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Doug Ohlemeier's Southwest Chief Trip

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 trip 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, the eastbound SW 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 trip would be at least one hour late, as the 5:32 a.m. arrival wouldn 't permit me to eat breakfast before detraining in Lawrence.

Before leaving, I had posted this statement to an email passenger train list: "This will be a good trip, especially EB through Arizona and New Mexico in the daylight. I have been on the SW Chief many times, mostly WB, with an EB trip during the 80s. Can't recall the scenery from FLG east, and cannot find my pictures. It always gets dark before Gallup WB."

And did I receive the scenery I wanted to see - and even more. The train arrived Flagstaff more than 3 hours late due to a bad BNSF freight wreck the day before 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 the next 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 on-time.

Sleeper fare was $124 Raton- Lawrence. I had originally booked coach RT, but decided to upgrade on the return due to a job interview being scheduled in Kansas City (near KCI) the afternoon of my return. I wanted to assure myself of a good 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 Smart Rewards Visa credit card. He told me he would give it to the conductor or asst conductor on the train I would be riding coach in WB that night. Told me to inform the conductor when boarding in Lawrence.

I did this and hoped the conductors would not forget this when I would see them the next morning. I happened to awake while in Newton (had the adjacent seat the entire way) and the asst delivered it to my seat.

I was glad I upgraded to sleeper, as my return trip, still being delayed by the 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 to near Albuquerque, the train often waited for long periods of time. At Flagstaff, it was stopped on the main line, due to a red light, for 20 minutes. This happened many places, especially in Kansas where most believe there is very little freight interference due to BNSF running most of its hotshot inter modals through Wellington, Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas, on the more southerly route.

It certainly was a different feeling traveling through Kansas on the return trip during the daylight. This area normally is traversed during the night. The earliest one would expect to see daylight would be Topeka if the train were an hour or so late in the summer. But during October, daylight would come around 7:30 a.m. - closer to Kansas City. Daylight east of Dodge City - near a town called Dillwyn. At least that's when I touched down to earth after a generally restful sleep. I would awake a couple of times at night, raise up to look out the window of my lower level economy sleeper room to notice the train stopped in a city.

Though I was on the wrong side of the tracks from the station, I ascertained the 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 to look 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 zipped by. Soon we crossed the Arkansas River and were in Hutchinson, home of the state fair and giant grain elevators. The train is scheduled to arrive here at 2:12 a.m. This day, it arrived 8:05. It didn't stay long. No one got on or off. But shortly after leaving the downtown station, the train stopped and paused for a couple of minutes, awaiting a green light to proceed. As the day before, this continued throughout Kansas after stops at Newton and especially Topeka.

And Newton, which normally sees a good crowd at 3:42 a.m. on my westbound trip, had 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, as "Lawrence is the next stop." I told her I didn't want to be argumentative, but I'm from the area, and we just passed Osage City (recognized by the colorful old ATSF 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 with the station agent. I told her that was probably Newton. Soon the Forbes Field area, site of the annual Topeka Railroad Days event, and surrounding junkyards of south Topeka approached, where we were held again, this time for a hot box detector going off.

The late running allowed me not only to enjoy the breakfast which comes with the sleeper fare, but also lunch. I was hoping to return to Lawrence around 11:30 a.m. - a half hour before the dining car's noon opening. But we didn't arrive Lawrence until 12:45 p.m. I entered the dining car early, to ensure completion of meal 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 weren't as interested, though, as they would be worried about making their eastern train connections in Chicago. Amtrak made announcements on how some would be put in 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, I realized how fortunate I was to have been on a train that was merely late. The very next day, another BNSF freight crash killed one crewman east of Flagstaff. The fiery crash of two freights outside of Flagstaff Tuesday (the night of the morning I left Flagstaff) injured three other crewmen, and forced a dozen nearby residents to evacuate for fears of the crash igniting chemical cars involved in the tragic crash. Plus the chemicals were toxic.

A BNSF dispatcher reported [on the All-Aboard Amtrak email list], "Locomotives and railcars on fire and one crew member missing. Looks like one train ran into the rear of another, train possibly at speed. Both tracks are blocked...There are trains parked everywhere from Texas to California...Don't look for [Amtrak] #3/4 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 only late due to a relatively minor freight derailment was preferable than being transported by bus or being flown to my destination.

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