Monday, February 13, 2006

Chief of Chiefs

Two evenings ago Patrick and I watched a DVD chronicling what many rail enthusiasts claim to be the best passenger train of all time--the Santa Fe "Super Chief," which carried passengers (at first once a week but later daily) between los angeles and chicago for over thirty years beginning in the 1930s and terminating in the early 1970s.

Hosted by Michael Gross, whom you'll remember as Steven Keaton from TV's "Family Ties," the DVD examines the amenities and on-time service that earned the Super Chief a place in railroad history. An all Pullman-car train, the Super Chief consisted entirely of sleepers--no coach--and spoiled its passengers with exotic cuisine, prepared from scratch aboard the train, and fancy dining facilities, including the Torquoise Room, which seated only 12 passengers and provided a more intimate, on-board dining experience (the Champagne brunch sounded fantastic, as did the French toast, which apparently took hours to prepare!).

I didn't realize the extent to which the Santa Fe Railroad used American Indian names, culture and iconography to cultivate its image and sell its product. For example, the railroad's mascot was an American Indian cartoon boy named Chico, whose image appeared on countless advertisements, brochures and timetables. Elza Gross, whose self-indulgent testimonials to the Super Chief's grandeur reveal more about her privileged childhood than about the train aboard which that privileged childhood found its elitism fully actualized, waxes nostalgic for the train's "exotic" American Indian decor. Whether any American Indians possessed the pecuniary means by which to ride the train whose mystique borrowed so heavily from their culture is a story left untold.

The only story left untold, I'm afraid. Rather than take us inside the train and life on-board (What did people do in the evening hours, for example?), the DVD spends most of its time interviewing ex-employees and passengers who, quite frankly, are now too old and contemplative to weave an interesting and properly paced narrative--and who indulgently, though understandably, tell more about themselves than about the train. Sure, the celebrity sightings are interesting, but wouldn't it be more interesting to learn what Harry Truman did onboard (did he mingle with the passengers? did he dine in the Turquoise room?)than how he arrived at the station?

As a rail enthusiast, it's sobering to realize that first-class service is a thing of the past. No one who rides Amtrak, even aboard its sleeper cars, would mistake it for first class service. What's worse, the deterioration in service hasn't gone hand in hand with speedier or more efficient transit. The Super Chief made its run between Los Angeles and Chicago in 39.5 hours. Today's Southwest Chief, its heir (if one can call it that--more like its bastard child) takes 43 hours to cover the same distance, and it rarely runs on schedule.

Before David Gunn's departure from Amtrak, the company appeared to be interested in upgrading its sleeper service (for example, it refurbished sleeper cars on the Empire Builder and introduced a wine tasting)--but the future of said improvements are uncertain, and with budget airlines offering cheaper fares between an increasing number of cities, we rail enthusiasts may soon find ourselves with nothing to enthuse about.


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