The phone call from Cincinnati came at 6 p.m. last Tuesday. A second opinion had confirmed that my only sister had a brain tumor and would be operated on Thursday morning.

Her daughter told me, "She wants to see you before the operation. She says you'll have to fly in for the funeral anyhow, so she says you might as well come a day early so that she can see you."

In short order I discovered that only two airlines fly to Cincinnati now. One was fully booked except for a flight at an inconvenient hour. The other would be glad to take me to Louisville (100 miles past Cincinnati), and then fly me back to Cincinnati from there.

In desperation, I thought of Amtrak. I learned that there is one train a day to Cincinnati, and it has just left. The next train would get me into Cincinnati after the operation had begun.

So I skipped sleep and flew in Wednesday. The plane was packed and Topic A among the passengers was the danger of a strike by air traffic controllers.

Just before the plane's wheels touched down on the runway at Cincinnati, the pilot poured the juice to his engines again and zoomed back into the air. The passenger next to me must have been a regular because he recognized the maneuver long before I was aware of what was happening. "What the hell!" he exclaimed. "We've been waved off. What's going on?"

After circling for a while, we landed routinely. As we filed past the captain to debark from the plane, my seatmate asked him, "Why didn't you tell us why it was necessary to abort that first landing attempt?"

The captain didn't take kindly to the question. "Because," he said testily, "I had my hands full trying to fly the airplane."

He had a point, and for a fleeting moment I found myself thinking about the ease and comfort that used to be routine on crack passenger trains. But the danger faced by my sister crowded out other matters during the long (80 minutes) ride to the hospital.

The next day, the surgeon said the operation was a success. "We got most of the tumor without any damage to the brain, but she'll have to undergo cobalt radiation treatments for a month or so." Four hours later I saw her in Intensive Care and asked her if she could hear me. Her eyes remained closed, but she raised her hand about four inches of the bed to indicate that she could. By Saturday she was out of IC and smoking cigarettes she should not have been given.

When I got back to the office on Saturday night, I found a stack of telephone messages that will keep me busy for the next few days. Also reams of copy about the approaching strike deadline that had been set by air traffic controllers.

Now there is time to think anew about the role of the Iron Horse in the building of America, its domination of the transportation scene for a hundred years, and its imminent demise.

Having ridden the Broadway Limited, the Twentieth Century Limited, the National Limited, the James Whitcomb Riley and other great trains of bygone years, and being a grateful patron of modern Metroliners to New York and New England. I am saddened by what has hapened to rail passenger service.

I don't know what we should have done differently to preserve alternative modes of long distance travel, but it seems clear that our country would have been better served if somebody had found a way to keep the Iron Horse in the passenger business.