At about age six, when I was making my first mental maps of the world, trains branded my brain. For three years I had been totally deaf, after a near-fatal bout with meningitis. Other children in that postwar year of 1946 thrilled to the din of DC-4s and Constellations. I could feel vibrations from the airliners’ piston engines, but I could not locate the source, and had to search the sky. Nor, closer in, was the cause of the thrumming apparent, except for the propellers, whirling almost invisibly. I knew, however, that the machine making the ground reverberate so deliciously down at the depot in Ho-Ho-Kus, a small town in northern New Jersey, would appear from just around the curve of the tracks. In a moment I could see what made that almighty rumble: a big black Ten-Wheeler bringing my father home from Manhattan on the Erie Railroad. Smoke, soot and cinders belched from the locomotive’s stack, and clouds of steam seethed from its cylinders. Chuff! Chuff! Chuff! In time with the phlegmy bark of the great iron mastiff, massive steel rods pumped the driving wheels, three times taller than me. Shiny valve gear churned with purpose, like the elbows of a race-walker. The locomotive announced its presence with the thunderous majesty of the Book of Revelation. The memory seared me deeply.

Time passed. Other boys grew up in synchrony with advancing technology, progressing from electric trains and rubber-band-driven balsa-wood planes to gas-powered radio-controlled model aircraft and primitive miniature rockets. So did I, for the most part. As an adult I plunged first into photography, then tropical fish, spending small fortunes on those obsessions. I became a husband and a father. I grew older, grayer, balder and heavier.

All the while I felt the tug of the train. As a young man living in Evanston, Illinois, I would stop, turn and gaze whenever a North Western commuter express glided into the Central Street station to discharge its passengers from Chicago. My eyes caressed the smooth green-and-yellow flanks of the diesel locomotive, and I mightily envied the men who sat high in the cab of the Electro-Motive E8.

A few years later, in our car idled at a grade crossing by a slow freight, my wife and our toddlers would fidget, but I silently thrilled to the legends on the boxcars and hoppers. Some of them were ghosts from a romantic corporate past: NICKEL PLATE ROAD. CHICAGO, BURLINGTON & QUINCY. NEW YORK CENTRAL. COLORADO & SOUTHERN. GREAT NORTHERN. WESTERN PACIFIC. MONON. PENNSYLVANIA. LACKAWANNA. Others bore fresher and still-surviving heralds: CONRAIL. UNION PACIFIC. COTTON BELT. BURLINGTON NORTHERN. SOUTHERN PACIFIC. SANTA FE. SOO LINE. Even CANADIAN NATIONAL and CANADIAN PACIFIC and, once in a long while, an N DE M, for NACIONALES DE MEXICO. As the caboose disappeared into the gloaming, I wished myself into its cupola. Even in my late forties, I dreamed of being a conductor, even a brakeman, if not an engineer.

But I couldn’t, and for an obvious reason: I am deaf. I can’t hear shouted orders or radio transmissions. I read lips but not well enough for me to deal with the traveling public as a conductor or trainman. Nor is my speech sufficiently precise for such a task. So I took up newspapering, a slightly more hospitable craft for people such as I, and became a critic and book-review editor. I have never regretted it, although from time to time, when a headlight splits the night and a quartet of diesels bellows past with fast freight for the West Coast, I want to be on that train.

*  *  *

“Oh, you’re a rail buff,” people sometimes say in condescending amusement when I confess my passion for the high iron. Yes, though that is not the preferred term in our fraternity. We call ourselves railfans. Despite what others may think, there is nothing homogeneous about us. The one similarity railfans share is an affinity for what has been loosely called “the romance of the railroads,” and, like love between human beings, that romance is manifested in many ways. Admittedly, some of those manifestations border on the obsessive. Many railfans are so deeply smitten with hardware—locomotives and cars—that their craving substitutes for human contact. They wall themselves off from ordinary travelers with barriers of jargon. I once heard a railfan across a lounge-car aisle announce, as our train crept past a long freight on a siding, “That’s an essdeefortyteedashtwo.”

“A what?” his companion replied.

“A tunnel motor,” the first speaker declared.

“A how much?” the second man said with a touch of irritation.

“A locomotive,” his tormentor replied, with the air of a parent explaining a simple matter to a small child.

The “essdeefortyteedashtwo” enthusiast, a skinny, brush-cut man in unpressed denim and a baseball cap bearing the herald of the Southern Pacific Railroad, was holding forth on the SD40T-2, a class of diesel locomotive built to haul freight trains through long tunnels. “See,” he said, although whatever there was to see had long since disappeared aft, “your tunnel motor has its air intakes down low on the long hood, instead of up top, so it can draw in cooler air from down near the tracks to keep the engine from overheating.” His companion nodded politely and a little distantly. “You find your tunnel motors only on the Rio Grande and Southern Pacific . . . ,” continued the first man, working up a good froth.

The fellow was a “foamer,” a species you’ll find everywhere flanged wheel encounters steel rail. A foamer—who bubbles at the lips when discussing his favorite subject—is what a professional railroader calls the hyperenthusiastic railfan, often with a touch of irritation and sometimes contempt. (“Fern,” for “F.R.N.,” or “fucking rail nut,” is gaining popularity among railroaders in the West.)

Most railroaders are tolerant, although some can be stirred to fury by foamers with the effrontery to compare their book-learned knowledge with the professionals’ on-the-job experience. Some of these hyperkinetic railfans clamp radio scanners to their ears the way freeway commuters affect car phones, eagerly listening in on the conversations of train crews and dispatchers. Some engineers and conductors hate the idea of such casual eavesdropping, although in most states it’s perfectly legal.

And “some foamers just get in the way all the time,” an apoplectic conductor on a Western train told me after slamming shut a vestibule window that a camera-bedecked railfan had opened at seventy-nine miles per hour. There is an airborne peril in the watery toilet residue sprayed on the track from the car ahead, as well as a real danger of being struck by gravel ballast and other missiles kicked up by the train’s wash. A few highly visible railfans often display an unfortunate tendency to endanger themselves by poking around mindlessly on passenger trains and trespassing on the tracks and in busy freight yards with Pentaxes and Minoltas, video cameras, tape recorders and scanners. Members of this variety tend to be overweight blue-collar types in engineer’s caps encrusted with railroad pins. Many of them strew droppings in the form of beer cans, Big Mac boxes and film wrappers, and some are outright thieves—more than one Amtrak crewman has told me that no “builder’s plate” containing construction information remains in the vestibule of any Amtrak passenger car, thanks to these light-fingered “collectors.” Many foamers of this kind are socially dysfunctional, too, unable to interact in any meaningful way with the rest of humanity.

Many more railfans, however, are extraordinarily gregarious creatures, attending meeting after meeting of railroad historical societies and riding every special steam-engine excursion they can find. One subspecies of this kind is the “mileage collector.” Identifiable by his expensive but well-worn sport coat and slightly outdated necktie, he always occupies the best seat in his coach or the lounge car. From time to time he will jot a note in his bulky logbook, and a quiet expression of interest will persuade him to open it and display the columns of data representing all the railroads he has ridden. The late Rogers E. M. Whitaker, a sportswriter, nightclub columnist and copy editor for The New Yorker, perhaps was the most industrious mileage collector of all.

Writing under the pseudonym E. M. Frimbo, Whitaker billed himself as “the world’s greatest railroad buff.” He was a tall, pink-faced man in a Homburg who, his friends said, looked “a little like Samuel Johnson and a lot like a conductor with his eye on a small boy dangerously close to the emergency cord.” His ambition was to ride every single foot of passenger trackage in the United States, and he achieved this goal in 1957, after riding more than 100,000 miles a year, chiefly on weekends and during vacations. Before he died in 1981, he had racked up an official 2,748,636.81 miles on railroads throughout the world. (And he claimed to be at least several years behind in his arithmetic.)

In his view he was only doing something sensible and practical. “If I rode around in a Buick all weekend,” he liked to point out, “no one would say a word.” During the 1960s this dry sense of humor led him into an attempt to persuade American railroads to fight the airlines by adopting the slogan, “Go Through the Mountains, Not Into Them.” So whimsical was his approach to trains that, in the days when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited had a barbershop on board, he would gather his friends for a ride as far as Albany just for a shave and a haircut.

Unlike the more famous Paul Theroux, a cranky traveler who rides railroads in order to map the underbellies of societies he despises, Frimbo never met a train he didn’t like. As amiable toward his subject as he was eccentric in personal habits (a cat buff also, he shared a Greenwich Village apartment with thirteen Persians), Frimbo once wrote of a Spanish dining car: “You were never quite sure what the devil you were eating, but it was all absolutely magnificent, especially when embellished with large drafts of Spanish wine.” He collected exotic moments; the Benguela Railway in Angola, for instance, burned eucalyptus logs in its steam locomotives as well as in its dining-car stoves, yielding “the most life-enhancing incense I have ever inhaled.”

He regularly reported his rail journeys to all parts of the world in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section. In 1974 he and his colleague Tony Hiss brought out All Aboard with E. M. Frimbo, a collection of those “Talk” essays. It’s a grand compendium of train rides from the Casbah to the Caspian, from Buffalo to Kyoto, and limns what Frimbo called “the most nearly perfect way of moving from one place to another.” I consider it the most nearly perfect book to take on a train ride anywhere in the world. Pity that it’s out of print.

*  *  *

Some railfans—more conventional ones—are employees of railroads, including Amtrak. I have encountered Amtrak crewmen who are pillars of railroad clubs. One, a quiet, personable and witty young chief of on-board services, is beloved by crews and passengers alike. He admits to being both a railroad professional and a railroad hobbyist—seemingly a rare combination, although I suspect many more like him simply never have come out of the closet. Another chief, a garrulous wretch with the soul of Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all letter carrier on the television comedy “Cheers,” irritates passengers and crews alike with endless foamer lore over the PA systems of the trains he oversees.

But the railroads do not generally recruit their employees from among railfans. “Sometimes buffs want to work for Amtrak because they love the railroad,” a chief once told me. “That’s fine and dandy, but you’ve got to be concerned with your job. You can’t be involved with what signal are you at or what the engineer is doing. That’s his job. You have to be concerned with your passengers. People who are not railroad buffs make better employees because they care more about what’s going on in their cars rather than watching something else.”

Civilian buffs root for individual roads as if they were sports teams, often continuing their love affairs long past the demise of their beloveds. The old New York Central attracts as many diehard fans as do the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and they utter the words “Water Level Route” with the same hushed reverence as Dodger enthusiasts say “Ebbets Field.” Central devotees accumulate hardware and ephemera with the “NYC” stamp the way Brooklyn worshipers collect baseballs autographed by Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese.

Some railfans even swap railroad trading cards, a cheap and booming new hobby. A typical introductory set of fifty bubblegum-set-sized cards features photographs of shapely locomotives and brawny boxcars from a variety of railroads, with “lifetime statistics” printed on the backs. Each set is printed in limited numbered editions and costs about fifteen dollars.

Collectors of more authentic (and therefore more expensive) railroadiana favor suburban houses with paneled basement “rec rooms” converted into shrines to their passions, and their collections can be more pridefully specialized than the practice of a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. I have seen rec rooms filled with brass switchmen’s lamps, oak chests full of switch stand locks, sideboards groaning with dining-car crockery, desks stuffed with timetables. This particular subspecies of railfan likes to hang out at flea markets. Many other railfans consecrate entire bookcases to volumes dealing with their favorite railroads; most of these, of course, are picture books with cliché three-quarter shots of charging locomotives, but some are thoughtful academic works and a few are interesting little specialized histories. On one train I met an author working on his third volume, published by an obscure regional house, on small-town Western railroad stations; in decades to come, these thin books are likely to prove valuable sources for architectural and industrial historians. Still other railfans have become video addicts, collecting taped epics of their favorite modern railroads as well as old rail movies that have been converted to videocassette form.

Then, of course, there are the model railroaders, whose passion for true-to-life detail is legendary. They are the ones who examine boxcars and gondolas with tape measures, meticulously counting and entering into little notebooks every dimension and rivet they find. God help them with their modeling peers if their miniature cars should sit on the track six scale inches higher than the real thing. I used to be a model railroader, too, until computers came along and I could pain my family and friends with a fresh dialect of technobabble. Of course, many model hobbyists run their empires with computers; Model Railroader often publishes articles on interfacing one’s PC with one’s pike. I don’t have that kind of money and don’t expect I ever will.

At heart I am a fellow traveler with the largest subspecies of American railroad buff—those who probably do not think of themselves as railfans, those who do not give two hoots for arcane technology. Like E. M. Frimbo, we simply like to exercise our imaginations by riding trains. Perhaps we ride for the sheer tourist joy of traveling somewhere and seeing where we’re going. Perhaps we ride for nostalgic reasons, recapturing warm memories of childhood train trips with our parents or grandparents. Perhaps we just want to wrap ourselves in a little Fourth of July historical bunting, the remnants of nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny. In some cases we ride for other emotional reasons—restlessness, the hope of finding love or friendship, or opening new frontiers in our deeper selves. Whatever our intention in taking a train trip, it is a journey of dreams and reality, of imagination and perception, of heroes and yeomen. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish one from the other, and that is part of the joy.

*  *  *

The passenger train is the last relic of the great age of travel, before prepackaged tourism took over after World War II. Ironically, our romantic memory selectively recalls not the slow, hard-class locals by which most of our forefathers moved west between 1865 and 1890, but the grand long-distance luxury expresses of the early twentieth century—trains for the wealthy few such as the all-Pullman Broadway Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once known as “the Standard Railroad of the World,” and the similar Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central, the Pennsylvania’s most intense competitor on the New York-to-Chicago run. Both these railroads are “fallen flags,” their names consumed by consolidation and merger into the misbegotten Penn Central, heart of today’s successful Conrail. Yet the names of their classic passenger trains live still in the Amtrak namesakes that ply the same routes.
Amtrak runs America’s passenger trains with infamously mixed success. From its birth on October 30, 1970, when Richard Nixon signed the act incorporating the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it has never had enough money to perform services that will satisfy all the passengers, all the politicians or all the professionals. Its route network is paltry compared even to that of the last days of private rail passenger service. There never are enough cars and locomotives in decent condition to serve the trains that do exist. So far as smooth and fast track is concerned, Amtrak remains at the mercy of the freight railroads over which its long-distance trains run, and some stretches of rail rattle the fillings in riders’ teeth. Except on the rails it owns between New York and Washington, Amtrak does not field high-speed trains, and the ones it does are hardly comparable to those in France and Japan.

By any standard, however, Amtrak of the 1990s is far superior to the Amtrak of the 1970s, the decade when government-owned passenger service got a bad name. Since then, most of the shabby hand-me-down cars and locomotives from the failed passenger roads have been cut up into scrap, and replaced by more modern coaches, sleeping cars and locomotives. There aren’t enough of them, of course; Amtrak still has to send out on the line cars and engines in less than perfect repair simply because there are no reserves. And although surly and uncaring people sometimes weigh down its crews, especially in the East, as a whole Amtrakers have become far more motivated and courteous, thanks in great part to changes in American travel habits and attitudes during the last decade.

The changes began during the early 1980s, when the bloom faded from the airline industry after deregulation. Air fares skyrocketed. Carriers abandoned marginal routes. Competition intensified. Revenues plummeted, resulting in service cutbacks and loss of pride among flight and ground personnel. Airports grew crowded and hectic. Baggage disappeared between flights. For many Americans, air travel was no longer the pleasant adventure it had been from the 1940s through the 1970s. They began to take another look at trains.

Short-distance train travel on the East Coast, they found, was much cheaper than and nearly as fast as flying, especially when city-center-to-city-center times were compared; trains arrived at and departed from downtown terminals instead of airports an hour away in the boondocks. On long-distance trains, especially the sleek, comfortable new double-deckers Amtrak had put into service on its Western routes, Americans discovered that they could recapture a historical adventure they thought had been lost. People who hadn’t taken a train in years gave Amtrak a try, and while some suffered unpleasant experiences, many more found the train a surprisingly agreeable way to travel.

In the 1970s, like most American travelers, I avoided Amtrak if I could. Rail buff I may have been, but masochist I was not. If I had to go to New York, I flew; why, I reasoned, should I pay for the privilege of viewing the rusting industrial backside of America through the dirty windows of a ramshackle sleeper whose peevish attendant always seemed to disappear when I needed him? Rail travel, to me, meant the fast and clean trains of Europe, especially the exhilarating speed of the TGVs of the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français between Paris and Lyon and the crisp, efficient Deutsche Bundesbahn along the cliffs high above the Rhine between Frankfurt and Cologne.

Then, during the winter of 1983-84, I heard surprisingly cheerful reports from friends who had ridden Amtrak’s new Superliners, the two-story-high silver ships that had begun plying the Western routes in 1979 and 1980. The sleepers were clean and comfortable, they said, the dining-car fare inexpensive and acceptable, the scenery of the High Plains and Rocky Mountains glorious.

So, like many Americans of the generation that still remembered how good train travel could be, I took my wife and two sons, then aged eleven and fifteen, on a two-day trip aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, our destination Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. For all of us the twenty-eight-hour overnight trip was a pilgrimage into history as well as a reawakening of my affection for American passenger trains. I am only a little embarrassed to confess that somewhere in western North Dakota, when over the PA system the conductor relayed word from the engineer that we were approaching a herd of buffalo to the north of the tracks, I reverted to an adolescent fantasy. I imagined myself flinging up the window, Sharps rifle at the ready, onto an endless brown sea of bison, slavering and wild-eyed at the thundering approach of the iron horse. It mattered not at all that the herd turned out to be half a dozen scrawny beasts huddled forlornly in the lee of a downed willow. So memorable was the experience of riding the Empire Builder that we repeated it twice, in 1986 and 1989. Today, whenever I travel within the United States, I take the train—when time permits.
*  *  *

Time: That’s what appeals to me most about a long train journey. Despite the railroads’ history of diminishing time and increasing speed, time on today’s long-distance train no longer means haste—at least for me. Exactly the reverse, in fact. Train time means large blocks of leisure to rest, to read a book cover to cover, to write a few thousand words on my laptop computer in the warm privacy of a sleeper compartment, or simply to woolgather, letting my imagination carry me where it will.
Just as important, a subtle alteration in the perception of time occurs aboard a long-distance train. Everything seems to run more slowly, including my emotional and intellectual metabolism. Arrival at my destination is many hours, even days away; without the pressure of the clock, I feel more relaxed, patient, confident, ready to open myself to new adventures and connections. Much of my sometimes crippling shyness, rooted in my deaf person’s imperfect speech, drops away. I feel poised, self-assured, ready for anything.

And so, I suspect, do most other passengers, especially when they encounter me for the first time. Confronting one who does not hear can be unsettling for those uninitiated in the special problems of the deaf and hearing-impaired. How can we communicate? Do we even speak the same language? But when both sides have all the time in the world to listen to each other, such a meeting can be a marvel instead of an embarrassment.
The same phenomenon occurs between passengers and Amtrak crews on long-distance trains. Sleeper attendants have time to learn your name instead of just your compartment number. Often, I find, the best of them work for the railroad because they have an affinity for service: They’re simply good at taking care of people. In these more democratic times, many of them no longer feel distanced by racial and social considerations from those they assist. They know their human worth matches that of their passengers, and that gives them poise and confidence.
It used to astonish me that my deafness never seemed to faze Amtrak crews, that by and large they reacted to it with casual and relaxed interest, rather than the sweaty consternation I have encountered in so many other hearing people. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Every day, railroaders as a matter of course encounter humanity in all its glorious (and shameful) manifestations. Nothing amazes them; they’ve seen it all.

That’s part of the wonder for long-distance train passengers, too—the joy of encountering humankind in its endless variety. Some friends and acquaintances of mine who have traveled by train just once, during the summer when riders tend to be families on vacation, have complained of meeting only what they call “middle Americans” of minimal intellectual stimulation, small-town or suburban blue-collar and mercantile types. At any time of the year one is unlikely to run into the wealthy and well-connected on a long-distance train, unless they’re afraid of flying. But the frequent rail traveler—especially one who rides in the off season—will meet professors and novelists as well as vacationing Europeans, South Americans and Australians, and, thanks to the luxury of time, come to know them.

*  *  *

I met many of them in the course of traveling on a single train, one that bears one of the most honored names of American railroad history: the California Zephyr. Today it’s the most representative, as well as one of the most popular, of Amtrak’s long-distance trains; each month it carries some thirty thousand passengers between Chicago, traditional hub of America’s railroads, and California, traditional destination of the westering spirit. No other American train traverses such a variety of terrain: the industrial backside of Chicago, the Midwestern breadbasket of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska over the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to the high plains and towering Rockies of Colorado, the intermountain desert of the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada, the high Sierra of California, the shore of San Francisco Bay.

The pre-Amtrak California Zephyr is the grand old American train I remember most fondly, having ridden it during the early spring of 1956 from Chicago to Winter Park, Colorado, with two dozen other high-school skiers from the YMCA in Evanston. We stayed up all night and luxuriated in glass penthouses bulging upward from the middle of many of its cars. High up we sat, mesmerized by the bright yellow beam of the locomotive’s Mars headlight, sweeping in wide figure-eight strokes through the darkness ahead as if it were Zorro’s sword slashing aside night-riding bandits.

The old California Zephyr was one of the last and best of the nation’s celebrated luxury trains. Its tale began in 1937, when executives of three railroads first conceived of cooperating to run a daily diesel-powered streamliner 2,525 miles between Chicago and Oakland on San Francisco Bay. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy would run the train from Chicago 1,034 miles west to Denver, where Denver & Rio Grande Western locomotives would take it over for the 570 miles from Denver to Salt Lake City. Finally, the Western Pacific would haul the train from Salt Lake City to Oakland, 921 miles distant.

The business dip of 1938, however, caused the executives to shelve the notion of a streamliner, although that year the railroads did field a conventional steam-powered train—the Exposition Flyer—over the route. Still the idea percolated in railroad minds during the course of World War II, and scarcely a month after the war ended in 1945, the three railroads dusted off their plan and ordered equipment from the Budd Company, the nation’s premier streamliner builder. Budd, however, was choked by a huge backlog of war-delayed orders, and it was not for four more years that the California Zephyr would set out on its maiden voyage.

The name Zephyr had been used by the Burlington Route since 1934, when the first stainless-steel, diesel-hauled streamliner was introduced. In 1933 Ralph Budd, president of the Burlington (no relation to Edward G. Budd, Sr., president of the Budd Company) wanted to christen the new train with a word starting with z, because it was the “last word” in high-speed passenger service. Budd, the story goes, reached the end of his desk dictionary and laughed. The last word was “zymurgy: the practice or art of fermentation, as in wine making, brewing, distilling, etc.” An aide found in his dictionary “zyzzle: to sputter,” which was even less appropriate.

Budd, however, had been rereading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, signifies renaissance, rebirth. Ah, there was the name! When the new Zephyr reached 104 miles per hour on its first run between Omaha and Kansas City, it indeed became a symbol of revival, of hope that the Depression would soon be over. In 1935 the Burlington fielded the Twin Cities Zephyr between Chicago and Minneapolis and the Mark Twain Zephyr between St. Louis and Burlington, Iowa. The same year it renamed the original Zephyr the Pioneer Zephyr. The train survives still, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, after carrying more than a million passengers over three million miles. Later there was a Denver Zephyr between Chicago and Denver, and a Nebraska Zephyr between Chicago and Omaha.

*  *  *

I can still remember this last train sitting derelict, yet still stainless-steel shiny, on the dead line in the Burlington coach yard below Chicago Union Station in 1968, when I was a commuter from west suburban La Grange. The Nebraska Zephyr ended up in a museum, too—the Illinois Railway Museum at Marengo, where it still carries passengers around the grounds.

When the California Zephyr entered service on March 20, 1949, it immediately captured the nation’s imagination, and not because of its speed—a leisurely 51 hours 20 minutes westbound and 50 hours 30 minutes eastbound between Chicago and Oakland. The Overland Limited, which bypassed the high Rockies through Wyoming on the tracks of the Chicago & North Western, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, was more than ten hours faster. The difference lay not in the inherent speed of the trains, but in how they got there. The spectacular Colorado Rockies and California Sierra route was only part of the attraction. Five of the Zephyr’s ten sleek, silvery, air-conditioned fluted stainless steel cars featured glass-enclosed penthouses that gave the rider a fish-eye lens’s 360-degree vista. The Vista-Domes, as they were called, were the brainchild of Cyrus Osborn, a General Motors executive. In 1944 Osborn was riding in the cab of a Rio Grande locomotive (some sources say the cupola of a caboose) through the heart-stopping scenery of Glenwood Canyon in the Colorado Rockies when he had a bright idea: Suppose similar vantage points, made of glass, could be built atop passenger cars—what a view they would afford! The Vista-Domes became the Zephyr’s most popular feature. Significantly, none of the twenty-four seats under each Vista-Dome was reserved; they were for the use of any passenger who wanted to stretch his legs away from his reserved coach seat, roomette or bedroom, and watch the countryside passing above and below. This was a democratic luxury train.

Most important, the Zephyr represented a new conception of rail travel: the train as tourist cruise ship through a sea of scenery, not merely as a means of transportation from city to city. The new train pulled in flocks of riders eager to see the dramatic tunnels and alpine valleys of Colorado and the Feather River Canyon in the California Sierra. Moreover, unlike the schedules of most of the transcontinentals, the Zephyr’s time card was designed to allow passengers to sleep during the long, boring hours across the flat, featureless Great Plains and the arid Great Basin of Utah and Nevada, and enjoy the mountain scenery during daylight hours.

The Vista-Dome was a brilliant idea, helping make the late 1940s and early 1950s the golden age of streamliners. Briefly it seemed as if the new trains might revive the railroads’ passenger fortunes, which had slowly declined from their peak in 1929, when they carried 78 percent of intercity travelers. Moreover, the train’s appointments were unmatched. The interior of the buffet cars replicated San Francisco’s cable cars; their carpets were woven to resemble the cobbles and rails of Powell and Market Streets. Historical murals graced the coaches and carved bar fronts pictured sage hens and wild turkeys. Coaches took on such names as Silver Dollar and Silver Feather, lounge cars Silver Club and Silver Shop, diners Silver Cafe and Silver Banquet.

A good part of the train’s personality lay in the Zephyrette, an on-board factotum who, like an airline stewardess of the time, was a mix of hostess, paramedic, tour guide, secretary, nanny, security guard, purser, public relations agent and ombudswoman. While the other service crew were almost all black (lounge car attendants tended to be Filipino), the Zephyrette was white—and pretty. “In order to deal with crews and passengers," wrote a Burlington executive in a confidential 1961 memo that is revealing of the sexual and racial mentality of the time, “she must have a better than average intelligence, make a fair appearance and have a desire and willingness to serve. Her character must be above reproach. An attractive and refined girl sets a standard of behavior for all crew members and creates a wholesome atmosphere.” Part of her job, the memo continued, was to pipe commercial radio into the public address system. “Who would trouble to monitor stations were she not aboard? She also regulates reception of World Series and other events of national importance. Were the colored boys running it there would be games of ‘Podunk’ versus ‘Podunk’ or some fight.”

Of course black service crew, as late as the 1960s, still were the unsung heroes of American passenger trains. When the Zephyr was born, the invisible stringencies of class and caste still separated them from the middle-class white traveling public. Not until the civil rights revolution and the failure of the passenger railroads did the industry achieve more than token integration of the crews.

Meanwhile, though labor was cheap, a good deal of it was required; the labor-intensive level of service helped make the train a celebrated one, but it also helped do it in. For 280 passengers, the 1949 Zephyr provided twenty-two service crew. (On today’s Amtrak Zephyr, sixteen crew members service more than five hundred passengers.) By 1960, just eleven years after its birth, the Zephyr was losing money during the off season, even with crew cutbacks, and the Burlington president proposed merging the Zephyr with another Burlington train for part of its journey. Nor could the three railroads keep the Zephyr on schedule; in August 1961 alone, the Zephyr arrived in Oakland on time only ten days out of thirty-one. That month it was usually an hour or more late, and once limped in four hours, thirty minutes behind. Unreliable and unprofitable, long-distance passenger trains like the Zephyr could not compete with the Boeing 707 or the booming interstate highway system, and the end came for the hemorrhaging Zephyr on March 21, 1970.

Amtrak revived the California Zephyr in its present form in 1983, but today’s Zephyr is to yesterday’s as, say, an ’83 Buick is to a ’49 Rolls-Royce. One Western Superliner train is much the same as any other. Except for its length, the Zephyr is identical to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Coast Starlight and Texas Eagle. The cars and locomotives are the same; indeed, they’re often interchanged among the routes. So are the crews; every six months they bid for their runs, and senior chiefs and attendants often choose another route just for variety. The services they perform are identical. Only the scenery is different. Whether or not you agree that the price was worth paying, that democratic homogenization of equipment and crew was a necessary cost of rejuvenating America’s passenger trains.
During several trips aboard the Zephyr in the early 1990s, I discovered that the people who worked on the train often could show an old-fashioned mettle. In many instances, their resourcefulness and creativity would have delighted their predecessors in the golden age of American passenger trains, proving that courtesy and service are not lost arts. And the frequently enthusiastic and caring spirit of professional railroaders—as well as that of the civilian buffs who follow their fortunes—helped persuade me that despite the vast changes in railroading, and indeed in American life itself during the last two decades of the twentieth century, the long-distance passenger train is a part of our heritage worth preserving. (1994)

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