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By Howard Fast

Across America on the Twentieth Century and the Super Chief. You change at Chicago, and according to a seasoned rail buff, it's a change for the better

The best things in life come too late, and what would have been high adventure to the small boy appears a little less than joyful to a bald and middle-aged man. When I was ten, I waved passionately and enviously each day at Locomotive No. 2 of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad–which was about a hundred miles of track in upstate New York, a family railroad as they were then called; not traveled by families in the meaning of the time but owned by a single family. It was a more innocent age–and in the absence of mainliners, hipsters and delinquents as such, we dreamed of being Indian fighters and locomotive engineers.
We were modest romantics and America's childhood was still with us. In a manner of speaking, we were only a second generation in the land. The smokestack of Locomotive No. 2 did not flare at the top, but it was a solid five feet tall, guyed with wires, blood cousin as we saw it to the iron horse that had puffed across the plains, chased hotly by Indians and Bill Cody; and the engineer, in his striped coveralls, sat in a pool of fiery power, one hand on the throttle and the other hand on that whistle cord that cuts into the memory of so many of us. No diesel whistles like that. Like the lost chord, the wild, beautiful sound of the steam locomotive's whistle is reserved to some uncertain hereafter; and if some of the men I have known are to walk through those pearly gates, then the splendid old steam locomotives are also entitled.
All or some of this occurred to me when the Pullman porter on the Santa Fe's Super Chief awakened me at four o'clock in the morning. We were still crossing the Mohave Desert, half an hour east of Barstow, California, where I was scheduled to join the locomotive crew in their cab and ride with them over the Coastal Range into San Bernardino, and for a little less than two hours a return to childhood dreams was permitted–an uneasy path into the past at best.
Half asleep, I crawled into my clothes, threw cold water on my face and managed to be ready when the Super Chief rolled to a stop at Barstow.
Since I had been told that we would be coming out of the Mohave Desert at that time and was possessed of a firmly conditioned heat-desert reflex, I wore only a light jacket. I do not remember ever being colder than during the quarter-mile hike from my sleeping car up to the head of the train. An icy wind was blowing out of the West, gleefully upsetting any Eastern notion that deserts are hot during spring nights, and when finally I reached the head of the train, there was no sign of any engine–only the headless train–and the freezing wind.
The station agent then appeared, took pity on me, gave me the shelter of his office, wherein he informed me that the Super Chief changed diesels at this point and that in a few minutes a new locomotive would couple to the train. The few minutes did not stretch, for everything on this remarkable train is so timed and compressed I that no moment is expendable, and a little later a great five-section, seven-and-a-half-thousand-horse-power diesel backed gently out of the night and coupled to the train. If the old steam locomotive can be recalled as a heavy-muscled bull, the diesel is well thought of as cat, and under the hand of the engineer it moves with the control and precision of a ballet dancer. Its sound is muffled, its awesome power hooded, and like a dynamo it partakes of the mystery of basic power. Once it is given life, that is, once the motors are started, it runs until it must be overhauled, throbbing without pause for days and days and for uncounted thousands of miles. The metal, the flesh of the engine, swells; it becomes hot and alive; it cannot be turned on and off the way an auto engine can be turned on and off without disastrous results.
Another man appeared out of the night now. His name was Gentry–road foreman of engines. for this division–and he waved me up the iron ladder to the door of the cab. Hodson, tall, skinny, a man who cut his teeth on steam, and engineer for this run, opened the door of the cab. It was a long way up and once inside, the track was two silver threads far below. The cab was sealed, warm, secure–no flaming box with the engineer leaning out of the side window to see the track up ahead but wide windshields of shatterproof glass, an instrument board, and three large, comfortable, leather-upholstered armchairs. The engineer, Hodson, occupied one, his fireman, a younger man by the name of Ogle, the other, and a third, set between these two and slightly back from them, was offered to me. I sat in it with pleasure and relief.
Yet all the security and the comfort could not affect the essential strangeness of it, and as far as I am concerned there is no experience quite like the view and the action in the cab of a great locomotive. Many times I have sat with the pilot of a plane; but there all is peace and light, no sense of motion in the ocean of air–a stillness that rejects excitement and is not unlike the pervading calm on the bridge of an ocean liner. The man at the wheel there makes very slight motions, the captain calmly conveys his orders to the engineer below, but sometimes for hours there are no orders and hardly any motions–and by air and sea an autopilot can and does take over. Only in the cab of the locomotive is the tension like a stretched rubber band, the concentration total and unflagging, and the very existence of hundreds of passengers dependent upon the seriousness and the alertness of the engineer. Thereby, the fact that for years, at times, there are no major passenger-train tragedies becomes all the more of a tribute to the railroads, some sort of balance in the scale that weighs so heavily against them.
From my seat in the cab, I had a fine view of the track ahead, one powerful light beam cutting through the night to illuminate and another beam sweeping from side to side as a warning. On my left, the fireman called the signals.
"Clear block–highball."
"Clear block," the engineer repeated.
All signals are called aloud–the warning lights, the maximum curve speeds, printed on markers along the tracks, the emergency signals, every part of an intricate safety system that begins with the fail-safe pedal under the foot of the engineer, a pedal that will bring the train to a stop automatically should the pressure of his foot relax, and goes on to include an intricate system of bells. At all danger points, these bells sound in the cab. The engineer must answer, respond to the bell, or again the train will come to a stop.
We started now–so gently, so imperceptibly that one was hardly aware of the motion. Behind us, the five humming diesel sections went from idle to traction; the tracks slid under us; and we whispered through the gaining speed. The Super Chief is a fast train, perhaps the fastest train in the United States, and it cruises–if one can use that term for a train–at ninety miles an hour. From Barstow we approached the Coastal Range, up two thousand feet in an hour and then down more than two thousand in the next hour, and the first approach was a straight uphill grade which the diesels took without a quiver. In just minutes we were running at eighty miles an hour on the uphill grade, slowing to sixty on the curves and then returning to speed and climbing without effort–and up there in the cab you become a part of it, alive with it, thrilling to the voice of the signals, the voice of the diesels, and the thin, screaming voice of the whistle.
And against this, the ear-deafening hiss of compressed air as the brakes were engaged and cleared–the sound of ten thousand geese pressed together and hissing their resentment. In the wide reaches of the Far West, there are countless grade crossings, the warning whistle of the diesel wailing almost without pause–strangely enough a sound one never hears as a passenger in the train–as a steady accompaniment to the other sounds; and ahead of us the silver threads of the track and the concentration of engineer and fireman upon that track almost as a physical thing. A train is nothing to stop quickly; it's an object lesson in the law of inertia, and running at eighty miles an hour, it takes more than a mile to bring it to a stop. So every yard of track is alive and demanding and threatening.
I became a part of it. The tension wrapped around me and included me. I had thought that the run from Barstow into the San Bernardino Valley would be rewarding because we would come out of the night darkness with the sun overtaking us; but so desperate did my intentness upon the track ahead become that I never knew when the transition from night to day took place. Suddenly the winding track ahead of us, snaking from gorge to gorge, was in daylight. There was no sense of a time passage, no feeling of distance covered, no memory even of the night. Air hissing permeated the cab, and gently–gently as a mother guiding a child in a carriage–we rolled into San Bernardino and came to a stop.
All this notion of an aged boy pretending to be a locomotive engineer and permitted to blow the whistle as a reward had come about only a few days before. Lunching with the editor of this magazine, and with my literary agent, someone had said something about railroads–and we remembered some of long ago with nostalgia and some more recently without pleasure. I ventured that there were still some good trains operative in the West, the Santa Fe Super Chief in particular. But the gloss and the shine had departed from trains. Whoever mentioned them or wrote about them these days? This was the age of the jet set–see one film and you were there–race the sun and you could arrive almost before you departed. You save time–but what one does with the time saved is never discussed. A friend of mine is a priest in the religion of time-saving, and recently he told me about a new plane that has been proposed and will fly in seventeen minutes, New York City to Los Angeles, an almost vertical takeoff and an almost immediate descent. May all the gods help us, we have saved four more hours, but for what I do not know.
Thomas Jefferson crossed the Atlantic more times than I will, likely enough, and passage each way took three to four weeks, yet he was never in want of the time we hoard so fervently, and he did a thing or two. But even a balsa-wood raft is more glamorous than a train to Los Angeles. Yet suppose one went? Suppose one did embark on this antique adventure? Whereupon, I packed my bag–and my friends commiserated with me and said that this was something one does not do–and how could I? And from where the patience?
But perhaps one should do it, I thought, remembering the last time I had gone to Los Angeles and back by jet. Going there, a cloud cover and haze removed America. I entered the plane at one airfield and left it at another; there was nothing in between; and returning by night, we had a tail-wind of a hundred miles an hour takeoff and landing–America had vanished. It was there once, but how many of the makers and molders and movers and pushers remember it? Might one or two things be different if they did remember that there is a land and people between the airports?
I began by talking to the Santa Fe people, and I said that it might be more interesting if I could ride in the locomotive here and there–as a large and aging boy. But running a rather remarkable railroad they felt as I did about locomotives, and they said that it could be arranged. But when I asked at the New York Central whether the Twentieth Century Limited still existed, they surlily replied the there was a six-o'clock train to Chicago and that it was called the Twentieth Century.
It might more appropriately be called other things. I bought a ticket and a bedroom and turned up dutifully at five forty-five of a Sunday evening, and there on the station floor was the famous red carpet–threadbare, dirty, but still the red carpet of old Twentieth Century fame. I walked down it and found my car, an ancient and unprepossessing vehicle, greasy and dirty on the outside perhaps–as I hopefully told myself–cleaner within, a plausible home away from home.
A fruitless hope and very quickly shattered. I have used sleeping cars in Europe, Africa and Asia, but I have never seen anything as unashamedly dirty and uninviting as that car on the Twentieth Century Limited. The rug on my bedroom floor had not been cleaned in weeks. It crawled with dirt, and under the seat there was a reserve accumulation of dirt. The toilet was nasty and uninviting and the bedroom seat itself was broken and uncomfortable. As soon as possible, I fled the place to the dining car. Here at least the linen was clean, but the car was dirty and the kitchen stank with stale-food and garbage smells.
I had a feeling that they were flaunting the dirt and smell–almost as if they were saying, "We'll teach you to stay off our wretched train."
I held my breath, went through, and was seated at a table and handed a menu. The prices were not too far away from some of the New York City restaurants, but the food was only edible, and the service was discouraging. I arrived in Chicago with increasing sympathy for people who abhorred the railroads.
In Chicago, I had lunch with the Santa Fe people. I told them of my experience with the New York Central. It is true that I had used the Santa Fe in the past and remembered the Super Chief as a near-perfect train, but I also had good memories of the Twentieth Century.
"What about it?" I asked them.
"We hear the same thing every day," they admitted. "It does railroads in general no good."
"And your railroad?"
"We think we run a good railroad–maybe as good as any in the world. That goes for our passenger service."
Did they lose money, I wanted to know. "I mean on passenger service. That's the New York Central's cry of woe." "No, sir. We make money on our passenger service–and all this talk of losing money on passengers does us no good. The trouble is that years ago, when railroads carried most travelers wherever they were going, the I.C.C. set up accounting procedures, and we still have to charge an enormous part of the upkeep of roadbed and bridges against the passenger income. But there's nothing real about that. If we only carried freight, we would still have to maintain the same roadbed and the same bridges."
I listened and I was dubious–and at half-past six that evening I boarded the Super Chief–and over the following day and two nights discovered that it had not appreciably changed since my last experience with it. It remains–at least so far as my own knowledge is concerned–one of the best trains in the world on a superbly operated railroad. And in addition to whatever virtues it carries within itself, it runs through some of the most awe-inspiring, dramatic country on earth–a landscape that in and of itself would repay discomfort and hardship; and in far larger coin the amazing comfort and luxury of the Super Chief.
In a country like ours–which has lived so successfully with the strangest set of inner contradictions that the world has ever seen–it is hardly remarkable that a trip from coast to coast involves two railroads so different, the one so indifferent, the other so good, and in some measure the difference is regional; the Western road straddles a vast empire still almost untouched, great snow-covered mountains on either side as far as the eye can see, vast empty plains, millions of acres of forests, deserts, buttes, canyons, a feast for the eyes but also uncounted cattle on the hoof, fertile river bottoms where anything and everything grows like magic, and an immeasurable wealth of mineral and timber resources.
This is the great empire of the Santa Fe, not a mindless island as defined in the inane talk of Barry Goldwater and his frightened followers, but still a wonderland of open spaces and awe-inspiring vastness, nature's splendid gift to us.
And through this vast empire, the silver train called the Super Chief makes its way from Chicago to Los Angeles and back, every day of every week and every month and every year.
I am enough of a booster for what we can do to know that when we want to do it, no one can do it better. The Super Chief is that sort of thing–clean, shining and wonderfully thoughtful and efficient in its operation.
They will bring you your coffee in bed when you awake in the morning–or you can have breakfast in a dining car that compares favorably with any restaurant I ever ate in. The kitchens are spotless, the service dignified and courteous, the chefs carefully chosen and then trained to a special menu. You can have boiled, shirred, scrambled or fried eggs for ninety-five cents, with bacon or sausages, $1.75, an excellent lunch for less than two dollars and a magnificent table d'hôte dinner for less than four dollars, olives and celery, soup and main course and coffee and dessert, and for seventy-five cents additional a split of excellent Napa Valley wine. You are treated as the British treat a first-class passenger on one of the Queens; your every wish is catered to, and for the most part the ride is as smooth as honey.
If you make up a party in travel, they have a private dining room, no extra charge and so sensibly set off from the sleeping cars that you can make all the noise you care to. The cocktail lounge is secluded, dark and inviting, and there is a cardroom and reading lounge. I have been on the best trains in France and in England too–where the Flying Scotsman, London to Edinburgh in six hours is something no one should leave out of a lifetime if it can possibly be included–but these good trains are not like the Super Chief, not made to hurdle a vast continent and not self-contained in a technical and social efficiency that is somehow at odds with most of what we do today.
And through some magic, it operates without the brigandage that has become second nature to us. The cup of coffee they bring in the morning is without charge–and somehow one gets the impression that they enjoy having you along for other reasons than tips and profit.
I am not sure that I want to ride the New York Central again for the delight even of the Super Chief, but for the kids the real thing is far better than Disneyland or TV. The Super Chief arrives at Dodge City early in the morning, lays there for a little while in sight of Boot Hill, and then takes off at ninety miles an hour across the high plains of Kansas, those storied and horizonless plains that specialized so vividly in cattle, cowboys, badmen and brave Indians.
From there, the Chief bends north, climbing through the gashed wasteland of Southern Colorado up the great back of the Continental Divide, until at seven-and-a-half-thousand feet it speeds through the half-mile-long Raton Tunnel and over the spine of the Rocky Mountains into New Mexico. Then down and down, twisting among the improbable gorges and mesquite–spotted lumps of the New Mexico Rockies, snowclad peaks to the north and the south. Then the badlands, the flat, flat plains of land of the Canyon Diablo, the desert and the luscious green-forest-clad miracle of the Arizona Plateau.
And if there is a moon, you can go into the dome car, find yourself a comfortable seat and watch the night journey across the lonely and eerie wasteland that's called the Mohave Desert.
And so you come eventually to the green lotus land of California, not out of Kennedy Airport via magic carpet, but with a sense at least of what they passed over in the old times, of the mighty mountains they crossed, of the deserts and plains they spanned–and you have "wasted" a whole ten hours, excluding the sleeping time.
I suppose I am in the minority in taking less and less joy in aircraft. Faster and faster and faster–and nowhere to go and less and less to do. As kids we used to climb Hunter Mountain–before they gouged out its side and put a ski lift in–and camp on top, four-and-a-half-thousand feet above the world, which is higher than thirty thousand feet when you have mounted on your own two legs, and there, wrapped in our blankets and huddled under our ponchos, we would listen for the hoot and call of the train whistle of old No. 2 on the Ulster & Delaware, and hear it across the miles of trackless forest and take comfort from it–for this was the voice of man that had pushed back the wilderness.
That was my first train, my first railroad. We would journey up the Hudson River via the old Day Line riverboats–there were seven of those paddle-wheel steamers in service then–leaving the old pier at Desprosses Street eight in the morning and docking at Kingston three in the afternoon. Close to the dock, No. 2 would be waiting, huffing and puffing and hooting impatiently, with the two ancient plush-lined passenger cars behind the baggage car and the marvelous locomotive. It was less than forty miles from Kingston to Kaaterskill Junction–our destination–via the U. & D. track, but it was always anyone's guess as to when we would arrive.
Kingston is about sea level and Kaaterskill Junction was twenty-two-hundred feet–not an easy climb even for a diesel in forty miles. On a good dry day, No. 2 would do it in two-and-a-half hours, but let there be a little rain or snow on the tracks and it could take anywhere up to seven hours to make the trip. Little enough we cared. Time and distance were locked in our minds, and we requited the passage of time to give us a concept of distance that was tied to reality–the basic reality of how far is far when a man must cross over on his own two legs.
I made many other slow journeys and I regret none of them. I loved trains because trains were of people and the earth. My wife and I journeyed from the border to Mexico City. The trainmen were having a slowdown for higher wages and the trip took three days, but oh what a blessed and slow and wonderful three days they were, like walking through Mexico and talking through Mexico and talking to all the people all of the long way. Twenty years later, we repeated it, from Mexico City north this time, but the system was reformed and in new Swiss cars we were wafted north to the border in a matter of hours. But during World War II, I traveled from Delhi to Calcutta on the slowest train man ever made–six days of it–yet during those six days I came to know India as I never would otherwise.
I cherish those long and easy train trips in the far past, Paris to Toulouse, Mexico City to Oaxaca, Calcutta up into the hills by narrow gauge, with the morning dew on the tea leaves in the plantations–and as a kid, back in the bad days of the Nineteen Thirties, the shunting freights, the boxcars, refrigerator cars, cattle cars and oil cars–New York to Miami and then off wherever the train went. Hardly time wasted–hardly at all.
In the nature of a plea, I want rail travel to return to America. We need the antidote to one wild man in three-hundred-horsepower of automobile–the alternative for a generation who save time so compulsively and make so wretched little out of what they save.
I will admit that I took a large dose of it–a bigger dose I suppose than I will ever try again. I set out to travel six-and-a-half thousand miles by rail in one week in the United States–as a matter of fact in five traveling days and six nights. At times I was utterly bored–I traveled alone–and at other times uncomfortable to the point of extreme irritation; but mostly I was delighted, and there were hours and hours where I absorbed the astonishing beauty of this country with total pleasure. More than ever, I am astonished at the fact that we have so tolerantly watched the decay of public surface transportation during our lifetime. Yet it is not too late, and perhaps even the New York Central can be persuaded to plow back some profits to the cause of giving the transportation of person some of the magic it had before the jet age.