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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Sunset Limited
Houston-New Orleans

It's 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday, February 9, 1999, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Houston to begin my rail journey back to New York. On Sunday, I flew to Dallas to attend a meeting which took place on Sunday afternoon and Monday. Then, last night, I flew (on an American Eagle turbo-prop plane) to Houston Hobby Airport, and I stayed over at the home of an old friend of mine. This morning, I returned my rented Avis car to the rental location at the Galleria. That facility is about five miles from the Amtrak station downtown, but -- thankfully -- a courtesy shuttle service is provided during the hours the facility is open (which would presumably not include the time at which the westbound Sunset Limited is scheduled to arrive).

About 9:35 a.m., on our way to the station, as we proceeded across the railroad crossing on Richmond Avenue, the crossing bells started ringing, and I noticed an Amtrak train approaching the crossing. That was our train, scheduled to arrive at the Houston station just about now! The last report had indicated that the train was 35 minutes late, so it seems to have made up some, but not all, of the lost time. The shuttle driver assured me that we would beat the train to the downtown station. And he was right. When we arrived at station five minutes later, the train was nowhere in sight.

The Amtrak station in Houston is a small, modern, unattractive building in a fringe area on the outskirts of downtown. The shuttle driver told me that there used to be a large station here that was heavily used during World War II, but the present station is little more than an Amshack. The only thing attractive about it is the old wooden benches, which seem to have been salvaged from the original station. There is also a private car, named "Intrepid," parked on the other side of the tracks, behind a chain-link fence.

But I didn't have long to wait, for Train #2, the Sunset Limited, pulled in at 9:45 a.m., only ten minutes late. By standing on the platform as the train passed by, I was able to record all of the car numbers. Today's train is pulled by Genesis I engine #808, assisted by "Pepsi-Can" engine #508. Behind the engines are a deadhead Superliner diner, a baggage car, a transition sleeper, two Superliner I sleepers, a diner, a Sightseer Lounge, a coach with a smoking section downstairs, a regular coach (with a section downstairs for handicapped people), and three express cars. After a short wait, I was allowed to board the smoker coach #31503, where I was instructed to take seat #45. The train was not full, and I had two seats to myself. Indeed, only about a dozen or so passengers boarded the train here at Houston.

We left Houston at 10:01 a.m., but proceeded very slowly for about 20 minutes, stopping for several minutes at a railroad junction a few miles to the east. We then continued through the outskirts of the city and did not cross the San Jacinto River until 10:50 a.m. (according to the Rail Ventures book, it should take only half an hour to cover the distance from the Houston station to the San Jacinto River).

I remained at my seat for a while, and commenced writing these memoirs. Then I went down to the lower level of the lounge car, where I got a cup of coffee and ate two donuts that I had bought the previous evening at a supermarket in Houston. I was soon joined at my table by a man who was traveling in a sleeper all the way from Los Angeles to Orlando. He was also a rail buff, and showed me the GPS receiver he had brought along on the train. He actually succeeded in getting a reading on the lower level of the lounge car, and showed me how his receiver displayed a map showing the nearest city! I was really amazed.

In the meantime, I entered the car numbers of this train into my database, and discovered that both the lead engine (#808) and the lounge car in which I was sitting (#33044) were on the Empire Builder that I took from Portland, Oregon to Chicago this past December. Indeed, I spent part of that ride sitting in the very same seat at one of the two "good" tables in the lower level of this Superliner II lounge car! This time, there was background music being played in the car, but, thankfully, no movie was being shown.

On the way back to my seat, I walked through the coaches, and counted about 90 coach passengers aboard the two coaches on the train (with a total capacity of about 130). Passengers traveling no further than New Orleans were put in the coach with smoking lounge, while those traveling further than that were assigned to the rear coach with the lower-level seating.

Upon approaching Beaumont, we again slowed down considerably, and stopped several times. As we entered the outskirts of town, I noticed regular gas priced at an Exxon station along the highway for 77 cents a gallon. I haven't seen gas so cheap in years! We finally pulled into the station at 12:12 p.m. I had hoped that a friend of mine might meet me here to say hello, but he didn't show up. The station here is a small, modern building, located some distance southwest of the downtown area. There is no Amtrak ticket agent, but the building is apparently used for Union Pacific Railroad offices.

Although only two passengers detrained here and no one got on, our stop lasted for four minutes because the conductor went into the station, apparently to make a report of some sort. The attendant, however, said to me that no one would be allowed to get off the train. In light of his statement, I stayed on the train, but another "hippie-type" passenger stepped off. He was promptly ordered back onto the train by the attendant, who used very harsh language. (I should say, though, that both the attendant and the conductor were very nice to me. It seems that the "hippie" passenger had been acting rather obnoxiously, and that is why they treated him so harshly.) When we left Beaumont at 12:16 p.m., we were 38 minutes late, having lost a full half hour due to some very slow running since we departed Houston.

The batteries in my computer were now running low, so I walked down to the lounge car, where I was able to plug the computer into an outlet located near the top of the stairway in the center of the car. The car was largely deserted, with many passengers eating lunch in the diner. At 12:50 p.m., we passed through the town of Orange, near the Louisiana border. The beautiful, old brick station on the right side of the tracks is boarded up and unused, but appears to be in pretty good condition. Soon we crossed the Sabine River and entered Louisiana.

It was now 1:00 p.m., so I went into the dining car for lunch. I was seated opposite a woman who lived in Houston, where she worked as a nutritionist in a local veterans' hospital, and was returning to Philadelphia, her birthplace, to visit her parents. She was traveling on this train to Jacksonville, where she would change to the Silver Meteor. She mentioned to me that this was her first time on a train in 19 years, and was pleasantly surprised to find out how nice the train was. Apparently, she made the decision to take this trip at the last minute, and found out that the one-way fare from Houston to Philadelphia would have been $750! Therefore, she decided to take the train, which was much cheaper.

As I was finishing the meal, at 1:36 p.m., we stopped at Lake Charles. The old brick station here is closed, and the plastic Amshack provided for passengers has been severely vandalized, with almost all of the plastic panels -- including those which comprise the roof -- having been shattered, apparently by rocks thrown by vandals. It is the least attractive Amtrak facility I have ever seen! Our stop here lasted for four minutes, and when we departed at 1:40 p.m., we were still precisely 38 minutes late.

After lunch, I returned to my coach seat, where I rested for a while and did some reading. It was very quiet and peaceful in the car, with a number of passengers having detrained in Lake Charles. The country we passed through was very flat, with rice -- grown in flooded fields -- being the main crop. (In fact, the AAA Guide states that one-quarter of the rice produced in the United States grows within 50 miles of Crowley, one of the towns that we pass through between Lake Charles and Lafayette.)

We arrived at Lafayette at 3:17 p.m. This time, the rear car was opened for passengers getting on and off. Some boarding passengers had considerable heavy and bulky luggage which had to be carried from their car to the train, with the assistance of the conductor, so the stop took three minutes. The station here is nothing more than a shell of a brick building, which (according to the conductor) was destroyed by fire several months ago. The metal stanchions which formerly supported the roof over the platform remain, but the roof no longer exists, presumably also having been destroyed in the fire. Here, I was able to step off the train, with the permission of the conductor, and took a few pictures of the bleak, burned-out station and platform. We departed Lafayette at 3:20 p.m., and were now 47 minutes late.

Although the interstate highway from Lafayette to New Orleans follows a more northerly route through Baton Rouge, our train takes a southerly route, paralleling the Bayou Teche. The rice fields that we had passed since Lake Charles were now replaced by sugar cane fields, with their characteristic mounds.

Our next stop, in little more than 20 minutes, was New Iberia. Although the stop lasted for only about a minute, I was able to step off the train briefly here. The beautiful old brick station, although no longer housing a ticket office, was open for waiting passengers. One family boarded the train here. As we left town, we passed by an interesting above-ground cemetery on the right.

Since the batteries in my computer were now dead, I moved back to the upper level of the lounge car, where I was able to plug in my computer. Unfortunately, the attendant soon started playing a movie, but the volume was not all that loud, and it didn't materially interfere with the work I was doing. Hardly anyone was watching the movie, though. I went back to my seat and brought back some potato chips and soda that I had purchased in Houston.

Soon we crossed a long, single-track truss bridge over the Atchafalaya River and passed through Morgan City. To our left, there were two massive highway bridges. Morgan City featured some quaint storefronts from the early part of this century, and one store had a sign advertising that "gator meat" was available there! South of Morgan City, we began to pass through some cypress swamps. We proceeded through the swamps on raised fill, but to our left a new highway was being constructed on concrete pilings.

At 5:15 p.m., we arrived at Schriever. This is a rather small community, but the station also serves the adjacent, larger towns of Houma and Thibodaux. The station here is a simple building with white asbestos shingles. Although it is in relatively good condition, it appears to be used by signal maintainers and is not open to the public. A family of five got off here, and no one got on. Although the stop lasted for only about a minute, I did manage to step off the train briefly and get a picture of the station. We had lost some more time, and were now almost an hour late. However, there is close to an hour make-up time built into the schedule, so we might actually arrive in New Orleans on time!

Since were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans at 6:50 p.m., I decided to go to the diner for supper. I was seated next to a man who was traveling (in coach) from Los Angeles to Pensacola, Florida to visit his aunt. He doesn't like to fly, and prefers the train. Soon we were joined by the man who had previously shown me his GPS receiver. My pot roast meal was very good, and we lingered for quite a while, talking about various topics.

By the time we started our climb up the 4.4-mile-long Huey Long Bridge, leading into New Orleans, at 6:15 p.m., it was already dark. You get a panoramic view of the City of New Orleans from this high bridge, and even in the dark, it was quite spectacular.

After dinner, I went down to the lower level of the lounge car and purchased a Sunset Limited cap. Then I returned to my seat and started packing up my belongings. We started our back- up move into the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at 6:50 p.m., and came to our final stop at 7:01 p.m. -- just 11 minutes late. The make-up time built into the schedule certainly came in very handy tonight! I detrained, and walked back to the front of the train to check the numbers I had recorded for the consist (I had missed one of the sleepers when I wrote down the numbers in the Houston station). Then I went into the station and called the Best Western motel, where I would be staying tonight, to arrange for them to pick me up. I was told to wait in the waiting area in front of the Magnolia Room (the first-class lounge) and that the van should arrive at about 7:35 p.m. I actually had to wait until about 7:50 p.m. before the van finally arrived.

My trip on the Sunset Limited from Houston to New Orleans was uneventful but quite pleasant and relaxing. The scenery is certainly not spectacular, but it is interesting, and the uncrowded atmosphere of the train made for a very enjoyable trip. Now, I will be back here again tomorrow morning to board the Crescent to complete my rail journey back to New York.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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