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Manhattan to San Francisco: no finer rail ride in America

By Theodore W. ScullSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 1981

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.

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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.

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.