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PAINTER: My fascination with trains has a long history

• Aug 14, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Are you fascinated with trains?

I know I am. And I am sure that many of you are, as well.

My fascination began when I was very young. My grandparents lived along railroad tracks in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and I would sit on their back porch waving at passengers as their trains roared by the house. I sometimes imagined myself on one of those trains headed for an exciting destination.

I remember my family traveling by train when we lived in South America. I still remember eating a steak dinner in a fancy dining car.

After we moved back to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, my mother bought my brother and me Lionel trains for Christmas. He got a freight train and I got a passenger train. I treasured that model train, letting my imagination run wild as it circled our Christmas tree.

Later in life, I would meet another person even more fascinated with trains. Dan Bus, editor of the Del Rio (Texas) News-Herald, where I was a reporter, loved watching Amtrak’s Sunset Limited roll through Del Rio from California headed for New Orleans. The train would make a return trip through Del Rio.

After we finished producing Sunday’s newspaper, Dan and I would drive to the train station and watch as the Sunset Limited as it blasted its horn and made its way toward New Orleans. Just like when I was kid, we would wave at the passengers. I again imagined what it would be like traveling on a train.

I finally got my wish when my wife, Marilyn, and I decided to take Amtrak for a visit to Michigan. We caught the train in Austin, Texas, bound for Chicago. From there, we took another train to Detroit.

I wish I could say the trip was everything I had envisioned a train ride would be for me.

Unfortunately, the rails were not in great condition and the ride was bumpy, and at times swayed, making it difficult to sleep. It was especially difficult for Marilyn, who held our son, Lee, who was an infant at the time.

Years later, Marilyn traveled by train with our three children — Lee, Casey and Kara — to Flagstaff, Arizona, to visit her brother. The highlight of that trip was when they had to take a bus from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, New Mexico, because their train derailed before arriving in Flagstaff.

Marilyn and I did have more pleasant train trips when we traveled from Holland to Chicago several times.

While train travel has taken a back seat to airplane travel, there are some who would like to see rail service be improved.

A few years ago, the Detroit Free Press printed a story about plans to improve rails from Detroit to Chicago so that trains could average 110 mph. The newspaper said the high-speed train plan “would cut the five-hour, 38-minute trip by almost two hours.” Work has already begun on improving the tracks.

Through the years, Amtrak, which is subsidized by the federal government, has been the target of budget cuts.

However, as airlines continue to struggle with a number of issues, it would be nice to see train travel make a comeback.

We all know about the high-speed trains in Europe, China and Japan. Could the United States join those countries? According to CNN, it is unlikely. In an opinion article, CNN says the United States “is not exactly an ideal market for high-speed trains.” CNN said the U.S. is geographically vast, as cities are far apart enough that air travel provides significant savings.

While we may never be able to duplicate train travel in other countries, it would be nice to see improvements be made so that train travel can be more enjoyable.

Someday, I hope Marilyn and I can take a long-distance train trip so that we can see some of the beautiful scenery of the United States. I’ll always be fascinated with trains.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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