Sunday, April 23, 2006

Train 5: Welcome on board

When in need of accurate info on the trains I'm riding on, I turn to my handy USA by Rail handbook by John Pitt. Here's what Mr. Pitt has to say about the type of train I'm riding on:

Manufactured by the Pullman-Standard Company for Amtrak between 1979 and 1981, these spacious, twin-decked coaches operate on all long-distance routes west of the Mississippi as well as on some in the east. Designed to be 'the finest trains anywhere in the world', the have air-cushioned suspension and were built with extra sound-absorbing materials. Each Superliner car measures 85ft (26m) long and 16ft (5m) high, weighs 75 US tons (68 tonnes) and has large windows with excellent views, especially from the upper level. The reclining seats, about equivalent to flying First Class, provide leg and foot restsm folding trays and personal reading lights ... Dining cars cater for up to 72 people and are on the upper level above the kitchen. Sightseer lounge cars and most kinds of sleeping accommodation are also usually available. Rest-rooms (toilets) are mostly on the lower level, with at least one accessible to disabled passengers...

So in that sense, contrary to what I've previously said about Amtrak trains, these vehicles are actually pretty good for disabled passengers. Access is level with platforms that are not raised above the tracks, and the lower level of seating is easy to reach for those with limited mobility.

A little meander around the train also gives me a chance to peer inside a sleeper car - tiny upper level 'roomettes' are available for one or two passengers, are slightly wider than the width of the two seats. These convert into two bunks, although in doing so reduce the amount of room substantially. Larger bedrooms are also available on the upper level. Downstairs is the Superliner's winning trick - a family bedroom with room for five that stretches the width of the car's lower level.

The Sightseer lounge is the most famous part of a Superliner train. The top deck is opened up with extra deep windows, and small curved roof lights that flood the car with natural light, and a satisfying view of the tops of trees as we thunder through forests and along cuttings. Leatherette swivel seats and combined foot rests and pockets under the windows make for a very comfortable viewing car, and I happily spend an hour or two here as we head towards the Mississippi River, and the boundary between the states of Illinois and Iowa. My only complaint is the colour scheme of these largely unrefurbished cars. Brown may have been a hip and trendy colour in 1981, but that doesn't justify keeping so much of it in the lounger car. If you go down the narrow steps in the middle of the car, you'll find a small cafe with tables for snacks and drinks... good for postcard writing and meeting fellow coach class passengers.

In addition to two Amtrak box cars towed along at the back of the train, I count (from back to front of the train) three coach cars, a sightseer lounge, a restaurant, two sleepers and a crew sleeper. At the front are two locomotives. From time to time the train turns on a curve, and from my window I can see the shining locomotives at the far end of the train hauling us along at speeds of up to ninety miles an hour.

At Galesburg, Illinois, I step outside into the sultry afternoon heat, and take a photograph or two. There is no longer any smoking accomodation on board this train, and it's soon easy to spot the regular crowd of addicts who beg the conductors to reveal when the next smoking stop will be. At each stop where we have a few minutes to let the train rest and make satisfying creaking sounds as hot metal cools, a little smokey crowd gathers close to the doors. I take a deep breath of rural Illinois air, and hop back on board, and we rumble onwards.


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