Will Fred ever grow up?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, May 20, 2014

            I am a man in full. I am photographed with presidents. Corporate boards desire my input. Younger women steal glances at me as we pass. I know the secret formula for Classic Coke and possess Michael Ward’s cell phone number. Yet when it comes to a passenger train, I simply turn to putty, a 10-year-old kid again. Right now I am on high alert. Today is the day: my next adventure begins.

            Were you ever like that? Well, I still am. What I’ve learned is that the anticipation of a train trip is often sweeter and more exciting than the trip itself. In my mind’s eye I am already sipping a Diet Pepsi in a first-class seat aboard the Acela Express to New York City. Then watching the Hudson River go by from my room on the Lake Shore Limited. At Rensselaer, N.Y. (Albany), I’ll see the Boston section be added, enjoy my evening martini in my bedroom, and then by twilight make three new friends in the dining car, with the Mohawk River as our backdrop. Will I be awakened clanking over the drawbridge near Sandusky? Hope so. I look forward to seeing us dodge the freight trains between Elkhart, Ind., and Chicago. Lunch at Blackbird on West Randolph. Gossip with Mark the redcap. Take the Texas Eagle through Illinois towns I was first introduced to on a Gulf, Mobile & Ohio parlor car almost half a century ago. The next morning we’ll stop in Mineola, Tex., where as a 12-year-old my parents put me aboard the West Texas Eagle to visit my friend John Pharr in Midland. And all morning and afternoon watch Texas go by. See what I mean by anticipation? I’m having a great time, and the train hasn’t left the station. In this vision of a perfect world, I’ll debark at Austin fashionably late, but not too late.

            Will all these nice things happen? Probably not. Maybe I can’t use my upgrade coupon on the Acela. My room on the Lake Shore may not face the Hudson River. Maybe my flatiron steak will be overcooked. Things go wrong, which is why I say anticipation can be better than the experience itself. For instance, I am one of those people who say that a late train means more train-riding fun at the same low price. I really mean it when I say it, but when I am aboard a Canadian that gets to Toronto after midnight, 15 hours late, there’s no enjoyment, just a feeling of impatience.

            Most of my adventures by train end nicely. And sometimes the things that irritate us are the stuff of good memories many years later. For example, in high school I took Rock Island’s Twin Star Rocket twice from Dallas to visit my older sister and her husband in Lawrence, Kan. Nearing every stop, the conductor would turn on the lights of my coach and loudly announce the station. “CHICK-a-shay!” he yelled in southern Oklahoma, as I peeped out the window, startled. Wouldn’t we all like to ride the Rocket today and put up with that? In a heartbeat.

            What were my best trips? Maybe it will surprise you that there’s no single one standing out above all others. But I remember the joy of discovery, taking for the first time trains that I’d heard about most of my life. The El Capitan in 1965 (back then, in college, I couldn’t afford the Super Chief section of Santa Fe’s premier train). The Capitol Limited in 1968. The Coast Daylight (in the parlor observation car) and the domeliner California Zephyr in 1969. The Canadian on its original Canadian Pacific route in 1971. The Amtrak Auto Train in 1994, just before it traded dome cars for Superliners. I remember each of these encounters as precious moments. That Auto Train was 12 hours late leaving Lorton, Va., because of a CSX derailment, but this was my first time to ride that train, and I was so grateful Amtrak didn’t cancel it that I wasn’t at all unhappy getting to Sanford at 10 that night.

            I’m a glass-is-half-full person, so when I try to think of my worst passenger train experience, there aren’t many candidates. Okay, the Canadian last February was a downer the last day. The month before that, it was no fun getting on the Cardinal five hours late in Chicago and finding the toilets didn’t work on the sleeping car and my roomette was colder than a meat locker. On the other hand, I slept quite well in a coach seat that night, enjoyed the trip in every other way, and got a voucher refund for my roomette. All the inconvenience aside, it was a good trip. Further back than that, there was the Adirondack conductor who stuffed everyone in one coach, leaving three empty out of Montreal. Truly bad experiences are rare for me.

            The people I become tired of are the ones put on earth to complain. They seem to congregate on the passenger train discussion board of There, anything Amtrak does is bad. Ah, don’t get me started. As I get old, I become less tolerant of stupid people. My philosophy is this: Yes, Amtrak is absolutely the worst rail passenger service to be found in the U.S., except for the alternative, which is no rail passenger service at all. Which would you rather have?

            So in one respect, I remain 10 years old and am proud of it. I enjoy riding trains. I anticipate a trip these days like I used to in fifth grade. Amtrak could be better, but that’s a topic for another time. Have some fun, please.

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