Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Southwest Chief
and the NRHS Canyon Rails 2002 Convention Train
It's 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 21, 2002, and I've just arrived at the Los Angeles Union Station, where I will be boarding Train #4, the Southwest Chief, on my way to Williams Jct. to attend the 2002 Convention of the National Railway Historical Society.
My journey began today at about 8:50 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, when I left my home in Teaneck and drove to Kennedy Airport to catch an 11:30 a.m. JetBlue flight to Long Beach, California. I was accompanied by my friend Geraldine, who would be driving my car back to Teaneck. Amazingly, we did not hit any traffic, and we arrived at the airport about 9:30 a.m. JetBlue has just completed a new terminal of its own, and the check-in procedures also went very smoothly. The check-in line was quite short, and although I wasted about ten minutes because I had to accompany my one checked bag while it was being screened for explosives, there was no line at all at security, and I arrived at the gate about 9:50 a.m. Boarding began at 10:50 a.m. - 40 minutes before the scheduled departure of the flight - and we left the gate five minutes late at 11:35 a.m. The flight was completely full. I had brought along a sandwich, purchased earlier in the morning, for lunch, to supplement the rather meager snacks and beverages served onboard.
We landed at Long Beach Airport at about 2:05 p.m., 25 minutes early. As we taxied toward the terminal, I observed a small Art Deco building ahead, with a control tower on the roof. I assumed that this was some sort of historical relic that we would be passing on the way to the main terminal. To my surprise, we instead stopped right in front of that building -- a landmark structure, built in 1941 -- which was the main terminal! The only other commercial plane visible in the area was an American Airlines jet. And there were no jetways to connect the plane with the terminal. Rather, portable stairways are brought over to the plane, and passengers descend directly onto the landing field, where they are directed via portable stanchions to the outdoor baggage claim area -- a distance of only about 250 feet!
The whole procedure was what I would expect to find in some sort of hick town -- not at a major city such as Long Beach! I don't think I've ever seen any other commercial airport in the United States with such primitive facilities. But I must say that the small size of the airport has its advantages. The use of portable stairways permitted the plane to be unloaded from both the front and the rear, so that all passengers were able to get off in no more than five minutes. And my checked bag arrived in only 15 minutes from the time the plane had landed, with all bags delivered in no more than 20 minutes.
My next task was to determine where I could find a bus that would take me to the Blue Line light rail. I asked a security guard in front of the terminal, who first told me that he didn't think that there was any bus service to the airport! He then went around the corner to the security office, where he was informed that there was indeed regular bus service to the airport, with the bus stopping right across from the entrance to the terminal. After making a few phone calls, I walked over to the bus stop, where I found from a posted schedule that buses leave every half hour. I had missed the 2:26 p.m. southbound bus to the downtown Transit Center, and I'd have to wait for the 2:56 p.m. bus. So I took out my computer and started writing these memoirs.
The bus arrived precisely on time. When I told the driver that I wanted to go to the light rail, he told me that the fare would be $1.25, which includes a free transfer to the light rail! That low fare (it was actually lower than the $1.35 fare charged to ride the light rail itself!) would pay for my trip all the way to Los Angeles Union Station. Although only a handful of passengers were on board when I got on the bus at the airport, quite a few passengers boarded at subsequent stops.
After a 45-minute ride, we arrived at the Transit Mall in downtown Long Beach at 3:40 p.m. The light rail station was half a block away, and a three-car train (ironically, the cars have yellow stripes!) was waiting to depart. I walked over to the station and boarded the rear car of the train, which departed at 3:45 p.m. At each end, the line runs along streets, but for much of the way it follows a dedicated right of way, mostly parallel to and following railroad rights-of-way. For part of the route, it runs along Compton Boulevard, where the right-of way in the middle of the street is fenced in, with lights and gates at each grade crossing. A unique feature is at the very northern end of the line, where the Blue Line briefly enters an underground tunnel, to terminate at a junction with the Red Line.
We arrived at the end of the Blue Line at 4:40 p.m. I had some time before my Amtrak train was scheduled to depart, so I decided first to take the Red Line heavy-rail train to its western terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. My Red Line train came quite quickly, and it was a very short ride to the Wilshire and Western station, where I located a large, well-stocked Ralph's supermarket only half a block from the station, and purchased some food for the trip. I reboarded the Red Line at 5:40 p.m., when a train was ready to pull out, and took the train for a 13-minute ride to Union Station.
Upon arrival at Union Station, I went upstairs and obtained my ticket from a machine. I had previously purchased the ticket for $23.60 - a rock-bottom price for this 500-mile ride - from the Internet on Amtrak's Rail Sale. Then I made a few phone calls and waited for the track for the Southwest Chief to be posted on the departures board at 6:15 p.m. At this point, although most passengers for the train were still waiting behind a roped-off area, I decided to walk ahead through the tunnel to Track 11 (there is unrestricted access to the tunnel at Los Angeles Union Station, as Metrolink passengers must use it to access their trains, and it also provides access to the other entrance to the station). When I got to the track, the attendant informed me that coach passengers were not boarding yet. Soon, the other coach passengers arrived, and everyone was instructed to form a single line against the wall. Then boarding began, with each passenger being assigned to a particular car, based on his ultimate destination. I was assigned to Car 412, the second coach on the train, and told to take Seat #3, the first window seat on the left side. After storing my belongings, I walked down the platform to record the consist.
Today's Southwest Chief is pulled by four Genesis engines and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm, two sleepers, a diner, a Sightseer Lounge car, a coach with a smoking section on the lower level, two full coaches, a baggage/coach, and another sleeper. Unlike the situation in Chicago, where the express cars and RoadRailers are added to the train in the yard outside the station, in Los Angeles these cars are positioned on Track 12, on the opposite side of the platform from Track 11, where our train is boarding. Thus, I was able also to record the numbers of the 11 express cars and 12 RoadRailers that were going to be added to our train. After recording all of this information, I reboarded our train, and we pulled out of the station at 6:53 p.m. We pulled forward to clear the switch, then backed up onto the long string of express cars and RoadRailers on Track 12. Then, at 7:16 p.m., we pulled out of the station for the second time - this time, for good.
Seated next to me was a man from Erie, Pa. who was also bound for the NRHS convention in Williams. He was the delegate from his local chapter to the national group and, like me, would be riding both tomorrow's excursion to the Grand Canyon and the inbound rare-mileage trip back to Los Angeles on Sunday and Monday. Opposite me sat a man bound for San Bernardino with his wife who identified himself as the general passenger car inspector for the Santa Fe Railroad from 1962 to the advent of Amtrak in 1971. And on the seat behind him was Greg, a young man from Eugene, Oregon who had come from there on the Coast Starlight and San Joaquin trains and was also headed for the convention in Williams. But rather than riding the convention trains, he would be "chasing" the trains and photographing them, and then returning with his friends to Eugene. He, too, had been to Philmont! So the four of us had some interesting conversations.
On the way out of Los Angeles, we crossed over the new flyover at Redondo Junction, with only the turntable remaining from the old roundhouse -- once a special attraction of this route. We then stopped for about ten minutes near Hobart due to an apparent computer malfunction that triggered a penalty application of the brakes. Once that problem was fixed, we proceeded ahead.
I walked through the coaches, and found that while there were about 50 people in the rear coach (with almost all of them bound all the way to Chicago), the other three coaches were more than half empty, with a few passengers seated in the front of each car, and the remainder of the car entirely empty.
The batteries in my computer had died, and there was no electric plug adjacent to my seat. But I found an empty pair of seats next to an electric plug in the first coach, so I moved some of my belongings there, and remained there for most of the remainder of the trip. (At various times, conductors and attendants came by, but when I explained to them that I was getting off at Williams Jct. and was aware that I had to return to the coach behind me to detrain, they had no problem with my sitting in the front coach for now.) I was getting hungry, so I took out some of the food that I had purchased in Los Angeles and brought it to my new seat. My dinner this evening consisted of Vita marinated Atlantic salmon in dill sauce, Sara Lee honey wheat bagels, Tropicana orange-tangerine juice, and Hunt's chocolate pudding for dessert. It was not bad at all!
We arrived at our first stop, Fullerton, at 8:02 p.m. and departed six minutes later. I briefly stepped off the train here. Apparently, the engineer had expected to make two stops here, but the people boarding the rear sleeper managed to get on at the first stop, so the second stop became unnecessary.
Our next stop was Riverside. This is a new stop for Amtrak, and the train stops at the Riverside-Downtown Metrolink station, with no amenities for Amtrak passengers. I again stepped off the train during our three-minute stop here. About 20 minutes later, we arrived at San Bernardino, where several people from my car detrained. For whatever reason, these people chose to take Amtrak's Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, despite the longer running time than Metrolink and higher fare. A number of Metrolink train sets are stored adjacent to the large, rambling San Bernardino station, which is mostly boarded up, but still contains an Amtrak ticket office in its main section. Once again, I briefly stepped off the train here. Our stop in San Bernardino lasted for three minutes, and when we departed at 8:58 p.m., we were 29 minutes late.
It was now midnight Eastern Time, and I was getting tired, so I decided to stretch out on the pair of seats that I now occupied in the first coach and go to sleep. I must have slept through our scheduled station stop at Victorville, but was awake for the other three stops in the middle of the night - Barstow and Needles, California, and Kingman, Arizona. The Barstow station is now also being used by Greyhound, and there seemed to be quite a bit of activity at the station when we arrived there at 11:23 p.m. The adjacent Casa del Desierto, a former Fred Harvey House, appears to have been recently restored. I did not observe the station facilities in Needles, but the Kingman station is boarded up and unused. Passengers board at the adjacent grade crossing, which was deserted when we arrived at 3:07 a.m. Although there is a long platform at the station, the use of the grade crossing to board passengers meant that we had to make three stops here (including one for a crew change), and when we departed at 3:18 a.m., we were nearly an hour late. There is no make-up time built into the schedule between Los Angeles and Flagstaff, so any delay incurred en route cannot be made up. I knew, therefore, that we would be arriving in Williams Jct. at least an hour late. This did not concern me at all, though, as I had no desire to arrive there at the scheduled time of 4:35 a.m. Indeed, I hoped that we would be an hour or two late, so that I could arrive at my motel at a more reasonable hour.
At one point during the night, I moved over to the lounge car, which was entirely empty, and stretched out on a group of three seats. But I spent most of the time at my seat pair in the first coach, and did succeed in getting some sleep.
During our stop in Kingman, and after we departed, the HEP kept on going on and off. On the scanner, I heard the engineer ask the dispatcher permission to stop our train once we got through the canyon east of town so that the source of the problem could be checked out. I now was not all that sleepy, so I decided to update these memoirs. At 3:56 a.m., we finally came to a stop, and the HEP went off again. It soon went on again, and we started moving five minutes later. I subsequently heard the engineer inform the dispatcher that the HEP had been switched to a different unit, and we had no problems with the HEP for the rest of the trip.
I decided to get a little more sleep, and woke up about 5:10 a.m., just as it was starting to get light. Our scheduled arrival time at Williams Jct. was 4:35 a.m., and we were running about an hour late, so I knew that we would soon be arriving at my destination. I gathered my belongings and moved back to the second coach, from where I would be detraining.
We arrived at the Williams Jct. station at 5:38 a.m. Because of the short size of the platform, we had to make two stops - one for the sleeping car passengers, and the other for the coach passengers. There were four coach passengers detraining here - my seatmate from Erie, Greg from Eugene, myself, and William, an older man from South Carolina who was traveling throughout the United States and Canada on the 30-day joint Amtrak/VIA pass, and who would be stopping at Williams to visit the Grand Canyon.
The Williams Jct. station is literally situated in the middle of nowhere and consists of nothing more than a sign and a short asphalt platform. There is not even an Amshack shelter! (Actually, the Santa Fe Railroad had constructed a modern station at this location in the early 1960s, when it relocated its main line away from the City of Williams, but that station was demolished when passenger service to the Grand Canyon was discontinued in 1968.) All Amtrak trains are met by vans of the Grand Canyon Railway, which apparently is the only way to get to this "station." The rough dirt road leading to the station is not marked in any way, and at one point, a yellow sign warns that the road ahead is a "primitive" road. Greg was picked up by his friend at the station, but the van drivers indicated that the general public is not supposed to drive to the station. Our stop at Williams Jct. lasted for nine minutes, and when the train left at 5:47 a.m., it was one hour and 13 minutes late.
Our van took us to downtown Williams, where I was dropped off at the EconoLodge, where I had a reservation for the next three nights. But when I walked into the motel office, I discovered that not only would my room not be ready until 2:00 p.m., but there was no space even to store my luggage, as the store room was being used to store materials for new beds! So I walked through this sleepy old town and over to the Fray Marcos Hotel - the largest hotel in town, which is adjacent to the railroad station. On the way, I had the opportunity to see ATS&F steam engine #3751, parked adjacent to the station, which would be the power for our return trip to Los Angeles on Sunday and Monday.
The Fray Marcos is a first-class hotel, with a very nice lobby with comfortable seating, and more rustic seating, with tables, also available outdoors. After reading the complimentary newspapers provided, I went outside and took out some food for breakfast. I had orange-tangerine juice and chumus with pesto on a bagel. When I was finished eating, I checked my suitcase and one food bag at the Fray Marcos - where they were accepted without question, even though I was not staying at the hotel!
It was now about 7:30 a.m., so I walked outside, where I saw engine #3751 being moved over to the roundhouse at the outskirts of town. I then went across the street to make a phone call, and by the time I returned, the Convention ticket office in a Santa Fe caboose had opened. I picked up my ticket for the rare-mileage trip to Los Angeles, and also purchased a ticket for today's Convention trip to the Grand Canyon, for which I had not made a reservation. Next, I walked over to the Williams Middle School, where the Convention sponsored a talk by a group of women from Winslow who wear the uniforms of the Harvey Girls, who worked for the Fred Harvey Company. The presentation - which covered many aspects of the history of the Fred Harvey Company - was very interesting.
For my return to the station, I decided to take the convention shuttle bus for the fun of it (although it would have been much quicker to walk). Upon our arrival at the station, our trainset was already in place on the station track. Amtrak engines 4 and 7 were in the rear (to provide head-end power), and soon a matched A-B-B-A set of Alco diesel engines from the Grand Canyon Railroad was added to the front of the train. Boarding did not commence until about 12:15 p.m., so I used the time to eat lunch at a picnic table in front of the station. For lunch, I had a can of sardines with Louisiana hot sauce on a bagel, along with a can of soda, a cup of chocolate pudding, and some grapes.
For this trip, I was assigned to the car Royal Gorge. Although there were three coaches on the train, the demand for coach accommodations was very great, and they decided to use this car - which is really a lounge car - as a coach. It was explained to us that we lucked out being assigned to this car, as it will be used for first-class seating for the other trips. The car features curved couches and individual seats. I sat down at an individual seat that faced east. We departed a few minutes early, and by 12:36 p.m., we had cleared the limits of the Williams yard.
As I had figured from driving on the parallel highway, for most of the way, the line from Williams to the Grand Canyon is not particularly scenic, and there are few features of interest along the way. Coach passengers were allowed to walk through the cars on the train that were in service as coaches (which, at this point, I assumed included only my car and the three coaches to the rear), and the Dutch doors on the vestibules were opened. It was announced that passengers who wish to hang out of the Dutch doors must wear "eye protection," but ordinary eye glasses qualified in this regard (unlike the situation with the 614 steam train several years ago, where actual goggles were required). I walked through the cars a few times, and also spent some time hanging out of the vestibules, where the front of the train could be seen going around curves.
We had one photo runby at the Anita station, milepost 44.8 - once an important section headquarters, but now marked only by a sign and some abandoned cattle pens on the east side of the tracks. We stopped here at 1:50 p.m., had one runby, and resumed our journey half an hour later.
North of Anita is a 3% grade leading up to Apex, followed by two sharp reverse-curves in scenic Coconino Canyon, where the rail line follows a meandering creek through the canyon. This is by far the most interesting and scenic part of the line, and I spent some of the time hanging out of the vestibules to get good views of the train going around these sharp curves. (Parenthetically, I was very impressed to see the extent that the railroad had cleared the vegetation adjacent to the tracks. The coaches used by the Grand Canyon Railway have open windows, and the railroad wants to ensure that passengers sticking their heads out of the windows will not be hit by any obstacles!) We were running early, and there was no point arriving at the Canyon before 3:30 p.m., as we could not pull into the station until the regularly scheduled Grand Canyon Railway train departed. So, partially to "kill time" (and, incidentally, to afford more time to take pictures along the route), the engineer reduced our speed to a crawl for part of the way.
We pulled into the wye at the Grand Canyon at 3:30 p.m. We remained at the "new" railroad station adjacent to the wye (never used as such; it now serves as the Backcountry Office) for about ten minutes while the outbound Train #3 - the regularly scheduled train of the Grand Canyon Railway - got a track warrant to proceed. About 3:40 p.m., we started backing into the station, in the process catching a glimpse of the regular train leaving the Canyon. Finally, at 3:45 p.m., we came to our final stop at the Grand Canyon railroad station.
Although I've been to the Grand Canyon about ten times, this was a special occasion for me, as it is the first time that I've arrived at the Canyon by train. Even on my first trip to the Canyon in 1966, when the Santa Fe was still running passenger trains to the Canyon, we came by bus, as the one train a day to the Canyon did not connect with the Chief -- the train that we had taken out to Williams. We had four and one-half hours until our scheduled 8:15 p.m. departure, and I had decided to spend at least some of this time hiking along the canyon rim.
While walking along the Rim Trail, I met Barry Levitt from Parsippany, N.J., who had brought along an extensive array of photographic equipment. Barry identified himself as a fellow member of the Tri-State Railway Historical Society, and although I don't recall ever having met him before, we quickly became good friends. We spent the rest of our time at the Canyon together, hiking along the Rim Trail to the new Visitor Center, then taking a bus to Hopi Point to watch the sunset at 7:10 p.m. We really lucked out in that the visibility across the canyon was far better than it's been on all of my other recent visits.
This trip to the Canyon was also different for me in that it would represent one of only two visits when I would not be hiking to the bottom of the Canyon (the other time was my first visit 1n 1966). But I made up for this by spending the time savoring the views from the various points along the rim - something that I did not have the opportunity to do during most of my previous visits. To keep up the tradition of descending below the rim at least briefly on all of my Canyon visits, on the way back to the train from the bus stop, Barry and I walked along the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail, from the trailhead to the junction with the branch leading up to the Kolb Studio.
We arrived back at the train at 7:55 p.m. for our scheduled 8:15 p.m. departure. By this time, almost all passengers had already boarded, and the car hosts soon began to check whether anyone was missing. The stragglers soon arrived, and we departed precisely on time.
Soon, a representative from the car Overland Trail came through our car to point out that that car contains an operating barber shop, and that a barber was on the train and would give haircuts to anyone interested. It just so happened that I needed a haircut, and the experience of getting the haircut aboard a moving train was one that I did not want to miss! We had assumed that the cars behind our Royal Gorge car were all first-class cars, not open to coach passengers, but we now informed that the three cars behind the Royal Gorge - the Pine Tree State, the Silver Lariat (except for the dome portion of the car) and the Overland Trail - were also in service as coaches on this trip. So, after having sardines on a bagel for dinner, I walked down to the Overland Trail car, where the barber, Earl J. Nickles, was giving a haircut to my friend Barry Levitt. I would be next, so I quickly went back to my car to retrieve my camera, so that Barry could take pictures of my haircut.
The barber shop is a separate room, with an adjacent bathroom and shower. Earl explained to me that the car was originally used by the Southern Pacific Railroad on its Overland Limited, and that its purpose was to enable businessmen headed for meetings to be able to present a dignified appearance. There was even an old, heavy iron on the wall, which could be used by the barber to press the businessman's suit while he took a shower! Earl said that, to the best of his knowledge, the Overland Trail contains the only operating barber shop on a train in the entire world! (The car is also unique in another respect - it does not have a vestibule at either end, and therefore must be operated next to another car that can be used for access.)
Although Earl is a licensed barber in the State of California (and, indeed, is an active, practicing member of his craft), he is not licensed in the State of Arizona. Thus, he did not charge a fee for his services, but a sign stated that there is a "suggested donation" of $5.00 for the haircut. I would ordinarily pay much more than this for a haircut, and if anything, I felt that I should pay a even higher price for the novelty of a haircut on a train. So I gave Earl $10.00, which he gratefully accepted. The haircut certainly made this a very special train ride!
At 9:28 p.m., the train came to a sudden stop. Turning on the scanner, I heard that we had hit a cow! The engineer went out to inspect the train and found only minor damage to the engine (hoses were knocked loose). He asked the crew members riding in Amtrak engine #7 at the rear of the train to check if they saw anything along the tracks as we proceeded ahead, but they couldn't see anything. In the meantime, we saw a cow running rather erratically along the west side of the tracks, and the possibility arose that that was the cow hit by the train, and that the cow suffered only minor injuries when thrown by the train to the side. We lost about five minutes to this unusual mishap, and started moving again at 9:33 p.m.
It was, of course, dark out, and there wasn't all that much to see outside (although the Pine Tree State car directly behind us was equipped with lights on its trucks, which enabled one to get some view of the surrounding scenery.) I had had a very long day, and my body was still on Eastern Time, where it was after midnight already. So I was rather tired, and even dozed off a little. I did walk through the coach cars a few times, though, and being able to pass through these beautiful cars certainly added to the experience. But I was looking forward to being able to finally check into my motel room upon our return to Williams and get some real sleep for a change.
We pulled into the Williams depot at 10:32 p.m., only two minutes past our expected arrival time. I detrained and walked into the Fray Marcos Hotel, where I retrieved the bags that I had checked earlier in the day, and then boarded a shuttle bus that took me over to EconoLodge, where I would be staying for the next three nights. The desk clerk was expecting me, and my room was ready. It wasn't the most elegant place I've ever stayed in, but the room was basically acceptable, and after checking my e-mail and phone messages, I was ready for a good night's sleep.
So far, my trip to the 2002 Canyon Rails NRHS convention has worked out almost exactly as planned. The JetBlue flight to Long Beach was delightful, the ride on Amtrak to Williams was also just fine (and, for once, I was really glad that our train was an hour late!), and today's excursion to the Grand Canyon, if anything, exceeded my expectations. I am now looking forward to the remaining events of the convention - including the rare-mileage return trip to Los Angeles on Sunday and Monday.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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