Updated: Mar 25, 2020
It’s around midnight. There’s a low moaning and an onrush of powerful headlamps far off down the track. The northbound Coast Starlight is late out of Portland, Oregon, barreling through the night to try to make up time. Seattle is still two to three hours ahead.
Meanwhile, in Car 12, a woman passenger drops a lighted cigarette in a washroom waste basket and - what else? - in a few more miles the lower level of the car starts to fill with smoke. The alarm is raised. The barreling begins to slow. And when conductor and crew make a sweep through the section, the passenger who tossed the cigarette throws a loop and tries jumping from the moving train, only to get hauled back on board.
The Coast Starlight comes to a halt at a rural crossing, bells clanging, convenient for the line of blue flashing lights arriving over the hill. Then, as the crew moves the lady down to the trackside, she bolts into the night. More flashing lights. Nervous messages for passengers to keep calm and stay in their seats.
Sounds familiar? Can’t quite put a name to that noir film?
No, me neither. Even though I was on the train. That’s to say in Car 13, on the overnight from San Francisco, where all this happened just over a week ago.
The unexpected. It's all part of the thrill of moving on.
I love traveling on night sleepers. Nothing quite matches the noir of it. I skip the dining car, lock the cabin door, pull down the corridor blind and watch dark America roll by my window in an all-night private movie.
Try it, if you haven’t. Sleeping cars are becoming a rarer pleasure in other parts of the world, their trains so fast these days that you’ll generally be where you want to be in a day’s journey. Which is progress, of a kind. But on the Coast Starlight, South-West Chief, Empire Builder and a handful of others, you can still lull to the nighttime wail, and wonder at the moonlit and street-lit immensities out there. They’re the flashing backdrop, of course, to countless night train scenes from the silver screen.
And the unscheduled stop? Most of the lost time got pulled back, don’t ask me how. We were less than an hour late in Seattle. Then as we coasted into the station a message came in to say the lady on the lam was safe and getting the care she needed. So we could all sleep sound. I have to admit, at the time it did seem as if Noir City, Seattle had started early!
Did you know?
The Coast Starlight, still operating since Amtrak's formation in 1971, was the first to offer direct service between Seattle and Los Angeles. Its name is a combination of two former Southern Pacific trains, the Coast Daylight and the Starlight.
The two movie stills above are from Union Station, 1950 - directed by Rudolph Maté and starring William Holden, Nancy Olson and Barry Fitzgerald. The action takes place in Chicago Union Station but filming took place instead at Los Angeles Union Station. Built in 1939 - only 11 years before the movie - it's known as the Last of the Great Railway Stations built in the US mixing Art Deco, Mission Revival, and that unmistakable Streamline Moderne style. Since 1980 it's been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.