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Last Run of Amtrak's Desert Wind

A long Legacy of UP's City of Los Angeles,
Ends With Amtrak's Desert Wind

By Tommy Batts

On May 1st 1971, a newly formed corporation titled the National Rail Passenger Corporation took over all passenger service in the United States.

The NRPC, is better known as AMTRAK; a trade name that stands for American travel by train. Some trains were not taken over by AMTRAK, but were just simply dropped. One of those was Union Pacific's famous City of Los Angeles.

This train was dropped with the takeover of Amtrak in May 1971, but to no one's expectations, there would be a direct descendant eight years later; this time known as the Desert Wind. But Amtrak in a way irresponsibly took over the legacy of the City. By that, I am referring to the Desert Wind's discontinuance on May 10, 1997. No matter how anyone excepts the discontinuation of the Wind we all will just have to understand that it's gone, like it or not.

On May 28, 1973, the Denver, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah, Denver Zephyr was discontinued, however on June 7th, 1977 the Salt Lake City to Seattle Pioneer was added, and two years later, the Desert Wind between Los Angeles and Ogden (it would later be rerouted to Salt Lake City on DRGW trackage). Another lessor known ancestor of the Desert Wind was the ill-fated Las Vegas Limited which was added to the table on May 21, 1976. It ran from Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV on Fridays and Sundays only.

Early equipment on the Desert Wind was usually a consist of 4 Amfleet Coaches, an AmDinette and a baggage car. By the end of 1980, Superliner equipment had been introduced and as soon as enough became available to equip the Desert Wind and Pioneer, they were both extended all the way to Chicago.

When so was done, the Wind combined with the California Zephyr at Salt Lake City, and the Pioneer joined the consist at Denver, CO. In early 1983, the Denver and Rio Grande "joined" or partnered with Amtrak to enable the route between Salt Lake and Denver to be entirely on DRGW trackage. It was not until April 24, 1983 that the San Franscisco Zephyr became officially renamed the California Zephyr. Unfortunately, a major flood damaged much of the DRGW line and the rerouting was delayed until July 16. Finally on that day in Denver, a christening took place at Denver Union Station. Mrs James Bauman christened a bottle of champagne over the locomotives pilot. Mrs Bauman also served as a commentator and guide on the scenic highlights of the reroute.

In the Desert Winds earlier stages, checked baggage service was only available at Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake city, the California Zephyr usually arrived first. The Desert Wind was scheduled to arrive from fifteen minutes later. The consists were simply combined and departed within 45 minutes. Operations were not as complicated as they were in the 1993/1994 period shuffle at Salt Lake City.

Once at Denver, the Pioneer normally would have already been waiting, and again, the Pioneer's coaches were added and departure was within 50 minutes.

The Desert Wind ran with a simple 4-5 car consist up until the Spring/Summer timetable change of 1993. The consist prior to 1993 usually included 3 coaches, 1 sleeper and an ex ATSF Hi Level Diner that served as a combined Diner/Lounge. After the timetable change, the train still operated daily and departure times were pretty much the same, but the Diner was lost and replaced with a Sightseer Lounge. There were no complete meals between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, however sleeping car passengers received hot tray meals while coach passengers were offered regular tray meals or cold sandwiches. The California Zephyr carried a Diner between Oakland and Chicago and a Superliner Snack Coach between Salt Lake City and Oakland.

Headed east bound, the Desert Wind's Sightseer lounge car continued on to Chicago with the California Zephyr consist along with the California Zephyr's snack coach. However the Coach car's lower level snack service was only for use between Salt Lake City and Oakland. This was because the Sightseer lounge would go with the Desert Wind towards Los Angeles and no snack or beverage service would be available to California Zephyr passengers between Salt Lake City and Oakland.

By the Spring/Summer timetable change of 1994, the first harsh Amcuts majorly affected the Desert Wind. The Desert Wind lost it's full lounge between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City again and was replaced by a half diner, half lounge combination usually a ATSF hi level car, otherwise a standard Superliner Diner. However, this change did not take effect until June 7th. Full Dining Service was regained between Salt Lake City and Chicago once the California Zephyr and Desert Wind cars combined at Salt Lake City. The Pioneer was cut to tri-weekly, and departed Chicago westbound on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, and the East bound would arrive Chicago on Wednesdays, Fridays and Mondays. The Pioneer would still combine with the California Zephyr consist at Denver, however this would only happen on the Pioneer's three days of a week of operation. Between Denver and Seattle on the Pioneer, a Dining Car was used in the configuration of a half lounge/half diner.

Effective on the April 2nd. 1995 change, services stayed the same except days of operation for the Desert Wind were reduced. The Desert Wind now departed Los Angeles eastbound on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and arrived Los Angeles westbound on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. In Salt Lake City on the mornings of Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the east bound Desert Wind and California Zephyr consists combined, while the westbound Zephyr/Wind was divided into the two sections on late Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday nights, with the train prepared to depart about an hour later at 1245AM the next morning. The issue of arriving in Salt Lake City late at night, and then departing an hour later on the next morning was very confusing to some Amtrak passengers.

The most dramatic change occurred with the Fall Winter 1995/1996 timetable change. The Desert Wind went to a full consist running between Los Angeles and Chicago just three days a week departing eastbound from Los Angeles on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and departing westbound from Chicago on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The California Zephyr operated on the days the Desert Wind did not, therefore maintaining daily service between Salt Lake City and Chicago on either the Desert Wind or Zephyr, depending what day of the week, but between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City just three days a week. The California Zephyr would depart Chicago westbound on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and would depart Oakland eastbound to Chicago on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

No shuffling of cars was done in Salt Lake City, however the eastbound Pioneer, would combine with the eastbound Desert Wind #36 at Denver. The westbound Pioneer was part of the California Zephyr consist on Sundays and Tuesdays departing Chicago, while the Pioneer's Thursday departure from Chicago was combined with the westbound Desert Wind consist. The Pioneer still carried a mini consist between Denver and Seattle, while the Desert Wind now carried a typical Superliner consist; usually a baggage car, transition sleeper, 3-4 coaches, a Diner, Sightseer Lounge and two Sleepers. The westbound California Zephyr often deadheads a Material Handling Car that is dropped in Salt Lake City, loaded, and ready to depart the next day with the next eastbound train (either the Zephyr or Desert Wind, Depending what day).

With the Spring/Summer 1996 schedule change, only the arrival times where changed, most of them only a difference within 20 minutes or less.

Everything for the most part stayed the same with the Fall/Winter 1996/1997 schedule. The Pioneer still traveled west on Sundays and Tuesdays as part of the California Zephyr and on Thursdays as part of the Desert Wind.

Many AmFans and travelers were startled awake in mid to late 1996 when NRPC announced service cuts including the discontinuation of the Desert Wind and Pioneer to terminate on November 10, and no longer appear on the 1996/1997 timetable. Last minute Federal Funding was announced in early October to keep the Pioneer, Desert Wind and Texas Eagle operating for 6 more months. By the end of that period Amtrak would either of had to pay for itself to continue operation or gain state support and funding to run the threatened trains, similar to state funded 403(b) trains. Although a financial rescue was announced, official word of the continuation of the specific trains did not get out until very close to the November 10 deadline.

Amtrak Travel Agents' Reservation System would not let them book reservations on the uncertain trains until that official word came.

On May 8, 1997, the last eastbound Desert Wind, Train Number 36 made it's final departure from Los Angeles at 10:45 AM. This train was running very full. The Crew announced to passengers that 120 people boarded in Fullerton, CA, with an additional 240 scheduled to board in Las Vegas. The Final Number 36 consist was very interesting. A pair of shiny new Dash 9-42DC (P42s), engine number 34 and 17, brought up the head, followed by ex-Great Northern number 9301, the Mountain View, formerly used by Amtrak on the Auto Train. The "Great Dome" was in LA during the weekend of May 4, for "Railroad Family Day" in San Diego, CA and was deadheading back to Beech Grove for storage. Amtrak has plans to use these for future charter service. In addition to the baggage car and transition Sleeper, the train was carrying three sleepers instead of the usual two, a Diner, Sightseer Lounge and three coaches. The crew seemed to enjoy the Great Dome more than their own dormitory car. A person whom I knew onboard that is a manager for the Desert Wind invited me up to the Dome car for most of our ride, after all I was only traveling between Los Angeles and Barstow.

There I personally met the conductors who also seemed quite intrigued of the dome car. As we road through Cajon Pass in the 1955 "Great Dome" I listened to stories of the crew, in what was almost like our own private car!

"What a great way to go through the Rockies" commented the conductor. Unfortunately, I was getting off in Barstow, the crew was changing at Las Vegas and Mr. Gleysteen was getting off in Salt Lake City so none of us would have had the opportunity to see it.

As the #36 began to creep out of Fullerton, it seemed the words that stuck to everyone's mind was "I'm sure going to miss this train". I overhead one Car Attendant tell some one "this was the best run" as the Desert Wind made it's final eastbound revenue departure from Fullerton.

Although the Desert Wind was quite a money looser, perhaps it was a great train because of the unique scenery along it's route. Product Manager Lee Gleysteen later commented in the Great Dome, "This train really needs to be daily". Perhaps it does [or did ], because how can you expect many people to ride a train that runs three days a week each direction when one can drive a portion of the route much quicker!

Service was a little more unique than it usually was aboard the Desert Wind. "Funeral Cards" were handed out to each passenger. Inside the special collectors card was a brief history of the Desert Wind and a plea to continue to ride Amtrak. Amtrak's best hope is to inform passengers of the financial crisis and urge passengers and supporters to write their state representatives. It's unfortunate that Amtrak go down this way. Sadly, the decline of passenger routes such as the Desert Wind and Pioneer could eventually lead to the decline of the routes they feed and connect to such as the California Zephyr and Empire Builder. As far as the Las Vegas Market, Amtrak has immediately started bus routes which now have their own timetables. Among them bus routes is one that follows the Desert Wind between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

In late April, Amtrak West conducted a survey on the question of a passenger market between LA and Las Vegas. If the survey proves so, a U.S built Talgo Style train could cruise LA-Las Vegas 3 times a day in less than five hours. The train sets would utilize matching EMD F59PHIs, 21 of which are being built currently by GM/EMD for Amtrak West. In early May, Amtrak ran one Talgo Pendular trainset between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for a week or so in a private demonstration to seek state support for a LAX-LVS train early, to mid next next year.

Once the train arrived in Barstow 30 minutes late, we detrained and quickly packed up to chase the Desert Wind as far as possible. The train creeped out of Barstow before we could, but did not get very far as the HOT Richmond to Chicago 991 raced past the Barstow Depot, overtaking the Desert Wind. Once we got across the first street bridge and back onto I-15, the consist raced across the I-15 overpass just about the time we crossed the overpass. The Desert Wind was now way ahead of us in the distance at Dagget heading off onto the UP Los Angeles Sub. Track speed at Dagget is limited to 40MPH and 20MPH going through the UP's small yard at Yermo. The drive from the Station to Yermo on I-15 is about 8 minutes. Once we got to Yermo, I looked off to the Southwest towards Dagget and got a glimpse of the Desert Wind leaving Dagget and approaching the Yermo Limits. The Mineola exit was our choice, and was about 2 minutes ahead. This choice would enable us to get further ahead of the Desert Wind by taking advantage of it's reduced speed limit in Yermo. Mineola will take you to Yermo road, which parallels the tracks for some twenty Miles. Once at Mineola,we idled on the Yermo Road, shoulder prepared to take off. Thunderstorms were brewing, so it was also a good idea to stay in the car, but the grade crossing bell helps you know when something is coming. After about five minutes, the Desert Wind was heard approaching. Track speed between Mineola and MP 176.9 at Field is 4 0 MPH. Pacing the Wind along Yermo Road is quite an experience and can last for up to 10 Minutes. However once into Manix, the Desert Wind started to speed up as track speed in this area is now 79MPH. We were able to stay with the Wind for about 2 more minutes as the coaches slowly gained distance on us, until it took off into Amtrak history.

Things were not over yet. There was still spirit left as there was still two more westbound runs left. Although train 36 was now no more, Saturday the 10th brought one more #35. Running about two hours late, #35 was scheduled to arrive in Fullerton at 2:20PM, but Amtrak Computers pointed somewhere between 4:30PM and 5:30PM. Not bad, considering this train at one time had a reputation of running two and a half, three, sometimes four hours late.

Saturday's Desert Wind arrival was four hours late. It finally arrived in Fullerton California at 6:19PM with P42DC #66 on the point and #83 trailing elephant style. The Desert Wind was deadheading a baggage car to LA since only one was in use on the train. The consist included a Transition Sleeper, two Pullman Standard Sleepers, Bombardier Sleeper "North Dakota ", Pullman Standard Diner, Pullman Standard Sightseer Lounge, Pullman Standard Smoking Coach and three Pullman Standard Coaches. Taking up the rear was an ex-Wisconsin Central Private Dome/Observation Car, #800275, the Sierra Hotel . The stop was a quick one and the Desert Wind was out within three Minutes. Sunday was an off day for the Desert Wind but Monday would be the last run ever; at least for the time being.

The final Desert Wind arrived Fullerton, California at approximately 3:35PM with AMD103 #837, which had a paper banner reading "Final 35" and P42DC #43. With the exception of the almost ancient Phase III baggage car, every thing else looked great, especially the back to back Genesis locomotives. Followed by the baggage car was a Bombardier transition sleeper, tree Pullman Standard Coaches, a rebuilt Pullman Standard Smoking Coach, P-S Sightseer Lounge Car, Superliner Diner, and three P-S Superliner Sleepers. On the rear was a deadheading Phase IV baggage car, the types that were rebuilt from old heritage coaches. The Express/Mail Bagage Car also featured a banner reading "The End" but was ripped off partly and the rest of the banner hanging down when it passed Fullerton CA. As the last car of the Desert Wind passed the Highland Avenue Grade Crossing just west of the depot for the final time, a heartfull railfan and photographer gave the train a military style salute, obviously wishing the train a good farewell. And while it seemed like almost nothing had happened, the long legacy of the Route from the Union Pacific's City of Los Angeles to yesterday's Desert Wind tip- toed off into Amtrak's next chapter of history.

This article would have not been possible without the assistance from the following sources and they're authors/publishers. Those research sources include: All Aboard Amtrak: 1971-1991, Mike Schafer; NRPC, Amtrak,; Webmaster: Steve Grande,; Leland Gleysteen, Product Manager California Zephyr/Desert Wind; NOTE: Much of the timetable history came from hours of browsing and comapring old Amtrak timetables from that appropriately year/season.

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