The experience of riding a very late Southwest Chief
By Doug Ohlemeier
I made a trip from Lawrence to Phoenix, Arizona, via Flagstaff and Amtrak's
Southwest Chief, one of Amtrak's crack long-distance trains. I thought this
would go without a hitch since this train rarely
experiences the delays and freight congestion the Texas Amtrak trains experience
with Union Pacific.
I had hoped the train wouldn't be too late returning. The Sunday before,
Chief was 7 hours late, due to a freight train derailment or blockage in
California, according to the Amtrak agent I talked with. I hoped my return
would be at least one hour late, as the 5:32 a.m. arrival wouldn 't permit
eat breakfast before detraining in Lawrence.
Before leaving, I had posted this statement to an email passenger train
will be a good trip, especially EB through Arizona and New Mexico in the
I have been on the SW Chief many times, mostly WB, with an EB trip during
Can't recall the scenery from FLG east, and cannot find my pictures. It
dark before Gallup WB."
And did I receive the scenery I wanted to see - and even more. The train
Flagstaff more than 3 hours late due to a bad BNSF freight wreck the day
near Grants, New Mexico (between Albuquerque and Gallup). The previous night's
westbound SW Chief - due in Flagstaff at 9:00 p.m.- would not arrive until
morning, due to the freight
derailment. Therefore, Amtrak had to utilize equipment which would have
gone to the
Texas Eagle/ Sunset out of L.A. for the eastbound SW Chief to depart near
Sleeper fare was $124 Raton- Lawrence. I had originally booked coach RT,
decided to upgrade on the return due to a job interview being scheduled
City (near KCI) the afternoon of my return. I wanted to assure myself of
night's sleep. I upgraded to sleeper the morning of the day I left. It was
interesting how I would receive the
hard copy ticket. Since there wasn't time to pick it up at a staffed Amtrak
station, the Amtrak agent in Newton, Kansas, would charge it to my Amtrak
Rewards Visa credit card. He told me he would give it to the conductor or
conductor on the train I would be riding coach in WB that night. Told me
the conductor when boarding in
I did this and hoped the conductors would not forget this when I would see
next morning. I happened to awake while in Newton (had the adjacent seat
way) and the asst delivered it to my seat.
I was glad I upgraded to sleeper, as my return trip, still being delayed
derailment, kept getting later and later and did not make any time up. Despite
traveling a good part of the day on BNSF's double-track main line from Flagstaff
near Albuquerque, the train often waited for long periods of time. At Flagstaff,
was stopped on the main line, due
to a red light, for 20 minutes. This happened many places, especially in
where most believe there is very little freight interference due to BNSF
most of its hotshot inter modals through Wellington, Kansas, and Amarillo,
on the more southerly route.
It certainly was a different feeling traveling through Kansas on the return
during the daylight. This area normally is traversed during the night. The
one would expect to see daylight would be Topeka if the train were an hour
late in the summer. But during October, daylight would come around 7:30
closer to Kansas City. Daylight
east of Dodge City - near a town called Dillwyn. At least that's when I
down to earth after a generally restful sleep. I would awake a couple of
night, raise up to look out the window of my lower level economy sleeper
notice the train stopped in a city.
Though I was on the wrong side of the tracks from the station, I ascertained
train was in LaJunta, Colorado, judging from the yard. This was 2:00 a.m.
Viewing the junkyards and older areas of Hutchinson and Newton weren't much
at. The very green wheat fields alongside the SW Chief made up for the otherwise
dismal or ordinary viewing, as the train zipped through the prairies of
south-central Kansas. Belpre. Macksville. Stafford. St. John and Partridge
by. Soon we crossed the Arkansas
River and were in Hutchinson, home of the state fair and giant grain elevators.
train is scheduled to arrive here at 2:12 a.m. This day, it arrived 8:05.
stay long. No one got on or off. But shortly after leaving the downtown
the train stopped and paused for a couple of minutes, awaiting a green light
proceed. As the day before, this continued throughout Kansas after stops
and especially Topeka.
And Newton, which normally sees a good crowd at 3:42 a.m. on my westbound
nary a person, due primarily to the train's 6 hours and 20 minutes lateness.
Approaching Topeka, my sleeping car attendant asked me if I'm ready to detrain,
"Lawrence is the next stop." I told her I didn't want to be argumentative,
from the area, and we just passed Osage City (recognized by the colorful
depot chamber of commerce/ museum building), and Topeka was the stop before
Lawrence. She replied that she had gotten off the train at Topeka and talked
the station agent. I told her that was probably Newton. Soon the Forbes
site of the annual Topeka Railroad Days event, and surrounding junkyards
Topeka approached, where we were held again, this time for a hot box detector
The late running allowed me not only to enjoy the breakfast which comes
sleeper fare, but also lunch. I was hoping to return to Lawrence around
- a half hour before the dining car's noon opening. But we didn't arrive
until 12:45 p.m. I entered the dining car early, to ensure completion of
before detraining. The dining car personnel even prepared dessert - apple
pie - in
a to-go container, recognizing my need to hurry.
Though the train ran considerably late, it was still interesting to see
much of the
scenery normally traversed during darkness. Most of the other passengers
interested, though, as they would be worried about making their eastern
connections in Chicago. Amtrak made announcements on how some would be put
hotels - at Amtrak's expense -
or buses would help others make connections.
The crew handled things well. And the delay was not Amtrak's fault.
This was certainly an interesting Amtrak trip. Upon return home Wednesday,
realized how fortunate I was to have been on a train that was merely late.
next day, another BNSF freight crash killed one crewman east of Flagstaff.
fiery crash of two freights outside of Flagstaff Tuesday (the night of the
I left Flagstaff) injured three other crewmen, and forced a dozen nearby
to evacuate for fears of the crash igniting chemical cars involved in the
Plus the chemicals were toxic.
A BNSF dispatcher reported [on the All-Aboard Amtrak email list], "Locomotives
railcars on fire and one crew member missing. Looks like one train ran into
rear of another, train possibly at speed. Both tracks are blocked...There
trains parked everywhere from Texas to California...Don't look for [Amtrak]
to run for a few days."
Both Amtrak trains that day were annulled, and remained annulled through
the end of
the week. Passengers were transported by bus. Being on a train that was
due to a relatively minor freight derailment was preferable than being transported
by bus or being flown to my destination.