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Amtrak’s planned rerouting stokes enthusiasts’ interest

Ask Dennis Mashburn about his upcoming vacation and he’ll tell you not only where he is going but also how he is going to get there.

The car ride to Fort Worth doesn’t count. His vacation begins at the train station where he and his wife, Kathy, will board Amtrak’s Texas Eagle to Chicago. Then, they’ll take the Empire Builder to Seattle, where they’ll catch the Cascades, a high-speed train to Vancouver, Canada.

The Mashburns will travel on Via, the Canadian national passenger railroad, to Toronto. From there, they will take Via to Port Huron, Amtrak back to Chicago and the Texas Eagle back to Fort Worth.

For Mashburn and other fans of train travel, destinations are not as memorable as the trips to get there.

“If your sole purpose is to get somewhere, then an airliner is probably your best bet,” Mashburn said. “But if you like to kick back and enjoy leisurely travel, then there is nothing like the train.

“It’s the best way to travel.”

Railroad enthusiasts such as Mashburn and Jim Gibson were pleased with last week’s announcement by Amtrak that passenger service would be returning to Abilene.

“The way the cars clickity clack over the tracks and sway on the rails adds to the ambiance of the train. That’s what makes it so great,” said Gibson, who has toured Scotland by train with his wife, Emma.

“It’s a wonderful way to travel because you can see so much of the countryside,” Mrs. Gibson said. “And you can walk around — it’s not like sitting in a car.”

Train travel is fun and affordable, Mashburn said. His favorite trains are Super Liners, the double-decked Amtrak trains, where from an upstairs bedroom the view is great, he said.

Cost is “very reasonable,” he said, explaining his wife looks for specials. An eight-day, first-class trip last year from Dallas to Chicago to California cost the couple less than $1,400, which included transportation, bedroom accommodations and meals.

“The meals are really quite good — they’re not airline meals,” he said. “Trains serve New York strips and fish dishes — it’s not four-star dining, but it’s good.”

Plus, sharing a dining table with other people, the Mashburns have made friends on trips, Mrs. Mashburn said.

“We’ll welcome passenger service,” Mashburn said. “It’s a wonderful deal for Abilene. With so much railroad heritage, Abilene could become a destination and could be a tourist stop.”

Other Abilenians also look forward to the return of passenger service to town.

“I’d love to take a trip to El Paso just to ride the train,” said Jim Gibson. “That’s the first thing that popped in my mind when I heard Amtrak was coming through here.”

Gibson remembers a train trip he took in 1957 from San Antonio to Iowa with his sister and aunt.

“At that time I was not into trains like I am now and it seemed like an awful long trip,” Gibson said. “I remember the Vista Dome and going up there and seeing the scenery better.”

From the time Abilene was founded by the Texas & Pacific Railroad to March 22, 1967, passenger trains stopped at the depot.

In the early days, the train’s arrival was a grand occasion for townfolk and cowboys, said historian Juanita Zachry. Cowboys would ride into town and people would gather at the depot to see who might get off.

Mrs. Zachry said she remembers going down to the depot during World War II to see the crowds.

“The yard would be covered with servicemen,” she said. “There would be wives weeping and mothers clinging to their sons until the last minute before they had to board the train. Then there would be joyous reunions of returning servicemen with their families.”

Mrs. Zachry herself rode the train every Friday from Abilene, where she attended a business college, home to Merkel. The cost was 35 cents one way, she recalled.

In a history of the T&P, Don Watson, a former Abilenian, wrote that the travelers joked that the initials stood for “Time & Patience.” That was the case for passengers during World War II.

Clarine Tiffany said she remembers “sitting on my suitcase for five days” in 1942 on a train trip between New York and Abilene. The trip took two days longer than it was supposed to because civilian trains would be placed on side tracks so that troop trains and freight trains could pass.

Dr. Elbert Peak’s first experience riding a train came when he was a seminary student in Fort Worth and was asked to speak in Monahans on a Sunday.

Riding the T&P was his only option. This was during World War II and the train was crowded with servicemen. Plus, it stopped in every town.

“I got on the train in Dallas at 2 in the afternoon on a Saturday and stood up most of the way,” Peak said. “I didn’t get there until it was nearly daylight the next morning.”

After the war, he had the opportunity to ride the train from Dallas to Los Angeles, but by this time, he said he had gotten smarter and reserved a Pullman car.

“The train traveled day and night, but I could go to bed and sleep. That was riding in style in those days.”

After the war, Bob Tiffany’s insurance business took him and wife Clarine on frequent train trips to New York.

“During the days when we were not very well off, we road coach and those were long trips,” he said. “It was 1961 before we flew to New York as opposed to taking the train. For that long a trip flying is obviously better, but the train trips were fun.”

The Tiffanys have ridden trains in Great Britain and Europe and have taken the train through the Chunnel under the English Channel.

“You are traveling at speeds up to 186 miles per hour,” Tiffany said, “And it feels like you are sitting at the dining room table.”

Tiffany and Mashburn each said he would like to ride a train once passenger service returns to Abilene, which is still probably a couple of years away.

“I’m on pins and needles, I can’t wait for it to get here,” Mashburn said. “Being on the first train isn’t important but I can see taking the train to Dallas-Fort Worth …

“Getting there is more fun than being there.”

Larry Zelisko can be reached at 676-6764 or mailto:[email protected]

Abilene Reporter-News
Larry Zelisko