Bowie by Land: On the Rails in the USA

The train whistle that signals the arrival of Station to Station seems evocatively linked to Bowie’s return to Europe, and that works, but for every arrival there is a departure, and the train whistle just as well marks the end of Bowie’s sojourn in America.

If you live in Europe or Japan, you might think that the most difficult aspect of touring worldwide if you refuse to fly would be the ocean crossing, but you’d be wrong. That was the easy part, when it came to the US tours during the early 1970s. I’m not going to look into how Bowie traveled around UK or the Continent when he wasn’t flying because he would do it like anyone else: frequently by rail.

Although it was  slightly better in the early 1970s than it is now, train travel in the US is a disgrace.**  Bowie’s refusal to fly any of the legs of his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane US tours meant he was on the bus, in a car, or on the rails for days at a time. I’d go as far to say, counting out those who live in the Northeast (Boston—NYC—Washington DC), that David Bowie spent more time traveling by train for business in the US than did any American (or anyone else) of his generation.

Remember my map of the 15,000 miles plus that Bowie traveled in 1972? Here’s another one, modified from an Amtrak brochure, showing the train routes from that time and which routes Bowie traveled, based on chronologies at The Ziggy Stardust Companion, Bowie Golden Years, and Kevin Cann’s David Bowie: Any Day Now.

We know that in November 1972, Bowie traveled from Seattle to Phoenix on the train. He may well have ridden the Coast Starlight from LA as well, departing around October 25, stopping off in San Francisco for the October 27 and 28 Winterland performances, and then on to Seattle for the October 31 concert.

Along the Coast Starlight route in the Cascade Mountains.*

His next show was on November 4 in Phoenix, where he told his audience that he had written “Drive in Saturday” on the train. He would have had plenty of time; the Coast Starlight route is a 1389 mile trip taking 35 and a half hours.

In LA he would have boarded the Sunset Limited for Phoenix. This is a trip he couldn’t take today. Phoenix, the sixth most populated city in the US, has no train service.

Between 1972 and 1974, Bowie racked up a lot of mileage on the Super Chief route. The Super Chief was a popular and comfortable way to travel 2256 miles from LA to Chicago when it was taken over by Amtrak in 1971. By 1974, service had so declined that its original owner, the Santa Fe Railway, insisted Amtrak change its name, and so it became the Southwest Limited.

On November 17, 1972, Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars were in Dania, Florida, not far from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. There Bowie told the crowd that he had been writing on the train between LA and Chicago (Super Chief), and Chicago and Miami. Back then it would have made sense to take a train from Chicago to Miami: there was one. The Floridian, which ran from Chicago through Louisville KY, Nashville TN, Birmingham AL, Jacksonville FL, and down to Miami (and points in between) closed October 1979. Louisville and Nashville, the 27th and 25th largest population centers in the US, no longer have passenger train service.

Bowie did a second, 2-month Aladdin Sane tour in early 1973, playing only a few cities east of the Mississippi, with one exception. On March 3 he ended this stretch of the tour in Chicago, and a week later played Long Beach Auditorium and the Hollywood Palladium. Likely once again he had headed west on the Super Chief.

Following the Young Americans sessions in August 1974, Bowie could have caught the Cardinal from Philadelphia to Chicago and then the renamed Southwest Limited for seven concerts at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheatre. The Diamond Dogs tour resumed as The Philly Dogs Tour or The Soul Tour in St. Paul, Minnesota. Likely Bowie had returned to Chicago on the Southwest Limitedand then headed north.

The Southwest Limited in Kansas. Photo from National Archives.

When Cameron Crowe interviewed Bowie in LA in May 1975, Bowie had once again crossed the country by train, having left NYC. Once more in June Bowie boarded the Southwest Limited, this time disembarking in Albuquerque, NM, base camp for Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie is said to have brought some 400 books along to read on the set. There are advantages to train travel, and the ease of bringing along several steamer trunks full of books for a 3-month job is one.

One of the images at the start of The Man Who Fell to Earth is of an abandoned train engine. Bowie left the US in 1976 after touring Station to Station. I can find no indication that on subsequent US tours he traveled by train. He had overcome his fear of flying in the later 1970s, although after 9/11 he became less comfortable with air travel, and for much of the US portions of the 2003-2004 Reality tour, he opted for a well-equipped tour bus. Trains were not an option.


**One quick example: means of travel from Atlanta to Chicago (the 9th and 3rd largest metro areas, 718 miles):

  • Plane. 1 hr, 43 min. $167 (typical one-way fare – could be higher, could be lower)
  • Auto. 12 hrs. fuel: $52 [for a 2008 Corolla]
  • Amtrak: 37 hours, 41 minutes. $245 one way

This was 6 years ago in 2011. It is worse now (2017). No improvements expected.

2 thoughts on “Bowie by Land: On the Rails in the USA

  1. Great article. It is a shame the “Iron Horse” of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries has been made obsolete in many ways. It was a romantic way of travel.

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