Written By: Lynn “Quadman” Blamires
Not all my adventures have been on an ATV and not all of them are planned. I have a son who lives in Connecticut. That fact led to a driving trip to take a truck to our son and a one way trip across the country on a train back to Utah.
Cross country driving trips are not unique but a three-day train trip could be – in fact, it was. We boarded Amtrak’s Northeast Regional in Hartford to begin our adventure. I noted the elevation at the station to be 47 feet above sea level.
While train travel is unique to this ATV rider, it is a way of life to easterners. Wi-Fi was available on the train which allowed me to track the route. www.AmtrakConnect.com gave me the time to the next station and the speed of our travel which topped out at 125 mph.
From New Haven to New Rochelle we were traveling right along America’s beautiful east coast The Northeast Regional is an active route handling over eight million passengers a year. The trip, which took less than three hours, brought us into New York. In viewing the skyline, we noted the new Freedom Tower.
New York’s Penn Station is the busiest passenger transportation facility in the western hemisphere handling over 600,000 passengers a day during normal conditions. Entirely underground, it sits beneath Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan near the Empire State Building. Fed by 21 tracks and seven tunnels, this station is the center of the Northeast Corridor connecting key cities on the eastern seaboard.
After a little over an hour at Penn Station, we boarded the Pennsylvanian for Pittsburg. This segment of our journey was just over nine hours and took us down through Philadelphia on our way to the Allegheny Mountains.
Passing through Harrisburg and Lewiston, we came to Altoona and the famous Horse Shoe Curve. This three-track curve makes a 180 degree turn to lessen the grade on a climb to the top of the Allegheny Mountains. These sections of the rail line along with the Gallitzin Tunnels were built in 1854 with only picks, shovels, and black powder. It shortened travel time from several days to a matter of hours.
During World War II, these tracks ferried troops and material for the war effort and were under armed guard. The military intelligence arm of Nazi Germany targeted the Curve along with several other key installations for sabotage in a failed project code-named Operation Pastorius.
Topping out at 2,167 feet, we passed through the Allegheny Tunnel near the top of the Allegheny Mountains – I had to smile living as we do in Layton at 4,800 feet in elevation. We soon rolled into Pittsburgh’s Union Station on time at 8:05 p.m.
During a four hour layover, we found a sandwich shop and enjoyed an informal dinner before boarding the Capitol Limited at midnight. Sleeping through the night on our way to Chicago, we were hardly aware of the stops the train made on the way.
Arriving just before 9:00 a.m., we had a five-hour layover in Chicago. Taking time to walk outside around the block that the station occupies above ground, we realized that the station covers over nine city blocks underground.
Chicago’s Union Station is the third most active terminal in the country. On an average weekday, this station will see over 120,000 passengers pass through. The great hall in the terminal is a throw-back to the early 1900s and provided quite a nostalgic experience. Scenes from several motion pictures have been filmed at this historic station.
Boarding the California Zephyr, we continued our ride across America. We were on the last and longest leg of our journey and what an adventure.
Crossing over the Mississippi on the Burlington Bridge, we entered Iowa with its endless soybean and cornfields. It was nightfall as we passed through Omaha, Nebraska. We settled down to be rocked asleep for another night on the rails.
Dawn found us crossing eastern Colorado for a short stop in Denver. We were soon headed for the most picturesque part of the trip.
About 18 miles west of Denver, we reached the Big 10 Curves, which were built to gain elevation before starting the climb to the continental divide. They got their name from the 10-degree curvature of the tracks not by the number of turns as we had expected. The concept of gaining elevation on the rails is better understood when realizing that a long freight train can only handle a two percent grade.
As we entered these curves, we passed a line of old hopper cars filled with dirt and painted a sand color that blended into the countryside. They had been there for a long time because I could see some big trees growing out of them. I later learned they were 24 in number with their wheels welded to a side set of rails on an inside curve back in 1970. Their purpose was to protect the trains from being blown off the tracks by gale-force winds that come off the east side of the Rocky Mountains.
We were entering the Tunnel District – a series of 30 tunnels on the climb to the continental divide when our train came to a stop. A freight train had become disabled in the longest of these – the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel.
The Moffat Tunnel bores under James Peak at an elevation of 9,239 feet to cross the continental divide. It cuts 176 miles off the old and treacherous route over Rollins Pass. Because of the length of the tunnel, when a train enters the portal, a shutter gate closes behind the engine and huge fans begin sucking the dense black diesel smoke that would otherwise build up inside.
We were told that a train disabled in that long black tunnel was a scary proposition. Freight traffic along with our passenger train was stopped while plans were made to assist the broken-down engine.
Our wait was an hour and a half while a rescue train was sent up from the western side to push the defective train out of the tunnel. I knew our wait was nearly over when we saw the train pass us pushed by the rescue train.
As we made our way to the top, I noticed three other freight trains on sidings waiting for us to pass. I learned that while Union Pacific owns the tracks, passenger trains have priority. Six trains had been affected by this break-down.
Coming over the divide, we passed through Winter Park, Colorado, and dropped down to follow the Colorado River. This is a popular rafting and tubing spot in the summer.
In Grand Junction, the train stopped long enough for us to pick up something to eat, and then we entered Utah through Ruby Canyon. While this is fairly inaccessible except by train, I am always looking for a good ATV trail – I think I saw some.
We made our last stop in Provo before arriving in Salt Lake at 1 a.m. exactly an hour and a half late due to our delay in the Colorado Mountains. The trip was amazing. Riding the train felt like actually touching history and seeing our remarkably beautiful country was a treat.
In planning our trip, we chose to travel “coach” instead of a “sleeper” arrangement. While the sleeper fare includes all your meals in the dining car it is three times the price. If you can sleep in a recliner you could sleep on a train in coach class.
Would I take another three-day trip? Yes, but I would break it up with overnight stays along the way or I would save my pennies and pay for the “sleeper” car. We moved about a lot on the train and spent time when we could in the prime space of the Observation Car.
What an amazing trip! To gain an appreciation for this country, it is best done on the ground. So much is missed by flying over it. We traveled through the history of New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, along the Great Lakes to Chicago, and then through the historic west to Salt Lake City. The next time you travel, try taking a train.