Of Many Things

The fanfare with which Amtrak announced its new train, called Acela (Speed and Excellence), was somewhat diminished by delays in the start of service. Designed to ply the routes along the Northeast corridor, the $2-billion, 150-m.p.h. train system was scheduled to start late last year. Now, maybe it will be this summer.

The news of the delay in service coincided with the arrival of the paperback edition of the Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads, by John F. Stover, the dean of American railroad historians. The book brought a flood of memories and triggered a background refrain of the old song "You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone." However promising the Acela service may be, it is not likely to replace the great trains of the mid-20th century, when a railroad had an individual identity, and the sound of a train whistle evoked a curious mixture of passions.


Even the names of the old trains had a certain flair and magic about them. The California Zephyr, the Empire Builder, the City of Saint Louis. A colleague remembers boarding the California Zephyr for the last leg of its journey from his home to Oakland when he was in college. Then there would be the ferry ride across San Francisco Bay. A matter-of-fact transit, but one that provided breathtaking beauty. The same kind of experience awaited passengers who alighted from the Phoebe Snow at Hoboken to cross the Hudson River into Manhattan. And there was the semi-sweet excitement of waiting on a barely lit platform in Prairie du Chien, Wis.crickets buzzing, bugs flying, the distant light of an approaching locomotive lamp as the Empire Builder arrived. Shortly after two in the morning, it collected travelers bound for Chicago, which would be seen hours later, stirred to life by the sunrise over the lake.

Arrival and departure were events, whether from an imposing cavernous Grand Central Terminal or from a flag stop on the great plains at a most unreasonable hour. Both moments had their grandeur, joy or sorrow, hope or sadness. The same human emotions are played out daily in airports all across the world, but they don’t seem to have the dignity that was afforded them by the proximity of steam and steel.

Not everyone respected the basilica character of the terminus, though. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who was more given to destruction than to building, horrified his own father with his plans for a rebuilt Berlin. "What have you done with the Potsdamer and Anhalter stations?" In his model both were gone, to be replaced by a grotesque horror that was never built. Two decades later, Pennsylvania Station in New York was demolished and buried in the New Jersey meadowlands. The great London stations have survived, but for decades Victoria and Waterloo, St. Pancras, Marylebone and the others were used only by British Rail, a consolidation of the old companies, with about as much panache as Amtrak.

Literature worldwide has been immensely enriched by railroad imagery. Agatha Christie’s last mystery was Passenger to Frankfurt. She captured some of the intrigue and frenzy of the modern flying experience, but with much less glamour than she provided in either Murder on the Orient Express or in 4:50 From Paddington. Norman Murphy had much fun in his 1981 book In Search of Blandings, making use of railway maps and timetables to identify the country houses where P. G. Wodehouse’s archetypical loonies imbibed, cavorted and came unstuck. Without easy train service between London and Market Blandings, many of his contrived situations would have been impossible.

For that matter, without the railroads much of America as we know it would have been impossiblethe development of the West, whistle-stop campaigning, the transport of men and matériel in wartime, the funeral trains of the great.

There is no great lesson to be learned from the advent of the Acela or the passing of the Denver Zephyr. It is just a reminder of the good that was, and the good that is to come. And for those of us who regret also the passing of BUtterfield-8 and PEnnsylvania-6, a prayer that the train whistles sound in heaven.

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