Hooked on Train Travel.
Someone asked me recently how long had I been interested in trains. The answer is, since I was just a kid, although I’m not so much interested in trains as I am in train travel.
Truthfully, I have only a superficial knowledge of the equipment Amtrak uses, but I’ve always been interested in the incredibly complex business of running a railroad . . . and by that I mean a railroad that carries passengers. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you really know.
When I was twelve or thirteen, my grandparents invited me to visit them in Florida during Spring break. It was a very special invitation because my home was in a small town northwest of Hartford, Connecticut, while my grandparents had built a modest house on Captiva island in the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers and were passing the winter there. The real thrill was that I would be getting to Captiva on my own . . . and by train!
I had been on short train rides before, but this one was very different. This time I was ensconced in a roomette—just me . . . no strangers sitting next to me and chattering away hour after hour. I was free to observe and absorb all the activities ignored or unnoticed by the other passengers.
And “something to eat” was not buying a candy bar and a coke from a vendor walking through the train; this was having a dining car steward in a blue blazer escort me to a table covered with a dazzling white linen table cloth and set with real china dishes and an array of stainless steel utensils. This was ordering from a menu offering a choice of two or three appetizers and a half dozen main courses, all prepared on board in the stainless steel kitchen.
After dinner, I clearly remember asking the car attendant—they were “porters” in those days— if I could sleep in the upper berth and watching as he quickly prepared it for me. And imagine my delight in discovering there was a small window up there allowing me to finally drift off to sleep watching the houses and farms and fields passing by, all tinted a deep reddish-purple by a setting sun.
The next day, as the train was approaching Fort Myers, one of the conductors jumped off our train and manually threw a switch to divert us—a steam locomotive and six or eight rail cars—from one track to another. I clearly remember seeing him out my roomette window, standing casually beside the switch he had somehow used to send an entire train in a different direction. I was in awe!
As a young boy, everything about train travel was endlessly fascinating. As an old man, it still is.