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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Southwest Chief

It's about 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday, July 2, 2002, and we've just arrived at Union Station in Chicago, where we will be boarding Train #3, the Southwest Chief, on our way to Raton, N.M. and the Philmont Scout Ranch. We had hoped to catch yesterday's Southwest Chief but, unfortunately, our connection from New York, the Lake Shore Limited, arrived in Chicago over eight hours late, and we missed our train. Amtrak put us up at the Quality Inn in downtown Chicago, and although the boys were upset at the delays we had encountered on the way, the night at the hotel ended up being, in a sense, a pleasant surprise that partially made up for the disappointment experienced when we missed our connection. The hotel was not exactly of five-star quality, but it was reasonably decent, and a very welcome feature was the presence just across the street of a 24-hour Walgreen's. One of the boys didn't feel right when he woke up at 4:30 a.m., so he walked across the street and purchased some over-the-counter medication!

Since we had no particular plans for the day, I decided to let the boys sleep a little late. I woke up about 6:00 a.m., signed online with my computer, and walked over to Walgreen's to purchase some milk and orange juice for breakfast. I didn't start waking people up until about 9:30 a.m. Around 11:00 a.m., we went down to the lobby, checked out and went over to Union Station. Paul and I took a cab to the station with our various food boxes, while the boys walked over with their backpacks.

When we arrived at the station, we brought all of our equipment over to the waiting area. I remained there with Etan Bukiet, while the others left to do a little sightseeing. I used the time to make a number of phone calls, including one to the Philmont Scout Ranch, where I was informed of the changes that would be made to our itinerary. I also checked five boxes of food that we had carried with us to Chicago. I had attempted to check these boxes in New York, but the agent there refused to accept them on the ground that they contained food (all of which was both dry and non-perishable). The agent in Chicago did not inquire as to the contents of the boxes, so I was able to check them without any problem. Finally, I turned in all of our tickets so that they could be reissued for today's train. Instead of giving us new tickets, the agent simply wrote the new date on the tickets, with a note that we had missed the connection from yesterday's Train #49. However, one boy - Noah - had reserved a sleeper on yesterday's train. He now decided that he did not need the sleeper (he might not have been able to get one on today's train, even if he wanted to), so he got a refund for the sleeper and was issued a coach ticket for today's train.

I waited until about 2:45 p.m. before exchanging the tickets, as Noah was one of the boys who had left to do some sightseeing, and I assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that I would not be able to exchange his ticket unless he was present with photo ID. I had expected the departure track of our train to be announced by now, since we were scheduled to depart at 3:15 p.m., and was somewhat concerned that it had not yet been announced. But when I returned to the departure lounge at about 3:00 p.m., everyone was already lined up to board the train, and boarding commenced on Track 24 about five minutes later. Now that we had checked some of our backpacks and most of our boxes, we were able to carry our remaining items (mostly backpacks) to the train in one trip. Our group was assigned to the third coach from the rear of the train, which happened to be a baggage-coach, and the attendant suggested that we put all of our backpacks in the baggage section of the lower level. We then went upstairs, where we took seats in the front part of the car.

About 3:12 p.m., I went downstairs in the hope of being able to walk down the platform in order to record the consist. Much to my surprise, the platform was entirely empty! Somehow, the entire train had been loaded in about ten minutes, and we were ready to proceed! And, indeed, we pulled out of the station precisely on time at 3:15 p.m.

As I subsequently discovered, today's Southwest Chief is pulled by four Genesis engines (one of which was the trailing engine on the Lake Shore Limited that we took to Chicago) and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm, two sleepers, a diner, a Superliner I sightseer lounge, four Superliner I coaches (including a baggage-coach and a coach with a smoking section), and another sleeper at the rear of the train. I walked through the four coaches and found that the last car was designated for Kansas City passengers, the first car was for Los Angeles passengers, and the two middle cars were for passengers destined to all other stations. Only the last car had been reconditioned, with outlets provided at all seats, and every pair of seats in that car was occupied by at least one person. The second coach from the front (to which we were assigned) was almost completely full, as was the first coach. However, most seats were unoccupied in the third coach. Given the fact that quite a number of passengers from yesterday's Late Shore had to be reaccommodated on our train, I expected our train to be quite full, and I was a little surprised that it was not. I was also surprised that we ended up being the only Boy Scout group on the train.

As is the practice, our train pulled out of the station into the yard and then stopped for 25 minutes to attach a long string of express cars and RoadRailers. We started moving again at 3:44 p.m., and proceeded west along the ex-CB&Q line. Since there were no outlets near my seat, and my computer's batteries had died, I moved to the Sightseer Lounge car, where I was able to plug the computer into the outlet at the never-used attendant station on the upper level of the car.

Suddenly, at 4:01 p.m., our train went into emergency and came to an abrupt stop just east of the Western Springs station. I listened to the scanner as the conductor went out to inspect the train. (From the ringing of bells that I heard on the scanner, it appeared that we were blocking a grade crossing.) Sure enough, a low-hanging hose between two RoadRailer bogies had broken apart and had to be reattached. To do so, the conductor had to crawl under our train, which was on the middle track of the Burlington three-track mainline. During this time, we were passed on both sides, first by a Metra commuter train, and then by a BNSF freight train. The conductor was under our train when one of these trains came by - something that I would not want to do!

We started moving again at 4:18 p.m. and proceeded to our next stop, Naperville, where we arrived at 4:33 p.m. When we departed four minutes later, we were 21 minutes late. Naperville is a suburban stop, just east of Aurora, the terminus of the Metra commuter line (Amtrak trains cannot stop in Aurora because the commuter trains use a stub-end station below the grade of the through main line).

Once past Aurora, we pass through a flat, agricultural area. Around this time, the lounge car opened for service, and there was a long line of passengers waiting for service. At one point, the line snaked all the way up the stairs to the upper level!

Our next station stop was Mendota, where the attractive brick station has been refurbished and converted to a railroad museum, with several pieces of rail equipment displayed nearby. Several passengers boarded in Mendota, but no one got on or off at the following station, Princeton. There, the train came to a brief stop, and once the conductor was satisfied that there was no one waiting to board, he immediately gave the "highball" signal, and we moved on.

I did not attempt to detrain at either of these stations, but I did step off the train briefly when we arrived at Galesburg. I remained in the lounge car for most of this time, keeping my computer plugged in and working on these memoirs.

About 7:00 p.m., an announcement was made that a movie would soon be shown in the Sightseer Lounge car. That was my cue to vacate the car and move back to my seat. Nearly all the boys who were part of our group wanted to see the movie, so they remained in the lounge car. I watched as we began to parallel the Mississippi River and then crossed it on a combination rail-highway truss bridge. When we stopped at Fort Madison, Iowa at 7:36 p.m., I stepped off the train to take a picture. Three passengers detrained here, and about eight passengers boarded. When we pulled out of Fort Madison at 7:41 p.m., we were 19 minutes late. We hadn't made up the time we lost due to our emergency stop right outside of Chicago, but we hadn't lost any more time, either.

Last night, during our dealings with the passenger services representatives at Union Station, Paul requested that everyone in our group be provided with a free meal in the dining car this evening to help make up for the inconvenience that we were subjected to by reason of the late arrival of Train #49 and our consequent missing of our connection to Train #3. After some give-and-take, it seems, the request was granted, and Paul received a voucher good for 13 meals on the train tonight.

At first, we were informed that all sittings in the dining car, with the exception of the "last call," were filled. However, Jon traded reservations with two people who had reserved the 8:30 p.m. sitting. When that sitting was called, it turned out that it was not full and, as a result, all members of our group ate dinner at that sitting. Most of the Scouts got the vegetarian pasta. They seemed quite pleased with the free dinner, and thought that the food was very good.

Soon after we departed La Plata at 8:50 p.m., it got dark. I remained in our coach, which was very quiet, revising these memoirs. After they finished dinner, most of the Scouts went to the lounge car, where they watched the second feature movie of the evening. Eventually, my computer's batteries died, so I plugged the computer into the outlet on the upper level of the lounge car, then returned to my seat and rested for a little while. About 10:30 p.m., the movie ended, and the boys returned to our car.

At 10:55 p.m., we arrived at the Kansas City station. This station is an unattractive modern facility located adjacent to a parking garage and under a highway underpass. The last time I went through here by train, there were two active tracks, with a long platform between them. But, as I found out by questioning an Amtrak employee at the station, the platform between these tracks is currently being rebuilt. As a result, the only track that can be used is the one nearest the station, and that track can be accessed only for a few car-lengths from the side nearest the station. Thus, we had to make two stops here, the first for the sleeping car passengers, and the second for coach passengers. I stepped off the train for a few minutes and briefly walked into the station building, where I met a young man wearing a Scout uniform who was, of course, on his way to Philmont. He was headed there to work, and was not part of any unit.

Our stop in Kansas City lasted for 29 minutes - significantly longer than the ten minutes set forth in the timetable - and when we departed Kansas City at 11:24 p.m., we were 43 minutes late. I now went down to the lower level of the lounge car, where I sat at a table for a few minutes and updated these memoirs. I then walked to the rear of the train, where I found that the rear coach - used exclusively for passengers detraining at Kansas City - was nearly empty, with only a handful of passengers who boarded at Kansas City having been assigned to that coach. There were also a number of vacant pairs of seats in the third coach. Had I been traveling alone, I probably would have moved to the rear coach, so that I would have two seats to myself for the rest of the trip. But I knew that, as a leader of a Boy Scout group, such a move on my part would not have been viewed favorably by the attendants, so I remained at my seat in the second coach and tried to get some sleep.

I discovered that I was able to rest in a close-to-horizontal position even with only one seat to myself. I was awake when we arrived at the Argentine Yard, just west of Kansas City, where we stopped for 14 minutes to refuel the train, but I think that I fell asleep soon afterwards. It seems that several freight cars were added to our train west of Kansas City, as defect detectors were now announcing that we had 126 axles (previously, we had only 120). I slept through our next stop, at Lawrence, but woke up about 3:00 a.m. to see that our train had come to a halt, seemingly for no reason. I turned on the scanner, but heard absolutely nothing, and I didn't see any crew member who could have explained what was going on. Finally, about 4:15 a.m., we started moving again. The conductor now walked by, and he explained that we had been delayed for over two hours by a BNSF freight train that was stopped in front of us for recrewing. Almost immediately, we pulled into the Topeka station, and when we left there at 4:20 a.m., we were two hours and 43 minutes late. I subsequently heard on the scanner that we had lost two hours and 12 minutes waiting for that freight train to move.

I fell asleep again for awhile, but woke up for good about 6:30 a.m., as we were approaching Newton, Kansas. I had the chance to step off the train during our four-minute stop at this classic brick station, and even was able to briefly step into the station building. Somewhat to my surprise, the waiting area consisted of chairs arranged around large tables. When we departed Newton at 6:40 a.m., we were just over three hours late. Our rail route west of Newton, over Raton Pass, is used by very few freight trains, so it is unlikely that we will encounter another "outlawed" freight train for the rest of the way.

I returned to my seat, where several Scouts informed me that our car was much too cold. It was, indeed, rather cool in the car, but I had solved that problem by putting on a fleece jacket that I had brought with me, and by covering myself with my sleeping bag while sleeping. Michael told me that he was not feeling well, so I let him borrow my sleeping bag to keep warm. Then I went with my computer to the rear coach (a reconditioned Superliner I coach, with electric outlets adjacent to all the seats), sat down at an unoccupied pair of seats, plugged in my computer, and updated these memoirs.

At 7:15 a.m., we stopped briefly at Hutchinson, which features a modern brick building built by the Santa Fe Railroad. Soon afterwards, I put my name on a waiting list for breakfast. A few minutes later, all those whose names were on the list were requested to come to the dining car. I was seated at a table with Noam Shabani, one of the Scouts in my group. Opposite us was a man from Ohio who was on his way to Williams, where he would be taking a train to the Grand Canyon. He had come from Akron, Ohio on the Three Rivers, and was traveling in a sleeper, which he was quite pleased with. I had my usual Rice Krispies and fruit for breakfast. While eating breakfast, at 8:53 a.m., we stopped in Dodge City. The sprawling brick station here had largely been abandoned for many years, but a restoration effort is in progress, with much work already having been completed, and workmen busy at work as we passed by.

After breakfast, I walked back through the lounge car, where cartoons were being shown. I returned to my seat in the rear coach and fell asleep for a few minutes. We continued passing through a flat agricultural area, with small villages every few miles. The station at Garden City, our next stop, was also being restored, with a wrought-iron fence having been installed between the tracks and the parking lots adjacent to the station. We were still three hours late when we departed Garden City at 9:44 a.m.

Soon, we crossed into Colorado, where we moved our watches back one hour for Mountain Time. Our next stop, Lamar, features an historic brick station which has been beautifully restored and now serves as the Colorado Welcome Center. A steam locomotive is on display nearby. When we departed Lamar at 10:04 a.m. after a brief stop, we were three hours and six minutes late.

West of Lamar, an announcement was made that we were passing the John Martin Dam and Reservoir, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, to the right of our train. We noticed that the level of the reservoir appeared to be extremely low, due to the recent drought that the area has experienced.

Prior to our arrival at La Junta, an announcement was made that this was a service stop and that passengers could step off the train if they wished, but that they should stay on the platform and be prepared to reboard at a moment's notice. When we arrived at La Junta at 10:52 a.m., I detrained and walked down to the front of the train to record the consist. Incredible as it might seem, this was the first opportunity I had to record the entire passenger consist of this train! An "all-aboard" signal was given at 11:00 a.m., so I reboarded the train at the front sleeper and walked back to my coach through the train. This gave me the opportunity to walk through the sleepers, and it seemed that every room in the front two sleepers was filled. We spent 19 minutes at La Junta (instead of the scheduled ten minutes), but because of the significant make-up time built into our schedule here, when we departed La Junta at 11:11 a.m., we were just under two hours late.

When I returned to my seat in the rear coach, I was visited by Ryan, a railfan from Los Angeles who was coming home from a trip to Boston. He mentioned to me that, prior to our arrival at Kansas City last night, we had to wait for the eastbound Southwest Chief to clear the station. That train, which had been scheduled to depart Kansas City at 8:21 a.m. that morning, was running over 14 hours late!

Around noon, I decided to eat some lunch. I took a can of tuna and some crackers from the food that we had brought along with us, and brought it to the lower level of the lounge car, where I purchased a bottle of apple juice from Patrick, the lounge car attendant, and ate the meal at one of the tables provided. We lost about ten minutes due to a restrictive signal just north of the Trinidad station, and when we departed Trinidad at 12:37 p.m., after a brief stop, we were two hours and ten minutes late.

The most interesting part of the ride - our winding climb up Raton Pass - was about to begin. I spent some time in the lounge car, whose bigger windows afforded a more panoramic view. After we reached the tunnel at the summit of Raton Pass, I moved back to my coach, where I finished getting all our belongings together and brought everything down to the lower level of the car.

We arrived at Raton, our destination, at 1:35 p.m. - just over two hours late. I promptly detrained, with my two small backpacks, and walked over to the Philmont bus that was waiting for us, leaving everyone else to take the rest of our belongings off the train. Then I walked back to our group, where I discovered that Ben, one member of our group, was missing. It seems that he was in the lounge car and didn't realize that we had already arrived in Raton! Someone was sent to get him, and he soon appeared and detrained.

I then went over to the agent who had unloaded all of our checked baggage onto an electric cart. He offered to drive the cart directly over to our waiting bus, where we compared our claim receipts against the numbers on the baggage checks. Michael stated that he was missing one of his bags, and it turned out that we had one baggage receipt for which there was no bag. Fortunately, that bag contained clothing that Michael was hoping to use for the Grand Canyon portion of the trip, so its absence would not be missed for now. The agent told us that he would investigate what happened to that bag, and I gave him our Philmont expedition number so that he could let us know its whereabouts. (The next day, the missing bag arrived in Philmont and was delivered to us. I'm not sure why it was not available for us when we arrived at Raton; perhaps it had remained on our train and was subsequently transferred to the next eastbound train for delivery to Raton.)

After a seven-minute stop, the Southwest Chief departed Raton at 1:42 p.m. I recorded the numbers of the eight express and MHC cars at the rear of the train, and of the one Superliner sleeper that was being deadheaded behind an express car. I also counted 10 RoadRailers, but by the time those cars passed, the train was going too fast for me to record their numbers. We all piled into the Philmont bus and were off to begin our high-adventure trek.

Our trip from Chicago to Raton on the Southwest Chief worked out quite well. The ride was quite pleasant, and although we arrived about two hours late, this delay did not cause us any major inconvenience. It was certainly a much more enjoyable trip than our ill-fated ride from New York to Chicago on the Late Shore!

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