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Car vs train across the United States

  1. Once upon a time, back in the late Twenties and early Thirties, before television and track days were invented, European car enthusiast types had to be a little more creative when it came to vehicle-based tomfoolery. A popular little game was to pit car against the quotidian long-distance travel option of choice of the day: the locomotive. They used to race trains, in other words.

    Only decent distances would do, and one of the popular challenges was to attempt to beat the Calais-Méditerranée Express from the French Riviera to Calais - known less formally as Le Train Bleu because of its distinctive dark blue sleeping carriages.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Pics: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine 

  2. Sounds easy enough, except back in the day, motorway-style péages didn’t exist, necessitating the need to travel the often badly maintained and circuitous Routes Nationales in cars that were - usually - a damn sight less reliable than they are now. Which made it a real challenge. Various carmakers and drivers had attempted to beat the Blue Train, but none had succeeded.

    Until, that is, Rover stepped up with its Light Six model, and outran the train from Cannes to Calais for the first time. Job done, you might think. Except one man thought that the achievement was lacking in flair and an appropriate coup de grâce. That man was Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, a major shareholder in a little company called Bentley.

  3. A cornerstone of the infamous Bentley Boys - and three-time Le Mans winner in 1928, ‘29 and ‘30 - he made a bet for £100 that not only could he beat the train to Calais, but make it back across the Channel and to his London club before Le Train Bleu reached its destination. And so, on 13 March 1930, he fired up his Speed Six and attempted to make history.

    Having set off from the bar of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes with co-driver Dale Bourne, Barnato battled punctures and foggy weather, missed fuel stops and dangerously bumpy roads to catch a cross-Channel packet ship in time to arrive at the Conservative Club in St James’s Street, London, a bare four minutes before the Blue Train pulled into Calais. He’d sealed his legend, established Bentley and was immediately fined more than his winnings by French authorities for racing on a public road.

  4. Woolf Barnato is the reason I’m standing in an underground train siding in Chicago, USA, staring at a man in a pith helmet. Seriously, this is like Fear and Loathing on public transport: multicoloured shorts, red shirt, yellow scarf and aforementioned headgear, towing a small wheelie bag around in the murk with implacable geriatric purpose like some acid-trip adventure scout.

    He pauses, looks at me, snorts slightly and disappears into the side of a 20ft slab of stainless steel that stands to our left. Or, to be more exact, he boards the Amtrak California Zephyr and prepares to relax as a train takes the strain all the way to Emeryville, just outside San Francisco, 2,438 miles and - barring delays and including time-zone changes - 54hrs 10mins away.

  5. I won’t be taking the train. Outside Chicago Union Station sits a new Bentley Continental GTC V8, a Zephyr route map and a small bowser of cheap coffee. In a 2012, decidedly TopGear homage to the great Blue Train races, we’re going to have a little head-to-head of our own and try to beat the Zephyr to its terminus.

    The fairly faithful road route I’ve worked out, including some of the Zephyr’s best stops, should take us 52hrs 40mins. Which means we should beat the train, but leaves precious little time for actual sleeping, other than in the passenger seat. It is at this point I realise that I haven’t taken into account fuel stops, food stops, toilet stops, traffic stops or any other kind of stops. I swallow, and decide not to tell my companions - TG staffer Dan Read, photographer Justin Leighton and Bentley PR Mike Sayer - two of whom will be following in a W12 Continental chase car. A car that will require extra fuel stops.

  6. The chase car is there to grab photography as quickly as possible, and also because a Conti doesn’t have a spare wheel - a puncture will mean the end of the competition. The plan is that if the red V8 gets a puncture, we will strip the wheels from the W12 and keep going. I’ve told Mike about the photography. I didn’t tell him about the wheels.

    An hour later, and half an hour past its scheduled 2pm departure time, the train loads the last of its 486 passengers, lights flip to a line of green in front of the first of its three 4,250hp diesel-electric tractor units, and the Zephyr rumbles gently out of the station towing 13 coaches (three private rolling stock, four sleepers, three standard, and various dining, lounge and baggage cars) on their way across America.

  7. It’s a glorious sight, shining stainless steel pouring out of the underground station like mercury slipping down a plughole. Jealous of the passengers’ forthcoming adventure, I stand for a couple of minutes and then realise the train has just left. And we’re supposed to be racing it.

    With a start, I turn on my companions and start swearing at them to hurry up. We stumble and run through the Amtrak concourse underneath Chicago, up and across the beautiful 110ft-tall vaulted Great Hall and out across the street to where the gleaming Bentleys are parked. I flip down the roof, fire up the woofly bi-turbo, and we race off on the adventure of a lifetime.

  8. Or not, as it happens. As the train spears out of Chicago at 50mph on arrow-straight rails, the Bentleys spear straight into 5mph Chicago traffic and a confusing grid system of diversion. At which point, we have to put the roof back up because it’s p***ing down. This is not good. It is very, very quiet in the V8, and in frustration I am force-feeding myself tropical trail mix. This will prove to be a mistake.

    To gauge our position relevant to the train, in an effort to get some pictures en route, I have a rather nice man from Amtrak called Marc Magliari on speed dial, who is tracking the Zephyr from a communications bunker in Chicago. He has suggested we head to a place called Burlington in Iowa for the first stop, because it’s where the Zephyr crosses the Mississippi river along a picturesque iron bridge, a place we are sure to get a lovely shot. Burlington is 250 miles and about 4hrs 30mins away.

  9. Unfortunately, Chicago traffic means we get there 20 minutes after the train has swept imperiously through at 6.10pm, 45 minutes behind schedule, and I start to, in very basic terms, panic. The train is not hanging about. The Zephyr is doing, by my rough calculations, about 80mph between stations. We are already behind the train, and if we don’t catch it up, and fast, this will turn into a very dull story about failure.

    We fuel the cars at the local Kum & Go and eat radioactively yellow Cheetos. I buy a hat and feel slightly better, but the whole crew is painfully aware our next scheduled big stop is in Denver, Colorado - 830 miles and 15 hours away. Not a cheap distance.

  10. We chose the California Zephyr firstly because of its history. It first ran over a similar route in 1949, and was pitched as not just travel but “A vacation unto itself”. It had special Vista-Dome viewing cars with bubble-glass roof sections, sleeper cars with double bedrooms, and roomettes with flip-down bunk beds.

    With its hostesses nicknamed the Zephyrettes, it became synonymous with glamorous rail travel at a time when cheap US domestic flights were yet to leach the romance from long-range travel. It still has most of these elements. The second reason we chose it was because it covers some of the most spectacular parts of America in one long sinuous hit - from the Great Plains to the Rockies, the High Sierras to the Nevada desert. And because, with an average speed of 55mph, it would be a real challenge to beat cross-country, even in a powerful, modern car on well-resolved modern highways. It all fits together and looks great on paper. The reality, as we have already discovered in the faintly disastrous first leg, is somewhat different.

  11. There is also the burgeoning issue that, before we get to those spectacular eye-widening views, the Iowan plains immediately outside Chicago have to be negotiated, through the first night. What follows, therefore, is a testament to the power of caffeine.

    I faintly remember criss-crossing train tracks scythed through a couple of Midwestern suburban streets in a town I can’t remember the name of as the sun dipped behind buildings like a meteor on terminal approach. I remember going for a wee at the side of the road in the dark, and being really quite afraid of snakes. I remember fuelling the cars at an unmanned fuel station in the middle of the night and being afraid of being made to do unholy things by an armed and lonely trucker.

  12. I remember fields of sick-looking corn - there’s been a decent drought across this part of the US in recent months - and I remember the sheer, brain-melting monotony of driving an almost-silent, super-comfortable, near-200mph-capable Bentley Continental at 65mph through an entire night, almost exclusively in a straight line. One section of the I-80 Westbound between Des Moines and Omaha is 70 miles dead straight. At one point, I prayed for death. Just to have something to do.

    Dan and I do shifts at the wheel while the other tries to sleep. Ottumwa, Osceola, Creston, Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook are ticked off in sequence. Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska all falling beneath the veil of the night of the long drag. Somewhere around 5.30am, we stop for more fuel and discover a brew called Triple Black Coffee, which apparently contains up to 40 per cent more caffeine than regular java. I time-check the train. Amtrak Marc tells me it’s due into a place called Fort Morgan at 5.45am, and that it’ll be there for six minutes. Idly, I flick through the map to find out how far behind we are, too tired to really care.

  13. Fort Morgan, Colorado, is only six miles away. Chicken arms and much waving, sudden rush of adrenaline. The sun is up, and the Bentleys have gathered some attention, which I try to gently shoo away. “Which one do you like, son?” asks an elderly gentleman peering out from beneath a mighty Stetson, too-perfect teeth clicking slightly like rows of white porcelain corn. “The red one,” I say, without hesitation. “It sounds better, is nearly as fast and does about 140 miles more to a tank of fuel.”

    “Son,” says the old-timer, looking at me with something akin to pity. “You don’t buy a two hunnerd thousan’ dollar car like that, eat in McDonald’s and complain about the price of gas.”

  14. He’s right. So I mash the throttle pedal and try to burn away a few dollars’ worth getting to Fort Morgan before the train leaves. Working from timings direct from Marc and the train’s satellite tracker, we realise we’ve passed the Zephyr as it sat in the Fort Morgan station. So we slow and try to find a vantage point from which to take a picture. Dan suggests a bridge over the railway line, and we decamp and wait. After a brief unsettling feeling that we’ve somehow got the wrong railway line, we hear a familiar horn and catch a glimmer of cyclopean Zephyr headlight.

    It’s coming. And as the driver sees the red Bentley perched above him, he lets rip on the train horn, blasting away our fatigue with a physical wash of noise. The Zephyr slides underneath us, still gathering speed out of the station, and I realise once again that this funny little scenic train is really moving. And we’re not.

  15. Everyone piles into cars, suddenly very, very excited, and we stream off the bridge in a flurry of noise and all-wheel-drive screeching. Several minutes later, and we still haven’t caught the train, despite the Bentley’s Googlemapped satnav indicating the train tracks only 50ft to our left. We’re just about to give up when we hear a tumultuous “HOOONK” from behind, and the glowing sliver of the California Zephyr slides out from behind a low rise, majestic against the green.

    After a moment, the driver sees us and starts honking even more, and as we track a silver train in a flying Bentley across the flat bit in front of the Rockies, I quietly take a Polaroid of a memory and lock it away. There is cheering.

  16. Soon enough, track and road diverge again, and we’re forced to consult timetables and maps to figure out where we’re due next, and when. Both forms of transport are now stuffed tight in the eastern shadow of the Rockies, so we head up, through Denver, and on up a mountain to a place called Winter Park, where there may be another vantage.

    We’re slow through here, the views suddenly hugely scenic, thrown up from the plains like pop-up. The roads have corners, and for a few delicious minutes I actually get to properly test this car. The Bentley is imperious. Not exactly lithe, but well-controlled and gushingly fast, thundering up the mountain on a wave of V8 thunder and turbocharged mid-range. The steering’s great - better than in the W12 - the ride controlled, the refinement from a convertible second to none.

  17. According to our odometer, we’ve done nearly 1,200 miles in less than 24 hours by the time we reach Winter Park and Fraser. It feels - almost - manageable. An easy thing to say, but it must be pointed out that I fell asleep when we stopped for a 20-minute breakfast/petrol combo.

    The train has slowed in the mountains, hemmed by speed-restricted tunnels and tight turns, so we wait by a level crossing until it flows past just outside a ski-resort town called Fraser somewhere up Highway 40, waving to the driver, pleased to finally feel as if we’re making headway against such an implacable distance-munching enemy.

  18. Which is when I realise that my proposed route back up to the distance-dilating I-80, which had looked like such an inconsequential cut-through on the map back in the UK, would probably take four hours of vertical map travel. So we are forced into a demoralising and time-consuming 90-minute backtrack down the mountains. The towns of Rifle, Battlement Mesa, Parachute and Palisade scroll by.

    We eventually stop in a place called Grand Junction, Colorado and eat a thing called a steak burrito, which consists of two pounds of mixed meat and rice in a wrap. It sits heavily, especially when we check the satnav, late in the afternoon, and realise that we’re not - quite - halfway. The train, as ever, has got ahead of us again. Morale, it has to be said, is not perky.

  19. There’s nothing for it but to keep going, so we do. Out of the saw-toothed majesty of the Rockies, down and through a martian landscape of flat-topped mesas, across a vast plain where the sun crashes through the cloud like a still-life explosion. The scenery changes every 100 miles or so, flipping from one film set to another. We drive for three hours, fill the cars with fuel, repeat. Price, Spanish Fork, Provo, Orem and up towards Salt Lake City. Dusk is starting to crowd our vision, and things are getting slightly ropey.

    We duck south of the Great Salt Lake, grab an In-N-Out burger and strike out west again, but suddenly, all four of us are sucker-punched by fatigue. We’re down to 20-minute stints each. More back-of-fag-packet calculations about train times and distances, mental arithmetic made virtually impossible by the simple time-zone changes and extreme tiredness. It’s like trying to think through treacle. In the V8, we spend over an hour trying to calculate how long we can pause before the rest of the journey becomes pointless. Dan starts seeing green-eyed dogs in the desert and idly wonders why “all those lights are on poles”.

  20. They are the lights of oncoming traffic. Dan is driving. It’s time to stop. A brief blip of interest as we pass the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats to our right, but we can’t see them because it’s pitch black. On to the town of Wendover, and the haven of a motel, except that in a miscalculation of insane proportions, I haven’t realised that it’s Speed Week, and Wendover’s population has tripled. Eventually, after quite some desperation, we find a Motel 6 (think scary, think cheap), which costs us $120. Each. It’s 1am, and we have three-and-a-half hours of rest ahead. I drop like a felled tree.

    Only to wake up with a start, panicking again that the train has somehow managed 1,000 miles in under four hours and we’ve already lost. We refuel and slip back for a brief picture of the Bentley on the salt flats. Even at this early hour, the devotees of Speed start to rumble out onto the flats in a glorious hotch potch of home-brew Lakesters. We buy four coffees in polystyrene cups, cups neatly gutted by the plastic grip tabs in the Bentley’s cupholders. Both cars have centre consoles full of cheap coffee by the time we stop. A disaster. I really needed that coffee.

  21. The Zephyr, at this point, is already in a place called Winnemucca, Nevada, 235 miles ahead of us. It made up just under an hour in the time we stopped and is now running just nine minutes behind schedule. The bastard. Our only saving grace being that the final leg of the Zeph’s journey is much slower than tracking across the desert; it stops more in its final approach than anywhere else on the route. It’s due in to Emeryville, California at 4.20pm.

    We’re 650 miles and 10 hours’ solid driving from Emeryville, and it’s 6am. If we don’t stop at all, and keep to the speed limit, we’ll get there at 4pm. We’ll have to stop for fuel, so there’s only one parameter we can reasonably bend… Nevada. Well, the less said about Nevada, the better. More gobsmacking scenery for sure, but strangely, I’ve almost become inured to grand geographic gestures at this point, simply because I’ve become obsessed with that bloody train. Also, it all got a bit blurry. I’ll say two things, though: you can hold a conversation quite happily in a Bentley GTC V8 roof down, at speeds likely to have you banged up in Frisco’s defunct Alcatraz, and radar detectors work a treat in the USA, as long as you hit the brakes really hard as soon as they start to bleep.

  22. Reno. No idea about Reno. The Tahoe National Forest, a place called Truckee. We stop for fuel in a place called Colfax, California, some two-and-a-bit hours from Emeryville and come across a closed level crossing. Closed, because sat in the station is a stainless-steel vision. The Zephyr, paused. Thank you, Lord.

    Obviously, the train’s been delayed for some reason, and we can comfortably beat it into the San Franisco suburbs. We’re going to win, and I buy us all an iced coffee to celebrate. There we are, dawdling at this level crossing, pleased with ourselves and preparing for a victory roll into Emeryville, when the train pulls out. And the W12 crew point out that the train is pulling out of the station the wrong way.

  23. East. It’s heading east. Which is when I remember that the Zephyr is a two-train service every 24 hours. One each way: while we’ve been congratulating ourselves on being so very clever, ‘our’ Zephyr has been heading inexorably on towards Emeryville. Oh, and indeed, sh*t.

    A hurried call to Marc from Amtrak, which Dan takes as I floor the Bentley towards the coast and through the edges of Sacramento: “Yep, we’re just passing through Sacramento now,” says Dan, with only a slight edge to his voice. “Uh-huh, yes. Ok. Ah. Half an hour ahead of schedule, you say. Um.”

  24. Dan clicks my phone off and looks up. I look at Dan. We floor it a bit more. Turns out the 500bhp of the Bentley V8 is all there, and we’re prepared to use it. Traffic going towards San Francisco is static. We illegally fling ourselves down the lightly occupied High Occupancy Vehicle Lane, assuming that because the back seats are full of gear and we have the wind deflectors in place, we are - effectively - highly occupied two-seaters. There is some non-specific illegality. We cross the Carquinez Bridge with the Conoco Refinery on our right. South west towards Richmond, hook the Eastshore Freeway and look desperately for our turn off at Powell Street.

    Time check. The Zephyr is now due into the station at 3.45pm, 25 minutes early. It is 3.31pm, we’re in a town and we’re relying on GPS. I’m so tense I’m leaving fingerprints on the steering wheel. We’re not talking. After two days and two nights, we’re down to the wire. Powell Street. Hollis Street. OhGodohGod. The Bentley roars up every exit, bullies up to traffic at turn signals and generally behaves like a thing possessed. And then, there it is: Emeryville Amtrak train station on Horton Street.

  25. There’s a train in the station. I’m swearing lightly and repetitively until Dan points out that the train is the wrong shape, colour and size. Ah. So we scream into the arrivals area, and I simply abandon the slightly careworn, bug-spattered red V8 in a restricted parking zone and shout at Dan to take care of it.

    As I pile through the foyer, I dial Marc from Amtrak and burst through onto the platform with his voice in my ear. “I’m here, Marc, I’m here,” I gasp. “WHERE IS THE ZEPHYR?!” “It’s… due in eight minutes.” He says, sounding faintly disappointed. I do a little inappropriate dance, you know the one, where you stir an imaginary cauldron whilst bouncing from foot to foot and repeating a stupid phrase. As I’m embarrassing myself, I hear a now-familiar honk. And the California Zephyr pulls into Emeryville station, notably, completely, utterly and incontrovertibly after I get there.

  26. According to my - admittedly sketchy - notes, after 53hrs 40mins, 2,541 miles, nine fuel stops, 16 cans of Red Bull, four jumbo packets of trail mix, three hours’ sleep in a bed and seven fairly major arguments, the Bentley GTC V8 beat the train into Emeryville station by 7mins 40secs.

    I watch the man in the pith helmet disembark the train, rested, refreshed and ready for the day ahead, and know that the California Zephyr is an awesome thing. But as I sit in the car park, leaning back against the front bumper of my Bentley and hallucinating with fatigue, I look up at the sky and swear I can see the face of Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato outlined in the clouds. And he’s smiling.

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