Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Texas Eagle
Fort Worth-San Antonio
It's 3:05 p.m. on Monday, October 14, 2002, and I've just arrived at the Intermodal Transportation Center in Fort Worth, where I will be boarding the Texas Eagle for San Antonio. This will be the first part of a rather interesting train trip. I attended a meeting this morning in Dallas, and I will be going to a wedding of a good friend next Sunday in Chicago. So I decided to combine the two into one trip.
Of course, I could easily have just taken the Texas Eagle
directly from Dallas to Chicago. But that would have been too simple - and too swift! Instead, I decided to use the opportunity to take a longer train trip and cover some new mileage. I will be taking the Texas Eagle to San Antonio this afternoon and evening. After staying overnight there, I'll board the Sunset Limited for the day-long trip to New Orleans. The San Antonio-Houston portion of the trip will be new mileage for me. Then, after spending a day and a half in New Orleans - a city I always love to visit - I'll take the City of New Orleans north to Chicago. I've only ridden this route once before - in 1994, when it was still being served by Heritage equipment, including a dome car. Moreover, this Amtrak train now follows a different route south of Memphis, so this will also be new mileage for me. I should arrive in Chicago on Friday morning, in time to spend the weekend with my cousin and participate in the wedding festivities.
My trip began yesterday with a flight from LaGuardia Airport to Dallas-Fort Worth on America West Airlines. Ordinarily, I would take AirTran, with connecting service via Atlanta, for this one-way trip, but when I checked on the Web, I found that America West had a cheaper flight ($110 for America West vs. something like $150 for the AirTran flight at a similar time). Geraldine Sarualla picked me up at my home at 7:30 a.m., and it took less than 25 minutes to get to LaGuardia, there being no traffic at this early hour on a Sunday morning. My check-in at LaGuardia was exceptionally fast. There was no wait at the ticket counter and only a brief delay at security, and it took me less than ten minutes to get to the gate from the time I walked into the terminal. The security inspectors at the airports now wear the white uniforms of the Transportation Security Administration, and I found that these new federal employees are actually friendlier than the privately employed inspectors whom they replaced. This was the most hassle-free check-in I've experienced since last September 11th.
My flight left basically on-time at 9:20 a.m. It was a 50-seat commuter jet operated by Chautauqua Airlines. I had ridden a similar plane on a US Airways flight from Indianapolis to Newark this summer, and I found that these smaller planes are actually more comfortable than the larger jets. Our trip to Columbus was uneventful, and we arrived on time. I had about an hour and a half before my flight to Dallas-Fort Worth would depart, so I went into the terminal, signed online using a payphone, and did some work on my computer. My connecting flight actually had the same number and used the same equipment as the flight from LaGuardia to Columbus. Indeed, I received only one boarding pass, and when I boarded the plane in Columbus, all I had to show was my ticket stub from the first leg of the flight (which was accepted by the agent at the gate without any problem).
I lucked out and had two seats to myself for both legs of the flight. There were only two or three empty seats on the flight to DFW, and a man was assigned to sit next to me, but a man sitting with his young child in the single seat on the other side of the aisle was relocated by the attendant to an unoccupied pair of seats toward the rear, and the man sitting next to me then moved to the single seat, leaving me with two seats. This gave me much more room to maneuver when using my computer, and made the flight much more enjoyable.
We landed about 2:25 p.m., about five minutes past our scheduled arrival time. Then we were delayed further while taxiing over to the gate, and when we finally arrived at the gate, we waited for a bridge plate to be brought to permit us to utilize a jetway designed for larger planes. The bridge plate never arrived, so we had to walk down stairs to the ground and then climb up another flight of stairs to the jetway! But when I arrived at the baggage claim area at 2:45 p.m., my two checked bags were already there.
I walked downstairs and took a van over to the Rental Car Center, where I rented a Ford Ranger pick-up truck from Budget Rent-A-Car. This large vehicle, with limited interior space, is rather awkward to maneuver, but it is the cheapest rental vehicle available, so I decided to rent it. For the first time, I managed to make my way over the Marriott hotel near the airport, where I would be staying, without getting lost on the way. The DFW Airport has the most confusing network of exit roads that I've ever seen!
One of the reasons I decided to rent a car was to be able to take a ride on the new northern extensions of both light-rail lines of DART, the Dallas transit agency. So, after checking my e-mail messages, I headed east toward Dallas and drove to the Park Lane station - the most northerly station shown on my DART map (which was now outdated, due to the opening of the new extensions). This station has several hundred parking spaces, but only about 50 were occupied on this Sunday evening.
I began by taking a southbound Red Line train to Mockingbird, where I transferred to a northbound Blue Line train headed to LBJ/Skillman, now the northern end of the line. After a 15-minute wait, our train reversed direction, and I took it back took Mockingbird, where I transferred for a Red Line train north to Gallatin Pazk. I noticed that the Red Line is much more heavily used than the Blue Line, with both cars of my northbound Red Line train being quite full (at least when I boarded), while the single-car Blue Line train was largely empty. Unlike the procedure followed at LBJ/Skillman, where the same train reversed direction and proceed back south, at Gallatin Park my train was taken out of service upon our arrival, so I walked over to the southbound platform and boarded another train, which departed quite promptly.
The Dallas Area Rapid Transit truly lives up to its name, providing service that really could be called rapid. It goes as fast as 65 miles per hour, and actually attains that speed for a significant portion of its run - particularly on the northern section of the Blue Line, which follows a former railroad right-of-way, with its two stations north of Mockingbird spaced several miles apart. There are a number of grade crossings on both lines, but every single grade crossing is equipped with automatic gates, activated upon the approach of the train. Thus, unlike the situation with the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, DART trains can proceed at full speed across these grade crossings and do not have to wait for a signal to proceed. (And the whistle blown by the operator sounds just like a locomotive whistle!) Moreover, unlike other light-rail systems, whose stations are situated close enough together that many patrons can be expected to walk from their homes to the station, DART relies almost exclusively on feeder buses and huge park-and-ride lots at most stations, each of which can accommodate several hundred cars.
In the course of the hour-and-a-half that I spent riding these five trains, I didn't encounter a single fare inspector. Indeed, I don't recall seeing a fare inspector during any of my previous trips on DART, either. But for the princely sum of $2.00 I was able to purchase a day pass, which is a real bargain. At this price, it doesn't pay not to get a ticket, and I assume that, as a result, the fare evasion rate on DART is rather low. Both lines that I rode this evening are scheduled to be extended even further by the end of the year, so I'll have more new mileage to ride on my next trip to Dallas!
Today, my meeting was over about 11:40 a.m. I returned to my room, where I had some lunch, signed online, checked my e-mail, and made reservations for my two-night stay in New Orleans. I also checked the status of both my southbound Texas Eagle and the eastbound Sunset that I would be boarding tomorrow morning, and found that the Texas Eagle was running on time, while the Sunset Limited was over an hour late. After packing up my bags and checking out of the hotel, I left about 2:05 p.m. and drove to Fort Worth, stopping to fill my rental car with gas and to purchase some batteries for my scanner.
At 2:55 p.m., I arrived at the Budget Rent-A-Car office at 1001 Henderson Street in Fort Worth. I asked the agent whether I could get a ride to the Amtrak station, and she replied that this would be no problem, as they often take people to the station and pick them up from there. I was pleased to hear that the Amtrak station accounts for a significant amount of Budget's business here! Although the station is only about a mile from the Budget office, it took about seven or eight minutes to get there, as we encountered a number of red lights.
Upon our arrival at the station, I was astonished to see that the new Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center is a magnificent structure. Although it just opened about a year ago, it was constructed in a very traditional style, with cornices overhanging the sidewalk, and a bell tower in the center (which includes a beautiful chandelier rescued from the Fort Worth Public Library, demolished in 1990). The inside of this building features a large waiting room with a high, arched ceiling, and is equally as attractive as the outside. The building is truly an "intermodal" transportation center, as it serves not only Amtrak trains, but also the Trinity Railway Express trains to Dallas and many local buses. There are three tracks and two platforms at the station, with the platform closest to the station used by the Trinity Railway Express, and the other platform (which serves two tracks) used by Amtrak. With two existing classic railroad stations - the Santa Fe station, used by Amtrak until the opening of this new facility, and the Texas and Pacific station, now the terminus of the Trinity Railway Express - I don't fully understand why yet a third railroad station had to be constructed here. But, be that as it may, the new station that was built is a real credit to the City of Fort Worth, and it joins a handful of other new Amtrak stations that can be considered to be architectural masterpieces.
I didn't have much time to spend in this beautiful building, though. I noticed quite a few people waiting on the TRE platform, and a glance at the TRE timetable indicated that there would be an eastbound train to Dallas arriving at 3:13 p.m. So I walked outside and took a picture of this train, which consisted of three self-propelled Budd cars - one of the very few examples of these 50-year-old cars still being operated under their own power! Then I returned to the waiting room, only to hear the agent announce the boarding of my southbound Amtrak train, scheduled to arrive at 3:25 p.m. Passengers were asked to go out to the platform to await the train's arrival, so I gathered my belongings and walked outside.
Soon, my Texas Eagle began backing into the station, and it came to a stop at 3:26 p.m., just one minute late! The station building is situated at the very north end of the platform, which has the disadvantage that one must walk all the way down the long platform to reach the coaches and sleepers (but the advantage - at least to railfans - that one can record the numbers of all the express cars at the rear of the train while walking along!). So, I took my time walking down the platform, recording the consist on the way,
Today's southbound Texas Eagle is pulled by Genesis engines #159 and #194 and includes an MHC car (apparently being used as a baggage car), a transition crew dorm, a sleeper, a diner, a snack-bar coach, a smoker-coach, a 34000-series coach (with lower-level seating), another sleeper, and seven express cars at the rear. The last two passenger cars (a coach and a sleeper) are through cars that will be continuing to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited. Conspicuously absent is a Sightseer Lounge car, which has been removed from the consist of Texas Eagle trains in recent months due to Amtrak's equipment shortage. The snack-bar section in the lower level of the first coach actually is being used on this train for its intended purpose. The attendant indicated that I could take any seat I wanted in the first two coaches, so I walked upstairs to check them out. I found that a wide choice of seats was available, as most seats in each car were unoccupied. The rear coach had reconditioned seats, but there was an empty pair of seats in front of an electric outlet in the first coach, so I decided to sit there. I brought all my belongings onboard and walked down the platform to check out the rest of the train.
I soon observed a rather interesting sight. Another Amtrak train was pulling into the station! This was the northbound Texas Eagle, and it was arriving a little over an hour late. Formerly, the old Santa Fe station used by Amtrak could accommodate only one long train at a time, so the northbound train would have to sit outside the station until we pulled out.
But the new intermodal station provides Amtrak with two tracks, and while the northern end of one of the tracks was occupied by a private car, the rest of the long track could be used by Amtrak (the Fort Worth station must be accessed by a back-up move in any event). At the rear of the northbound train was the private car America, painted in New York Central livery. I spoke to the owner of the car, Mike Carr, who told me that the car -- formerly an office car numbered NYC 1 -- was based in Phoenix, and that he was on his way to the AAPRCO convention in Baltimore. He said that I could climb up on the rear open observation platform and take a look at the interior of the car, so I did so. I took a picture of both Texas Eagle trains in the station simultaneously, and then reboarded my car. We departed two minutes late at 4:02 p.m., proceeding south on the BNSF (former Santa Fe) line.
I soon took out my Route Guide and my new SPV Texas railroad atlas and watched the passing scenery, and also started writing these memoirs. After a while, I walked back to the two rear coaches and found that there were a total of only about 80 coach passengers aboard, with about half of these passengers in the rear coach that would be going all the way to Los Angeles, and the other half split between the first two coaches. There is obviously a very light passenger load on today's train. The scenery consisted mostly of relatively flat farmland, and the ride was peaceful, quiet and relaxing.
At one point, an elderly woman stopped to talk to me. She and her husband lived in San Antonio and were returning from Dallas, where they had gone for the christening of her newborn grandchild. When I mentioned that I was interested in hiking, she mentioned that her nephew had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, and that he was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year. She also told me that her husband's last name was Fox, and that Fox Gap on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania was named after one of his ancestors!
Our next station stop was Cleburne, from where we departed at 4:45 p.m., three minutes late. Cleburne features a small but attractive new station, with an iron fence separating the station from the tracks. About a dozen people boarded here. Soon afterwards, I observed the sudden change in topography from flat farmland to rolling hills, with many cuts in limestone rock. The Route Guide explained that we had just arrived at the Balcones Fault. A few minutes later, we crossed the Brazos River.
We made a brief stop at McGregor, where we arrived on time at 5:50 p.m. McGregor features an old wooden Santa Fe station, located on the outskirts of town at a junction with the former St. Louis Southwestern Railroad, now abandoned. A few people got off the train here, but no one got on. When the conductor passed through my car on the way back to the crew dorm, I remarked that we were running on time so far, and I asked whether he thought that we'd be arriving in San Antonio on time, or even early. He replied that he hoped so, but added that "once you get on the UP, you never know what's going to happen"!
At 6:00 p.m., the first call to dinner was made. However, I was traveling in coach and had brought along some of my own food, so I decided that I would not eat in the dining car this evening.
We arrived at our next stop, Temple, at 6:18 p.m., a full 15 minutes early! This gave me plenty of time to detrain and check out the classic brick-and-stucco Santa Fe station, built in 1910 and recently restored. The main waiting room has been converted to a community room for special events, with the Amtrak ticket office now located in a rather small room at the north end of the building. I noticed that the sign above the agent's window reads "Santa Fe tickets," that there is a display case in the waiting room with some railroad memorabilia, and that the agent has his business cards available in a holder next to the ticket window. The second floor of the building has been converted to a railroad museum, although it was closed when I arrived. An assortment of old railroad equipment - including old Santa Fe steam and diesel engines, a boxcar, two cabooses, and an Amtrak sleeper - is situated on a track in front of the station, with the main station track separated from the station by a wrought-iron fence, something that, unfortunately, has become increasing common in recent years. An elderly woman who sat right behind me detrained here, and I noticed that the conductor took the trouble to carry her luggage all the way to her car - again, something that I've rarely seen done. At 6:25 p.m., an "all-aboard" whistle was blown, so I returned to my seat. We departed at 6:32 p.m., one minute early, and just south of the station, at Opal Jct., we turned onto the Union Pacific tracks, which we would follow for the rest of our way to San Antonio.
At 7:22 p.m., four minutes early, we arrived at Taylor, which features a small, modern brick depot which is now used for Union Pacific Railroad offices. A few people got off the train here, but no one got on, and we departed on time at 7:26 p.m. We proceeded ahead at a normal speed until, at 7:55 p.m., we came to a stop at McNeil. Over the scanner, I heard that we are waiting for a train of the Austin Railroad, which crosses the UP tracks here, to clear the crossing. This marks the first time on this trip that we have been delayed by a freight train. Ironically, it is not even a UP train that is delaying us! However, the interlocking is presumably controlled by UP, so they may well be blamed for the delay. At 7:58 p.m., I heard "clear" announced on the scanner, and we proceeded on our way.
As we approached Austin, we began to parallel an expressway on our left. The Route Guide explained that this road is known as the MoPac Expressway because it was built on the right-of-way of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific), which we are following! Then, at 8:14 p.m. we arrived at the Austin station. Despite the delay we had encountered at McNeil, we arrived at Austin six minutes early. Since we would obviously be here for a few minutes, I stepped off the train and walked inside the station building. The Austin station is a rather small brick building with a peaked roof but a modern interior, and it seems rather undistinguished for a station that serves the capitol of Texas. A number of passengers boarded and detrained here, and our stop lasted for seven minutes. We departed at 8:21 p.m., one minute late.
Once again, I walked through the coaches, this time counting a total of only 20 passengers in the first two coaches and about 25 passengers in the third (Los Angeles) coach. We seemed to be moving rather slowly. Then, at 8:39 p.m., I heard over the scanner that we had an "all red" signal ahead. We came to a stop as a freight train passed us to the right. A minute later, we got a "clear" signal, and we proceeded ahead. We soon accelerated to track speed, and a subsequent defect defector announced that both our axle count and our speed were 68.
We arrived at our next-to-last stop, San Marcos, at 9:06 p.m. There is only a small shelter here. We ended up making two stops, apparently because the platform is rather short and some passengers were boarding the rear sleeper, and departed at 9:10 p.m., eight minutes late. This is the latest that we have departed from any station along our route! South of San Marcos, we quickly picked up speed. The conductor estimated that we should arrive at San Antonio about 11:00 p.m., which would be 45 minutes early. But the distance from San Marcos to San Antonio is only about 50 miles, and one wonders why it should take even that long to cover this distance, provided we encounter no further delays.
My car was now almost completely empty, with only four passengers remaining onboard. I fell asleep for a few minutes, and then continued working on these memoirs. At 9:59 p.m., I heard the defect detector at milepost 245.0 announce that both our axle count and our speed were 68 - the second time this has happened on this trip. We've now gone about 35 miles from San Marcos and have less than 20 miles to go to our final destination, San Antonio.
We arrived at our next-to-last stop, San Marcos, at 9:06 p.m. There is only a small shelter here. We ended up making two stops, apparently because some passengers were boarding the rear sleeper, and departed at 9:10 p.m., eight minutes late. This is the latest that we have departed from any station along our route! South of San Marcos, we quickly picked up speed. The conductor estimated that we should arrive at San Antonio about 11:00 p.m., which would be 45 minutes early. But the distance from San Marcos to San Antonio is only about 50 miles, and one wonders why it should take even that long to cover this distance, provided we encounter no further delays. By this time, only four passengers remained in my car.
At 10:15 p.m., the skyscrapers of downtown San Antonio began to appear to our right, and we passed a freeway exit for downtown San Antonio. It looked like we were almost there! But then, at 10:20 p.m., we came to a stop, then proceeded very slowly ahead. After stopping again, we turned sharply left. We stopped again, proceeded, stopped, etc.
Finally, at 10:48 p.m., the neon sign for the Sunset Station entertainment complex (the old Southern Pacific station) came into view, and we pulled into the Amtrak station (which still uses the platform of the original station, although the new Amtrak station is located a block to the south). We had arrived 57 minutes early! I walked down to the lower level, where no conductor was present to open the door, so I opened it myself and put out the footstool. As I detrained, the conductor came by and thanked me for opening the door! I then walked along the platform to Commerce Street, made a left, and continued to the Best Western Sunset Station motel, where I arrived at 11:00 p.m.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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