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All Aboard for All Aboard

A review of Jim Loomis' guide to North American train travel

February 13, 2011

Photos by Henry Kisor,

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THERE ARE TWO kinds of travel books. One is the literary travel narrative, perfect for reading about an interesting place you think you can't afford to visit. The other is the workaday guidebook that helps you plan a trip there.

Quite a few guidebooks to train travel in the Americas jostle for the reader's attention, but these days the freshest, most comprehensive and, frankly, the best is the brand-new third edition of Jim Loomis' All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide (Chicago Review Press, $18.95 list).

That's because since the first edition of this book was published in 1995, Loomis has won a reputation for being uncommonly honest and upfront about the annoyances and pitfalls of this old -- some would say antiquated -- mode of travel. Yet he is also generous and encouraging about its considerable joys.

In clear and lively prose he takes in hand his readers -- especially those who may be unfamiliar with Amtrak but are sick of air travel -- through the practical ins and outs of booking a trip on the national railroad. His bread and butter is plenty of brass-tacks information about planning the details of the trip, such as deciding upon accommodations, packing, dress, etiquette and tipping.

There's an interesting potted history of railroads in America that covers the highlights without getting bogged down in railfan minutiae. He tells you what to expect about life onboard a long-distance train. He lists the personnel you meet on the train, from coach attendants to conductors. He even warns against the "Denver Cocktail" that can blindside you in the Rockies. (High altitude intensifies the effects of alcohol.)

He tells how to deal with rattles and squeaks in the sleeper compartment and what to do if the train is so late getting to its destination that you might miss your connections. He is fully upfront about the things that can delay a train, from weather extremes to mechanical breakdowns.

You'll learn something about how railroads work, from the construction of roadbed to the meanings of whistle posts and mileposts. There are diagrams of the interiors of various passenger cars as well as photos and maps. There's an interesting explanation of why engineering a long freight train is technically more difficult than piloting a passenger locomotive. You'll find out about train orders and dispatching and what train crews say on the radio.

Although this book is aimed at the beginning train traveler, veteran rail buffs will find it a useful compendium of facts as well as a reminder of old ones.

There's inside stuff I didn't know: Female attendants tend to receive smaller tips than their male counterparts, for instance. Those who work the coaches call each other "tacos," after the acronym for Train Attendant, Coach.

In particular I'd never heard the various utterances of the trackside detectors. The information Loomis gives about scanners, small radios that pick up not only messages from detectors but also the chatter among dispatchers, engineers and conductors, is highly instructive.

The only niggles I could find are simple, inconsequential items that apparently slipped by in the updating.

One is the notion that all Amtrak trains are nonsmoking. One of them, however, does have a smoking car: the Auto Train from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla. That's because there are no smoking stops on the 16-hour run and no tobacco fiend can go that long without a fix.

Another nit is the statement that video movies are shown during evenings in the lounge cars. That amenity stopped some years ago -- except in the first-class Parlour Lounge of the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Finally, P42 locomotives supplanted the older P40 some years ago. (They do look alike, although the P42s are slightly more powerful.)

Loomis also covers rail travel in Canada and Mexico, with lots of tips to make booking and traveling there easier. (Minor quibble: VIA no longer calls its sleeper service  on the transcontinental Canadian "Silver and Blue," just "Sleeper Touring" as on other trains. It's  a recent marketing thing.)

An interesting Canadian factoid: "Foamers" are called "DRFs" in that country. That stands for "demented rail fan."

Loomis winds up the main part of his book with a passionate yet reasoned call for high-speed rail in America.

The  highly useful appendix that follows succinctly describes each of the name trains in North America. It reminds me that despite the thousands upon thousands of miles I have ridden on the rails, there are trains I haven't yet enjoyed and I really ought to put them on my bucket list -- in particular the Cardinal from Chicago to New York via Cincinnati and the Copper Canyon run in Mexico.

And, oh yes, there's a keen glossary of railroad terms and slang. A "blue flag" on a stopped locomotive means a maintenance crew is at work on it, and "rock and roll" is what railroaders complain that a train does over bad track.

"Highball!" That means, more or less, "Let's go!"

Loomis, by the way, writes an interesting train travel blog.


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