I thought that trains were probably the greatest method of transportation ever as a kid. I got to take the train in to work with my dad once and couldn’t believe how lucky he was. The view was amazing to me, even if it was just houses and empty spaces marked by telephone lines zipping by. My dad seemed unimpressed, and even told me he slept through a lot of it. I didn’t understand at the time why he would (then I became an adult myself and had to commute, and I realized that sometimes the lull of the moving train is the perfect tranquilizer).
In my young mind, I figured that sure, airplanes got you there faster, but you could actually see where you were on a train. You didn’t even need to be in the window seat to have a pretty good view of outside, either. They have sleeper cars and dining cars with real tables and real tablecloths. On airplanes you get those uncomfortable seats that barely recline and less and less food.
When I got a little older, I learned that trains weren’t just good for carrying people like my dad to work or families on vacations. I learned about something else that would greatly interest me: mine railways. I’d like to say that I came about this in a real way and not thanks to Snow White, but I’d be (at least partially) lying. I thought it was completely cool that you could ride a ‘train’ in to work, use it to get all your equipment in and out, and use it to haul the fruits of your labor at the end of the day. This seemed like a much better use of a train than taking my dad to his boring office job, or so I thought. And told him, to which he simply laughed.
Transporting freight by train is also a great idea – it’s cheaper than flying it from place to place, especially heavier cargo, it can be loaded with containers directly off ships to take things the rest of the way, and it gets there faster (and you can move lots more of it) than if you shipped it via truck. It’s also more carbon-friendly than both air and truck transport, something I recently learned.
The more I learn about trains, the more I discover how they changed the face of the United States. They brought this great country together, allowing people to travel, to ship goods and livestock, to bring machinery and services to places that would have been nearly impossible before those tracks were laid. I have also found out that this was not a unique experience to the United States and have read about how trains did the same thing throughout countries the world over. I never thought that I’d be a fan of history, but learning about thinks with a focus on trains has really given me a great understanding of the past.
Most of us work in pretty safe environments, or take reasonable safety precautions to remain in one piece as we do our jobs. You probably don’t think much about how the things you buy are made, either, or how things came to be. Railroads are no exception. If you take a train, you probably don’t think about how the track was laid, or what the land shooting past your window looked like before the tracks were put down.
Nowadays, most of the work is safely done using machines designed for the tasks at hand: better and safer equipment to drill through difficult terrain that would be hard to avoid, track-laying machines, tamping machines, and many others. It is a much less labor-intensive and much more cost-efficient process than it used to be. But how did it used to be?
Railroads were so necessary back in the Industrial Revolution that huge populations of immigrants came to the United States to help lay the tracks alongside Civil War veterans. They worked in some pretty terrible conditions as they struggled to lay the tracks much of the United States relied upon for years (think about it: if you had lots of goods you wanted to send from the east coast to the west coast of the US, you either had to put it on stagecoaches and hope it got there eventually, or you had to put it on a ship and send it all the way around South America.)
And why where these conditions so tough? Aside from there being no safety regulations in place or rules for hours and pay, in cases like the Transcontinental Railroad, it was a race. The Union Pacific company started in the east and worked their way west, while Central Pacific started in California and worked its way toward them from the other direction. When you’re getting paid by how much track you lay and you know there’s somebody on the other side doing “your” work, you are going to work people pretty hard to get the job done.
These men were hand-drilling holes (sometimes even lowered into holes to expand them with a rope and bucket) in the through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and then blowing them up with black powder. It took forever, was exhausting, and very very dangerous. When the workers tried to revolt to get at least some more money for the job, their food supplies were taken away. It took the men about 6 years to lay the 1,900 miles worth of track, and with it came new cities, new time zones, and a new way to travel. Estimates vary widely about how many died, with numbers as high as 1,200 on each side. Some deaths were due to accidents or other job-related hazards, but other deaths were due to things like the terrible weather or smallpox outbreaks. Since these numbers were not recorded, anything you read is conjecture.
Every time I see tracks on the ground or ride through a tunnel, I think of these brave people who changed the face of this country. Their efforts are nothing short of amazing.
I want to travel just about anywhere that’s worth going by train. It’s such a wonderful way to see different places – much better than flying. It’s a better view, for one thing, it’s cheaper and more comfortable, and then there’s my favorite part: if you see somewhere that looks interesting along the way, you can get off the train and hang out for bit. It’s better than driving, too, there’s no traffic, you don’t have to worry about tolls, accidents, or wear and tear on your car. Plus you can sleep on long train trips – while you’re moving!
One of the trips I want to take is the Bennett Scenic Journey. It’s a relatively short, but scenic and historical, trek from Skagway, AK to Carcross in the Yukon from the White Pass & Yukon Route. It’s the same route that people traveled back in 1898, through what looks like some absolutely beautiful scenery. You get to go past waterfalls and glaciers, through tunnels and over trestles. The lakes and mountains I see in the pictures look downright amazing. One of the tours is even on a steam engine! How amazing is that?
On the other side of the country, I would love to take a special someone on the Cape Cod Central Railroad. They have a Cape Cod Dinner Train, a three-hour train ride with a romantic theme. They play romantic music, serve a five-course meal by candlelight, and get to ride past beautiful seaside communities. There is even a car that has a dome on top, providing the perfect view of everything you pass by.
There are plenty of train rides around Europe that would be great, but actually I would like to go a little farther east and ride the Trans-Siberian Express. It’s the longest railway in the world, and I’d like to ride the line that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. While you can’t actually get off the train and stay anywhere (the tickets are pretty specific), you can get off the train at scheduled breaks and explore the train stations for about a half hour every time it stops. You can buy food or other items from vendors who sell items at the train stops, too.
But – if distance and finances weren’t an issue – I would love to ride the Great Southern Rail’s The Ghan. These rides are several days long (the one I’d like to ride, the Darwin to Adelaide route, takes four days). There are activities and excursions planned throughout the ride, from music performances in the Australian Outback to an opal mine and Kangaroo Island. It’s sort of like a cruise, but by train. Sounds awesome to me!
You couldn’t do these trips through any other means of transportation, and I can’t wait to start crossing them off my bucket list. What about you, what is on your list of must-ride trips?