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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Southwest Chief

It's about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 14, 2002, and we have just arrived at the Amtrak station in Raton, New Mexico, where we will be boarding Train #3, the Southwest Chief, on our way to Flagstaff, Arizona. We have successfully completed our trek at the Philmont Scout Ranch - which had to be modified because of our day-late arrival at Philmont, as a result of an eight-hour delay we experienced on the Lake Shore Limited traveling from New York to Chicago - and now will be hiking down the Grand Canyon. We left Philmont about 9:10 a.m., arriving in Raton 40 minutes later, then stopped for about half an hour at a Raton supermarket to buy some additional food for our trip. Another Philmont group, bound for Los Angeles, had arrived at Raton just before us.

Since Raton is now a fully staffed station, passengers are encouraged to check large and bulky items. I walked into the "station" (actually, a trailer recently placed adjacent to the historic Santa Fe station, with just about enough room for a ticket counter) and first obtained a ticket for Josh, for whom I had previously purchased a Raton-Flagstaff ticket over the Internet. I then talked to the agent about checking our backpacks (and several food boxes). First, I raised the possibility of checking some of our backpacks (which we would not be needing for the remainder of our trip) directly to New York, but the agent said that unless we were traveling on the same train with the baggage, we would have to send the items as "express," at an additional charge. So I abandoned that idea. However, the agent did encourage us to check our backpacks and boxes to Flagstaff. She provided me both with 18 baggage checks and with special yellow tags reading "group." I arranged for the boys to attach these tags to our backpacks and then move all of these items to the front of the platform, where the baggage car would be spotted. All of our small, personal items were then moved to the rear of the platform, from where we would be boarding the train.

As can be imagined, this process was rather time-consuming. Not until about 11:15 a.m. had I finished making sure that all of our equipment was in the right place to be put aboard the train. I was asked to send four boys to the front of the platform to assist in loading our backpacks onto the train, with the remaining members of our group being directed to the rear of the platform.

In the meantime, I started talking to the agent (actually, there were two Amtrak agents on duty at Raton this morning). She told me that she was initially laid off, several months ago, when Amtrak reduced their staffing of many smaller stations served only by long-distance trains. However, due to the problems that Amtrak experienced with large Boy Scout groups arriving at and departing from Raton without the availability of checked baggage service, Amtrak reconsidered its decision, and she was rehired. Interestingly, the agent on duty when we arrived in Raton a week and a half ago was now on vacation.

About 11:20 a.m., one of the agents drove the station's baggage cart to the area where the baggage would be loaded on the train, thus indicating that our train would soon be arriving. At 11:30 a.m., I heard the train rounding the curve into the station. I took a picture of the train and then quickly recorded the consist as the train came by. Today's Southwest Chief is pulled by five engines - one more than was on our train from Chicago. Two Genesis engines are in the lead, followed by "Pepsi-Can" engine #517, now painted in the "Phase Four" scheme, and in turn followed by two more Genesis engines. The remainder of the passenger consist included a crew dorm, two sleepers, a diner, a lounge car, a coach/smoker, three coaches, and another sleeper in the rear. All of the equipment is Superliner I vintage.

As might be expected, about 60 Boy Scouts bound for Philmont detrained from the Southwest Chief, and our group, along with the Scout group bound for Los Angeles, boarded. In addition, a number of "regular" passengers were waiting to board the train (including several who arrived on the connecting bus from Denver). Thus, the boarding process took quite a while. All of the Scouts were directed to board the first coach, the one with the smoking section on the lower level. Finally, at 11:43 a.m., we pulled out of the station. We were 15 minutes late, but the long station stop was necessitated by the large number of passengers boarding and detraining.

The attendant asked all of us to take adjacent seats, but I succeeded in keeping two seats for myself, right next to the stairway in the middle of the car. (Unfortunately, some smoke from the smoking area on the lower level found its way up the stairway, but overall, I felt that being able to keep the two seats in this location was worth the nuisance of the smoke.) After the conductor came through to collect tickets, I walked to the end of the rear coach. I found that all four coaches had people sitting in almost every pair of seats, but none was full. The last car was assigned exclusively to passengers bound for Los Angeles, but the other cars had passengers for various destinations.

As we departed Raton, I noticed large clouds of black smoke beside our train. It was quite apparent that the smoke was coming from one of our engines; when I got a clearer view later on, I noticed that it was coming from engine #517 - the one older engine in our consist.

As we passed Colmar, I noticed a semaphore moving to its crosswise position, indicating the passage of our train. This ex-Santa Fe line is, I believe, unique as being the only line on which Amtrak trains operate that still uses semaphores as active signals. The reason for this is that this line is a secondary main line of the railroad, used very little by freight trains, and thus it does not warrant substantial capital expenditures for signal upgrading. There are a number of additional semaphores along this line, and these semaphores are a particularly interesting feature of this route.

Our next stop was Las Vegas, N.M., where we arrived at 1:28 p.m. There is a very attractive station here, which seems to be open to the public, although it is not manned by an agent. Adjacent to the station is a large building known as "The Castaneda." It is a former Fred Harvey House, and once was a first-class hotel. For many years, though, the building has been closed and boarded up. One can only hope that this building will eventually be rehabilitated and restored to a productive use. One passenger got off at Las Vegas, and three got on. When we departed Las Vegas at 1:30 p.m., we were 22 minutes late.

Two of the passengers who boarded in Las Vegas sat directly behind me. They were a grandfather and grandson who live in California and were returning from a visit to New Mexico, where the grandfather grew up. He mentioned to me that, at one time, he worked for the Santa Fe Railroad as an agent in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and that his grandmother worked during World War II as the station agent in Rowe - a small community on the Santa Fe line east of Lamy.

As we went around the well-known double reverse curves east of Lamy, I was able to ascertain that our consist included 10 express cars and 11 RoadRailers. As we passed through Glorieta Canyon, Patrick, the lounge car attendant, made some very informative announcements regarding the history of this area, which was the most westerly battlefield of the Civil War. For our trip through Apache Canyon, where the train snakes through a very narrow passage - with the cliffs coming within a foot or two of the train - I moved to the lounge car, where the upper curved windows provide the best view of this scenic feature.

We arrived in Lamy at 3:14 p.m. Lamy features an attractive stucco station, still staffed by an agent. (However, the adjacent "Legal Tender Saloon," mentioned as a noteworthy feature in various guides, is now boarded up.) Quite a number of people were waiting to board the train here, so I stepped off the train upon our arrival, went into the station building, and walked down the platform. Several Scouts from my group also stepped off the train here. Our stop here lasted for eight minutes, and when we departed at 3:22 p.m., we were 25 minutes late. However, there is about 40 minutes of make-up time built into our schedule between Lamy and Albuquerque, so it seems that we may very well arrive in Albuquerque on time.

But that was not to be. At 4:00 p.m., at milepost 875.4 (Nueve), we pulled into a siding to permit the eastbound Train #4 to pass us. Train #4 was running late; had it been on time, the meet would have taken place east of Lamy. The eastbound train passed us at 4:12 p.m., but we did not move ahead until 4:27 p.m. And we did not start moving at track speed until 4:32 p.m. We had lost over half an hour due to this meet, and would now be late in our arrival at Albuquerque.

In the meantime, I walked into the lounge car, where I noticed a movie being shown. Earlier in the afternoon, I observed cartoons being shown in the lounge car, and I find these kind of videos to be annoying and inappropriate for daytime showing in the lounge car, which should be devoted to sightseeing during daylight hours. But now, a different type of video was being shown. It was about the Navajo Code Talkers, who used their native language during World War II to facilitate secure communications among the various American military troops in the Pacific. We were about to traverse the land of the Navajo, so that the subject of the video directly related to what we were about to see from the train. I walked down to the lower level of the lounge car to see the remainder of this inspiring film, which noted that the Navajo Code Talkers were only recently recognized for their valuable contributions to the war effort. At the conclusion of the video, we noticed three girls sitting at the table in front of us. We started talking to them, and they confirmed that they were members of the Navajo tribe. In response to a question, one of the girls stated that her grandfather and several of her uncles were Code Talkers during World War II. The presence of these Navajo tribe members on the train added a special dimension to the experience of viewing this video. For once, I was grateful that Amtrak had chosen such an appropriate video to be shown at this time on the Southwest Chief.

We finally arrived in Albuquerque at 4:57 p.m., ten minutes late. Since we would be here for some time, passengers were encouraged to step off the train onto the platform. Of course, I took advantage of this opportunity. I first noticed that a magnificent, new Mission-style Alvarado Transportation Center had recently been completed adjacent to the Amtrak station. A sign indicated that it would be an "intermodal" transportation center, and one would assume that rail would be one of those modes. But that does not appear to be the case. The transportation center, which apparently serves only buses, is fenced off from the Amtrak station, and Amtrak still uses an Amshack - an unattractive, shabby old building which was formerly used for express or freight. After making a few phone calls from a pay phone on the platform, I walked down to the rear of the train to record the numbers of the express cars (although I did not attempt to record the numbers of the RoadRailers, which were located far beyond the end of the platform). Next, I walked to the front of the train, where I noticed that the power cables were being cut off from both ends of engine #517. An Amtrak employee confirmed what I had assumed - that engine #517 was being taken off the train. He explained that this engine would be used as the Albuquerque switcher, replacing engine #518.

After a while, I reboarded the train. It seems that the removal of engine #517 took quite some time, and it was not until 5:52 p.m. that the HEP was turned on again. I expected us to start moving very soon afterwards, but that was not to be the case. On the scanner, I heard that a defective brake shoe was found on one of the bogies supporting the RoadRailers, and that it had to be replaced.

It seems that the attendants were advised of this problem, and at 6:04 p.m., an announcement was made that the train will be delayed for at least another 20 minutes, due to servicing of equipment, and that passengers are again welcome to step off onto the platform for fresh air. Many passengers - including several Scouts from my group - did take advantage of this opportunity, and some headed into town to purchase ice cream from a nearby store.

As it turned out, though, the replacement of the defective brake shoe was a rather simple matter, and at 6:11 p.m., an "all-aboard" call was made on the platform. Apparently realizing that some passengers had detrained in the expectation that they would have at least 20 minutes before our train would be departing, the conductor instructed the engineer to blow his whistle as a warning of our imminent departure. A second and third whistle was blown for the benefit of those "yahoos" (to use the words of the conductor) who might not have heard it the first time. Seven Scouts - including four from my group - soon came running to the train, and finally the last passenger boarded the train, and we departed at 6:18 p.m., still six minutes shy of the original 20-minute period announced by the attendant.

At Albuquerque, a Native American guide boarded the train to present a commentary from Albuquerque to Gallup. The guide, Gerald Pinto, mentioned to me that his program was presented by a direct agreement with Amtrak, without involvement of the Trails and Rails Program of the National Park Service. This time, instead of giving an oral presentation over the public address system in the lounge car, Gerald showed a video which concentrated on archeological studies of Native American dwellings. At the conclusion of the video, he distributed to those interested a short quiz on information that had been covered in the video. Several of us took the quiz, and soon Gerald told me that I, along with Avi (one of the Scouts in my group), were the two winners, and we each won a small "dreamcatcher" as a prize.

While watching the video on the Native American dwellings, I began hearing on the scanner various communications relating to the crew dorm car on the train, Car #39029. It seems that the car had been shaking laterally, to the extent that the crew was concerned that it might derail! When the train operated at 70 miles per hour, the car's shaking became very pronounced, but it rode much better when the train's speed was limited to about 55 miles per hour. The conductor was asked to call Amtrak's mechanical department on his cell phone. At first, reception was poor, but he did finally manage to get through to them around Grants, N.M. The response was that the car has been "written up" since last October 15th(!), that it is scheduled to be removed from the consist in Los Angeles, and that the car must be brought to Los Angeles, even if it means that the train has to operate at 55 miles per hour all the way. Obviously, it is quite shocking that Amtrak would permit a car to remain in such poor condition for this length of time, and the speed restriction that our train is now subjecting itself to will probably result in further delays.

At one point, I mentioned to Patrick, the lounge car attendant, what I had heard on the scanner regarding the defective condition of the crew dorm car. He responded by telling me that I should not be divulging to other passengers what I heard on the scanner regarding this car. Patrick then took his break, and headed to the crew dorm car, where he presumably informed the conductor that I was listening to the scanner. A few minutes later, the conductor came by and asked me not to talk to fellow passengers about the crew car, so as not to cause a panic among everyone on the train. I assured him that I had no intention of doing so. For the rest of the trip, I tried to be circumspect in my conversations with fellow passengers regarding the problems with the crew car.

Subsequently, the engineer decided to experiment by increasing the speed of the train to 70 miles per hour, and a crew member reported that the car was swaying again. I'm not sure whether the speed was subsequently decreased, but we arrived at Gallup at 8:54 p.m. Our trip from Albuquerque to Gallup had taken two hours and 36 minutes, only 13 minutes more than the scheduled time. Somehow, our restricted speed did not significantly affect our running time between Albuquerque and Gallup. An announcement was made that passengers not detraining at Gallup should not step off the train here, so I did not attempt to get off, even though I knew that there would be an inspection of the crew car here which would obviously take some time. (In light of my visit from the conductor, it is indeed possible that the announcement about passengers not stepping off the train was aimed primarily at me!) Our stop here ended up lasting for 17 minutes, and when we departed at 9:11 p.m., we were one hour and 28 minutes late.

West of Winslow, the scanner was strangely silent. Other than a few brief communications with the dispatcher and several defect detectors, nothing was said over the scanner. It is possible that the problem with the crew dorm car had been resolved during the inspection, with the agreement of all that an appropriate speed restriction would enable the safe operation of the train. But it is also possible (indeed, more probable) that the engineer had been informed that a passenger was listening to the train communications on the scanner, and that he should be very circumspect as to what he says regarding the crew dorm problem. At one point, I heard the conductor advise the dispatcher that we were proceeding at 70 miles an hour. Apparently, the crew of our train had finally determined that it was safe to operate the train at that speed. Subsequently, I heard from another source that our speed had been limited to 65 miles per hour. In any event, it is clear that our train could not achieve its maximum authorized track speed of 79 miles per hour.

It was now getting rather late. Several of the boys were hanging out in the lounge car, while the others were sleeping in our coach. Since it was after 10:00 p.m., Amtrak's policy is not to make announcements of station stops, to avoid disturbing sleeping passengers. But under these circumstances, it is the responsibility of the coach attendants to wake up all passengers scheduled to get off at the next stop and ask them to prepare to detrain. Our coach attendant, though, was nowhere to be found. About 11:15 p.m., I noticed that we were approaching Flagstaff. So I walked into the lounge car and told everyone there from our group to return to our coach, and then woke up those members of our group who were sleeping in our coach.

When we came to a stop at the Flagstaff station at 11:23 p.m., just over two hours late, I walked down to the lower level of our car to detrain. Again, the attendant was nowhere to be found, even though our group was scheduled to detrain here at Flagstaff. So, after waiting for a few seconds, I opened the door myself and put out the footstool for passengers to detrain. In the absence of attendants to guide them, passengers on the platform tried to board our car. I tried to dissuade them, both to enable our group and other passengers to detrain without interference from boarding passengers, and because I didn't know in which cars the attendants would have wanted these passengers to sit. Finally, after a minute or two, the attendant appeared.

The performance by our coach attendant was among the worst that I've seen on Amtrak. Waking up passengers prior to their stops and opening car doors on arrival at each station is the bare minimum responsibility of each car attendant, but our attendant failed even in this regard. (I might add that, earlier in the ride, I observed the other attendants rebuking our car's coach attendant for her poor job in assigning boarding passengers seats and placing seat checks in the overhead racks. One wonders why Amtrak is now hiring poorly qualified people as coach attendants, while other Amtrak employees are being laid off.)

Our group all detrained and, after a six-minute stop, our train departed at 11:29 p.m. We all walked into the station and waited for a few minutes until the agent was ready to deliver our checked baggage. We showed the agent all of our baggage checks, and he gave us all of our belongings which we had checked.

We now were ready to go to our motel, the Inn Suites. I was told that they would provide transportation to the motel, so I called them, and they said that they would send a taxi to the station. A regular taxi soon appeared. Of course, it was not possible to fit 12 people with backpacks and boxes in one taxi, but the taxi driver agreed to make as many trips as necessary to transport all of us to the motel. We ended up making three trips, with seven people in the taxi for the last trip!

Despite our two-hour-late arrival in Flagstaff and the poor service provided by our coach attendant, our trip from Raton to Flagstaff was quite pleasant, and we are now looking forward to our hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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