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

Most people waiting on the platform at the train station in Emeryville, California, hold an Amtrak ticket. Most, but not all. For me and 70 or so others on this nippy Saturday morning—a group hip to an odd parallel universe quietly chugging throughout the country—something better awaits. Or so I’ve been told. I’m new here. A cheerful bear of a man is standing next to me, overnight bag in hand and gaze fixed firmly down the tracks. I ask him to explain why we’re here.

“No offense to Amtrak, they’re doing their best. But once you experience the—” He stops abruptly, eyes widening. “It’s here! It’s here!”

Squealing toward us is the familiar red, white, and blue of the nation’s well-meaning but joyless government-run passenger train system. And attached to the end is something else entirely: three beautiful, fluted stainless steel tubes, time-warped in from a more elegant era and draped in that unmistakable post-deco, retro-futuristic aesthetic of the late 1940s. The crowd oohs briefly at the curves and the somehow evocative font—california zephyr—then scrambles aboard. You’ve heard of private jets. As of today, I ride private trains.

Whatever you think about contemporary rail travel in the United States—bland, uncomfortable, inexplicably inferior to that ride you took in Spain—goes out the window upon being handed a martini on a train. After some jockeying for seats in the upper-deck solariums, we sink into staggering levels of comfort. I choose not to reflect on how many cellophane-wrapped Amtrak hot dogs I’ve put away over the years. I reflect instead on the table in front of me, set with crisp linens and cut flowers. In a few minutes a perfect, warm quiche will materialize before me, then a gourmet lunch later in the day, announced by a man with actual dinner chimes. Bach drifts out of unseen speakers.

Then a clickety-clack arises from below and I remember that all the vintage chimes and lights and flatware and grandness have a purpose. Reno, here we come.

There was, of course, a time when these machines were the gorgeous, gleaming norm. With their swanky observation lounges and cocktail bars, they crisscrossed the nation, hitting every other Podunk town and, in the process, delivering the West itself. Then came automobiles and interstate highways, and the rest was history. Once this country christened its glorious new trains with Champagne bottles. Now we whimper about legroom and security lines.

Or at least that’s how the story goes. For the next three days, my derriere would be planted in a little-known counter-narrative. Here and there, a scattering of rail fanatics has been snatching up moldering old train cars from history’s dustbin, refurbishing them, and setting them in motion once again. For those willing to do a little research, a world vastly unlike Amtrak’s awaits.

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