Union Pacific

Wish I could buy me a ticket
For the Union Pacific:

I might go to Idaho, lie low in New Mexico,
Hear that lonesome whistle moan across the sage in Arizona
Or the roaring of the motor on the road to Minnesota.
Wander far in Iowa, spend days roaming in Wyoming;
Watch a mile-long line of freight wind across the Sunshine State,
Armor Yellow and Old Glory flying proudly through Missouri.

Texarkana to Topeka, San Francisco to Chicago
Arkansas and Colorado, Texas, Utah, Tennessee:
Oklahoma and Nevada, Illinois, Louisiana
Manifests from east to west. But there ain’t no ride for me.

Long ago I could have planned to take the fabled Overland
Hopped the City of Salina or the westbound Columbine.
Now intermodal double-stacks and bulk coalporters own the tracks;
For the drifters and the dreamers it’s the end of the line.

Still, I can take a journey just by reading down the list
Of the states and mighty cities spread through Uncle Pete’s domain.
And perhaps some day I’ll stand beside the line and raise my hand
To the shade of Casey Jones – but I’ll get there on a plane.


If, like me, you love railways, living in Britain is like being a vegetarian in Texas. Our railways are under-funded, overcrowded, and have the most expensive fares in Europe, if not the world. As the journalist Matthew Engel says in his witty and erudite book Eleven Minutes Late, they’re regarded as a national joke, when in fact they’re a national disaster.
Post-privatisation, we have a plethora of different companies running our trains, and not one of them has a name so resonant as the Union Pacific, which operates across more than 20 US states from Washington to Wisconsin. These days, it’s freight-only: passenger traffic ceased in 1971.
For my generation in particular, much about America remains impossibly romantic. To my US readers, names like Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City and Chicago probably sound as enticingly exotic as, say, Doncaster, Swindon or Crewe might to us here in the UK. Yet to me, they read like an incantation, summoning visions of empty lands and wide horizons. I’m sure the reality is nothing like my dreams. But for now, dreams is all I got.

5 thoughts on “Union Pacific

  1. I enjoyed this virtual tour 🙂 I’ve often wondered why trains are not popular in the states, it must be great to travel through all those states like that. Trains are good to get places in a nice relaxed way. I always go by train on the mainland, as I can’t drive. International trains have a special charme, the different people you meet. I loved Interailing all the way to Morocco and Greece. Of course, it has its downsides: the toilets in the train to Algeciras were a nightmare and a stream of urine ran through the alley 🙂 Trains in England are nice, I think, if you go first class. I’ve also been in a crowded train to Newcastle, not pleasant. The first class was as good as empty. I would like to take a tour to Inverness 🙂 And there are those nice old steam trains!

    • Thank you, Ina – I had fun on my whistle-stop trip Stateside too! I wish I’d been Interrailing when I was young. I have a soft spot for steam trains, and I’m lucky enough to have one of our best preserved railways just a few miles away: when the wind’s in the right direction, we can hear the whistles, which is one of the most evocative sounds I can think of.

  2. I’m going to try posting again, although I am getting discouraged. All my posts disappear into the wordpress vacuum somewhere lately.
    This sounds like jazz to me, syncopated rhythms beating out the clackety clack of a train running smoothly over tracks. When we were living in New Mexico, when we’d go to the Sunday meeting of the Zuni Mountain poets, we’d always see at least five trains one way traveling between Continental Divide and Grants. I think the most I ever counting was fifteen when there was a back-up.
    There was also a narrow-gauge steam train that runs from Durango to Silverton, Colorado a few hours from Continental Divide in New Mexico. It was built during the silver and gold rush days of Colorado, but is today only used for tourists. The price of a ticket got too expensive for Ethel and I, but when I was young the best thing in the world was to get on the train in the spring, ride up the San Juan Mountains, seeing spectacular waterfalls every couple of miles, and being amazed by the wildlife you could see. These days you seldom see wildlife on the Durango/Silverton route.
    This poem brings memories of trains and train rides into your head. The U.S. trains are running on old tracks and the graffiti on the box cars can be disgusting to great, but this is a great poem.

    • Thank you as always, Tom. One of my favourite poems has always been WH Auden’s ‘Night Mail’, and I wanted to get some of the feel (if not the genius) of his marriage of form and subject matter. For me, there’s a whole ‘nother poem in your comment: the mere words ‘Durango’, Silverton’ and especially ‘Continental Divide’ are like music to me. So thank you for those; they’ll be running in my head like freight trains all day, and I’ll be ridin’ ’em.

    • What’s fascinates me is that place-names which, I guess, are probably very prosaic and unglamorous to you as an American seem so exotic to me. And does ‘Swindon’ conjure up images of foreign parts the way ‘Durango’ does to me (somehow I doubt it, and if you’ve ever been Swindon, you’ll know why!) The other oddity is that I wrote this piece, and hear it in my head, in my own English accent: I’m not even sure how to say ‘Texarkana’ – or ‘Topeka’, come to that! I guess it must sound very different to you. We are indeed, as a wise man ocne said, two great nations, separated only by a language. N.

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