It's 12:50 p.m. on Sunday, August 15, 1999, and I've just arrived at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on AirTran Airlines. I left Newark Airport this morning at 7:45 a.m. (the plane was scheduled to leave at 7:00 a.m., but was 45 minutes late), and then connected in Atlanta with another flight to DFW. On hand to meet me is Lance Pinkerton, a former Amtrak employee who now resides in the Dallas area. We got to know each other through the All-Aboard List, and when I posted a message on the list that I would be flying today to DFW and then taking the train to Los Angeles, Lance volunteered to meet me at the airport and drive me to Dallas Union Station. On the way, he mentioned, we could ride the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) lines, which I have never yet had the opportunity to do.
Although our flight was only five minutes late, we had to wait about half an hour for my two pieces of checked baggage to arrive. Once the baggage was retrieved, we went to Lance's car and drove to the DART Red Line station at Park Lane, the northern terminus of the line. We both purchased -- for a mere $2.00 -- day passes good for unlimited use of the DART system, and we boarded a two-car train that was waiting for us. The train -- which was surprisingly quite full -- soon departed, first running above ground, then proceeding through a tunnel, and finally coming out on grade again in the downtown area. We detrained at Union Station, and went inside, where we were informed that my Train #21, the Texas Eagle, was going to be at least an hour and a half late, and would not be arriving until after 4:00 p.m. Since it was now about 1:30 p.m., we had plenty of time to explore the rest of the DART system. I left all of my luggage (except for my backpack) at the station, and we proceeded outside to catch the next DART train.
The next train to arrive was a Blue Line train. This train consisted of only one car, which was not at all full. We took this train to its southern terminus, passing through a low income area. After riding the train back to a junction with the Red Line, we boarded a Red Line train and took it to its southern terminus at Westmoreland. Finally, we took the Red Line train back north to Union Station.
By now, it was about 3:30 p.m. We walked into the station, where Dan Monaghan and John Weeks -- both active contributors to the All-Aboard List -- were waiting for us. Dan gave me a tour of the station, including the magnificent upper level with its very high ceiling, which has not been used for railroad purposes for many years. The entire station seems much more active than it did the last time I was there, with the DART trains (and, during weekdays, the Trinity Railway Express trains) adding much life to the station. I also noticed an office with a sign "Amtrak D.E.C. Office." Upon inquiry, I was told that this stood for "Delay Elimination Control"!
Dan then led us down into the tunnel leading under the tracks and to the platforms, with various historical pictures displayed along the way. Then he took me up an elevator in the adjacent hotel (also reached via the tunnel), with glass sides that offer a panoramic view of the station. Lance and John were left behind, and when we returned to the station, John informed me that Lance had just caught a DART train to return home, since he had promised his family that he'd be home around 4:00 p.m. (by now it was about 4:10 p.m.). I was sorry that I didn't have the chance to say goodbye to Lance, but I was very grateful for the opportunity to meet him and for the enjoyable afternoon we spent together.
I inquired of the station agent as to the expected arrival time of Train #21 and was told that it was anticipated to arrive about 4:45 p.m. I left my baggage with Dan and John, and called home to check my messages. Then I walked down to the end of the platform to photograph engine #195, with the tower of the hotel in the background. My friend Matt Donnelly is particularly fond of this series of engines, and I thought he would appreciate this picture.
About 4:40 p.m., as I was walking back to the station, I heard the whistle of an approaching train, and observed our Train #21 pulling into the station. Tonight's Texas Eagle is pulled by an interesting combination of two Pepsi-Can engines (#508 and #516) and an F-40 (#324) and includes a baggage car, a crew sleeper, a sleeper, a diner, a lounge car, a smoking coach, two regular Superliner coaches, another sleeper, and eight express cars in the rear (including one MHC). The last two passenger cars are through cars to Los Angeles, while the remaining passenger cars will run only as far as San Antonio. After recording the car numbers of the front cars in the train, I went back into the station to retrieve my luggage. I found the luggage gone, along with my two friends who were watching over it. So I went back outside, where I met John and Dan. When they heard the train pulling in to the station, they went out to the platform (via the tunnel) with my luggage. I thanked them very much for helping me out.
Before boarding the train, I watched as engine #195 took off the rear five express cars and then -- after leaving them on an adjacent track -- backed onto the rear of our train. An Amtrak employee was putting an end-of-train device at the rear of the next-to-last express car, and explained to me that the last car, together with the engine, would be left at Fort Worth.
By now, the train was getting ready to leave, so I finally boarded and walked up to my Room #10. As soon as we left Dallas at 4:59 p.m. (just over two hours late), I plugged in my computer and tried to turn it on. To my great surprise, the electric outlet in my room did not appear to be working. And since my computer's batteries were now completely dead (in light of the fact that I had used the computer on the airplane), the computer could not be used unless I found somewhere to plug it in. I asked the attendant in my car, and she replied that someone else had had a similar problem, and she would see what could be done to fix it. In all the years that I have traveled on Amtrak, I do not recall having the outlet in my room not work. I wanted to start writing my memoirs, and was a little annoyed.
So I took my computer and walked down to the first coach, where I found an unoccupied pair of seats next to an electric outlet. I sat down and started writing these memoirs. (Interesting, this coach, #31509, was the very same coach that our group of 20 Scouts and Scouters had occupied on the Capitol Limited two months ago on our Western National Park Tour.) As I had figured, the rear coach -- which was going all the way to Los Angeles -- was quite full, while the first two coaches -- which were going only as far as San Antonio -- were quite empty. I had quite a bit to write about, so I spent most of my time in the coach until we approached the Fort Worth station at about 5:45 p.m. At this point, an announcement was made that we would be waiting here for about 15 minutes so that the northbound Texas Eagle (Train #22) could leave the Fort Worth station.
About 6:00 p.m., we started backing up into the Fort Worth station. On the way, we passed the northbound Train #22, which was also powered by two Pepsi-Can engines and an F-40. Interestingly, the lead engine, #504, was painted in the new Phase IV Northeast Direct scheme -- the first engine of this class that I've seen painted in this manner. At 6:04 p.m., we came to a stop at the old Santa Fe station in Fort Worth.
After bringing my computer back to my room, I detrained and walked into the station building. Although a beautiful building in its day and still decorated with bunting (apparently left over from the inaugural ceremonies for the Heartland Flyer, the new train from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth), paint is peeling from the ceiling and decayed wood is visible beneath the tin-veneer roof. I looked at some historical pictures of the station on display and picked up a flyer explaining its historical significance. Then I returned to the train, where I met John Smith, a regular poster on the Railroad List, who had said that he would try to meet me at the Fort Worth station. He had walked all the way down the platform and finally found me here. We talked for a while about DART (for which he works in the area of computers) and about his recent Amtrak trip to California and the Grand Canyon. At approximately 6:25 p.m., an "all-aboard" announcement was made, so I said goodbye to John and reboarded the train. There seemed to be some mechanical problems, and at one point an announcement was made on the loudspeaker that the toilets in the lower level of the 15 car were not flushing, but we finally pulled out the station at 6:33 p.m.
Since the electric plug in my room still didn't work, I took the computer and went back to the first coach, where I continued writing these memoirs. Two young men sitting in front of me had gotten on in Fort Worth. Both of them were bound for Austin, and one of them, Jonathan, had arrived earlier in the day on the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City. He said to me that that train was not at all full, and that it "sucked" because you couldn't smoke anywhere on the train and there was no dining car, only "someplace that you could get donuts." I was a little surprised to hear of these complaints; indeed, John Smith informed me that today's northbound Heartland Flyer (which apparently departed only about 15 minutes before we arrived at the Fort Worth station) was quite full.
In the meantime, a 6:00 p.m. reservation had been made for my dinner, and although the dinner call was postponed until we left Fort Worth, dinner was now being served. So I decided to go the dining car for dinner. I left my computer in the first coach where it was plugged in, and the young man in the seat in front of me agreed to watch over it.
I was seated opposite a couple from New Zealand who had spent six months in the United States and were now on their way to Los Angeles, from where they would be flying back to New Zealand. They had previously owned a trucking business in New Zealand, and to finance their trip, they took jobs driving large trucks across the country. Among the places where they had made deliveries were Linden and Elizabeth, N.J. They were very pleased with the food on Amtrak and made very good company for the meal. We all enjoyed the meal very much.
In the meantime, at 6:44 p.m., we once again backed up into the Fort Worth station. An announcement was made by the conductor that the dispatcher had asked us to back up to facilitate the passage of a freight train. We did not start moving again until 7:00 p.m., by which time we were 2 hours and 21 minutes late.
About 7:30 p.m., when we finished our meal, I decided to retrieve my computer and return to my room. In the nearly three hours that I had been on the train, I had hardly spent any time in my room, and by now, the computer was charged sufficiently that I could run it for a while on battery power. When I got back to my room, I plugged the computer in, and -- much to my surprise -- found that the electricity was now working! I was very pleased. I remained in my room and continued working on these memoirs. Soon we stopped for about ten minutes to let a freight train go by.
At 8:07 p.m., we paused briefly at the Cleburne station. No one got on or off, so we quickly moved on. When I came through here last year, the Cleburne station was nothing more than a gazebo -- fondly referred on the All-Aboard List as the "Cleburne Union Gazebo." Now, a very attractive station has been erected, along with a sign which proclaims it to be the "Cleburne Intermodal Transportation Depot." No other modes of transportation were in evidence, but it is heartening to see that this small community has erected a very nice station.
Since I had gotten almost no sleep the previous night, I soon fell asleep. When I woke up about half an hour later, I decided to take another walk through the train. I soon encountered Elaine Webster, the attendant for my car, who gave me two vouchers good for free soft drinks in the lounge car. So I went down there and obtained a can of Pepsi, which I brought back to my room. In the meantime, we slowed down and stopped to permit several other freight trains to pass.
We stopped briefly at McGregor at 10:09 p.m. Since two passengers were boarding in my car, I detrained briefly and snapped a picture of the wooden station here. When we left McGregor, we were precisely three and one-half hours late.
I returned to the lounge car, where I purchased a beer and spent some time talking with Jonathan, who was traveling from Oklahoma City to Austin. There was a movie being shown in the lounge car, but we paid no attention to it.
At 10:47 p.m., we stopped at Temple. The huge, classic Santa Fe station here is currently closed for restoration, and a small temporary building to the north now serves as the station. We stopped here for five minutes, but I did not try to get off the train. After talking with Jonathan a little more, I decided to return to my room and go to bed. I made the bed myself, and about 11:30 p.m. I climbed in. In the past, I seem to have been able to fit my airline bag under the seats in the room when I pull down the bed at night, but I had difficulty doing so this time, so instead I brought the bag down to the luggage rack on the lower level and retrieved it the following morning.
I was still awake at 11:48 p.m., when we paused briefly at Taylor, but soon fell asleep. I again woke up during our station stop at Austin, where we departed at 12:43 a.m., just over three and one-half hours late. But then I fell asleep again, and did not wake up until we were nearing San Antonio at about 3:00 a.m. Over the scanner, I heard that we had received permission to pass a red signal, but that we had to carefully check the route as we were proceeding. So we continued at about 10 miles an hour to the San Antonio station, where we arrived at 3:26 a.m. (our scheduled arrival time being 11:59 p.m.). Our late arrival would have no bearing on the timeliness of the remainder of my trip, since the Sunset Limited was not scheduled to arrive in San Antonio until 4:45 a.m. in any event. But it certainly inconvenienced those passengers traveling to destinations such as Austin and San Antonio.
The last time I was in San Antonio, a little over a year ago, work was underway on the conversion of the historic Sunset Depot to an entertainment complex, and Amtrak passengers were relegated to an unattractive Amshack. Since then, a new station has been opened, and I wanted to see for myself what it looks like. And I was not certain whether I would have a chance to detrain later in the morning, once the Sunset Limited arrived. So, despite the rather ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m., I got up, detrained, and walked into the station.
I was a little disappointed in what I saw. The new station is undoubtedly a very attractive building from the outside, built in the classic Mission style, and designed to blend harmoniously with the beautiful Sunset Depot which it adjoins. But inside, the waiting room for Amtrak passengers is quite small, with more than half of the new building devoted to a ticket sales office, baggage room and crew base. Moreover, the ceiling in the waiting room is low and covered with functional, not particularly attractive, acoustical tile -- a far cry from the old station, described in Amtrak's Route Guide (dated March 1989) as "boast[ing] a gilt and polychromed barrel-vault ceiling." Given the outstanding appearance of the exterior of the building, I had expected the interior to be more attractive. Indeed, the area provided for passengers in the new station is neither much larger nor much more attractive than that previously available in the Amshack.
I returned to my room and climbed back into bed. During the next several hours, I slept intermittently as the two Los Angeles cars from the Texas Eagle (including my sleeper) were switched back and forth several times. I was really glad that I had a sleeper tonight, since otherwise I would have been confined to the one rather crowded coach that goes all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Although I did not hear it arrive, it seems that the westbound Sunset Limited pulled into the station about 5:45 a.m., approximately one hour late. I woke up at 6:20 a.m., and soon observed my car being backed onto the rear of the Sunset Limited. Over the scanner, I heard the conductor advise the dispatcher that we would be ready to depart about 7:00 a.m.
I got out of bed, and walked down to the lower level of my car to see if I could get off, but the door was not open. Then I went back again to the upper level and discovered that the door to the next car was locked. However, the conductor soon came by and unlocked the door. I walked down through the train, and checked each one of the three coaches that had been added to our train, but the lower-level doors to the platform were not open on any of these cars. The last of these three cars -- which was designated for through passengers to Los Angeles -- was quite full, but there were many empty seats in the other two cars (although most pairs of seats were occupied by at least one person). Looking at the seat checks, I was a little surprised to find that most of the passengers in the other two coaches were also destined for Los Angeles.
Although I was not able to walk down the platform to record the consist of the Sunset Limited (and, indeed, I did not have the opportunity to do so until our arrival at El Paso late in the evening), I subsequently found a copy of the manifest hanging in one of the coaches, and I was able to record the entire consist (with the exception of the express cars in the rear) from that paper. Today's Sunset Limited is pulled by two Genesis engines and an F-40 and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm, two Superliner I sleepers, a diner, a Superliner II lounge, a smoker coach, two coaches originating in Orlando, the coach and sleeper transferred from the Texas Eagle, and nine express cars in the rear. This adds up to 20 cars in all, besides the three engines. The manifest also indicated that there are about 150 passengers in the three Sunset Limited coaches, with another 50 passengers in the coach from the Texas Eagle, and that there are about 55 passengers in the two Sunset Limited sleepers, with another 30 in the sleeper from the Texas Eagle. That would make a total of about 285 passengers in the four coaches and three sleepers on the train.
Since the Texas Eagle had arrived at the station facing eastward, both my sleeper and the coach that came from the Texas Eagle were now facing backwards. In the case of the sleeper, this didn't really matter, since I could simply switch to the other seat. But the passengers in the through coach from the Eagle had to ride backwards for a few hours until, about 10:40 a.m., the attendant reversed all of the seats.
Then I returned to my car, and noticed the conductor standing outside on the platform. So I went downstairs and was able to step outside briefly and photograph an old Southern Pacific steam engine now parked on a siding adjacent to the Sunset Depot. But the conductor warned me that we would be departing at any moment, and that there was not sufficient time to walk back down the new station.
A few minutes after I reboarded, at 7:04 a.m., we started moving forward, but we soon stopped again to wait for clearance to enter the mainline. Finally, at 7:12 a.m., we left the San Antonio station. Now it was time to get ready for another day. I put away the bedding and pulled up the seats. Then I went down to take a nice hot shower, after which I returned to my room and got dressed. I felt quite relaxed this morning, in contrast to the hectic pace of yesterday's activities.
At about 8:45 a.m., I went to the diner for breakfast. My name was put on a waiting list, and I was asked to go to the adjacent lounge car until my name was called. Everyone waiting was called into the diner about 9:00 a.m. I was seated with a woman traveling from Alabama to Los Angeles in coach with her two small children. My attendant had the unlikely name of John Muir (he confirmed that he was in fact related to the famous conservationist with the same name). For breakfast, I had coffee, orange juice and cold cereal.
During breakfast, we passed through the rather bleak scenery which characterizes much of western Texas. Scrub bushes and trees were interspersed with some catci, and every so often there would be a rusty truss bridge over a dry wash. The area was rather sparsely inhabited, and I was able easily to locate all the towns in the area -- Sanibal, Knippa and Uvalde.
When I finished eating, I returned to my room. Soon afterwards, at 9:50 a.m., we came to a stop to permit a Union Pacific freight train to pass us. The train, powered by three UP engines and one C&NW engine, soon passed us to the right, and then we continued our westward journey. Only a minute or two later, the hotbox detector at milepost 327.7 went off, and it instructed the crew to "stop your train" because a defect had been detected in a particular axle. We continued ahead for a few miles, and then the train stopped around milepost 332.5. The conductor detrained to observe the axle in question and soon reported that he "didn't find nothing." (Subsequent communications on the scanner indicated that the detector itself was broken and was giving false alarms to every passing train.) We once again proceeded ahead, but between the meet for the freight train and the stop for the detector, we had lost another 20 minutes or so.
At 11:00 a.m., we finally pulled into the Del Rio station. This is a substantial old brick edifice, with a more recent brick addition. There is a sign "Regional Transportation Center," but the large building did not seem to be used to any great extent. We made two stops here and departed at 11:03 a.m. Del Rio is the only large community we will be going through between San Antonio and El Paso. Now we are just over two and one-half hours late, having lost nearly another hour since departing from San Antonio.
The vegetation along the route now becomes even more bleak, with only sagebrush, cacti, grasses and some low shrubs and bushes. Soon, the Rio Grande River came into view on the left, and we crossed a high bridge over the Amistad Reservoir. I walked down to the lounge car, but hardly any seats were available there, so I went back to the second coach, where I sat down for a while at a vacant pair of seats on the left side. Announcements were periodically made of interesting features by the conductor or On-Board Chief.
We crossed the Pecos High Bridge, described in the Rail Ventures book as an "awesome spectacle, certainly one of the trip's scenic highlights," at 12:05 p.m. I noted that it had taken us just over an hour to reach this bridge from Del Rio, while the Route Guide indicates that it should have been reached in 52 minutes. Although we have not stopped since Del Rio for any freight train meets or defect detectors, it seems like we are gradually falling further behind schedule. Indeed, soon afterwards, we slowed to about 15 miles per hour for some distance. The track in this area is very curvy, with many views afforded around the curves of the front of the train.
Soon the On-Board Chief announced that we were being delayed by various track work taking place, and that it was likely that we would be as much as three hours late by the time we reached our next stop, Sanderson. Frankly, I didn't care about the fact that the train was running rather late. I took this trip to enjoy the experience of riding the Sunset Limited, and I was having a wonderful time. It was very peaceful and relaxing in the coach where I was sitting, and I used to time to get some work done on the computer, while enjoying the scenery.
Finally, about 1:15 p.m., the batteries in my computer started running low, so I decided to return to my room, where I plugged in the computer for recharging, and then headed to the dining car for lunch. I was seated opposite a couple who were heading from Dallas to El Paso. They explained that they didn't want to fly or drive, so the train was the best alternative for them. However, they noted, one can drive from Dallas to El Paso in about 12 hours, while the train takes over 24 hours to cover the same route, due to the circuitous route that it takes and the long layover at San Antonio.
During lunch, the steward explained that for this trip, they are experimenting with 24-hour meal service in the diner. This struck me as a little unusual (I wonder who will want to eat a meal at 3:00 a.m.), but it is an interesting concept. At least the fact that it is being tried out indicates that Amtrak is making an effort to try to improve the services it offers its passengers on long-distance trains. Among the special features of the 24-hour meal service is the offering of a lighter menu for an early dinner, and dispensing with the requirement of making reservations for specified sittings for dinner. Passengers are told that they should come for dinner whenever they like.
At 2:16 p.m., we stopped briefly at Sanderson. This was our first stop since we left Del Rio over three hours previously. Although by far the largest community in the area, Sanderson is a very small town. It features an abandoned white frame station, with all of the doors missing. When we left Sanderson a minute later, we were about 3 hours and 10 minutes late.
When I finished lunch about 2:30 p.m., I returned to my room and watched as we passed through a hillier area, with mountains visible in the distance. The area we had just traversed was very sparsely settled, but this area was even less populated, with the map showing only one town of any size in the 90 miles between Sanderson and Alpine, our next stop. I updated these memoirs and even fell asleep for a little while. On the way back to my room, I noticed that a movie was being shown in the lounge car, with a number of people actually watching it.
We passed through Marathon, the only community between Sanderson and Alpine, at 3:32 p.m. The one feature of note here is the Gage Hotel, an adobe-and-brick structure mentioned in the Rail Ventures book and visible to the right of the tracks.
Shortly before we got to Alpine, I heard on the scanner a comment by the engineer that the train was running low on fuel and water, and a request that these items be supplied to our train upon arrival at Alpine. The response was that water could be supplied to the dining car, but that there was no fuel available. Then I heard a defect detector report that we were going 74 miles per hour -- about the fastest that I've heard reported yet today!
We arrived in Alpine at 4:10 p.m. Contrary to the report I heard on the scanner, a fuel truck had arrived, and the train was supplied with both water and fuel. Several passengers detrained here, but although the stop ended up lasting over 15 minutes, due to the refueling operation, the door was closed as soon as those passengers got off, and no other passengers were permitted to step off the train here. I thought that, given the fact that the refueling would necessarily take some time, passengers should have been permitted to step off the train for a few minutes, but I was able to take some pictures through the open window of a lower-level door. Although there is no agent at Alpine, it features an attractive stucco station, with a sign announcing that it is the gateway to Big Bend National Park.
During our station stop at Alpine, the attendant for my car came by with a cooler containing an assortment of complimentary soft drinks. I thought that this was a very nice touch -- something that I have rarely seen done. The attendant, Elaine Webster, has been very friendly for the entire trip, and she is one of the best sleeping car attendants that I've ever experienced on Amtrak.
We finally pulled out of Alpine at 4:28 p.m. -- precisely three and one-half hours late. Soon afterwards, Bill Harrison, the On-Board Chief, came by. He mentioned that this trip was the first to experiment with the concept of 24-hour meal service. I told him that to most passengers, it would be far more important to keep the dining car open until just before the train's arrival at the final destination. He replied that the practice on this train is to close the dining car upon arrival at Ontario -- scheduled for 5:23 a.m.! -- which, he stated, was generally an hour and 15 minutes before the arrival at Los Angeles. (Actually, the timetable allows one hour and 47 minutes for this part of the trip, but this includes about half an hour make-up time.) He explained that this procedure is mandated by FDA regulations, which require that all trash be removed from the train within 30 minutes of arrival at the final destination, and stated that on other trains, the practice is to close down the diner two hours before arrival! He also estimated our arrival time at Los Angeles at between 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. If, indeed, this proves to be the case, breakfast will be served until about 7:45 a.m., which is not unreasonable. But it does not seem reasonable to require passengers to be in the diner at 5:23 a.m. in order to receive breakfast coming in to Los Angeles.
For about half an hour after Alpine, the terrain is quite interesting, but afterwards it becomes flatter and rather boring. I decided to move to another car for a change of pace. All of the tables in the lower level of the lounge car were occupied, and another annoying movie was being played there, so I decided instead to go to the second coach, which had a number of pairs of empty seats. It was very quiet there, and I got some work done.
We now had entered the Mountain Time Zone, so I moved my watch back an hour. The scenery became a little more interesting, with some impressive mountains in the distance. One featured a switchback road to the summit. At 5:45 p.m., Mountain Time, we passed the eastbound Sunset Limited. Its consist was similar to ours, except that it had only two engines and seven express cars.
At 6:22 p.m., I heard on the scanner another hotbox detector go off. Two in one day! The detector at milepost 788.8 reported that there was a defect in the 50th axle on the south side of the train. This time, the train stopped promptly, right by milepost 790, and the brakeman went out to check what was wrong. Again, nothing was found amiss, but we did not resume moving until 6:34 p.m.
About 6:45 p.m., I went back to the diner for my evening meal. On the way, my sleeping car attendant, Elaine, warned me that we would be arriving at El Paso in about 20 minutes. When I arrived at the dining car, I was seated next to a couple with a young daughter from Jersey City, New Jersey, whom I had talked to last night. They had taken the Three Rivers from Newark to Chicago, where they caught the Texas Eagle, and were on their way to Tucson to visit the husband's father, who lived there. They explained to me that they did not like to fly, and at one point the husband told me that he was having such a great time on the train that he did not ever want to fly again. They did point out that their economy bedroom was a little small for the three of them, and said that they would probably try to upgrade to a deluxe bedroom for the return trip.
As it turned out, I didn't have to rush through the meal, since even though we were quite close to El Paso, we proceeded at a very slow speed through the suburbs and rail yards leading into the city. At the end of the meal, I asked for a cup of tea, but was told that the dining car had run out of water (!) and that no tea would be available until we reached El Paso. So, about 7:30 p.m., I returned to my car and went down to the lower vestibule in preparation for detraining at El Paso.
We did not arrive at Union Station in El Paso until 7:52 p.m. I, along with many other passengers, detrained, and walked into the station. The El Paso station is a real beauty -- a classic brick station with a functioning bell tower that actually chimes out each hour on the hour! According to the Route Guide, the station was built in 1904-05 to plans by the same architect who designed Washington Union Station, and is in the National Registry [sic] of Historic Places. The inside of the station features a three-story-high waiting room with the original wooden benches. The only problem is that there are only two phones and, given the long lines for the phone, I did not even attempt to make a phone call. Instead, I walked to the rear of the train to record the numbers of the express cars, and then went down towards the front of the train.
I had only reached the front sleepers when, about 8:05 p.m., an "all-aboard" call was made. So I reboarded the train at the first sleeper, thus affording me an opportunity to walk through these cars. I was surprised to find that the walls in the first sleeper, #32045 -- which I had never seen before -- were covered with an unattractive corrugated plastic material, rather than the carpeting or flat plastic material which is used in every other sleeping car I have seen. And the second sleeper, #32055, was an unreconditioned Superliner I car. I felt fortunate that although my car #32060 was also a Superliner I, it had at least been reconditioned and featured attractive blue seats of the type installed in Superliner II cars.
I returned to my room, but we did not pull out of the El Paso station until 8:32 p.m. We were now almost four hours late. The On-Board Chief made an announcement that our anticipated arrival time at Tucson was 12:30 a.m. and that, barring any further significant delays, we should be arriving at Los Angeles between 9:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Even these arrival times assume that we will make up some time before we pull into these stations, and I somehow doubt that we will do so. Actually, I am very glad that we will not be arriving in Los Angeles at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, but the down side is that it is now almost completely dark, and I will not be able to see any of New Mexico or Arizona in daylight.
Soon, the lights of the El Paso metropolitan area became visible below us to the right, and I turned off the lights in my room to watch the spectacle -- quite a contrast from the wilderness that we had gone through all day long. But then we once again resumed our journey through an area virtually devoid of human habitation. After a while, I decided to go the lounge car to obtain a free cup of tea with the other voucher that Elaine had given me last night. I found that the counter was closed, with a sign indicating that the dining car provides 24- hour service. So I went there instead, and was promptly given a cup of herb tea. I would have consumed it in the lounge car, but another loud movie was playing there, so instead I went back to my seat in the second coach, which remained vacant.
I returned to my room and promptly fell asleep, missing our station stop in Deming. When I woke up about half an hour later, I decided that I might as well pull down the bed and try to turn in for the night. I again fell asleep for a while, but woke up when we made a brief stop at Lordsburg at 10:46 p.m. The station was on the other side of the tracks, so I couldn't see it. Soon, I fell asleep again, and slept through our stop in Benson, Arizona. During the time that I was awake, I heard defect detectors report that we were going about 77 or 78 miles an hour, and we did not seem to encounter any delays from freight trains, red signals, or anything else.
I did wake up as we were approaching Tucson. When we came to a stop at the station at 12:48 a.m. Mountain Standard Time (the equivalent of Pacific Daylight Time), I decided to get out of bed and detrain. There is a huge, sprawling stucco station here, but only a very small room is currently used by Amtrak, and most of the building appears to be vacant. There is also an underpass formerly used to reach the station, but the two tracks that it goes underneath have been removed, and the underpass itself is fenced off. Tucson is another service stop, and the train was watered and fueled. After about 15 minutes, an "all- aboard" call was made, and I again reboarded the train at the front sleeper. But, as was the case in El Paso, we spent another 15 minutes or so in the station before we actually departed at 1:20 a.m. We were now three hours and 36 minutes late, having made up about 20 minutes since we departed El Paso.
On the way back to my room, I asked the conductor when he thought we would be arriving in Los Angeles. He replied that he expected us to encounter delays from freight trains outside of Los Angeles and that, as a result, we would probably not arrive until 1:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m.! That is quite a different prediction than the On-Board Chief made a few hours earlier. We will have to see who is right, but as far as I am concerned, even a 2:00 p.m. arrival will not cause me any problems, since the wedding that I will be attending does not begin until 5:30 p.m.
Upon returning to my room, I was no longer very tired, so I took out my computer and updated these memoirs, then read some accumulated AOL mail. About 2:00 a.m., I put away the computer and turned off the lights. I must have gotten some sleep after that, but I didn't sleep very well. I probably slept through the stop at Casa Grande, which at present is solely for the purpose of changing the crew.
About 5:30 a.m., I opened my eyes and noticed that it was getting light out. The milepost broadcast by a defect detector indicated that we were about 20 miles east of Yuma. The scenery featured desert vegetation in the foreground and hills in the distance. I decided to get up and walk down into the coaches in the hope of being able to step off the train during our stop at Yuma. We proceeded very slowly into Yuma, with it taking about 40 minutes to cover these 20 miles. When I remarked on this to the conductor, his response was: "You can't spell 'stupid' without 'UP.'"
We finally pulled into the Yuma station at 6:11 a.m. The station is a modern stucco building which serves as a railroad office. A sign on the outside indicates that no services are available here for passengers. No one got on or off here, but the conductor opened the door on the second coach, and I had a chance to step off briefly onto the platform and take a picture. When departed Yuma and crossed a truss bridge into California, we were just over four and one-half hours late, having lost some more time since we departed Tucson. The conductor now estimated the time of our arrival in Los Angeles to be about noon.
On the way back to my room, I met Elaine, my car attendant, who asked if it would be okay to make up my room now. I replied in the affirmative, and went downstairs to take a shower. When I returned, the room was made up for day occupancy. We were now passing through a flat desert area, with dikes indicating that the land may have been irrigated as farmland sometime in the past.
About 8:00 a.m., I proceeded to the dining car for breakfast. I was seated next to two men, one of whom was traveling in coach from New Orleans to Los Angeles, where he would be connecting with a train to Oakland, and the other of whom was traveling (also in coach) all the way from Jacksonville to Los Angeles. The man coming from New Orleans told me that he had traveled out to New Orleans with his aunt, who refuses to fly, and that he was now returning home. He mentioned that he requested lower-level seating (even though he is neither elderly nor handicapped) because he finds the lower level more comfortable. He seemed to be enjoying the trip, although he mentioned that because of the lateness of our train, he would have to transfer to a bus at Ontario in order to catch up with the Coast Starlight. For breakfast, I chose the "Light and Lively" selection from the menu, which included a bagel with cream cheese and a bowl of fresh fruit.
During breakfast, we passed along the shore of the Salton Sea, a large inland lake with a high salt content. (According to the Rail Ventures book, the lake was formed at the turn of the century when the Colorado River broke through levees and flooded into a depression for two years.) Just north of the lake, we descended to an elevation of about 200 feet below sea level, which (according to the Steam Powered Videos' Railroad Atlas) is the lowest elevation of any surface railroad in North America. The vegetation began to change, with many palm trees now visible. Soon, we passed through Indio, where the Sunset Limited used to stop until recently.
Our next station stop was Palm Springs, where we arrived at 8:45 a.m. We made two stops here, and I was able to step off the train briefly during the second stop. This is a very new station, just opened recently, and it has got to be one of the weirdest Amtrak stations I have ever seen. It is situated in the middle of nowhere, and consists of a platform and a rather large concrete shelter of unusual architectural design. Behind the station is a large field of white windmills used to generate electricity, and in the background is a mountain range. I can only imagine what it must be like to wait at this deserted place for the westbound Sunset Limited to arrive at 3:53 a.m. (assuming it is on time)! Indeed, my car attendant said to me that it is really scary to be there in the wee hours of the morning. We departed Palm Springs at 8:50 a.m., and were now just three minutes short of being five hours late.
West of Palm Springs, we encountered more delays, stopping several times at red signals and passing a number of freight trains. To our right, the San Gorgonio Mountains were visible just beyond Interstate Route 10, which we had paralleled since Indio, and to our left were the San Jacinto Mountains. (Interestingly, neither the Route Guide nor the Rail Ventures book says anything about these mountains, probably because the train is scheduled to pass through this area in both directions during the middle of the night.) Soon, we left Route 10 and proceeded through a less populated area. Now we were delayed by track work being performed on the track to our right, with that track being occupied by maintenance-of-way equipment and lined with workers wearing yellow Union Pacific hardhats who are replacing deteriorated ties which have been marked with paint. It looks like noon may well be a rather optimistic time for our arrival in Los Angeles.
About 10:15 a.m., an announcement was made that we should be arriving in Ontario in about 25 minutes. Because of the delays we have encountered, passengers scheduled to connect with the Coast Starlight and with the San Joaquin trains from Bakersfield had been told to detrain at Ontario, where buses will be provided for them. Indeed, I am informed by the On-Board Chief that three buses have been ordered. But no sooner is this announcement made than we come to a stop in front of the abandoned station in Colton. We remained here for about ten minutes, then crossed the diamond at the intersection with the Santa Fe line used by the Southwest Chief and proceeded on our way.
At this point, I decided to use my remaining voucher for a free beverage. I proceeded to the lower level of the lounge car, where I obtained a cup of herbal tea from the friendly attendant. Since, by this time, the tables on the lower level were covered with boxes of leftover beverages, I went back up to the upper level of the car, and sat there for a little while. For once, no movie was being shown in the car, so I could enjoy watching the scenery without the distractions of the movie. Actually, though, the scenery at this point was not particularly attractive. Once again, we were paralleling Route 10, and we were passing through a rather ugly industrial area.
Soon an announcement was made that we would be making two stops in Ontario -- the first for the passengers in the front sleepers, and the second for everyone else. So I walked down through the diner into the second sleeper, and detrained when we arrived at the Ontario station at 11:04 a.m.
Ontario is a new station, and consists of little more than a platform and a small shelter with a tile roof. It is located in an attractive residential neighborhood, and is lined with palm trees and flowers. Three buses were on hand to transport passengers who had been "bustituted"; two were going to meet the Coast Starlight at San Luis Obispo, and the third was going to Bakersfield to connect there with the San Joaquin trains. The first stop took 15 minutes because all of the baggage for passengers going on these buses had to be unloaded here. This was complicated by the fact that all of these bags had been checked to Los Angeles, so each bag had to be carefully checked to determine whether it should be taken off in Ontario. When the train finally pulled forward to permit the coach passengers and those in the rear sleeper to detrain, I reboarded at my sleeping car. The second stop lasted for eight minutes, and we finally pulled out of the station at 11:27 a.m. -- just over six hours late!
Our next stop was Pomona. Here is there is a large, beautiful Mission-style stucco station. Indeed, this used to be the main Amtrak stop in the area, and I'm not entirely sure why the Ontario station stop had to be added, since the Pomona station seems better equipped to handle passengers and is only five miles from Ontario. We stopped here only very briefly to permit passengers to detrain from one coach, and we departed at 11:35 a.m.
We were now on our way to our final destination -- Union Station in Los Angeles. Soon an announcement was made that we would be arriving on Track #11, and that connecting passengers to San Diego would be making a 2:00 p.m. train, with passengers proceeding north taking a train leaving at 2:55 p.m.
For most of our final ride into Los Angeles, we directly paralleled an expressway, sometimes occupying the median strip in the middle of the expressway. This line obviously was completely reconstructed in recent years, and it appears that the only Amtrak train that uses it is the Sunset Limited.
Incredibly, the last leg of our trip was amazingly swift. Before I knew it, an announcement was made that we were approaching Los Angeles Union Station, and we came to our final stop on Track 11 at 12:23 p.m. We were five hours and 13 minutes late. We had covered the 34 miles from Pomona to Los Angeles in 48 minutes -- half the time of the 97 minutes allowed in the schedule (which, of course, includes make-up time), and even faster than the 57 minutes allowed for the eastbound train to cover the same distance. If we had been on time arriving in Pomona, we would have arrived at Union Station 49 minutes early at 6:21 a.m.! I'm glad this didn't happen. Of course, most of the passengers in my car had already gotten off at Ontario, so there was no crowd waiting to detrain in Los Angeles. I said goodbye to my attendant Elaine, gave her a nice tip, and walked downstairs to the tunnel leading into the station. There, I noticed an Amtrak employee directing arriving passengers making connections to San Diego to the 12:25 p.m. train on the next platform. This train had been held in Los Angeles for a few minutes to permit everyone from the Sunset Limited to make the connection -- a very nice touch on the part of Amtrak, especially since the next train would be leaving only about an hour and a half later.
I made a few phone calls and then walked over to the Inter- Continental Hotel on Olive Street, where the wedding would be held and I would be staying for the night. It turned out to be about a mile away, but my luggage was not all that heavy and I enjoyed the walk. I arrived, of course, in plenty of time to get ready for the wedding.
This has been a wonderful, relaxing train trip. Virtually every Amtrak employee I've encountered on this train has been courteous and friendly and has had a positive attitude. I had anticipated the long delays that we encountered, and even hoped that our train would be delayed, so I would not have to get up so early and would have more time to spend on the train. Although our five-hour-late arrival is (with one exception) just about the longest delay I've ever experienced on Amtrak, in this case I was not at all inconvenienced by it. I'm really glad that I decided to take the train for this part of the trip.