Oh, it was grand. It sounded best at night, a summer's night especially, when the windows were open for the breeze and the moonlight made a blue patch on the far wall. Way off in the distance a lowing moan, then another. And then the sound of rails quaking under a thunderous machine.

The train.

If you were lucky enough to live close, you'd lie in bed and feel it. Earth trembled as tons of locomotive and rolling steel rumbled past with a roar and a screech of whistle.

You never knew where it was going, but it had to be someplace wonderful. Wherever it was, you wanted to go along. You'd look at the heads in the lighted windows of the passenger cars, flashing by in cinematic silhouette, and just wish.

Well, they can't kill the memories, but the railroad is dying. It's a government acronym now--Amtrak, they call it --and after a fashion it will get you from here to some theres. But if it's grandeur you want, you'll have to supply that yourself, maybe from the memories.

Still, it was grand, and there wasn't an ear in America that didn't know it.

Paul Dempster isn't on this train because he wants to be.

If it weren't for the air traffic controllers' strike, he'd be halfway home to California by now, trailing a stream of jet vapor. But Dempster is a union man--president, secretary and treasurer of the tiny Sailors Union of the Pacific--and where there's a picket line, there's a principle.

So here he sits, clutching a Budweiser in one beefy hand, his ample girth swaying with every drunken hitch of the Broadway Limited's lounge car. Chicago is out there somewhere to the west, 20 hours away; 40-odd hours beyond that is, San Francisco.

"Might as well have another beer," he says forlornly. "Can't make this train run any faster."

This is the Slow Option in American transcontinental transportation. It is eternities slower, sometimes cheaper and often more convenient than an airplane (the nation's train stations, unlike its airports, are still located in the heart of the city). It is more expensive but infinitely more comfortable over the long haul than a bus.

It also has had its ticket punched by the Reagan administration. Destination: Oblivion.

In the words of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis: "Amtrak is a monument to bureaucracy. It's a mode of transportation from a bygone day."

So it is. The transcontinental passenger rail system is out of place by time. A nation once stitched together by tracks is now held together by a glue of asphalt, and more than 80 percent of the people traveling from one city to another do it by car. Of the rest, 80 percent take to the air and more than 15 percent board a bus.

Amtrak's slice of the whole pie amounts to one percent, half of that in the densely populated Northeast Corridor.

Which is about all Amtrak will serve if the budget-cutters eventually prevail. After a largely unsuccessful attempt to whack back the federal subsidy to Amtrak last year, the administration is taking a second crack at the numbers in fiscal 1983, proposing to cut $300 million, about 30 percent, from the 1981 level.

Amtrak officials say their trains will pay their own way by 1985 or they won't run at all. But they say they're in a building phase now, and a cutback of the size contemplated by the Reagan administration could reduce the system to a Boston-to-Washington railroad. So long, Seattle. Au revoir, New Orleans.

That's a slap in the face of history. After the budget-cutting threats to Amtrak last year, the wounded cries rolled in from the Hill, from the National Association of Railway Passengers and from hundreds of Americans whose memories still hold faded pictures of the grand long-distance passenger trains of old: The majestic Santa Fe Super Chief, the immortal 20th Century Limited.

Those people haven't been on a train lately.

It is still possible to circle the nation entirely by rail, getting off or on at any one of the 511 cities and towns served by the Amtrak system, and it can be done in a fair amount of comfort, though not in luxury on the scale of the past.

The sacrifice is time.

It takes more than 170 hours by train to make the trip from Washington to Seattle, down the coast to Los Angeles, across to New Orleans and back to Washington. The journey covers 7,784 miles, roughly a third of the 24,000 miles of track over which the Amtrak trains run.

A 500-mile-an-hour jet could cover more than 80,000 miles in that amount of time, enough to get across the nation and back a dozen times.

Still, these are not ghost trains running across the wide plains of America. It is no easy task to get a short-notice reservation on a long-distance train. Amtrak says its ridership is "holding steady," but it's the long-distance trains that are holding it there. Ridership on transcontinental trains went up in the first nine months of last year--even before the start of the air traffic controllers' strike--while the number of riders in the vaunted Northeast Corridor dwindled.

The transcontinental trains may be dinosaurs, but they are dinosaurs imbued with enchantment--the night whistles of a million childhoods, the thunder and screech of steel on steel, the track stretching endlessly to places beyond the reach of dreams.

"I had to take the train this time," said a 76-year-old man, Pittsburgh-bound after a visit to his grandchildren in New Jersey. "It might be the last." It was not of his own mortality that he spoke.

THE BROADWAY LIMITED TO CHICAGO

The Broadway Limited is already well populated when it leaves Washington's Union Station precisely on time at 1:15 p.m. By the time it pulls out of Philadelphia, melded with the cars bearing passengers from New York, it is nearly full. It is also eight minutes late.

The statistic is meticulously noted in the creased timetable of the lounge car's railway buff ("There's one on every train," a conductor notes sourly), but it is a statistic without meaning. In the course of a 20-hour trip to Chicago, eight minutes counts for little. In the course of the lives of most passengers, it counts for even less.

The Amtrak fleet has achieved an average speed of 55 miles an hour--the congressional target--not counting station stops. But the Broadway Limited seems intent on thwarting the average. It chuffs along steadily, but none too quickly, toward Philadelphia, picking its way through the rough sections of track. Even the whistle, muffled by the insulated windows, sounds slightly somnolent.

This is the high-speed track of the system, across which Amtrak recently succeeded in getting a Metroliner train from Washington to New York in three hours, fast enough to make it competitive with the combination of a jet shuttle and a crawling taxicab. But the Broadway Limited isn't the Metroliner. It isn't even a faint echo of the old Broadway Limited.

"The old Broadway Limited --in the 1930s it used to leave Chicago at the same time as the New York Central train, the 20th Century Limited. The trains used to race to New York, you know, really hauling it down the tracks."

There's a wistful note in Paul Stoy's voice, though he's too young to have been around for the heyday of the old Broadway Limited. He's a railroad man, though--got his start on the New York Central, worked a bit for Amtrak when it first started. He's a machinists' union representative from Chicago now and, like Dempster, avoiding the picket lines by taking the Slow Option. Hasn't been on a train in years. Hasn't had the time.

"The old Broadway Limited, yeah, that was quite a train. Those were all pretty good trains."

The new Broadway Limited rolls slowly through the endless Northeast urban sprawl, offering a close-up view of America's untidy backyard. Junkyards. Slag heaps. Skeins of sooty laundrtal 20th Cery. Seedy warehouses and rotting loading docks. At ground zero in the city, there is no right side of the tracks.

The rail yards are an odd sort of graveyard, where freight cars bearing the names and insignias of the dead lines mingle with those of the living. There is the melodic Erie Lackawanna, the crisp Marinette, Tomahawk & Western, the authoritative RF&D, and everywhere the blue and white of Conrail.

The Broadway Limited's cars have been resurrected from such a graveyard, old Pullmans refurbished with laminated tables and microwave ovens. The effect is a sort of pentimento, golden arches overlaid on Art Deco.

Veneer cracks in the dining car, where Charlie DeGrau is sitting at a cramped table, attacking a piece of beef that appears to have been made out of the same sheet of plastic as his fork and knife.

Amtrak has been losing money in its food operation, and that, Congress has decreed, must stop. So the new dining cars are a model of efficiency, economy and inedibility. The dinner menu consists of four equally tasteless microwaved entrees served on plastic trays by a dour Amtrak employe who collects the cash first.

If the change is a disappointment to a passenger new to Amtrak, it's more so to inveterate train travelers Charlie and Marilyn DeGrau.

"We don't take the train to go someplace," says DeGrau, a banker from New Jersey. "We go someplace to take the train."

They've ridden just about every mile the trains travel and, aside from the food, the train still suits their style-- first class. They have a bedroom suite aboard the Broadway Limited, composed of two bedroom compartments with the center wall folded back. "Saves arguments on who gets the lower berth," DeGrau explains. What it doesn't save is money. Round trip for two, New Jersey to Chicago, will run the DeGraus around $1,100. The same trip coach class by rail would have cost them less than $500.

The train offers three classes of accommodations, and the DeGraus have assured themselves a premier position in the top one: The bedroom people, who get a private room with a tiny, separate toilet. The middle class consists of the sleeperette people, who get a tiny closet-like room, a toilet that doubles as a hassock for the chair and a sink that folds into the wall. At the bottom are the coach passengers, who get a seat to call their own and share the toilets at the end of the car.

But the dining car and lounge cars are class-less, and there the passengers gather as the train rolls laboriously through Pennsylvania, through the neat Amish farms of Lancaster County, across the Susquehanna River, past the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

The playing cards flick; the bartender runs out of Budweiser. At the corner table, a dozing old man has awakened and is sharing war stories with whoever chances to sit down, most recently a bearded young man in a denim jacket and feather- banded cowboy hat.

"Can I get you another drink?"

"Why not? Why not? I got time." The old man laughs. "We all got time."

Paul Stoy has gone off to his sleeperette to catch up on paper work. Paul Dempster is talking unions with a couple from Kansas City, Kan. The DeGraus have retired to their suite.

The train rolls on, into the night, and it's still 12 hours to Chicago.

THE EMPIRE BUILDER TO SEATTLE

It's 7 p.m. in Whitefish, Mont., 32 hours out of Chicago, still 14 hours from Seattle, and this train is going nowhere.

The Empire Builder, a gleaming string of red, blue and silver Superliner cars, is one of Amtrak's most popular long-distance trains (ridership up more than 10 percent in 1981), the kind of train that inspires phrases like "a rolling neighborhood" and "mankind's perfect decompression chamber"--both of which it has been called in recent travel prose.

Under the best of conditions--even under less than the best of conditions--that might be true. But aboard the Empire Builder in Whitefish, with a derailed freight blocking the tracks ahead and a range of mountain peaks covering the retreat, with a long line to the only nearby pay phone and the train's bars closed tight, pithier descriptions come to mind.

This is a vacation train, replete with middle-aged tourists and retired adventure-seekers. It is an extended Disneyland ride, a Love Boat on tracks, complete with a sleeper car attendant-cum-social director.

There's a piano bar on the lower deck of the lounge car and a friendly barkeep with an endless supply of cold ones on the upper deck. The compact and designer-modern sleeperette is attractive and comfortable enough to make one overlook the niceties that fall short --like the piped-in stereo system that has never been hooked up and the individually controlled air conditioner that blows only cold, colder and hypothermic.

It takes the Empire Builder two days and two nights to get from the Windy City to the Puget Sound, and the route couldn't have been better planned in a theme park. The train winds through the pastoral perfection of Wisconsin dairy country with the late afternoon sun burnishing the cornfields. The lakes of Minnesota ripple silver and orange in the sunset. Dawn breaks pink and gold in North Dakota, a delicate watercolor of stubbled wheatfields.

By the second afternoon, the train is threading its way through the mountainous grandeur of Glacier National Park, and the mood aboard is anything but somnolent. The electric piano tinkles forth an endless stream of "Chopsticks." Ice clacks in plastic glasses. The rolling neighborhood is having a block party. The loners keep to their reserved coach seats or their glass- walled sleeperettes.

In the lounge car, whatever reserve came aboard has dissolved in the plenteous fruits of the bar, and time and the train roll steadily onward. Time, glorious time, and the gleeful irresponsibility of the long-distance train.

"When do we get to Seattle?" a blond boy asks his mother. "I don't know," she replies. "We'll get there when we get there."

Enter Whitefish.

There's a scheduled 20- minute stop here, but an hour later the train hasn't moved. It doesn't take long to change this trainload of carefree vacationers into clock-watchers, suddenly and nervously aware that they are trapped on this slender double rail of steel. No side roads. No detours. No later flights.

"Will we be here much longer?" an elderly woman asks a conductor. "My son is taking off work to pick me up."

Another passenger collars the sleeper car attendant. "Say, we've got a plane to catch in Portland. Are we going to make it?"

The Amtrak employes, when they can be persuaded to say anything at all, explain that there's a derailment ahead. A hot-shot freight rounded a curve and spilled a dozen flat cars. The Empire Builder can't get through.

There are three options: Wait for the mess to be cleaned up and the track relaid. That will take about 24 hours. Or the train could retrace its route through Glacier back to Shelby, Mont., and take a northern route through Canada. Might take just as long. Or the passengers could finish their trip by bus.

A chorus of groans.

A gaggle of green Amtrak company cars appears, followed by huddled conferences. A decision is made: The train will proceed to Libby, Mont., where a fleet of buses will be waiting to receive its passengers. The buses will drive around the derailment to Sandpoint, Idaho, where the eastbound Empire Builder is due in around 3 a.m. A passenger swap will ensue, the locomotives will be moved to the other ends of their respective trains, and both Empire Builders will head back where they came from.

There's a four-hour wait in Whitefish, a one-hour wait in Libby, a two-hour ride in a school bus through the Montana pines and a two-hour wait in the Sandpoint train station, where 200-odd passengers crowd into a 35-capacity waiting room.

The train station has no coffee machine. The eastbound Empire Builder is an hour late.

Does this happen often? a passenger asks a conductor.

"Sometimes," he replies.

By taking a shorter route across Washington, the train manages to arrive in Seattle at 2 p.m., just six hours behind schedule.

But the final word belonged to America's passenger train company. "Welcome to Seattle," the weary attendant announces as the train noses into its berth. "And thank you for riding Amtrak"--a pause-- "the magical train company."

THE COAST STARLIGHT TO LOS ANGELES

There's an eerie silence aboard the Coast Starlight as it rolls south from Seattle. Even the click of the tracks is barely audible, a tribute to the condition of the tracks but also slightly jarring--like the calm in a hurricane's eye.

Aboard these sound-insulated trains, the rhythmic click is more than soothing; it is an affirmation that a tangible world exists outside the panoramic windows. Towns move by as if on a television screen with the sound turned off. The rivers do not murmur, the trucks sliding along the highway have no roar, the noisy commerce of factories is conducted in silence. A bell swings jubilantly in the tower of a white frame church, but it peals in pantomime.

There is plenty of time to ponder the silent, glum beauty of this gray Pacific Northwest day. The Starlight moves fitfully, stopping, rolling forward, stopping again. A problem in the lead coupling, the conductor says. The northbound counterpart of this train, he says, presumably by way of reassurance, is 12 hours late. A derailment south of Klamath Falls, Ore., forced a major rerouting. Will it affect this train?

He shrugs. Amtrak people shrug a lot.

The Coast Starlight runs 1,365 miles along a popular vacation route that starts in the scenic Northwest, stops in Oakland across the bay from San Francisco, and ends in the Southern California sunshine. It is a commuter train along part of its route, ferrying businessmen from Seattle to Portland, from Portland to Eugene, and on this day is filled to capacity.

It carried more than a half-million people last year, a ridership increase of nearly 10 percent over 1980. And it lost money--a little more than $5 million in 1981.

The fact is that all Amtrak's transcontinental trains lose money. The Coast Starlight simply loses less than the others.

A major reason, Amtrak says (and the administration agrees), is the cost of union labor. Amtrak rents more than track from the private railroads--it also rents the crews that drive the trains across their company's tracks. Under contracts negotiated when railroad profits were high, those crewmen, depending on their job, get a full day's pay for every 100 or 150 miles traveled. Amtrak's cost for a six-person rented operating crew from Seattle to Los Angeles is $6,330. For a 36-hour trip, the bill works out to about $35 an hour apiece.

Labor accounts for more than half of Amtrak's operating costs--a percentage the company hopes to cut back this year, the first in which it will negotiate some its own labor contracts rather than live with the master freight contract negotiated by the private railroads. The administration is counting on a sizable labor "giveback"; it is basing its rationale for cutting back Amtrak's subsidy on a $75 million savings in labor and management costs.

Amtrak isn't ready to say that's a reasonable expectation. Its hands are tied, for instance, on the contracts with the operating crews outside the Northeast Corridor. It must accept--and pay--whatever the private railroads negotiate.

Trains are exceptionally popular in California, which last fall inaugurated the year's only addition to Amtrak's routes, the Sacramento-to-Los Angeles Spirit of California (the winning name in a contest that saw "The Medflyer" rejected).

The Spirit of California is one of fewer than 20 of Amtrak's 250 trains operating under a complex arrangement of state subsidies. In the spirit of New Federalism, the administration is calling on states to double their contribution to the trains, but that may be a forlorn hope.

Even at current subsidy levels, for instance, hard-pressed Minnesota is not optimistic about continuing its state- supported Amtrak service from Duluth to the Twin Cities.

In California, too, Amtrak hopes to unveil the train that may bring back the profitability of nationwide passenger rail. With the aid of Japanese experts who helped design that country's famous high-speed trains, Amtrak is studying the possibility of a so-called "bullet train" capable of speeds up to 160 miles an hour, track conditions permitting.

Where the bullet trains run in other countries, they are profitable, enough so to counter the money lost on conventional trains. Because of that, Amtrak thinks it will be able to attract foreign and domestic investors to the bullet trains and thereby save itself the trouble of asking for federal dollars.

If the marketing studies are optimistic, and Amtrak can put together the money for the trains and the all-dedicated rights of way they would require, the high-speed trains might one day run not only in California but between Tampa and Miami, around densely populated Chicago, and in the Texas Triangle, between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Ft. Worth.

They would not run as transcontinental trains, however. The Slow Option would remain slow.

The Starlight reaches the outskirts of San Francisco shortly after dawn, gliding past the ritual junkyards, where wrecked boats lie among the crushed automobiles and rusted refrigerators, with their hulls split and their portholes ripped out, staring blindly up at the sky like dead fish.

South of the bay area, California stretches into an endless farm--purple statice and red carnations in one valley, artichokes and asparagus in the next. It is a child's nightmare of garden-ripe yellow squash, glossy fields of spinach, boxcars overflowing with parsnips.

Still farther south, the Pacific Ocean stretches serenely along miles of featureless, arid coastline.

The signs of civilization begin to reappear just north of San Luis Obispo, where the filtering pools of a sewage treatment plant sit in the middle of a lettuce field, like shiny quarters on a felt poker table.

It is twilight when the train pulls into Los Angeles, and the cavernous station is darkened and almost deserted. There's a coffee shop, which offers little more than a repeat of the fare aboard the train, but across the street there's a fiesta in progress, offering food, mariachi music and salvation from a dismal three-hour layover in a station that is, like train stations across the country, many times too large for its purpose.

THE SUNSET LIMITED TO NEW ORLEANS

The Sunset Limited moves at a reasonable clip, but it is no match for the great American Southwest. Even a bullet train might be daunted by these vast plains.

Here, the slide show is in slow motion. There are few reference points by which to judge distance or speed, but a spectacular bluff that rises from the desert in the second chapter of an aboard-the-train novel is still visible in chapter four. In chapter six, its twin appears, like the background drawing in a cheap animated cartoon.

Here and there, a town hunkers close to the ground, resisting the wind's attempt to scrub it away. The names of the towns, matched against the train's schedule, are the only clear indication that the train is making any progress at all.

The Reagan budget documents for 1983 single out the Sunset Limited as a target for its indignation. The federal subsidy on this train, it says, is $192 per ticket, enough to buy every passenger economy air fare. Amtrak officials quibble with that figure a bit: Because of the length of the route, the pro rata operating cost is high, and the train runs only three times a week. Even with a full load of passengers, though, this train will lose money. Last year it lost nearly $18 million, despite an 8.8 percent increase in ridership.

But without it, the Amtrak system is not a national rail system. The Sunset Limited, rolling across the American desert, is a link to the Crescent, and thence the South, the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Remove one link, Amtrak officials say, and the rail system is no longer national.

And when it is no longer national, it is that much closer to not existing at all. Amtrak is keenly aware of the pork- barrel nature of some ossenger f its trains (As one official noted: "Every train goes through a congressional district.") Few lawmakers from, say, west Texas, would be interested in voting appropriations for a passenger rail system that served nothing but the Northeast Corridor.

And the better part of this 44-hour trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans is spent in west Texas. Mercifully, at least for the sleeping car passengers, Amtrak has scheduled the trip to encompass two nights, which can be spent in blissful unconsciousness while the train struggles against the miles. Most of the passengers seem intent on sleeping away as much as the daylight hours as they can as well.

For the Amtrak service crew, it is a relaxed trip, with plenty of time to kibitz. The conversation runs to discussions of furloughs, layoffs, savings accounts and going back to school.

"I like my job," said a young coach car attendant. "But I don't think there's any future in it." Because the rail system may be dying?

"No," she said, with conviction in her voice. "The trains won't die. The country won't let them die."

An hour later the train is crossing the Mississippi into New Orleans, and the attendant comes back to point out the sights among the glittering lights. Just below the bridge, churning a silver wake in the moonlight, is a steamboat, making its nightly excursion alone down the river that once teemed with steamboats.

The steamboat's whistle booms across the water, and, as if in answer, the train whistle shrieks into the night.

THE CRESCENT TO WASHINGTON

Mention of a planned trip aboard the Crescent still elicits an envious look or two, but the glory days of the old Southern Crescent, among the most famous of Amtrak's adopted trains, are behind it.

The contrast with the past is less pronounced on the Superliner trains of the West, but in the East, where the tunnels prohibit the use of the shiny new double-decker cars, it is impossible to separate the past from the present.

There is something melancholy about this train, which retains an air of antiquity despite its plastic-laminate refurbishings, and something comfortable as well.

It was considered an honor to work aboard the Southern Railway's Southern Crescent, one of the premier trains of its time. Some former Southern Railway passenger employes are still with Amtrak, and the train has one of the finest staffs aboard the Amtrak system. Still, it is a train with few pretensions to its past.

It chuffs into the clapboard depots along its route, rolling slowly through the countryside of a region where being in a hurry is neither common nor particuarly valued. It is no longer a grand train, but it is dignified and practical.

It is also less populated than its Superliner cousins, There are rarely more than a half-dozen people in its small lounge and, relatively rare aboard the long-distance trains, some sleeping compartments sit empty. Its ridership is going up, but at a slower pace than the rest of the long-distance trains.

The Crescent's route takes it across Lake Pontchartrain, up through Louisiana across Mississippi and Alabama, then north through Georgia and the Carolinas. The train rolls past cotton and tobacco fields, through the grimy industrial districts of cities and past the dusty Main Streets of small towns, rarely within sight of obvious wealth but nearly always within sight of poverty, And there is something striking in that journey, something that occurs outside the train.

Across the South, Main Streets still abut the tracks without benefit of urban renewal overpasses and the other concrete baffles that seem designed to keep town and train as nearly separate as possible. Motorists stop at the rail crossing climb out of their cars and shade their eyes to watch the train. In the yards of the tiny houses jumbled together near the tracks, children look up from their play to wave at the passing faces.

At night, as the lights of those cramped little houses flash by, it is easy to imagine a child inside, listening to the thunder ofme ossenger the passing train, thinking of the wonderful places it might be going. And having all the time in the world.