The Sunset Limited starts in New Orleans and takes the most southerly route in the U.S. all the way to Los Angeles, California. Those who stayed awake during high school history class will remember that this southern route was made possible by the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, not to mention the Mexican-America War of 1846-48. The train left the station at 9:00AM, so we had the whole day to observe its passage through the wet, coastal plains of Louisiana, into the pine forests of eastern Texas, and on to the clenching humidity of Houston, Texas. Night fell after we left Houston and the light didn’t return until we’d reached Del Rio, Texas and started into the scrub deserts of West Texas. We made a stop in Alpine, Texas (which I’d last visited a few years ago enroute to Big Bend National Park) and then pressed on to El Paso, Texas. Beyond El Paso, the tracks run right up to the Mexican border, right up to pieces of the new (but likely futile) border wall, and soon enters New Mexico. The Amtrak station in Deming, New Mexico stands out for being a lonely little open shelter with two benchs in a gravel parking lot. Night fell again just as we reached Benson, Arizona and that was it for any more sightseeing on this trip.
The Crescent, which actually starts in New York City, picked us up in DC in the late afternoon and whisked us over the Potomac into the South. The sun set while we were having dinner on the train and by next morning we were making a station stop in Atlanta, Georgia. After that we swept through a series of small Southern towns, including Anniston, Alabama (home of the Anniston Army Depot, the only depot capable of performing maintenance on heavy-tracked combat vehicles) and Birmingham, Alabama (home of the Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic site). As the sun set, we crossed Lake Pontchartrain on what seemed like a very narrow railroad tressle, went past the aboveground Greenwood Cemetery, and arrived at Union station in the Big Easy in the early evening – ontime after 1,152 miles on the rails. There are several Marriott-related hotels in downtown New Orleans, so we tried our taxi driver’s patience as we caromed around looking for the right one. After that, we opted for a late dinner at the hotel, and called it a day.
The Capitol Limited left Chicago in early evening for our overnight ride to DC and we had dinner on the train. Daylight had completely evaporated by the time we passed through Southbend, Indiana; Toledo, Ohio was a blur at midnight; and a gloomy, overcast dawn didn’t emerge until we reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Snow had started to appear as we approched Chicago but it was thick on the ground in eastern Pennsylvania and western Maryland – this would be the most snow we’d see on the whole trip. We wound our way along the Youghiogheny River, then passed through Martinsburg, West Virgina over to the North Branch of the Potomac River and then followed that to Harpers Ferry, West Virgina – where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Potomac and John Brown made his stand. From there we paralleled the main Potomac River and the old C&O Canal right in to Washington, DC’s wonderfully restored Union Station for an early afternoon, ontime arrival after 780 rail miles.
Our trip got started with a pleasantly boring flight on Alaska Airlines to Los Angeles International Airport, followed by a taxi ride to Union Station in the heart of downtown. Wayne & Diane wafted in on the Pacific Surfliner around noon, just in time for a nice lunch (from Traxx) in the station’s tree-shaded courtyard. Then, after a quick walk through Olvera street, we hung-out in the Metropolitan Lounge until our 6:00PM departure on the Southwest Chief.
Between the buffalo trace and the Interstate Highway System, there were the railroads. The iron rails are what knit the United States into an ocean-to-ocean nation after the Civil War and were the means for long-distance travel until the advent of better roads, cars, and airplanes. Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It in the World” and Bain’s “Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad” are excellent reads on this topic. The freight railroads are still an integral and essential part of the U.S. economy but passenger rail service has not fared so well. That reached its zenith in the 1940s, at which time it was possible to access every major city, and a surprising number of remote hamlets, by rail. After World War II, cars and planes began sucking the life out of passenger rail as the preferred means of long-distance travel in the U.S. Many classic old railroad stations (e.g., New York’s original Penn Station) were demolished and by 1965, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation, 85 percent fewer than in 1929. In 1971, the National Rail Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) – a for-profit corporation that is partially government funded – took over most of the remaining U.S. passenger rail services. Amtrak’s financial history (and its dealings with Congress) have been rocky to say the least but if you want to see the U.S. by train, it’s the only game in town. And, because Amtrak is, per passenger mile, overall 30 to 40 percent more energy-efficient than commercial airlines and automobiles (and is very competitive with other transportation modes in terms of safety per mile), it’s also an environmentally more friendly option (short of staying home) for long-distance travel.
“Nature gives to every time and season unique beauty; from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is just a succession of changes so soft and comfortable that we hardly notice the progress.” ~ Charles Dickens