Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Southwest Chief
It's 5:45 p.m. on Monday, February 12, 2001, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in Fullerton, California where I will be boarding the Southwest Chief, scheduled to depart at 8:04 p.m. Last Thursday night, I flew out to Ontario, California on JetBlue Airlines, and I spent the weekend in San Diego. Yesterday, after picking up the tickets for my Amtrak trip at the San Diego station and riding the Orange Line of the San Diego Trolley all the way to its end at Santee, I drove to Palm Springs, stopping in Oceanside to meet my online friend Eric Starr. Today, I attended my meeting in Palm Springs (the main reason for my trip to California), which ended about 3:15 p.m. Steve Rosen, a member of the committee who lives in Huntington Beach, just south of Fullerton, knew of my interest in Amtrak, and volunteered to drop me off at the Fullerton station on the way home. My ticket read from Los Angeles, but I knew that I could also board the train in Fullerton, which is the first stop. (Actually, I could also have boarded at the second stop, San Bernardino, which is much closer to Palm Springs, but the San Bernardino station is located in a rather unattractive area, and Fullerton is a much more pleasant place to wait for the train.) So after dropping my rental car off at the Palm Springs Airport (located only about a mile from the hotel at which the meeting was held), I got into Steve's Suburban and we were on our way to Fullerton.
We pulled up to the Fullerton station just as the northbound 5:43 p.m. Metrolink train to Los Angeles was departing. Had we arrived a few minutes earlier, I would have taken that train to Los Angeles, since it was scheduled to arrive at Union Station in Los Angeles at 6:19 p.m., affording me plenty of time to catch the Southwest Chief, which is scheduled to depart at 7:05 p.m. But the Fullerton station, which is manned by an agent, also has an attractive waiting room, and I did not mind waiting there. The agent assured me that my train was expected to arrive on time.
Fullerton is a very busy station. During my wait for the Southwest Chief, four Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains (formerly designated San Diegans) came by. The first southbound train (Train #782, scheduled to depart at 5:40 p.m. but running a few minutes late) consisted of Superliner and California Car equipment. Next, at 6:22 p.m. (13 minutes late) came a northbound train with Amfleet and Horizon equipment. This train (#585) had two Custom Class (a/k/a Pacific Business Class) cars and full-length dome #9302. I didn't see any passengers in the dome, and the train as a whole was very lightly patronized. Three Metrolink trains also stopped at the station during this period, and no fewer than six BNSF freight trains (all northbound) also passed through.
I also walked over to the Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant located in the former Union Pacific station just south of the ex-Santa Fe station which is now used by Amtrak. This building has been magnificently restored, and is even more elegant than the current Amtrak station, which is quite nice itself. I made a number of phone calls, since this would be my last opportunity to do so for a while. I also took out some food that I had brought along and made up a salami sandwich, which I ate together with a bottle of Snapple that I purchased from the adjacent cafe. I was expecting to be served a meal aboard the train tonight, but I was rather hungry and knew that the train would not be arriving for a while.
The station gradually began to fill up with passengers. Besides the Southwest Chief, scheduled to depart at 8:04 p.m., a southbound train to San Diegan (#784) is scheduled to depart at 7:52 p.m., and a northbound Pacific Surfliner train departs at 8:08 p.m. A recorded announcement of the impending arrival of Train #784 on the southbound platform was made about 7:45 p.m. This was soon followed by a live announcement that due to the late arrival of equipment on this morning's Southwest Chief from Chicago, tonight's Southwest Chief would be arriving between 45 minutes and one hour late. Well, I'm not altogether surprised. I had checked on the web and knew that this morning's train was running about five hours late, but I had hoped that tonight's train would nevertheless depart on time. Had I known that tonight's train would be delayed, I probably would have taken the next Metrolink train to Los Angeles so that I could board my train at its point of origin. But the Fullerton station is an attractive place to wait, so I didn't really mind spending the additional time here.
The southbound train to San Diego, consisting of the new Surfliner equipment, departed at 7:58 p.m., six minutes late. Several announcements were then made about the impending arrival of the northbound train, but that train did not arrive until 8:24 p.m., 18 minutes late. It consisted of Amfleet and Horizon equipment, but unlike a previous train, did not have a dome car. Even after the departure of this train, over 25 people remained in the waiting room, all waiting for the delayed Southwest Chief.
Next to me sat a woman who would be traveling in the same car as me. She was going all the way to Chicago and had reserved a deluxe bedroom just for herself. Her ultimate destination was Boston, and she hoped to connect in Chicago with the Lake Shore Limited. She was working on some sketches, and another woman sitting nearby asked her to sketch her granddaughter from a photograph she supplied.
Finally, at about 8:55 p.m., an announcement was made of the impending arrival of our train on Track 1. This track is normally used for northbound trains, but since it is immediately adjacent to the station, the Southwest Chief usually arrives on this track, even though it is traveling at this point in a southerly direction. The sleepers were stated to be at the rear of the train. It was now raining quite hard, so I walked outside and waited underneath a Metrolink canopy towards the northern end of the platform. Soon, I saw the headlight of the approaching train, and the Southwest Chief pulled into the station at 9:07 p.m. My car, the first sleeper, was positioned right near the canopy, so I didn't have very far to walk.
I quickly boarded my sleeper and walked right over to my Room #14, a lower-level accommodation. Quite a few passengers boarded my car #32001, an unreconditioned Superliner I sleeper. We departed Fullerton at 9:11 p.m., one hour and seven minutes late, and the conductor immediately came by to collect my ticket.
Tonight's Southwest Chief is pulled by four Genesis engines and includes a baggage crew, a transition/crew dorm, a 34000-series coach with lower-level seating, a 31500-series coach with a smoking lounge on the lower level, a Superliner II lounge car, a dining car, a Superliner I sleeper (my car), a Superliner II sleeper, and a large number of MHC, express and RoadRailer cars, the numbers of which I did not have the opportunity to record until we stopped in Albuquerque. Last summer, when I rode the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Raton, there were four coaches on the train, all of which were quite full. But this is the off season, and two coaches are more than adequate to accommodate all coach passengers.
Once my ticket was collected, I went to the dining car. I was seated with two women, Gail and Joyce, who live in California and were on their way to New York, where they planned to visit for four days, returning by train. They shared a deluxe bedroom and would be taking the Lake Shore from Chicago to New York. This was the first time that either one had traveled by train in quite some time, and they asked me a number of questions about the trip.
Having eaten my salami sandwich earlier in the evening, I wasn't all that hungry, so I just asked for a salad and a cup of tea. I also got a small fruit plate for dessert. My seat mates ordered pizza and pasta, respectively, and seemed to be satisfied with their meals.
Upon my return from dinner, my attendant asked if I wanted my room made up for night occupancy. I indicated that I was not ready for this yet, whereupon he replied that he would be going to sleep soon. I told him that I knew how to make up the room myself (which, indeed, is relatively easy once you know what to do). Next, I walked through the lounge car and coaches. There was a movie playing in the lounge car, which was lightly patronized. The second coach on the train, reserved for local passengers, was more than half empty, with all through passengers to Chicago being assigned to the first coach (which was over half full). I then returned to my room.
After stepping off the train briefly during our five- minute stop in San Bernardino, from where we departed at 10:13 p.m. I updated these memoirs, rearranged some of my belongings, and soon got ready to climb into bed.
At 11:13 p.m., we arrived in Victorville. The station here is on the north side of the tracks, and on the scanner, I heard the dispatcher give protection to Track 1, meaning that no trains could proceed on that track, which had to be crossed by passengers boarding our train. The Victorville station consists of nothing more than a plastic Amshack. Our station stop lasted for three minutes, and when we departed, one hour and seven minutes late, I pulled down the bed in my room and climbed in.
As is generally the case when I travel by sleeper on Amtrak, I slept intermittently throughout the night. The ride seemed relatively bumpy, which I thought might have something to do with the fact that I was traveling in a lower-level room in an unreconditioned Superliner I car. I did not fall asleep until after we stopped at Barstow at 11:54 p.m. Barstow features a classic brick station, which is open for waiting passengers (although no longer staffed by an agent). Adjacent to it is another two-story brick building called "Casa Del Desierto," which apparently means Desert House in Spanish. This was formerly a restaurant/hotel operated by the Fred Harvey Company. Today, it is closed and surrounded by a chain-link fence, but it seems that efforts are underway to restore this historic structure. I could not see the station in Needles (it seems that it was on the other side of the tracks), but I did note the old stucco station in Kingman, Arizona. Here, the train made four stops, since all passengers boarded the train at the grade crossing adjacent to the station, which was boarded up. There is a normal-sized platform adjacent to the station, but for some reason, it was not being used.
I woke up for good when we approached the Williams Jct. station, where we stopped briefly at 6:45 a.m. (Mountain Standard Time). This is the first time that I've been on an Amtrak train that stopped here. The station, which was established only about two or three years ago, exists for the sole purpose of facilitating the transfer of passengers to the Grand Canyon Railway, whose trains originate at nearby Williams. The Williams Jct. station is located in the middle of nowhere, and it consists of nothing more than a short paved platform. A van from the Grand Canyon Railway was on hand to meet the two passengers who detrained from the rear sleeper. I'd assume that business at this station is considerably higher in the summer. When we departed Williams Jct., we were one hour and ten minutes late, not having lost any more time overnight. Also, for the first time on this trip, I observed that the ground was covered in places with snow.
About 7:10 a.m., an announcement was made that we were approaching our next stop, Flagstaff. I folded up the bed and quickly got dressed. When we pulled into the station at 7:17 a.m., I detrained and walked a short distance down the platform. The sun had just risen, with its glare obscuring the view eastward. This station was quite familiar to me, as our troop had spent over an hour here three years ago, when we boarded the eastbound Southwest Chief. The attractive Santa Fe station has largely been converted to a visitor center, but the station is still staffed by an agent, and adequate room is provided for waiting passengers. We spent only our scheduled five minutes here, and when we departed, we were one hour and five minutes late.
Soon after we pulled out of the station, I heard on the scanner that we have a "carry-by" -- a passenger who was supposed to detrain at Flagstaff but failed to get off. It seems that this passenger was advised of the stop several times, but still did not get off -- even though we spent five minutes at the station! The conductor stated that she would continue to Albuquerque and take the westbound train back this evening. How such things happen always puzzles me, but I guess there are some passengers who rely on their attendant to almost drag them off the train. (I later heard from a fellow passenger that this passenger had gotten off the train in Flagstaff, then realized that she had left something on board. She got back on the train to retrieve her belongings, but the train departed before she had a chance to get off again.)
East of Flagstaff, the train passes through hilly terrain, with many curves. I watched the scenery for a while, then went to take a shower, returned to my room, and got dressed. I watched from my room as we made a brief stop at Winslow at 8:20 a.m. Here, several passengers got on and off. Winslow features not only a very attractive stucco station building, but also a large, sprawling adjacent building which was designed by Mary Colter as a Fred Harvey house. The station, though, is no longer staffed by an agent, and it did not appear to be open when we passed through.
Next, I went to the dining car for breakfast. I was seated next to a woman and her young son, who were returning to their home in Albuquerque from a trip to Disneyland. She was accompanied on the trip by her mother (who subsequently joined us for breakfast) and by a friend who was traveling with two young children. All but the mother were sharing a family bedroom in the rear sleeper; the mother was traveling by coach. I ordered a continental breakfast consisting of a bagel with cream cheese and a plate of fresh fruit, accompanied with orange juice and coffee. Service for breakfast was rather slow, but we were in no rush, and it was very pleasant watching the scenery go by. At this point, the terrain was rather flat, but it was still interesting. As we approached New Mexico, various rock formations began to appear along the route, with a particularly interesting one right at the Arizona-New Mexico state line.
Soon after breakfast was over, I walked through the coaches again. There were more people aboard, and most seats were occupied by at least one passenger, but the coaches were certainly not full. I noticed a computer printout indicating that there were supposed to be 97 coach passengers on board (with about 130 available seats), and that the number of coach passengers actually decreased beyond Albuquerque.
Our next stop was Gallup, where we arrived at 10:00 a.m. Here, a Navajo guide boarded the train and provided a running commentary in the lounge car for about an hour. The car was rather full, but not every seat was taken. I spent almost the entire two hours between Gallup and Albuquerque in the lounge car, watching the interesting scenery and listening to the commentary of the guide. For the first 40 minutes out of Gallup, there are red rock formations to the left of the train. Then the train curves to the south and passes through lava beds, with the broken lava rock plainly visible on the surface. We also passed by a number of Navajo villages. For the second hour, the guide showed a film which described the history of the various Anasazi and Navajo settlements in the area, pointing out the many cliff dwellings and kivas that have been discovered, and explaining why they were located in such inhospitable surroundings and eventually abandoned. The film was really excellent, and although most of the sites described were not visible from the train (or even located along its route), the theme of the film fit in perfectly with our surroundings. This is the first time that I've watched a film on a train, and unlike the ones which are usually shown on Amtrak trains, this film complemented the scenery along the route rather than merely serving as a distraction. Ironically, though, only a handful of people bothered staying in the lounge car to watch the film.
About 12:05 p.m., as the film was ending, an announcement was made that we would be arriving in Albuquerque in about 15 minutes. Then another announcement was made that we would be "taking a different route" to the station, with the result that the station stop would not be reached for about half an hour. What was meant by this I'm not sure, as there was no other possible route we could have taken to reach the station, and I did not hear any communications on the scanner indicating that any unusual move would be taking place. In any event, I returned to my room, and although we proceeded rather slowly through the yards south of the station, we pulled directly into the station, coming to a stop at 12:20 p.m. -- only five minutes late!
For many years, Albuquerque had a magnificent Mission-style station, which unfortunately burned down several years ago. At present, the ticket office is located in a small, nondescript stucco building which formerly served as a warehouse. But a magnificent new transit center is now being constructed just north of the location of the former station building. The station agent told me that this building will serve only as a local transit center, but that another, equally magnificent building will soon be erected for Amtrak's use on the site of the old station. It is heartening to see such new construction on what had become a bleak, unattractive site!
After detraining, I walked back towards the end of the train to record the numbers of the various MHC, express and RoadRailer cars at the back of the train. I counted four MHC cars, four express cars and 11 RoadRailer cars that had been on the train since Los Angeles, and a switch engine was in the process of adding another four RoadRailers behind the last MHC car! Then I returned to the station, walked inside, and made a phone call. At 12:40 p.m., an "all-aboard" call was made, and I reboarded the train. We did not leave until 12:56 p.m., however, apparently because the conductor had to obtain permission from the dispatcher to proceed. We were now 11 minutes late, but we had made up almost all the time that we lost due to our late departure last night from Los Angeles.
As soon as we pulled out of the station, a last call for lunch was made, and I went to the dining car, where I had a deli sandwich for lunch. Opposite me sat a woman who was traveling, along with her mother and her twin sons (who were about 4 years old), to Philadelphia, where she would be attending a trade show and visiting her sister. She was taking the train primarily because her mother wouldn't fly, although she also stated that she enjoyed train travel. This was her first major long-distance trip in a while, and the four of them were sharing a deluxe bedroom. Only she and one of her sons came to the diner; her mother remained in the room with the other son, and she ordered a sandwich to bring back to her mother in the room. By this point, the diner was rather empty.
Soon after I finished lunch, we stopped at Lamy at 2:07 p.m. Several passengers detrained, including a man who attempted to get off from my sleeper. The attendant did not come to open the door, so I walked to the next car to try to find an attendant. In the meantime, the man had yelled out the window and caught the attention of another attendant on the platform, who finally opened the door for him. I noticed that the Legal Tender Saloon behind the station -- a well-known landmark which, the Route Guide states, "contains $250,000 in art and antiques" -- was boarded up. When we departed Lamy at 2:10 p.m., we were 20 minutes late, having lost another nine minutes since departing Albuquerque.
Leaving Lamy, the train snakes through the very narrow and rocky Glorieta Canyon on its way to Glorieta Pass. This is one of the most scenic sections of the route, with the rock walls of the canyon coming to within one foot of the side of the train! I went to the Sightseer Lounge car (which was nearly deserted) for the climb up to the pass, and then returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs and continued to watch the beautiful scenery. About 3:15 p.m., we approached a double S-curve, providing an excellent opportunity to observe the front and back of the train as it negotiates the tight curves.
Soon afterwards, at about 3:25 p.m., we took the siding at Chapelle to permit the eastbound Southwest Chief, Train #3, to pass us. The line from Los Angeles to near Albuquerque is heavily used by freight trains and it is almost entirely double-tracked. However, from Albuquerque to Newton, Kansas, the Southwest Chief follows what has become a secondary single-track route, which is bypassed by most BNSF freight trains in view of its very severe grades over Raton Pass. The freight trains follow an alternate route, known as the Belen Cut-Off, which passes through Texas and has much more favorable grades.
Chapelle is a tiny village, consisting primarily of a handful of abandoned stone homes. A few homes do appear to be inhabited, though. One interesting feature of this siding was a operating pair of semaphores, which are still found in several locations along this route, although they are gradually being replaced with more modern color signals.
The conductor had to go out to hand-throw the switch, and then we slowly pulled into the siding and waited a few minutes for Train #4 to pass us. The westbound train was scheduled to arrive at Lamy at 2:33 p.m., so it was running about two hours late. Its consist was the same as ours, except that it had fewer freight cars in the rear. Not until 3:40 p.m. did we proceed ahead, and even then, it took a few minutes for our entire long train to pull out of the siding so that we could regain track speed. During the 15 minutes that we occupied the siding at Chapelle, we were blocking a grade crossing, and one local resident waited patiently in his truck for our train to pass.
I was getting a little tired and dozed off for a few minutes. At 4:05 p.m., though, I awoke when I heard on the scanner that the defect detector at milepost 774.9, just south of Las Vegas, N.M., had reported that we had a dragging equipment defect at axle 53 of our 116 axles. That would put the defect just behind the first freight car on the train, MHC car #1409. The train came to a halt, and the conductor went out to inspect the train. He determined that the defect consisted of a dragging hose, which he "repaired" by tying it back up again. We lost another five minutes or so due to this unanticipated event. (Luckily, the defect was not near the end of the train, as then even more time would have been lost by the conductor having to walk all the way back there!)
Finally, we arrived at Las Vegas at 4:21 p.m. No one was getting on or off here, so we paused only briefly and continued on our way. Several railfans were at the station to see our train go by, though. Both the old Santa Fe station and the adjacent Fred Harvey building, inscribed "The Castaneda," seemed to be closed but in relatively good condition.
From here to Raton, the scenery is not quite as spectacular, although there are several rather sharp curves and interesting mesas. The Route Guide mentions that the ruins of Fort Union, built in 1851, are visible to the right at Watrous, and I think that I located the stone ruins of the fort just north of this town. I walked down to the coaches and then returned to my room, where I finally did a little work on the new edition of the New York Walk Book.
By the time we reached Raton at 6:02 p.m., it had gotten dark. The family occupying the family bedroom adjacent to my room detrained here, so I was able to step off the train briefly. I noticed the connecting bus to Denver parked right alongside the train. Of course, compared to the summer, when over one hundred Scouts often detrain from the Southwest Chief in Raton, today's passenger load at Raton was meager indeed, and our stop lasted for only two minutes.
Soon after we departed Raton, the steward announced the 6:30 p.m. dinner sitting (which commenced a little early tonight). I was seated next to a man from Elkhart, Indiana, and opposite an Amish couple who also lived near Elkhart. The man was a driver for a bus company, who would drive buses from the factory in Elkhart to their ultimate destination anywhere in the country, and then return home, often by train. He had just delivered a bus to the Los Angeles area and was returning home in coach.
The Amish couple had traveled out to California to obtain medical treatment at Tijuana, where it appears that such treatment was available at a much lower cost than in the United States. They had coach round-trip tickets, and boarded with me in Fullerton, but decided to upgrade to an economy bedroom on board the train. As a result, they received a 25% discount off the price of the room, and ended up paying about $100 less than I did for my room.
During dinner, we went over Raton Pass. This is a very scenic part of the trip, but it was completely dark out, and you couldn't see anything. We paused briefly at Trinidad at 7:00 p.m., but no one got on or off, and we immediately continued on our way. We were now 50 minutes late. When I finished dinner, I returned to my room and updated these memoirs.
Our next stop was La Junta, where we arrived at 8:11 p.m. La Junta is a service stop where the engines are refueled. On my trip to Philmont last summer, an additional engine was added to the train here. I had thought that one of our four engines might be removed (since the remainder of the route to Chicago is relatively flat), but I was informed by the conductor that this is no longer being done. We are scheduled to spend 25 minutes in La Junta, but tonight, the stop lasted for only 13 minutes. Hardly any other passengers stepped off the train here, but I walked into the station and made a few phone calls. When we departed at 8:24 p.m., we were only one minute late, having made up all of our lost time!
Now I decided to walk down to the rear coach, which was more than half empty, and do some work there. (I might ordinarily have gone to the lower level of the lounge car, but a movie was being shown there.) The coach seats are actually a little more comfortable than the seats in the sleepers, and this provided a welcome change of pace. I stayed there for about 45 minutes until we paused at Lamar at 9:11 p.m. By now, I was getting a little tired, and I knew that we would be losing another hour when we reached the Central Time Zone, so I returned to my room, pulled down the bed, and went to sleep.
Tonight, the ride seemed smoother than last night. Again, I slept intermittently, waking up for most of the station stops, but I think that I got a fair amount of sleep.
We arrived at and departed from our next two stations, Garden City and Dodge City, essentially on time. But at 1:00 a.m., we came to a sudden stop. It seems that the train had lost air pressure, resulting in an emergency application of the brakes. The conductor went back to inspect the train and found that an air hose behind the last MHC car had become disconnected. He fixed the break, and we started moving again about ten minutes later. Soon, though, we lost air again. This time, the engineer was immediately able to pump up the air pressure, and when the conductor checked the train, he could find nothing wrong. So after another delay of about 15 minutes, we moved on again. Over the scanner, I heard the comment that if this happens again, the conductor should close the angle-cock in front of the FRED (end- of-train device), since the FRED might be malfunctioning. But whatever the problem was, it did not recur.
As a result of these delays, we arrived at Hutchinson, our next station, at 2:53 a.m., 51 minutes late. Our arrival at Newton and Topeka was similarly delayed.
I woke up again at 6:30 a.m. as we came to a halt at the DeSoto yard, west of Kansas City. Here four of the RoadRailers were removed from the middle of the train by a waiting switch engine, and the train was serviced. Our stop here lasted for nearly an hour.
At 7:15 a.m., during our stop at DeSoto, I decided to get up. I walked over to the shower down the hall, but it was occupied, so I went back to the rear sleeper and took my shower there. Then I returned to my room. In the meantime, we arrived at the Argentine Yard, just outside of Kansas City, at 7:58 a.m., and stopped for eight minutes for refueling.
At 8:22 a.m., we finally arrived at the Amtrak station in Kansas City. An announcement was made that Kansas City is no longer a service stop, and that our station stop would last no longer than necessary to permit passengers to board. I went outside and walked down the platform, but in view of the limited time available, decided not to go into the station (which is located some distance from the passenger cars of the train). It was drizzling lightly outside. I noticed a man with a black dog walk into the sleepers, where the dog climbed over the baggage in the baggage racks, sniffing it out. The man confirmed what I thought -- the dog had been trained to sniff for illegal drugs. Due to its passage through southwestern states near the Mexican border, the Southwest Chief has been favored by some drug smugglers, and drug-related arrests are periodically made on board. In fact, in a TRAINS magazine article, the Southwest Chief was once (against strong protests by Amtrak) given the nickname "the cocaine train"! Today, however, the dog didn't find anything.
Our stop in Kansas City lasted only the ten minutes set forth in the timetable, and when we departed at 8:32 a.m., we were only 20 minutes late, having made up half an hour of our lost time despite the long wait in DeSoto. If we encounter no further delays, we should arrive in Chicago on time -- or maybe even early!
The last call for breakfast was now made, so I went into the dining car, where I was seated opposite Sally, who lives in Rouses Point, N.Y. She had driven out to Phoenix with a friend, then taken a Greyhound bus from there to Santa Fe, and now was riding Amtrak to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she would be visiting another friend. Sally is a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club and often goes on hikes with them. We had a very enjoyable conversation over breakfast, and after Sally left, I remained in the diner for some time, reading a newspaper that had been put on the train in Kansas City. For breakfast, I had the same bagel, cream cheese and fruit combination that I had yesterday. The scenery was rather bleak outside, and the drizzly, misty weather made everything look even more desolate. During breakfast, we crossed the Missouri River on an impressive steel bridge.
After breakfast, I returned to my room, updated these memoirs, and then walked down to the coaches. A movie was playing in the lounge car, something that I ordinarily find objectionable during daylight hours, but given the bleak scenery and dismal weather, I didn't have a problem with it today. The lounge car was pretty full with passengers watching the movie. I counted only about 20 passengers in the rear coach (many of whom were headed all the way to Chicago) and 40 passengers -- all destined for Chicago -- in the first coach. Then I returned to my sleeper, where the attendant was changing the linen in my room, so I briefly sat in Room 12 which (along with Room 13) was not occupied for any part of the trip.
At 10:49 a.m., we made a brief stop at La Plata, where one passenger detrained and four boarded. The station here is a relatively modern wood-and-brick building, which has seen better days (although it is still open for waiting passengers). When we departed a minute later, we were 25 minutes late.
A first call for lunch was made at 11:30 a.m., accompanied with the explanation that lunch today would be short, due to FDA regulations that require the dining car to be thoroughly cleaned before arrival in Chicago.
After a three-minute stop at Fort Madison, Iowa, where we arrived at 11:55 a.m., I watched as we crossed the massive double-deck, double-track bridge over the Mississippi River. It was interesting to note that the western side of the river (presumably, the location of the shipping channel) was clear of ice, while the eastern side was completely frozen. Then, I proceeded to the dining car for lunch.
I was seated opposite an Amtrak maintenance employee who boarded the train in Kansas City and was headed to Chicago. He confirmed that, beginning last November, Amtrak moved the servicing of the Southwest Chief from the Kansas City station to the yard in DeSoto, located about 30 miles west of Kansas City. He also explained that, at the DeSoto yard, the RoadRailers are first removed from the train, and then the maintenance people are allotted 20 minutes to inspect the train. For lunch, I had the same sandwich that I did yesterday, and got a fruit plate for dessert.
The last call for lunch was made about 12:40 p.m., which I found to be not at all unreasonable (unlike my experience on the Crescent, where the one call for lunch is sometimes made as early as 11:00 a.m.). As I finished my meal, I watched as we entered the newly-constructed crossovers between the BN and AT&SF lines at Cameron Jct. Since the summer of 1996, Amtrak has used the ex-CB&Q line from Galesburg to Chicago. In addition to being slightly shorter than the ex-AT&SF route, this permits Amtrak to consolidate its operations at one station in Galesburg (formerly, the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief stopped at different stations).
As I returned to my room at 12:55 p.m., we made a brief stop at Galesburg. Although our stop lasted for only about a minute, the conductor stepped off the train from my car, and this afforded me the opportunity to step off and take a picture.
Soon afterwards, a man walked over to my room and asked if I was Daniel Chazin. When I replied in the affirmative, he said that we know each other. He was John Mills, Jr., whose father had worked for Amtrak for many years (with his final position being Senior Quality Control Inspector for the Superliner II cars), and now serves on the board of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. John Jr. had been the ticket agent in Topeka, but he was "bumped" due to seniority, and now fills in on a temporary basis for agents at Newton, Topeka and Garden City. He was riding from Kansas City to Chicago, and had printed out a copy of the manifest for the train. He recognized my name (probably from my participation in All-Aboard), and decided to come over and say hello! This was an unexpected but delightful bonus. John invited me back to his room in the rear sleeper, where he gave me his copy of the manifest (which permitted me, for the first time, to copy down the numbers of the three rear RoadRailers which I had not been able to record in Albuquerque). We talked for a while, and I promised to send John a copy of the story of this trip. During my visit with John, we made brief stops at Princeton and Mendota.
After making a brief visit to the lounge car (which, by this time, was largely deserted), I returned to my room and started to pack up my belongings. We made only a brief stop at Naperville to discharge a few passengers, and then we proceeded ahead to our final destination, Chicago Union Station. At 3:28 p.m., on the wye just southwest of the station, we stopped for four minutes to drop off all our freight cars and RoadRailers, and we began our back-up move to the station at 3:36 p.m. Finally, at 3:46 p.m., -- nearly half an hour early -- we made our final stop on Track 20 at Union Station.
I unloaded my luggage from the train and walked down the platform to the station. My car was the next-to-last passenger car on the train, and with all freight cars having been removed, I had only a very short distance to walk along the platform before reaching the station. Since he had not performed any services for me -- not even taking luggage off the train upon our arrival in Chicago -- I did not offer any tip to my attendant.
I went straight over to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I made several phone calls and arranged with my cousin Aaron that we would be taking the 5:30 p.m. Metra train to Edgebrook. Then I plugged in my computer and signed online to check my accumulated e-mail from the last two days. Before I knew it, it was time to purchase my ticket for the Metra train.
When I arrived at Track 15 at 5:20 p.m., there was a large crowd waiting for the Metra Fox Lake train. An announcement was made that the incoming train had been delayed and would arrive in five minutes. Sure enough, at 5:25 p.m., the incoming train pulled into the station. I don't know how everyone managed to get on the train in the short time available (after waiting for a considerable number of incoming passengers to detrain), but somehow our train departed at its scheduled time of 5:30 p.m.
My trip on the Southwest Chief was quite pleasant, if uneventful. The rather lackadaisical attitude of the attendant in my sleeper was compensated for by the very positive attitude of the attendants in the dining car. The dreary weather and rather boring scenery on the second day of the trip was more than made up by the decent weather and wonderful scenery we experienced yesterday. And despite our lateness in departing Los Angeles, we arrived in Chicago half an hour early! All in all, I definitely enjoyed my trip on the Southwest Chief.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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