I almost did not go.
When first announced, the Texas Eagle's inaugural trip to California
seemed lacking. This
was not a new route; no new stations were being served, and no
new trackage was supposed
to be traversed. The train bore no new number, and even the name,
"Texas Eagle", did not
seem to reflect anything more than a routine expansion of a service
which already existed.
Yet the Texas Eagle is unique in being a long-distance Amtrak
train which was saved by
the tireless efforts of countless rail travel advocates and local
volunteers from along its route.
In those dark days early in 1997, when the Eagle was one of three
Western trains about to
vanish, the many who labored for its survival showed that hard
work and spirit can, indeed,
Ray Dunbar of Longview, Texas, who with many others championed
the Texas Eagle
through its revival and now its expansion, describes rail advocates
as being among the
smartest and hardest-working folks around. This trip would be
their celebration; so how
could I miss it?
Friday, February 6.
A larger, more vocal crowd than usual is present in the Metropolitan
Lounge in Chicago
Union Station. The popular Western trains which usually pack the
lounge with customers
have already departed, and the departures of the Lake Shore Limited
and City of New
Orleans are still over two hours away. Still, the atmosphere is
expectant and exuberant.
Instead of lounging comfortably in overstuffed sofas, many gather
in little groups, conversing
in reminiscence of rail travel of the past, and in anticipation
of journeys to come.
Lounge attendant Jera Slaughter is heard to say that the consist
for our train #21 should
have been spotted at the gate by 5:00pm; it is 5:30 when the first
call to board is made.
In a way it is appropriate that our first sight of the train,
through the boarding gate at
the far east end of the South Concourse, is of a silver Amtrak
express boxcar, #71036.
Success of Amtrak's mail and express development staff has brought
to the route of the Texas Eagle. One major shipper, Stroh Brewing,
which makes Lone Star, Schlitz and Old Milwaukee beer, is participating
conspicuously in inaugural festivities.
The train is a long one, up to the eighteen-car monster California
a few years back. The normal consist of one sleeper, diner, lounge
and two coaches for
the through Los Angeles service is swelled by two more revenue
sleepers, two VIP sleepers,
a VIP lounge, and four VIP coaches. The boxcar, bound for San
Antonio, and a mail car
bound for St. Louis bring up the rear.
It is a long walk to my sleeper. Line number 2130 was the only
sleeper on the consist when
space for the train was opened up last autumn, and it is at the
front, just behind the transition-sleeper-dorm.
The car is Superliner II sleeper 32093, the "Missouri".
sleepers are Superliner IIs, too...and all bear names of states
along the Texas Eagle route: Arkansas, Texas, Arizona and California.
Our three P42DC Genesis locomotives are
consecutively numbered 21, 22 (the train numbers of the Eagle)
My wife is the organized member of our family, but she could not
get time off for the trip, so
it takes me longer than usual to settle into Room D. Though there
isn't time to get off and get the complete consist, Assistant
Conductor Chris Aviles says she'll get it for me. As the
inaugural Texas Eagle to California slides away from the platform,
exactly on time, she returns
from the crew lounge in the dorm car with the information as promised.
Almost immediately, the dining car steward is taking reservations
for dinner. The first seating
begins at 7:00pm; as usual on the Texas Eagle, the diner is behind
the revenue sleepers,
coaches, and lounge. The ride on Illinois Central is rough as
passengers make their unsteady
way through the cars to the diner. I have visions of my scanner
and luggage in a heap on the
floor of Room D.
The diner crew is friendly and efficient, as they will be the
entire trip. This is no handpicked
crew; they got the assignment through normal crew rotations. Once
seated, I share the table
with Steve Grande of Trainweb and Gary Anderson, a rail enthusiast
from Phillips, WI.
We take three of the New York steaks: one rare, one medium, one
well done. They arrive
during the station stop at Joliet; we are pleased to see dinner
served on Corelle dinnerware, though we hear that the plastic
plates which have been in trial use on the California Zephyr are
being used for snacks and hors d'oeuvres in the VIP lounge car.
The steaks are done as ordered, and pecan pie finishes off a very fine meal.
now on Union Pacific, has improved, too.
The VIP section of the train is behind the diner, but the door
is open, since many invited guests are in the revenue sleepers.
A portrait of Texarkana native Scott Joplin decorates the VIP
lounge; his music will later be played by one of the musicians
accompanying the inaugural train.
On the upstairs service bar, a large Lone Star Beer banner declares
the company's support
of the "Amtrack" Texas Eagle. Many politicians and invited
dignitaries from online communities will join us tomorrow; the press
kit describes banner-breaking ceremonies at seven
enroute cities. Tonight's relative calm provides a good chance
to make acquaintances
of many Amtrak officials on board...Lee Bullock, president of
Amtrak Intercity; Don Cushine, Intercity General Manager-West;
Ed Ellis, vice-president, mail and express; Rob Dellinger, who
has taken the place of the ailing Debbie Hare as media representative.
The vivacious Joy
Smith, Texas Eagle product line manager, and her assistant Shiela
Ready seem to be
everywhere, very much in charge of the onboard celebration. Many
invited guests wear Texas Eagle/California Service inaugural T-shirts,
adding to the cameraderie among the passengers.
Downstairs, hors d'oeuvres and refreshments are offered by a specially
car attendant whose credits include the 1997 Amtrak Christmas
party in Chicago.
Later, back in sleeper "Missouri", I chat with Ed von
Nordeck, RTN reader and
contributor. We are only aware by the commotion outside that we
have arrived at St. Louis.
A look reveals a large crowd waiting to board. Rick Eichhorst
of the American Association of
Railroaders, specializing in unique rail tours, leads a group
of nine onto our sleeper. To the rear,
the mail car is detached after a trip of only 282 miles; ironically,
its mail will be transferred to a truck to be driven to Fort Worth,
which is on our route! "A leftover trucking contract,"
I am told. This is the first Friday since 1993 when the Eagle
will run south of St. Louis, and the mail will continue by truck
until the contract expires.
Even with the switching of the mail car and an extra spotting
of the long train to water its rear
cars, the Eagle is underway on time at 1:00am. I pause and exchange
a few of Rick Eichhorst's tour group, and turn in. Saturday will
be a busy day, with
celebrations in online communities, and many guests riding the
train. I hang out my coat
and tie and go to bed, while light rail cars rattle past outside.
Saturday, February 7
There is no rest for the weary tonight. I have left my scanner
on, sleeping through the routine
radio traffic, just as I do through the steady rhythm of the train
as it glides through the
eastern foothills of the Ozarks. But at 2:45am, a dispatcher asks
the crew to awaken Tom Mulligan, a Union Pacific official on board.
Her voice has more than a little apprehension
to it, and this is enough to jolt me awake. Minutes later, I hear
the conductor on the radio. Mr. Mulligan's cellphone is not getting
through, so whatever he needs to know will have to come
over the radio.
The news is bad. A coal train has derailed 26 cars on the line
ahead of us, at a location called
"Hig", which I surmise from my map as being Higginson,
AR. There is talk of a detour
from Poplar Bluff to the ex-Cotton Belt at Dexter, MO, but this
would require both a UP
pilot crew and UP engines to pull our train backwards. The dispatcher
then suggests a
detour on the Memphis Subdivision from Bald Knob, AR. to the Cotton
Belt at Fair
Oaks, AR.; either detour would next run our train to Pine Bluff
on the Cotton Belt main line,
then on the Monroe Subdivision to Little Rock and our original
I'm following all of this on my map, when the conductor calls
"Do you have a map of the Cotton Belt and all these other
lines? We can't figure out
where all these places are!"
The train is very quiet at this hour, so the conductor in the
crew lounge expresses surprise
as I enter this off-limits area. Surprise changes to gratitude
when I offer the crew
and Tom Mulligan the use of my map. I am then gratified at being
invited to stay and
watch how an Amtrak detour is arranged.
Union Pacific has been accused of being arrogant in the handling
of its merger with Southern
Pacific. Mulligan will have none of this, even though the former
Cotton Belt lines which we will have to use are still under the
control of ex-Southern Pacific managers and dispatchers.
"These are professionals," he says. "We'll just
let them sort it all out."
It is not just a matter of switching tracks and running the train.
Pilot crews have to be called
out, and since we will be traveling on both ex-Missouri Pacific
and ex-Cotton Belt lines, the
crews must be qualified on each separate line. A new Amtrak crew
will have to relieve the
one we have now, since the detour will take them over the legal
12-hour limit before the crew
change point of Little Rock. Additional complications involve
the blockage of the north wye
at the Cotton Belt interchange at Fair Oaks, and the express car
on the rear of the train,
which will prevent our Amtrak engines from pulling the consist
in reverse. And, "the Memphis Sub is clogged," says
Tom Mulligan. "We've got freight trains already starting
to detour around the derailment."
Meanwhile, the Eagle continues on time, pausing at Walnut Ridge
to pick up the mayor of
that Arkansas town. An hour later, just past 7:00am, the conductor
knocks at my door with
the news, "It's almost showtime!"
At 7:15am, our three locomotives veer to the left, pause to pick
up the pilot crew, and lead
our Superliners onto the Memphis Sub at Bald Knob. Soon up to
track speed, the Eagle
is now on a line which has not seen scheduled passenger service
since August, 1965,
according to John Mills, retired Amtrak station agent who opened
the Little Rock station
when the Inter-American debuted in 1974. John's memories go back
further than his Amtrak
career; later in the lounge car, he will proudly show us his photos
of the very first Missouri
Pacific Texas Eagle, on its own first run in 1948, fifty years
Today's Eagle will run past the junction with the Cotton Belt
at Fair Oaks so that the
consist can be turned at Wynne. Allowing over an hour for the
fifty miles to Wynne,
I quickly go for breakfast, finishing French Toast and sausage
just as the train clatters over
the Cotton Belt crossing, where a string of ballast hoppers prevents
our use of the north
wye. Wynne is about 12 miles further, a sleepy village with a
Missouri Pacific caboose on
display, the Saturday morning flea market seemingly the only activity
in town until Amtrak
rumbles in. A wye connects the Memphis Sub to an ex-MoPac line
to the north; it takes
fifteen minutes, and a UP signal maintainer to manually throw
the track switches, before we
are headed back toward Fair Oaks, pointed the right way to take
the interchange track onto
the Cotton Belt.
We lose another twenty minutes while the timed interlocking switch
clears, then snake through the interchange. The first five sidings
on the Cotton Belt are occupied by freight trains which
have cleared the main line for us. Railfans, disappointed at the
cancellation of a 1997
excursion on these tracks, are now delighted to be riding on this
line, whose Lone Star Limited
passenger train last ran in 1958. It seems too short a time, but
it actually takes about two
hours for the detouring Eagle to cover the 100 miles into the
one-time headquarters of the
Cotton Belt: Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
A stop in the massive yard allows a new pilot crew and our relief
Amtrak crew to board.
Moments later, while volunteers watch in amazement, the Superliners
are swaying past the
Arkansas Railroad Museum, located in the former Cotton Belt shops.
John Mills is especially
happy: "In all my years, I've never ridden this line before!"
The Monroe Subdivision finally
has us running directly toward Little Rock.
But there is one more detour which we must make. Little Rock Junction
is located south of
the station, and the track layout forces the southbound Eagle
to run northbound past the station,
dropping off Amtrak officials and a few selected guests for speeches
and inaugural festivities.
After turning in North Little Rock, the train returns to the platform
at the end of celebrations.
Bill Pollard of ArkRail shares the honors on the inaugural banner
with Amtrak Intercity's
Don Cushine as Train 21 with engine 21 bursts through.
If the morning's five-plus hour rare mileage excursion belonged
to the railfans, the afternoon
and evening belong to the lineside communities and their citizens
our inaugural train. Malvern and Arkadelphia board members of
their chambers of
commerce. At Texarkana, bunting, banners, balloons and a horse-drawn
greet us; a new station sign shows distances to both Chicago and
Los Angeles. Every
stop adds more passengers, some for a short ride, others destined
for a round trip to
California. All are welcomed to live music and refreshments in
the lounge car. Marshall,
Texas shows off the restoration of its fine old brick station;
at Longview, the Kilgore
College "Rangerettes" celebrate our arrival. Night falls
before the Texas Eagle pulls
into Mineola, whose rail-activist mayor can take much credit for
saving the train.
Another honored guest joins us at Mineola. Zeb Love, who retired
from the Texas
Eagle as a conductor on the Texarkana-Dallas run in 1988, was
so much a part of the
MoPac-Amtrak legend that his train was dubbed the "Love Train."
For this trip he is
given the title, "Honorary Conductor." Hundreds of passengers
are soon wearing labels
proclaiming, "I Am Riding the Love Train." By coincidence,
it is also Zeb's birthday.
Meanwhile, in both VIP and regular lounge cars, passengers pass
the evening entertained
by the musicians which Amtrak has engaged for this special trip.
The stop in Dallas is brief, even shorter than the timetable allows.
Without time to return to my own car, I board the VIP coaches
on the rear and find them almost full with invited
guests. One Stroh Brewery executive, delighted at the spacious
seating, wonders aloud
as to why this accomodation is not called "First Class!"
Before long, we are backing
past the now-closed Tower 55 into the Fort Worth station, to a
crowd awaiting the
scheduled news conference. There is no loss of enthusiasm despite
the delay; Lee
Bullock, on behalf of Amtrak, accepts several awards, among them
a Texas Eagle
sculpture. As he did in Little Rock, Lee announces Amtrak's intent
to restore triweekly
through sleeping car and coach service to Los Angeles with the
spring timetable change,
and daily service to San Antonio within a year. Finally, Joy Smith,
befitting her name, proclaims that for those riding the train
tonight, the fun will go on,
"All the way to San Antone!" The party in the VIP lounge
continues well past an 11:25pm
But not for me. This has been a very long and busy day, one imbued
with the spirit and
energy of those who worked so tirelessly to save their Texas Eagle.
As I get ready for
some much-needed sleep, I glance out the window. The baggage truck
outside bears a
sticker, reading "Support an Expanded Amtrak in Texas!"
Sunday, February 8
The southbound Texas Eagle has a new route into San Antonio. Previously
the train would
enter town on the former MoPac, to be pointed eastward at the
station, ready for departure
to Chicago. But our train is running through to Los Angeles, so
it uses part of an ex-Katy line, and backs into the station pointed
westward. Here, we say good-bye to many of the invited
guests, returning home to Texas and Arkansas points, their VIP
coaches coupled to the
northbound Eagle, Train #22. With a goodly chunk of our delay
now absorbed by shortening
the four hour, thirteen minute dwell time in San Antonio, the
Texas Eagle leaves at 8:02am.
Sunday morning is a time to relax on the Eagle. Coats and ties
have given way to shirtsleeves
and blue jeans. In the lounge, the atmosphere is subdued, with
many Los Angeles-bound
riders still asleep after the previous night's partying. But the
press kit proclaims "Music All
the Way", and by midmorning a jazz keyboard and clarinet
duet resumes their rousing revue.
Outside, the Southwestern desert of West Texas has replaced the
woods and grasslands of
the previous day. For me, it is hard to think of this train as
anything but the Sunset Limited,
even thought this is the first time in twenty-eight years that
this route has seen more than
triweekly service. The dispatcher even refers to us as both "Amtrak
train #1" and "Amtrak
train #21." Old ways will take time to change, especially
in the seemingly timeless territory
we are traversing.
Lunch, as it was on Saturday, is the "Texas Eagle Barbecue,"
a fixed-price, limited menu
featuring barbecued beef and chicken entrees, served on styrofoam
plates and red-and-white
checked tablecloths. The casual atmosphere makes the plastic plates
seem appropriate, and
food quality has suffered not at all. Simplification of food service
has been made necessary
by the need to control costs in the dining car; this is a successful
I pass an hour in the afternoon with Ed Ellis, Amtrak vice-president,
mail and express. A
bona-fide passenger rail fan, he admits that he has spent hundreds
of nights aboard passenger
trains. About Amtrak's late Broadway Limited, which last ran in
September 1995, he remarks,
"That wasn't the real Broadway!" Motioning to
his three young children, he explains that he
came to Amtrak from RailTex "so that kids like mine will
have passenger trains to ride on."
He honestly fields questions on topics as diverse as the embargo
on his 1400-class Material
Handling Cars, to the incremental costs of adding service (the
Silver Palm and the proposed
Pennsylvanian extension are specific examples). In an industry
where controversy is so often
denied or ignored, Ed's frankness is refreshing. So is his statement
that his job is important
only in its support of Amtrak's core business.
The train has steadily made up time all day. Sunday is a light
day for freight traffic on the
Sunset Route, though three westbound intermodal trains waiting
for crews at Sierra Blanca
suggest problems ahead. Sure enough, approaching El Paso, the
Eagle stops at Alfalfa
behind two freight trains which have no place to go. Every minute
we have made up
is lost again, and more. We take 48 minutes to go seven miles,
and are later when we
finally leave El Paso than we have been since San Antonio, even
though we only stay for
seventeen minutes instead of the scheduled twenty-seven.
My last of three dinners on the inaugural Texas Eagle/California
Service is roast chicken,
tender enough to be eaten with knife and fork, yet succulent and
moist, not dry or stringy
in the least. If more home and restaurant cooks could roast a
chicken this perfectly, the
words "rubber chicken" would have no meaning. It is
a fine meal. This diner crew, both at tableside and in the kitchen,
truly deserves ample credit for their performance through two
breakfasts, two barbecue lunches, and three dinners, especially
given the very large ridership.
In the darkened VIP lounge, one female jazz vocalist serenades
passengers, while in the
regular lounge car, a country-western songfest is underway. Outside,
rain falls in torrents
as the Texas Eagle races across the Lordsburg Subdivision, appropriately
"The Stormy." Overnight, we make up time again, but
the ride is so smooth that I don't
know it until checking my watch at station stops.
Monday, February 9
Dawn comes at Palm Springs. Due to the late running, passengers
are treated to the sight
of giant windmills in the desert, and a passage over Beaumont
Pass in daylight. There's no
breakfast service in the diner, so the lounge car becomes the
social center, where passengers
drop in for coffee and danish, and to say good-bye to friends
who had begun the long trip as
strangers. I say one last farewell to Zeb Love as we pass in the
hallway of sleeper "Missouri."
Just minutes from Los Angeles Union Station, we pause while an
eastbound Metrolink train
clears the single track line at El Monte. As they take siding,
the Metrolink crew expresses
surprise at seeing Amtrak on a Monday morning:
"What train are you?"
"Number 21, the Texas Eagle. Brand-new train!"
"Beautiful. That's a fine train you've got there!"
...And a fine trip it has been. I'm glad I went.
Locomotives: #21, #22, #23 (P42DC)
Baggage Car: 1215
Transition Sleeping Car (Dorm): 39010
Superliner II Sleeping Car: 32093 Missouri
Superliner II Sleeping Car: 32071 Arizona
Superliner II Sleeping Car: 32073 California
Superliner II Coach: 34138
Superliner Coach-Smoker: 31519
Superliner I Sightseer Lounge Car: 33020
Superliner Dining Car: 38065
Behind this point was the VIP section of the train, although
guests were in the revenue section above.
Superliner II Sleeping Car: 32072 Arkansas
Superliner II Sightseer Lounge Car: 33026
Superliner II Sleeping Car: 32111 Texas
(Following four cars off in San Antonio, to Train #22)
Superliner Coach #4 (2112): 34061
Superliner Coach #5 (2113): 34010
Superliner Coach #6 (2114): 34032
Superliner II Coach #7 (2115): 34131
Express Car To San Antonio: 71036 (silver, no stripe)
Mail Car To St. Louis: 1718 (mail for Ft.Worth, trucked STL-FTW)