Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Sunset Limited
It's about 2:45 p.m. on Sunday, February 20, 2000, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Houston, where I will soon be boarding the Sunset Limited on my way to New Orleans. I flew down here on Thursday to attend a meeting, and I stayed over the weekend at the home of a friend. My plan was to depart this morning on the Sunset Limited, scheduled to arrive in Houston at 9:35 a.m. this morning.
Last night, I checked with Amtrak and was informed that my train was five hours and 20 minutes late. This morning, when I called about 7:45 a.m., the train had not yet arrived in San Antonio, where it is scheduled to arrive at 3:21 a.m. It was obvious that the train would not be arriving anywhere near its scheduled time. So I decided to take advantage of the extra time and travel to Galveston. I had rented a very nice Toyota Corolla from Hertz when I flew in on Thursday, and it now came in very handy. After saying goodbye to my friends, I drove along the freeways to Galveston, which is about 45 miles southeast of Houston.
Unlike Houston, which is characterized by urban sprawl and has little of historic interest, Galveston is a charming, historic city. It is situated on an island between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay, and it was formerly the only deepwater port in the entire state of Texas. Around the turn of the century, it was a large, wealthy city, said to have the highest per capita income of any city in the United States.
But in September 1900, the city was devastated by a fierce hurricane, in which virtually every building was damaged or totally destroyed, and over 6,000 people were killed. This is said to be the worst natural disaster in our country's history. Although, as a result, a seawall was constructed, raising the level of the sea side of the island by 18 feet, Galveston never regained its prominence. A deep ship channel was constructed all the way to Houston, which took over Galveston's importance as a port. The city became sort of a backwater, lacking any significant economic development.
In recent years, though, this curse has become a blessing in disguise. As a result of the lack of new construction, most of the old, historic buildings remained intact. In recent years, many of these buildings have been beautifully restored, and the entire downtown area has become an historic district. In many ways, it resembles some areas of New Orleans, where I had hoped to spend some time this evening (but, of course, will not be able to do so because of the very late arrival of the Sunset Limited).
I first stopped at the visitor center, where I found that most of the historic buildings don't open until noon on Sundays. The one main attraction that opens at 10:00 a.m. is the Galveston Railroad Museum, which was on my list to see in any event. So I headed there.
The Galveston Railroad Museum is located in the former Santa Fe station. The station is part of a large office building which was formerly the division headquarters for the railroad. The office building itself is currently used to house offices of various governmental and non-profit organizations, but the station waiting room and the former station tracks in back are now the museum.
Having just been to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento only a few weeks ago, I found the Galveston museum to be quite a contrast. The Sacramento museum reflects the highest level of museum standards, with every historic car and engine magnificently restored, and with most of the equipment exhibited inside a new building specially constructed for this purpose and accompanied with carefully researched information regarding the history of each piece of equipment. By contrast, the Galveston museum consists of a scattered bunch of equipment, in various states of deterioration, parked on the former station tracks. Many of the cars feature rotted wood, rusted steel, threadbare carpet, musty mattresses and dirty linoleum. Aside from a few rather crude signs, there is little information available to visitors explaining the history and significance of the various pieces of equipment. Nor are any museum personnel available to provide a guided tour. (The California State Railroad Museum was full of "docents," most of whom were retired people who led guided tours of the museum and were stationed at a number of equipment displays of particular interest.) Nevertheless, many of the cars -- including quite a few heavyweight sleepers -- were open to the public and could be walked through. (I couldn't quite understand, though, why every one of the sections was displayed as made up for night occupancy. Sections were used for travel during the day, too, and it would seem that the most appropriate way to set up the cars for display would be to show some of the sections made up for day occupancy. That's how it's done in Sacramento!) There was also a rather simplistic exhibit about the history of railroads and a very nice animated presentation about the history of Galveston. Overall, the museum didn't quite compare to the California State Railroad Museum, but -- in fairness -- it undoubtedly operates with a far more modest budget, and it was certainly interesting in its own right. Hopefully, if increased funding is available in the future, it will be possible to restore many of the pieces of equipment to their historic appearance.
After spending about two hours in the railroad museum, I ate lunch and visited a museum on the history of Galveston. Then I stopped at the Gulf of Mexico and its seawall and looked at the exterior of a few more historic buildings. At about 1:40 p.m., I decided to head back to Houston. I had called Amtrak several times and was informed that the Sunset Limited had departed San Antonio at 11:00 a.m., six and one-half hours late. If this lateness kept up, it would not be arriving in Houston until about 4:00 p.m. But I knew that the train might make up some time, and I also had to return my car.
It took me about an hour to get back to Houston, after stopping to refill my rented car with gas. As I approached the downtown area of Houston, I noticed -- somewhat to my surprise -- small Amtrak symbols on the signs for the downtown exit from the Interstate. But once you got off the highway, the way to the station was not clearly marked. Had I not had my detailed road map of Houston, showing every street in the downtown area in an enlarged inset, I'm not sure I would have found the station.
The Houston station is a relatively small modern building of unattractive design. It's tempting to call it an Amshack, but it was actually built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959 to replace a very attractive station that stood a little further to the east on a site now occupied by the main Houston post office -- itself an undistinguished, unattractive structure built around the same time. It is on the fringe of downtown, but hidden behind a vacant lot and some deteriorated buildings. The street on which it fronts has recently been cut off by the construction of a highway ramp, and the station can be reached from downtown only by following a rutted secondary street.
I parked my car in front of the station and went inside. About 30 people were sitting on the wooden benches salvaged from the original station, waiting for the train. The agent was busy loading a Thruway bus to connect with the Texas Eagle in Longview, but he soon returned to the ticket counter. When I asked him what time the Sunset Limited would be arriving, he replied that it would be pulling in around 3:00 p.m. It was now about 2:45 p.m., and I still had to return the car!
I didn't see how the train could possibly make up so much time, but I also didn't want to take a chance on missing the train. So I immediately returned to my car and drove over to the Hertz car rental agency, situated in the Four Seasons Hotel, about a mile away. Upon arrival at the circular drive in front of the hotel, I inquired of the doorman where I should go to return the car. He replied that the Hertz agency closes at noon on Sundays, and that I would have to go to Hobby Airport to return the car!
Obviously, there was no way that I could go to Hobby Airport, return the car, and still get back to downtown Houston in time to make the train. So I went inside the hotel, where the concierge told me that, given the circumstances, it would be possible for me to record the mileage on the rental car jacket and leave the car and the keys with the doorman. So that is what I did. I quickly unloaded my luggage and asked the doorman to call a cab, which arrived almost immediately. We loaded my luggage in the cab and were ready to proceed to the station.
When I told the cab driver that I wanted to go to the Amtrak station, he didn't even know where it was! The "try-weakly" service that Amtrak provides to this major metropolis hardly impacts at all on most residents, many of whom don't even know that it exists. (Indeed, my hosts were unaware that the busy rail line which is only one block from their home is the route of this Amtrak train!) I was a little surprised that a cab driver would not know the directions to a transportation terminal only a mile from the hotel where he picked me up, but again, fortunately, I had my detailed map of downtown Houston, and was able to direct the cab driver to the obscure site of the Amtrak station, where we arrived at 3:04 p.m. As I figured would be the case, my train had not yet arrived.
I walked into the station and went over to the agent to pick up my ticket. (I had made my reservations several weeks ago on the Internet, but had not bothered to pick up the ticket until now.) This time, I was informed by the other agent that the Sunset Limited would be arriving between 3:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. -- a time framework which seemed far more realistic to me. After picking up my ticket, I purchased a Sunset Limited cap from the agent for $10.00. (I had previously bought such a cap -- which is made of very attractive gray velvet -- when I rode the Sunset Limited last year, but it blew off when I stuck my head out of the window of the "Buy Miles" special excursion train last May, as we passed Zoo Tower in Philadelphia. I wanted to replace this cap, and was glad to be afforded the opportunity to do so.) Next, I walked for a few blocks to try to find an ATM machine, but -- as previously mentioned -- the station is several blocks away from downtown, and no services were available nearby. So I returned to the station, made a few phone calls, and awaited the arrival of the train.
The Sunset Limited finally pulled into the station at 3:44 p.m. I took a picture and then recorded the numbers of the cars as the train passed me on the platform. Today's train is pulled by two P-40 Genesis engines #843 and #838, and it includes a baggage car, a transition crew sleeper, two Superliner I sleepers, a diner, a Superliner I Sightseer Lounge, a coach with a smoking section downstairs, a regular coach (with a section downstairs for handicapped people), a deadhead Superliner I sleeper, and three express cars. Interestingly, the consist is virtually identical to the Sunset Limited that I took almost exactly a year ago, the only differences being that last year's train had one P-40 Genesis engine and a "Pepsi-Can" 500-series engine trailing, and it had a deadhead diner in front of the baggage car rather than a deadhead sleeper at the rear of the coaches.
After the detraining passengers had gotten off the train, we were all allowed to board at the first coach. Unlike the practice followed last year, no specific seats were assigned, and each passenger had to find his own seat. There did not seem to be any pairs of seats available in the first coach, so I walked through to the rear coach, where I found one of the few remaining unoccupied pairs of seats. I started talking to Kyle, the young man sitting in the seat in front of me. He lived in Troy, New York and had driven down with a friend to Wichita Falls, Texas. He now was on his way to Orlando, where he would be spending some time before returning home. He hadn't thought to call Amtrak before arriving at the station early this morning, and as a result he had to wait around all day for the train's arrival. Opposite me sat another young man from Summit, N.J. who was returning home via Jacksonville.
Since our stop in Houston lasted for some time, and some passengers who had stepped off the train were still standing on the platform, I got off the train and walked to the back in order to record the numbers of the deadhead sleeper and the three express cars at the rear. Next, I moved my luggage from the lower level of the first coach (where I had stowed it upon boarding) to the lower level of my coach. I went back upstairs, and we finally departed at 4:08 p.m. We were now six hours and 15 minutes late.
I followed our route, as we snaked through Houston, on a map which appeared in the October 1999 TRAINS magazine article entitled "Texas Chemical Coast." Soon, I noticed the hump at the Englewood Yard, a picture of which appeared in this article.
I was getting a little hungry, so I took a salami sandwich that I had brought along down to the lower level of the lounge car, where I purchased a Pepsi and sat down at one of the tables. I noticed that there were electric outlets at ceiling level next to two of the tables, but there were other people sitting at both of these tables. I had never noticed these outlets previously, but George, the lounge car attendant, said to me that they are found on all Superliner I lounge cars.
I also noticed, near the food service counter, a number of copies of the "Sunset Limited 2000 Route Guide." Unlike the older Route Guides, which folded into a pocket size brochure, these were 16-page 8-x-11" brochures, with fairly extensive information regarding the entire route of the train from Los Angeles to Orlando. One useful feature absent from these new Route Guides is the time elapsed from the last station to the particular feature -- an item of information which makes it much easier to locate the feature. I also noticed that on page 2, in the introduction, the Route Guide states that "Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford were involved in creating the first transcontinental rail link in 1883 with the completion of the route you are now traveling." As far as I know, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and it was not the Sunset Route, but the Central Pacific- Union Pacific Overland Route (now followed in part by the California Zephyr). This one statement that is found in the new Route Guide appears to be incorrect, but it is certainly heartening to know that Amtrak is once again making an effort to provide Route Guides for its passengers. (Interestingly, though, George subsequently informed me that he was provided with only 50 copies of this Route Guide -- 25 for the trip out to Los Angeles, and 25 for the return trip. He said that because of the limited quantity available, he was only giving them to people who asked.)
The batteries in my computer were dead, and there was no outlet near my seat. So, after I finished my sandwich, I went back to my seat, retrieved my computer, and brought it to the upper level of the lounge car, where I plugged it into an outlet at the unused attendant station in the middle of the car. The adjacent seats were partially blocked by large black plastic bags which, I later learned, contained dirty linen. (The crew claimed that there was nowhere else to store this dirty linen!) I had to move some of these bags so I would have a seat adjacent to the electric outlet.
We crossed the San Jacinto River at 4:49 p.m. About ten minutes later, as we approached Crosby, we came to a halt. On the scanner, I heard that we had a red signal in front of us, and we obtained permission from the dispatcher to pass this signal. But we had to travel at a restricted speed to the next signal. The dispatcher and the crew were both puzzled as to why the signal was red, and as a result, we stopped at every switch to check whether it might have been misaligned. No problem was found with any switch, and the dispatcher stated that he would have the signal maintainers check out the situation as soon as possible. But it took us 40 minutes to cover the 15 miles between Crosby and Dayton, where we finally got a clear signal to proceed. Seven minutes later, at 5:47 p.m., we crossed the Trinity River on a single-track truss bridge.
In the meantime, I noticed a stack of papers lying on the attendant station in the upper level of the lounge car. Dated February 19, 2000, they were copies of a letter written to Sunset Limited "guests" by D.D. Willwerth, Product Line Director. The letter -- which had obviously been faxed to some station along the line and then copied for all passengers, with the fax imprint obliterated by black pen -- explained that our train "has unfortunately experienced several unexpected delays after departing Los Angeles last night." It went on to list the various delays encountered -- the removal of a "mail/express car on the rear of the train" due to a "mechanical problem"; a "problem with track conditions" on the Union Pacific Railroad, resulting in "a slow down of all rail traffic on the line" (I was told by a passenger that the problem involved a broken rail); and the necessity "to add a superliner car to the rear of the train at Casa Grande, Arizona." After apologizing for the delay, the letter went on to state that "in hopes you will allow us the opportunity to show you how enjoyable travel by rail can be, we would like to offer you a transportation credit coupon for future travel with Amtrak." Well, I don't think Amtrak needs to show me "how enjoyable travel by rail can be," but it looks like I'll probably get a free trip, since this segment of my trip, in which I'm traveling in coach, cost me only $42.50.
By this time, the first call for dinner was made. Having eaten my sandwich not that long ago, I wasn't exceptionally hungry, and I decided to wait a little before going to the diner for dinner. (Tonight, there were no set sittings for dinner.) But about 6:15 p.m., an announcement was made that the diner was full, and that all those interested in eating dinner should give their names in to be put on a waiting list. So I added my name to the list.
At 6:33 p.m., we stopped at Beaumont. About eight people boarded the train here, and some of them had some heavy luggage, so our stop lasted for three minutes. affording me the opportunity to step off the train briefly. When we left Beaumont, we were almost exactly seven hours late. By this time, it was pretty dark, and you couldn't see very much out the window for the rest of the trip.
A large number of people were called to the diner at 6:55 p.m. and, thinking that I heard my name mispronounced among the names called, I proceeded to the diner, leaving my computer plugged in the lounge car to get fully recharged. (It turned out that my name actually was not called until later, but I was seated anyway.) I sat opposite a couple from the Los Angeles area who were traveling in an economy bedroom to Orlando to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. (They really wanted a deluxe bedroom, but none were available on this train.) They told me that they also took a train on their honeymoon -- from Los Angeles to New Orleans on the Santa Fe Railroad. The husband mentioned to me that he -- along with his older brother, father and grandfather -- attended the opening of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal in 1939, and that they are all in the picture of this event which is displayed in the station. Next to me sat a friend of theirs who was traveling with them.
After about half an hour, I was served a chicken dinner, which was very tasty. The other three people at my table ordered steak and were quite satisfied with its quality. We all remained at our table until about 7:55 p.m., at which time the other three passengers returned to their room.
Being sleeping car passengers, of course, they did not have to pay for their meal. But since I traveled by coach on this train, I had to pay for mine. I asked the waiter for a check, but for 15 minutes, no one came to give it to me. I don't remember ever having to wait for a dining car check for such a long period of time. Finally, I walked over to the steward and told her that I would return later to pay for my meal. She replied that I had to pay now, and promptly presented me with the check. She said to me that sometimes passengers have to wait even longer for their check, but I don't understand why a check cannot be presented promptly to patrons who request it. This incident somewhat marred what I otherwise viewed as very efficient service by the dining car personnel this evening.
Just as I left the dining car to return to my seat, we made a brief stop at Lake Charles, Louisiana at 8:13 p.m. The old station here is closed, and when I took this trip last year, the only facility for waiting passengers was a plastic shelter. But since then, a small but attractive brick building, with a gabled roof and decorative metal brackets, has been constructed just west of the old station. It was nice to see this very attractive building, which was open for waiting passengers.
I brought my computer back to my seat and, since it was now fully charged, spent some time at my seat updating these memoirs. I started feeling a little tired, so I soon put away the computer and rested for a while, waking up just before we reached Lafayette at 9:54 p.m.
The Lafayette station was destroyed by fire last year, and all that remains of it are the brick walls. But a very small building, covered with aluminum siding, has been constructed just east of the old station to provide shelter to passengers. Two people boarded here, but one of them had reserved a sleeper and had to walk down several car-lengths to reach it. So our stop here lasted for three minutes. When we departed, we were seven hours and 25 minutes late.
The coach passenger who boarded at Lafayette took the seat next to Kyle in front of me. Also named Kyle, he lives with his father in Abbeville, just south of Lafayette, where he goes to a trade school, and was destined for Sanford, where his mother works for Amtrak. As a result, he was traveling for free.
Our next scheduled stop was New Iberia, where we paused very briefly at 10:19 p.m. No one got on or off here, and the station was closed, so our stop lasted for less than a minute.
Soon, my computer's batteries died once again, so I walked down to the lounge car, where the movie being shown had just concluded. I went down to the lower level, plugged my computer into an outlet above the rearmost table, and continued working on these memoirs. The last call was made for food and beverage service in the lounge car, so I purchased a beer. Another man bought eight beers! I watched as we crossed the Atchafalaya River, just west of Morgan City, on a long bridge -- one of the landmarks of last year's trip, when I could see the features in the daylight. Here I was joined by Kyle from Lafayette, who showed me on my Louisiana map the various places in the area in which he had lived.
I remained in the lounge car during our brief stop at Schriever, Louisiana at 11:52 p.m. I believe that several passengers got off here, but no one got on. When we left, we were just over seven and one-half hours late. Soon afterwards, I returned to my seat, where I wrote some e-mail messages to be sent later. The overhead lights in our car had been turned off some time ago, and most people were sleeping.
At 12:55 a.m., we paused at the tower at the western approach to the Huey P. Long Bridge, and then we slowly started our journey across this bridge. I turned out the light at my seat and watched as we crossed the Mississippi River on this bridge, stated in William D. Middleton's book Landmarks on the Iron Road to be the longest steel railroad bridge in the world (including the approaches, it is over four miles long). About 1:15 a.m., we reached the end of the eastern approach, and we picked up our speed somewhat for a short period of time.
The side lights in our car were now turned on, so as to provide some light for passengers detraining in New Orleans. I started to gather my belongings together. At 1:40 a.m., we began our backup move into the station, and we came to our final stop at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at 1:49 a.m. -- just one minute short of seven hours late.
I detrained and walked through the station to the front, where several cabs were waiting. I took one of the cabs to the Queen and Crescent Hotel on Camp Street, where I had previously reserved a room. Since I had guaranteed the room with my credit card for late arrival, and would have to pay for it in any event, it made sense to go to the hotel at this very late hour, even though I wouldn't be able to spend more than four hours there. The ride to the hotel was very short and swift, and by about 2:15 a.m. I was checked in and in my room.
My trip today on the Sunset Limited has the distinction of having the second latest arrival of any Amtrak train that I have ever taken! The only train that had a more tardy arrival was the Texas Eagle which I took in June 1991 from Dallas to Chicago. That train was over nine hours late. I was somewhat disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to spend any time seeing the sights of New Orleans, but the lateness of the train afforded me the unexpected opportunity to visit Galveston instead. All in all, it ended up being a very pleasant trip, and I am looking forward to the continuation of my journey early tomorrow morning on the Crescent.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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