor BNSF in the mid-1990s after having operated it under lease since 1989.

On this particular Saturday, the train left Springdale at 8:00 AM, making the southward run in a tidy 2.5 hours at a maximum speed of 40 MPH on well-maintained FRA Class 3 track. The consist, hauled by a pair of Alco C420s with maroon livery, includes three heavyweight coaches with clerestory ceilings, dome-coach Silver Feather (once part of the streamlined California Zephyr fleet), a streamlined ex-Southern Pacific Sunset Limited coffee shop-lounge and heavyweight parlor car Explorer, of Long Island Rail Road heritage, with open rear platform. 

The AMRR line weaves through the Ozark woods on its descent from the summit into Van Buren.
After bisecting the heart of the university town of Fayetteville, the train climbs into the Boston Mountains (a part of the Ozarks), reaching a summit of over 1,700 feet at a tunnel near Winslow before descending into the Arkansas River valley. In addition to the lone tunnel, which marks the highest point reachable by rail between the Appalachians and the Rockies, there are three remarkably high trestles and many points where the train hugs a rock face on one side and a stream on the other (the West Fork of the White River north of the divide and Clear Creek/Frog Bayou to the south). 

Passengers in the open-platform parlor car (which is on the rear for the southbound run, but is behind the locomotives northbound as they run around the train in Van Buren) are allowed to stand on the platform for the most scenic half-hour in the middle of the trip, including the three trestle crossings. Not only did the ride, combined with running commentary from one of our volunteer car hosts, immerse me in the autumnal mountain landscape, but it allowed me to claim to having visited some of the hamlets along the line. I witnessed, for example, the town of West Fork’s ‘Little Ole Opry,’ which attracts well-known country music acts, and the realistic dinosaur sculptures that mark the large schoolyard park in Mountainburg.

The A&M excursion train boards passengers at Van Buren, Ark. bound for Winslow.
Upon reaching Van Buren’s stately depot and unloading passengers, a new group of passengers boards to take a 3-hour round-trip back north to Winslow, Ark. (a midway point on the line with a tiny commercial strip) while the passengers from Springdale enjoy the sights, tastes and shopping opportunities of Van Buren. The train returns at 2:00 PM and does the reverse, returning Springdale passengers to their origin point just before 5:00 PM. On this Saturday, the entire train was full for the Van Buren-Winslow turn, but only four of the six cars were partially occupied for the Springdale run.

Driving back to Oklahoma City the next day, I took some extra time to travel back roads so I could see some of eastern Oklahoma. I saw more than I would have had I stayed on the Interstates — highway driving feels like running over/through homogeneous places on a superimposed asphalt conveyor without actually being there or seeing much of anything — but unless I took the time to stop in a town and walk around, I still didn’t get as rich of a visit as I did of the places the train traversed. If only I could have gone by train the whole way…

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients include Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients.

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