Always Time for a Train Scenes from Life on the Rails 

By Bill Scheller 

‘A passenger train is a rolling village.
Some people move in and out;
others are long-term residents.
Club cars are the village squares,
where you run into your neighbors,
make friends, and find out who avoid . . .’   

I was very nearly born on a train.

My mother was a secretary with the Erie Railroad, and rode an Erie local between Paterson, New Jersey and her office in Newark.  She worked throughout her pregnancy, almost one day too long. We used to joke, when I was growing up, about whether Erie conductors had been trained to deliver babies.

I don’t know if it’s true that playing Mozart to your tot in utero will help create a classical music lover, but I’m open to the idea that sloshing along on the Erie for a full nine months gave me my lifelong love of trains.  It’s an affection that has taken me many times through the Canadian Rockies, and to the shores of Hudson Bay; to Venice on the Orient Express, and on a 27,000-mile Amtrak odyssey that left me feeling like a human pinball.  But it all started – the ex utero part, at least – on the seventeen-mile run from Paterson to Hoboken, in the days when the Jesuits were trying to din Latin and algebra into my skull at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City.  

The 7:29 out of Paterson was an Erie-Lackawanna train by then, the two roads having had a hopeless go at a merger before New Jersey Transit came along to pick up the remains.  My mother still had a proprietary feeling about the Paterson station from her Erie days, and she introduced me to one of the conductors, on my first day of school, as if she were passing me off to a trusted guardian.  “We’ll take care of him,” the conductor assured her. He was resplendent in the uniform conductors still wore then, a three-piece blue suit with a watch chain and a stiff round cap bearing his title on a shiny brass plate.  

Northern New Jersey is so densely populated, and its communities, in the middle of the last century, were so self-contained, that there were places not ten miles from Paterson that I had never seen, and knew nothing about. The Erie station where I boarded the 7:29 was seventeen miles from the grand copper-clad Lackawanna terminal in Hoboken, where I’d catch the bus to Jersey City.  That half-hour trip took me through places like Passaic Park and East Rutherford, which may as well have been Mars. The last fifteen minutes were spent crossing the mysterious Meadows, a vast reedy swampland penetrated by little more than the New Jersey Turnpike and the railroad tracks. I had no idea there was such a wilderness ten miles from my house. We never took the Turnpike, so the Erie had to show me.

The Erie also introduced me to my first high school friends.  Rich got on in South Paterson, Ray in Clifton, Roger in Passaic.  We flipped one leatherette seat towards another, and made a face-to-face foursome.  It was a finish-the-homework foursome in the morning . . . and in the afternoon? I doubt if I was the first guy to learn the facts of life from dirty jokes on the Erie.  

And all around us – in the morning, at least – there was a sea of newspapers and fedoras.  At Hoboken, the subway and the ferries went straight to Manhattan. Some of the St. Peter’s boys must have taken that ride every morning for the next fifty years.

The fact that I didn’t may have had a lot to do with what I saw at the cavernous old terminal at night, when I had stayed at school late for a dance or band practice, and had to wait for one of the last locals to Paterson.  I’d kill time by walking the length of the dim, quiet train shed, ending down at the far end where the long-distance trains were stabled. The Chicago-bound Phoebe Snow, once the pride of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western, still ran then, but she was a morning train.  The one that caught my eye was the Owl, which left for Buffalo after midnight.  I would stand on the platform and look into the brightly-lit cars, as porters made up beds in the roomettes and the dining-car steward got the tables ready for breakfast.  Sleeping on a train! And not because you nodded off in a coach over your Latin book. Eating on a train! Breakfast, and not the Hostess cupcake left over from the lunch your mother packed.  The windows of the Owl were windows on another world.

It was a world I kept in the back of my mind, but couldn’t do much about, for another ten years.  After college, I moved to Vermont, which didn’t have any trains except for Amtrak’s Montrealer (today it’s called the Vermonter, because it no longer goes over the border).  The schedule was inconvenient, and I lived close enough to Montreal to drive.  

Four days across Canada

But Montreal was also the eastern terminus of two of the world’s great trains.  In the early Seventies, before Canadian rail passenger service was consolidated under government-run VIA Rail, these were the Canadian Pacific’s Canadian, and Canadian National’s Super Continental.  A college friend who had moved to British Columbia invited me to go salmon fishing on Vancouver Island, and I immediately thought of the train.  He thought I was nuts. Four days out and four days back meant that many fewer salmon, but there was no convincing me to fly. I chose the Canadian for the ride west, and the Super Continental to take me home. Those would be my first and second long-distance trains.  

I rode coach both ways.  There were cars with roomettes, and those upper and lower Pullman berths you see in old movies, but cushy accommodations like that would have cost a lot more than the hundred or so dollars I was paying to travel from Montreal to Vancouver. Right off, I learned the mystery of sleeping in coach: you can nod off for hours with no trouble while you’re reading or looking out the window in broad daylight, but once you set yourself up for a night’s slumber – seat back, footrest up, shade down, shoes off, jacket tossed across your face, and one of the pillows Canadian Pacific conductors used to rent back then – you’re in for a wake-up call at every stop, with every signal light that sneaks through the slit between shade and sill, with every lurch and squeak.  If you’re really unlucky, there will be no more empty double seats left, and someone will get on at three a.m. and sprawl out next to you.  I’ve never had this happen, but just bracing for it is the worry at every stop.  

And I took a four-day lunch.  At Central Station in Montreal, I spent ten and a half Canadian dollars on a loaf of rye bread, a pound each of summer sausage and Swiss cheese, a little tub of paté de campagne, two apples, and a Greek pastry.  I also snagged six pats of butter from the food court. All I brought from home was a flask of bourbon.  

Of course my provisions didn’t last four days.  I had to eat the paté first, and the rest was gone by the time we hit the prairies.  I ate breakfast and sandwiches in the coach-class club car, which was also where I fetched up in the evenings.  It was there, and upstairs in the observation dome, that I came face-to-face with the obvious: trains are full of people. They take up far more space in my old notebooks than even the most spectacular scenery.  

A passenger train is a rolling village.  Some people move in and out; others are long-term residents.  Club cars are the village squares, where you run into your neighbors, make friends, and find out who to eavesdrop on or avoid.  Long-distance Canadian trains have their first-class lounges in the last car — Canadian Pacific introduced boat-tailed beauties as part of their new stainless-steel train sets in 1955, and these still serve VIA Rail’s Canadian.  I was traveling coach, so my introduction to rolling café society was the CPR’s ingeniously designed combination dome/club/kitchen-bar cars of the same era.  At one end were coach seats; at the other, booths and tables.  In the middle, there was a window where a guy dispensed drinks, sandwiches, snacks, and light breakfasts.  Above the little kitchen, a stairway ascended to the dome seats.  

And who did you meet in the village square?  The gruff Canadian nuke plant worker who said that the U.S. should annex his country.  The old lady who kept bitching about my pipe, and who was told by the conductor that if she didn’t like it, she could move to a non-smoking car.   A woman wearing a T-shirt that said, “Playmate of the Year,” and who looked like the playmate of the Kenora, Ontario curling club.  A Japanese farmer who had been interned at one of the camps in California as a kid.  An ice-road trucker named Frosty.  A stoner who asked the conductor at a stop, “If I get off here, can I meet the train in Winnipeg and go on to Vancouver?”  (“Do you want to meet this train, or the one after it?” the puzzled conductor answered.)  A guy named Pop Wagner, a folksinger who’d been on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and who took out his guitar and played, not in the lounge but to a cluster of us in coach, before some old bat — the pipe lady? — complained to the conductor.  

Most memorable of all was a porter who held forth late one night upstairs in the dome.  He’d put his sleeping car passengers to bed, had come up to look at the stars and the shadowy mountains, and got to talking about how he happened to be working for the CPR — “I do not porter as an avocation. I do it because of circumstances.”  He was from Tobago, and held a PhD from a British university; his dissertation was on economic aspects of the American revolutionary period.  An American Jefferson scholar had read it on the train, and had offered to help him get a teaching job in the U.S.  “But the chances are slim,” he told us.  “I expect to go to Trinidad, to law school.”

He was speaking, in his beautiful Caribbean English, about late eighteenth-century Atlantic shipping when there was a commotion on the stairs.  It was a middle-aged couple coming up from the lounge, the husband first and the wife in pursuit.  They were both drunk.  

“I’ll go up here,” the man said.

“I’ll follow you, you bastard,” she answered.  

The husband sat in front of me, as his wife bellowed, “I hope you’re satisfied, you fool, you son of a bitch.”

The porter approached.  “Madam,” he said, “this is public transportation.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll get the conductor, then.”

“Go ahead.  This is the last time I’m riding on this damn train.”

“Who needs you?  This is public transportation, and you cannot behave this way.”  The suave 

Islands voice was raised not a decibel.

“You think I don’t know that, you asshole?”

The husband, by now, had slumped in his seat and gone to sleep.  The wife swore her way back down the stairs.  The porter, unruffled, had to go help a woman get off at Salmon Arm, British Columbia.  I went back to my coach seat and slept, as we rolled along the Fraser Canyon.

I imagined none of this cast of characters when I stood in the gloom of the Hoboken terminal and watched the Owl being readied for its run to Buffalo.  Sometimes they were irritating, sometimes fascinating.  Sometimes I wished the lounge was like a game of seven-card draw poker, and that I could get rid of up to four of them and replace them from a human deck.  But I knew one thing for certain: I’d never meet them, or sit around and drink beer with them, on an airplane.  

I’d never enjoy a meal on a plane as I have on trains, either.  That’s not only because even Amtrak or VIA’s most pedestrian offerings are superior to air fare, as what isn’t, but because nothing compares to sitting at a starched-clothed dining car table as the world passes by.  That first cross-Canada trip wasn’t all a multi-day bag lunch and sandwiches in the lounge. On the last day out, as we drifted through the Rockies, I joined two new acquaintances for dinner in the diner. The special of the night was roast turkey – the Thanksgiving special, as it was billed.  I puzzled over this until the waiter told me it was Canadian Thanksgiving, something I hadn’t known about.  I also hadn’t known that some of the dishes served were CPR standbys dating back decades – the mixed pickles delighted generations of travelers, and had become something of a minor national treasure.  It’s often been said that the Canadian Pacific Railway bound Canada together; it’s a lesser-known fact that the pickles helped.

I enjoyed that 1974 trip so much that I did it again in ‘78 – my return journey from Vancouver to Montreal was the last transcontinental CPR run prior to VIA’s taking over Canadian passenger service – and yet again, in 1981.  But by that time, my railroad experiences had taken a professional turn. I spent the summer of 1980 riding American trains, researching what was published, a year later, as the first comprehensive guide to the routes that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak – had taken over from the private railways.  

I divided my 27,000-mile careen around the country into five separate trips, the longest lasting five weeks.  Sustaining the whole operation was a $3,000 advance from my publisher and full ticketing from Amtrak, including roomettes (and an occasional larger bedroom) as overnight travel required.  My plan was to write a description of each route – history, scenery, railroad lore – along with guides to each city the system served, including lodging, dining, and attractions, all written for travelers arriving downtown and using public transportation.  Amtrak didn’t always make this easy, having in those days abandoned many centrally located stations in desperate need of renovation for prefabs on the urban outskirts. 

It wasn’t all a lark, as a forty-year-old notebook reminds me.  There were lodgings to arrange, reams of publicity material from visitors’ bureaus to lug around, and post offices to find so I could mail the stuff home and pick up general delivery letters from my girlfriend.  And walk, and explore . . . seventeen miles around Chicago in one day, according to an analog pedometer that fit in with the rest of my Neolithic technologies. (An earlier piece of mine in Natural Traveler Magazine describes my primitive method, flipping through libraries’ phone books for hotels in upcoming cities, and calling them on pay phones.)

Ah, but the trains . . . I finally had all the trains I ever wanted.  Best of all were the overnight trips, when I’d be snug in my roomette, propped on a pillow with the shade pulled up to let in the darkness and give me an odd and lordly perspective on dimly lit milk-stop stations.  I’d switch on the reading light mounted on the wall, take out a book, and sip cognac from a little silver cup. It was a world, a small cozy world, and it moved wonderfully through the night. Yes, you miss scenery, if you’re rolling through a place where there is scenery – but sleeping on the train also makes for magical transformations, as when, years later on the Hudson Bay from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, I went to bed in the woods, and woke up on the tundra.

Having a private sleeping accommodation on a train means that you don’t have to let a coach car conversation drag on until one of you glazes over and falls asleep.  But neither did it mean that I hid from the cast of characters I had started to meet on my Canadian rail journeys. They’re all there in my old notebook – the southern family, ma, pa, five kids, and a banjo; the woman working on John Connally’s presidential campaign on her boss’s orders; the lady who said that watching Phil Donahue was like a college education; single mothers dragging unhappy children from one end of the continent to another . . . and the London-based American stockbroker who, for me, still stands as the man who ushered in the Roaring Eighties.  An acquaintance and I had been talking with him on the Empire Builder, somewhere in Montana, when he looked at his watch and announced that the market had opened in Sydney, and he’d just made five grand.  How he knew this, not having any of our 21st-century devices that would confirm it to the penny, I don’t know, but he did possess a new gizmo that neither I nor the other guy had ever seen: a Sony Walkman.  

The stockbroker was traveling so he could photograph freight cars on the western rails, which would enable him to copy their logos and liveries for his handmade model railroad equipment.  Meeting him was not only my introduction to the brave new world of Gordon Gekko, but to the species of humanity known as railfans … or, simply, train nuts. These are not rail travel enthusiasts like me, in love primarily with the experience, but walking railroad encyclopedias conversant with every nut, bolt, and defunct Indiana short line that has ever existed within the four foot, eight and one half inches separating one rail from another (make that three feet, for the narrow-gauge fans).  In the Denver station, I met a fellow from Massachusetts who carried the requisite car-spotter manual, was a personal friend of the last chef on the Twentieth Century Limited and collected that famous train’s dining-car china, taught me how to tell a GM Electro-Motive Division “E” locomotive from an “F,” and pointed out a Burlington Northern business car parked on a siding.  I’d meet these characters from time to time, and my publisher heard from them when my book came out – the stylized locomotive on the cover, they complained, didn’t look like any unit they had ever seen.  But they’re harmless, and I confess that it is fun to know that the Pennsylvania Railroad painted their GG-1 electric locos Tuscan red.  

My 1980 involvement with the nuts and bolts of the railroad world often had to do with whether the nuts would come off the bolts.  In those days, Amtrak’s long-distance routes primarily made use of equipment inherited from the private roads, and some of it was past its prime.  When something broke, it was usually the air conditioning, and it was usually on one of the routes in the Southwest or the Deep South. One of my most vivid memories of things going mechanically awry, and of happily making the best of it, is of a mid-September trip on the Sunset Limited.  The A.C. packed it in somewhere in New Mexico, and didn’t come back on until we got to San Antonio at five-thirty in the morning.  I had a roomette, and even with the door open it was intolerably hot. Fortunately, the car was old enough to have an open vestibule, sort of a porch, at one end.  I went out there as we crossed west Texas, wearing nothing but pajama bottoms. The breeze was delightful, and the stars, as the song says, were big and bright.  

But the dining cars!  Vases to match the blue creamers and sugar bowls, with fresh carnations. Broiled trout. The “Iowa Chop.”  Breakfast – poached eggs on corned beef hash, side of grits, toast. One morning, somewhere down South, I ordered pancakes and bacon, and had my appetite whetted by hearing the waiter call to the kitchen, “Gimme a  stack and a bit of the hawg,” That’s the talk of one kind of diner, riding on the other. 

The afternoon before, that same train, the Eagle, had lumbered through east Texas counties still clinging tenaciously to Prohibition, while visions of a martini danced in my head.  We were still in dry Texarkana, but close enough to escaping into wet Arkansas, when the club car waiter called to the bartender, “Fuck it – he’s been waiting since Dallas.  Give the man a martini.” Then, to me, “Better take two.”  

Perhaps my happiest dining car story concerns a meal I didn’t even eat.  It was on the Broadway Limited that a middle-aged black lady told me about her fifteenth-birthday trip to Washington, D.C. a gift from her railroad chef father.  At dinnertime, he made a chicken pot pie just for her. When the other passengers saw it, they wanted one, too – but it wasn’t on the menu.  The birthday girl was enjoying a dish the white folks couldn’t have.

Train Trips published, but . . . 

My  guide, Train Trips: Exploring America by Rail, was published in the spring of 1981.  It was just appearing in bookshops when the headlines hit.  In Reagan’s first budget, the line item for Amtrak was . . . no line item at all. The federal government’s ten-year-old experiment in helping to finance a national passenger rail system was written off as another Democrat boondoggle and scheduled for starvation.  (It was, in fact, begun during the Nixon administration.) The whole system – at least the long-distance routes – would have to shut down.  

Right away, people started asking me what may be the dumbest question of my career, and I’ve fielded a few: “Why’d you write that book?  There isn’t going to be an Amtrak anymore.” Did they think I’d gone out and written it that week, in the face of the headlines?  What was worse, Amtrak itself had just ordered 10,000 copies from my publisher. I’d barely finished calculating the royalties when the cancellation came in.   I wasn’t a fan of the Gipper to begin with, but – all politics, as Tip O’Neill used to say, being local – I immediately put him on a presidential anti-pedestal from which he wouldn’t be displaced until January 2017. 

A couple of weeks later, Congress put the Amtrak money back into the budget.  Unlike the proposed cut, which was page one material, that bit of news was buried deep inside the papers.  The damage was done, although I did bring out a second edition of “Train Trips,” including VIA Rail’s Canadian routes, a couple of years later. Like Amtrak, VIA provided me with tickets and sleeping-car accommodations, so that I was able to see how the Canadian other half lived, years after those days and nights in coach, digging into my food bag to see if the Montreal paté was still good.  And in the summer of 1984, a friend and I gave those lounge-car magnificoes quite a surprise when we had the Canadian stop in the northern Ontario wilderness, where they watched us haul my canoe out of the baggage car to begin a river and lake journey that would take us to a bush-town depot for our return.  (Even more surprised were the Montrealers who, a day earlier, had watched me shoulder the boat and descend an escalator at the city’s Central Station. “You know,” the baggage clerk told me down in the main lobby, “things that big, we have people bring around the back.”)

I have ridden European trains, and when that subject comes up, the first thing people ask about is the Orient Express – the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, to be precise.  It is, still, the premier privately-operated excursion train, its meticulously restored Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lit cars freighting not only champagne, caviar, and a lounge piano, but also decades of Agatha Christie mystique.  Of course I enjoyed my ride from Zurich to Venice, but I couldn’t help thinking 

that the train, and the people on it, were trying too hard and too self-consciously to be grand.  I wanted . . . I don’t know, maybe a bit of the hawg.

Far more satisfying, in my European railroad recollections, is the night my wife and toddler son and I escaped from six weeks of murderous heat in Granada, Spain on an air-conditioned sleeper bound for Madrid; and, later in the same trip, the sleek overnight express from Barcelona to Geneva, its cars gimbaled so that our beds never tilted on curves.  Just as memorable, though, was the ticketing for that trip, which began on a connecting train in Lisbon. We had bought those tickets at a dusty little station in the south of Portugal, after waiting on line for over an hour. One clerk was on duty, and there was no computer. He drew up every ticket – Lisbon to Madrid, Madrid to Barcelona, Barcelona to Geneva – with a ruler and a pen, consulting a dog-eared fare book throughout.  The antiquarian fascination of the experience was matched, in Lisbon, by a baggage agent’s dipping a brush into a glue pot, slathering the glue on our suitcases, and slapping on those city-destination labels that you see on old travel posters. This was in 1989.

Those sleeping-car nights, tucking into a cool berth in Granada or gliding through unseen France between Spain and Switzerland, may soon vanish from the European travel landscape; most of their intercity trains have gotten so fast that you don’t need to bed down along the way.  Americans and Canadians are well behind in high-speed rail, and the distances we have to cover would require overnight trips even if we ran trains twice as fast. But the day will no doubt come when sci-fi contrivances like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be a reality. Too bad – Musk’s Boring Company, which will conceivably gnaw the Hyperloop tunnels into existence, is for my money a very aptly named outfit.  At six hundred miles an hour, with no backyards or defunct steel mills or high plains pronghorns to see through my window, I will be bored.

From dining cars to ‘Ready to Serve’     

Nowadays I ride Amtrak to visit my son in Minneapolis.  The connections from Vermont would be too complicated, so I take the bus to Boston or Albany and pick up the Lake Shore Limited, connecting at Chicago for the Empire Builder to St. Paul.  (Were there ever airplanes with such wonderful names?)  Unfortunately, the Lake Shore has, like Amtrak’s other east-of-the Mississippi trains, lost its dining car.  Passengers, even in first class, are obliged to eat “Ready to Serve” meals, either in the café car or in their compartments.  The lame explanation that’s been offered is that millennials don’t want to sit at tables with strangers . . . the unspoken assumption, I suppose, being that they’d rather be alone with their phones.  Thankfully, the Empire Builder and other western trains still carry diners, and so do the Canadian trains.  But for how long? Eventually, I may be reduced to poring over my 1920 Canadian Pacific Railway staff handbook of menus and serving instructions. Roast haunch of venison on a silver platter, with port wine sauce and a side of fondante potatoes? Certainly, with diplomat pudding for dessert, on the dream train.  

In that wonderful Stan Rogers song, “City of New Orleans,” there’s the line, “And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers / Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel.”  Count me as the equally privileged son of an Erie secretary, riding his mother’s magic carpet.

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