Ideas

Nostalgia coupled to reality on a transcontinental train

Chicago’s Union station is one of the most dramatic public spaces in the country. The gigantic five-story, barrel-vaulted ceiling rests atop sturdy Corinthian columns, studded with brass lamps grounded on polished marble floors. It is an immense space, curiously free of echoes, and designed for an immense public mission — the movement of the masses.

“Make no little plans — they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized,” Daniel Burnham, the legendary architect behind the travelers’ cathedral in Chicago, as well as Manhattan’s Flatiron Building and Washington’s Union Station, once said. “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

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An airport or a gas station designed in the 1930s has long ago required renovation and retrofitting, yet century-old train stations remain functional, true to their original purpose, noted historian Tony Judt. Indeed, for the 120,000 travelers who pass through Union Station every day, Burnham’s creation continues to assert itself insistently towards its central aim.

Passenger rail travel has been maligned in the United States for decades, as the country embraced the open road and left high-speed rail to foreign countries. But today, it is experiencing a sort of renaissance. Millennials quitting cars, boomers retiring and taking it slow, and ever more crowded freeways and airports have pushed many American commuters back onto the rails. Last year, Amtrak ferried 31 million passengers, the largest head count in its history. More than 84,700 people rode more than 300 trains on an average day.

Alex Kingsbury/globe staff

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But take a train from coast to coast, and the perils of an ill-informed nostalgia about the grandeur of rail travel are quickly apparent. America is a vast country, and trains take a long time to traverse it, especially since long-haul trains average just under 50 miles per hour. The trip from Boston to Portland, Ore., takes more than three days.

And while service has improved in the past few years, Amtrak still has reliability issues. The train I rode out of South Station made it to Pittsfield before it broke down. Standing outside the carriage in a light drizzle, attendant Dave Huggins is reassuring, “Don’t worry, we’re part of the connecting train in Albany, so they can’t leave without us.” Delays on passenger rail can easily cascade.

Soon enough we’re on the way again through upstate New York and towards the country’s midwest rail hub in Chicago. It’s an overnight leg of the journey, which sounds romantic, but while the sleeping cars are nicely appointed and there’s Wi-Fi, trains constantly pitch and roll. Even more so on the upper level of a two-story car.

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Much of Amtrak’s ridership are the retired set, which means that walking the length of a speeding train can be a bit tricky. “Hold on and watch the hip,” says a grinning Mark Ernest, 64, a retired lawyer making his third cross-country trip by rail. “It’s still better than flying, if you have the time.”

This isn’t to say that others have managed to best the laws of physics. Earlier this month, I rode Spain’s newest high-speed line from Leon to Madrid. It screams down the tracks at 220 miles per hour, but it is also noisy and pitches to and fro, just like its clunky American cousins.

Chicago’s Union Station is the continent’s third busiest rail terminal. But such shorthand undersells its import. Much of the East-West train traffic in the United States, regardless of whether it is hauling passengers or freight, passes through the Windy City. And on any given day, the diversity of passengers passing through the Great Hall is evidence of the diversity of those who still ride the rails.

An eclectic crowd waits to board: the Miller family of six, Mennonites traveling from upstate New York to find balm at the Radon Health Mines in Boulder, Mont.; Dale Sigg, 71, a retired Army sergeant from outside Pittsburgh, bound to visit a relative in San Francisco; Glenn Snow, 19, a college student going home for Thanksgiving in St. Paul.

For all its spectacular Beaux Arts glory, the station — like rail travel in general — is only recently emerging from more than half-century of neglect. The hall’s magnificent skylights, which were blacked out during the Second World War, were only uncovered only in the 1990s; air conditioning returned to the space only this past summer; and just this year, the iconic marble steps made famous from the baby carriage scene in “The Untouchables” were entirely reconstructed with stone from the same Italian quarry as the originals.

Just off the main concourse, long-empty rooms found to contain art deco murals and tilework are being restored to their Jazz Age glory. “Just like it was, but a little better,” says Jim Hlavaty, an assistant superintendent for Amtrak’s central region, walking through the concourse.

Most American rail riders take regional routes: New York to Albany, Boston to Washington, San Diego to Los Angeles. Those trips make money, but the corridors (especially the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.) are both congested and frustratingly slow. The Obama administration made rail a priority in the 2008 stimulus bill, to the tune of $8 billion earmarked for projects in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Yet the project lost steam when a wave of newly elected Tea Party governors returned much of the money to the feds.

Even though the revenue is in the East, Amtrak continues to run numerous money-losing, long-distance trains — many out of Chicago — to numerous points on the West Coast. It’s their mandate, one reinforced by the power of rural congressional delegations. Rural, long distance routes carry only 15 percent of passengers but eat up more than 40 percent of the budget.

One of the most scenic long hauls is the 2,257-mile run to Portland on the iconic Empire Builder train, which for the past 86 years has carried travelers along much of Lewis and Clark’s trail from the Mississippi to the Pacific Northwest. It runs from Chicago, up the Mississippi River, across the Plains, through Glacier National Park, splitting at Spokane to reach either Portland or Seattle.

It is a route that lays bare the contradictions at the heart of American passenger rail system. The Empire Builder, named for rail baron James Hill, is one of Amtrak’s most beautiful, longest, and least-profitable journeys. And yet, there is bipartisan support for the route, which runs through areas unserved by highways and through the middle of the Bakken fracklands.

While the government lavishes subsidies on the petroleum wells and farm crops that line the rails across the Plains, covering the $227 million in Amtrak operating losses last year (just 7 percent of its operating budget, the lowest loss in Amtrak’s history), raised a political tempest. “There’s no question the United States has a third-world rail system. It’s a monopoly run in a Soviet-style operation,” Florida Congressman and longtime Amtrak critic John Mica railed, just days after a train derailment in Philadelphia killed eight people in May.

Never mind that every lauded, foreign high-speed rail project is heavily subsidized, while Amtrak covers 93 percent of operating costs with ticket sales and other revenue. Moreover, Amtrak is constantly being asked by legislators to make a profit — or at least stop hemorrhaging money — while the same is never asked of airports or highways.

Politics aside, the train is integral to those who live and work on the country’s distant outskirts. The natural gas and oil boom in the Bakken beginning around the year 2000 pushed the Empire Builder’s ridership up nearly 28 percent. Even though the bubble has deflated somewhat with falling oil and natural gas prices, the flames atop drilling rigs are still visible for miles, like glowing like prairie candles as the Empire Builder trundles across the Plains in the early dawn hours. It passes through Minot, N.D., and on to Williston, the center of the state’s oil boom.

There, the roustabouts pile on the train, covered in tattoo ink and sporting steel-toed boots. Ryan Wagner, 28, a native of Missoula, swore off drinking a few years back but doesn’t bat an eye as his co-workers head for the cafe car and buy up $7 nips of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Finlandia Vodka before lunch. “We work hard, dangerous jobs for weeks, months, and the train is our way home,” he says. Tickets from Williston to Whitefish, the nearest stop, run about $85.

A few miles down the tracks, the Empire Builder pulls into the station at Wagner, Mont., where in 1901 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled their last train robbery. They held up the Empire Builder’s predecessor, the Great Northern, and made off with $65,000, which they split among their gang with the tacit acceptance that the golden age of train heists was over. Butch and Sundance fled to Argentina, but the trains kept rolling.

For a while anyway. A few decades later, the country fell in love with the automobile in the wake of World War II. President Eisenhower green-lit the Interstate Highway System, and the slow decline of passenger trains began. In 2001, the average age of an Amtrak passenger train car was 18 years old, but by 2013 it spiked to 29 years old. Today, some of the baggage cars used on long-distance Amtrak routes like the Empire Builder were made during the Eisenhower administration.

Nostalgia is a longing for a past the never was. So too runs our love of trains. We yearn — some of us — for the convenience and glamour of train travel, but there isn’t the will to pay for it. We might loathe the TSA, but we’re willing to put up with it rather than spend days going cross-country by train. As a nation, we think of our rail system as rickety, yet that’s only the passenger system.

Heading into the dining car one night on the Empire Builder, I was serendipitously seated next to Peter Gilbertson, president and CEO of Anacostia Rail Holdings, which operates six railroads in seven states. “This country has the greatest freight rail system ever built, better than any other country in the world,” he told me. “But most people don’t know it.”

That freight system has moved countless trucks off the road and fueled tremendous economic growth. But congestion on the country’s road network is becoming paralytic — American drivers spend 14.5 million hours sitting in their cars. That’s a powerful argument to move as many of those vehicles as possible off the road, by placing their passengers on rail.

Traveling coast-to-coast on a train is one of the most intimate ways to see the country. You can see faces passing by, drivers behind the wheel on roads that parallel the track, or waiting at crossings as the train rolls through. Moreover, America also makes sense seen from the rails. Cities were build around them, after all, and trains glide easily between and through them as opposed to meandering, congested highways. There’s an undeniable romance to train travel even if the reality never quite delivers.

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at alex.kingsbury@globe.com.

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