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Front Page » March 17, 2005 » Local News » All Aboard
Published 3,451 days ago

All Aboard


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By KEN LARSON
Sun Advocate publisher

Relaxing and visiting are two of the most popular pastimes while passengers traveling from Helper to Denver enjoying the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

Unlike most of the civilized world, passenger rail travel is declining in America. With substantial cutbacks, government is doing its best to drastically cut back service, discontinue routes and make it more difficult for Americans to travel by rail. However, for many it's still the only affordable, convenient and adventuresome way to see the country.

Helper is one of only a handful of stops in Utah as Amtrak travels from California to Chicago through Salt Lake City and Denver. Scheduled arrival time headed east is 7:15 a.m. for Amtrak train Number 6 known as the California Zephyr.

On March 11 the sleek blue and gray passenger train inched down the historic Price Canyon past the geologic buttresses and past the coal tipples near the former site of Castle Gate. It rolled into the historic Helper for a brief 10-minute stop where only two passengers boarded.

The train six configuration included two engines, a baggage car, seven coaches, two sleepers, the observation car, and a dining car. Once a common mode of transportation, Amtrak currently only runs three daily routes each way across America.

Why would anyone choose to ride the train when there are perfectly good flights that would get one from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, Iowa or Chicago in a fraction of the time? The reasons for riding are as varied as the people who ride the train. And besides it's an American tradition. America has grown up with Amtrak.

For the travelers and those simply vacationing it's still the romance, unhurried mode of travel. For the elderly who feel uncomfortable driving long distances or those tired of airport security and the inconvenience of getting to the airports, parking and long lines it makes perfect sense to take Amtrak. But for many it's the only affordable way to travel.

Most folks who ride the rails could care less where they are going; to many it's the journey itself and the enjoyment of meeting people along the way. At every stop the train lets a little bit of America get on and says hello. People get to meet their country and often other countries around the world. People don't rush on a train.

There aren't any annoying announcements to turn off your cell phones, buckle up, check out the back of their seat to make sure it's still a floating device or not or a line up in front of each car. People who ride the train sit back and take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery. The route through Utah and Colorado is one of the most popular and dramatic rides in all America. The landscape changes drastically from the steep cliffs and canyons of Carbon County to the barren deserts of Emery County. Once the train rolls into Colorado and enters Ruby Canyon it meets the Colorado River, a landmark it will follow for the next 240 miles.

An Amtrak traveler takes a photo in the rugged Glenwood Canyon.

Tom and Maxine McClelland are both in their 80s. They traveled to Fresno, Calif., from western Kansas to visit a brother. Leaving their home they drove to McCook, Neb., boarded the train in an unmanned station, much like Helper, and experienced one problem after another, including getting stranded in California and having to hire a taxi to get them to another station when they missed their train because of delays. Both heading west and coming home they experienced constant delays and breakdowns.

"Its been grueling. We are too old to drive and refuse the hassle of air travel anymore. I just can't go through them frisking me and dumping my carry-ons all over the tables, treating me as though I was a criminal," said Maxine. "I am too old for this."

Maxine blames the government for the deterioration of the trains and the routes. "Even though I am a dedicated Republican, I cannot believe we are pouring money into every cause in the world and cannot properly provide transportation to our people. Travel for Tom and me is getting to be impossible and it seems as though the government is leaving its elderly or less affluent out in the cold with no choices."

Amtrak is notorious for running late, the cause being unusually heavy freight traffic and track repairs. Amtrak doesn't own any track in Western or Central United States and because it leases the tracks, so it doesn't have top priority. If the freight trains get backed up or derail, the passenger trains move over and wait.

Jerry and Patricia Wright were on their way home to Rapid City, where he attended a conference and they visited California. Jerry is a serious Amtrak rider, starting when he brought his young children across the country on family vacations. He rattled off trivia about nuts and bolts, miles between stations, history of certain regions, rail companies and even CEOs. His current job in the recycling business relates to his philosophy of trains, and their benefit to a better future for America.

"As a country we need to realize that energy and resources are going to change our policies sooner or later. The sooner we realize the importance of conserving our resources the better we'll be. He feels train travel should be increased and expanded," says Wright.

His wife on the other hand was not familiar with trains, this being her first trip. But she was quick to say how freeing it was to leave her cell phone and laptop at home and sit back and relax on the train.

For Amando Ruiz of Rifle, Col., it's also a matter of finance. He works as a mason, building condos in Truckee, Calif., and has been going back and forth between the work site and his family home for the past six months. It's nearly impossible to fly because he would have to change planes three times and more than quadruple his travel costs, so Amtrak is really his only choice. Every two to three weeks he catches Amtrak in Glenwood Springs, Col., and travels overnight to California where he works for three weeks before he returns home to his family.

Christopher and Helje Bollyn were traveling from Washington, D.C., to Provo on a family skiing vacation with their two children, Chris and Catherine. They were very outspoken about the need to keep Amtrak a viable mode of transportation in America. They compared rail travel in America to that in Europe and other areas of the world. Growing up in Estonia, now part of Russia, Helje has used trains as her primary mode of transportation all her life and in Europe and Asia the railroad is a center of national pride. It is not only cheaper and more convenient, but trains are the centers of each community and town throughout Europe. Born in a foreign country, even though she lives and works in America, she is constantly targeted and harassed by security at airports so her preference is to travel Amtrak.

Leroy Yoder and Annetta Mortensen become instant friends while riding Amtrak from Denver to Green River.

Bollyn, who writes for a Washington, D.C., newspaper, is very vocal about the seriousness of America loosing its Amtrak.

"Nationwide passenger-rail service is in great danger," he says, "The $1.2 billion funding level provided this year, is not enough to run the existing nationwide service in 2005. Some key Bush administration and congressional leaders want to end or drastically cut back Amtrak's nationwide service," Bollyn pointed out that Amtrak has had to dramatically cut routes and reduce services.

Nationwide Amtrak service give Americans a travel choice they have used increasingly since the 2001 attacks. It serves many smaller communities with few transport alternatives and allows the middle or lower class of Americans viable options they would not otherwise have.

"It takes $1.4 billion to operate Amtrak for a year, but we are spending $5 billion a month in Iraq," pointed out Bollyn, adding, "As long as we have oil guys leading our country we will never see America come to grips with transportation like Amtrak."

For Mike Anderson, a college student from Boise, Ida., traveling to see his parents in Iowa traveling Amtrak was an adventure. Because of cutbacks there is no longer rail service from Portland, Ore., to Boise, Idaho so he caught the Greyhound bus to Salt Lake City, arriving in the middle of the night. He had to choose the bus and train because of finances, so he couldn't afford a hotel room once he arrived in Salt Lake City while waiting for the train to arrive. He roamed the streets until early morning, then slept at the station because his train was running two hours late.

Amtrak is a popular mode of transportation for Denver-area people who use it to travel out to Glenwood Springs and Fraser's Winter Park Ski area. These resorts do a lot of marketing in Denver to entice people to come out and relax in their pools and enjoy the slopes. People like Kirk and Deanne Mencimer who were traveling over to Glenwood Springs to relax for a couple days.

"It's nice that we aren't on a schedule and we are flexible. No body is waiting for us on either end and we are on vacation. We love people watching and the visiting that takes place on the train is great."

Visiting seems to be the key reason people love traveling on Amtrak. Riding the trains seem to encourage conversation and large groups of people visited, discussed politics, played games and wandered up and down the aisles as the train wobbled through the mountains. Amtrak diners are designed for strangers to sit together and engage in conversation and form friendships. People are seated together as they enter the dining room.

Brendan Gelvin, from Kerry County, Ireland, was traveling America with a buddy. While traveling from Grand Junction back east he met Elizabeth Keyes from Seskin, also a small town in south Ireland. Although they live only three and a half hours from each other back home they met on a train traveling through the Rocky Mountains. Over dinner we talked about their travels and adventures on the train and buses in America. Elizabeth is finishing a year-long trip around the world. She took a sabbatical leave from her administration job in a doctor's office and has already traveled through Australia, New Zealand, Thialand, Hawaii and now America, via rail. She was on her way to New York for the big St. Patrick's Day celebration while Brendon had his eye on Chicago where he would watch the St. Patrick's Day parade Saturday. They both echoed that their adventures on Amtrak were incredible.

Skiers depart the train at Forest Park, east of Denver .

"Not one bad thing has happened to us on the trains. We have met the most interesting and wonderful people. One of the things about trains is that everybody is friendly."

Dinner was like sitting in an Irish pub as the two swapped stories about their homeland and their adventures here in the states.

Deanna Forrest from DeKalb, Ill., is a 60-year-old grandmother who was one of the tour directors for a group of 21 people, from a ski club. This is their second year they came out from Illinois to ski in Forest Park, just west of Denver.

"We loved the train last year because we can all come together. Last night we all ate together, then played games in the lounge car for several hours, not only enjoying each other's company but drawing in other people from other parts of the county. We sure couldn't do this on an airplane."

As the trip director she has wine and cheese parties, pizza parties, a tubing party and on Thursday, St. Patrick's Day they will enjoy green beer and cabbage rolls at a local Irish pub. Retired after 34 years as a high school teacher, she and her husband are now enjoyed their youth.

"We just got motorcycles and when we aren't skiing we enjoy exploring the country on the backs of our Harley's. Amtrak is a perfect way for us to travel," she concluded.

Annetta Mortensen from West Jordan was showing a group of people her family pictures in the observation car when the group was interrupted by the announcement of a wedding in that car. Ellen, draped with a veil and a bouquet of fresh tulips and Alan Smith said there vows in front of their new found friends. Soprinye Dappa, assistant conductor, officiated and friends that sat across from the happy couple. Even though the bride owns a bridal shop in Denver she wanted something different.

"We didn't want the big church thing and we thought it was much more romantic to marry on the train, on their way to Glenwood Springs where the couple will honeymoon.

"This is the only way to ride, said Leroy Yoder, an Amish man who was traveling from Ohio to the Grand Canyon with his wife and another couple. Like so many others who were on vacation, the Yoders were also utilizing Greyhound to get them to places that Amtrak no longer runs through. They got off in Green River and caught the bus the next morning, eventually ending up in Las Vegas and Flagstaff. Their plans called for a tour of the Grand Canyon before catching the southern Amtrak back to Ohio.

It was the same story from almost every person.

Yoder summed it up, "We love people and people treat you like family on the train. The inconvenience with late trains or running slow is easily made up by the beauty, ease of travel and the people."


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