Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Sunset Limited
San Antonio-New Orleans
It's 6:20 a.m. on Tuesday, October 15, 2002, and I've just arrived at the Amtrak station in San Antonio, where I will be boarding the eastbound Sunset Limited on my way to New Orleans. I came in last night on the Texas Eagle from Chicago, which arrived nearly an hour early, and spent an enjoyable night at the nearby Best Western Sunset Station hotel. As I figured when I checked on the Internet, this hotel - which incorporates historic structures along Commerce Street - is the closest hotel to the Amtrak station. It was only about a five-minute walk from the station, and this proved particularly convenient given my late arrival last night and early departure this morning. The room was very beautifully furnished and featured a huge, raised bed, along with a sofa and desk. I spent some time last night checking my e-mail and went to sleep about 1:00 a.m.
I awoke about 5:00 a.m. this morning, got dressed and walked over to the station to check the progress of my train, scheduled to arrive at 5:01 a.m. and depart at 6:00 a.m. Although Amtrak's web site indicated that the train was running two hours late, the station agent informed me that its expected arrival time was now 6:30 a.m., and that to play safe, I should be at the station no later than 6:15 a.m. Since this is a tri-weekly train, with the next departure not until Friday, I decided to heed the agent's advice and get here in plenty of time. So I returned to my room, took a shower, packed up, and went downstairs for a complimentary continental breakfast of juice and cold cereal. I then walked back to the station, where about 25 people were awaiting the arrival of our train. On the far station track was the equipment from last night's Texas Eagle which, with the addition of two passenger cars from the eastbound Sunset Limited, would soon be departing for Chicago. On the rear was the private car Henry E. Huntington, apparently of Reading Railroad heritage, and also presumably destined for the AAPRCO convention in Baltimore.
The magnificent Sunset Station on Commerce Street used to serve as the Amtrak station in San Antonio, but several years ago this building was converted to an entertainment complex, and a new Amtrak station was built just to the south. The exterior of the new Amtrak station was designed in the southwestern style to complement the Sunset Station, and it features a peaked red-tile roof and arched windows. But the interior has a low, cheap-looking dropped ceiling, and its small waiting room is barely adequate to serve the very significant number of passengers who use this facility. The only saving grace of the new station is that it incorporates five wooden benches from the historic Sunset Station. It certainly is not the architectural masterpiece that the new Intermodal Transportation Center in Fort Worth can be considered to be.
About 6:45 a.m., an announcement was made that passengers standing outside should move behind the yellow line (which was barely visible on the platform), as the train would soon be
arriving. A few minutes later, the Sunset Limited pulled into the station, coming to a stop at 6:52 a.m., and I recorded the consist as it passed by.
Today's Sunset Limited to New Orleans is pulled by Genesis engines #136, #132 and #81 and includes a baggage car, a transition crew-dorm car, two Superliner II sleepers, a dining car, a Superliner II Sightseer Lounge car, two 34000-series coaches (with seats on the lower level) and a coach with a smoking section on the lower level. Behind this are a coach and sleeper which will be removed from the train here and put onto the Texas Eagle for Chicago, and there are a number of express cars in the rear.
Together with other passengers bound for New Orleans, I was asked to board the first coach, where there were a number of unoccupied pairs of seats. After I found a pair of seats for myself on the left side of the train and stowed away all my belongings, I walked through the three coaches and the lounge car. I found that the first coach was quite full, with at least one person in every pair of seats, and many seats in the second coach were occupied, but the last coach was nearly empty. Soon, I walked down to the lower level of my coach and found that the door to the platform had already been closed. Looking out the window, it seemed that the doors to the other cars had been closed, too. I did not know the radio frequency used for the Amtrak San Antonio switching operations, and I did not pick up anything on my scanner, but during our hour-long stop, the rear two passenger cars and a number of express cars had to be removed from our train (to be added to the Texas Eagle) and other express cars added to our train.
At 7:52 a.m., precisely one hour after we arrived, the Sunset Limited pulled out of the station and proceeded eastward. We were one hour and 52 minutes late. As we began to pick up speed, I saw a woman frantically running along the platform. I didn't see her again as we passed by, so I assumed that she somehow got aboard the train. It turned out that she was a passenger sitting in a seat nearly opposite me, and she had stepped off the train during our long stop at San Antonio. When she saw the train moving ahead, she managed to jump aboard the moving train (it seems that someone opened a door for her) by grabbing onto the bars that are placed by the doors!
Soon, a welcome announcement was made by Russ, who called himself the "on-board supervisor," This position, generally known as "On-Board Chief," was abolished last year in an economy move, but it seems to have be reinstated, at least on some trains. Good On-Board Chiefs can have a very significant impact on crew performance and passenger satisfaction, and I was glad to see that Russ was aboard our train today.
The lounge car attendant then made an announcement that she would be taking her break in a few minutes. I already had some breakfast at the hotel in San Antonio, but that meal was rather rushed, and I wanted to eat a little more. On the other hand, I didn't want to have a full breakfast in the diner. So I went to the downstairs section of the lounge car and purchased a cup of coffee and a Thomas' bagel with cream cheese, and I sat down at one of the two "good" tables adjacent to the food service area to eat. I remained at this table for nearly an hour, eating a leisurely breakfast while reading copies of the San Antonio newspaper and USA Today, which had been placed on the table.
We proceeded through the industrial areas of eastern San Antonio and stopped for about 15 minutes at the Kirby yard, just east of town. Whether the train was serviced here, or whether there was some other reason for this stop, I'm not sure. After we left the yard, I heard the detector at milepost 181.6 report that we had 60 axles and were proceeding at 60 miles per hour! For the third time on this trip, the axle count of our train precisely matched our speed! While in San Antonio, I did not have the opportunity to ascertain how many express cars had been placed on the rear of our train, and from the detector report, I was now able to determine that three such cars had been added. (During our stop in Houston, I was able to ascertain that the three cars were all refrigerated ExpressTrak cars.)
After we passed Sequin at about 9:00 a.m., the scenery changed from industry to cattle ranches, against a background of rolling hills. We passed by a number of small towns, each marked by a short main street with a row of commercial buildings facing the tracks. For a long stretch, we directly paralleled U.S. 90, a little-used two-lane road, from which most traffic has been diverted by the parallel I-10, sometimes visible in the distance. Although the scenery was not at all spectacular, it was certainly pleasant, and it was a lot nicer than I had envisioned for this stretch - one of the very few Amtrak long-distance routes that I had never previously ridden. Covering this "new mileage" was one of the main reasons that I decided to take this rather indirect route from Dallas to Chicago.
I was now finished with breakfast and wanted to work on these memoirs, but my computer's batteries had died, so I went back upstairs and found an unoccupied pair of seats in the second coach directly in front of an electric outlet. I ended up spending most of the ride in this seat, where I could plug in my computer, although I also retained my seat in the first coach. Thus, I had four seats to myself, but since the train was far from full and many other pairs of seats remained unoccupied, no one objected to this arrangement.
I noticed that, as we proceeded eastward along these Union Pacific tracks, we passed quite a few freight trains along the way, but in each case, we seem to have been given the right of way and, initially, we didn't appear to be delayed by them at all.
We passed through Flatonia, where a north-south UP line crosses our line at grade, about 10:00 a.m. Soon afterwards, I heard on the scanner that we will be following a freight train as far as Glidden, about 35 miles further down the line, and that we might have to slow down somewhat as a result. Indeed, I soon heard the engineer calling out to the conductor an "advance approach" indication on a signal, thus indicating that we had to slow down due to a train ahead of us. That indication was regularly repeated for quite a while, even after we passed through Glidden. But we were able to proceed along at a fairly steady pace, although not quite as fast as we would have, had we received clear signals along this stretch.
For the first time, I brought along a set of earphones for my scanner, which I now decided to use. I found that wearing the earphones enabled me to hear everything on the scanner, while at the same time keeping the volume of the scanner set to a relatively low level. It actually made it easier for me to hear the train communications, and I will definitely plan on bringing along the earphones on future train trips.
After we passed through Glidden, I observed a sign posted to the left of the tracks: "Hog Hunting: $25 per day." I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to hunt hogs, or how this "sport" is done, but I guess this activity is something done by the local people. Then, about 10:55 a.m., we came to the town of Columbus, probably the largest town we've passed through since we left San Antonio, with many large, old oak trees shading the streets. I moved over to the right side of the train to see the dome of the old courthouse, mentioned as a landmark in the Route Guide. Leaving town, we crossed the Colorado River (a river different from the one with the same name that carved the Grand Canyon) on a truss bridge. The terrain now became flatter, with many large open fields.
At 11:15 a.m., we stopped for three minutes at Eagle Lake, enabling us to pick up a crew member and receive a train order for a speed restriction. Just east of there, there was a work area, with white UP trucks and a number of employees visible, but we had received permission from the foreman to pass through without stopping, although we did have to slow down.
Once past the work area, we proceeded ahead at a steady pace. At 11:50 a.m., I watched as we passed through Rosenberg, where three rail lines join. I noticed that an eastbound BNSF train on a line coming in from the north was waiting for us to come through. Since we were now approaching Houston, I decided to move back to my seat in the first coach. Soon afterward, the first call for lunch was made.
I watched as we passed the huge Imperial Sugar Company in Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston. I guess I can figure out where the name of this town comes from! As we approached closer to Houston, the surrounding area gradually became more developed.
At 12:20 p.m., we reached West Jct. and made a sharp left turn to proceed north on a line leading toward the Amtrak station. Soon, the skyscrapers of downtown Houston became visible ahead on the right side. We crossed Bellaire Boulevard - a favorite location of Howard Bingham, a regular contributor to the All-Aboard List who lives nearby - at 12:25 p.m. Howard, who would be meeting me at the Amtrak station, often posts on the list the time at which the eastbound Sunset Limited, Train #2, arrives at this point.
Then, at 12:34 p.m., we made a sharp right turn at Tower 13 and headed east toward the station. The "on-board supervisor" now announced that we would be arriving at the Houston station in about ten minutes. He mentioned that passengers could step off the train there if they so chose, but warned passengers to stay on the platform and be ready to reboard at any time, since the stop would last for only about ten minutes, and the next train out is not until Friday morning!
As we approached the Houston station, I walked down to the lower level. The attendant, who was waiting to open the door, remarked that when she first saw the Houston station, she couldn't believe that a large, important city such as Houston would have such a small, unattractive station! I pointed out that the real amazement should be that a city like Houston is served by only one tri-weekly train. I've written about the Houston Amshack in other travelogues and won't elaborate here, but suffice it to say that the small, ugly station constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad for Houston in the 1960s, and still used by Amtrak, is a disgrace.
We pulled into the Houston station at 12:46 p.m., one hour and 31 minutes late. We had made up 21 minutes since we departed from San Antonio, despite some slow running. I detrained and looked around for Howard Bingham, who had promised to meet me at the station. After a few minutes, Howard appeared, bringing me a bag which contained some interesting rail-related souvenirs. Howard took my picture, and we talked for a few minutes until an "all-aboard" call was made at 1:00 p.m., when I said goodbye and reboarded. We left a minute later, and were now just under an hour and one-half late.
As soon as we left the Houston station, I decided to go to the dining car for lunch. I was seated opposite a couple who lived in Denmark and had been visiting their son in Houston, and next to a man from Ireland who had come to America for his brother's wedding in San Antonio (he had married a girl from there). The Danish couple were headed to New Orleans, where they would be going on several tours, and planned to return to Houston on Friday's train before flying with their son to Florida on Saturday. The man from Ireland had purchased a USA Rail Pass and was traveling to Lafayette, where he would be spending a few days and then continue to New Orleans. Having these visitors from other countries for company made for a very interesting meal, and we all enjoyed it very much. In fact, we remained in the diner, lingering over our meal, for about an hour and 15 minutes.
At one point during lunch, we came to a sudden stop. An announcement was made that the conductor was inspecting the train, and we soon moved on. Since I wasn't listening to my scanner, I don't know the reason for the stop, but it seemed like the train went into emergency braking for some reason.
After lunch, I decided to spend some time in the upper level of the Sightseer Lounge car. I brought my computer with me and worked on these memoirs. In about half an hour, at 2:48 p.m., we arrived at the Beaumont station. This station, situated in an isolated area west of the city, is an unattractive corrugated metal building. It was formerly used as a Union Pacific Railroad office, but UP has vacated the building, and it now serves only Amtrak passengers. All the windows on the side of the building facing the tracks have been broken, and the door is tied open. As bad as the Houston station may be, this disgraceful facility in Beaumont makes the Houston station seem like a palace! (The original UP station was in the center of town, but part of the line serving this location has been abandoned, so a new station location was established.) As far I could tell, no one got on or off here, but our stop lasted for seven minutes because we had to wait for a westbound UP freight train to pass. When we departed Beaumont at 2:55 p.m., we were one hour and 37 minutes late.
I watched as we proceeded slowly on trackage to the south of the downtown area and crossed the Brazos River on a truss bridge. Once we passed the junction with the original line on the east side of town, we began to pick up speed again. I began to get a little drowsy and fell asleep for awhile, but woke up before we passed through Orange, Texas - the most easterly town that we go through in the Lone Star State. Soon afterwards, we crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana and began to traverse thick cypress swamps - a special feature characteristic of this area.
Around this point, my computer's batteries died, so I again moved back to the second coach, where I took the same seat that I had previously occupied right in front of the outlet. My Irish friend, who had sat next to me for lunch, was sitting in the seat right behind me. The second coach was still far from full, and the third coach was now entirely empty (although it was not closed off, as the smoking lounge was downstairs in this car).
Over the next hour or so, we proceeded through western Louisiana on our way to Lake Charles. Twice, we slowed down for track work. The first time, tracks were being replaced. But then we passed by an area where a very large swampy area to our left had recently been filled in, and tracks were being installed on the newly-filled land. It seemed that a new freight yard was being built here. One interesting feature was that the tracks were being laid on metal ties. I don't recall ever seeing this kind of ties used before.
About 4:25 p.m., we crossed the Calcasieu River, with Lake Charles on our right. The railroad crosses the river on a movable bridge just above the water level, but a highway bridge to the right is raised well above the water, with long, graded approaches. A crossed-sword motif appears on the railings of the highway bridge, evocative of the dueling that was once common in this area. Just to the left, there is an interesting swamp, and Russ, the "on-board supervisor" announced that alligators are often seen there. Sure enough, the woman in the seat ahead of me (who was traveling all the way from Ontario, California to Biloxi, Mississippi) pointed out an alligator sunning on a log!
Five minutes later, at 4:30 p.m., we arrived at the Lake Charles Amtrak station. This is a very small but new brick building, which features a gabled roof with decorative metal brackets, a tiny waiting room, and restrooms. A large paved parking lot is adjacent. Only one passenger boarded here, and our stop lasted for less than a minute. We were now one hour and 48 minutes late, having lost a little more time since our last stop in Beaumont. But, overall, we hadn't lost any additional time since we departed from San Antonio this morning.
At 4:48 p.m., we again came to a stop at Iowa Jct., about 10 miles east of Lake Charles. For the first time since Houston, I was able to figure out the radio frequency we were using (it was Channel 12), and I heard the dispatcher dictate a track warrant to the engineer, giving us the authority to proceed up to Crowley, about 20 miles to the east. Apparently, the reason for the stop was to permit the engineer to copy the track warrant, and at 4:55 p.m., we started moving again. According to my new SPV Southern States rail atlas (just published last year), Iowa Jct. is the point east of which ownership of the Sunset Route has been transferred from UP to BNSF. Presumably, the radio frequencies change at this point - and, as will soon be seen, so did our on-time performance.
The terrain now changed from wooded swamps to flat fields, many of which were being used to grow rice, an important crop in this region. As we passed through Crowley, I noticed the large Supreme Rice Mill to the right of the tracks.
I decided to move to the Sightseer Lounge car for a change of pace. But soon after I arrived there, a movie began to be shown. It was still light out - much too early to show a movie, in my view - and, in fact, you could hardly even see the screen, due to glare from the sun. So, to avoid this annoyance, I moved back to the second coach. In the meantime, though, a man who had seen my Philmont belt came over to me and asked me when I had been there. He also questioned me about where I got my Route Guide, commenting that he had traveled around the country on Amtrak and that Route Guides (of some sort) were available on every other train that he had been on. I explained to him that my Route Guide was from the early 1990s, and that the Route Guides that Amtrak now distributes are of much inferior quality, with most points of interest deleted.
At 6:10 p.m., Russ announced that we were stopped to permit the engineer to copy his instructions to proceed (i.e., track warrant), and that Lafayette would be the following stop, ten minutes after we began moving again. I listened to the scanner, but heard nothing. Obviously, no track warrant was being dictated. About 15 minutes later, Russ made another announcement that the dispatcher had some freight traffic which had to proceed ahead of us, and when those freight trains had cleared, we would move on.
The scanner remained largely silent. Finally, at 6:45 p.m., Russ announced that the dispatcher has indicated that we should be moving soon. He apologized for the delay, but went on to comment that "this particular delay has been created by our friendly railroad!" Unlike what I've seen done by others in similar circumstances, he did not mention the name of the railroad in his first announcement, although in a subsequent announcement, he referred to the "BN Railroad" as the culprit. Actually, it was rather ironic that we proceeded without much interference from freight traffic earlier in the day on the Union Pacific, and only now that we are on the BNSF do we encounter a significant delay caused by freight traffic! At 6:53 p.m., after receiving a track warrant, we moved forward, and we finally arrived at the Lafayette station at 7:03 p.m. We had been delayed about 45 minutes by the freight trains ahead of us. Several people, including the Irish man who sat next to me for lunch, detrained here, and a couple destined for Orlando boarded.
The historic Lafayette station was gutted by fire about five years ago, but the brick walls remained, and the structure has since been beautifully restored. However, it seems that it was not open for passengers waiting to board our train, as the people who boarded here told me that they were dropped off at the station and had to wait outside for three hours until the train finally arrived. They were not happy campers!
Although it took only a minute or two for everyone to get on and off here, our station stop lasted until 7:11 p.m. When we departed Lafayette, we were just about three hours late. I now decided to go into the dining car for dinner. The car was not at all full, and I was given a table to myself. I was soon served a fresh green salad and a delicious fish dinner.
During dinner, at 7:44 p.m., we stopped just short of the New Iberia station. On the scanner, I heard the engineer ask whether "if you can't get a hold of the dispatcher, do you use that five-minute rule on an absolute red"? Apparently, there exists some kind of rule that, if the dispatcher cannot be reached and there is a red signal ahead, the engineer has the option of proceeding ahead after waiting five minutes. (Presumably, this rule presupposes that the train in question has a track warrant authorizing it to occupy the section of track in question, and the only problem is the red signal.) It seems that that's what we ended up doing, as at 7:49 p.m., the train pulled down a short distance into the station. About half a dozen people were waiting to board here, and the historic station was open as a place to wait. The stop lasted for five minutes, and when we departed at 7:55 p.m., we were three hours and 16 minutes late.
Soon after we left New Iberia, the dispatcher called the engineer and asked to dictate a track warrant. The engineer replied that he didn't want to stop now, because doing so would result in his blocking several grade crossings. So he proceeded a little further, and then stopped for a few minutes to copy down the warrant. (Of course, one wonders why the track warrant could not have been dictated during the stop at New Iberia.) We continued ahead, but at a very slow pace, constantly stopping for a series of red signals and then proceeding ahead at a snail's pace. By 8:30 p.m., 35 minutes after we left New Iberia, we had only gone about seven additional miles! Not until we reached milepost 113.8, just over ten miles from New Iberia, at 8:44 p.m., did we finally get a clear signal that enabled us to proceed ahead at the track speed of 70 miles per hour.
When I finished my dinner, I was presented with a check for $17.50 (including $1.50 for a soda). My chicken meal for lunch cost $11.50 (including two beverages). This may be my first Amtrak trip as a paying passenger on which the amount that I paid for food and beverages (about $32.00, including breakfast) exceeded the price of my ticket (only $26.00 on the Internet Rail Sale)!
Now I returned to my seat in the second coach, updated these memoirs, and revised a web page for my friend Chris Fussell's PortlandTransit.org website (I had printed out the page before I left home). I also did some work on a section of the Appalachian Trail Data Book, for which I am the editor. At one point, I went down to the lower level of the lounge car, obtained a cup of tea, and took it back to my seat. I would have remained in the lounge car for a while, but both "good" tables on the lower level were occupied, and the lighting on the upper level was rather dim.
We reached our next stop, Schriever, at 9:54 p.m. There is an attractive wooden station here, but it was closed, and it did not seem that anyone got on or off. Nevertheless, the station stop lasted for four minutes to permit the engineer to copy a track warrant. When we departed at 9:58 p.m., we were just two minutes short of four hours late. There is an hour of make-up time built into the schedule between here and New Orleans, so if we do not lose any more time on the way, we should arrive in New Orleans about 11:30 p.m. But, given our track record so far today, that is a pretty big "if"!
As it turned out, the rest of our ride to New Orleans would not be smooth sailing. We came to a stop at 10:20 p.m. On the scanner, I heard the engineer tell the conductor that his key will not work, and he asked the conductor to come forward with his key. Whatever the problem was, it was eventually solved, and at 10:39 p.m., we proceeded ahead, but we had lost about another 20 minutes in the process. (Subsequently, I heard the engineer tell the dispatcher that the train had lost 30 minutes after Schriever due to "signal problems.")
At 11:13 p.m., we arrived at Live Oak, which is several miles west of the Huey Long Bridge leading into New Orleans. But when we arrived at the south end of the bridge at 11:32 p.m., we sat still for 13 minutes and didn't start moving again until 11:45 p.m. I watched as we crossed this majestic bridge, with its outstanding views of New Orleans. When we reached the other side, about 12:08 a.m., we started moving forward at track speed. The conductor came by and informed us that we should be arriving in New Orleans in 20 minutes, with the back-up move taking ten minutes.
My belongings were scattered among three locations in two coaches, so at about 11:30 p.m. I started gathering everything together and packing up. I moved most of my belongings to the lower level, and then returned to my seat in the first coach, where I spent the remainder of the ride.
In the meantime, I started talking to a group of women in my car who had boarded the train in San Antonio. (One of these women was the one who was almost left behind on the platform when our train pulled out!) They were connecting to tomorrow morning's Crescent, scheduled to leave at 7:00 a.m., and expressed the hope that that train would also be late, so that they could get some sleep tonight. I explained to them that the Crescent originates in New Orleans, and thus it was very unlikely to leave later than scheduled. This was their first trip on Amtrak, and they seemed surprised that our train would be arriving several hours late. They also indicated to me that this would probably be their last trip on Amtrak!
At 12:22 a.m., we commenced our back-up move to New Orleans Union Station, passing through the Amtrak coach yard and engine maintenance facility on the way. Then, at 12:33 a.m., we came to our final stop at the station. We were four hours and three minutes late, not having made up any time since Schriever, and even having lost some additional time after our next-to-last stop. I walked through the station and soon obtained a cab to my hotel in the French Quarter, which I shared with two other people who were going to another hotel nearby.
Today's trip from San Antonio to New Orleans on the Sunset Limited was - at least for me - quite enjoyable. I covered some new mileage and was able to experience the various ambiences of Amtrak travel aboard the train. While I had hoped that we would arrive in New Orleans a little earlier, our four-hour-late arrival did not seriously inconvenience me. Perhaps most interestingly, I was able to enjoy over 16 hours of travel on an Amtrak train for only $26.00 - which translates to about $1.60 an hour! That's a real bargain compared to the Acela Express, which can cost over $50 an hour! I'm now looking forward to enjoying a day-and-a-half in New Orleans, and to my ride Thursday night to Chicago on the City of New Orleans.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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