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All Aboard!

Jimmy Magahern | Sep 3, 2013, 9:29 a.m.

Best yet, LaRussa says, were the people she met. “The people were very friendly, it was a friendly atmosphere. Conversation was very easy. Much different that being on a plane, where people try to avoid each other.”

Our national discontent with air travel, the giant that originally slayed the passenger train, may account for Amtrak’s surprising surge in popularity. Last year, an all-time record number of travelers—some 31.2 million—rode on the once-derided national rail service, whose CEO, in a press release, boasted that Amtrak now carries three times as many passengers between New York and Washington as the airlines, and carries more passengers between New York and Boston than all of the airlines combined.

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Since its reopening in 1989, the Grand Canyon Railway has drawn more than 2.5 million passengers.

Pieced together in the early ’70s from the failed passenger operations of the major freight railroads and run out of small, no-frills depots dubbed “Amshaks” in its early days, the publicly funded passenger rail service, while still operating in the red (in 2012, Amtrak earned close to $3 billion in revenue but incurred over $4 billion in expenses), runs more than 300 trains in 46 states and has regained service out of some of the grandest terminals in America’s railroad legacy, including the Union Stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—all in all, some 170 working stations listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a fee, Amtrak will even pull private rail cars owned by serious train buffs—luxurious vintage sleepers and coach cars the well-to-do call their own “yachts on tracks.”

LaRussa didn’t see any such cars on her Arizona to Texas trek, and the Sunset Limited route she rode on didn’t stop at any magnificent art deco depots—although it did make plenty of stops at small rural stations. “That was the only drawback to the trip,” she admits. “The train stopped a lot through the night. And the kids who were onboard got a little restless, you’d hear them running up and down the stairs in the middle of the night.”

Nevertheless, she plans to take the train again. “It was great! Of course, it took about 18 to 20 hours to get there this way, but it was way more relaxing than a plane. As long as you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere, this is the ideal way to go.”

Nature Trip

Tessa Unwin waits excitedly at one of the outdoor picnic tables at the Verde Canyon Railroad’s depot in Clarkdale, Arizona, watching for the 1 p.m. train to start boarding for the railroad’s four-hour roundtrip trek through two national forests, over high bridges and through a manmade 680-foot tunnel to the Perkinsville ghost ranch and back.

“Martin Luther King Day is usually the best day to see eagles,” she says, gazing up at the clear blue sky above the former mining town, now primarily a retirement community bordering the Verde River about 40 miles southwest of Flagstaff. “But I’m hoping to see some today.”

The Cottonwood retiree, who spends much of her time as a volunteer at the local animal rescue center, is a frequent passenger on the train, and says she and her husband often take the trip to see the native plants and wildlife best viewed onboard a train.

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