‘And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers, ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel.”
- from “City of New Orleans,” by Steve Goodman.
An hour outside of Leavenworth, the Lilac Express, an eight-car, twin-locomotive passenger train, barrels into the black mouth of America’s longest rail tunnel.
I experience a panicky moment of claustrophobia as the air pressure changes. Darkness coats the compartment like ink squirted out of a frightened squid.
The meager light thrown off by the Superliner’s headlights reveals water-slicked concrete walls that blur past us as we make our way under 2,000 feet of mountain.
I can’t think of a more memorable way to commemorate my first-ever train journey than this: sitting in the fireman’s seat, speeding through nearly eight miles of darkness.
Next to me stands Amtrak engineer Russell Bates, 34, the kind of man Steve Goodman wrote his song about.
His father and grandfather were both engineers. Bates loves working on the railroad. He’s a throwback in dark suspenders, brown wing-tip shoes and the antique engineer’s cap his granddad wore.
“I was 7-years-old when my dad took me with him to work,” says Bates, who grew up in Southern California. “That was it for me and here I am!”
Hours earlier - in dawn-lit Seattle’s King Street Station - I boarded the Lilac Express with 500 other groggy passengers. We were bound not for glory, but to reach Spokane in time to watch Saturday night’s big Torchlight Parade.
As the miles clatter and bounce rhythmically under my feet, however, the object of getting from Point A to Point B seems less and less important. If you’re hell-bent on getting somewhere, here’s a few suggestions: take a Greyhound. Hop the next flight. Drive.
Riding the rails is more about destiny, not destination.
On a train you have time to think or just stare out the window at some spectacular scenery you would never get near on a Chevy-choked Interstate.
Rekindling the forgotten romance of train travel is the mission of Seattle-based Alki Tours, organizers of this junket.
Claire Nolan, one of Alki’s owners, believes the world is filled with baby boomers like me who would go train riding if they only knew of its joys.
She’s right. Trains were on the way out when my generation rolled along.
The Lilac Express passenger list is straight out of the World War II era. These people grew up tapping their toes to “Take the A-Train” or singing along with “Sentimental Journey.”
John Sisk never forgot the appeal of the rails.
“I hopped on a freight train in 1933,” says Sisk, a Seattle resident who looks much younger than his 80 years. “I rode all the way to California, came back and then rode one to St. Louis.”
Cruising by train, Sisk believes, could make a comeback with the right handling.
More daylight runs is one answer. Spokane, for example, has beautifully remodeled depot yet the passenger trains don’t run out of here until after 2 a.m.
The Lilac Express is polished example of how to center a rail tour around a special event.
This train has roaming musicians, food stops and a wet bar. Best-selling author John Nance (“Pandora’s Clock”) rode along to give history lessons on the geography outside the windows.
The Phantom Express, another Alki tour, takes 1,200 riders a weekend to see a production of “The Phantom of the Opera” in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I can’t believe I’ve never done this,” says Levitta McIntosh, 32, one of youngest passengers on the Lilac Express. “I love it.”
Sometimes you can have it all.
Defying Amtrak’s reputation for belatedness, the Lilac Express pulls into Spokane at 5 p.m., a full half-hour ahead of schedule.
“Do they use real torches?” asks an old timer, who confesses he doesn’t know much about the Lilac Festival.
“We came for the trains,” explains another traveler a moment later, “not the parade.”
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