No Longer Just Bells and Whistles

Trains lure passengers with high-tech glitz, family service, and even a few magicians.

Phoenix to Boston is a long stretch, especially on the road less traveled - the railroad.

One day, two trains, and two movies into his journey, John Bradford was somewhere in Indiana. His destination was still a day's travel away. After a few miles into the sunset, Mr. Bradford had a refreshing experience.

He took a shower.

Bradford rarely traveled by train. He once considered them little more than grand names: The Desert Wind. The Silver Meteor. California Zephyr. The Coast Starlight. The Empire Builder. But new improvements, he says, have brightened the travel-by-train experience.

At a time when some airlines are cutting back on amenities, Amtrak has been upgrading its service. Today's smart-looking, 4,000 horsepower, diesel locomotives lug a lot more than plastic Amtrak playing cards.

The silvery, fluted coaches have upscale dinners, movies, video games, vista-domed glass ceilings, and observation decks. Some have entertainers. Starting next month, a professional clown will board the Florida Fun Train. It will also have a dance floor.

The innovations in passenger service and a choice of special low-cost rail packages have increased patronage. Train ridership is up 4 percent since last summer, says Steven Taubenkibel, spokesman for the National Railroad Passenger Corp., popularly known as Amtrak.

"Train travel offers so much more than going to grandma's house," says Sheryl Torkelson, who owns Concepts in Travel, a travel agency based in Sun City, Calif. "There are many options out there for traveling other than strictly cruising. I think many people are not aware of them."

The Coast Starlight, which operates between Seattle and Los Angeles, has a "kiddie car," a play area for young travelers with books, toys, and games. Other attractions include family entertainment by magicians, musicians, and puppeteers.

For the socially oriented, there is a hospitality hour - a free drink and snacks for passengers to get together to play pinochle or Trivial Pursuit.

Then there is spectacular scenery to see and history to ponder: snowy Mt. Rainer, the volcanic Mt. St. Helens, the Cascade Range, California's lush Central Valley, and the beaches of Santa Barbara.

"Trains offer parents ample room and time to be with their children," says Carla Cutting of Boston. "When a young couple finds out how easy it is to travel by train, they stick to trains. And children enjoy it, too. They see things on a train they don't see on a highway."

Planning is very important in train travel. Ellen Fogg, who specializes in train travel for AAA Travel Agency in Portland, Maine, offers some tips:

* Customize your trip. While Amtrak does not offer the flexibility of European Rail passes, "Explore America" fares can take vacationers to several cities and national parks for one standard fare.

* Book early.

* Travel on off-peak days (generally Monday through Thursday).

* Travel at off-peak seasons. The summer fare between Seattle and California's Bay area could be as much as $300. Off-season discounts, however, could be as low as $90.

* Look out for special promotions. For instance, people in a big rush have an option to fly one way and earn frequent flier miles as well.

* Most discount fares are nonrefundable.

* Call 800-USA-RAIL for a free 100-page travel planner.

* There are options other than Amtrak.

You've heard of the Orient Express. But how about the American Orient Express? It is an excursion operated by the American Orient Express Railway Co. It has 15 restored classic rail cars from the streamliner era of the 1940s and '50s and accommodates 100 passengers. Trips are limited and seasonal.

The $1,500 average ticket is good for a three-day rail leisure cruise between Salt Lake City and Denver. The price includes double occupancy, meals, round-trip airfare, access to the club car to hear piano music, and white linen and crystal dinner service.

Expensive? Maybe not.

Typical nondiscounted seven-day American Orient Express vacations are priced at more than $7,000. "The American Orient Express is very elegant, ambient, and romantic. It's not so much for people with children," says Torkelson. "You're better off to book three months in advance."

But for those who can do without Pullman-era, white-gloved attendants, there is a cost-effective alternative: The California Zephyr, which travels the same route.

With all these choices, it would seem that many more people are traveling by rail. But of the 1.8 billion trips Americans made last year, only 1 percent were by train, according to the New York-based Travel Information Data Center.

Many travelers still opt for the speed of jets or the door-to-door convenience of an automobile.

Wayne Davis, president of Railroad Riders - an association for people who like to ride the rails, based in Portland, Maine - says if the government subsidized railroads as it does highways, the situation would be different.

"It's a very civilized way to travel," he says. "Other countries understand well and have done wonders with train traveling. We have been very late on getting on board."

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