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History Happened Here

Rare Mileage

June 2024
6min read

Two unique trains provide the chance to relax into the luxury that travel by rail once promised

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.

Decades before, I had regularly traveled the Twentieth Century to college, never paying much attention to its glories and certainly not understanding that the train would soon vanish into history. But I still recall my sense of wonder upon waking at night in a “sleeperette,” pulling up the shade, and imagining what hamlet lay at the side of the track in dark and dreamless sleep or what factory complex was spewing its smoke into a reddened sky. So it was a pleasure to open my eyes late one night, somewhere on the cusp of the Cascades, and peer out at a winterscape of pillowy snow that looked bright enough to shed its own light on the branches of tall pines and on the ravines that fell away sharply from the tracks.

If that was the best of my trip, the worst, as other passengers agreed, was the lack of solid information along the way. There was a printed guide, but it was sparsely detailed; since routes and times of arrival tended to change, using the public-address system to announce interesting sights as the train approached them would have helped. A staff member told me that when this was done on an earlier trip, some passengers found it an intrusion. Still, if you’re passing a large body of water and no one can tell you what it is and it turns out to be Puget Sound, you may wish someone had broken the silence.

There was no such problem the summer before, when I traveled with Rocky Mountaineer Railtours on a nearly nine-hundred-mile run over the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Vancouver. Upon boarding, passengers received a tabloid-sized, nearly mile-by-mile guide through the most dramatic scenery of western Canada. Because the path the nation’s first transcontinental trains carved out of this most forbidding wilderness in 1885 is also a main reason Canada’s west was settled, the guide is in effect a compact and lively narrative of the building of a nation. “We have no blood in our history…. We are the only nation in the world created non-violently by the building of a railway,” says the Canadian author Pierre Berton.

The Canadian Pacific’s president, William C. Van Home, an American, made his railway both an engineering and a marketing triumph. “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” he declared. To lure travelers to what was the remotest of wildernesses, Van Home designed comfortable passenger trains and set up restaurants and camps along the route. These eventually grew to become the Canadian Pacific hotels, gargantuan chateaus that always took the best locations and were from the start places everyone wanted to be.

After VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger railway, decided to turn over part of its route to private ownership in 1989, Rocky Mountaineer scored a coup by winning exclusive rights to daylight service through the mountains. You can still travel coast to coast by VIA, but if you do, you’ll have to follow the less dramatic northern route through the Rockies. You may instead start a trip in Toronto on VIA, then switch to Rocky Mountaineer at Jasper.

Rocky Mountaineer’s regular cars are refurbished 1950s stock, but you can upgrade to a luxury service called GoldLeaf, as I did when I decided to splurge. The two-level domed observation cars are almost all window, held together by thin ribs of steel.

There is one overnight stop in Kamloops, a town whose significance for the train traveler mainly lies in its location, halfway between Banff and Vancouver. Otherwise you spend two days on the train, rewarded by a spectacle that for most of the route can’t be reached by any other means: waterfalls, glaciers, rapids, forest, desert, steep canyon walls, and thrilling mountain ranges.

Some of the passengers I met, especially those from abroad, considered this the trip of a lifetime. An elderly Australian told me she had longed to visit western Canada since she was a child and her aunt brought her a doll from Lake Louise. I met an Englishwoman on the open-air observation platform who confided that her husband had recently and unexpectedly died. After staring at a distant vista of snowy peaks that were turning blue in the dusk, she quietly said, “Maybe I’ll move here.”

A week of dining and overnighting on a train specifically designed to re-create the railroad’s most luxurious days or a two-day trip over a route entirely devoted to a spectacular landscape. Which should it be? I say both.

—Carla Davidson

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