For the love of trains


On May 9, Train Day 2015, I'll be in the bar-observation car aboard the Southwest Chief. The board game “Mexican Train” will be spread out on many tables, and there's always room for one more player as the tiles are drawn. The Southwest Chief is a popular train, traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago, and now it seems to sport a new group of riders ¾ millennials, aged 18 to 34.

These young people tell me they hate airplanes and don't much like driving either. That's borne out by lots of survey data. On the Coast Starlight over the New Year's holiday, for instance, I heard some airline horror stories that sounded remarkably like my own. Did I feel like a criminal when the TSA discovered an illicit bottle of shampoo in my luggage? Did the guy in the seat ahead of me tilt his chair back into my face? One young woman said she chooses to ride the train because “I won’t sit in that straitjacket for an hour while they try to take the damn plane off the ground.” Another woman told me, “I like the train because I can walk around.”

The long, leisurely journey on a train sometimes leads to surprising but welcome conversations about railroad history. Believe it or not, millennial folks have shut off their iPads and quizzed me about the history of the rails we were riding. One young man was interested in my tale of the first Train Day held in 1870, though his companion tuned out at once.

For the record, that first train day occurred when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad made it from Denver to Colorado Springs in 1870. Upon arrival, the hastily constructed Log Cabin Bar opened for business; now it’s something of a rail tradition.

Another young millennial even listened to my tale of the Raton Pass railroad war. I had plenty of time to tell that one as we clickety-clacked slowly up to the top of the pass. General William C. Palmer, owner of the Rio Grande, was in a fight with Cyrus K. Holliday of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to see who would get over the pass first. By 1878, most expected that Palmer would win as he had men and equipment at El Moro just outside of Trinidad in southern Colorado. But Palmer hadn't counted on the advance man for the Santa Fe, Ray Morley, who recruited some of his drinking companions at Uncle Dick's bar to go out on a midnight grading mission. That grading laid claim to the pass for the Santa Fe.

My young listener was especially surprised to learn that when General Palmer retired in 1908, he gave a million dollars to be divided among every single employee of the Denver-Rio Grande line. My listener could not imagine any of our American 1 percent doing something like that today.

But getting millennials interested in the politics of saving our trains is something else again. Eyes tended to glaze over as I gently reminded them that we pay more of our fare on a train than we pay for highly subsidized air travel. Even the effort to save the Southwest Chief from going the way of the dodo is far from attention-catching.

A Colorado state senator, Republican Larry Crowder from Alamosa, has led the fight to save the Chief. But he couldn’t get a single member of his party to join him when it came up for a vote in Denver recently. And if the three states of New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado can't come up with $8.9 million each to match a federal grant, the whole line is in danger. So far, Colorado is the only one of the three states not to vote the money to save the line for the next 10 years. That's even though Amtrak and the BNSF railroad have all pledged their part. A little complex for bar car discussion? Maybe so, but I had to try.

If you're planning to ride a train on Train Day, May 9, make your reservation now. Amtrak expects big volume on both the Southwest Chief and the California Zephyr. See you aboard: I'll be the one with the Train Day hat talking to a bunch of young people. You're always welcome to join in the Mexican train game, too.

Forrest Whitman is contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He used to live in a parked railroad car close to the Continental Divide of Colorado but has since moved into a “real” house a little lower down. 

High Country News Classifieds