Magazine article Sunset

Another Western Train Boom

Magazine article Sunset

Another Western Train Boom

Article excerpt

Another Western train boom Why do we love trains so? Perhaps we're intrigued by the lonely whistles in the night, the clackety-clack of the cars ticking off the miles, the promise of interesting passengers and endlessly changing scenery--some so remote that it's served only by rail.

Maybe it's trains' relative openness. Compared to cars or airplanes, trains are marvels of space and comfort. They have wide aisles, no seat belts, and room for children to play and adults to stretch or stroll.

Train travel is booming. Not only is Amtrak ridership at its highest levels ever but, in addition, several long-distance excursion trains have started up. On the following pages, we focus on the West's 15 longest-distance excursion trains (of the 15, 8 are brand-new, reopened, or restored under new management). We also tell what to expect from Amtrak.

Why new trains now? Some freight railroads are selling off little-used lines; other companies are selling decrepit cars (which are then restored). And demand for train rides is high. It's not too early to make reservations for summer travel. You might include an excursion train trip in your vacation or take Amtrak to get to your destination.

Beyond Amtrak--long-distance trains on track again

You can get a taste of the locomotive experience on dozens of trains offering turns in parks or around museum grounds, but we focus here on 15 distance-traveling trains--and 3 elegant dining trains. These offer real steam or diesel trips, 25 to more than 300 miles long. Most have unreserved seats and offer snacks or meals. Unless otherwise noted, we list round-trip fare. The numbers in our listing correspond to numbers on the map at far right.

Alaska: two lines to choose from

1 Alaska Railroad, Box 107500, Anchorage 99510; (800) 544-0552. State-owned railroad offers twice-daily service between Anchorage and Fairbanks (mid-May to mid-September) and Anchorage and Seward (June 1 to September 1). The 352-mile Fairbanks run (departing 8:30 A.M.) uses diesel locomotives, new coach cars with big windows for better viewing of wildlife and scenery, and new diner and lounge cars. You can overnight at Denali National Park; packages start at $199. The 114-mile Anchorage-Seward route uses self-propelled diesel cars; one round-trip run ($119) includes a cruise of Resurrection Bay.

2 White Pass & Yukon Route, Box 435, Skagway 99840; (800) 343-7373. Built for the Klondike gold rush and closed in 1982, this narrow-gauge route reopened with a full schedule last year; season runs May 21 through September 21. A 1947 Baldwin steam engine pulls the train from the station, then a diesel locomotive takes over for the steep grades and through White Pass. You ride in a real museum of narrow-gauge equipment, including 1890s parlor cars (there's no food or beverage service). Choose from a 40-mile round trip to White Pass ($69); train-bus trip to and from Whitehorse, Yukon ($160); or a trip to the gold rush town at Bennett Lake ($99), which gives access to the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail.

Arizona: new Grand Canyon line

3 Grand Canyon Railway, 518 E. Bill Williams Ave., Williams 86046; (800) 843-8724. New train from Williams (west of Flagstaff) to the Grand Canyon's South Rim begins year-round daily trips March 1. The 128-mile round trip (2-1/2 hours each way) climbs into pinon and ponderosa pine forest, then across high plains and into a small canyon, ending at the log 1910 Grand Canyon depot at 6,800-foot elevation. A 1910 steam engine pulls 1920s Harriman cars that once hauled San Francisco Peninsula commuters; sit in the last car for views of the train as it rounds curves. You can get snacks and entertainment aboard. Departs at 10 A.M. daily (two runs in summer). Fare is $47, $23 ages 12 and under.

California: two trains in north woods

4 California Western Railroad, Box 907, Foot of Laurel St. …

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