Thursday, April 09, 2009

Hear that old lonesome whistle blow

Mead Gruver wrote a groovy April 9 AP story about the possibility of passenger rail service returning to Amtrak's Pioneer Route. The route passed through Cheyenne and across southern Wyoming along the old route of the Union Pacific. It didn't actually stop in town at the old depot. Instead, you had to get into an old horse-drawn buggy with a gang of dusty coal-miners and get hauled out to a breezy way station where you were lucky to get on the train before freezing to death.

The route was abandoned by Amtrak in 1996 due to a whopping budget shortage. Unlike olden times, travelers prefer (and still do) the interstate to an aging passenger train that travels slower than the average car and much slower than the average interstate truck. It's a well-known fact that the Rawlins High School track team used to work out by racing the Pioneer through town, usually winning the contest with enough time left over to chug a couple beers and wave at the train as it chugged by.

I rode the old Pioneer in 1980. I was living in Denver at the time and decided to visit my brother in Santa Barbara. Instead of doing the sensible thing -- flying from Denver to L.A. in two hours -- I decided to take the 24-hour train ride. I boarded the train at Union Station, an historic building that still looked a lot like it did when my father left it for Army basic training in 1942. Probably looked about the same as it did when my Irish immigrant grandfather worked there in the 1920s.

The ride was scenic, I'll give you that. The windows were big and you could view the great outdoors with ease. As we left Denver, a passenger from California said he thought that the city's train yards were ugly. You know, he was right but I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of agreeing with him. If he could only see those rail yards now. Not a train in view. Unsightly tracks ripped up and replaced by condos and coffee shops and a Six Flags and a big retro-style baseball stadium. The only warehouses have been turned into artist studios and galleries. If Amtrak decided to run the Pioneer through Denver, I'm not sure where the passengers could get on. Do any railroad tracks remain at Union Station?

My 1980 trip was mostly uneventful. I viewed the Wyoming scenery on a pretty September day. Changed trains in the middle of the night in Utah. Disembarked in steaming Las Vegas for an hour. And rode through the endless expanses of metro L.A. on the way to its Union Station. I didn't see that California guy on the train. If I had, I would have shared my opinions about the ugliness of the L.A. train yards.

Seems silly that I haven't been on a passenger train since. I've ridden plenty of subways and light rail lines, including the one in Denver. But I would like to see the return of train travel, preferably the high-speed variety. We need options to leave our cars behind. I can only imagine how pleasant it would be to get on a train in Cheyenne in January and zoom across the mountains and high prairie to Rock Springs, leaving the white-knuckle winter driving to others.

No comments: