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January 1998 - Page 61


would have been the Congressional L im ited. O r, if you l ike, the Presiden tial Lim ited. W e're not partisans here. But never m i nd that. At least, never mind unless the complex federal budget discussions under way in Washington create op portunities for dozens of other Congression al a nd Presiden tial Lim iteds o n currently ful l -service routes across the country. The loss for now i s felt most acutely by the serious rai l fan who would have actually ridden a coach-only mail train from C h icago to the Pacific Northwest to collect the experience. As discussed in 1 99 7 , the train would have followed an all Union Pacific route, i n c l uding the former C hicago & North West ern main line from Chicago to Omaha, and then the h i s toric U P across N e b ra s k a t o Wyom ing-m i d w e s t e rn rai l s t h a t h a ven 't hosted regular passenger trains since before Amtrak began. An exotic consist on a route that hasn't carried passengers for at least a q uarter-century? Thi s would be too good to res i s t . I probably would have ridden it myself. The rare-m i l eage crowd would have provided 99 percent of the train's long-distance busi ness during its first year. (The other 1 percent would have been confused or, poss i b ly, self-destructive . ) I t 's 1 998 now. There's n o train t o ride. B u t t h i s i s not a problem. With a l i t t l e imagination, anyone who has ever ridden a commuter train can easily picture what the 2 , 500-mile trip might have been like. Perhaps something l i ke t h i s :
J anuary 7 , 1 998, e vening

was announced, cities were unsure how to reac t . A m e s , I s e e , prepared by placing a c o u p l e of m ismatched lawn chairs for passenger use near the old downtown station. The ban ner from the ceremony welcoming the first run of the train still hangs from t he tracks i d e wall of t h e d e p o t ( n o w a s hopping center ) : "Thank s , A m t r a k , " i t rea d s , " i t 's j ust what we had in m i n d . " S m a l l e r type i n the corner notes t h a t the banner was sponsored by a bus l i n e . No o n e gets on, off, or e v e n l o o k s at u s . No one's around t o l o o k at u s . As the train p u l l s o u t , I notice t h a t o n e of the lawn chairs has only three legs.
J anuary 8 , e arly afternoon

The trip across U P 's busy N e braska m a i n l i n e fee l s l i ke a ride through a freight version of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Unfor tunately, the L im ited's t wo other passengers don't appreciate the show. One is a college student who t hought he was riding the P ioneer t o I daho, and the other is h i s friend who didn't plan to ride, b u t got caught in t h e coac h 's b a t h room when seeing his buddy off in Omaha. As an express run, t h i s train rarely stops, b u t , as is customary, the accidental rider wi ll get off a t t h e next station . We believe i t 's Cheyenne, Wyoming. We tell him Cheyenne is a fun place to v i s i t , though a tad cold this time of year. Right now the college student is trying to find a dining car. He insists one m u s t be up front someplace.
J anuary 9 , after midnight

Train time at Chicago Union S tation ! U n fo r t u n a t e l y, y o u r c o rr e s p o n d e n t faced a h u r d l e or t w o getting to t h e t r a i n , s u c h as finding i t . Station e m ployees a r e helpfu l b u t puzzled when I tell them I 'm not j oking and am un certain where the train i s . Eventual ly, t h e t i c ket staff calls in someone who handles m a i l . He t e l l s m e I c a n find the train at the far end of t h e p l a t fo r m s . C a n 't m i s s i t , h e s ays-i t 's t h e o n l y c o n s i s t w i t h one Amfleet coach at the end of a string of green Amtra k express cars. After I t hank him and start walk ing toward the gate, he c a l l s after me, "When you get up in the coac h , you 'll w a n t t o t u rn on t h e l ig h t s in t h e r e . They've g o t i t on s o m e k i n d of a self serve deal . " I find the coach and, after fum bling around a l i t t l e in the d a r k , t h e l i g h t s w i t c h , t o o . The car i s clean-and empty until the conductor visits just before departure. He whis tles when he takes m y t i c ket and sees that I 'm riding to Portland, Oregon . " I h op e y o u b r o u g h t s o m e food along," he says, returning m y s t u b .
J anuary 8 , w ell before dawn

T he student passenger-his name is J im-has been glum and in creasingly hungry since his search failed to find anything but the mail cars. I 've shared my food, but h e '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 trai n . Later, he w a s 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 t he P ioneer d ied in May 1 99 7 . A t Larami e , I noticed a guy holding a hand-painted sign that asks, "Where's the rest of the t ra i n ? ' H e looked sad.
J anuary 9 , l ate morning

B ad news-Jim overs lept t h e I daho stop. H e 's depressed. I tell him it w i l l be over soon ; he should consider the ride an adven ture. I do-and he can always catch the next eastbound L imited b ack to I daho. He looks at m e strangely when I s ay that and moves to the other end of the car.
J anuary 1 0 , e arly morning

We ' v e been r i d i n g on t h e former C & N W I l l i n oi s - I owa main l i n e , w h i c h h a s n 't h a d a regu l a r pas senger train west of C linton since t h e e a r l y 1 9 6 0 s . Towns s u c h as Ames, where we've now stopped, had long campaigned for renewed passenger servic e . When this train

I 've taken up a new sport, which I c a l l coach bowling. To play, you need an empty coa c h , a tennis b a l l , and empty food cans . You set up t he cans at one end of the coach , walk to the other end, and see how many cans you can knoc k over by rol ling the ball down t h e aisle while t h e train i s moving. I 've had several hours of uninterrupted practice, and I 'm getting pretty accurate. But all good t h ings m u s t e n d ! A fter a s c e n i c moon l i t ride along t h e Columbia River, we a rrive in Portlan d 's wonderfully maintained station. Or at least I do; t h e rest of t h e coach is still empty. Thinking of the m a i l handler in Chicago, I turn off the coach's lights as I detrain. I w on't say i t wasn 't interesting. B u t I 'm taking the Empire Builder b ack to C hicago.
G rowing up, Bill Buchanan "just got to like the sensations and sights of train travel. " Fortuna tely for R N, h e likes to write as well. RailNews

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