By Judie Holcomb-Pack
Candy Wood found her dream volunteer position as a Train Host, but her love of trains began when she was just a young girl. In the late 1940s, Candy lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and her aunt in South Carolina mailed her a cat she named Chessie. Yes, mailed a cat! Back then, you could mail almost anything and the Post Office would deliver it. The cat looked like Chessie, the icon for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, whose motto was, “Sleep Like a Kitten.” That began her fascination with trains that has continued to this day.
At that time, Candy’s grandmother lived in Greensboro and behind her house was a railroad track. Her grandmother’s house had a sleeping porch and Candy loved to sleep there when she visited in the summer. She would listen for the train whistle and wonder about all the people on the train and the adventures they were going on.
Later, her family moved to Memphis and she and her mother traveled by train on the Louisville and Nashville line from Cleveland to Memphis. During her college years, she traveled on the Southern Railroad from Atlanta to Spartanburg, where she attended Conover College. Candy was fascinated with the grandeur of train depots, with their high ceilings and marble décor.
In the 1960s, as airline travel became more affordable and improvements in highways made travel by auto more convenient, the passenger train industry began losing money. Amtrak was formed in 1971 to take over passenger train services. Today, the train tracks themselves are owned by the railroads, but passenger service is handled by Amtrak.
In 1997, Candy arranged a train trip for an ESL (English as a second language) teacher at Reynolds High School who took a group of students to Raleigh. The students had a great time and Candy enjoyed sharing her love of train travel with them. She later planned a day trip to the State Fair for members of her church, St. Timothy’s Episcopal, and then other day trips to Charlotte.
On one of her trips, Candy met a couple from Salisbury who were Train Hosts. A Train Host is a volunteer who rides the train, either to Charlotte or Raleigh, answers passengers’ questions, tells them about places to visit, and teaches children about train travel. The couple encouraged Candy to apply and she submitted an application. After being accepted, she attended a training session in Raleigh and did two apprentice trips with experienced hosts before she was off on her own.
There are two trains that Candy rides: The Carolinian is owned by Amtrak and originates in Charlotte and continues on to New York City with 11 stops in North Carolina. The Piedmont is owned by the State of North Carolina and goes from Raleigh to Charlotte and makes two round trips a day. Its cars are named for state symbols, such as the Dogwood. The Carolinian and Piedmont cars are great for business travel, as they take just a little over three hours from Raleigh to Charlotte and have tables, a snack car, and even Wi-Fi on the Carolinian.
Candy has enjoyed meeting people from different places and pointing out different sights along the trip. If kids are on the train, she points out the various colleges they pass, such as UNC-G, NC A&T, Elon, Duke and NC State. She tells them about North Carolina, our state symbols, and interesting local facts. She tells passengers about places to visit in Charlotte or Raleigh, promotes special events, and recommends restaurants.
Candy continues to love trains and traveling by train. She points out that taking the train is a relaxing way to travel with large, comfortable seats and big windows where you can see scenery that you would never see if you were traveling by air or car. It is convenient, especially if you’re traveling with children. You can get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, or sit at a table in the cafe car and enjoy a snack or beverage. There are also outlets to plug in your phone or laptop. You don’t have to fight traffic on the highway or worry about the weather. Prices are reasonable and fares for children 12 and under are half the rate. They also offer AAA and senior discounts.
Amtrak offers spectacular vacation packages across the country, some including hotel and meals. Many of the trains originate in Chicago. The Empire Builder travels from Chicago to Glacier Park, Montana, and on to Seattle. The Southwest Chief goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. The California Zephyr goes from Chicago to Denver and on to San Francisco.
If you’ve never ridden a train, this summer would be a great time to take a day trip to Charlotte to visit Discovery Place, or to Raleigh to go to the state museums. You just might get bitten by the train bug, too!