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My Love Affair with Trains

My Love Affair with Trains, train travel after 50, train travel in middle age
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BY MARY JANE HORTON

I find it interesting that all of a sudden, everyone is talking about trains. I have been taking trains my whole life. I have ridden the rails in this country – all the way across the country and up and down the coasts – and abroad.  I have sat for hours watching the countryside blur by, I have savored the hours on a train slowly getting to a place where I really didn’t want to be, and I have defended train travel over and over again to people who think that the only way to get where they are going is quickly, without seeing where they have been.

I guess I have an affinity for trains because of my early introduction to them. I grew up outside of New York, and my mother’s family lived in Cleveland. We would go, by train, every summer. It was an adventure that started with going to the “city,” and then having our own little room, which – even then – felt like it was from another era with the gleaming stainless steel sink that folded up into the wall, the tiny toilet in the room, and the meals with crisp white tablecloths in the dining car. I would go to sleep and be lulled by the shaking of the car and the quiet outside, and then – it seemed so quick – we would be in Cleveland. In my early twenties, on a trip across Canada, I fell in love, for an hour, with a young man who had worked drilling oil in the far north. We watched the Northern Lights and talked about our hopes and dreams before we parted at 3 a.m. I don’t think I every got his name.  And when my children were young, I took them on trains almost from day one.

Anything can happen

Besides meeting interesting people, and sharing a bit of your life, the unpredictably of trains is part of their lure – and sometimes their curse. It used to be that trains in Europe were punctual, but on a trip I took this summer, I realized that was a truth of the past. Each country has their own train system (now some have competing companies which is very confusing) and some are better than others. In Switzerland you can set your watch by the train, in France and Italy, not so much. Amtrak still maintains poor on-time reputation, except on the east coast. Case in point, I recently took a train from Flagstaff, Arizona to LA. The train – which started in Chicago – was supposed to leave at 10 and left at 2:30 a.m. You have to be ready for anything.

Amtrak was at its worst in the seventies and eighties after it became a “quasi-governmental” agency that was trying to forge its way. There are some very bad years in there, and I happened to ride Amtrak a great deal at that time. It was the height of my flying phobia (which I have since conquered and is separate from the fact that I truly love trains). Sometime in the eighties, when I had just moved to LA from NY, and my parents where still paying for me to travel home, I took the long trek on the train – in the winter.  It’s a three-day journey: two days to Chicago and one day from Chicago to New York. Somewhere in the middle of Colorado, I believe, the snow started. It was beautiful to watch, but it just kept coming for hours and hours. We travelled slowly through the Rockies, stopping, waiting, and then going a short way before stopping again. It soon became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere, this time, any time soon.

So I started asking questions, as reporters are wont to do. At first the room attendant, who I was badgering – in the nicest way – was put off and didn’t want to talk. But after almost an entire day, unable to move because of the snow, he was asking for my help getting the word out about what was going on. “Oh, miss reporter,” the attendant would cry, “Tell people that we will get to Chicago tomorrow, and that if they are going on, they will have to stay in Chicago – on Amtrak – and wait a day for the next train. Staying, on Amtrak, at the Holiday Inn was also an experience to remember. The people at the hotel didn’t want us, didn’t think we would tip (which wasn’t the case for me), and just generally made things unpleasant. Needless to say, I was very happy to get back to my childhood home in New York after that trip.

Through the years, as my life changed, so did my relationship with trains.  Still not wanting to fly when my kids where young, first me and my son and then when my daughter was born, the three of us did the three-day trek to New York. It had its moments, I know, but with the perspective of time, I only remember the good: wrapping little surprises to give them each day to get through the cranky times; whiling away the hours with new-found friends in the lounge; strapping them onto my chest in a carrier to walk to the dining car; the looks of wonder of their faces going through majestic forests, and fear while going through tunnels.

I stopped taking Amtrak across the country when I started flying again. (I still miss it), and had to – still have to – satisfy my need for train travel on vacation or with shorter routes.  My son lived in Northern California for a while, so it was fun to take the 12-hour train ride from LA to San Francisco. And under the annals of anything can happen, one time when I was coming back – just around Santa Barbara, which is about three hours from LA, the train made one of those indeterminate stops. We sat and sat, only to be told that someone had died and the train was waiting for the coroner to come.

On a happier note, I had an experience on a train from Zagreb, Croatia to Budapest, Hungary that taught me a great deal about the pervasiveness, nowadays, of the English language. There were four women in my compartment – one Croatian, one Hungarian, one German, and me. And we were all speaking English. The train – again – was a bit late, but we staying engrossed in conversation for hours. On that same trip, on the way to Croatia from Cannes, France, I experienced what was probably the hardest train day of my life. If I went into detail I could probably fill a small ebook, but it started out with a French train strike (this is one thing that doesn’t happen in the U.S.), and went downhill from there. I missed every connection from France, through Italy, but I had – even with the language barrier – some railway worker angels who came to my rescue. They helped me re-route, get later trains, whatever they had to do. And miraculously, I made my ferry to Croatia from Ancona, Italy, at 7:30 p.m. even though I thought it would never happen.

On that same trip, I found myself at a deserted train station in Berlin waiting for a late arriving overnight train to Cologne. The train station, not the major one in Berlin or it would have been busier, was eerie for its emptiness. I sat with some rather grungy looking people, and waited. The only bright spot was a Subway – yup, Subway – that was still open. All went well and I ended up – late once again and having to wait – in Cologne. However, once I found the first-class lounge, I was in heaven with waiters offering me sandwiches and cappuccino to my liking. The lounges, when they are available, are one of the best parts of train travel in Europe.

If you have a first-class ticket, and a wait, always ask about the lounge because they aren’t always apparent.

The beauty – and reality – from the window can be astounding

And, finally, one of the best reasons to take trains is the scenery. You can see trees and fields, mountains and cities from high above in a plane, but on a train, you are right there in the middle of them. One of my earliest memories of a more gritty type of scenery is when I was in college, reading the book Manchild in Promised Land, by Claude Brown, and taking the train through Harlem – the neighborhood the book is set in– and being so close the apartments, I could see inside.

And the nature! Sometimes it is simply breathtaking. Here are some of the most beautiful routes I have taken:

  • The Coast Starlight is the Amtrak route that goes only the west coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle. You start out inland and then somewhere around Santa Barbara you begin hugging the coast and you stay there for quite a while. The sun sparkles on the waves and sometimes you are close enough to see surfers and sunbathers. It is quite the view of the Pacific Ocean.
  • In Switzerland, where I used to go quite a bit as a child because my father was in the watch business, there is a train that from Geneva, through the Swiss Alps to Zermatt, a postcard-perfect little town near the Matterhorn. The train goes on such a steep ascent that, once you leave the towns of Brig or Visp, it needs a cog to hold it into place. The views of the mountains, the peacefulness, is astounding.
  • Paris to Florence. When my kids were teenagers, we did the Grand Tour in Europe, and the overnight train we had from Paris to Florence, was great. It not only had the best spaghetti of the trip, but the views in the quiet of the night of little bodies of water, the greenest of landscapes, and huge majestic palaces were quite the incentives to keep waking up.
  • When I took the train, last May from Prague to Berlin, it was right after the floods that so impacted this part of Europe.  The train went through beautiful Bavarian scenery with quaint little towns by lakes surrounded by hills. This particular trip, however, was a bit different as I watched those lakes lapping up over their edges sometimes engulfing yards and encroaching on houses. Nothing like seeing the news up close and personal.

My devotion to trains is true. I will keep taking  them even if they are always late and even if people – like one of my best friends husband – call me eccentric. I will sit for hours watching the world go by…. and loving it.

Training Tips

Here are some basic guidelines to make any train trip more enjoyable.

Sustenance No matter where you are going, bring some food and water. It used to be that – especially in Europe – you could get really good food on any train, but that has changed. The larger routes usually have some offerings, and the food can be really good, but you just don’t know. And if you are late or stuck, the last thing you want is to be hungry and thirsty.

The Dining Car In this country, and sometimes abroad, you have to make reservations or you won’t be able to dine. So ask the conductor about this when he or she takes your ticket.

Moving around If you are on a train for many days, don’t just sit. Walk from one end to the other, get out and stretch if there is a long stop. And you can even use your room to stretch – stand up, put your legs up on the seats and stretch them out, hold the upper bunch and stretch out your upper body – as long as your balance is good.

Room attendants These people are your best advocates. Chat them up and be nice. You might want them to bring you food from the dining room (that is part of the deal in the US), or you may want lots of information if you are late. And don’t forget to tip.

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Mary Jane Horton
Mary Jane Horton has been a writer/editor for 30 years. She has written
 for such magazines as Runner’s World, Fodor’s Guides, Time, Ms., Shape, Prevention, Living Fit, Woman’s Day special interest publications, to name a few, and worked as an editor for Fit Pregnancy magazine. Most recently she was editor in chief of Plum magazine, a health and lifestyle magazine for women over 35. She can be found at maryjanehorton.com.