Manhattan to San Francisco: no finer rail ride in America

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For travelers in a terrific rush, it is possible to cover the 3,356 rail-miles from New York, across 12 states, to California in around 72 hours, with a single change of trains in Chicago. But to see how the continent is geographically laid out, to sample a variety of trains on different routes, and to allow stopovers along the way, twice as much time and some planning are recommended.

I chose to take from Wednesday afternoon until the following Tuesday evening to journey from Manhattan to San Francisco, making use of five trains, with three nights in gently rocking sleeping compartments, two nights aboard a former ocean liner, and a third night in an entirely stationary earthbound hotel bed. After considerable homework on my part and a good deal of persistence on the phone by my travel agent and friend, Lucy bollman, I left for Pennsylvania station with a fistful of rail tickets and hotel vouchers, a small well-traveled brown canvas suitcase, and a tan L. L. Bean shoulder bag.

Down on Track 10, the Broadway Limited sat gleaming, even in the subterranean half-light. Amtrak has spent piles of money rebuilding its steam-heated cars for this and several other Eastern trains, and it shows. The well-built quality of these vintage 1950 cars, now called the Heritage Fleet, is strikingly attractive. With the conversion to electric heating, passengers can once again be masters of their own temperature desires and not the other way around.

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As the other passengers began to arrive, Mr. Bailey, the sleeping car attendant, went around showing everyone how to operate the ingeniously designed roomette and bedroom compartments, with their myriad of gadgets --private washing facilities, beds, a clothes closet, and a shoe locker. The features are so compact and numerous that it takes a bit of time to appreciate the range of amenities.

The departure for Chicago came at 2:45 p.m., and in an hour, New Jersey flashed by. Then after combining with the Washington section at Philadelphia, the Broadway started its run along the Main Line to Paoli. It is along here that I spent the first 15 years of my life, and it is at Paoli that our family often climbed aboard the tuscan-red Pullman cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad for Dayton, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis.

The Broadway clicked past a station a minute -- Overbrook, Merion, Narberth . . . Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont . . . Berwyn, Dalesford, and Paoli. In the winter, it becomes dark after Paoli, so I abandoned my seat by the window and moved forward to the lounge for a while and then to the dining car, attractively laid out with white table linens and fresh yellow carnations.

I sat across from a woman living in Chicago, and over a turkey dinner we discussed the relative merits of urban architecture in the two terminal cities along the Broadway's 909-mile route. Meals these days in Amtrak diners are relatively inexpensive, and the food is generally good if somewhat uninspired.

Before bed, I opened the top half of the Dutch door in the last car after leaving Altoona, to watch the diesel locomotives pull the heavy train up and around the Horseshoe Curve. The lighted windows of the train stretched in an arc along the side of 17 cars, creating a beautiful sight.

I had a reasonable night's rest, and the first leg of the trip ended quickly after an excellent breakfast and an on-time arrival in Chicago at 9:05 a.m.

During the nine-hour layover there, I stashed my bags in a 50-cent locker and began a foot tour of the city until light wind-blown snow, beginning in the late afternoon, drove me back inside Union Station.

Mechanical problems with the brand-new Superliner equipment delayed, by about an hour, the departure of the San Francisco Zephyr. From the classic cars of 30 years ago on the Broadway, I joined a large crowd of nearly 400 passengers boarding Pullman Standard's latest and perhaps last passenger cars.

In these Superliner cars, sleeping, coach, and dining car space is arranged on two levels. My sleeping accommodation, called an economy bedroom, was designed for one or two passengers. There is a feeling of more room than in a roomette, but the compartments lack the older cars' washing and toilet facilities. They are on the lower level. More commodious accommodations are available in the five deluxe bedrooms, one four-berth family room, and a special room for the handicapped passenger.

Leslyn Phelan, the dining car "steward," summoned passengers for meals according to reservation number. While there was little wait for my roast beef dinner, 264 passengers had to be fed breakfast between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m. before arriving in Denver.

The next morning, some low hills in eastern Colorado broke up the monotony after the flat farmland of western Nebraska. A mid-morning arrival in Denver brought me to the doors of the venerable Brown Palace Hotel, about one mile up 17th Street from denver's Union Station. The turn-of-the-century hotel, with its magical opulence from another era, has a soaring lobby which is banded on each floor by wrought-iron balconies.

Down at the station the next morning, I boarded the Rio Grande Zephyr, the last privately operated long-distance passenger train in the country. From Denver at 7:30 a.m. until reaching Salt Lake City at 9:30 p.m., the Zephyr climbed through the Rocky Mountains and over the Continental Divide at 9,239 feet, then followed the Colorado River for 238 miles, passing along a series of deep, narrow canyons. In the late afternoon and early evening, the Zephyr traveled between the mesas and across the rugged terrain of the eastern Utah desert. From the dome car at the rear of the train, the smog that blanketed Denver upon departure had given way to blue sky and a fine day, lasting until, simultaneously, the sun set beyond the desert and the moon rose from behind the Uinta Mountains. There is no finer rail ride in America, and there is no better train on which to spend a long day meeting people and enjoying the scenery.

At Salt Lake City, I made a 45-minute van transfer to Ogden. Three passenger trains come together here twice a day, early in the morning and again late in the evening. Just after 11 p.m., the short little Pioneer was boarding its passengers for Boise, Idaho; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle; the bilevel San Francisco Zephyr was taking on people for Reno, Nev.; Oakland, Calif.; and San Francisco; and my train, the Desert Wind, the oddest-looking of all, was about to depart for Las Vegas, Pasadena, and Los Angeles. The Desert wind's equipment was a hodgepodge of low-level, Amfleet, ex-Sante Fe high-level, and massive new superline cars with a roof line that stepped up and down along the length of the train.

Alison Fellows, the attendant, greeted me outside the sleeper, the Beatrice V. MacDonald. She obviously liked her job, and it showed in the way she handled the 22 passengers in her charge.

The Union Pacific Railroad track bed over which the Desert Wind ran all night must be uniformly the smoothest in the country, as I slept without waking once. The best scenery along this line came early in the morning in southwestern Utah as the train wound through what can best be described as a lumpy rock garden, and unlike anything I had seen before.

The approach to Las Vegas, Nev., was outstanding. The entire city could be seen at one time nestled below in a shallow basin. It is at Las Vegas that the greatest number of passengers board.

Upon arrival at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, a wonderful Spanish-style architectural masterpiece, a friend drove me down to Long Beach for two fog-bound nights aboard the Queen Mary, a floating hotel and tourist attraction.

The break gave me a chance to regain my equilibrium and to look forward to the last leg of the trip, a run up the California coast on the second section of the Coast Starlight, Amtrak's most heavily traveled long-distance train, and in its last days of operating with old-fashioned and generally unreliable steam-heated equipment. In a few weeks, this train would be equipped with new superliner coaches, sleepers, dining and sightseer lounge cars.

Leaving Los Angeles at 10 a.m., the train, after a stop at Oxnard at 11:30 a.m., followed the deep-blue Pacific Ocean for the next 2 1/2 hours. For much of the time the train had the beach to itself, and after a small place called Surf, the Coast Starlight left the coast and climbed into the Coast Range, pausing at San Luis Obispo just before 3 p.m. After some more difficult mountains, the lengthy train ran fast up the Salinas River Valley into Oakland, my final westbound terminus.

Having traveled 3,790 transcontinental railroad miles in the last 6 days, 3 hours, and 15 minutes, I had an exhilarating feeling of having been somewhere, and now with a family welcome on the platform, having arrived.

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