At the end of Danger Lights, a 1930 railroad drama starring Jean Arthur, the human love triangle is sorted out by the deus ex machina of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad: Dan Thorn (railroad division boss) and Larry Doyle (railroad engineer-turned-hobo-turned-railroad engineer) are both in love with Jean Arthur. How is she to choose between them? Luckily, one of them is hit by a train (in trying to save his rival from being hit by the same train):
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Doyle is safe but Thorn is hit by the train and seriously injured. The local doctor says Thorn will die unless he can be taken to Chicago for brain surgery within 5 hours, which would require a new speed record for the trip. Doyle volunteers to drive a special train and is able to accomplish the feat. Thorn is saved.
Two weeks later, Thorn is taken back to Miles City by train, conscious but depressed. At the station, Mary is the first to board, and promises to return to him. But Thorn says that during his enforced rest he has come to realize that he is already married—to the railroad. He frees her to marry Doyle with his blessing. Then, overhearing railwaymen outside speaking as if he is done for, he shouts at them to get back to work. They do, and his depression lifts.
The days are long since gone where you could make a hit movie about a regional rail line solving a love triangle, of course. Perhaps the best that can be said of modern American rail travel is that it reminds you of a pretty good idea. Recently Grace and I had the chance to take a sleeper car to Michigan and back, which involved a roomette on the outbound trip (two face-to-face chairs that convert into upper and lower bunks, with a semi-disguised toilet and sink built into the wall) and a full bedroom on the return(a couch that converts into a double bed, with an upper bunk reachable by ladder, a full camp bathroom with a door and everything, and a mini-closet).
A train is a little bit better, and a little bit worse, than any other form of travel, especially for middle-distance trips like ours was (the Lake Shore Limited is, not for nothing, often called the Late For Sure Limited). Flying is usually faster and cheaper, but worse for the environment; driving is sometimes faster, but more dangerous, and worse for the environment, too, besides which, if you’re driving, you really have to pay attention to the road for pretty much the whole time.
Taking a sleeper train doesn’t really maximize anything, not efficiency, not cost-effectiveness, not convenience, but I still think it’s worth doing, at least once, if you can.
Unexpected doses of folksiness — My first time on a sleeper train, the conductor made an announcement about the wifi being out with the addendum, “Of course, the only WWW you really need is the wide world outside your window,” which is a pretty astonishing thing to get to have heard in real life. Later that same day, an older man turned to me in the observation car and said, “Do you know what’s going by right now? America’s backyard,” and I welled up a little bit. People don’t say shit like this in rest stops, I tell you. Obviously there’s such a thing as taking it too far. At one point I tried to tell my wife that “this is the kind of dinner that built this country” while defending the quality of the short-rib meal I’d ordered in the dining car. There was no call for me to be saying that. But depending on your tolerance for heavily-salted, industrially-reheated IHOP-style dinners (mine is enormously high), there’s a kind of truth to it. Not factually true. I don’t know. I only ever get patriotic on trains.
You cannot possibly fall out of the sky — Maybe 40% of the other passengers on a sleeper train will half-ashamedly confess a fear of flying to you at some point. Great news: the train cannot possibly fall out of the sky! You could still die of a heart attack, or slip in the shower, or be crushed in a derailment, but you categorically cannot die in a plane crash while riding a train, baby!
You get to be in a bed that moves — This never gets old for me. Even in the roommette, where the mattress was so narrow I had to sleep with my arms folded over my stomach, like an old man in a Punch cartoon who represents indolence, causing me to wake up every half-hour because my hands had gone numb, nothing could shake the peaceful delight of being rocked through a dark countryside. It was the best bad night of sleep I’ve ever gotten. Once I had enough room in the full bedroom to fall asleep with my hands at my side? It was game over, baby! I slept so beautifully I wish I could have woken up to enjoy it.
You travel at the pace of beauty — Road trips can be a lot of fun, but half the time the nicest view available is the rest of the freeway. If you’re driving you can’t do much more than let your gaze briefly flicker over to Mount Shasta (or whatever) before you get back to the task at hand. And planes occasionally fly over a nice landmark or through a cloudy sunset, but half the time it’s just distant brown-and-green impressions seen from so great a distance you can’t really register a sense of change to the landscape. You’re moving so fast, from so far away, that it feels like you’re hardly moving at all. But on a train you’re responsible for nothing more than appreciating the view, which is directly in front of you, moving in a way that the mind can still register both as fast and natural, where even a middling view carries with it the pleasure of novelty and transformation.
The pleasure of swaying — A sleeper train sways, and gives the traveller sufficient room to sway with it. A bus sways too, but you can’t really leave your seat or spread out enough to appreciate it; a sleeper train allows for intermediate movement within the greater swaying, such that you might find yourself, as a traveler, walking against the grain of travel and feeling yourself moving in two wildly different, yet complementary directions at once. Remarkable!
Contraband — On one leg of the journey, I kept getting smuggled hazelnut-flavored creamers by a friendly car attendant, distinct from the unflavored half-and-half all the other chumps had to drink. And whereas in a plane one is confined to drinking coffee when “the man” says so, on a train you can get up and pour yourself a cup from the little beverage station at the end of the sleeping car whenever you like.
Affinity with the conductor — The half-inaudible, smug drawl of the airline pilot making an announcement is an offense to any self-respecting traveler, because the pilot knows you cannot do what he does, and feels contempt for you as a result. But the conductor! He understands the commonness, the grandeur, the nobility of purpose of your own small but precious life! You could imagine yourself, with sufficient training or in a moment of great need, joining the train conductor in his task. You could imagine yourself being useful to him, if he were pinned under something heavy, and needed your assistance finishing the run to Boulder Dam and bringing iron lungs to all the sick children. The conductor is you at your best; the pilot is another breed entirely. How I love the conductor! How I resent the pilot!
If you’re looking for other train movie recommendations, allow me to suggest 1934’s The Silver Streak, about a daring dawn-to-dusk run of a high-speed diesel-electric train that not only saves the railroad industry but delivers a shipment of iron lungs to halt a polio outbreak among the children of Boulder Dam engineers. Stars Sally Blane, Hardie Albright, Arthur Lake, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. God, we used to know how to name movie actors in this country.
Due to user error, our return trip involved going backwards to Chicago for a six-hour layover, which ended up being a lot of fun, but was hardly an efficient use of time.
I don’t mean, like, a campy bathroom. I don’t camp often, so perhaps there’s a more descriptive term I’m forgetting. The toilet and the shower are in the same cubicle, I mean. Novel, and better than nothing, but I’m glad it doesn’t seem to have caught on elsewhere.
Especially if you can book on a double-decker Superliner (Superliners tend to operate in the West and Southwest, while single-decker Viewliners are more common in the Northeast, supposedly because the tunnels underneath New York have low ceilings), because Superliners come with observation cars (excuse me, sightseer lounges) that are absolutely stunning and not-to-be-missed. Additionally, there are a few routes with observation cars that hook up with National Park rangers who come on board to tell you about local history.
I was once on a small one-carriage train on a tiny branch line in the English countryside which came to a sudden and unexpected halt. The driver emerged from his cabin and announced there was a tree on the line. He asked for a volunteer to be safety monitor and my arm shot up so fast and high it almost came out of its socket. I got to stand at the front by the open door making sure none of the passengers got out. There is a photo somewhere of me in my full length 1970s orange Hawaiian muumuu looking as pleased as punch. Wouldn’t get that on a plane!
A plane can be flatly blocked from its destination; it can be sent back whence it came. If a train can't get you all the way, it will at least get you closer.