Brain on a Train -- Umberto Tosi

"I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it," wrote Paul Theroux welcoming us succinctly aboard The Great Railway Bazaar.  "Trains sing bewitchment," Theroux added at the start of a four-month rail journey from London through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, returning via the Trans-Siberian Railway. His 1975 armchair classic depicts people, history, and cultures, more than trains and never complains about difficult accommodations. "If a train is large and comfortable you don't even need a destination." ...I concur. 

I've set a few of my stories on trains, including Onion Station (published in Chicago Quarterly Review and in my anthology, Sometimes Ridiculous). The tale is told from the perspective of a boy on a 1940s transcontinental train trip stopover with his warring mother and father in Chicago. It's taken from life --  an episode in a forthcoming novella largely set on rocking railway sleeping cars.

Eleanor and I on a Chicago-Springfield train, 2017
I grew up in California with battling parents - later a single mother - during the mid and late 1940s. They considered themselves Bostonian exiles on the West Coast due to the war's exigencies. We came to California by auto in 1943 on  proverbial Route 66, an adventure that I chronicled here in a 2016 post. For the next decade, we travelled California to Massachusetts by train twice a year, once at Christmas time and again in August on Pullman sleeping cars. 

I would run wild the length of each train for three days with a coterie of other junior escapees on the loose from distracted parents. I would sleep in upper bunks -- among my most treasured memories, sensing the pulsating pull of giant steam locomotives. These sleek trains were the last of their kind unbeknownst by us. It was a golden age of passenger trains -- of sleek twenty-car-long behemoths -  when they had become deco art as well as our primary means of travel.

Then I took to air travel with a few memorable exceptions.  My latest: a two-day trip aboard AMTRAK's Southwest Chief, through fantastical high plateau bluffs from Chicago to New Mexico with my inamorata, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris on a family memorial visit. 

'The SP Daylight', a long-gone steamer I rode often.
These days I ride trains mostly in my imagination. But I keep a bucket list. It's my obsession. If I had the energy and the money, I'd cross continents a few more times by sleeper, through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada from Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr, then take a four-night sleeper through the spectacular Canadian wilderness from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA. Then on to Asia and Europe, then New Zealand and Australia.

I'd get a compartment and write on the move, like Gene Wilder's character intends before hell breaks loose in Arthur Hiller's hilarious thriller Silver Streak.

Like many, I love stories, books and movies set on trains -- The Lady Vanishes, Shanghai Express, Night Train, the Sleeping Car Murders, Girl on the Train, Snowpiercer,  and of course, Murder on the Orient Express (in its various incarnations) to name a few. Which are your favourites?

Meanwhile I have my fantasies. I collect passenger train simulations on You Tube that I can run for hours, nonstop, sound off while I sleep. I gaze at the scenery from my Orient Express, or Flying Scotsman, or Seven Star Kyushu windows and domes. I enjoy gourmet meals and meet new people in the dining car. And maybe my detective Frank Ritz will have a train murder to solve. 


Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous. His epic novel Ophelia Rising continues to earn kudos as does his holiday novella, Milagro on 34th Street

His nonfiction books include High Treason (with Vladimir Sakarov, Ballentine/Putnam), and Sports Psyching (with Thomas Tutko, JP Tarcher).  His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His stories, essays and articles have been published widely in print and online since the 1960s.


I enjoyed reading about your train experiences, Umberto - I am also a big fan of train travel and have even done some of it in the USA, with Chicago to Denver definitely in my top 10! For European travel I much prefer it to going by plane as I like the feeling of having travelled a long distance and having got a better idea of how the plaves on the map relate to each other.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks, Cecilia, Well put, .. and write a story en route. European train trips are definitely on my author bucket list, I've ridden only one Continental train, long ago - Paris to Amsterdam, which I enjoyed greatly, sipping wine I couldn't afford, no writing.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Umberto! It reminded me of the one magical long(ish) journey here, from Inverness to London (OK, short in comparison!). It was a now-defunct service where one could put a car on the train, have a splendid lunch, drive off the other end. This one was the return trip, an overnighter, and we watched hares 'boxing' in the fields as the sun went down. Sadly, here in the UK long-distance trips on trains tend to be a nightmare; overcrowded, inadequate luggage space...but paris to Cannes was a different thing altogether. Sigh..
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Sandra! U.S.short-line trips could stand a lot of improvement too- with a few exceptions: The Boston-NY-DC Northeast Corridor, high-speed Acela is fastest in the US, albeit pokey compared to Asian bullet-trains. The Seattle to Los Angeles Pacific Coast Starlight is leisurely, but nonpareil for its oceanside and mountain scenery.

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