It was the tail end of winter, and the trees outside the train car window were spindly twigs. Behind the bare branches, the sky was alight. I had boarded the train in Chicago at dusk on Friday, three days before, and had rolled down 926 miles of rail. I’d spent 20 frivolous, indulgent hours in New Orleans. Then, before I could acclimate to the warmth and the green, the music and the food, I was on the next northbound train.
The whole time, Willie Nelson’s take on “City of New Orleans,” an anthem to the Illinois Central, the so-called Main Line of mid-America, was in the back of my mind; its Steve Goodman lyrics were on the tip of my tongue. Now it was 6:30 Monday morning, and I was tucked into a twin berth of a vintage Pullman sleeper — one of two restored antique cars being pulled by Amtrak’s comparably modern train — and we were about to pull into Champaign, Illinois. It had been a dizzying, exhausting weekend, and I should have gone back to sleep. But the horizon had me. Whatever it was up to, I didn’t want to miss.
Pullman Rail Journeys was started in 2012 by Iowa Pacific Holdings, a company that owns or partners with several iconic passenger train lines in places like Macchu Pichu, the Rio Grande Valley in Colorado and Mount Hood in Oregon. Iowa Pacific’s president, Ed Ellis, seems nostalgic for the golden age of rail travel. He’s also bullish about its potential for a comeback. It’s an ambitious effort; each antique car restoration costs $750,000 to $1.2 million. They’re beautiful old things.
“The idea of being in a room with people, where you can have a conversation and listen to music, it’s a completely different kind of travel than sitting three abreast in airline seats,” Ellis said. “There are people who have been there and done that. They’re looking for heritage experiences. They want to understand what it was like for their parents and grandparents.”
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Pullman Rail Journeys is an experiment that will expand this fall, when it begins running between Chicago and New York City. The new trips will travel either Amtrak’s Northern route, the Lake Shore Limited, or the Cardinal route, which dips south through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley and the New River Gorge, stopping in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
I’d paid $1,089 for round-trip tickets from Chicago to New Orleans (travelpullman.com), and two-thirds of my time would be spent in-transit — a total of more than 40 hours on the train. This trip was the journey. And after a long day of fighting the remnants of the Chicago winter, I was finally introduced to sleeper car Baton Rouge, Room G.
In the Metropolitan Lounge, the Pullman conductor Mike Griesmann and porter Gary Lightfoot had introduced themselves to the small group of passengers who would be riding the Pullman service to New Orleans. The car was an immaculately restored antique, its exterior painted a Smokey Bear brown with an orange stripe down the side. Inside, my roomette was pink and blue in the shades of a plastic 1950s dollhouse. It had its own tiny showerless bathroom (shared showers were down the aisle) and a fold-down bed.
Even before the New Orleans-bound train pulled away from the station, nearly all of our group gathered in the lounge car, with its rounded rump and windows on all sides. There was a 20-something couple and another young couple. Then there was George Beavers, a train buff from Mississippi, who joined a buddy on a business trip and insisted they take the train; a retired couple from Virginia and another older couple.
There were also two musicians, Jason McInnes and Judy Higgins, aka the Wren and the Whistler. Brought on board as part of a twice-monthly collaboration between Pullman and Chicago’s great Old Town School of Folk Music, they were both passengers and performers.
For the rest of the evening, and all the next day, the lounge car was the place to be. Stocked with endless free drinks, live music and the excitement that comes with being en route to New Orleans, it felt like a party — a party with impossibly attentive service. In addition to the conductor and the porter, there were a steward, Jeremy Kniola; a waiter, Jack Senese; and the chef, Mark Guzman. Almost as soon as the train left Union Station, Kniola rang a bell and announced dinner.
There was a relish tray of olives, celery and pickled watermelon rinds, the “signature dish of the Illinois Central,” according to Beavers, who had a knowledge of Pullman history to rival Wagenbach’s. He would, for example, explain that the dining car’s rear was not original, but an adaptation circa the 1950s (it was actually 1947) and the fact that Amtrak charges Pullman several thousand dollars per car (an average of $6,000) for the lift, which Pullman later confirmed.
Dinner was a stylized menu of retro dishes: salmon slathered in vermouth caper butter; herb-roasted chicken with sherry-mushroom cream sauce; and a roast beef tenderloin with Madeira demi-glace so good I ordered it two days in a row. Afterward, there were more drinks and looser talk. We migrated back to the end of the car as Jason and Judy prepared to play. “It’s social music,” Jason said, clearly reluctant to interrupt the conversation. “Don’t feel like you have to stop talking.” But as soon as he and Judy got going, with their fiddle and banjo, harmonica and guitar, they had our attention. Crammed into the tight space of a narrow train car, Judy had to watch her bow. “It’s like playing on a submarine,” said Griesmann, the conductor, dropping in as he did now and then.
For me, the music made the trip. As Steve Goodman wrote, it was there even without the arsenal of instruments. Rail travel is rhythmic. It has its own beat, its own sway, its own jerking, erratic thrust. Even its dullest hours are sexier than the lustiest mile-high moments of contemporary air travel. The old-timey music was an anchor, a reason to linger a bit longer in the lounge car. It was an excuse to indulge in that chocolate-mousse third course, to flag the steward for another of those Belgian-style ales, to really sop up the sentimental cocktail of passing scenery.
Looking around the country at stalled rail project after stalled rail project, I don’t quite buy the idea that there will be another big shift in American tastes in transit, that rail travel will ever really make a comeback in this country. But my whirlwind round trip made me very much want to be wrong.