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.