The rail thing

Ample legroom, nonstop scenery, chilled martinis instead of traffic jams: Welcome to the new era of private train travel in the West.

Chris Colin

Well worth it, the consensus seems to be. At one point a fellow traveler takes me aside and pulls something from his pocket. The tickets we were all mailed? He went to the copy shop and printed his out in full color, a souvenir. “I couldn’t resist,” he says with a shrug.

Possible foamer, I note, having just learned the term. A rail fan is just your garden-variety train obsessive. Foamers—as in “foam at the mouth”—take it to the next level.

Sample foamer dialogue:

“The 4449 was under Southern Pacific control in ’92.”


Behind the geekery is a compelling and contagious passion. These are guardians of a bygone age, and not just because the trains were prettier then. At the core of their devotion is an attention to the elegance of a line, the specific mournfulness of a faraway whistle. It’s the ineffable heart tug of certain bends in the tracks, the rareness of a conversation with strangers in the lounge, a more civilized way of getting to and fro. Instead of worrying about traffic or directions or connecting flights, one just looks out the window for long, uninterrupted stretches. In our era of scanning and swiping, the act feels radical.

I’m spotting things I’ve never seen in my 15 years as a West Coast motorist. The tracks often carve a route distinct from that of the highways. North of Gold Run, we pass remarkable clear-cutting operations, then an equally remarkable density of pines in Tahoe National Forest. We climb nearly 7,000 feet over Donner Pass. At Yuba Gap, a ripple runs through the historians among us. Here in 1952, Southern Pacific’s luxurious City of San Francisco became stranded in a ferocious blizzard for days without power or food. “Some details from that situation are disputed,” a man in wire-frame glasses quietly informs me.

From a well-appointed train, I start to see, life isn’t messy and complicated. It’s a lovely silent film, scrolling by in vignette form. Here are beehives at the edge of an almond grove, there a Saturday afternoon horse-riding lesson. In Auburn, the dry grassland is a pale blur. In Colfax, a man sternly waters his gravel.

Just dipping into this world for a weekend infects you with the possibility of another way of life. In the vestibule between cars, I stick my head into the rush of wind and geography. The air is crisp. The smell of creosote blends with that of a small grassfire in the distance, and the moody afternoon sky is endless. By the time we ease into Reno, I can imagine riding the rails for another week, another month, another year.

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