Not the Chattanooga Choo-Choo

I love trains and have written before about how I have been long fascinated by them. Having grown up in the time and place that I did, with only the occasional freight train passing through town or seen along the highway, passenger trains remained something exotic, something foreign, and from a time long past. It is no surprise then, that our recent trip on the Glacier Express left me grinning like a kid.

The first close-up experience with a train that I can remember was when I was very little and mom and dad took my brother and me to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. It was then and still is today one of the best museums for kids. One of the exhibits that captivated me and I can vividly recall today was the old steam engine that still sits on the lower level of the museum. Not only could a kid get up close with that magnificent machine, he or she could actually climb into the engineer’s cabin and marvel at the pipes, gauges, levers, and valves that controlled the old, iron wonder. It was up to my young imagination to provide the backdrop of the countryside passing by, the acrid scent of coal smoke mixed with steam, and the sounds of the engine clattering along the tracks. In addition there was an exhibit where a section of a turn of the 20th century Indianapolis street was reconstructed, complete with era-appropriate storefronts, red brick pavement, and tram lines down the middle (and even the overhead wires!). It was teasing proof to a young boy that people once really did travel by train and not just long distances but even within towns. My imagination was stirred, but that remained the closest I came to being on a train for a long time.

However those impressions of wonder never left me, and today I love traveling by train, doing so whenever possible rather than flying or driving. Half the fun of spending a weekend in Paris is watching the glory of the rolling French countryside pass by at over 300 km/h (~200 mph). And the train need not be the technological marvel that is the TGV in order to capture my fancy. Chugging slowly past fields of sunflowers through the Loire valley in a vintage train from the fifties or leisurely winding along the river through southern Indiana farmland on a restored train car are for me equally thrilling. Even the simple activities such as taking the tram into work on the average weekday still appeal to that boy standing astounded in the museum. Perhaps this is also why even though we no longer live in Karlsruhe that I am still occasionally keeping up on the construction of the new underground tram line there. The thing about traveling by rail is that more than any other means of transport, the journey and not just the destination is a reason to travel in and of itself.

Unsurprisingly, my three must-see attractions whenever I return to St Louis are the botanical gardens, the City Museum, and the Transportation Museum. Quite appropriately before departing for the Glacier Express, we kicked off a long weekend at the Cité du Train, the largest railway museum in Europe, walking past, through, and even underneath historic engines and rolling stock from the first steam engines in France to one of the first TGVs still in the original orange livery. The next day we headed to Zermatt to catch the Glacier Express, taking us through some of the most striking landscape of Switzerland and along the UNESCO-listed Rhaetian Railway. Inspecting the luxurious, restored old Pullman cars at the Cité du Train indeed made me nostalgic for the golden age of rail travel, but enjoying a bottle of champagne and taking lunch on the Glacier Express under panoramic windows with vistas of mountain peaks, alpine meadows, sapphire blue rivers and lakes, and of course glaciers left me awestruck and thankful for where and when I live.

It was a magnificent complement to the Bernina Express, which we enjoyed about a year ago with my parents when they came to visit. Until I am retired and have much more time on my hands to take up model railroading, such experiences should suffice nicely to give me my necessary railroading fix. Luckily for me Switzerland hardly has a dearth of scenic railroads.

Ernest Hemingway wrote the short story Homage To Switzerland, which takes place in station waiting rooms in Montreux, Vevey, and Territet and reflected the very real truth that often so much of life can happen when you are on your way to someplace else. I am very grateful however to not be seeking an escape from some emptiness or personal pain as Mr. Hemingway’s protagonists did. Rather I am looking forward to the journey itself and not the way stations in between.

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