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Sunset Limited

Trip To Boca Raton, Florida
September 27, 1996 - October 9, 1996

Saturday, 10:08 A.M. (Pacific Time), 9/28/96

Live! It is now Saturday morning. They have just made the announcement that the Diner is closed for breakfast and will re-open shortly for lunch. So far, this trip has been great! When we boarded the train at 10:15 P.M. last night, our Car Attendant took our tickets so that the Conductor would not have to wake us to collect our tickets. When I awoke this morning, coffee was ready in our Sleeping Car and the Attendant had made sure there was plenty of creamer, sweatner, cups, and even plenty of cold orange juice. This might not seem something to be excited about, but these ammenities are not to be taken for granted. I've been dissapointed lately to often find these items not available. Thus, I must take my hat off to our Car Attendant. He is certainly starting off on my good side!

Click here for photos & more info about the Sunset Limited.

Our server in the Dining Car was George. He did a great job. As soon as he saw my camera on the table, he had my kids and I get on the same side of the table so he could take a picture of us with it. Not only did he take and serve our order quickly, even with a full Diner, but he also brought my kids each a hot chocolate and a bunch of mints. They didn't order either of these, but were pleased and surprised to get them. I appreciated George's extra efforts and left a larger than usual tip. I'll try and get his last name next time I see him and send a letter off to Amtrak. I'm always very pleased to find the quality of staff that makes a trip even better.

So far, the quality of this trip has been in sharp contrast to the Coast Starlight. The Coast Starlight has a reputation for the most Superior Service of all Amtrak routes. For the most part, that is true. On the other hand, the Sunset Limited has gotten the reputation of having one of the least helpful staffs. That was certainly true for 50% of my last trip on the Sunset Limited. My recent trips on both the Coast Starlight and the Sunset Limited has shown the reverse to be true, at least for these two particular journeys.

Saturday, 8:50 P.M. (Central Time), 9/28/96

We just finished dinner. First, the good part: My wife and I each ordered steak. There were two different types on the menu and we ordered one of each. My wife had the filet mignon and I had the strip steak. We cut each in half so we could each try the steak both ways. The steaks were absolutely fabulous! The menus on the Sunset Limited and the quality of food has greatly improved since my last trip on the Sunset Limited.

Our server was a different story this time. Not a real problem, but it was all too familiar ... a definite reminder of the type of service that the Sunset Limited is known for. I don't think our server was trying to be hostile, but the things she said and the way she acted, even jokingly, are the things that can tick customers off.

We asked for the sauce that goes with the steak on the side. The sauce sounded interesting, but we didn't want to ruin a good steak if we didn't like the taste of it. Our server told us she'd put in the order, but thought the cooks might get upset because they are so busy. Maybe they would, but did she have to relay this to us? What are we suppose to conclude? The cooks are too busy to be bothered putting the sauce on the side instead of on top of the steaks? That was just the first example.

I tried to order red wine for my wife and myself. Our server said I can't do that, or she would get confused. Each person has to order for themselves so that she can write it on the right checks. My wife also asked for water for us and our kids. Our server made some comment that implied that my wife didn't have to be so pushy because she would have got us set up anyway. I didn't think my wife was being pushy and we had no way of knowing that our server would have brought water anyway, even if we hand't asked for it.

When we were served, everything was just banged down on the table. It was very strange, because the server didn't seem actually mad at us. We actually had quite a bit of chit chat on and off with her during the meal. Best I could tell is that is just her normal way of dealing with diners! When she came to take desert orders, not just at our table but every table around us, she said: "I'm going to tell you what we have for desert once and only once." I actually think she was trying to be funny, but I think a lot of people missed the joke.

I just found this service in stark contrast to the service that we received in the morning. In the morning, many little extra things were done for us without us even asking. That was unnecessary, but very nice! This server seemed to go out of here way to make us feel that she and the rest of the staff was too busy for us. That behavior was also totally unnecessary and is the type of service that the Sunset Limited is known for all too well.

I have to still rate the dinner on the positive side. The food was delicious and plentiful, including the desert. If you can appreciate the tough waitresses that are sometimes found at truck stops and understand their tough humor, then you could even live with the service. Despite, the above comments that I made in frustration over the contrast with breakfast, we did enjoy dinner.

We've been running about two hours late most of this trip. I got out and walked around when we got to San Antonio. That is where they separate the Texas Eagle from the Sunset Limited. By the time I got out, they had already taken them apart. The Texas Eagle had been moved to the track next to ours and they had already added the new engine and diner to the car.

Sunday, 9/29/96

Breakfast service was a repeat of yesterday. We had George again and he again brought hot chocolate for my daughters without us even ordering it. One of my daughters noticed that hot chocolate is not even an item on the menu!

As a side note, the name "George" plays an interesting role in passenger train history. In the early days of on-board services in America, the service people were called "Porters" and they were almost exclusively Blacks*. George Pullman, the inventor of the luxury "Pullman Sleeping and Dining Cars" hired only Blacks because there were plenty of them available after the Civil War, he could get them to work for just the tips, and there was little backlash from Whites over the use of Blacks in these positions since they were considered "servants".

To this day, the proportion of Blacks in the Onboard Service Staff is far higher than that in the general population. The only other place where you will probably find such an inverse correlation of employee composition to that of the general population is in professional sports. However, there has been a steady influx of Whites, especially women, into these positions over recent years.

Because the original luxury cars were those built by George Pullman, passengers just called every porter just "George" regardless of their real name. Today, it is usually considered an insult to call a Car Attendant either "Porter" or "George". But what if their name is "George"? Ever since I learned the history behind this, I've found a surprising number of people that work on trains whose name really is "George"! On this trip, both our Dining Car Attendant's name is George and the Cafe/Lounge Car Attendant's name is George.

Though it is appropriate to leave your Car Attendant a tip when you leave the train, you should be aware that your tip is no longer their only means of compensation. Many years ago, the title "Porter" was dropped for the more professional title of "Attendant" and they receive a professional salary as well as Amtrak's full set of employee benefits.

I still must emphasize that the Sunset Limited is a train for people that love to ride trains. It is not a good route to start with if you want to see wonderous sights or to be pampered on your journey. There are not a lot of sights along this route. An entire day and two nights is spent just going through the flat ranges of Texas! If you are new to train travel and want to see the best that Amtrak has to offer, take the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle. Heading north is better than heading south. The Coast Starlight sometimes runs late which would place the ocean view in darkness on the southbound trip. There is no problem with the ocean view on the northbound trip since it is in the morning and early afternoon. If just being on a train is enjoyment for you, then the Sunset Limited can't be beat for length of the journey. But, if you want scenery and service on your trip, I'd suggest starting with some other western Amtrak route.

Our Engineer seems to have decided to make up some of our lost time. It is 4:14 P.M. on Sunday afternoon, September 29, 1996. We just left Lafayette, Louisianna and are a bit over two hours behind schedule. That is not unusual for this route. When the Enginner takes this train down these tracks as fast as he can, it makes for a lot of rocking and bumping. Usually, the ride is quite smooth. Going this fast turns it into a pretty rough ride. However, rough is a relative term. We have cups of soda and water sitting on the arm rests of our seats and they don't tip or spill. There are no cup holders like you have in cars. The recess to hold cups is only 1/4" deep. Thus, the recess does little to old the cups from tipping over, it just keeps the cups from sliding around. So, even when I say we are getting a "rough" ride, it isn't rough enough to tip over a cup sitting on the arm rest of the seat!

There are two places to definitely make note of on this trip: (1) Going through the town of New Iberia, Louisiana and (2) going over the Huey P. Long Bridge just before arriving in New Orleans. In New Iberia, the train goes down the middle of small street right through the front yards of many small homes. People stand on the porch of their homes waving at the train. My daughters pointed out to me that the train actually goes the wrong way down the middle of one small street in the town. The Huey P. Long Bridge is quite high. It has a long build up before it actually crosses the Mississippi. I looked out my window and thought I was in an airplane! We were very high above the tops of trees and homes! Unless you really pushed your head against the window, you could not see the bridge under the train. Thus, it looked like the train was flying through the air right over the town! Crossing the Mississippi is pretty impresive too!

Sunday, 7:45 P.M., 9/29/96, New Orleans, Louisiana

We just arrived into New Orleans Station a couple of hours late. Usually, the train stays here for a couple of hours, enough time for passengers to walk or take a taxi into town. Since we are two hours late, we are only going to be here long enough to clean, fuel, resupply the train and change crews. All the train staff change at this point, not just the Engineer and Conductor. All the train staff changed at this point going both ways in New Orleans on the last trip I took on the Sunset Limited. I think this is standard procedure.

When I went down the station with one of my daughters to look around the platform in New Orleans, we found a dog in the downstairs luggage rack! Actually, the dog was on a leash with a man. I assume they were checking for drugs and/or bombs. After the dog sniffed all the luggage, the man checked the luggage tags and then left. I assume he didn't find anything or there probably would have been more activity.

We stopped at one station very briefly. There was no announcement over the P.A. system. During the night, stations are not usually announced. The crew doesn't want to wake up sleeping passengers. Instead, the Car Attendant, who knows your destination, will inform you personally of your stop in advance. Evidently, someone goofed up at this stop. Some people were suppose to get off at this stop, but the train left before they were off the train. A Car Attendant was frantically calling for the Conductor over the P.A. system letting the Conductor know that some people had missed their stop. The next stop was only 15 miles down the road and we did not stop again until we got to that next stop.

Monday, 12:34 A.M., 9/30/96

I think I just found one of those reasons that makes Amtrak nervous about people that listen in to their radio communications. I just heard a Dispatcher call to the Conductor that he could see that the baggage car doors were open on both sides of the train. To try and come up with a more exact quote: "Your baggage car doors are open on both sides. I can see right through the car and the luggage inside. There could be a lot of luggage in the marshes tonight. Better have someone check that out." Hopefully they got those doors closed before anything fell out. I couldn't tell if they were worried that some had already fallen out or if some might fall out if they didn't close those doors right away. We had been going through the marshes in Louisiana and were now going through the marshes in Florida from time to time. We took all our luggage as "carry-on".

When in the sleepers, it is customary for the Car Attendant to slip the morning newspaper under the door. We didn't find one this morning, so I went to the usual places they are kept: (1) on top of the water fountain, (2) on the downstairs luggage rack, or (3) by one of the entrance doors downstairs. Not to be found anywhere! I ran into the Chief of Onboard Operations. He said he had seen them, but couldn't remember where and told be to check with our Car Attendant. I did check with him and he said he had left the paper at our door, but somebody on the way to breakfast had probably taken it. He quickly got us another one. Oh, and my favorite, coffee and juice has been available in our sleeping car starting at 6:30 A.M. this morning!

Monday, 2:11 P.M. (Central Time), 9/30/96

First it was the Texas range and now it is trees! I'm starting to remember more about our trip last March to Florida. No sooner did we leave the emptiness of the open range of Texas that we were constantly surrounded by trees! This is all flat land, so there are no mountains to look up to or valleys to look down into. For miles and miles, all we can see out the windows on both sides of the train is the trees that are right next to the tracks. Every hour or so, a few houses or a small town will poke its head out from the trees. Once in a while the train travels through a city or town and that is pretty interesting.

The food at lunch was very good. That is one thing I will definitely remember about this trip, the food. If Amtrak keeps this up, they will regain the reputation that Dining Cars on trains had during the days of luxury train service. I had "The Alamo" for lunch, which was a beef bouritto served with guacamolle and sour cream and sides of rice and beans. Everything was delicious, including the banana cake for dessert. My wife had a Reubin sandwich and my kids both had hamburgers. Everything turned out great and this new crew gave superb service!

For those of you that bring a cellular phone along, you will find that service is sporadic. Usually you have very good reception when the train is at stations near major cities, but very poor reception when travelling the long distances between cities. There is AC power on the train, so do bring your AC charger/adapter. Same for notebook computers, bring your AC charger/adapter along.

Several video features were played during the ride including the movies: Sgt. Bilko, Bed of Roses, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Up Close and Personal, and cartoons.

Contest time! The kids get a real kick out of this. They ran a contest and gave out prizes like cookies and brownies for anyone on the train that had any of the following:

Monday, 3:00 P.M. (Eastern Time), 10/1/96, Boca Raton, Florida

Monday, October 1, 1996, 3:00 P.M.: We checked into the Boca Raton Resort and Club last night. A very impressive place. You can't even get onto the grounds of the hotel unless you have a reservation or are visiting a guest of the hotel. If my wife's convention wasn't being held at this hotel, this would not be the type of place that I would book.

The least expensive room available, and this is at the convention discount rate, was $200 per night. On top of that, they add a $9 per day service charge to cover the Bell Service that handles your suticases when you arrive and leave and for the maid that makes up your room each day. However, they also make it clear that any additional tip you wish to provide is at your discretion! The only way to park here is to use valet parking and there is an extra daily charge for parking your car here plus that $9 per day service charge DOES NOT cover the tip for the valet! That isn't so good when you need to use the valet service every time you want to go on and off the hotel grounds using your car. The cost of room service is very high. If we wanted Breakfast in our room for my wife and I and our two kids, we calculated that we couldn't get away with less than $50! And that is just a plain breakfast, nothing fancy. (I stopped by Dunkin Donuts on my way back from picking up our rented car and picked up enough food for breakfast for at least 2 days, including plastic coffee cups to take home, for less than $15!).

I placed the "DO NOT DISTURB" sign on the doorknob, but Housekeeping knocked on the door anyway and asked if we needed any service. I pointed out the sign on the door to them and told them we don't want service at this time. They apologized and said they would come back tomorrow. I thought that was a bit unusual. Almost everywhere that I stay, I don't let Housekeeping in until I head out. Often, that isn't until late afternoon. In a few minutes, Housekeeping called us on the phone and told us that services are not available after 4 P.M. That seems unusual for a hotel of this magnatude. I would think they would have a few people on the evening staff to provide Housekeeping services in the late afternoon or early evening. We told them to just bring us some clean towels.

We are on the ninth floor of the "Towers". The main part of the hotel looks like a great big pink mansion or castle. The hotel was build in 1926 and is suppose to be one of the most luxurious in Florida. This is one of the few hotels given a six diamond rating by AAA. If you don't mind spending about $3000 for a one week stay at this place, then you can probably really enjoy yourself. Just don't look at the individual bills for room service, parking, valet, restaurants, hotel room & tax.

Our "Junior Studio Suite" is actualy 750 square feet. That is pretty big for most hotel rooms. The room is one giant area with a king size bed on one side, a sitting area on the other side, a very large bathroom area, and an interior hallway. The view is tremendous! We can see the entire front of the old part of the hotel from our window, the golf courses beyond, and the marina on the other side. By the time you read this, I may have photos of all this posted.

The auto rental experience was interesting. I paid $177 for unlimited mileage for an entire week from Avis. We got a free upgrade from economy to a mid-size car because I used my American Express. When I made the reservation at the national Avis number several weeks ago, they told me I would have to take a taxi from the hotel to the car rental place and they would reimburse my $5 cab fare. When I asked the Doorman to get me a taxi, he told me that there was a courtesy phone inside the lobby that I could use to have Avis come pick me up. I looked for the phone, but could not find it. Asking around didn't help. Nobody knew of such a phone. I asked at the desk and they called Avis for me. They did send a van out to pick me up. I'm always amazed by the amount of erroneous information that floats around just waiting to mislead unsuspecting travelers.

We drove to a local Target store and a supermarket later in the day. My wife and I are real coffee drinkers. We were quite disappointed to find that such a posh hotel as this didn't provide a coffee maker in the room! Even most Best Western Motels have one in the room and just about anything finer always has one. I'm starting to think that many of the low cost motels are out-doing the high-cost ones with guest ammenities such as coffee makers, microwaves, refrigerators, VCRs, Nintendos, and free movie channels! Many even offer free transportation to and from the airport, plus almost always free parking and often complimentary continental breakfast and evening cocktails. These low cost motels offer more creature comforts than many of the finer hotels.

At any rate, we went to Target and purchased a $15 Westbend 4 cup coffee maker and all the coffee, sweetener, cream and spoons necessary at the supermarket. We don't plan to take the coffee maker back with us, but we figure the cost of 2 pots of coffee from room service would easily cover the cost of a week's worth of coffee that we make ourselves in the room. We also purchased a 24 pack of Diet Pepsi, some beer, wine, pretzels, and cookies for the kids. Relative to the prices of food and drinks in the "In Room Butler", $2.25 per soda, $2.25 for 6 Oreo cookies, etc., we figure we stocked up with about $500 in supplies for only $20!

Thursday, 10/3/96

The saga continues! We are enjoying the time relaxing and looking about the hotel, though I am spending quite a bit of time on the phone and the computer with work matters. Just received a FedEx package yesterday with lots of stuff that needs to be worked on in case I didn't already bring enough with me!

Still amazed by the prices of everything. We went to the bar at the beach to grab a light lunch yesterday. We took a little shuttle boat to get there and a shuttle van to get back. All we ordered was a sandwich, a hot dog, two pina coladas, two kid's drinks and some chips. The total came to $60! There is no space on the bar bill to leave a tip when you sign it since they automatically add an 18% tip to everything! Each menu item is in the $6 to $8 range, including just a hot dog.

The weather was walm and balmy when we sat at a table under a straw roof right near the water. The waitress saw my camera and said: "Let me take a picture of you with those storm clouds in the background so you can tell everyone about the storm that hit you just 5 minutes after that photo." We thought she was joking. She wasn't! Right after taking our picture, the wind picked up and the rain started fiercely hitting our table! We moved to the shelter of the bar seats and waited out the 10 minutes of hard hitting rain. It is amazing how the weather can change from great to stormy and back to great again in just a few minutes.

Later that evening we ordered "late-night" room service for dinner. One of our kids had a hot dog, the other a hamburger, and my wife and I shared a pizza. We didn't order any drinks at all. The total came to about $30, which wasn't bad for the prices around here. The pizza was delicious! One thing is really turning me off about this place and leaving me with no choice but to give this place an overall "thumbs down" for an overall good time. Even though everything is over-priced and they automatically charge a $9 per day service charge to your room plus automatically add 18% to every food or drink that you purchase, the service personnel definitely hint that they want even more of a tip! By not leaving a line for a tip on the food bill, unlike most hotels, it appears that the hotel's policy is that the 18% service charge is suppose to take care of the tip.

I really don't like places with automatic tip policies and will always recommend that others steer clear of them. It takes away all of your discretion to leave a larger tip for excellent service (unless you want to hand someone cash in addition to the automatic tip) and a smaller tip for poor service. Plus, an automatic tip policy also leads to problems like the one at this hotel where the service people expect a tip in addition to the automatic tip added to the bill! So, while the hotel might have the right idea of trying to save you the trouble of knowing who to tip when and how much by making tips all included, this seldom works out in real life. Plus, when you stay at a hotel where you can see them gouging their "guests" right and left, you start to wonder if they treat their help any better and if their help even gets a fair portion of the automatic 18% service charge!

Housekeeping is knocking on the door again. Actually it is the second time today they have knocked. Evidently they don't read English and the hotel has not trained them what a "DO NOT DISTURB" tag on the doorknob means. My children are still sleeping in bed and I don't think there is any need to wake them while on vacation. I wonder why this hotel even bothers to distribute the "DO NOT DISTURB" door hangers if they don't train their staff what it means. Yesterday I discovered an empty pack of condoms and wrappers in the television cabinet. I've never even ran across anything like that in my stay at "Sleezy-8" motels! Maybe housekeeping in those places expect to find things like that and makes sure that all evidence from prior guests is removed before the next guests arrive. I just didn't expect to find such inadquate housekeeping at a AAA 5 diamond hotel.

From all this complaining, you probably think I'm having a miserable time. Actually, not at all! I'm really enjoying both the time to relax, the time I spend with my wife and kids, and the time I sit here at my notebook computer facing the panoramic 9th floor view of the hotel, water, and golf courses. Writing up these complaints actually gives me an avenue to vent my frustration. Even if my comments have no effect, I can always pretend that I've disuaded some of you from ever staying here and be content that the hotel may be losing business as a result of their policies and inadequacies. Though, I have some doubts about any effect the comments of unsatisfied guests have on this place. This hotel is booked solid with my wife's NACCB attendees and I've heard this hotel is pretty full most of the time.

Sunday, 10/6/96

We are on the road (or the "rails"??) again! Florida's Tri-Rail commuter trains also run through Deerfield Beach Station and I got a few photographs of the train that came through just before our train. A southbound Amtrak Silver Star was suppose to also come through the station before our train, but the Silver Star was running a couple of hours late.

The cab driver that took us to the station said that his Dad used to work for the railroad till the day he died. He remembers a trip he made with his Dad through the Rocky Mountains and said he remembers it just like it was yesterday! I guess his Mom has a free Amtrak pass, but she stopped using it back in the days when Amtrak switched to paper plates and plastic forks and spoons. I told him that most Amtrak routes have returned back to using real silverware and china instead of paper plates. I told him that his mother should give Amtrak another try. While in the Deerfield Beach Station, I discovered that Amtrak is still serving fast food on some of its eastern routes. I hope she doesn't start with one of those routes and find to her disappointment that Amtrak is still using paper plates and plastic forks!

The Amtrak Station Agents announced which end of the station Coach passengers should go to and where passengers boarding sleeping car #0131 should go. I thought that it was odd that they also didn't announce where passengers for our sleeping car #0130 should go. When the train did pull in, they directed us to go into sleeping car #0131. I told them and showed them our tickets were for #0130. They thought it was odd, and so did I, that we were on the manifest for #0131 when our tickets said #0130. Didn't matter to me. One Family Room is the same as the next.

Well, at least that is what I thought until we got ourselves settled in. My kids said the room had a slight smell of urine. I thought it could possibly be the smell of burning insulation that trains will sometimes have from the dynamic electric braking system. After spending time in the room, I agreed with my kids. The weak smell probably was urine. Some child who had previously had the room probably wet the bed and the Car Attendant may not have noticed it soaked into the mattress. The smell was fairly weak, so we decided to wait until this evening when the Car Attendant makes the beds. At that time, we'll see if the source of the smell can be found and the mattress changed out. Of all the trips I have taken in the family room, this is the first time I have ever encountered that smell.

Heading north out of Deerfield Beach, the Sunset Limited is pretty empty. They will still service lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon and we decided to go before they closed. Every room that we passed, which was most of Sleeping Cars #0130 and #0131, was empty! We did not see a single room other than ours occupied! If this is usual, then Amtrak has probably made the right decision to not run this train south of the Sanford Auto Terminal any more after November 10, 1996.

So far, our Car Attendant, William (Bill), and the Conductor have been very friendly and helpful. The people in the Dining Car were also very friendly. The Dining Car was practically empty. After the Cafe/Lounge Car Attendant made an announcement, people would occassionally come into the Dining Car thinking it was the Cafe/Lounge Car. The Dining Car Chief had to keep sending those people back to the Cafe/Lounge Car. That is an easy mistake for people new to Amtrak. They should probably post a notice on the door of the Dining Car so that people know which is which.

The Car Attendant from our trip out to Florida was also on this train. I think much of the crew from the previous train is on this train. Many of the staff on this train look familiar and many of them recognized us.

This train is not adequately stocked. They had neither of the two main lunch entrees on the menu. They had all of the other lunch entrees. They also did not have the Chocolate Cake that was on the menu which is the only cake that one of my daughters likes. I also ordered a red wine with my lasagna, but they only had white wine. They had run out of red wine. I hope they will be able to restock all these items when they make their big service stop in New Orleans.

On our way back from lunch, we noticed a couple of rooms had become occupied by people that must have got on the train while we were at lunch. Most of the train was still pretty much empty. I'm looking out both sides of the train. That is a nice feature of the Family Room, having windows on both sides of the train. Mostly a thin line of trees along both sides of the track blocking the view of any scenery beyond. No big deal, really. The scenery beyond that line of trees is mostly just more trees, more fields, more marshes or more farms. This isn't the route for spectacular scenery, but is a route during which you can relax and daydream.

I had a little chat with our Car Attendant, Bill Rawlings. He mostly works the City Of New Orleans route. Once in a while he goes on the "extra board" and works this Sunset Limited route. Bill said that not many people get on or off the Sunset Limited in this part of Florida. The Sunset Limited doesn't start to really get full until it gets more northerly in Florida and then starts heading west. I told him I could understand why Amtrak decided to eliminate service on this route south of Sanford starting November 10, 1996. Bill said he'd rather see Amtrak look to other means to raise revenue rather than cut service.

Bill said one of the most interesting parts of both the Sunset Limited route and the City of New Orleans route is going in and out of the city of New Orleans. He said he likes to see how the city is put together, which is something you can do by traveling in and out of the city by train. You can see the way the shipyards, train yards, industry, etc. are all interconnected.

The Amtrak placed a pink sheet in most of the Sleeping Rooms. There weren't any in the downstairs rooms in my car, thus none in mind. I borrowed one from an empty upstairs Deluxe Room. The sheet told that bus tours of the city of New Orleans are available during the trains layover in New Orleans. If the train arrives on time, 11:30 AM, then it will remain in New Orleans until 3:15 P.M., a 3 hour and 45 minute layover. The bus tour is $30 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under and includes a PO-BOY box lunch. The sheet says to see the On Board Chief for Reservations. Click here" for more information.

While in the Dining Car this evening, a group of gals came in from the Coach seating area and stood around one table at the end of the Diner and started singing! I don't know if they were a professional chorus, but they sounded pretty good! There will be a picture of this in the photo section. They sang several songs, all at that end table.

On my trip to Florida, I had tried both of Amtrak steak dinners and they were great, especially the Filet Mignon! I was a bit steaked out, so decided to order the Macaroni Cheese Cake which one of my daughters had ordered on the eastern trip and was also delicious! This dinner did not live up to expectations at all. Either the Chef that we had on the way out did not understand how to make this dish, or this Chef did not understand how to make it. I hope it is this Chef that made it wrong.

On the way east, the Chef had prepared large tubular macaroni with a cheese and marinara sauce. Actually you had your choice of sauce, either marinara, alfredo, or one other sauce. It was delicious!

I don't think anyone taught the Chef on the way west how to properly make this dish. I think he looked at the menu and tried to figure out how he was suppose to make something that matched the menu description. What he made was identical to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Since one would not usually put marinara sauce on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, he didn't. He just put the marinara sauce on the side and then dressed up the dish with some vegetables.

The meal on our eastbound journey looked and tasted like something any fine Italian restaurant would be proud to serve. The meal on our westbound journey looked and tasted like something that would be served in a school cafeteria! The other menu items that we tried on this westbound journey were fine. It was just this one item that the Chef seemed confused about how it was to be prepared.

Sunday, 9:30 P.M., 10/6/96, Jacksonville, Florida.

There is a bridge out leading into New Orleans. Evidently it has something to do with the weather. There is a rain storm where we are now. I don't know if there is a physical problem with the bridge or if the bridge just can't be used in bad weather. We won't get to that bridge until 11:30 A.M. tomorrow morning, but they are already making plans for taking an alternate route.

In Jacksonville, Florida, everyone going to stations between Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana were told that now was a good time to call anyone that was expecting them. Those passengers were going to be let off in Mobile and bussed to their stations. The train itself would be heading northwest from Mobile to Hattlesburg over the IC freight line and then south to New Orleans over the Crescent's route. The train won't be making any stops between Mobile and New Orleans since it is a detour with no regular stations for the Sunset Limited, but we might run into a lot of freight traffic taking the same detour for the same reason. At this time, they have no idea how late we might be arriving into New Orleans. This ought to be interesting. I'll be covering some new territory tomorrow that normally isn't used by any Amtrak trains.

While in the Amtrak station In Jacksonville, Florida, a train with a single Viewliner Sleeping Car was parked opposite our platform. I took a photo of it, but not sure how good it will be. It is just the Amtrak logo, the word "Sleeping Car", and maybe the door. I was too close to the car but could not step back since I was on the platform between my train and that train. My Car Attendant found our it was the train to New York, probably the Silver Star since that train was scheduled to head north at 10:30 P.M.

Monday, 7:52 A.M. (Central Time), 10/7/96,
almost Mobile, Alabama.

More announcements were just made about which passengers would have to detrain here. Since we are going to take a detour north, those passengers going on to Pascagoula-MS, Gulfport-MS, Bay St. Louis-MS and those transferring to the Amtrak City of New Orleans train have been told to leave the train here at Mobile, Alabama. They will be bussed the rest of the way to their destinations. I don't envy them!

I've found out a little more about this detour. It might not be the bridge that is out, but just that the tracks through the low level bijou country can't be used during very foul weather due to flooding. Looking at the map, the detour isn't as big as I thought it was. Since we will be making no stops between here and New Orleans, there is even a chance we will get there early! However, if we encounter a number of freight trains also taking the same detour plus the freight trains that normally run on those tracks, then all bets are off. We could come into New Orleans very very late.

The smell of urine vanished many hours ago. Whether my nose just got conditioned to it or it just took that long for the odor created by the previous occupants of this room to disperse, I don't know. However, during the night, I had a new odor to contend with: cigarette ashes! The Sunset Limited is one of the few trains that still allows smoking in all private bedrooms. The only flaw in that is that the car has one central air-conditioning and air circulation system that moves the smoke throughout the car! My understanding is that Amtrak's ultimate goal is to not permit smoking anywhere on any train. They are gradually phasing in that policy. Some train, like the Coast Starlight already don't allow smoking anywhere. Trains with "no smoking" policies do have designated smoking stops where the train stops long enough for passengers to step out and have a smoke. These are stops where the train has to stop for that long anyway and they aren't doing it just so the passengers have time to smoke! If you are a smoker who feels inconvenienced by this, you aren't the only one. I've noticed that there are a LOT of smokers among Amtrak staff also! They are some of the first to get off the train and light up at the smoking stops! The train Engineer doesn't have to worry about this policy. Being isolated from everyone else way up front, I've seen them smoking even while operating trains with a no-smoking policy!

Monday, 9:25 A.M., 10/7/96, still Mobile, Alabama!

So much for getting anywhere early! We've spent the last hour and a half going back and forth in the switch yard. After spending quite a bit of time getting out of the station to the far end of the yard, someone in dispatch changed their mind and decided we needed to switch somewhere else. After a long time, we ended up back in the Mobile, Alabama station again! We went through the station and changed tracks somewhere out at the other end of the station. We are finally proceeding very slowly along our detour route just outside of Mobile, Alabama. I'd say we are traveling at about 15 or 20 m.p.h. at most. The Dispatcher relayed to the Amtrak foreman that all trains taking this detour must have an Engine at both ends. There is a "Y" somewhere on this detour where we will have to turn the train around.

On the radio, just heard the Diner is almost out of water and there is no place for this train to pick up water before New Orleans! That could be a serious problem for being able to cook lunch!

But, back to my problem: the smell of cigarette ashes in the room. All night I'd smell them whenever I awoke and would just turn my head another way on the pillow. In the morning, I looked for the source of the smell. I started with the most logical place, the ash tray. The ash tray was totally full of ashes and cigarette butts! I tried to pull it out, but quickly found why this ash tray hadn't been emptied during the normal cleaning of the car. The ash tray was stuck solid in the arm rest! Not to be deterred, I got out my toe nail clipper and used it to pry the ash tray out of the arm rest. Once I got it out, I took it down the hall, emptied out the ashes and washed it thoroughly. No more smelly ashes for me when I lay my head down to sleep tomorrow night!

Monday, 10:38 A.M. (Central Time), 10/7/96, somewhere between Mobile, AL and Hattlesburg, MS

Been going through the deep forest for quite some time on this detour. The weather isn't too bad here. It is very overcast, but it isn't even raining. Eventually we arrived at Hattlesburg, Mississippi. This detour must be very unusual! First, we arrived into town facing 90 degrees to the Amtrak station platform. The Amtrak Crescent train goes through this station, but in parallel to the station platform heading north or south. We arrived into town heading northwest, at a right angle to the station platform! That itself seemed a bit unusual. The County Constable was even out there taking pictures of the train! There was also a person with one of the largest telephoto lenses I've ever seen taking pictures!

I don't know what the problem was, but it seemed a pretty big effort to get the Sunset Limited off the northeast direction we were heading and on to the other set of tracks that would take us south into New Orleans. They had to remove the two engines from the front of our train, use another engine to pull the rest of the train through the "Y" and then re-attach our two engines to the other end of our train. We were then pulled backwards all the way to New Orleans. Since the seats in our Family Room normally faced backwards, this meant we were facing forwards for this segment of our travel! But, all the seats in Coach, which usually face forwards, were now facing backwards. The staff apologized for that.

So much for the 3 and 3/4 hour stay in New Orleans! We were only going to have as much time as it would take to refuel and restock the train and change crews. We were told that the train might not be in New Orleans any more than 30 minutes, the fastest the train can be made ready to leave. Actually, it took them a bit over an hour to get it ready to go again and we didn't leave New Orleans until almost 5:30 PM. Since we didn't leave the area of the New Orleans Amtrak Station, that is as far as we ventured. So much for the bus tour of New Orleans! If you are ever on the Sunset Limited and it is very late into New Orleans, I wouldn't bother to go into the station unless you have to make a phone call or pick up a newspaper. There really isn't anything interesting right in the station itself. Also, once you get off the train, they won't let you back on until they are ready to board everyone ... which could be a while. If you want a newspaper, get it right away when you get to the station. The local newpapers sell out pretty fast once people start coming into the station from the train.

I really liked our Car Attendant. I hunted him down and gave him a tip before he got off in New Orleans. I think the Car Attendants that take the train either from Miami to New Orleans or from Los Angeles to New Orleans get short changed by the people going beyond that station. Most people only tip when they get off the train and don't track down the Car Attendant mid-trip.

Monday, 10:00 P.M. (Central Time), 10/7/96, Lafayette, LA

Our new Car Attendant's name is Janet. She is quite a character. Through the door of our room, I heard a lot of loud joking around from the next room. I was hoping this wasn't going to be what we would be hearing for the rest of the entire trip. This wasn't a problem. It turned out that all that loud joking around was our Car Attendant, Janet! One of the rooms right outside our door was occupied by a elderly man traveling alone that seemed to be pulling the "Call Attendant" button endlessly at all hours of the day and night. He gave our previous Car Attendant quite a bit of work to do with all those calls he kept making! You are suppose to pull the button and wait until the Car Attendant gets to you. When you do that, a loud signal noise is made in the corridor and a light goes on above your door and another light goes on in the room occupied by the Car Attendant. Since the Car Attendant may be currently tending to other passengers, you are suppose to patiently wait your turn. The elderly man in the next room, however, not only pulled the "Call Attendant" button frequently, but would push it in and out, in and out, if the Car Attendant didn't quickly come to his room! I heard our Car Attendant, Janet, shout out: "If you pull that button one more time, I've got a man I'm going to send after you!" Most other Car Attendants would have handled this situation a little more delicately, but that response is a good sample of Janet's personality.

We decided to have a late dinner since we were heading back to California and wanted to start to get our eating and sleeping habits back on California time. This is one luxury you don't have when traveling by plane! However, we started getting hungry at about 8 P.M. (6 P.M. Pacific Time). We decided that was late enough and headed for the Dining Car. To our surprise, the Diner hadn't even started serving yet! Since our layover in New Orleans was reduced from almost four hours to just about one hour, the dining staff hadn't had enough time to finish loading stock and prepare dinner yet.

About an hour later, Janet made an announcement for "First Call" for dinner. This is a little unusual as the head of the dining staff is usually the one to announce dinner. I figured they must be calling for one Sleeping Car at a time. I was probably right. As we walked by Janet, she said: "You folks are lucky. Sleeping Car passengers get to eat first before they let in the passengers from Coach." However, when we got to the Dining Car, it was already almost full! I think they must have already seated the people from the Sleeping Car in front of us, or behind us, or both!

I knew right away this was going to be a real experience. They had a whole train of hungry passengers because they started dinner so late, and they were going to have to feed them as fast as they could to not end up having people still waiting to be served after midnight! On the way out, my wife and I and my two kids always sat at our own table. My wife had to fly to New York on Sunday, so I was travelling with just my two kids home. That meant there was always a "risk" of having someone else seated at our table with us. The dining staff is usually pretty good at putting people together, but not always. They will often put a grandmother or grandfather type with us, someone they think has their own grandkids and will get along with other kids at the table. I don't mind and my kids don't mind sitting with that type of person. However, they sometimes seat people that don't relate to kids at all with us. I don't like eating in dead silence, so I end up carrying on two distinct conversations simultaneously, one with my kids and one with the stranger. I can pretty much relate to anyone, but I can't bring my kids into a conversation with someone that doesn't relate to kids, and there are some people I don't even mind if my kids don't want to talk with. The person they sat us with was not the grandfatherly type, but was able to relate to kids adequately enough. The conversation pretty much turned into a session of asking riddles and guessing ages and grades.

Our salads came right away, without any dressing. The dressing arrived on the side a few minutes later. Long after we had completed our salads, they finally brought us our menus. Usually, they fill seats in one side of the dining car and leave the other side empty. When the first side has been served desert and won't need much more attention from the staff, they then start to fill the other side of the Dining Car. By the time the second side has moved onto desert, the first side of the Dining Car is empty again and they can start seating that side again! Alternating in this manner, they can serve the entire load of passengers pretty quickly. Because it was so late, I think they just went ahead and immediately filled the entire dinning car with passengers waiting to eat. I don't think they were able to serve people any faster, but at least passengers weren't wondering why half the dining car was empty while so many were waiting to be seated.

I think it was about an hour from the time we sat at the table and someone finally came to take our orders. This was also true for all the tables around us. Once again, I think this was true because they seated our section of the diner before they were really ready for us. They brought our drinks pretty quickly, but we would still have a while to wait for the main course. After it had been about an hour and a half since we first sat down and were still waiting for our meals to arrive, I saw one person come in and place his name on the waiting list. He then looked at the four tables around us, and thinking that we had already finished eating, said out loud in an angry voice: "Look at that. People finished with dinner just sitting and taking up tables!". Little did he know.

I ordered the Filet Mignon again as did one of my daughters. It has been excellent every time we have had it, but I think I've used up my red meat quota for this year already! Except for the first time that I ordered it on the train on the way out to Florida, they have not had any Bernaise sauce. That sauce was great, but they've only had the mushroom onion sauce available since then. I had my steak without any sauce this time and it was still delicious. I had ordered mine prepared medium and my daughter ordered her's "well-done". Her "well-done" came out on the medium side and my medium came out a bit on the rare side, but both were still excellent. I was able to have red wine with my meal this time. Red wine was out of stock from Miami to New Orleans, but they seem to have restocked most items in New Orleans. Unfortunately, they didn't restock the layer chocolate cake that my daughters really like.

Tuesday, 8:40 A.M. (Central Time), 10/8/96, San Antonio, TX

Today is my daughter's birthday. We purchased some presents in Florida and brought them with us to open on the train. We also brought a few treats along. We'll try and improvise and make a bit of a party on the train. The big party is going to be this coming Saturday at our home, but we like to have at least a little party on the real day of her birthday.

San Antonio, Texas is where the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited link up. I was able to tune into the communications pretty quickly on Channel 22 - 160.440 and also found that the "Yard Frequency" was Channel 63 - 161.055. They linked up the two trains with quite a bump! Usually, you can just barely feel it when they link up. The cars lurched a couple of times before they were done. I'd been through a number of hook-ups and de-couplings before and they've usually been nothing to be concerned about as long as you are seated or have a hand-hold. This time I had a hot cup of coffee in my hand while I decended the stairs holding the hand rail. The bump was strong enough for me to spill a big splash of coffee out of my cup, including over my fingers. Fortunately, it wasn't hot enough to burn.

The local morning newspaper, the "San Antonio-Express News" was slipped under my door. Amtrak usually does provide a morning newspaper to Sleeping Car passengers as long as they are able to pick some up along the way. We left San Antonio at about 9:15 A.M., about three hours and forty minutes late. Most of this delay was because of the detour we had to make to avoid that gulf storm.

Tuesday, 10:00 A.M. (Central Time), 10/8/96

This is going to be another lazy morning! My daughters just woke up and decided to skip breakfast as last call was announced from the Dining Car. I still have one more donut for each of them from the half dozen we picked up at Dunkin Donuts store in Boca Raton, Florida. They were still fairly fresh yesterday. Hopefully they are still soft enough to eat today. They don't like most of the breakfast items from the cafe/lounge car, even though there is a fairly good selection: breakfast sandwiches, muffins and danish pastries.

Tuesday, 1:00 P.M. (Central Time), 10/8/96, Del Rio, TX

Today we did have lunch with a grandmother type. Her name was Mary and she was 55 years old. As usual, my kids played the age guessing game and my youngest daughter guessed Mary's age at 54. Mary was concerned about her connection in Los Angeles to the Coast Starlight. If we didn't make up any time, we'd be getting in at about 10 A.M. I've taken the Coast Starlight often enough to know that it waits until at least 10:15 A.M. if the Sunset Limited is coming in late and I re-assured Mary of that. If the Sunset Limited is going to be any later than that, they will probably transfer her to a bus in either Indio or Ontario, California and have the bus take a short cut to meet the Coast Starlight up at Santa Barbara or even San Luis Obispo, California. Going by road, you can easily gain an hour on the train between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo since the train hugs the coast the entire way and the road takes a direct diagonal short-cut.

Mary was travelling with her husband from Jacksonville, Florida back to her home in Bend, Oregon. Her husband didn't feel like lunch, so she came to the Dining Car alone. We both had "The Alamo" for lunch which was a very good beef burrito served with guacamole and sour cream, rice and beans.

Tuesday, 6:00 P.M. (Central Time), 10/8/96, Alpine, TX

We are about to change to Mountain Time and gain an hour. Finally I was able to get through on my cellular phone and catch up on all my messages! We were in Alpine for a long time, at least for 30 minutes and maybe more. We weren't suppose to stop longer than to just let people off and on. I think there was a medical emergency. Just before we got to Alpine, an announcement over the P.A. asked than any doctor or nurse on board come to the lower level of the lounge car. Maybe they had to take someone off the train, but I didn't see anything. There was just an unusually long stop. We were almost four hours behind schedule and we are now about five hours behind schedule.

Wednesday, 6:45 A.M. (Pacific Time), 10/9/96, Indio, CA

We are not too far from Palm Springs. Whoops! Just had to stop for a moment. The train stopped and there was a "Wind Mill Farm" against the backdrop of a mountain outside the left window. I had to get a picture of that. There are electric generating windmills as far as the eye can see in both directions. We had to stop to let a freight train pass.

I was right about the passengers going on to the Coast Starlight. They just announced that those passengers would get of in Ontario and then be bussed to Santa Barbara to catch up with the Coast Starlight.

Whenever the train is late like this, they serve a full breakfast in the Dining Car. Since we will be getting off in Pomona, we really should be getting up to go to breakfast now. However, I promised my kids that we could get a Carl's Jr. breakfast if the train came in before they closed up their breakfast menu. Looks like we'll be getting into Pomona around 9 A.M., so I'm going to let the kids sleep another half-hour even if it means missing breakfast in the Diner. Besides, Janet, our Car Attendant, said that she would wake us up in time for breakfast and she hasn't come knocking on our door yet.

I just went upstairs to get a cup of coffee. I need that morning coffee! No coffee. It is after 7 A.M., and no coffee. Those of you that have read my other travelogues know this is the one item that really annoys me. These Sleeping Cars were designed so that people can have fresh coffee in their own room whenever they want it just by going to the large coffee urn located in the center of each Sleeping Car. The new Superliner II Cars even have a refrigerator/freezer so that you can get juice and ice whenever you want. But, that doesn't help if the Car Attendant doesn't brew up a pot of coffee. I can almost understand Car Attendants that are not fond of coffee keeping a hot pot all day, but I can't understand not having any coffee available in the morning!

A while back, I had decided that the amount of tip suggested for Car Attendants in one of the books I had read about Amtrak of $5 per day per person was much too high. From my observations, I doubted that many if any tip that high. For our family of four, that would have been a total tip of $80 for just one way! This is a tip for a person that receives a full employee salary with benefits. The maximum I ever tip regardless of the number of people in our party and the length of the trip is $20. Considering that we almost never call our Car Attendant for anything, often not even to put the beds up and down, this seems quite reasonable. I get the impression that this is still a higher tip than most people give since I still get a surprised look from them and they always start tripping over themselves to offer to help me with anything I still might need help with. It gives me the feeling that the book that I read about Amtrak tipping was way off-base. I'm going to have to dig that book up again and make sure it wasn't written by an Amtrak service employee! I was thinking of tipping our Car Attendant that $20 amount for this segment of our trip, but that missing morning coffee plus forgetting to wake us up in time for breakfast like she promissed sure reduced that to $10 pretty fast! I like to reserve those $20 tips as a reward for what I consider to be Amtrak's best Car Attendants who really do those little things that make our trip a pleasure. I think it is a disservice to Amtrak and to future passengers to give the maximum reward to the Car Attendants whose efforts are less than adequate.

Wednesday, 9:00 A.M. (Pacific Time), 10/9/96, Pomona, CA

Good thing I told the Car Attendant that we were getting off in Pomona instead of Los Angeles! I don't think this train was going to stop at Pomona at all! The Conductor radioed to the Engineer to stop the train as he usually does, but he missed by about 10 feet and had our door past the end of the station and into the gravel.

We were the only ones to get off or on the train in Pomona. The Conductor, two Assistant Conductors and the Car Attendant all came down to help us off the train! We had 3 rolling suitcases (one for each of us), 3 backpacks, plus 2 more carry bags with items we had purchased in Florida. They set up a "bucket brigade" and handed the suitcases from one to the next to quickly get them all off the train. Since we were 10 feet past the sidewalk and into the gravel, it was impossible to roll our suitcases. I had to make a few short trips to carry each of the 3 suitcases over to the smoother sidewalk before my kids would each be able to roll one.

Once we were off the train, I discovered that we had actually missed the entire station by about 50 feet and were completely across the street from the station! The railroad crossing gate was still down, so we were able to cross the street without difficulty. Actually, the gate stayed down for quite a while and at least one car went around the gate. The Conductor told us that a phone was all the way at the other end of the platform. I figured that must be the actual location of the station. We walked all the way down, found the phone, but no station! The only thing in sight that even vaguely looked like a station was a boarded up railroad boxcar loading platform. There wasn't even anything that looked like those new "mini-stations" that are little more than a bench, a covering, and a sign on the wall. There was a lot of construction and a brand new bus loading zone out front of the boarded up building, so I figured they must be in the process of rebuilding the station. Our ride had not yet arrived, so we brought our luggage to the shade of the boarded up building. There were other people sitting on the loading platform waiting for a bus. This is not a station where I would feel comfortable waiting for a train at night! It is pretty desolate and not a very friendly looking area. We had hardly put our luggage down when our ride showed up. Pomona is the closest station to my house for the Sunset Limited, but I think I will stick with embarking and disembarking at either Los Angeles or maybe Ontario.

More ...

Jokingly, I've been thinking of offering a correspondence course in how to be a professional Amtrak passenger! I'm about to include here more lessons on things you need to know to be a professional Amtrak passenger. I'll cut and paste this information onto other areas of my web pages for those that could use this information but never stumble upon this particular travelogue.

Bathroom Etiquette

When you go to select a bathroom to use, check the indicator on the door. It will tell you if it is "OPEN" or occupied. It is not easy to read. I have to bend down a bit to read it. Most people don't bother to read it. They just try to open the door! Thus, when you use the bathroom, you better make sure it is really locked! Don't be surprised if the door handle turns from time to time as people check to see if the bathroom you are using is open. I once checked the door indicator, saw it said "OPEN", openned the door, and found a little old lady in a very embarassing position! Ever since then, I open doors very slowly, ready to close it at the first hint of someone in there. I also double check the door very carefully when I'm in the bathroom. One time when I thought I had carefully locked the door, it opened suddenly! Fortunately, I was just washing up. I re-examined the door lock and found that it was broken. When locked, it could easily slide back to the "OPEN" position by itself just by the vibration on the train. I'd never seen a broken lock on one of these bathrooms before, so that problem is pretty rare. For the rest of the trip I used one of the other 3 bathrooms in that Sleeping Car.

You will usually find the bathroom quite neat and tidy when you enter. Once in a great while it will be a bit messy with water splashed around and paper towels here and there. The Car Attendant will clean it up from time to time, but obviously can't be expected to check it after every use. There are signs that ask you to please leave the bathroom neat for the next person to use it. The trash bins in the bathroom are interesting. There is one for "TRASH" and one for "DIAPERS AND SANITARY NAPKINS". However, when you throw in your used paper towel, you can see that the lids to both bins lead into the same trash bag!

Heating & Cooling

This information you will probably find quite useful. The Heating and Cooling systems on the train are totally separate from each other. Cool air seems to flow in from the ceiling vents no matter how you adjust the "COOLER/WARMER" control. You can, however, flip a lever on the vent itself that will almost stop all air coming into the room. That will eliminate most of the cold air coming into the room. The heating mechanism is near the floor on the side of the room. Basically, it is a flat metal panel that gets warm and radiates heat into the room. It will get warm when you set the "COOLER/WARMER" control to "WARMER". Thus, if there is cool air coming into the room from the ceiling vent, it is possible for you to be heating up the room at the same time! Also, the air in the corridor is usually much cooler than the air in your room. If the air conditioning doesn't make the room cool enough for you, then leave your door open and the air from the corridor will enter your room and usually make it as cool as you could ever want! If you are on the sunny side of the train, you will often need the help of the corridor air to keep your room cool. Even with your door open, you can maintain privacy by closing your curtain.

Electricity in the Family Room

No matter what room you have reserved in the Sleeping Car, I'd recommend bringing a short 3 foot to 6 foot extension cord. I'd especially recommend the type with the flat plug head that is available at most department stores. Even though it says "Razors Only", it can easily handle anything that takes an AC/DC converter or charger such as used by notebook computers and cellular phones, or even portable cassette players and pocket televisions. Converters and chargers usually draw very little wattage and also even out small spikes and voltage variations. They don't want you plugging in regular AC items like regular televisions, VCR's, etc. because the spikes and voltage variations could damage your equipment and they do not wish to be responsible for that. I originally thought it said "Razor's Only" because they didn't want you using high wattage devices. I guess I was wrong. I heard a Car Attendant tell a lady that it was O.K. to use her hair dryer! You can't draw much more wattage than that drawn by a hair dryer, usually between 500 and 1500 watts!

Cellular Phones

Usually there is no problem using a cellular phone on the train. I just pick up the phone and dial. Once in a great while, but not often, I go through an area that requires a credit card. When that happens, I don't use my phone. I've found two things to be true of those areas: (1) the rates are extremely high ($1.25 + $1.95 per minute for Mobile, Alabama), and (2) the last time I did that, my phone got disabled for the rest of my entire journey! Ever since my cellular phone got disconnected after trying to use it with a credit card, I always wait until I'm in an area where the call will go straight through without a credit card. That is the way the service works in most areas of the nation. Unfortunately, the Sunset Limited seems to go through more areas that require credit cards with cellular phones than most other train routes. My wife didn't seem to have as much problem as I did with this. I'm on the Airtouch system. I'm going to have to see if she is on L.A. Cellular. Maybe L.A. Cellular has more reciprocal agreements worked out with other cellular companies than Airtouch. I'd try the other channel on my cell phone, but the last time I did that, I forgot how to switch it back to the main channel!

Sleeping In The Family Room

I find the lower bed in the Family Room the most comfortable place to sleep on the train! Actually, the comfort is probably the same in the Deluxe Bedroom also. Most of the motion in the train is a rocking from side to side. Starting and stopping of the train tend to be very smooth. Thus, there is seldom motion on the train to throw you forward or backward like you have in a car. Mostly, you will find yourself trying to counter the side to side swaying motion when you walk down the aisles and corridors.

The beds in the Economy Bedroom go the long way. Thus, the swaying motion of the train is trying to either roll you into the wall or off the bed. Tucked under the covers, there is little chance of you actually rolling out of the bed. As added insurance, there are straps to keep a person from falling from the top bunk. Don't panic! The straps don't go around you or anything like that. The straps go from the bottom of the bed to the top of the ceiling and are just used to block the path that your body would have to take if you were to roll out of bed. When you first look at these straps, you may have little faith that they are actually going to prevent you from rolling out of bed, but they do! It would be very difficult to roll in any direction and not be blocked by the straps from trying to roll out of the bed.

To continue with my point, the swaying motion of the train tends to roll you side to side in the Economy Bedroom. You actually don't roll at all, but there is just the swaying in that direction. I guess by being on one side of the train or the other, the swaying converts into a motion that makes your bed move up and down. That can be comforting, but even more pleasurable is sleeping perpendicular to the direction of travel of the train.

When sleeping perpendicular to the direction of travel of the train, the swaying motion of the train rocks your head and feet in opposite directions. This would be identical to the way you were rocked as a baby in your mother's arms. There must be something very innate about the pleasure derived from this motion that doesn't even leave you as an adult. Not only is this motion not a bother, but it is very soothing and can result in a very good night's sleep. Unfortunately, the only beds in the train arranged this way are the ones in the Deluxe Bedrooms and the two adult size beds in the Family Room. The beds in the Economy Room, the Special Bedroom, and the children's beds in the Family Room are parallel with the direction of travel of the train.

When I'm in the Family Room, another feature I like is the two facing seats for children. Actually, my kids don't like to sit there too often, but I do! My kids prefer to play in the main part of the room where there is lots of space. I like the little corner because I can put my feet up on the opposite chair while I work on my computer at the table. Plus, it puts me right next to the window and a great view!

I am totally sold on the Family Room as being the best room for a train trip! In addition to the above reasons, the Family Room is also the largest room on the train. Except for the Special Bedroom, it is the only room that goes completely from one side to the other side of the train. The couch that stretches all the way from the window on one side of the train to the window on the other side gives the room a spacious feeling (unless you are new to train travel. In that case, everything might give you clostrophobia at first). The only thing that you don't get in the Family Room that you would get in a Deluxe Room is a private bath and shower. There are public bathrooms just down the hall and they never seem to all be occupied at once. There is also a public shower which is usually available except in early morning when everyone seems to want to use it at the same time.

Telephone Poles

One of the most anoying aspects of photography from the train is telephone poles and wires. They seem to always jump out the moment you click for your picture! As a matter of fact, I have a fairly comprehensive photo collection of telephone poles and other shrubbery from my travels! Phone wires also seem to be at exactly mid-view, especially from the upstairs windows on the train which result in a line through the middle of your photographs. Fortunately, phone lines and poles are coming down all over the nation! In your rail travels, you might be amazed at the number of phone poles in total disrepair. You will often find them on the ground or half-knocked over. Especially interesting are the poles with disconnected wires dangling all over them like some electronic tree. Sometimes you will even find phone wires holding up the top crossbars of the phone pole and the entire bottom of the pole missing! Thus, the wires are holding up what is left of the phone pole instead of the phone pole holding up the wires.

The entire set of phone poles along the tracks by Orangethorpe in Anaheim, the tracks used by the Southwest Chief and Desert Wind, were on the ground one week and then they were completely gone! I have seen phone poles in various states of being removed all over the west. Are you wondering what is happening to the phone wires? They are going underground. There is train equipment that digs a small ditch by the rails and burries fiber cable. Each tiny strand of fiber carries the equivalent of over 1000 pairs of the old copper lines! Over 1000 phone conversations can be carried in a single strand of fiber smaller than the old copper wire used to carry a single phone conversation! Plus, they usually lay down several of these strands at once, not just a single strand. Thus, the burried fiber cable has much greater capacity than the old overhead wires that they are replacing. That is good news for people that like to photograph from the train and can't wait for the phone poles and wires to get out of the way.

Tell Amtrak Immediately
If You Change Your Plans!

If you decide to get on or off the train at any station other than the one listed on your ticket, tell Amtrak as much in advance as possible! If you change your plans before your trip, call 1-800-USA-RAIL and let them know of the change. If you change your plans while on the train, tell your Car Attendant or a Conductor as early as possible.

The Car Attendant and the Conductor has a manifest that tells him where every passenger is getting on and off. If there are no passengers getting on or off at a particular stop, the train will sometimes not even stop! If your car on the train has nobody getting on or off at a particular station, your Car Attendant will often not even open the door to your car even if people are getting on and off from other cars.

In my early days of train travel, we discovered this the hard way. We had tickets to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight, but were able to arrange for someone to pick us up in Glendale. When the train stopped, we patiently waited for the Car Attendant to come open our door. He never did! We were worried the train was about to leave without us, so we finally just went and opened the door ourselves and got out! Being new to train travel, we had no idea how dangerous that was! The platform was empty except for one Conductor way down the other end of the train. That train could have started to leave the platform while we were in the middle of getting off! This trip was another example that showed that the train was probably not even going to stop at Pomona at all since we were the only ones getting off or on.

Equally important is to let Amtrak know if you will be getting on further down the line than where you had planned. If you have a Sleeping Car Room, not only is it possible that your room will no longer be available, but it is even very likely to be the case if the train is fairly full. Many people who would normally travel in the Sleeping Cars will often travel in Coach because all the Sleeping Car Rooms were booked when they made their reservation. Amtrak reservations, in those cases, will usually tell the person that they should tell the Conductor that they wish to upgrade to a Sleeper when they board the train. The Conductor will make a note of every person that wants to upgrade. Once the train leaves the station, the Conductor will check for "no-shows" and allow those coach travellers to upgrade to the empty sleeping rooms for an additional fee. If you didn't let Amtrak know early enough about your plans to board further down the line, your room will be gone by the time you board!

(These are some notes that I'm adding here on October 6, 1997: Passengers do have a mind of their own, but "common sense" can be wrong. If you have a ticket between point A and point B, it seems "common sense" that seat you have purchased belongs to you. Thus, you might think that it shouldn't make any difference if you get on after point A or get off before point B. But, in train travel, it can make a world of difference. As in a flight reservation, if you don't show up a Point A, your seat or sleeper accommodation can be sold to someone else. Also, you Car Attendant is very likely to not open the door to your car at all if nobody else is getting on or off at the station where you would like to get of the train early prior to Point B. It is extremely dangerous to let yourself off the train because the train could depart the station at any moment if no Car Attendant is at your door! Thus, I think it might be a worthwhile P.A. announcement along with all those other warnings, like no walking between train cars without shoes, to let passengers know they must never attempt to depart the train where no Car Attendant or Conductor is present. If by any chance your Car Attendant forgets to come to your door at your scheduled stop, which has only happened to me once in over 120,000 miles of rail travel, then seek a car where the door is open.)

Avis Car Rental

Watch out for trickery by Avis Car Rentals! Usually when you call, they will give you a 5% discount if you make a reservation immediately while they have you on the phone. When you return your car, however, you will find a new charge on your bill they never told you about. They add a daily surchage to cover wear and tear on the tires! This adds back just a bit more than the 5% discount. Be sure to ask about it before you confirm any reservation. Maybe you can get them to waive it if you question it before you confirm your reservation.

The following is information that I received on October 14, 1996 about why the Sunset Limited had to make a detour and could not go direct from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana. I thank Michael Kimura for bringing this to my attention:


On October 5, CSXT's Rigolets Bridge was struck by a barge, damaging the structure and making it impassable for rail traffic. Amtrak trains 23 and 24 are cancelled between Mobile and New Orleans, and trains 1 and 2 are detouring via the Norfolk Southern and Illinois Central via Hattiesburg between New Orleans and Mobile, losing about four hours on the run. CSXT and Union Pacific are detouring interchange tonnage destined to New Orleans via Memphis TN.

Notes for me while waiting for my film to be developed and returned:

* I apologize if anyone is offended by me using the term "Black". However, I no longer know what term to use that is not considered insulting by some. I refuse to use the current term that is popular: "African-American". I believe this term, along with other terms like "Christian American" is very divisive. I have no problem with us identifying outselves this way when engaged in private socal activities among others who share the same ethnic or religious heritage, but it is a big mistake to hold this as the major way to identify ourselves in all our dealings with others. This creates artificial lines between us that are unnecessary and damaging. That one person has black skin and another white skin is a simple observation and a fact of life. To then extend this to promote some people as belonging to a group with "African-American" interests and another group with "Eurocentric" interests rather than just viewing us all as Americans will continue to promote the problems that divide America.

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