Reflections of Worldwide Rail Journeys
As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on my worldwide rail journeys.
My Rail Program, spanning the 24-year period from 1995 to 2009, entailed 45 coal mine, excursion steam, narrow-gauge, narrow-gauge steam, cog, short-range, and long-range by 35 rail lines, encompassing 12 countries, eight Canadian provinces, 22 US states, and more than 10,000 miles.
Seven long-range journeys in Canada, the US, and Mexico factored into my lifetime rail program. Three of these took place in Canada.
The first, on VIA Rail Canada’s The Ocean between Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, covered 1,346 kilometers. Paralleling the S.t Lawrence River and the Gaspe Peninsula, it crossed the line between Quebec and New Brunswick. Traversing its Miramichi Basin, the province’s geographical center, it plied the Moncton-intersecting tracks, crossing the Nova Scotia border. Circumventing Bedford Basin, it closed the gap to Halifax, completing its two-day journey.
The second, this time on VIA Rail Canada’s Hudson Bay, was a three-day, 1,697-kilometer journey from Winnipeg to Churchill, considered the polar bear capital of the world. An evening departure saw it make a gradual, northwesterly climb, skirting Lake Manitoba and Dauphin Lake, before arcing onto a westerly course and threading its way between Riding Mountain National Park and Duck Mountain Provincial Park and reaching Glenella minutes before midnight.
Penetrating the vast, subarctic tundra expanses above the tree line for most of the second day, it arrived in Churchill that evening.
A four-day, 4,459-kiilometer eastbound, trans-Canada crossing from Vancouver to Toronto, this time on The Canadian, entailed a traverse of the Rocky Mountains through British Columbia and Alberta, and then a prairie-passing through Saskatchewan’s western low lands. Its Activities Car provided a lounge, books, and games, and its upper dome afforded magnificent views, along with croissants in the morning and hot hors d’oeuvres and wine in the evening.
Accommodation, as with the other long-range rail journeys, was in a private compartment, and all meals, detailed on leather-covered menus, were provided in the dining car. One such dinner included chicken and shataki mushroom cream soup with tarragon; mixed greens with vinaigrette dressing and hot dinner rolls and butter; apple- and cranberry-stuffed chicken breast accompanied by champagne risotto, carrot strips, and asparagus; raspberry-sauce-drizzled chocolate cake; coffee; and chocolate mints.
Traveling past the grain field prairies of the western lowlands, The Canadian chugged through undeveloped forest and the lakes of Whiteshell Provincial Park as the last few kilometers of Manitoba, the province located midway between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, ticked away. By 1630, having crossed the Manitoba-Ontario border between Winnitoba and Rice Lake, the train penetrated the western edge of the billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian Shield, prevalent with glacier-carved lakes.
The lighted Toronto skyscrapers, looming ahead like glittering, jewel-bedecked monoliths, suddenly appeared in the distance, in inverse order to those which had receded behind at the beginning of the journey, and grew in size with each traversed kilometer. Now inching toward its eastern terminus at Toronto’s Union Station on track 7 beneath clear, star-twinkling skies and 65-degree temperatures directly in front of the needle-thin CN Tower, The Canadian assumed barely-registerable speed and motion. The tower itself served as both physical and symbolic confirmation of the trip’s completion.
Three long-range rail journeys also took place in the US.
The first, at 361 miles, threaded is way from New York’s Penn Station to Montreal as the Adirondack, passing through the Hudson Valley, the Adirondack Mountains, and Lake Champlain, before briefly stopping at the Canadian Customs checkpoint of Cantic, Quebec, and then proceeding through flat farmland and over the St. Lawrence River to its destination.
A US transcontinental counterpart to the Canadian one, albeit in the reverse or westerly, direction, and only covering two-thirds of the way, occurred on Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville (serving San Francisco), California. Gliding over the Great Plains of Nebraska on its three-day, 2,438-mile journey, it crossed the Colorado state line and approached the majestic Rocky Mountains, paralleling the snaking Colorado River, and threading its way through chiseled canyons, rust-red rock, and initially small, pine tree-dotted hills. The Continental Divide-crossing Moffat Runnel, at 6.2 miles in length, constituted the route’s longest, and pinnacled at a 9,240-foot elevation.
Accommodation was in the Bilevel Superliner’s first-class compartment, meals were in the dining car, and two interpretive programs about the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains were given, while the lower level of its sightseeing lounge and café offered fare for tourist class passenger purchase.
Continuing past the Great Salk Lake in Utah, it entered California, the seventh and last state on its route. Proceeding through Truckee, it entered Donner Pass and arched its way through its horseshoe curve to the two-mile-long Tunnel 41. Alternatively known as the “Big Hole,” it bored its way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains at a 7,040-foot elevation. Emerging from the mountains and no longer topographically speed-restricted it traveled through the flat tan, brown, and green geometry of the Sacramento Valley until the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and city-signature, pyramid-shaped Transamerica Tower affirmed its approach to and imminent arrival in Emeryville.
The third long-range US rail journey covered 1,389 miles during its West Coast climb from Los Angeles to Seattle in the Coast Starlite, crossing the rolling green Santa Cruz Mountains and threading its way through Pajero Gap, before entering the Santa Clara Valley.
A peak through the curtains at 0650 revealed an otherworldly vista sharply contrastive to that of the previous day, leaving one to wonder if a gap in speed and time had somehow not been accounted for. The bright blue of the Pacific had been replaced by volcanic mountain peaks and blankets of snow. A thin line of dull orange, glowing on the eastern horizon, flowed up over the dark, gray cloud obstruction like molten lava, oozing through until it had successfully eaten through its cover and created a multitude of cold, orange fissures which progressively burned through the otherwise thick, metallic gray insulation. Following the winding tracks through northern California, the silver, bilevel Superliner cars had thread their way through tall, thick pine abreast of 14,162-foot, snow-draped Mount Shasta, the tallest peak in the Cascade Mountain range. Burning with greater fury, dawn’s volcanic eruption lit the sky between two volcanic peaks a fiery orange, spreading its flames across the cloud fabric until it had engulfed it with burning victory. As the light now penetrated the windows of the train, the dual-floored city of the Coast Starlight awoke.
Dinner that evening included a mixed salad with bleu cheese dressing; Pacific salmon with white wine sauce, rice pilaf, and green beans; cheese cake with strawberry sauce and whipped cream; and coffee.
The Coast Starlite proceeded over the Oregon-Washington state line through Tacoma to it Seattle destination.
The seventh long-range rail journey, from Chihuahua to Los Mochis in the Chihuahua Al Pacifico Railroad, bored its way through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, its pre-dawn departure inviting breakfast in the dining car. This consisted of a ham and cheese omelet, fried potatoes with peppers and onions, refried beans with cotija cheese, and tortillas and salsa.
Plunging through Tunnel 4, at 4,134.8 feet, the line’s longest and marking the third Continental Divide crossing, it subsequently climbed 8,071-foot Los Ojitos, passing mountain and canyon topography.
An overnight stay in a lodge in Posada Barrancas preceded a re-departure the following afternoon. The train, descending into the Santa Barbara Canyon, proceeded through the town of El Fuente, lurching beneath dark, velvet, star-studded skies as it covered the remaining distance to Los Mochis. Snagging its brakes at 2205 local time after a 16-hour, 20-minute journey (excluding the overnight stop). It connected the plains with the Pacific by means of the Copper canyon, in what could only be labeled a feat of railroad engineering.
Although all of these long-range journeys employed the “journey is the destination” theme and were taken to facilitated research and book,.log, and article writing, several others, while relative short in duration, were taken for pure-travel purposes, such as those on the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, on the Swiss Federal Railways from Geneva to Lausanne, on the Belgian Railways from Brussels to Bruges and Ghent, on the Moroccan National Railways between Casablanca and Marrakech, on the Bergan Railway from Voss to Myrdal in Norway, and on the Tacna-Arica Railroad from Chile to Peru across the Atacama Desert.
Several short-duration excursion trains were also sampled, such as the Black Hills Central Railroad in South Dakota, the Branson Scenic Railway in Missouri, the Catskill Mountain Railroad in New York, the Mount Hood Railroad in Oregon, the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad to the Nantahala Gorge in North Carolina, the New Tygart Flyer in West Virginia, the Naugatuck Railroad in Connecticut, the West Chester Railroad in Pennsylvania, and the Conway Scenic Railroad in New Hampshire.
Steam trains also frequently factored into these track-plying journeys. Notable were the Yosemite Sugar Pine Railroad in California, the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania, the Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia, the Western Maryland Railroad in Maryland, the Wilmington and Western Railroad in Delaware, and the Belvedere and Delaware River Railroad in New Jersey.
There were notable differences, however. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine train in West Virginia, for example, bored through the low, dark mine itself, whose oxygen levels were once measured by the strength of the candle flames harnessing them. The Cog Railway, a National Historic Engineering Landmark, clutched, like axel-installed claws, the tracks up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, sometimes climbing at more than 37-degree angles.
Crossing the Appalachian Trail, it terminated at the almost winter-like temperatures and rarefied air of the 6,288-foot White Mountain summit, where the four states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and New York could be seen, along with the province of Quebec in Canada.
Narrow gauge rail journeys were taken in Alaska with the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad and in Snowdonia National Park in Wales with the Ffestiniog Railroad, while steam locomotives combined with narrow-gauge tracks, accounted for journeys on the East Broad Top Railroad from Orbisonia in Pennsylvania and the Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino through Tierra del Fuego National Park in Argentina’s Patagonian region.
Finally, one of the most scenic and dramatic journeys occurred on the Flam Railway, was Norway’s major tourist attraction.
Tracing its origins to 1895, when its rail roots were first planted in verbal form, it initially attracted opposition, particularly because its Flam station, located at the end of a fjord, would have been impassable in icing winter conditions. But support came from Ingolf Elster Christiansen, county governor in Sogn og Fjordane and later a member of parliament and a cabinet minister. The shortest and cheapest rail line, he advocated, would be able to transport products and goods from the Sogn region to eastern Norway, thus removing them from the Bergen market. However, the advent of the automobile prompted many to consider a road the better alternative.
On March 1 of the previous year, the Norwegian parliament had already approved construction of the Bergen Railroad from Oslo, but there was no provision for a branch line extension from it down the Flamsdalen Valley to the Sognefjord. Its only artery was then a steep, narrow, winding pack horse path.
Ultimately approved, the rail alternative began in 1924 with the manual excavation of 18 of its eventual 20 tunnels, which always began with the drilling of a center hole and two or three on either of its sides, Its fragments were removed by horse-pulled dumping wagons.
Actual track laying occurred between the summer of 1936 and the spring of 1940, at which time the Norwegian State Railways issued a statement that read, “On `1 August 1940, the Myrdal-Flam line is opened for temporary traffic of express goods and freight.”
The following summer it was officially designated the “Flam Railway.”
Motive traction was initially steam-supplied, but was quickly converted to electricity, generated by the Kjosfossen waterfall in the very valley it plied.
Today, it is the steepest standard-gauge railroad in Northern Europe.
Releasing its brakes and inching away from 865-meter-high Myrdal Station, the train passed through a few snow sheds before plying the 55-percent grade track and offering breathtaking vistas of mountain plateaus and snow-draped Tarven peak.
Boring through the Loop Tunnel, which entailed an internal circumnavigation, it adhered to the track that was built into nothing more than the mountains’ ledges. A brief alight at the 238-meter-high Kjosfossen Station, one of eleven, offered views of the pounding waterfall, which poured down the craggy, gray and green rock banks, erupting into ethereal mist.
Continuing its journey at no more than a 30-kph speed, the Flam Railway passed through the Nali Tunnel, the longest of the line’s 20 at 1,341.5 meters, and, after executing hairpin turns, passed Rjoandefossen, one of Norway’s highest waterfalls with a 140-meter vertical drop.
Below, along the Flamsdalen Valley’s riverbanks, were the velvet-green fields and orchards of the area’s farms.
Reducing speed, the train pulled into its terminus, Flam, flanked by 1,000-meter mountains and water-accessed by the blue, mirror-reflecting Aurlandsfjord, itself a branch of the Sognefjord, ending its 20.2-kilometer journey at a barely registerable two-meter elevation.
The town had a population of only 400, but the railroad carried 400,000 passengers per year.