Rare Mileage

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I was sitting in a club car rescued from America’s greatest passenger train, the Twentieth Century Limited, when I first heard the phrase cruise train . It made sense. The train I was traveling—privately owned but open to anyone with a few thousand dollars to spare—offered fine meals, attentive service, tiny but richly furnished sleeping compartments, a program of escorted bus tours to nearby sights, and onboard lectures. The concept certainly owed as much to the cruise industry as to present-day railroading, but its roots go back to a lavish style of rail travel that disappeared just before the living memory of most of my fellow passengers. So they and I were aboard American Orient Express’s new-old train, on an excursion entitled Pacific Coast Explorer, attempting to relive an era about as distant as that of the transatlantic ocean liner.

The weeklong trip ran from Los Angeles to Seattle, with stops for Santa Barbara, the Hearst Castle, San Francisco, the Napa Valley, and more. Passengers slept aboard all but one night, which they spent at San Francisco’s luxurious Huntington Hotel, atop Nob Hill. The hotel is named for Collis Potter Huntington, one of the founders of the Central Pacific, and its restaurant is hung with rare railroad memorabilia, making it an apt choice.

American Orient Express runs excursions nearly year-round on some of the U.S. and Canada’s most scenic and historic routes. Its fifteen-cartrain consists of two locomotives, two crew cars, six sleeping cars, two dining cars, a pair of club cars, and the sleek Twentieth Century Limited’s observation car, which first saw service in 1948. With that exception, most of the rolling stock originated from the Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific and dates from between 1948 and 1958. It has been refitted with mahogany-paneled walls, painted faux marble insets, and etched-glass partitions. Each club car contains a grand piano and a variety of overstuffed chairs and sofas that might have been taken directly from grandmother’s parlor.

The locomotives are leased from Amtrak, and the conductor and the rest of the operating crew are Amtrak employees. The pilot is on loan from Union Pacific. In the way that a ship’s pilot reads the waters, the railbound version expertly navigates individual quirks of track and terrain. There is always an onboard lecturer; on our trip it was the highly knowledgeable Bob Johnston, who presided in the club cars most afternoons and was always willing to stay for one more question. One of his talks revolved around the complicated history of ownership along the tracks we were traveling. From the early 1920s, he said, when more than a dozen railroads carried freight on this route, “it’s all come down today to two railroads in the West.” They are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (its multiple names revealing its lineage) and the Union Pacific. As the train rolled past a vast golden valley north of Sacramento, Johnston said, “We are unique,” explaining that this had never been an important route for passenger service.

The hours we spent in the remote Feather River Canyon were for many of us the high point of the journey.

In railroad parlance this is known as rare mileage, a term that particularly applied to our path through the Feather River Canyon, on the rugged western slope of the Sierra Nevada. No regularly scheduled passenger train had gone this route since the California Zephyr last rolled through in 1970, except for occasional detours and a few special excursions. The remote Feather River Canyon, wrote one admirer, “has its own climate, its own vegetation and its own light.” For most of the ninety-five passengers, the hours spent on its steep, serpentine tracks and in its numerous tunnels were the high point of the journey.

Many of my fellow passengers were rail buffs who celebrated every bridge and tunnel and each permutation of freight car that barreled past. Yet few of them had ever before taken an overnight train. Some found it hard to share cramped sleeping compartments that I, traveling alone, considered cozy. (Several more spacious suites are available for a premium.) Others complained about motion sickness during a night when the train picked up speed and swung from side to side. But many said the swaying was the best part.

One passenger pointed out a “foamer,” or rail fan, who had been following us since Los Angeles. I watched the driver of the gray Toyota try to keep pace with the train on a parallel roadway, steering with one arm, holding a video camera in the other, and in his pursuit coming close to running other cars off the road. Finally, near the Oregon line, he turned away. “Probably had to get back to work,” someone said.

As interesting as most of the stops were, I was happiest aboard the train. The planned itinerary was regularly disturbed by forces outside the company’s control; wildfires, rockslides, or simply having to wait to let a freight train go by. Eventually the carefully worked-out schedule we had received upon boarding became more of a guess than a promise. But this scarcely mattered to me. When an arrival in Portland planned for early morning encountered several hours’ delay, I couldn’t have been happier to have been granted extra train time.