In Iceland? Don’t Take the Train!

The Only Locomotive in Iceland

Although there has been talk about building a railroad connecting the international airport at Keflavík with the capital at Reykjavík, no one has laid any rails yet. The funny thing is that there have been Icelandic/English phrasebooks with entire sections on how to catch a train in Iceland. Too bad that there has never been a railroad with passenger service in the island nation.

The locomotive in the photo above was used to help load and unload ships in the Old Harbor area of Reykjavík. It rests on some narrow-gauge rails not exceeding some twenty feet in length.

If you want to get around Iceland, you just may have to take the bus.

 

The Lomita Railroad Museum

The Lomita Railroad Museum

One does not expect to see a railroad museum on a residential suburban street, yet there it was. Plus it was not built at the site of an old station or railroad yard. The station building is a built-from-scratch replica of the station in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was built on 250th Street because that’s where Irene Lewis lived. The Lomita Railroad Museum is her creation, in memory of her late husband Martin, and it is a tribute to the love that the Lewises had for railroading.

Today was a prototypical June gloom day, so Martine paged through our copy of Passport 2 History: Your Guide to 83 Historic Sites in 9 Counties of Central and Southern California, an occasionally revised booklet that has resulted in a number of fun day trips for the two of us.

In addition to the station building with its numerous exhibits, there is a 1902 Southern Pacific steam locomotive with tender and a 1910 Union Pacific caboose. On adjoining properties, there is a Santa Fe caboose, a 1923 Union Oil tank car, and a 1913 outside-braced wood box car.

Martine with Locomotive Exhibit (Notice the Engineer’s Hat)

It’s always fun to see a real labor of love come to life the way the Lomita Railroad Museum has. Los Angeles is full of little corners where some person’s dream has resulted in a fun place to visit and be informed.

Especially now that the Los Angeles to San Francisco High Speed Railroad is in doubt because of funding woes, railroading is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Although they seem to be thriving in Europe and parts of Asia, the railroads in North America have given way to trucks (for freight) and buses (for passengers).

I will never forget the awe I felt as a cub scout waiting for a passenger train to take members of my “den” to distant Ashtabula, Ohio. As the giant steam locomotive pulled up to the station, I felt a frisson of terror at such power as we were enveloped in steam.

 

Riding the Cumbres & Toltec RR

Our Train Going Over a Trestle

There are two narrow gauge steam trains relatively close to each other, both once part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western. One runs in Colorado between Durango and Silverton and is, in fact, called the Durango & Silverton. The other runs between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. That is the Cumbres & Toltec—named after Cumbres Pass and the Toltec Gorge, two of the scenic highlights along the route.

Martine and I went on the Cumbres & Toltec, and had planned on also taking the Durango & Silverton. Unfortunately, Martine came down with a headache from the high altitude and was afraid of aggravating it by taking both trains. In addition, the pinched nerve in her back was irritated by the constant lurching of the cars as the train went downhill. So, after our ride on the Cumbres & Toltec, we sought lower ground, even if it was to put us back in the middle of the desert heat we were hoping to avoid.

So it goes.

Martine on the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec ascended to the snow level at around 10,000 feet at its highest point, before going back down 2,000 feet to Antonito. At Antonito, we took a bus back to Chama. The ride took only one hour, whereas the train, on a parallel route, took five hours.

At Osier, Colorado, we were unloaded from the train to have a substantial free buffet lunch before continuing to the end.

Hopefully, some day I may yet take the Durango & Silverton, though without Martine who is puzzled by my love of trains. That love goes way back to my scouting days, when we took the Erie Railroad to Ashtabula, Ohio. Then, in college, I road the New York Central from Cleveland to Albany, New York, from where I took the Vermont Transit bus to Rutland, Vermont, and the White River Coach bus to Hanover, New Hampshire.

I love trains so much that I even enjoy taking the light rail to downtown Los Angeles.

 

Trains and Trolleys

Pacific Electric Red Car

Pacific Electric Red Cars

If you’ve ever seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) you know that the Pacific Electric Red Cars were probably the world’s greatest interurban railway—until they were destroyed by Judge Doom, ably played by Christopher Lloyd.

The Red Cars were already history when I arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966. Imagine my surprise when I saw a whole collection of them, along with their predecessors, at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. It appears the collection was put together by a private individual named Walter Abbenseth, who died in 2006.

Trolleys were not the only things Martine and I saw at the Orange Empire museum: There were steam and diesel locomotives, passenger and freight cars, and a whole slew of cabooses. The museum was staffed by old railroad pros who knew their stuff and were delighted to answer questions.

There was even a nice exhibit devoted to Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls, whose Harvey House station restaurants, particularly in the Southwest, stood for quality.

I had always intended to visit this museum, but was put off by the 85-mile drive along the 60 Freeway to get there. Now both of us want to return. We had a great time.

Atacama

The Driest Place on Earth

The Driest Place on Earth

As we in Southern California swelter through a seemingly endless series of hot, humid weather, my mind turns to the Norte Grande of Chile, where the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. At one time, I desperately wanted to take the Ferrocarril Antofagasta a Bolivia (FCAB), which ran passenger trains between Antofagasta, Chile and Oruro, Bolivia, from which it was possible to change trains to La Paz.

Years ago, I saw a television documentary about one such trip: I was instantly sold. Unfortunately, although trains still run along the FCAB route, they are all freights.

In My Invented Country, Isabel Allende describes fleeing Chile by this train in 1973 after her cousin Salvador was killed with the participation of the CIA. She remembers an endless, hot, dry expanse.

The FCAB Today

The FCAB Today

Another refugee from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was writer Ariel Dorfman, who has this to say about the Atacama in Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North:

Less rain falls on these sands than on any other similarly blighted expanse on Earth. I talked to men born in Arica, a woman brought up in Pisagua, men and women who had never ventured forth from the nitrate town of María Elena or who have never left the oasis of Pica, which produces the most fragrant oranges your tongue has ever rolled over, and none of them had felt one drop of rain on their bodies in their lives….

Oh yes, it rained once, some years ago, in Antofagasta. Two millimeters. And several residents died in the ensuing mudslide…. That semi-sprinkle had not reached Antofagasta itself, though there was an unusual front of turbulence sweeping in from the sea, so the reporter on the local radio was already trying to calm down a populace that had begun to panic, a woman had called in to say—much to our cruel mirth—that she thought she had felt a drop of rain on her cheek, and what should she do, should she evacuate her children?

We might smirk a bit at that, though with our California drought, we ought to be prepared for anything. With luck, we might see some appreciable rain this winter … or else!

 

 

 

Short Line

Our Train Pulling Up to the Gate

Our Train Pulling Up to the Gate

In Ventura County’s Santa Clara River Valley, there is a railroad line that runs roughly between Piru and Santa Paula, with Fillmore as its base. Most trains run on Saturdays and some Sundays, with most trains running from Fillmore to Santa Paula, stopping for sufficient time for passengers to see the Santa Paula Agricultural Museum or the California Oil Museum. On the way back, there is a stop at the Loose Caboose, where one can buy locally grown fruit, olives, and honey as well as see cockatiels, parakeets, peacocks, koi, and goats.

We got an acceptable lunch on the Powhatan Dining Car on the train, and sat back as we rolled past hundreds of fruit orchards. (Santa Paula considers itself the citrus capital of the United States.)

The Fillmore & Western Railway is essentially a fun enterprise. If you’re expecting 100% authenticity or haute luxury, you will be disappointed. Your four-hour journey will be restful and low-key. Many of our fellow passengers seemed to be retired farmers, who had interesting things to say about the farmland through which we passed.

Fillmore and Santa Paula are only about a dozen miles apart, but Martine and I had a good time and would consider coming back.