The good, bad and ugly
If you miss the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow 100 miles…
–500 Miles, Hedy West
There’s nothing like a train ride to put you in mind of the good old days. Old-timers wax nostalgic when they recall the times they could climb aboard in Houston, sit back and relax until the conductor called out, “San Antonio!”
Sadly, this country got a case of the disappearin’ railroad blues, as Arlo Guthrie sang in the early 1970s, with commuter-train travel giving way to the convenience of the automobile and becoming a nostalgic throwback.
The Sunset Limited, as the name suggests, is limited – it passes through Houston three times a week on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles. For $49 you can clamber aboard at the Washington Street Amtrak station at 9:50 p.m. and arrive in San Antonio at 3 a.m. Going to northerly destinations such as Dallas, Austin or Chicago requires a connection in another city, such as San Antonio, to catch the Amtrak Eagle.
Meanwhile, Europe has extensive high-speed rail networks, like Spain’s ultramodern AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, or High Speed Spain). I explored the southern state of Andalucía by AVE last summer. The cheery stewards, comfy seats, first-rate chef and spectacular Spanish landscape were unforgettable. It put me to wondering why we can’t offer something like this in the States.
Amtrak has marketing campaigns geared toward the casual tourist, and travelers have reported pleasant cross-country experiences aboard our aging rail system. It’s generally not a mode of transport for a person in a hurry, however, or for one seeking a bargain, as Houstonians Randy and Philip Lepow discovered. The father-son getaway in 2006 went so far awry it has become a tragicomic family legend.
By contrast, Dennis and Marion Schepps took a luxury train trip in Scotland this summer that represents the opposite extreme in train travel. Here’s a look at the two experiences.
A classic cruise through the Scottish countryside
As owners of Journeys Unlimited, a Houston-based upscale travel company, the Schepps had been almost everywhere. They had never, however, been to Scotland, and when they learned about the Royal Scotsman, they decided to give it a try.
The classic train was built for luxury in the late 1800s, and careful restoration and modernization has brought it up to the upscale traveler’s standards, with ample staterooms, extraordinary service and gourmet food.
The train accommodated a group of about 35 people from Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, England and, of course, Scotland. Each day began with a hearty breakfast, followed by the first of two tours.
Distilleries, castles, wild-game parks, museums – the best of Scotland was represented, with engaging guides. There were skeet shooting and trout fishing for the sporting types and galleries for the cultured.
“When we would get back on the train they’d have the drink of the day ready for you,” Dennis Schepps recalled. His favorite? The sloe gin fizz.
Dress was generally casual but on two occasions the men were required to bring out the tuxedos. The staff was dressed in traditional kilts, and some passengers tried them on as well. Marion encouraged Dennis to give it a try. He demurred.
“My wife said I had nice legs, but I didn’t want to test that theory.”
At night, the entertainment came on board. Sometimes it would be lectures, sometimes musicians; there were highlanders who told the history of the highlands, and historians who told of the fight against the British crown, a la Braveheart.
“It was just an excellent, excellent way to see Scotland,” Dennis said.
Comedy of errors by rail
The Lepow family’s train experience could not have been more different. Father and son Randy and Philip wanted to make a trip together to Colorado, but Randy had an ear infection that prevented travel by plane. They’d already driven the route, so this time they decided on an adventure by train.
“We’d never taken a train before, and we thought it would be fun,” Philip begins. It’s a story he’s told many times, and never without a dose of humor.
The first leg of the journey was by car; the pair had to drive five hours north to Longview, Texas, to catch a different train since the Sunset Limited only goes east to west.
“So we got to Longview, and we got the news our train was four or five hours delayed,” Philip recalls. It seems there was a problem with a freight train down the line, and freight trains get priority. The train arrived around midnight.
The next stop was Springfield, Ill., where they would catch a different train west to Glenwood Springs, Colo. At least, that was the plan.
“But then we wake up sometime in the early morning and we’re going about 15 miles an hour,” Philip said. “We ask our conductor what’s going on. It seems there was a tornado in St. Louis last night, and all the electricity went out. When the electricity’s out, we can’t go any faster than 15 miles an hour.”
Compounding the problem, the train ran out of food before arriving in St. Louis, so the train stopped to purchase 300 sandwiches at a Subway restaurant. Thirty minutes later, a diabetic aboard the ill-fated train began having a seizure, so the train had to stop again so he could board an ambulance.
Philip decided to make the best of the situation and take a shower. It was not to be; a water blockage prevented the showers from functioning.
“Finally we get to St. Louis, and we were four hours behind to begin with, and then another four hours because of the tornado.” Unbelievably, another freight train derailment put them on hold again.
“We asked the conductor, ‘Can we get out and walk around?’” Philip said.
“’No, that’s a bad idea,’ the conductor said. “He told us the train would probably leave without us.”
An hour and a half later, the conductor returned to bear more bad news.
“We’re sorry to tell you, but you missed your connection to Glenwood Springs.” Amtrak put them up in Chicago for the night.
But when they discovered the hotel they were being placed in was an hour and a half outside the city, Randy put his foot down. He insisted on a hotel in downtown Chicago, and he prevailed.
“So me and Dad had a tour of the city,” Philip continued. “Then we get to the train station, and we hear it’s not working. We had to wait 2½ hours for that to be fixed.
As they rolled toward Denver, one of the chefs on the train got sick, so they had to stop and get another chef.
“Dad was like, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I can’t take this anymore.’” As the pair considered getting off in Denver and finding a rental-car agency, a voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have to stop because of another freight-train derailment.”
The Lepows had had enough. ”When we got to Denver, we said our goodbyes to the conductor, rented a car and drove to Aspen,” said Philip. “In total I believe we had 16 to 17 hours of delays.”
The epic adventure went down in family history as “the greatest thing you never want to do again.”
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