Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

My Amtrak Adventure

For a recent birthday, I decided to treat myself to an Amtrak trip. Kathy couldn’t really take the time off from work, and I had accumulated enough free miles to earn a free round trip, first class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The MP/T&P operated a number of Eagles that radiated out from St. Louis to Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, and other points across the system. The Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take an Eagle to Houston, Laredo, San Antonio, Brownsville, or Mexico City. Other Eagles would take you to Dallas, Ft. Worth, Abilene, El Paso – even Los Angeles, if you made connections on the Southern Pacific.

Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston & New Orleans, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

eagle-approachingThe train coming up from Austin was about an hour late getting into Ft. Worth – not a good beginning! But since Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks in this part of the country, it is generally at the scheduling mercy of UP, BNSF, and other freight-haulers. But I checked in with the conductor, who pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in.

roometteAccommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette,” which is what I had, is the smallest. It has two bench seats that face each other, and a sliding door for privacy. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also offers bedrooms, family bedrooms, and bedroom suites, depending on a traveler’s needs, some with “en suite” restrooms and showers – see www.amtrak.com for more information.

Meals in the dining car are included with your first class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course. (More about the meals later.)

After the usual wait for servicing the train and loading passengers, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth. Until recently, pulling in and out of the Ft. Worth station required a complicated series of backup moves, crisscrossing through the Tower 55 interchange, and heading to Dallas on the UP through Arlington. Now however, the Eagle takes the more convenient route of the Trinity Railway Express commuter train (formerly the Rock Island line) through Richland Hills, Hurst, and Irving, on its way to Dallas Union Station.

As we pulled into Dallas, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day, and warned any passengers getting off the train at Dallas for a smoke break, to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading east past Deep Ellum, Fair Park, and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Heading through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

dinner-in-the-dinerSomewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.)

I found the sleeping car attendant, and asked him to make up my bed while I went to the club car to read and sip a little bourbon – it was my birthday, after all! I returned to my room, with the bed now prepared for sleeping, changed clothes and crawled between the covers, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy & drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot – we had made up that hour, and were actually a few minutes early. I headed down the hallway in my pjs to the coffee pot – another “perk” of riding first class, complimentary coffee. A few minutes later, I got dressed and went back to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis.

But that’s a story for next time.

 

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track where they used to load freshly-cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

Grayburg 2011So we climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger, and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

The Magic Carpet Made of Steel

The next time your travel plans call for a long-distance trip, let me suggest that you take a page from the past, and go by train.  In my opinion, traveling by Amtrak is one of America’s best-kept secrets.  And most of the time, it absolutely beats flying as a way of getting from here to there.

I have had the pleasure of taking the train on several overnight trips, and it’s a wonderful experience.  Some trips I’ve had a private roomette; other times I’ve gone the cheap route and just gotten a seat in the coach car.

Riding in coach is a pleasant surprise for anyone used to flying.  The tickets cost about the same as taking the bus, but it’s a much more comfortable way to go.  The seats are roomier, and there’s a LOT more leg room.  There are also electrical outlets at every seat where you can plug in and recharge your laptop or cell phone.  You can easily get up and walk to stretch your legs, go to one of the several restrooms on each car, or go to the lounge car.

If you do go to the lounge car, you’ll find lots of very comfortable seats and ginormous picture windows for looking out on the passing scenery.  You’ll also find a snack bar selling heat-and-eat meals, soft drinks and adult beverages, as well as sundries like playing cards, post cards, toiletries, and other items for sale.

My friend Phil Stallings – a retired airline captain – likes to say, “It only costs a little more to go first class; you just can’t go quite as often.”  That’s true of Amtrak, and if you can at all afford getting a roomette or a bedroom, I would highly recommend it.

Roomettes are small compartments, just right for one or two people.  In the daytime, they come with two comfortable seats that face each other, a drop-down table between them, and a sliding, locking door with a heavy curtain over it for privacy.  The rooms have electrical outlets, and adjustable climate controls, and space to store a couple of suitcases.

In the evening, the porter will fold down the seats and make them into a comfortable twin-sized bed for you.  There’s also a drop-down “Murphy” bed above the window, if two people are sharing the room.

Your first class ticket also includes meals in the dining car.  Eating in the diner has always been one of the best parts of train travel, and while Amtrak cuisine can’t quite match up to the glory days of the Super Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, it’s still pretty good.

When you get up in the morning, the porter will bring you complimentary coffee or juice.  You can also reserve a time to go downstairs and take a shower.

Try doing that on a 737…

The last time I traveled first class, I took Amtrak from Ft. Worth to Cincinnati, via Chicago.  We left Cowtown early afternoon on the “Texas Eagle,” stopped in Dallas for a few minutes, then continued on from there.  I had supper in the diner – a really good steak, as I recall – then hung out in the lounge car and read as the night fell over East Texas.  I went back to my compartment and went to bed, “rocking to the gentle beat.”

I woke up briefly as we went through Little Rock, and then it was dawn and we were in St. Louis.  My good friend Mike Kloog lives there, and he came to the station.  I went in and he and I had a nice visit as the train was being serviced.  I climbed back aboard, and had breakfast as we went by the St. Louis Arch and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois.  Later, I had lunch near Joliet, then we were in Chicago, where I caught Amtrak’s “Cardinal” to Cincinnati.  All in all, a wonderful trip.

Let’s consider some negatives:

  • Yes, the schedules are not always convenient, and you sometimes have to drive an hour or two to catch the train.  But then, I’ve often driven to Dallas or Lubbock to catch a flight, so that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
  • Yes, it takes longer to get there than flying.  Sometimes when you travel, speed is necessary.  But not always.  When you have the time, you should consider the train.
  • Yes, it can be a bit pricey if you get a private room.  But that balances out when you consider the cost of gasoline, meals and motel rooms for driving across country.  And you don’t arrive feeling beaten up and strung out from the road.
  • Yes, sometimes the trains run late.  But then, so does every other form of public transportation.  And outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks, so it has to juggle schedules around the freight railroads whose tracks it leases.

All that said, I still think it’s well worth it to take the train.  No security hassles getting on, and no TSA agents copping a feel.  No extra charge to bring along a suitcase.  No cramped seats, or not being allowed to go use the restroom while the train circles the station.  Scenery that you can actually see, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of this great country of ours.  Food that you’d actually pay money to eat.  And wonderful people to meet, with whom you can visit and share the ride.

Whenever I talk to people about long distance train trips, I often hear, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”  Maybe it’s time to take a page from Nike’s book, and just do it.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  And you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the ride.