When was the last time you took a family vacation and “getting there” was a key part of the trip? If your travel generally involves crowding into the coach section of a plane or sitting in construction back-ups on the interstate, chances are you answered “never.” For me, the answer is: The last time I was lucky enough to travel by Pullman train.
It was the inaugural run of a limited-edition weekend service between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. Such weekend jaunts are one of the new-found joys of empty nesting for my husband and me. We have long wanted to take a train trip, but with the limited family vacation time allotted to families with teens and their hectic sports/homework/extracurricular/must be with friends schedule, we always resorted to flying so we could arrive, spend a few precious days together and get home in time for the next teen commitment.
But with both kids now off to college, we had the luxury of taking a trip for the sake of the travel. We were in no rush to get anywhere, which made train travel all that much more enticing.
Although, as it turns out, the five-hour train ride to Madison by train took only slightly longer than it would have taken to drive there. Even better, there were no traffic headaches and the train ride came with waiters, wine and a really tasty dinner—all included in the $199 round-trip price.
Elegance Onboard the Pullman Train
We headed to the train wearing our usual traveling attire: jeans and fleece jackets. The minute we walked up the stairs to our assigned table in the “dome” car, I was sorry I hadn’t put on a dress and insisted hubby wear a suit.
The impeccably adorned conductor, Neil Bagaus (whose grey hair, sparkling eyes and cheerful demeanor come straight out of a central casting call for “man to play 1940s era conductor”), efficient staff and white tablecloth-topped tables took us back to a more elegant time—so much so that it was a more than a little disappointing when they delivered the wine we ordered in plastic cups and the coffee in paper cups. (The longer weekly runs between Chicago and New Orleans include drinks served in real glasses and coffee cups.)
Pullman Rail Journeys started operating the “City of New Orleans” in 2011. (One of the restored “lounge cars” is the one where singer-songwriter Steve Goodman wrote the song that made this rail route famous). Today, the company runs that Chicago-New Orleans route each week and at any given time, some of the 200 Pullman rail cars – restored at a cost of about $1 million each — are operating private charters and shorter-term runs in locations across the United States, much like the Chicago-Madison run in October 2014.
Making Friends Onboard the Pullman Train
When I fly, I lumber onto a plane, stow my carry-on overhead, squeeze into a seat, claim my sliver of the arm rest and put my nose in a book for the duration of the flight. In contrast, riding the rails is an inherently social experience. We sang “happy birthday” to Kim Wright, a fellow passenger who gave herself the gift of a train ride to visit friends in Madison, chatted with other couples and got to know the wait staff.
The meals onboard our short-haul trip were served buffet-style. That meant walking down the narrow staircase, filling a plate and walking back up without spilling as the train rocked and rolled along the rails. (This is not an experience geared toward people who have mobility challenges, although the company does offer wheelchairs that fit in the narrow aisles and I’m sure any member of the wait staff would have happily filled a plate for any passenger who asked.)
Meal service onboard trips like the City of New Orleans, which include overnight accommodations, are served in the dining car or via room service to your cabin—all included in the price.
The Chicago-Madison run also offered coach class seating for half the price. It included standard two-abreast seats that face one another, like you would find on Amtrak or suburban commuter trains. Food and drinks are available for purchase at stunningly reasonable prices ($6 for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with pasta salad; $1 for coffee, tea or soda).
Wandering Around the Train
There’s no need to stay in your seat, seat belt fastened, so it’s easy to get up and walk around. We wandered into the lounge car to find Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, the company that restored the Pullman cars and trained the staff to historic Pullman service quality levels.
Ellis, who rides the rails when he can, pulled out his guitar and sang a few songs for the guests who dropped by. Then he talked about the challenges and potential of restoring regular train service to the U.S.
The Future of Train Travel
The biggest problem? Lack of track time. Running a Pullman train requires negotiating track time with the local commuter rail line and the long-haul freight lines. And, of course, there’s the challenge of convincing a public that loves its cars to leave them in the garage and let Pullman do the driving.
That is balanced by statistics that show millennials— young Americans in their teens and 20s—are not so in love in cars. In fact, one-third of them don’t even have a driver’s license. (Read more in this New Republic story.) Ellis sees that as a huge potential market for train travel.
“On a train, people have time to think, to read, to write, to eat and to drink,” he says.
Click here for a list of free things to do in Madison.
Pullman Rail Journeys also runs a Polar Express train in Wisconsin. If you go, read these tips for taking your kids on a Polar Express train.