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Texas Eagle Travelogue
from Pat Casey

A November trip from Dallas to Los Angeles

    An opportunity arose early this fall to attend a convention in
Dallas to be held the week before Thanksgiving. I originally hoped to
travel there by rail, but gave up the idea with the announcement that The
Texas Eagle would cease running in early November of 96.Then came the
sudden (and delightful) turnabout and the extension of that service until
May 97 or so, and I was on the phone immediately seeing what Amtrak could
do for me.To reach Dallas from Portland one has two options: to Chicago via
the Pioneer or Empire Builder, then south on the Texas Eagle; or south to
L.A. aboard the renowned Coast Starlight and then east on the Sunset
Limited/Texas Eagle. I had ridden the Pioneer, Empire Builder and Coast
Starlight before, and I didn't have time to make the entire journey by
rail, so I decided to fly to Dallas, take the Eagle/Sunset to L.A., and
then fly home to Portland from there. Thanks to some air fare deals I was
able to pay considerably less for the two one-way air segments than I had
originally feared, and Amtrak had one economy bedroom left on the day I
wanted to travel, so I was set.

    I was looking forward to the trip because I enjoy passenger rail
travel and had not been in a sleeper since getting a roomette on the Empire
Builder from Chicago to Portland back when Amtrak was still using heritage
equipment on that route in the 70s, when I rode the train home from
college. I also had never been to West Texas, New Mexico, nor Arizona
before. Also an added, if minor bonus was that the westbound Eagle leaves
Dallas by an historic route: immediately after clearing Dallas Union
Station it crosses the infamous Triple Underpass at Dealey Plaza, where
President Kennedy was assassinated. I've been interested in that sad bit of
history for eons and it would be interesting to see the site from a new

    My convention went well and on departure day I phoned Amtrak and
learned that the Eagle was ahead of schedule, set to arrive Dallas at
something like 3:00 rather than 3:05. I had planned to arrive at Union
Station fairly early and walk around the area, which includes a Hyatt Hotel
and Dallas's landmark Reunion Tower, the 50 story observation
platform/restaurant with the huge illuminated ball atop it. Unfortunately a
low overcast had rolled in and temperatures hovered in the high 30s with a
biting wind, so there was nothing to see from the observation platform and
I bagged the casual stroll idea. Dallas has recently refurbished its grand
Union Station and is building a light rail system which stops there. The
platform was brand new; one of the best looking I had ever seen. One
reaches the station proper through tunnels under the tracks. It would be a
pity if Amtrak pulled out of Dallas altogether now that the city has such a
wonderful rail station, which is also a hub for urban transport. An
interesting touch to the station was the 30 or so historic photos showing
it through the years and showing celebs and politicians arriving there
aboard crack express trains or during whistlestop tours. I ended up dashing
across the street from the station having a very good burger and a
breakfast & lunch place there.

    About 10 passengers detrained in Dallas and a similar number
boarded there. At least two of us were sleeping car passengers; the other
person's room wasn't ready yet but mine was; she was given a coupon for a
free drink and asked to wait in the Sightseer Lounge. The attendant showed
me my room and I settled in. I noted that the view of Dealey Plaza that I
wanted was from the other side of the car so I walked to the windows along
the hallway leading to the Delux Bedrooms and got a fine view. After the
conductor took my ticket I too got a coupon good for a drink so I headed
for the lounge car where I got to chatting with a couple of professional
potters from Texas who were heading to a holiday in New Mexico. The train
stopped in Ft. Worth for twenty minutes and I got out, noted that station
was in much worse shape than the Dallas station and got back aboard. Soon
after the dining car steward came through taking dinner reservations and I
settled into my room to read. At dinner I met a retired couple heading from
Mississippi to a large family reunion at Thanksgiving in Southern
California. A son who lived in San Antonio was going to join the train
there, which they were looking forward to. I had the steak which was cooked
properly but was somewhat tough and lacking in flavor. The couple had
catfish and roast chicken, and reported it to be quite good.

    I didn't know the exact procedure for putting my room's bed down,
although I had heard that the attendants prefer to do it themselves. Our
man was nowhere to be found. He had not asked earlier when I wanted to turn
in; I thought about buzzing him but I thought perhaps he was tied up with
someone needing extra help in another car, and I had a good book going, so
I decided to wait. Finally we pulled into San Antonio at 11:30 (again ahead
of schedule) and I saw our man leave the car at the scheduled crew change
point, so I put down the bed myself. With the guy off the train I couldn't
have given him a tip if I had wanted to. Setting up the bed wasn't that
tough once I figured out that the bedding was packed into the upper berth.
As an experiment I climbed into that. berth but found it a bit narrow and
close to the ceiling for my tastes. The lower berth was delightful, though,
so I climbed under the covers, read a bit and dozed off.

    I awoke around 4 am and noted we were still in San Antonio, which
we had been scheduled to leave at 2:20 am after being attached to the
westbound Sunset Limited. I went back to sleep and awoke again at about 6,
and we were still in the station. I dozed until about 7 and then decided to
wander about and see if breakfast was available. About then we began moving
out of the station and the car attendants were alerting people that the
diner was now open. Luckily I beat most of the crowd and made the first
seating. I learned that the Sunset Limited had been halted for several
hours just outside of San Antonio by a broken rail and no repair crew was
immediately available. One of my table companions was an economist who had
taught several years at Washington State University and had then gone to
work for the Interstate Commerce Commission regulating railroads. He had
fascinating insights into the present state of American railroads and how
they got that where they are. I had scrambled eggs and bacon which was ok;
the bacon was awfully thin, though. The service was excellent, however.

    When I returned from breakfast the new sleeping car attendant had
made up my room, which I appreciated. About this scene I began worrying
about the delay. We were due into Los Angeles at 6:05 am or so. Trying to
be prudent I had made my air reservations for a noon departure, which would
give me a bit of time to wander about downtown LA and then take the San
Diegan to Burbank Airport, which I had chosen because it is smaller than
LAX and it seemed easier to reach from Union Station. We had lost five
hours, which would get us into L.A. at 11, possibly too late for me to make
my flight. Since this was the day before Thanksgiving I was afraid I
wouldn't be able to get anything later. I had brought my cell phone and was
able to get through to the airlines, which confirmed that everything out of
LAX, Burbank, Orange County, and even Ontario was booked solid. If worse
came to worse I could certainly spend the night in L.A. and then head home
the next day, but of course that would cost since I had was holding a
discounted, no changes allowed air ticket.

    I had lunch with a woman travelling from Houston to Alpine, Texas
and a fellow who had retired after a lifetime with the Southern Pacific.
During lunch we crossed the High Bridge over the Pecos River, which was
spectacular. I went with the burger which was fine. One companion had a
reuben sandwich, which she said was quite good. Another went with a
burrito, which he reported to be fair at best. Service was again excellent.
After lunch I headed to the shower on the lower level of my sleeper and I
found provided a fairly good cleansing, considering the situation. I got to
chatting in the vestibule with a group from the lower level bedrooms who
had opened up the window in the exit door. A conductor wandered by and said
that we weren't supposed to have the window open, but he wasn't planning to
be back in that vestibule for at least an hour so we should plan
accordingly. I got some great photos of the train rounding corners and the
fresh air felt wonderful. The dining car steward came around taking dinner
reservations while I was in the vestibule so I missed getting a
reservation. I mentioned this to our new sleeping car attendant, who asked
what seating I would like and at that moment went up to the diner to see
what he could do. This guy was worlds ahead of the earlier attendant! He
also passed out mints and orange juice in the morning, and kept the coffee
urn full all the time.

    After lunch one of the conductors gave a running account of the
scenery, noting that the mountains visible from the left of the train were
across the border in Mexico. The rolling hills of West Texas were a
pleasant change from the flats of the rest of the state. One unfortunate
aspect of our delay was that it was dark by the time we got to El Paso and
we went through all of New Mexico and most of Arizona in darkness.

    The Sunset Limited has recently ceased serving Phoenix, although a
direct bus connection is now available at Tucson. Our car attendant said
this was done to save time, but a comparison of schedules before and after
show only a savings of 10 minutes or so in reaching L.A. It doesn't seem
logical to eliminate a major population center like Phoenix just to pick up
a few minutes, but perhaps there are other issues at play in the situation.

    We had a spectacular sunset over the desert and I headed to the
diner where I was at first seated with a woman who was saying to nobody in
particular, "I understand you are out of filet mignon. What do you suggest
I order instead?" The chief dining car attendant caught my eye and motioned
for me to move to another table, noting that the woman had been involved in
some altracation in the lounge car and had nearly been put off the train. I
was glad to be out of her orbit but I wasn't able to find out just what her
problem was. For dinner this time I went with the roast chicken in barbecue
sauce, which was pretty dry. The service again was very good, but the food
was not up to what I have come to expect on other Amtrak trains. When I got
back to my room the attendant asked when I'd like the bed put down. I told
him I was planning to read for a bit and I could put it down myself if that
was ok with him, which was no problem. He told me that a free breakfast was
going to be offered to the entire train in the morning because the train
was so far behind schedule, and it would be wise to get to the diner early
if at all possible.

    I turned in around 10:30, read a bit, and then fell asleep. I woke
up a couple of times during the night but had no trouble getting back to
sleep. To prepare for the trip I had purchased one of the inexpensive
models of the Timex Indiglo watches, which allowed me to note the time at
night without turning on my reading light. I also had a small AM/FM/SW
radio (with headphones) which allowed me to listen to local broadcasts and,
to my surprise, the BBC World Service. I am not an experienced shortwave
DXer, but I suspect it is quite a feat to pick up such a strong signal from
inside a moving stainless steel rail car near the US - Mexico border.

    In the morning I took our man's advice and headed for the diner
early. The service was again excellent, especially considering that the
staff was dealing with a larger than expected crowd. The food was a notch
down from breakfast the day before, but who could complain under the
circumstances? My table companions were a young couple travelling from
Houston to San Francisco and an engineer (electrical rather than railroad)
on his way home to Los Angeles. The couple was wondering if they would make
their planned connection to the Coast Starlight, which had a scheduled 9:30
am departure from L.A. The engineer was an old Amtrak hand and he suspected
northbound passengers would be put on busses in Ontario and then would join
the Starlight in Oxnard, Simi Valley, or maybe even Santa Barbara. Soon
after breakfast the conductor announced that was exactly what would happen.
Passengers hoping to connect with the San Diegans would also be bussed from
Ontario to join that train after it left L.A. Union Station.

    My anxiety about my air connection in L.A. continued to mount as
the conductor announced we should get into Union Station sometime around
11:30, but he couldn't be specific. I called the airline again with my cell
phone and got the welcome news that my flight was delayed a half hour and
wouldn't leave Burbank until 12:30. Thank God! That helped me relax a bit
and enjoy the California desert country around Indio and Ontario. The
weather was delightfully (and unusually) clear when we arrived in the L.A.
Basin; apparently blustery winds the day before had scrubbed away the smog.
That made for a more scenic than usual approach into L.A. from the east,
along the I-10 freeway and into Union Station. We arrived a bit before
11:30. I tipped our sleeping car attendant $10 and made my way the rather
long distance to the baggage room. I had two bags on this trip; in Dallas
I'd put my laundry in one and had checked it that so I wouldn't have to lug
it into my sleeping car. Now that decision seemed less brilliant, but what
can you do. Soon enough it turned up and I ran outside and was happy to see
how close the cab stand is to the baggage room. It was a gorgeous, clear
day downtown; I wished I could hang around and enjoy the sights. I grabbed
a cab and $35 (with tip -- this driver knew his stuff) later I made it to
Burbank Airport with minutes to spare. The air was so incredibly clear that
as we took off I could see the Pacific from over the San Fernando Valley,
which I understand isn't a common event in Southern California.

    Anyhow, in spite of the delays I was glad I'd made part of my
journey by rail. I appreciated Amtrak's efforts to help passengers make
their connections. I also had experienced both a very good and a poor
sleeping car attendant and I enjoyed the Superliner sleeping car. I had
seen part of the desert Southwest from the comfort of a train, which sure
beats driving. The biggest letdown was the quality of the food, which, as I
mentioned earlier, was not up to what I have experienced on other Amtrak
runs. I was also glad to have ridden a possibly doomed train, the Texas
Eagle. In the next few months I hope to take extended trips on two other
doomed runs, the Pioneer and the Desert Wind. --- Pat Casey

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