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Entries in trains (8)

Sunday
May132012

Canada as seen from the train

I've crisscrossed the US by train, cumulatively speaking, about five times on all of the east-west routes that Amtrak has offered since 2003 (except for the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans: Lake Shore Limited, Three Rivers, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited). In fact, those journeys are often what I point to as what I find pleasurable in long distance train travel; the experience of seeing the country transform before your eyes at ground level. My experience on the Canadian was no different, which is to say that while it was what I expected, that meant that it was a thrilling experience.

Since I started heading east from Vancouver, the trip started off with a bang: The Canadian Rockies. I departed Vanouver's Pacific Central station at 8:30 PM PDT and when I awoke in the morning, the hills were already big and were getting bigger. At that point, the mountains were looming in the distance, and the immediate landscape was still grass-covered and lush with vegetation. It was a high desert landscape--very similar to what one sees on the California Zephyr just east of Ogden, UT when it detours through Wyoming, for the readers who can relate. By lunch, however, the land becomes much more aggressive: jagged sedimentary protrusions from the earth whose layers were once level with the ground are thrust into the sky at 45-70 degree angles. Vegetation begins to cling to rock faces like snow on the side of a car window; every so often you spot the aftermath of a rockslide where the green has been wiped away in consummate V's, exposing the dark gray rock underneath.

In the afternoon the protrusions become mountains, and the mountains become snow-capped monoliths, standing sentry at the gates to Jasper National Park. The most recognizable mountain on the route is probably Mount Robson, aka "The Monarch of the Canadian Rockies, " or "The Dome." Out here, the angles of landscape surrounding you border on the ridiculous: jagged corners at every turn, impossible slopes of snow around every bend. It's mid-May, but winter is still very much in charge up here; it's a good thing that I'm relaxing in a climate-controlled dome car on the train.

Later that afternoon, the trains squeals to a 1-hour stop in Jasper, Alberta where the crew will restock the train with water and supplies, and where the train will receive a wash-down and window cleaning (wouldn't you love to see that on Amtrak?). This small town is a junction on the railroad where one can also catch a 2-day VIA Rail train to Prince Rupert, BC by way of Prince George, BC (where an overnight hotel stay is required on your own dime). Jasper itself is a bustling, small town that hearkens back to towns of the old west: small streets lined with merchants, a post office, police station, pharmacy, and local townspeople eager to welcome you. Only, the merchants are mostly gift stores and boutiques, and most of the townspeople are tourists themselves; Jasper has found life in the late 20th and 21st centuries to center around world class skiing, hiking, and outdoor sports, and even a small bungalow can set you back $400,000-$500,000.

Once the train pulls out of Jasper, the mountains put on one last show, towering above the dome cars, snow blowing from the ragged peaks in concentric, flowing waves of white. And no sooner do you pass through the final tunnel on the border of Jasper National Park than does the landscape begin to immediately relax back, briefly, into rolling hills, and then flatness. FLAT. I sat there on Wednesday night in the glass-roofed sightseeing car looking miles into the distance across farmland. I'd turn around to look from where we came just 20 minutes prior and there they were: Mount Robson and her gang, looming across the skyline like titans out of Homer. Then I'd turn back around to face our direction of travel and look at NOTHING. Vast nothing. It was an experience of immediate visual extremes that I have yet to discover on American rails--perhaps it's out there, but it's not on a regular or semi-regular Amtrak route today.

The sun set on Wednesday night as the train traced the northern shore of Wabanum Lake and eased its way into Edmonton. The Rockies were behind us, and I feared the best part of the ride went with them. I was wrong.

Thursday was a wash--literally. The rain poured all day as we carved the landscape from Edmonton, through Saskatoon, to Winnipeg. You've heard of Canadian Prairies? This is where they are. FLAT. FARMS. COWS. GOATS. SHEEP. BISON. FLAT. This sort of landscape was immediately familiar to me: I'd seen this before on the Empire Builder through Montana and North Dakota, and when you look at a map, it's not hard to see why the landscape was similar: it's less than 3 hours' drive from the Empire Builder's route at certain spots. Wide swaths of prairie occasionally peppered with barren badlands was the story of the day. Big Sky Country as far as the eye can see. When you sit immersed in it for hours, there comes a point where you are hit with a silent shock of breathtaking beauty.

Friday was the last full day to spend on the train and I figured that we had pretty much seen it all. After all, we had soared from the towering Rockies and landed on the endless tracts of prairie. That pretty much covered the spectrum, right? When I woke up on Friday morning and looked out of the window, I got a hint of what the day would bring, but it didn't immediately register. Outside of the window was a small lake--or a big pond, depending on your perspective. Then we hit another lake surrounded by some trees. And then another.

By the time I had finished my banana-buttered pancakes, I knew what I had overlooked: Woods. Dark, dense wood. Forest so deep and towering that you'd expect Mr. Tumnus to bound out with a package under one arm. Friday was a private tour of some of the densest forest, spotted with countless (and I mean COUNTLESS) numbers of crystal clear, blue-as-the-sky lakes that I've ever seen. Minnesota may call itself the "Land of a Thousand Lakes," but Northern Ontario has the market on the "Land of a Million Lakes" motto. If you look at the territory on a map you'll see pits everywhere, like acne on some poor awkward teenager's face. But filling in the gaps between those lakes on the map, what you don't see is dense forest. At the beginning of the day it was all evergreen. Douglas Fir. Spruce. Hemlock. By the end of the day it was birch. The trees and underbrush were so dense you couldn't walk through straight on if you tried. You'd need a machete to carve a path out unless you found a deer or bear path.

And that brings us to the wildlife. One of the great things about the crew on the Canadian is that the engineers will keep an eye out for wildlife (deer, bald eagles, black bears, grizzlies) and will radio back to the onboard crew, who will in turn alert the passengers over the intercom. If you were looking at the train from the outside when one of those announcements was made, it would not surprise me to see the entire train lurch to one side as the people flocked to the windows, exclaiming, "did you see it! Right there! He was looking right at you!" For my part, I only caught two really good sightings: a bald eagle soaring majestically among the Rockies, and a shy black bear, shallow into the woods of Ontario, looking back at us with her brown snout over her shoulder with an unmistakable inner monologue of "are they gone yet?"

And that's how I spent most of my time aboard The Canadian while not eating delicacies in the dining car. I sat either in a dome or in the rear bullet-shaped observation car sipping martinis and gin & tonics, gazing eye to eye with a black bear, a bald eagle, and the elusive Mr. Tumnus somewhere in that wood.

Tuesday
Jun012010

Day 5: The Misconnect

Part of me wants to say that the rest of the Coast Starlight trip was overshadowed by the trespasser incident on Saturday, out of respect for the two individuals on the tracks. But the fact is, to be honest, while those of us who were on the train didn't forget what had happened, my enjoyment of the trip wasn't diminished. The scenery as we headed north was absolutely spectacular. The weather was perfect, pelicans raced alongside us as we hugged the coast, families waved at us from the beaches, and the scent of fresh sea air wafted throughout the train.

My 2004 shot of Mount Shasta that I've been unable to top since.I went to bed just after we left Emeryville, with the San Francisco skyline receding in the distance. When I woke up, we were already in Shasta National Forest with the towering, volcanic Mount Shasta looming overhead. I first saw Mount Shasta in May of 2004 on a 11 hour late southbound Coast Starlight. We passed Shasta at about 9 AM that day, and the cafe car attendant was nice enough to open the dutch door windows to briefly allow us to take some pictures of the mountain by sticking our cameras out. That was the day I took the best picture I've ever taken (and will probably ever take). It was taken on a simple digital camera without multiple-shot capability. I did it completely blind without looking at the viewfinder, and ended up with a spectacular photograph that Amtrak eventually ended up licensing from me (you may see it from time to time in promo materials).

The best I could muster on this trip before my camera died.This was the first time I was seeing Shasta again in daylight, and I rushed to the sightseeing car to see if I could replicate my earlier photo or possibly do even better. Just as we came to the base of the mountain, my camera batteries died. I couldn't believe it. By the time I could get back to my room to reload batteries, we had passed the mountain. Guess I'll have to come out and try again.

We continued pushing north through the Cascade mountains and the scenery rivaled what we had seen the day before along the southern California Pacific coast. If you've ever traveling the California Zephyr across Donner Pass, that's very much what the scenery on the Starlight looks like as it makes its way through southern Oregon. Huge, towering pine trees—one stacked on top of another up an unimaginably steep mountainside. Valleys and chasms that are so deep and thick with pine that you can't see the bottom. It's breathtaking.

 

As we neared Klamath Falls, I was getting a little nervous about our delay. We had still not recovered from the delay we took after the trespasser incident the day before; we were running about 90 minutes behind schedule. In theory, I had just about an hour's cushion to connect with the Empire Builder in Portland. Unless Amtrak was going to hold the Empire Builder for those of us who were connecting, I had some cause for concern about being able to ride to Portland on the Starlight and still be able to make that connection.

Now, in years past, the northbound Coast Starlight didn't connect with the eastbound Empire Builder in Portland because of habitual delay problems. Back then, Amtrak would bus passengers making that connection from Klamath Falls, Oregon to Pasco, Washington. The bus connection took most of the day, and while scenic, it wasn't the best arrangement. The Starlight has been running much better in recent years, so Amtrak started supporting the train-to-train connection in Portland a few years ago. My worry was that we would get to Klamath Falls, and because of our delay, I'd be bussed from Klamath Falls to Pasco. A full day on a bus wasn't what I was hoping for. 

Detraining in EugeneSo when we left Klamath Falls with nary a mention about a bus connection, I breathed a sigh of relief. We kept losing time, however, and by the time we got to Chemult, Oregon, we weren't running any better on time. At some point between Chemult and Eugene, Oregon, the other shoe dropped. The conductor came on the intercom and announced that any passenger connecting to the Empire Builder should detrain in Eugene and board a bus to Portland. The bus would make better time than the train, and would consequently make the connection. It wasn't what I was hoping for. To be honest, I would have rather Amtrak put me up in Seattle and put me on the next day's Empire Builder rather than take a bus. I asked the station manager in Eugene if that was a possibility, got a flat-out, "No," and reluctantly boarded the motor coach.

Inside the Eugene train stationThe motor coach ride is about what you'd expect. It took two hours, and I slept the whole way. I was hoping for some time to explore Portland on this trip, but it wasn't to be. The bus dropped us off in front of the station, I grabbed my bags, walked through the station and out to the train. I made the connection, though, so I shouldn't complain, but man, I would have loved two more hours in the Parlor Car.

Monday
May312010

Day 3: The Southwest Chief

When I awoke on Friday morning, we were speeding through western Kansas on our way to Los Angeles. The trip on the Southwest Chief (which used to be known as the Super Chief before Amtrak took the service over) was significant to me for a couple of reasons:

  1. I've been on the Chief twice: once from Garden City, KS to Chicago and once from Flagstaff to Los Angeles. I've been trying for years to fill the gap in between Garden City and Flagstaff, and this was my chance.
  2. The Southwest Chief is Amtrak's fastest Long Distance passenger train that runs entirely outside of the Northeast Corridor. It runs on an old Santa Fe (now BNSF) line that is still equipped with a 1930's safety mechanism that meets the Federal Railroad Administration requirements for running faster than 79 MPH (the speed limit for all other long distance trains outside of the NEC); its top speed for portions of its run through Kansas and Arizona is 90 MPH. I always found it ironic that today's fastest passenger train outside of the NEC was able to claim that title because of 1930's technology, and I've always wanted to ride that stretch of track as a result.

Downtown Raton, NMI wasn't sure of what to exactly expect in terms of scenery on the trip; I've spent time in Kansas and western Oklahoma, so I knew that terrain rather well. West of that territory, however, I was completely fresh.
The scenery didn't disappoint. Much of the trip to Colorado and New Mexico was pure mountain scenery; it reminded me of the California Zephyr's run through Utah and western Colorado. Vast, arid acres, spotted with huge boulders perched precariously atop orange-brown cliffsides.
I found the towns just as interesting. Raton, NM is a great example. We had a long stop there where the passengers were allowed to step off of the train for a breath of fresh air. When my feet hit the bleached red brick platform, I instantly felt like I could have been stepping back into the late 19th century. In front of me was a fantastically preserved stucco station, a charming 19th An old Atcheson, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad Mailboxcentury main street, and as I looked to my right, there stood an Railroad Mailbox for the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (yes, Johnny Mercer was singing about an actual railroad). 
As we worked our way west to Albuquerque (a town I've always wanted to visit, partially so I can say that I took a left turn at Albuquerque in a Bugs Bunny voice) our train was speeding along at a good clip; I clocked us pushing 89 MPH for a few long stretches. Suddenly, all of the lights went out and a few minutes later we eased to a stop; through my scanner I heard the engineer come on the radio and tell the engineer that the second of our two diesel engines has shut down and he was going to walk back and see what was up. A few minutes later, the report came in: the second engine was dead in the water. A copper tubing had broken and the liquid coolant for the engine had emptied onto the tracks; the engine had overheated as a result and couldn't be restarted for any significant period of time. The decision was made to continue ahead to Albuquerque with the one good engine providing traction (pulling power) and lights/air conditioning to the entire train with the second dead engine in tow. The plan was that we would add a third engine to our train that was stored in Albuquerque for problems like this, and we'd be on our way. The dead second engine would be fixed in Los Angeles.
Our 89 MPH track speed was suddenly reduced to a leisurely 65 MPH or so as we worked our way toward Albuquerque. A number of times the BNSF dispatcher came on the radio to check on our progress and asked if we'd be able to make it into Albuquerque. I remember our engineer responding, "yeah, we'll be on our hands and knees, but we'll make it."

We pulled into Albuquerque almost an hour late. The third engine was powered up and waiting for us and the crew immediately took to unhooking our two engines and added the (new) third engine next to the baggage car. While the crew worked, I took the chance to take in as much of Albuquerque as I could. Had we been on time, I would have had an hour to walk into town to see the sights, but the crew asked us to keep close to the platform because of our delay.

Vendors selling there wares at AlbuquerqueI had heard that Albuquerque was a stop similar to Grand Junction, CO (on the California Zephyr's route) in that local vendors are on the platform selling a variety of wares during the layover. In Grand Junction, there's an actual store that opens up just for the train to sell fresh fruit, ice cream, and local snacks. There wasn't anything that elaborate in Albuquerque, but there were a number of Native American vendors with tables set up on the platform selling local handmade jewelry.
The Albuquerque Station is also new (though it's made to look old), and plays host to both Amtrak and Greyhound. Albuquerque is also a main stop on the relatively new New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter service between Santa Fe and Belen, NM, and much of the rolling stock was being stored for the weekend in the Albuquerque yard.
Moving right along... at 88 MPH.Not long after dinner we eased into Flagstaff, one of those towns everyone knows of but not enough people visit. I spent some time in Flagstaff a few years ago as part of a Grand Canyon trip and can't speak highly enough of the town. It's a vibrant town, full of nightlife in a beautiful area of the country. You can even hop off the train and rent a car from a Hertz desk within the train station, presumably to spend a few days in the Grand Canyon, which is nearby. As we left Flagstaff I drifted off to sleep listening to the train horn in the distance. 
When I woke up on Saturday morning, the scenery outside my window had changed yet again, from desert to the condos and palm trees of southern California. We had made up most of our delay through the night and were looking at an on-time arrival into Los Angeles' Union Station. The Southwest Chief is one of those trains that does what it does very well. It's fast, it's extremely efficient and popular, and the scenery is easy on the eyes. The best part of the Chief, I think, though, are the towns it goes through. These are small to midsize communities that have a lot of history and a lot of heart--towns like Raton and Flagstaff. The best part of the trip on the Chief, for me, was not riding through the towns, but stepping off and getting a taste of their atmosphere.

 

Friday
May282010

Day 2: Kansas City

Union Station's Main Lobby in Kansas CityI didn't really know what to expect in visiting Kansas City. Of all of the layover cities on this trip (St. Louis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Portland, OR), Kansas City is the only one in which I have no prior experience. Oh, sure, I've heard fantastic things about the town (culture, theatrical venues, architecture, BBQ, etc), but the closest I've ever come to Kansas City was a Baltimore Orioles vs Kansas City Royals game back in the early 1990s. Baltimore won in a shutout.

The only thing I knew for certain was that I'd be spending 11 hours in Kansas City, and unless I wanted to park myself on a bench in the station for that long, I'd better go exploring. So I did.

I did some research first, however. I frequent an Amtrak riders discussion forum called Amtrak Unlimited, which is an incredible resource for trip preparation. Odds are if you have a question about Amtrak or where Amtrak goes—no matter the obscurity—someone will have an answer posted for you within hours, if not MINUTES. So I turned to the forum and asked if anyone could provide information on what to do on a Kansas City layover. The response was almost overwhelming. Here's a brief, truncated list of some of the ideas people came up with:

  • Visit the Union Station museums (Science Museum and a Railroad Museum)
  • Jazz Hall of Fame
  • Negro League Baseball Museum
  • eat at Arthur Bryants
  • walk around Crown Center (mall connected to the train station)
  • eat at the Harvey House in Union Station
  • eat at Pierpont's Steak House in Union Station
  • eat at Jack Stack Barbecue in the old freight house near Union Station
  • Go on a Segway tour from Union Station
  • Visit the WWI museum and Liberty Memorial
  • Eat at Oklahoma Joe's BBQ
  • Visit Kansas City Power and Light District

 Union Station's Waiting Room at NightBy the time my River Runner train pulled into Kansas City's Union Station, my problem was not figuring out what to do with my day, it was figuring out what to CUT from the list.

Before I could even begin laying out my itinerary, however, I was blindsided and distracted for a good hour by something expected, yet unexpected: the architecture and history of Union Station in Kansas City. 

 In my travels around  the country, I've visited a lot of train stations. I kind of go out of my way to find them—it's a little weird. And in those visits, I've realized that old train stations that are still in use for passengers usually fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Stations that show their age and look tired and worn.
  • Stations that have been revitalized and show a bright future.

Kansas City's Union Station (like St. Louis, Washington, DC, Grand Central Terminal, etc) falls into the latter category. It's a proud, proud station that forces you to look up when you walk into the head house or main waiting room. It's an imposing structure, and it makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. People sitting in the waiting room reading papers, men getting shoes shined, the echo of the announcer on the intercom, etc. But that's when you start realizing that trains account for a very, very small percentage of why the station exists today. Amtrak is relegated to a small corner of the station. You don't even board your train from the main waiting room anymore. Instead, you're led out onto a gangplank, walked over catwalk and down stairs to one remaining platform (the station used to have 15 platforms for about 30 tracks!) completely isolated from the rest of humanity. So while the station is vibrant, the trains hardly get a nod, much less a wink. Sadly, that's par for the course in our country today. To have a vibrant, revitalized Union Station is more than most cities can say.

Yes, this is where Jim sent me. To find model trains. I kid you not.But enough about the station. Let's just say it's fantastic, you need to visit, it's sad to see that there isn't much of a focus on trains, and let's move on to Kansas City in general.

As I was touring Union Station, I came across a gentleman named Jim volunteering at the rail museum in the station and we got to talking. One thing led to another and we both realized that we were model railroaders. Now, I have this crazy habit where whenever I'm on a big trip of some sort, I like to take home a piece of model railroad equipment that I get on the trip to integrate into my collection. It's kind of like my version of a scrapbook. I realized that Kansas City would be the only place in which I'd have enough time to actually go to a hobby store to find something, so I asked Jim if he could recommend a place. Without hesitation, Jim told me to go to this place named "Doc's Caboose" and he gave me directions on which busses to take. I was off.

Quick digression: one thing Kansas City lacks is an operating streetcar or Light Rail, and it's one thing I think it needs. But that said, Kansas City's bus system isn't too shabby, to be honest. I purchased a $3 day pass and let's just say I got my money's worth. By the time the day was over, I had six bus trips under my belt and had explored the whole city.

Back to Doc's Caboose. So I get off the bus at the stop Jim told me, and… I'm in the middle of Terminator 2 country. I mean, we're talking abandoned warehouses built in 1885 and probably empty since 1965. Luckily, there was one other fellow on the bus, and we got to chatting and realized we both were going to the same area, so he confirmed that Doc's Caboose was, in fact nearby and pointed me to it. Take a look at the pictures. Talk about a hole in the wall, right? Well… let me just say that if you are into HO or N scale model railroading and visit Kansas City, go out of your way to go to Doc's Caboose. It's like stepping into an oasis when you open the door. The prices are great, and the guys that work there are the nicest fellows you'll come across. Doc himself (yes, his name is actually Doc; I couldn't believe it) rung up the sale, shook my hand, and thanked me for my business. I walked out with a brand new Rock Island F-7 N Scale Diesel engine for my office and can't wait to get home to run it.

But sure enough, the store was there! And it was worth the trip. Seriously. Highly recommended.But by the time I walked out of Doc's Caboose, I was starting to see a pattern in Kansas City: everyone is so darned nice it's a little alarming! From Jim at Union Station, to the guy on the bus, to the guys in the hobby store, everyone seemed to go out of their way to make sure I felt at home. I even had a lady walk up to me on a street corner (because I was clearly trying to get my bearings with a map—I probably looked like the prototypical tourist I always make fun of in Baltimore) and help me find a bus stop—completely out of the blue!

That set the tone for the rest of the day. I visited the WWI memorial, had a fantastic barbecue dinner at Jack Stack's, caught a movie in Kansas City's historic Westport district, and just had a fantastic time. Frankly, I didn't have ENOUGH time in that city, and I'm seriously contemplating a return visit later this year to finish my checklist.

This trip has had one common denominator so far, and that's been midwest hospitality. I hate to stereotype, but shoot… as far as I'm concerned on this trip so far, it's true: midwesterners are a heck of a nice bunch of people.

Friday
May282010

Day 2: Missouri River Runner

 

St. Louis' Amtrak PlatformsPart of the reason I began this trip in St. Louis is the fact that I have not been able to find a chance to ride the Amtrak route through Missouri between St. Louis and Kansas City. It's gone by a few different names over the years, but today it's known as the Missouri River Runner. As far as the Southwest Chief was concerned, I've ridden parts of the route before, but I've never seen the country between Garden City, KS and Flagstaff, AZ. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the River Runner connects with the westbound Southwest Chief in Kansas City, so when I was planning the trip, I decided early on that this was my chance to kill two birds with one stone: ride the River Runner (which I had never seen at all), and ride the Southwest Chief, filling in the missing (and most scenic) gaps.
The River Runner isn't an elaborate train. My consist on Thursday was rather spartan: a P42 Diesel Engine, two Horizon Coaches (those are single level coaches similar to what you see in the Northeast Corridor, but, frankly, not as good looking), and a Horizon Cafe/Business Class car (that's a car that's half cafe, half business class seating). Again, nothing special. But you could probably argue that that's all the River Runner really needs today. It's a relatively short run end-to-end (about 5 and a half hours), and the cars didn't have a chance to really get dirty or run-down over the course of the trip. There were two eyebrow raising features of the train, however:

  • Scenery along the River Runner RouteThe Business Class seating is essentially what Amtrak used to have as First Class seating on its Metroliner trains in the Northeast Corridor. That's 2-1 seating (a row of paired seats on one side of the car, and a row of single seats on the other), with overstuffed faux-leather chairs that recline WAY back, and nice, upholstered, wide armrests. Compared to the coach seating, the Business Class is a steal (the upgrade is something like $12).
  • The Cafe Attendant was probably the best natured Amtrak Cafe attendant I've ever had. Remember, this train was departing at 6 AM, which meant she was on duty beginning at 5 AM. Not only that, but she learned that morning that the Cafe car was bad ordered and she had to restock a brand new car before the train departed. Then, once the passengers boarded, everyone wanted breakfast. If I were in her shoes, I would have gone mad. But somehow, this woman (whose name I didn't get, and I wish I had) found it within herself to remain chipper, laughing, and just generally jovial. She later told me that she only got 4 hours of sleep the night before because of a late train, and at that point I just conceded that some people are better suited for some jobs than others. I can't even begin to imagine myself in her shoes. She single-handedly made the trip an enjoyable one.

View along the Missouri RiverIn terms of scenery, the River Runner lives up to its name. You're speeding along the Missouri River at a good pace (I clocked us moving around 60-70MPH for most of the trip), and the morning sun makes for a great backdrop on the journey. You're passing through small, sleepy main street midwestern towns that look like they've been plucked out of the turn of the Century (the last one, that is)—think Music Man, or Main Street USA kind of stuff. There's livestock a-plenty, friendly faces at every station, and just a slower pace of life. I promised myself that the next time I ride the River Runner, I'll make it a point to stop off in a town like Jefferson City to have lunch and meet the locals. It's almost a shame to ride through without stopping to smell the roses, especially in towns like that.
There was a time when trains on this route were running so late that Amtrak cancelled them altogether and bussed people instead; this was only a few years ago. Things have gotten much better since then. The on-time-performance has rebounded in a big way (although some of that gain is no doubt a reflection of lessened freight traffic due to the recession), and our train eased into Kansas City's Union Station right on time.
The River Runner's a modest train, but it's a train that serves its purpose very well. It's filled with local Missourians on their way to college, to visit family, or to run errands. It may not have a sightseeing car, or a full dining service, but frankly, it doesn't really need those things. More than anything, the thing that I'll remember most, really, are the people and their hospitality. Makes you want to go back and visit again some day.