WASHINGTON DC, 20 October 2017
People I’ve met here have all reacted in the same way to my story of actually travelling by train across the country from San Francisco: “That sounds like fun.” Some are clearly dubious about the whole proposition but they’re being polite, and it’s part of the American way to be positive at all times. Others, though, mean it and start reminiscing about their various train trips, mostly long ago before cheap air fares.
For me it’s fun enough to roll 5000km on a pair of steel rails through some of the most interesting country anywhere, whatever the surrounding circumstances might be. But if your definition of fun includes old movie frames of smoothly tailored, trimly moustached gentlemen and haute-coutured ladies in little hats lounging in armchairs while a dazzlingly white coated, black steward named Sam, with feudal manners and a smile to match his jacket, serves them martinis and Cubans . . . forget it. If that vision ever existed beyond the railroad companies’ publicity, it most certainly does not apply now.
Amtrak doesn’t do style, comfort or deference. Amtrak does service with a “cop this” attitude. Passengers seem to accept irritation as part of the experience. Many of the people I met on the California Zephyr into Chicago and the Capitol Limited into Washington were doing the trips for “the experience”. It’s doubtful whether any of them will ever become repeat train travellers. Amtrak doesn’t really care – and that emerges in myriad ways, both large and small, from surly staff through tired rolling stock to stations that make bus stops look inviting. Dammit, in the land of the souvenir, you cannot buy any Amtrak merchandise on the trains or in the stations.
Grrr, I didn’t want to gripe. I wanted to tell you about a transcontinental crossing that even in the travel-jaded 21st century is an epic journey. It is one that still symbolises the construction of a nation. The joining of the rails from the east and rails from the west at Promontory in remote Utah in 1869 was the physical realisation of manifest destiny, the spread of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It’s a grand story, amid an horrendous Civil War and the assassination of the President who not only prosecuted the war to set free half of the then US but initiated and ensured the great rail project.
Australians would do well to reflect on the meaning of such linkages, as some of us celebrate this weekend the centenary of the departure of the first train on the Trans-Australian Railway, completed a few days before, on 17 October 1917. The Trans, as it used to be known, was the fulfilment of a promise to Western Australia that, if it joined the Federation, the new Commonwealth would fill in the gap between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. So it really did tie us together as one nation, although our transcontinental railway was to remain a piecemeal affair. In 1967 a journey I took from Brisbane to Perth and return involved seven different trains over four gauges. It wasn’t until the Sydney-Perth line via Broken Hill was standardised in 1969 that the present day Indian Pacific would allow passengers to travel unchanged for the entire 4500km run.
Which is one up on the Americans. They have never been able to go coast-to-coast snuggled in palatial suites-on-wheels pampered by hot and cold running Sams. When the first transcontinental railroad was up and running, passengers had to make their way to Council Bluffs on the eastern side of the Missouri River, cross to Omaha, board a Union Pacific train and then change at Ogden in Utah to a Central Pacific train for the run into Sacramento. Much later everything became centred on Chicago, so that when P.G. Wodehouse, for example, went to Hollywood in 1930, he boarded the Twentieth Century Limited at Grand Central in Manhattan for Chicago where he changed to the Chief for Los Angeles via Kansas City and the south-west states.
For more than a century after the driving of the golden spike at Promontory, various companies operated various trains over various routes. By the 1970s, however, they were all done and the US Government formed Amtrak to take over long distance passenger services. It’s a system very much pared down since the heady days before the development of the interstate road system and the airliner heralded by the DC3. Today, Amtrak operates four routes to the west coast – Chicago to LA, San Francisco and Seattle, and New Orleans to LA. Or if you want to look at it as westerners do, it’s the other way round (hello Perth). In Chicago you connect with two routes to New York and the north-east, and one to Washington DC.
I knew all that when I stepped on to the California Zephyr at Emeryville (aka Oakland, when I first went through there 20 years ago) but I still had it in my mind that I was re-enacting, first of all, the travels and travails of the railroad pioneers and, second, the glamorous adventures of those who had ridden the Zephyr before me. This is entirely fantasy. The original Zephyr dates only from 1949 and lasted 11 years. It never ran over the original transcontinental route built by Union Pacific and Central Pacific. In fact there are no passenger trains today over that route, and to do justice to the story of the transcontinental railroad today you would need to get on one of the massive freight trains that trundle over it constantly.
That’s a pity, not only because it destroys the first part of my dreaming but because I didn’t get to do a proper Portillo with my Appleton’s guide from 1875. I had it tucked in my bag but, apart from being entertaining reading, it didn’t help much. Furthermore, like the lazy Amtrak route notes today, it takes a resolutely east-to-west direction – which is understandable given it was compiled only six years after the completion of the railroad and in the middle of one of the great one-way migrations of all time.
It is scarcely believeable that, when Union Pacific started to push out from Omaha in 1862, the Great Plains were inhabited only by the small population of Native Americans (don’t accuse me of being PC – these people were never “Indians”, as mistaken by Christopher Columbus) and millions of bison (also misnamed). Both were overrun by history, as we know, and replaced by millions of European migrants and the greatest agricultural industries ever developed (baa one). So when people today tell me travelling across the relentless, featureless plains east of the Rockies into Chicago is boring, I respond that I have done the trip twice now – once before, out of LA 20-plus years ago – and I have not been bored: I am amazed. The inland plains of Australia are essentially semi-desert or real desert in large part. They can be highly productive of course but not like the Great Plains of the US and Canada. It’s exhausting to see but, to me, never uninteresting.
I know, I know, all you critics, I don’t live there, I’ve never been in winter and, anyway, I’m hermetically sealed in my own manufactured environment – unlike in 1879, when Robert Louis Stevenson joined a migrant train to travel to California. Conditions on the train were primitive by his account – for example, you had to hire a plank to sleep on and meal stops were quick and grubby – and he climbed up on the roof of his carriage to take in the view as the train chugged across the plains. He described it as like being at sea, nothing but waving fields of grass for mile upon mile. The beautifully written Appleton’s concurs: “Settlements and farms are . . . swallowed up in the immensity of the interminable levels which roll off to the horizon like the sea”. Its view of a regular passenger service was more upmarket than Stevenson’s, as you might expect, and advised booking sleeping berths for a total of $14 each, which I suspect was a lot of money in those days.
The price of a sleeping compartment in today’s Superliner, double-deck carriages is nearly twice the price of a basic seat. So-called “coach” seats are not the hardship slots of airline cattle class – you can, for example, go and sit in the glass-roofed “sightseeing” car with us first class passengers, and dine with us, too – but for the best part of three days on a train a private compartment with a bed and access to a shower is what you want. The price per day includes meals so it’s not by any means outrageous, if you measure everything by the dollar.
It’s the “sightseeing” that matters. Isn’t that what we’re here for, folks? After getting over the novelty of travelling on a train instead of in a car or an aluminium tube, it’s the promise of grand scenery, an eye-level tour of wonderful parts of America that has caused many of us to take days out of our lives, connected only sporadically to phone cells and not at all to wi-fi. Oh yes, and this is the one part of the experience that Amtrak delivers, probably because it’s out of Amtrak’s control. Amtrak could make it better but that’s a topic for another day.
I always like staring out of train windows into the backyards of human habitation. Down by the tracks, wherever I’ve been, is the dumping ground of all sorts of ugliness – and that’s interesting – but the parts I really don’t want to unsee come from the Earth directly or from its human conquest. The Earth and humanity are in a constant struggle, of course, and the Earth often wins, but humanity has wrestled Mother Nature into submission and in the process has created sights for us on the Zephyr to marvel at.
One of these is the railroad itself, up through the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento, a tortuous ascent carved by hand and black (gun) powder out of the granite. Thousands of Chinese labourers chipped out the tunnels at the rate of an inch a day. Many of them died in the process. They sheltered from the 10 metres-deep winter snows in these burrows of their own making and the bodies of those who couldn’t were found in the spring, frozen to death. Today the Zephyr traverses essentially the same route, although there have been inevitably some improvements in 150 years. If you can tear your eyes away from the deep canyon of the American River, you can see where the alignment has been shifted, straightening the curves a little and eliminating a tunnel or two.
At the top, you pass by Donner Lake, named after one of the great tragedies of the westward pioneers. In pre-railroad 1846, a small wagon train became trapped in the snows up there and its 87 people began slowly starving to death. It took four months for a relief party to find them. By then the survivors had resorted to eating the bodies of their already dead companions. Forty-eight made it to California. Today, before the winter, Donner Lake is a pretty tourist resort giving no hint, from the train at least, of its grim past.
At Reno, the station is a concrete canyon buried somewhere in the city. The train pulls up between two poorly lit grey vertical slabs, unadorned even with advertising. There’s a door to a lobby that promises better above. After that, on this train running to a delayed schedule night closes in and Nevada passes by as we enter Utah, famed for the Great Salt Lake and Mormons.
I shared a dinner table with a family, and it emerged that the husband and father had spent two years in Sydney some time ago as one of those polite young men in black trousers and white shirts who knock on your door from time to time. Somehow he had developed a love of the Hawthorn Football Club (to my irritation – Go Tigers!) and a liking for cricket, so much so that his wife complained he had been sitting up in the middle of the night to watch the recent Australia-India one day series. I suggested she should direct him to the porn channel. This brought a genuine laugh but I thought I should quit while I was ahead and not mention The Book of Mormon.
The train reached Salt Lake City at about 4.30am. It was raining. The station was a series of tracks without shelter and a station house (or deepoh) a hundred metres away. John Betjeman might have made something of the dark figures in hoodies struggling with bags through the amber-lit drizzle to board a looming giant beast, growling and groaning to get away into the rising sun.
Well, that sun never rose for another 2½ hours, and by the time it really got going we were running into the vast open space that is Utah and Colorado, the vault of heaven held up by flat-top mountains and sheer cliffs. Though 1500 metres above current sea level it’s clear this land was once under water. Even to my unpractised eye, these are sedimentary rocks. The sides of the mountains are sliding (and I mean the present tense) on to the plain. Over more eons they will waste away. The long escarpments are like ancient city walls, except there’s nothing behind them. Big mounds of earth could be mullock heaps left by gold mining titans of long ago. Other large tracts look like nothing less than strip mines. They’re not – whatever has been taken from this land, it is Mother Nature who has done it. Her rehab program will take more than legislation to ensure.
All day the train runs through canyons in this tawny, yellow and sometimes grey landscape, following for a couple of hundred kilometres the course of the Colorado River.
Hardy humans in places have cultivated the river flats or created irrigated pastures, so that I started to think I’d seen this before – a green strip either side of a river flanked by bare plains and mountains, with as sharp a definition as if it had been carved by a knife. And I believe I had, in Egypt along the Nile. The strip was narrower in Colorado, the river was smaller but the desert was just as clear cut and just as stark. At one place a rocky bluff reared up out of the canyon like a sphinx gazing timelessly and imperiously upon his subjects below. These are unforgettable scenes that rarely feature in the picture books and the TV docos.
After a long day’s journey into night, passengers on the train going east miss seeing the western side of the towering Rockies and the descent into Denver, said to be a spectacular engineering triumph over the seemingly impossible. The train takes the 10km Moffat tunnel through the continental divide. Its length is such that train passengers and staff are warned not to move between the carriages for fear of being overcome by the fumes from the twin diesels up front. When we emerge, Denver can be seen below in all its brilliant lighting. For once, the station actually looks like a station as the Zephyr shares it with Denver’s new rail facilities for its rapidly growing urban population.
From there it’s a run through the night to rendezvous with the original Union Pacific railhead at Omaha on the Missouri, where the train crosses the river by a circuitous route and barrels the length of Iowa, missing entirely the historic Council Bluffs, terminus of all railroads west before the transcontinental line and where then presidential candidate Abe Lincoln cooked up with railroad engineer Grenville Dodge a scheme to send the rails to California. I would have liked to have glimpsed this pivotal point – it would have given me something to think about as the train lurched its way along some poor track through lunch and the rest of the afternoon across the Mississippi and finally to Union Station in Chicago.
I had originally intended to cross straight over to Track 26 and board that evening’s Capitol Limited to Washington but in the end, from across the ocean and half a continent, I booked a night in Chicago because I didn’t have enough faith in Amtrak to make the connection even though the “layover” was about four hours. As it turned out I would have made it – the Zephyr that day was only about three hours late, including the rescheduling. I’m glad I saved myself the rush, if only because I got to see American Gothic close up. I was able to front up to the rigours of Amtrak that night with renewed optimism.
The last morning of my journey was spent on the Capitol Limited in the forests of Pennsylvania and the Appalachians. From the train the region seems to be still fairly sparsely populated country, with dense forests crowding in on both sides of the train, broken by odd farmhouses and clearings and a few small towns. This is the backwoods and I could half-hear banjo music as we trailed through river valleys. But chimneys and communication towers that peeped above the tree line from time to time suggested that what you see in this pretty country is not necessarily what you get. Later on, those modern excrescences on the skyline, wind farms, made their presence felt and contrasted with loaded coal trains sitting among the trees. Coal is still being mined in the Appalachians of West Virginia but the industry is slowly dying under the assault of green politics.
Then after the famous Harpers Ferry, the train begins its run into the towns and suburbs of Maryland and eventually into the railyards of Union Station in Washington DC. Non-Americans probably need reminding that when they hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it arises from the perhaps more familiar John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, referring to the raid slavery abolitionist John Brown led on the Federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War. He was hanged but his soul goes marching on.
Next stop: the wonders of Washington DC.