What is it about a train ride?

I’ve been asking myself that question, consciously or unconsciously, ever since I was a kid on my first overnight train from New York’s Grand Central Station to Portland, Maine, on my way to summer camp.

There was something transcendent about the sights streaming past our window – the small towns and brightly lit factories of upstate New York and New England, the bridges and lakes and rivers, the jostle of the train rattling along, the impatient automobiles behind the merry dinging gates and the sound of the train whistle, plangent and insistent – that drew me like a fly to a light. I was trapped forever in the thrall of the tracks.

The Alaska Railroad travels through Denali National Park. Credit: Julie Windsor Mitchell

Since then I’ve traveled by rail across Europe, even through Russia and Africa, as well as toured America extensively. My favorite domestic trips were the Coast Starlight from Seattle to San Francisco, with the moonlit mountain lakes; Chicago to San Francisco, featuring spectacular views through the Rockies; and the Wilderness Express from Anchorage to Mt. Denali across the vast expanse of Alaska.

But the most memorable – and frightening – ride was through East Germany in late December 1967, at the height of the Cold War. I awoke in the middle of the frigid night to a border stripped for miles as if laid waste by fire, except for giant security towers like alien sentinels strafing the land with their deadly klieg lights like a nightmare in Kafka.

The next morning we pulled into the East Berlin station. The train was “sealed,” we were told, no one on or off, not even to stretch your legs. Being the outlaw I fancied myself, I boldly stepped onto the rear platform. Fifty feet away a young East Berlin soldier waved his machine gun at me, a gesture that said: Get back inside or I’ll take aim. I didn’t hesitate: I wasn’t that bold.

The Russians were more welcoming. At the Soviet border we were met by a luxury train taking us to Moscow, which featured ornate silver samovars filled with sweet tea at each end of the car from which we could serve ourselves. (Moscow subway stations were equally luxurious.)

All these thoughts come unbidden as our train pulls out of Penn Station after a recent weekend trip to New York.

The train is the famous Lake Shore Limited, which leaves at exactly 3:40 every afternoon and arrives at Union Station in Chicago just after 10 the next morning – if it’s on schedule.

There was a time when two trains ran between New York and Chicago. The other was the equally famous 20th Century Limited. It is said they left Union Station about the same time and raced cross-country to see which would arrive in New York first.

What is it about the magic of trains that draws interest from young and old alike? Credit: Ian Mitchell

In the 1930s and ’40s celebrities traveling coast to coast detrained weekly in Chicago. Their arrival would generate breathless gossip column squibs. These were the years when rail service was elegant, the food delectable and the journey thrilling.

Those halcyon times are, unfortunately, long gone. The once-luxurious service and comprehensive U.S. rail system has been stripped to barest bones. According to trains.com, rail mileage peaked in the 1920s at 254,000 miles; today it’s 114,000, down 45%.

Congress quibbles about funding Amtrak when it would be a huge economic and environmental boon to invest in a national transit system far more efficient than planes, trucks or cars – and vital to national security. Read how Ukraine’s vast rail system has helped the country survive the Russian invasion. Or how Congress has moved swiftly to avert a nationwide rail strike that would’ve crippled the economy.

Despite all these challenges, the mystique of the rails remains undiminished. Trains have long dominated our culture – including hundreds of songs like Wabash Cannonball and Mystery Train. Movies too. Who can forget Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirting en route to Chicago or Denzel Washington racing to stop a runaway train in Unstoppable?

Even St. Nick travels the rails annually aboard the CTA’s Holiday Express. Credit: Julie Windsor Mitchell

The Lake Shore Limited remains justly famous, one of the nation’s flagship routes. As Amtrak says, “Service between Chicago and New York City, through South Bend, Cleveland and Buffalo, along some of the prettiest shorelines of the USA. You’ll travel the south shore of Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, and the Erie Canal following a famous Native American Highway.”

Train travel combines two of my favorite things: the time and luxury to read at length, while looking out at America looking in.

Ultimately train travel is a rolling metaphor: The tracks carry you down time and distance, irrevocable, unyielding and relentless. Kind of like life: Limited in duration and destination, unlimited in sensory riches and exaltation.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

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  1. Small correction: The two name trains that ran between New York and Chicago were the Broadway Limited on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the 20th Century Limited on the New York Central. Today’s Amtrak Lake Shore Limited follows the route of the latter. Otherwise what you said, Les. Even today’s trains are a civilized and relaxing conveyance, unlike the huggermugger of TSA and packed flying sardine cans.

  2. Good one, Les. Folks, you don’t need to ride in Russia, take a train to Timbuktu, or catch a California coastal to have a fun ride and maybe open a youth’s eyes. Metra from Evanston is less crowded mid-day. The view from the front door window as the train approaches the Loop is interesting, as is the tangle of switches entering Ogilvie Transportation Center. From there, it’s a short hike along the river to Union Station for an Amtrak same-day trip to Michigan, for example.