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How to Run Out of Town on a Rail

These Parts/With a timetable, some patience, and a generous taste in amusements, a weekend traveler can find destinations worth visiting on Amtrak.

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I had a vision once. I was standing on the apron of an Amoco station outside Chenoa, filling up during a drive from Chicago. Glancing toward the west, I saw a trainload of the damned, wailing and thrashing their arms about as they were borne off to Judgment through a fiery cloud. Shaken, I described the scene to my wife when I got home. She calculated from the time and location of the sighting that all I had seen was Amtrak's southbound 3:15 out of Chicago, backlit by a setting sun, passing me at the precise moment that its passengers learned the Amcafe was already out of chicken salad.

I could easily have been on that train. I love trains. Sometimes I even love riding on them. Amtrak makes it hard, but after you've been at it a while you learn a few tricks.

Union Station is the midwestern hub for what's left of the U.S. intercity passenger rail system. And while the system is geared to the cross-country traveler, some of those trains offer pleasures to the day-tripper and the overnight vagabond as well. No fewer than 25 Amtrak routes originate at Union Station, served by a total of 200 outbound trains each week. All told they stop at 47 different towns (not counting Chicago suburbs) in six states within 200 miles or so of the Loop.

The fleshpots of Indianapolis and Grand Rapids lie within this magic circle--barely. But the romance of the train lies in the places in between Chicago and this perimeter. Imagine yourself rolling west on the Illinois Zephyr toward the setting sun. At 6:55 PM you pull out of Plano, the last of the towns that has the taint of a Chicago suburb, and roll through town after town whose names constitute the poetry of the midwest countryside. Somonauk. Earlville. Meriden. Mendota. Wyanet. Buda. Neponset. Kewanee. Galva. Altona. Oneida. Wataga. Saluda. Prairie City.

Riding a train through the midwest compels one to recast Harry Truman's favorite saying: The only thing dull in the world is the history you don't know. Princeton was the home of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, who would not have been shot and killed by a mob in Alton in 1837 if he'd had the good sense to get on a train out of town. The name "Mendota" brings a smile to the lips of connoisseurs of canned lima beans. Kewanee's south side was founded by Connecticutters bent on improving learning and piety among the primitive Illinoisans.

Alas, the cross-country orientation of the Amtrak system does not make it easy to ride outbound to a town, dawdle a while, and return via the same route in time for bed. If you're contemplating a visit to New Buffalo, Michigan, for example, thinking to take in its dunes and public beach (which are within walking distance of the station), you'll have to do it between 8:13 PM and 10:02 AM (12:02 PM on Sundays).

The schedule is kinder to travelers with a yen to see Milwaukee--there are six trains a day. And frequent trains to Detroit and points east mean that you also can stop for a day in less obvious resorts such as Niles, Michigan (with a handsomely restored train station), and Kalamazoo (don't laugh until you've been there).

Probably the richest Amtrak day-trip destination is Springfield, 185 miles from the Loop on the line to Saint Louis. Lincoln's home, the Old State Capitol, the Illinois State Museum, and the newly restored Dana-Thomas Frank Lloyd Wright house all lie within nine blocks of the train station. (Stop by the statehouse if the General Assembly is in session; you won't know what in hell is going on, but then they don't either.)

Five trains a day (four on Sunday) travel from Chicago to the capital, the earliest at 8:15 AM. You can leave Union Station on that one--usually a two-car local, the Loop, which shuttles between Illinois' official capital and its real one--and get back to Chicago, via the Ann Rutledge, at 9:40 PM. That gives you five and a half hours on the ground in Springfield, assuming everything runs on schedule, which it might.

The options expand considerably for those who are in less of a hurry to get back to Chicago. Indeed, an intrepid explorer equipped with a complete schedule and patience and a generous taste in amusements can cobble together several overnight trips worth the taking. For example, if you wish to see Champaign-Urbana--and who doesn't?--the earliest you can get there is 6:29 PM (via the Illini). But look at it this way: the next returning Illini leaves for Chicago at 6:52 PM the next day, which gives you more than enough time to take in a concert at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and tour the Morrow Plots (the nation's most venerable cornfield), even allowing for the slower pace of life.

Those who remember campuses in the springtime, when the coeds are in bloom and the sap is running among the frat boys, should know that Amtrak runs trains to such major college towns as Lafayette and South Bend, Indiana, and East Lansing, Michigan, not to mention Crawfordsville, Indiana, home of Wabash College.

Other sight-seeing spots served by rail include Nauvoo, Illinois, an outpost of Mormon history: the Desert Wind, which runs daily to LA via Salt Lake City, stops at nearby Burlington, Iowa. That train, like the Southwest Chief, the Pioneer, the California Zephyr, and the Illinois Zephyr, also stops at Galesburg, home of Knox College, Carl Sandburg's birthplace, and a modest railroad museum (Galesburg Railroad Days are held at the depot on Seminary Street). Bishop Hill, the Swedish utopian settlement, is but a short drive from Galesburg. The Wisconsin Dells also are reachable by Amtrak, as a stop on the once-a-day Empire Builder to Seattle (if you can get a seat); for the Chicago-Dells leg of this route, Amtrak suspends its usual requirement that rubber tomahawks be transported in checked luggage.

You don't take the train to Kewanee or Rensselaer in order to get to Kewanee or Rensselaer; you go to Kewanee or Rensselaer in order to have an excuse to ride on a train. Ken Bird does, anyway. Bird is the Evanstonian who is president of the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Rail Passengers. Asked why he likes to ride trains, he seems taken aback, as if he'd been asked why he likes to sleep late or dine well. It's always fun to eat on a train. Kids can move around.

And trains are slow, a sort of suspended travel. Trains are great places to fall in love, more social than the car, more leisurely than the airplane, more romantic than both put together. (One regular traveler enthuses, "You can do anything you want on a train if you don't get caught.")

Taking a train is a social experience. The passengers on a large Amtrak train constitute one of the few truly democratic societies left in the United States--servicemen, black women with babies, crackers with tattoos, college students, Europeans doing the continent. Because train passengers have time and the freedom to move about, trains offer nearly forgotten opportunities for mixing.

The atmosphere aboard a train is relaxed but not usually licentious. One passenger fondly remembers riding a holiday train up from Texas and being serenaded by a professional nightclub singer who performed impromptu for drinks. Outside the lounge cars, however, the bans on music and smoking are enforced. Conductors usually billet large groups of the happier sorts of travelers in their own cars. I rode south toward Saint Louis once on a train that was carrying a college hockey team and its entourage home from a tournament; we only caught glimpses of the bacchanal in progress in the rear car. I imagined something like the hunt-club scenes in Sturges's Palm Beach Story--but in this case the conductor was not obliged to disconnect the party car from the rest of the train. College hockey players are much more decorous than drunken millionaires.

In addition to the company and the relaxed pace, train travel affords the chance to window-gaze. Says Bird, "In an automobile all you see is the back end of the truck in front of you." Skeptics will complain that there are no sights worth seeing within a day's ride of Chicago, but that's really true only of the Illinois trains. When the Illinois Central laid its track between Chicago and Carbondale, it certainly did not choose a route with scenery in mind; it chose the flattest, straightest route feasible.

Luckily, the hills of southern Wisconsin and the rolling orchard country inland from Michigan's dunes are among our more humane landscapes. On the former prairies of Illinois, Ken Bird admires what he calls the succotash landscape created by corn and soybean fields in season. "Or," he says of another pleasure, "watching a thunderstorm drift over the prairie while you sit safe in your picture-window seat."

If the virtues of the landscape are sometimes subtle, its history is almost wholly lost on the casual traveler. The tracks to Saint Louis take one past the stone walls of Joliet's Stateville prison and the locks and warehouses of old Lockport on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Taking a Detroit-bound train at sunset as it snakes across the abandoned steel works on the far south side offers a vision of postindustrial apocalypse. Unfortunately, the significance of such sights is lost on most train travelers. It's not that they are incurious about what they see. (Though the most-asked-and-least-answered question you hear aboard Amtrak trains is "What time will we get there?" the next one is "What's that?") But there's precious little available to help them. The typical Rand McNally folding maps do not deign to show rail lines, or even the location of train stations. The popular Mobil regional travel guides don't even mention trains, so perfect is their bias in favor of the car. The few guides published for the train traveler tend to focus on station stops and scant everything in between. I recommend the Federal Writers Project guidebooks to the various states. They're old, but then so are the rail routes.

Traveling by Amtrak, it's seldom accurate to say that half the fun is getting there. On a packed train to the coast on a major holiday the figure is more like 6 to 8 percent. Service is improving in many respects, but the system is still hobbled by too few and too old locomotives and cars. Delays are the most common complaint. Amtrak schedules resemble Reagan budgets: optimistic to the point of dishonesty. The on-time rate for Amtrak nationwide is only 76 percent. Mechanical breakdowns and track problems are factors; so is the fact that passenger trains share track with freight trains, which often enjoy right-of-way.

Stupid work rules and regulations screw things up, too. A Springfield man and his wife boarded the 3:30 to Chicago on New Year's Eve 1988. South of Joliet, the train was held up because the crew had worked the maximum hours allowed under union rules; a substitute crew had to be sent out by train from Chicago. The new crew boarded and got the train under way again, but the train stopped a second time, within sight of the Sears Tower, because the replacement crew (riders were told) was not licensed to drive the train into Union Station. The answer to the unasked question among passengers--"Is this any way to run a railroad?"--was an emphatic and unanimous "no."

The days of the stagecoach and the tramp steamer may be long gone, but the adventure of travel lives on in the form of Amtrak's Chicago to Saint Louis trains. Amtrak is obliged to run these trains on tracks neglected by successive cheapskate owners, who did things like install short-lived ties made of pine instead of oak. Its most recent owner went bankrupt in 1988 and was unable to fix the track. A buyout aided by assorted state and federal grants and loans rescued the track and the service; but for the last several years passengers on that route have endured regular delays due to breakdowns and repairs, not to mention the "go slow" orders that occasionally kept trains to 10 or 20 miles an hour. The ridership on that line is heavy with bureaucrats, who have learned not to schedule appointments within two hours of their scheduled arrivals.

Horror stories abound. A state worker took the State House bound for Springfield in the dead of winter. An hour and a half late departing because of snow and frozen switches on the line, the train was stalled for another two hours north of Joliet. (When the train crew left the train, anxious passengers envisioned permanent entombment. The crew returned, however, carrying buckets of fried chicken for everyone--the unions made some friends that day.) Because the signal lights on the track weren't working, the driver could do only ten miles per hour over the 100 miles between Joliet and Lincoln, arriving in Springfield at 3:30 AM, eight and a half hours late.

An extreme, even extraordinary case, to be sure. Ken Bird has this sage advice: if you're in that big a hurry, you shouldn't be on a train in the first place.

Bird notes that Amtrak uses its newest cars (the so-called Horizon fleet, made in Canada) on its short-haul midwestern routes, such as those between Chicago and Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee. An expansion of the fleet is planned; but until the new cars arrive, sometime in the mid-1990s, Bird warns, "Travelers have to realize that Amtrak has been very crowded these days, especially on weekends, because they haven't enough equipment. The result is that you may have to stand between certain points on some trains with unreserved seating."

The cars themselves are quite comfortable, with seats that offer at least as much room as first-class on an airplane--and much more mobility. But the standard of maintenance is not as high. Overhead lights often don't work. (If you plan to read, test them before choosing a seat.) Rest rooms sometimes don't have water, which makes washing hands or flushing toilets impossible. But disappointment at poor service is a function of expectations; just pretend you're traveling through Yugoslavia.

Amtrak is making improvements, slowly. Since it was formed, over 20 years ago, it's never been adequately funded. Stations have suffered from neglect like everything else in the system, but now are being fixed up. Says Bird, "There are no more disaster stations." Tracks and roadbeds are being upgraded. The new owner of the line between Chicago and Saint Louis, for example, is installing continuous welded rail that will make it possible to run trains smoothly at top speeds of 89 miles per hour; when the work is finished, in a year or so, that line should see a dramatic improvement in speed and reliability.

Amtrak staff cope as well as they can, I suppose. Conductors do not always announce information about delays, which often leaves travelers anxious. (Sometimes when a train stops in the middle of nowhere--usually on a siding to let a train go by in the opposite direction--a seatmate will ask me, "Why are we stopped?" "Bandits," I say.) Station staff are more forthcoming about arrival times; the problem is that what they tell you is not very dependable. I vaguely recall taking part in a beery seminar in an Amtrak cafe car some years ago in which one of my companions had a brilliant insight: Amtrak would be the perfect mobile basing system for the MX-missile system then being debated in Congress, because no one knows where an Amtrak train is at any given moment, including Amtrak.

Some conductors are famous among regular travelers for maintaining a "we're all in this together" atmosphere that makes riding even a U.S. passenger train tolerable. One such is Amtrak's Mr. Washington--I don't know his full name, although he deserves to have a train named after him, or at least a sandwich in the cafe car. Passengers standing on Amtrak platforms often look as if they're in a dentist's waiting room, but they usually smile when Mr. Washington leans out of the doors as his train steams up to them and he shouts, "You going to Chicago? Well, so are we!"

Something about having a captive audience turns some Amtrak conductors into comedians. One, announcing the imminent close of the cafe car as the train approached Chicago, urged riders to take advantage of Amtrak's "one-for-one special." "Buy any snack or beverage," he intoned, "and we will sell you another item just like it for exactly the same price." Occasionally they redeem the system's reputation with acts of kindness. A colleague of mine fell asleep on his way back to Springfield after a busy day at Wrigley Field and missed his stop. The train had gotten back under way when the conductor noticed and, stopping the train a few blocks down the line, woke him to let him off--saving my colleague an embarrassing phone call and his wife a car trip to Carlinville (the next scheduled stop, 40 miles away).

A train is a wonderful place to daydream. Occasionally when I ride Amtrak I daydream about being on a real train, in western Europe or Japan. Ten nations of the EEC recently embarked on a massive program to build new high-speed trains to connect major cities 350 miles or less apart. Many passengers now make these short hauls by plane, with constipating effects on the continent's airports. The new trains will provide an alternative that's nearly as speedy. Using cutting-edge German and French technology (the Europeans disdain the Japanese "bullet trains"--they're too slow), these will move people at 186 miles per hour--two to three times the average speed Amtrak now achieves on its midwest routes. Not even legislators driving back to Chicago on I-55 make that kind of speed.

Engineers at the Argonne National Laboratory have sketched out routes for a system of trains that would not move on wheels but would float, frictionless, above the rails via magnetic levitation. Traveling at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, a mag-lev train could get from Chicago to Springfield in 45 minutes--a trip that takes three and a half to four hours by car, 55 minutes by air (not counting getting to and from the airports), and four hours on Amtrak's conventional trains, when they run on time.

Amtrak has slowly been building a consumer base for new trains by introducing a whole new generation of Americans to train travel. Ridership and earnings have been up nationwide in spite of bad tracks and broken-down rolling stock. The Illinois Rail Passengers Association is lobbying for expansion of Amtrak's system to include major regional cities not currently served, such as Peoria, the Quad Cities, and Rockford.

Until these happy possibilities are realized, remember the words of this sage passenger, a grizzled veteran of many a late arrival who has not forgotten that you shouldn't judge trains by the systems that run them. "If they were better, everybody would ride them," our faithful rider says. "And then they wouldn't be cool."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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