U.S. Capitol Building in Wasington, D.C. is just a short subway ride away from Union Station.

All aboard for an
American odyssey

Amtrak makes the journey
as exciting as the destination

Future of train travel in doubt

By Daniel Kane
Special to the Star-Bulletin

As a kid I loved that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor film "The Silver Streak," the story of a train ride that begins in Los Angeles and ends a few days, several murders, a car chase or two and a train derailment later in Chicago's Union Station. I mean, right in the middle of Union Station.

The L.A.-to-Chicago route is not the most popular rail route across the western United States. That honor belongs to the San Francisco-Chicago route -- the California Zephyr -- a journey that takes almost a day longer due to a strenuous climb over the Rockies. A few years back, I had taken another popular route, the Empire Builder, from Seattle to Chicago. This time, I wanted to trace the Silver Streak's debris-strewn path across the desert Southwest and the Great Plains.

It's no longer called the Silver Streak. In fact, an Amtrak official assured me it never had been. I assumed there would also be no murders on board.

There was once a train called the Silver Streak, one of the fleet of so-called Zephyrs that zipped across the country from the 1930s to the 1960s. But it didn't run specifically from L.A. to Chicago. I guess the Southwest Chief, the actual name of the L.A.-Chicago train, didn't have the ring to it Hollywood needed. Nevertheless, it still departs Los Angeles with a daily regularity, arriving in Chicago just under 43 hours later, barring delays. But chances are, the person who opts for a train to get from Los Angeles to Chicago has no pressing engagements.

It wasn't primarily movie nostalgia that had me hankering for the Southwest Chief. It wasn't a hesitancy to fly, either (my journey was taken before the attacks of last Sept. 11), though it may be an added incentive now.

There were two primary reasons. One was to experience firsthand the geographic dimensions of the continental United States, something that eludes you on a five-hour flight. The other was the attractive price. A one-way coach seat from L.A. to Chicago only runs about $200, cheaper yet with a student or senior discount. There's an even pressing reason to take the train today. (But more of that in the accompanying sidebar.)

The voyage to Chicago was actually only half (well, three-fourths, to be precise) the odyssey. After a week in Chicago, I would continue on by train to Washington, D.C., all told spending about 3 1/2 days on board, crossing more than 3,000 miles and passing through 14 states, without leaving the ground except to mount the carriage steps.

If you have time, an hour's loitering in the L.A. Union Station has its rewards. Built in 1939, the station boasts a graceful Art Deco design with stunning mahogany-lined interiors. Like many of America's historic railway stations, it has undergone an impressive renovation to bring it back to its old glory.

Once aboard, I was surprised at the comfort offered: wide, heavily cushioned coach seats placed two by two, each one bigger than your average first-class airplane seat. I was also taken by my car's emptiness. A young mother of two heading to join her fiance in Rhode Island and a young soldier heading back to his unit in Missouri were my only companions, though we would pick up more on the way.

With a lurch and a slow grinding of gears below, the Southwest Chief began its cross-country journey, one that takes it across eight states as well as the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Only after casting off sprawling Los Angeles in its late afternoon glow did we begin our long progress across the desert Southwest. From L.A. the train heads through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert into Arizona.

An ever-popular place on the train is the Skyview Lounge, a car specially designed with maximum window space, including a glass roof. With lounge chairs arranged to face the outside view streaming by, the car's passengers swell as we pass into the stunning red sand vistas of the Arizona desert in early evening. The sensation of passing from the Pacific coast and continent's edge into the vast interior is an exciting one.

At Williams Junction, just before Flagstaff, Ariz., we discharge a load of passengers and pick up another. I later discover the reason for this nondescript town's popularity: At Williams Junction you can opt to catch the Grand Canyon Railway's vintage steam train, make a foray into the nearby Canyon's south rim, and then return to catch the train the next day or the day after.

The next morning, not long after breakfast, finds us in New Mexico with a short stopover in Albuquerque. The sky is a perfect blue, and the streets sizzle under the summer sun. The half-hour stop is a refreshing opportunity for some leg-stretching along the platform and to take in some desert air. The small train depot downtown seems to be a happening place.

A modest crowd has gathered looking for disembarking loved ones. Next to the station, a small cluster of food and craft stalls has been set up. A new acquaintance from the train, and a regular rail-rider, had me eagerly anticipating the prospect of the homemade burritos sold by hawkers at the Albuquerque station. She'd described them in mouth-watering detail, and the Albuquerque stop was the one she most anticipated on her regular rides between Kansas City and Los Angeles. I soon taste what she meant when I buy one of the large corn tortillas stuffed with homemade refried beans and chicken. I buy two more for the road.

SPEAKING OF FOOD, the dining car is an integral experience of train travel. It's where passengers mingle and lives brush furtively against each other over chicken Dijon and after-dinner coffee. Meals are included in the price of a sleeper ticket, but not so with coach. Still, prices are reasonable, running about $7 to $8 for breakfast and $10 to $12 for lunch and dinner.

Snacks, including sandwiches, hot dogs and alcohol, are also available at the snack bar in the bottom level of the Skyview Lounge. Credit cards are welcome at both. Many passengers also opt to bring their own food for the two-day journey.

Due to the relatively large volume of passengers, diners are directed to fill up four-person tables completely. This means the shy will be forced to mingle -- not a bad thing -- and the outgoing have more reason to linger over an extra bottle of wine or second dessert, and maybe even pick up some valuable insights from a stranger. Many of the passengers are avid rail fans. One man had taken the Southwest Chief no less than 12 times, and even cajoled a souvenir menu from the waitress.

Contrary to what one might imagine, meals on board are quite tasty. Amtrak has gone out of its way recently to raise its standards. On my two nights on board the Southwest Chief, options included such things as prime rib with baked potato and baked lasagna.

SOON, WE'D traded the red desert flats of Arizona, punctuated only by the occasional yucca or lonesome mission house, for the more "hospitable" desert of New Mexico and southern Colorado with their gentle brown hills and scattered pine or cottonwood, and far-off grazing cattle or sheep. For the 50 miles before Gallup, N.M., we pass through Pueblo Indian territory, and a National Park service representative climbs on board to give us a running narrative of the scene from the Skyview Lounge, pointing out the villages and sacred places of Pueblo.

It was with regret that I watched the sharp colors and harsh landscapes of the desert Southwest slowly fade. By the time one passes into southern Colorado, the outlines of the Great Plains take shape -- sand and rock give way slowly to brush and then grassy spans of fenced-in prairie. Even the rare farmhouse can be spotted, like a prop out of "Little House on the Prairie." I wondered how one could live so isolated and seemingly forgotten. They are views that inspire a mixture of melancholy and awe.

"Out here, you can see a storm coming a whole day away," one old passenger said to me. The isolated Colorado towns of La Junta and Trinidad rang with a distant familiarity. I'd lived in Colorado as a teen and recalled the names from high school football standings and summer tornado sightings breaking in on the radio.

After a day progressing through the seemingly endless expanse of Kansas, the train crosses the Missouri River and into Kansas City, another popular destination for travelers. My journey, however, took me across northern Missouri and into Iowa. At the historic city of Fort Madison, Iowa, we crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois.

We pass through Galesburg, Ill., your classic Midwestern town and hometown to the poet Carl Sandburg, reaching Chicago's Union Station in time for dinner, not quite two days after leaving Los Angeles. Chicago is an Amtrak hub, where the nation's eastern and western rail routes meet. It makes the vast echoing halls of Union Station alive with traffic at all times. Even if you only have a short time in Chicago, Union Station is centrally located enough to allow you a quick jaunt around the city's historic downtown; just head out the door and down Jackson Boulevard to State Street.

If you have time, you may even want to wander into Chicago's interactive Museum of Science and Industry, located lakefront at Hyde Park. In a bit of eerie good luck, I did just that and found a permanent display of the Silver Streak in the lobby. The interactive display allows a walk through the train's several refurbished coaches. But Chicago's Union Station, built at the turn of the last century and one of America's last great railway stations still in operation, is itself worth a look around. The waiting hall, with its mammoth pillars and cathedral-like ceiling, reflects the colossal ambitions of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century.

After a full week in Chicago -- a story in itself -- it's back on board for the remainder of the transcontinental journey to Washington, D.C.

It is a scenic, if short, journey beginning as we leave the Windy City behind and head across the rural green expanses of Indiana and Ohio, a stage that takes us through the first and only night on board. The next morning found us climbing through the mist-shrouded Alleghenies of western Pennsylvania.

From here on out, the scenery is of a continuous beauty, which I imagine must be more pronounced in autumn when the mountains of maple and oak blaze bright orange and red. The train takes in the tail of West Virginia culminating at Harper's Ferry, perhaps the highlight of the trip.

The site of John Brown's failed 1859 attempt to seize the federal arsenal and lead a slave uprising, the small town still effuses history in its well-preserved period homes and buildings. It is also a National Historic Park run by the National Park Service. Harper's Ferry enjoys natural gifts that also explain its long-strategic significance as well. The town sits at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, which cut through the ancient landscape below high bluffs.

A woman waiting to debark professed her hometown to be the most beautiful town in America, and I was apt to believe her. At this point, Washington, D.C., is almost close enough to hear, lying barely 50 miles down the winding Potomac.

Like the Union Stations of L.A. and Chicago, that of Washington, D.C., is a landmark. Built in 1909, in the midst of America's "Imperial Age" (and fittingly modeled after a Trajan's Arch and the Baths of Diocletian of imperial Rome), it remains a classic example of the monumental style of American architecture that characterizes a large part of Washington (the Lincoln Memorial, for example). It is a fitting bookend to that other monumental Union Station in Chicago.

Washington's Union Station also sits near the heart of the capital city, just behind the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. The station is also a stop on the city's subway line, making it an easy connection to the rest of Washington's vast offerings. As I passed, bag in hand, under the station's surrounding arcades and into the humidity of a Washington summer day, I couldn't help but marvel at how I had just witnessed an entire continent pass before me as I traversed it from Pacific to Atlantic -- well, nearly -- and all for less than $400 with no jet lag to speak of.



Beauty surrounds the waiting room at Harper's Ferry Station, which sits at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers

Future of train travel in doubt

By Daniel Kane
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Now, more than ever, is a good time to catch the train. Unfortunately, as this article is being written, the fate of the Amtrak long-distance service is in doubt. Due to heavy maintenance and upkeep costs, as well its responsibility of paying out pensions to railway workers from before Amtrak days, Amtrak has operated for a long time under a heavy debt while still keeping ticket prices low. Its operations have, in fact, rested upon heavy federal subsidies.

Amtrak's request for $1.2 billion in federal funding for the next fiscal year has not yet been granted, and Amtrak has threatened to shut down all long-distance train service as of October unless more funding is forthcoming from Congress. It would be a shame to see the experience of cross-country rail travel denied to future generations. A rail journey of short or long duration offers up new and valuable vistas for the eye and the mind's eye. There is something about a train.

Visit Amtrak's full-service Web page at for information on routes, timetables, prices and reservations. Ticket prices remain quite reasonable, a normal adult coach-class fare from L.A. to Chicago going for $199, and from Chicago to Washington, D.C., for $168. Discounts of up to 10 percent are offered for seniors and students.

Prices rise rather steeply if one opts for a sleeping-class ticket, running from about $600 for basic and $1,200 for deluxe accommodations for the L.A.-to-Chicago route. The perks of deluxe sleepers include an onboard shower. All sleeping-class tickets include the price of meals. The Amtrak Web site also provides diagram layouts of its various sleeping-class compartments.

The Amtrak-run site at lets you calculate mileage between any two points on their routes. The navigators-at-heart can even set up an account keeping track of their total miles traveled.

Reservations at least one month in advance are recommended for some of the more popular routes, especially in summer.

Daniel Kane is a free-lance writer who divides his time between Hawaii and Asia.

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