There are not many places in the world where you can take a 50-hour train ride, and America does not immediately spring to mind as one of them.
It is, though, still possible to travel, as I did, around the whole of the US by train in a couple of weeks and the best of my journeys was the 1,995-mile trip aboard the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Not because it was necessarily the most scenic, but because it’s a way of grasping the vastness of the country and getting a feel for the frontier spirit.
Los Angeles may be one of the least train-orientated cities in the world but it does have the fabulous Thirties Union Station.
I found my carriage and was once again awed by the height of the double-decked Superliner carriages – a testimony to the adage that in America everything is big. Double-decker trains exist here owing to the small number of tunnels and overhead bridges. The windows in the carriages are huge, the chairs comfortable and the lighting perfect.
I was met by the attendant, Peggy, who told me she has done the job for 11 years and loves it now as much as she did on the first day. The service on these trains varies but this one was staffed, I was told, by old-timers, who were good at getting things done. They were, though, sticklers for the rules.
The conductor went through the whole gamut and revelled in the idea of expelling miscreants – anyone smoking on the train would be removed at the next stop and handed over to law-enforcement agencies, I was told, and ‘anyone drinking their own alcohol is committing a federal offence and would be asked to join the smokers at the next station’.
Then there were warnings about smokers getting left behind at ‘station stops’. Of which, there were very few, slightly more than 20 over the space of two days. Just before the first stop beyond the LA suburbs, at Palm Springs, the desert views began, with a row of stark hills, bare except for tracks, presumably for dune buggies or 4x4s, running over their summits.
We were now at last out in the desert and the hills had almost the same red glow as those in Tuscany when the sun sets on them, but the light was just that bit sharper and colder.
Rather surprisingly, a huge lake appeared, and the announcer told us this was the Salton Sea, measuring a massive 40 by 20 miles. ‘They built up a big tourist trade in the Fifties with boating,’ he went on, ‘but they then found there was a lot of pollution coming in from the Mexico side in a newly discovered river and that killed the business.’
Then in the dark, we broke down, and the lights went off. The conductor said a hose has come undone and that the power had to be switched off while the problem was examined.
They had to send for an engineer, who arrived quickly with a huge lamp that eerily lit up the scene and solved the problem.
After a night’s sleep, we spent the next 24 hours and more going through Texas. For all the daylight hours, we were in the Western Texas desert, which meant brush and hills. It’s cowboy country and you almost expected to be held up. But were no people, just dirt roads and the occasional empty stretch of tarmac. At times we sidled up next to the Rio Grande river which, belying its name, is rather small and unassuming.
After we left El Paso at breakfast time, there were just three short stops over the next 13 hours. One, called Alpine, in the middle of the flat brush desert, was clearly named by some practical joker.
There was, though, excitement. At Del Rio, the smokers trooped out and one of them, a hippy archetype with long, straggly hair and tattoos, was daft enough to light up a joint.
Border guards accompanied by dogs, cute perhaps but with acute noses too, soon gathered round. ‘Have you got anything in the luggage car?’ the trooper asked. Sadly, he did – a holdall full of dope. That was his last train ride for a while.
There was more excitement and evictions at San Antonio, which we reached at 9.30pm and where we were scheduled for a two-hour stop. It gave us time for a drink in a bar. A couple of girls on the train, heading for a music festival, had drunk too much, and were too out of it to stop singing on the way back to the train, even after a conductor warned them to stop. The train was delayed for the police to be called. Off they went, still intermittently singing and swearing, into the cooler.
The train departed after midnight but, amazingly, we were still in Texas for breakfast, until at last we crossed the Sabine river. The landscape, though, had changed, with swamps and forests, interspersed by rivers.
I, too, almost became another lost passenger at Lafayette, Louisiana, where I wanted to use the more comfortable ‘rest room’ than the tiny ones on the train. I suddenly heard the ‘all on board’ announcement and hared out and found the train doors locked, but Peggy had noticed my absence and left her door open.
The train meandered around the outskirts of New Orleans, but still arrived an hour early. The last part of the journey, through the Louisiana swamps, was the most interesting, and the observation car was full of people taking photographs.
These journeys are epic, showing the full scale of this vast nation. As a way of seeing America without the hassle of cars and interstate highways, the train cannot be bettered.