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Train travel offers scenery and good company

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My first morning on the westbound California Zephyr, I awoke to a brilliant white outside my window.

One of the great things about train travel is the disorientation upon awakening after a night's sleep and finding oneself several hundred miles down the line. I'd fallen asleep the night before just after Omaha, Neb., still on the plains and still in warm late-April weather.

Without my glasses, I assumed it was extremely foggy out. I soon realized it was not fog but a heavy snowstorm; no longer were we on the plains, but in the foothills of the Rockies, about a half-hour outside of Denver.

Between a breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits and the meatloaf lunch special, we'd go through points in the high Rockies accessible only by train (on the curves, you could see the engines blast through snowdrifts as if they were nothing), though the Moffat Tunnel and across the Continental Divide.

By the end of the day, the states and topography again would change, and by night, I watched Provo and Salt Lake City roll by, seemingly one continuous megalopolis. (I was impressed by the Utah Capitol all lit up, but disappointed that I did not see any Home Plus stores in the metro area.)

Romance and nostalgia

I can trace my fascination with trains back to age 5, when Mom took me and my newborn brother to visit our grandparents in Clarksburg. I don't have a memory of the trip from Petersburg, Va., to Washington, D.C., but vividly remember Union Station (it was by far the biggest enclosed space I had ever been in), and most important, the giant blue and gray Baltimore and Ohio engine, with its gold capitol-dome logo.

In 1973, I managed to win a junior high science competition, earning a trip to Florida for the Skylab launch, making my first trip on Amtrak, and first long trip without parental supervision, on a "rainbow" consisting of cars Amtrak had inherited from other railroads.

Over the years, I've taken the train numerous times, most memorably on a trip to New Orleans (via Atlanta and Chicago) with my friend Brenda -- in which I came to the realization that there are train people, and people who just can't abide train travel. (Her reaction upon first seeing our roomette: "What the hell is this, the closet?")

Then, for about a decade, I simply had not had occasion to take the train. During the 2012 presidential campaign, with Mitt Romney running on cutting federal spending, including Amtrak, I decided I had better ride again while I could, in case Romney won.

I took an out-and-back trip to Clifton Forge, Va., and realized how much I enjoy and had missed traveling by train.

Time flies by

There's no better way to appreciate how vast and spectacular the country is than a cross-country train trip.

By plane, the trip cross-country is reduced to a few hours of humiliation, aggravation and discomfort. By car, most people break the trip into segments, with overnight stops.

However, three nights and three days of basically continuous train travel, from Charleston to Chicago, and then on to California, provides a very clear perspective.

While spending 48-plus hours on a train might seem long, it is amazing how quickly it goes by. (I talked to many passengers who, like myself, had packed lots of reading material -- but never found the time or need to crack open a book (or e-book).

Each morning, the sleeping-car attendant delivers papers to each room, and keeps an urn of coffee going from early morning to evening. Complimentary juice and bottled water is also available.

Between breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, sightseeing in the observation car (with floor-to-ceiling dome windows), to a nightcap in the lounge (while the SCA converts one's room from daytime seating to sleeping accommodations), the day goes quickly.

I've also always found the gentle rocking motion of the train very conducive to sleeping -- a sensation that persisted for about 36 hours after I completed this extended trip.

(Unlike conductors and engineers, who change out every eight to 10 hours, the train's service personnel stay on board, and on duty, for the duration of the trip, so you get to know them well. Ron, the SCA on my sleeper, has been with Amtrak since its inception and plans to retire this summer; he did a great job, as did the crew in the dining car.)

While meals are not the grand cuisine of the golden era of rail travel, the food is good (about the caliber of Applebee's or Chili's) and plentiful, and is included in the price of the sleeping-car accommodations.

But the best part of dining on the train is not the food, or the scenery passing by, but the people you meet. Unless you're traveling in a party of four, at each meal you're seated with other passengers.

Among my dining companions were a former city manager of Bloomington, Ind., who was taking time off before starting his new job as a professor at Indiana University; a retiree from England who was fulfilling his lifelong dream of visiting the U.S.; a retired couple from Michigan headed to Reno; a group from Galesburg, Ill., returning from a bowling tournament in Reno; a couple from Australia completing a five-week tour of the States; Mike from San Francisco, whose family business is restoration of old buildings and houses and who was headed to a wedding in Denver; and possibly the most delightful couple in the world, Ruth and Colin, from London.

She's an executive at Heathrow Airport; I gathered that he's retired and spends his time going to cricket and rugby matches and holding court at the local pub, which he said on occasion admits women.

She's Scottish, he's from Wales, with personalities to match, and while I never quite discerned what he had done for a living, at one time Ruth was his secretary.

They had a bedroom on the Zephyr, a considerably larger sleeping accommodation than the roomette, with a sofa that converts into a bed.

Asked if the bedroom compartment bed was big enough for two people, Colin said, "If they were on honeymoon, yes. After 30 years together ..." and he gestured upward, referencing the sleeper's upper berth.

It's not surprising the number of British and Australian tourists treating the Zephyr as a "land cruise," given that they avoid the headache not only of driving in a foreign country -- but one where people drive on the wrong side of the road.

Relaxing and friendly

I would guess about three-fourths of the sleeping-car passengers were on vacation, as opposed to trying to get from point A to point B, with the percentages probably reversed for passengers in coach.

It would be pointless here to go on about the spectacular scenery. By the time we got to Donner Lake and the Sierras, it was almost scenery overload -- as if it was hard to believe there was yet another spectacular vista.

Rail travel isn't the way to go if you're in a hurry, but it provides a relaxing, friendly, comfortable way to see parts of the country you'd never see by air or car, including sections of big cities probably not endorsed by the local chambers of commerce, and small towns where you can literally discern the right and wrong sides of the tracks.

Based on questions and inquiries, I was surprised to learn how many people have never been on a train.

For a brief sample of what train travel is like, it's possible to catch the Cardinal on out-and-back trips on eastbound 50 and westbound 51 on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays.

While many folks make the round-trip for an afternoon at The Greenbrier, I'd recommend staying on an hour to Clifton Forge, a charming little railroading town in the Allegheny Highlands.

There's a great restaurant/pub across the street from the station, Jack Mason's, and the C&O Railway Heritage Center is a short walk away. Featuring a museum, several restored railcars and C&O steam engine 614 (currently in Greenbrier Express colors), it's well worth a visit.

Want to go?

Total round-trip was about $1,150. With sleeper car reservations, you pay a rail fare (normally, the lowest coach fare for the route) and an accommodations charge. (The accommodations charge is the same whether there are one or two passengers in the compartment.)

Like airlines, Amtrak uses bucket pricing, with rates going up as space is booked. I got the lowest bucket for a Zephyr roomette, at $263, but the rates can approach $800 at peak demand.

As noted, the accommodations charge includes all meals in the dining car, as well as complimentary coffee, juice, bottled water and daily newspapers.

Amtrak's website (Amtrak.com) is useful for researching trips, but AmSnag.net is better. With it, you enter departure and destination stations and date of travel and it will display up to 30 days of all available routes, with all fare and accommodations options.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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