July 2, 2016

Riding the California Zephyr: A Long Lost "High Peak of Enjoyment"


"It must be the summer of 1949 and she's taking my brother and I back home to her family in Fargo for the first time. I would be almost four and he'd be two and a half. The war's been over for some time and everyone is now back home and settled in. My father's family lost a son, but -- except for some wounds -- everyone else came out all right.

"We're living in Los Angeles and her home is Fargo, North Dakota, half a continent away. So we do what you did then. We took the train. Starting in Los Angeles we went north to San Francisco where we boarded the newest form of luxury land transportation available that year, the California Zephyr.


"Out from the bay and up over the Sierras and down across the wastes until we wove our way up the spine of the Rockies and down again to the vast land sea that stretched out east in a swath of corn and wheat that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains.


On the Zephyr you sat in a plush chair among others in a long transparent dome at the top of the car and it seemed all Earth from horizon to the zenith flowed past you.



"There was the smell of bread and cooking in the Pullman cars that I can still capture in my mind, and the lulling rhythm of the wheels over the rails that I can still hear singing me down into sleep.


"At some point we changed trains to go north into the Fargo Station and, as we pulled into Fargo in mid-morning, my mother's family met us with their usual humble dignity -- they brought a full brass band that worked its way down through the John Philip Sousa set list with severe dedication. They also brought me more family members than there were people living on our entire block in Los Angeles. There may also have been a couple of Barbershop Quartets to serenade us during the band breaks, but I'm not sure about that. My Mother at 100 @ AMERICAN DIGEST


"Train travel once played a large and vital part of America’s passenger transportation network, but today it’s taken a back seat– all the way in the back. Rail transportation in the nation now consists primarily of freight shipments, while passenger service plays a seriously limited role compared to train travel in many other countries. By the late 1950s, America’s railroad flagship passenger services were unable to compete with airlines, and it all pretty much went downhill from there. Which is frankly, pretty sad because when they were at their best, American railways really knew just how important the glamour and elegance of travel was to the passenger experience. Streamliners were designed to reduce air resistance, offering multi-day high-speed across journeys across the country in train cars resembling luxury hotels and private clubs. Life aboard them really did seem to reach a “high peak of enjoyment” as the brochure says…." Streamliner Trains that Oozed the Elegance of Old World Travel

The observation car of the California Zephyr today.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at July 2, 2016 4:19 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I wanted to take the train from Savannah, Georgia, to Austin, Texas. Figured it'd be a long trip, so wanted a roomette or whatever they call it for Mrs Fert and me.
There's no direct route, by train, from Savannah to Austin. One must go to Washington, DC, then to Chicago, then down to Texas. I forget the exact route, but there were parts you (understandably) had to change trains. But there was one link where you didn't have available the roomette, just seats. And a link where you needed to schlep your bags from one train to another. And I think it would only take seventeen years or something like that from Georgia to Texas (perhaps I exaggerate just a tad there).

So, I *would* take the train, it's just that it don't go where I'm going in a reasonable, comfortable, convenient manner.

Posted by: OldFert at July 2, 2016 12:30 PM

I shared an apt. with a guy in grad school at Ohio State early '50s. His obsession was collecting and analyzing passenger train schedules, and figuring out how to get from one place to another most efficiently. I mean he had a roomful of those schedules. Back then you could get to long haul places in a straighter line and fewer train changes than you can with airlines today. Of course, it did take forever. I once rode coach Indianapolis to San Antonio in 18 or so hours as I recall. But only two RR, the NYC and the AT&SF, with a short layover and train change in St. Louis.

Posted by: BillH at July 2, 2016 1:52 PM

Nice tales, G.

I've always loved trains. When I was a kid my mother bought a house on 4th Street in Springfield, Ill. while I was in the hospital with polio. When they brought me into the new house, my room was on the second-floor front - and 3rd Street, a block away across an open right-of-way, was the Illinois Central. I listened to the City of New Orleans go by every day. Sixth Street, two blocks in the other direction, was Route 66 as it came through town.

In 1956 my mother and I took the IC up to Chicago and transferred to the Burlington Zephyr, which we rode straight across the plains to Denver, and thence through the Rockies, the desert, and the Sierras into Sacramento, and ultimately to Oakland where we were met (no bands, though) by the California branch who'd come out here in the '20s in a Model T.

In the '60s there were a lot of trips from Illinois to Texas for college, marriage and other ill-advised endeavors. In 1970 I went back and forth from Ft. Worth to Winfield, Kansas to try and start a guitar company and instead lose everything.

In 1974, following numerous nightmares, several soap operas and a couple of Country-Western songs, I did it again from Chicago with literally all I owned on my back. And I still miss trains, a most civilized means of locomotion.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at July 2, 2016 4:05 PM

I loved taking trains in the old days. The overnight sleeper from Boston to DC was the preferred way to visit my wife's family.

Once coming into Union Station in DC in the morning, in our sleeper compartment, we were repacking to exit the train. The door was open and my wife responded to my question about if or where the prescriptions were packed, "The drugs are in the bottom of the small bag" she said...as a porter passing by the open door paused and then hurried away.

Love trains, can't seem to get anywhere anymore on one.

Posted by: John The River at July 2, 2016 6:19 PM

What a trip. I had no idea that the Zephyrs dated back that far. In the 1960s, when I was just a child, my mother took us kids on a train trip from California to Minnesota. The first leg, SF to Denver (I think) was on the California Zephyr. We did not have a sleeper berth, but the seats were comfortable enough to be bearable, and the view from up top was wonderful. I don't remember what line we tok for the second leg, from Denver to the Twin Cities, but I remember how uncomfortable and much older the cars were, and there was no comparable view.

But I hear that Jerry Brown promises a new resurgence of passenger rail travel with his Bullet Train to Nowhere boondoggle. What could possibly go wrong?

Posted by: Grizzly at July 2, 2016 6:55 PM

I took a Zephyr once. Also rode trains from Atlanta to Seattle, and have "trained" up and down the West Coast a couple of times. It's grueling travel, and I'll wager the old timers had tougher butts than most of us.

Both my dad and my dad-in-law rode the rails from anywhere you can name to everywhere else, in WW II. It was an odyssey, that's no doubt.

Posted by: Casey Klahn at July 2, 2016 7:57 PM

Wonderfully fun story!

Posted by: DeAnn at July 2, 2016 8:09 PM

Except in a handful of extremely high density places, it is a mistake to use trains to move people. The costs per passenger mile are stunning, because every bit of the infrastructure and train is heavy. If you care about carbon dioxide (I don't), then trains have the highest CO2 emissions per passenger mile of any ground transport, again because of weight. Light rail diminishes the problems. Trolleys are a 19th Century horror show.

For modest distances (daily commute), buses are cheapest both in dollars per passenger mile and CO2 emmissions. Passenger cars are a close second.

The Euopean use of trains is extremely wrong. Most of their freight goes by truck, which clogs their highways.

Just about everything the Europeans do is wrong.

Go to the antiplanner blog for numerous posts and actual data. He also spends a lot of time exposing city planner lies.


Posted by: bob sykes at July 3, 2016 4:23 AM

Zephyr. An apt name, for the amount of disturbance that will be felt when the Browndoggle sort of just disappears.

Trains are no longer about transporting the public. They are now vehicles for transporting the public's money to political cronies.

The California Republic is dead. It has been transformed into an organized crime syndicate. The new Dons keep some citizens around so they can be plundered.

The scope and audacity of the Browndoggle just boggles. The Big Dig? Pikers! Dangle a shiny pebble in front of the Califidiocracy: ooh look, a 21Cen LA-SF Bullet Train. The Democrats were wise to the scam. The Demonrats and a few morons vote for $10B in bonds. The Initiative is structured to plunder billions more from Federal coffers. You stupid flyover chumps, we're gonna rape you some more, so bend over and just think of America, cuz you deserve what's gonna happen to you.

With the bonds sold, the money just flies out of Sacraspendo to every Democrat interest group and constituency across the state. Billions just vanish. The objective is not to get a train built, but to get that money out to all the vassals, minions, courtiers while nobody is watching and before it runs out.

Mr. Senator Feinstein, his company gets big contracts. The engineers working for politically-favored and obeisant companies get to work. The speed decreases, trip times stretch, the construction schedules doubles and triples, the projected cost increases more than tenfold, the ridership projections endlessly decrease. A few desultory tracks are laid in the remotest part of the Central Valley, in order to fool the Feds into coughing up more $$$. See, we're making progress. Pay up! Like the Feds need any convincing.

Don't you see the con yet, mark? The objective of the Browndoggle is to steal $$$ billions and lock down California forever as a Democratic Party stronghold. No train will ever run you stupid maroons!, but tens of billions of dollars will have been transferred from the new serfs to the new kakistocracy.

Welcome to the California Feudal Empire. Now shut up and work. And if you try to fight us, well, we have lots of illegal gangs under our control, and they'll just kill you. Ask those peaceful White Supremacists down in Sacramento. The cops stood by and let our Antifa work them over, pour encourager les autres.

Posted by: John A. Fleming at July 3, 2016 11:11 PM

Trains! Infested by Federal goons (The King's Men!) that shake each passenger down and confiscate all their cash. Governments love trains: they're so efficient for moving people to the camps.

Posted by: John A. Fleming at July 3, 2016 11:19 PM

The closest experience to the Zephyr I've had was the Amtrak (yes, I know...) AutoTrain from Virginia to Florida. This was between overseas jobs, and I was pulling my reserve duty at MacDill that year, so I thought it might be fun to take the train down instead of flying or driving. It's a direct shot from Lorton (outside of DC) to Sanford (near Orlando), so that part was fine, and the food and sleeper car were not great, but ok. They also didn't trash my car. But it was quite costly, more than an airline ticket or mileage, so I ended up eating part of the cost, even though I drove back. Haven't taken a long-distance train in the US since.

Posted by: waltj at July 5, 2016 7:07 PM

Echo Oldfert. If the train is going where you want to pretty much exactly, it's enjoyable and efficient. If you are going Boston to Cleveland, great. If you are aiming for Cincinnati instead, you are switching to a bus or a car rental and things just got more complicated. I've taken two long-distance trips over the past five years just to relive the experiences of my youth. I might do it again.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at July 6, 2016 5:45 AM

Wonderful post, thank you. But what a sad sight of the train today, an almost empty car, and a lonely woman, not enjoying the sights zipping by, just… lost in the screen of her phone.

Posted by: jean-paul at July 8, 2016 9:33 PM