By Bill Buchanan
Amtrak is apparently not proceeding with a proposal to replace the Chicago-Seattle Pioneer, a full passenger train canceled last May, with a coach-only mail and express train that would have served much of the same route.
It was a clever idea that surfaced during the route-reduction discussions of last spring, and it had the virtue of preserving at least minimal service to areas of Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon that have since reverted to freight-only status.
Yet, as always, there were quibblers-nervous Nellies who didn't grasp the market appeal of a long-distance train with no sleepers or diner, and possibly no lounge or even a second coach. Clearly, such naysayers don't appreciate the mood of Congress and the White House, which by whacking Amtrak's budget most years have signaled that they like the minimalistic approach to passenger travel.
In honor of that spirit, in fact, a cheery, patriotic name for a Chicago-Oregon one-coach-at-the-end-of-a-dozen-boxcars train would have been the Congressional Limited. Or, if you like, the Presidential Limited. We're not partisans here.
But never mind that. At least, never mind unless the complex federal budget discussions under way in Washington create opportunities for dozens of other Congressional and Presidential Limiteds on currently full-service routes across the country. The loss for now is felt most acutely by the serious railfan who would have actually ridden a coach-only mail train from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest to collect the experience.
As discussed in 1997, the train would have followed an all Union Pacific route, including the former Chicago & North Western main line from Chicago to Omaha, and then the historic UP across Nebraska to Wyoming-midwestern rails that haven't hosted regular passenger trains since before Amtrak began.
An exotic consist on a route that hasn't carried passengers for at least a quarter-century? This would be too good to resist. I probably would have ridden it myself. The rare-mileage crowd would have provided 99 percent of the train's long-distance business during its first year. (The other 1 percent would have been confused or, possibly, self-destructive.)
It's 1998 now. There's no train to ride. But this is not a problem. With a little imagination, anyone who has ever ridden a commuter train can easily picture what the 2,500-mile trip might have been like.
Perhaps something like this:
Train time at Chicago Union Station! Unfortunately, your correspondent faced a hurdle or two getting to the train, such as finding it. Station employees are helpful but puzzled when I tell them I'm not joking and am uncertain where the train is.
Eventually, the ticket staff calls in someone who handles mail. He tells me I can find the train at the far end of the platforms. Can't miss it, he says-it's the only consist with one Amfleet coach at the end of a string of green Amtrak express cars.
After I thank him and start walking toward the gate, he calls after me, "When you get up in the coach, you'll want to turn on the lights in there. They've got it on some kind of a self serve deal."
I find the coach and, after fumbling around a little in the dark, the light switch, too. The car is clean-and empty until the conductor visits just before departure. He whistles when he takes my ticket and sees that I'm riding to Portland, Oregon.
"I hope you brought some food along," he says, returning my stub.
We've been riding on the former C&NW Illinois-Iowa main line, which hasn't had a regular passenger train west of Clinton since the early 1960s. Towns such as Ames, where we've now stopped, had long campaigned for renewed passenger service. When this train was announced, cities were unsure how to react.
Ames, I see, prepared by placing a couple of mismatched lawn chairs for passenger use near the old downtown station. The banner from the ceremony welcoming the first run of the train still hangs from the track side wall of the depot (now a shopping center): "Thanks, Amtrak," it reads, "it's just what we had in mind." Smaller type in the corner notes that the banner was sponsored by a bus line.
No one gets on, off, or even looks at us. No one's around to look at us.
As the train pulls out, I notice that one of the lawn chairs has only three legs.
The trip across UP's busy Nebraska main line feels like a ride through a freight version of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Unfortunately, the Limited's two other passengers don't appreciate the show. One is a college student who thought he was riding the Pioneer to Idaho, and the other is his friend who didn't plan to ride, but got caught in the coach's bathroom when seeing his buddy off in Omaha.
As an express run, this train rarely stops, but, as is customary, the accidental rider will get off at the next station. We believe it's Cheyenne, Wyoming.
We tell him Cheyenne is a fun place to visit, though a tad cold this time of year.
Right now the college student is trying to find a dining car. He insists one must be up front someplace.
The student passenger-his name is Jim-has been glum and increasingly hungry since his search failed to find anything but the mail cars. I've shared my food, but he's not big on canned goods and powdered drink mixes, and seems to have doubts about me since learning that I had actually wanted to ride this train.
Later, he was inappropriately cheerful when he scored a stale candy bar from a vending machine at a Wyoming stop that looked as if it hadn't been restocked since the Pioneer died in May 1997.
At Laramie, I noticed a guy holding a hand-painted sign that asks, "Where's the rest of the train?' He looked sad.
Bad news-Jim overslept the Idaho stop. He's depressed. I tell him it will be over soon; he should consider the ride an adventure. I do-and he can always catch the next eastbound Limited back to Idaho.
He looks at me strangely when I say that and moves to the other end of the car.
I've taken up a new sport, which I call coach bowling. To play, you need an empty coach, a tennis ball, and empty food cans. You set up the cans at one end of the coach, walk to the other end, and see how many cans you can knock over by rolling the ball down the aisle while the train is moving. I've had several hours of uninterrupted practice, and I'm getting pretty accurate.
But all good things must end! After a scenic moonlit ride along the Columbia River, we arrive in Portland's wonderfully maintained station. Or at least I do; the rest of the coach is still empty.
Thinking of the mail handler in Chicago, I turn off the coach's lights as I detrain.
I won't say it wasn't interesting. But I'm taking the Empire Builder back to Chicago.
Growing up, Bill Buchanan "just got to like the sensations and sights of train travel." Fortunately for RN, he likes to write as well.