I like flying. But I especially enjoy train travel. I’ve lived my entire adult life in Champaign-Urbana, always within earshot of the railways. In fact, I’m distracted from my writing right now as I hear the whistle of the northbound Amtrak, running a few minutes late, according to my clock.
My passion for train travel began young. Dad’s cousin Molly was a commercial artist working in Chicago for enterprises including Santa Fe Railways in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember the kids’ activity books she’d illustrated for Santa Fe’s youngest passengers. I now wish I’d saved mine.
In the 1960s, our typical family vacation involved my parents renting a one-way car transporting the family out west to visit relatives in Omaha and Denver, a fun stop to Vegas and the final destination, Los Angeles.
We’d then take a train home on the Santa Fe. For us kids, it was nothing but fun, always an adventure, running from train car to train car, enjoying the view in the scenic dome car and savoring gourmet train cuisine as a family in the dining car while rural America rolled by our window.
On one especially memorable vacation, our family met another Chicago-area family also traveling the entire Santa Fe route to Chicago. Their kids were the same ages as us, and during our three days on the train, we became instant friends.
Alan was my age, 11, and was my first crush. I remember him writing “I love you” on the little paper cone-shaped cup that he gave to me as we approached Chicago; you can still find those same cups on the trains today. Alan and I kept up for a few years by phone. Curious, I recently searched online discovering that Alan had died in his 40s. That still makes me sad.
Though the Santa Fe Railways started during the evolution of rail travel in America in the late 1850s, it went through a few mergers, and since 1971, passenger rail travel is part of the Amtrak system.
When I came to the University of Illinois in 1970, you could still ride the Illinois Central train to and from Chicago, but that quickly changed to Amtrak. The route from Chicago to New Orleans was noteworthy enough to spark a song, “The City of New Orleans,” first sung by Arlo Guthrie in 1972.
Though one can fly nonstop to Denver from around here, I still prefer riding the California Zephyr to that destination. I am enamored with the scenery between here and Denver, but I hear that it’s far more superb heading west across Colorado.
I have also ridden the entire route of the Southwest Chief to and from the Los Angeles area. To say that the scenery through New Mexico and Arizona is amazing is an understatement.
Enjoying a meal in the dining car is an experience all its own. Each table seats four, so if you’re a party of two, they’ll seat you with two other people. And it seems everyone has some long-winded story of their travels. You meet some truly interesting people that way.
On some of these longer, scenic routes, volunteers from the National Park Service hop onboard and are available in the train’s observation car to point out noteworthy sites along the way.
I’ve also ridden some of the shorter commuter trains such as the Hiawatha that goes to Glenview, Ill., and beyond, and the Pacific Surfliner, transporting folks to work near Los Angeles.
Recently, I took a trip with a tour company called America by Rail.
Nineteen of us convened on Chicago Union Station to meet our tour guides, where we boarded the Empire Builder, riding its entire route, including through Glacier National Park in Montana and onward to Seattle.
As a group, we toured the Canadian Rockies, mostly using motor coaches to get from city to city and stayed in 5-star hotels.
We rode the Via Rail from Canada’s Vancouver to Jasper. This was a party train. Free champagne and food, a movie in the observation car and a band in the snack car made this 20-hour train trip super fun.
Lately, I’ve done an increasing amount of travel by train rather than plane. People often poke fun at that, because the train takes so much longer to get places. “Yes, it does,” I defend myself. But that’s the whole point!
Benefiting from the journey, not just the destination, is the whole point of life. And that journey is implicit in train travel.