If there’s one thing you should know about my dad, it’s that he loves trains. As a child, many of our family vacations involved trains in some way. It’s safe to say that I’ve been on more trains than most people my age.
I’ve been on the following scenic railways:
- Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge RR – Durango, Colorado
- Grand Canyon Railroad – Williams, Arizona
- Pikes Peak Cog Railway – Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Mt. Washington Cog Railway – Mt. Washington, New Hampshire
- Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway – Chama, New Mexico
- White Pass and Yukon Scenic Railway – Skagway, Alaska
We’ve also boarded trains as part of other vacations. These include:
- San Francisco Cable Cars in 1997
- Las Vegas Monorail in 2004
- Disneyland Monorail – numerous times
- Disneyland Train – numerous times
- Seattle Center Monorail – 2005
However, the train rides that stand out most vividly in my memory are the cross-country voyages we took. I can remember three distinct Amtrak trips from my childhood:
- Phoenix to Atlanta 1995 via Sunset Limited, Crescent
- Phoenix to Oakland 1997 via Sunset Limited, Coast Starlight
- Phoenix to Massachusetts 1999 via Southwest Chief, Lake Shore Limited
I will be covering each of these trips in a 3-part series of posts.
Phoenix to Atlanta 1995
I was ten years old when I first rode an Amtrak train. We were on our way from Phoenix to Atlanta to visit one of my aunts in the summer of 1995. My dad brought my brother and me along while mom stayed at home.
In spite of my young age, I have vivid memories from the trip that I can recall today, 17 years later. We boarded the train at Phoenix Union Station in the heart of downtown. Inside the station there was this huge photo of a Santa Fe locomotive blasting across the desert. I remember the hard wooden benches of the station and the excitement of climbing aboard the gleaming silver cars.
The journey from Phoenix to Atlanta required us to transfer between trains in New Orleans. We rode the Sunset Limited from Phoenix to New Orleans and the Crescent from New Orleans to Atlanta. For the first part of the journey, dad had booked their most deluxe accommodations – a Superliner Bedroom which had seating/sleeping room for 3 people and a private lavatory/shower. For the second leg of the journey, we had coach seating.
The Superliner Bedroom was a great adventure for my brother and I, and we enjoyed playing games at the fold-up table or looking out the window. We saw the small towns and backyards of the American South. At every grade level crossing there were people who had gotten out of their cars to wave at the train, and I enjoyed waving back.
The train stopped occasionally to take on more passengers or to let another train pass. Other than that we were constantly moving, up to 60 mph in rural areas and slower when passing through cities. I remember that it took two days to cross the state of Texas.
You get used to the constant motion of the train. A bump or jolt could easily throw you off balance while walking around the cars, but I never saw anyone fall.
Our train had a full-service dining car and a snack bar in the observation car. Seating was limited so you might end up sharing your table with a fellow passenger. The observation car had extra-tall windows and comfortable chairs where you could sit and watch the world pass by. As we arrived in New Orleans I remember crossing Lake Pontchartrain, which was so big that it felt like crossing an ocean. I remember not being able to see land in any direction from our window!
When we finally arrived in New Orleans, there was a one-night layover before boarding the next train. The thing I remember most about New Orleans was the humidity. Being from the dry desert of Arizona, I had never felt thick, moist air like that before. Dad took us to the aquarium and we rode a ferry across the muddy Mississippi River and back. We stayed at a crappy hotel that was walking distance from the train station.
Sitting in Coach was a very different experience from being in a private sleeper car. The chairs were large and reclined very far, but it was still crowded. I remember the hopeful eyes of every other passenger looking at me as I walked to my seat, wondering if we were there yet. It was very cold in the car and many of the passengers were snuggled up with their blankets. We did not have any, so dad bought us all Amtrak souvenir blankets.
At last and after several long delays, we made it to Atlanta. We stayed with my dad’s sister for a week or two before heading home. We visited the Coca-Cola Museum, Atlanta Underground, and we saw a laser light show at Stone Mountain.
The trip home seemed to go by much faster. We traveled the same route with the same accommodations in reverse. I remember seeing the vastness of Texas in the daytime, crossing the Rio Grande river and looking through the fence into Mexico.
Coming home was bittersweet; I was glad to be home but sad that our trip had to end.
Now that I am older, my perspectives on things have changed. I know now that Amtrak is slower and more expensive than driving or flying. The one-way travel time from Phoenix to Atlanta is 32.5 hours by train, and we ran into several long delays during our trip.
Booking the same trip for one adult and two children today would cost $1,453 dollars, $796 of which is due to the Superliner room upgrade.
But with Amtrak it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Most of all, I remember it as one of the most fun vacations we ever had.
Amtrak discontinued passenger rail service to Phoenix in 1996, so it is no longer possible to board the train from witin America’s sixth-largest city. Now you have to take a “thruway bus” to Maricopa, AZ or Flagstaff, AZ, which is what we did for our next Amtrak adventure.