By Noel T. Braymer
In 1978 I was in my mid-twenties, single, the rent for my apartment in Los Angeles was $160 a month, and my car was paid for thanks to my parents. About the last thing on my mind were trains.
Other than amusement park rides the only train ride I had been on was a trip to the San Diego Zoo when I was about five. My Dad wanted his kids to ride a train before they all went away. I was interested in bicycling. I was concerned about clean air and the future supply of oil. After all there had been the Arab-Oil Embargo only four years before and the Iranian Revolution was brewing in 1978. I rode my bike most days to work and for pleasure on the weekends. I figure I rode my bike about 200 miles a week. In September I was planning a bike ride from Los Angeles to San Diego with a co-worker. The problem we had was getting back to Los Angeles with our bikes since we didn’t want to ride them back home. That is when I found out that Amtrak allowed bikes on their trains in their baggage cars: problem solved.
I was looking forward to a nearly empty train on my ride home from all the talk about Amtrak getting so much tax money to run empty trains across America. When we got on the San Diegan train it was jammed! The only seats available when we got on were in the smoking car. Later during the trip the train had standees. Despite the smoke and crowding I was impressed with the speed of the train and with the new, modern equipment. It reminded me of the interior of an airplane. Amfleet at this time was only about 2 years old. When I got to Los Angeles I was even more impressed with the long double-deck train across the platform. I was wondering what it would be like to ride that train.
I usually took my vacations in winter. It was easier to get off work, places were less crowded and it was cheaper. That winter I wanted to travel back east, but I didn’t want to drive during winter. I wanted to make several stops, which is expensive by air. Amtrak at that time had a rail pass program which you could make 3 stops anywhere in the United States for about $300. It was cheaper than flying, sounded better than riding the bus and faster and safer than driving if I rode the train while I slept. February of 1979 found me boarding that same train I admired in September, the Southwest Limited.
What I remember most about the eastbound leg was in New Mexico they had to shut down the kitchen. I remember we were told that we would have a free meal after we left Raton, New Mexico. The dinner car was full as we entered Raton and we waited to see what we would eat. As we left Raton everyone was given a box dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken. I remember the train was running late and I was worried that I might not make my connections in Chicago. But I was able to make my connections to the Broadway Limited. The Southwest Limited had a good load on the train and the Broadway as I remembered it was nearly full. I remember many people were trying to buy alcohol before the train entered Ohio. Seems by law the lounge car couldn’t sell alcohol in Ohio.
Very early the next morning I got off at my first stop, Pittsburgh. The train station was large, looked decrepit and mostly deserted. I was headed to Meadville, Pennsylvania in Crawford County. Crawford County was the ancestral home for my branch of the Braymer family and I was headed there to do some genealogical research. Most people have never heard of Crawford County, but they have heard of a town there: Titusville. Yes Crawford County is the home of the American Oil Industry. I was lucky that the bus station in Pittsburgh was across the street from the train station. I am the type of person who at 2 AM will wait for a traffic light before crossing the street. When the light turned green and I started walking some idiot ran the red light and nearly ran into me with his car. I let the driver know what I thought of him. He turned around, got out of his car and started arguing with me about offending him.
I took the bus to Meadville and got back on the bus when I left to go to nearby Eire to catch the Lake Shore Limited. This time the bus station and train station were at least a mile apart. So I walked with my bags in winter in the middle of the night to the train station. The Eire Station was a classic example of the wreck of the PennCentral. The building was dark and the paint was peeling and had massive blisters. My next stop was New York City. I remember ordering apple pie a la mode and got a slice of pie with a rock hard rectangular brick of ice cream on top. We got into Grand Central Terminal hours late in the middle of the evening rush hour. I rode the subway the next day as I did my tourist sightseeing. This was when the New York Subway was at near bottom. Every inch of the cars and stations had graffiti, the ride was often rough and the lights in the trains flicked constantly and went off for long periods of time.
My next and last stop was Washington D.C. Again I was playing tourist. When it was time to go I got on the National Limited. This time the equipment was Amfleet. The seats could have been more comfortable, but I was glad the heating worked. There was a long wait in Philadelphia. I didn’t know at the time they were changing locomotives. The National Limited had the lightest load of the trains I rode, but it was far from empty. What I remember most was getting off the train in Kansas City to go into the station. It seemed like a very long walk and it was very cold. The Southwest Limited was running late and it was a long boring wait. I remember the heating kept going out on the Southwest Limited on this trip. I think the steam generators kept running out of water and the heat returned after the cars were watered at stations. I remember sharing a blanket and a pair of seats with a young woman to stay warm. What I remember most after going down the Cajon Pass was just how green California was compared with the rest of the country in winter.
I had seen both the worst and the best train travel had to offer. Despite the many problems I could see that people were riding the trains, that train travel had a lot of potential but that money would be needed to get the service where it should be. I was confused and surprised weeks later when I heard of plans to get rid of many of the long distance trains Amtrak had. By this time we were in our second oil crisis of the decade after the hostage taking in Iran. I latter read an op-ed article by a member of a group called Citizens for Rail California which was opposing the elimination of the Amtrak trains. I was so excited that I called the paper for the phone number of the author of the op-ed and called him. He encouraged me to go to Los Angles Union Station in late May for the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the station. CRC would have a booth and I could get more information. CRC was about 3 years old when I joined. Citizens for Rail California still exists, but now does business as RailPAC. I had no idea 30 years ago what would happen because of a bike ride to San Diego.