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Amtrak Texas Eagle Travelogue
By Matt Melzer of TrainWeb.com

http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/mattmelzer/2003g02a.html

The rails beckoned yet again for another long-distance Amtrak trip. The purpose, unfortunately, would be to cover the final run of the Amtrak Kentucky Cardinal to and from Louisville, Kentucky for TrainWeb. Accompanying me would be my companion Krista, who had taken numerous train trips with me in the past, and who would be delighted to be part of passenger rail history being made. Using TrainWeb's promotional vouchers from Amtrak, we would depart Los Angeles for Chicago on the Texas Eagle on July 2, taking the final southbound Kentucky Cardinal to Louisville on July 5, returning to Chicago on the final northbound Kentucky Cardinal on July 6, and returning to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief on July 7, finally arriving home on July 9.

Wednesday, July 2

As planned, we slept in and enjoyed a relaxing day at home before being driven by my father to Los Angeles Union Station around 7:45 PM. Upon arriving, we noticed a film production crew wrapping up filming for a Pepsi commercial in the old ticket lobby, which was being used as a bank (as it often is), evidenced by the words "Federal Bank" etched on the doors. We went to the Amtrak baggage room to check our bags into parcel check, only to discover that the employee was off duty. I inquired with a Station Services representative, who, upon verifying that we were sleeping car passengers, offered to take our bags personally. No sooner did we return to the baggage room than the employee came back on duty, and we stored our bags with him after all! We wasted no time in walking to Philippe for a much-anticipated late dinner of original French-dipped beef sandwiches, which made Philippe famous after its 1908 inception.

We returned to LAUS and watched the sun set behind the downtown skyline from the platform access road. We then claimed our bags from parcel check and grabbed seats in front of the gate to easily obtain our boarding passes and promptly board. We were greeted by Rick, a conductor on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner route, and his wife. They were waiting to meet a passenger who had left his laptop computer on Rick's train earlier in the day and return it to him -- a very kind gesture on Rick's part. I soon inquired with Station Services, about boarded passes, when I learned that boarding passes are issued only for coach passengers on the Sunset Limited / Texas Eagle, and that we could proceed to the train as soon as boarding would begin. Instead of waiting, we headed to track 12 at 9:45 PM, and our train soon came, with two ExpressTrak refrigerated boxcars trailing our 2230 sleeper for Chicago.

An Amtrak service employee soon deboarded from our car and said that our car attendant, Bill, would come shortly. He soon showed up, took our tickets, and sent us to standard bedroom 14 on the lower level. The beds were made up for the night, but knowing that we were not ready to turn in for the night, I made the room back to daytime configuration. Around 10 PM, train 11, the Coast Starlight, arrived next to us on track 11, creating an extremely chaotic scene on the platform, with hundreds of passengers boarding or detraining at once. I stepped off to record our train's consist, which went as follows:

  • P42DC #137
  • P42DC #186
  • Heritage Baggage Car #1135 (Phase IV)
  • Superliner II Transition Dorm Sleeper #39016 (0210)
  • Superliner II Sleeper "Colorado" #32074 (0231)
  • Superliner II Sleeper "Connecticut" #32075 (0230)
  • Superliner II Diner #38066
  • Superliner I Sightseer Lounge #33018
  • Superliner II Coach #34134 (0211)
  • Superliner I Coach #34010 (0212)
  • Superliner I Coach #34005 (0213)
  • Superliner I Coach #34038 (0214)
  • Superliner I Coach #34010 (2215)
  • Superliner I Sleeper (Refurbished) #32052 (2230)
  • ExpressTrak Refrigerated Car #74016
  • ExpressTrak Refrigerated Car #74106

Walking on the platform, I ran into James Smith, a fellow Director of the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC), who was returning on the Coast Starlight from a union business meeting in Oakland. I returned to our car, Superliner I Sleeper #32052, noting that it was partially refurbished into Superliner II decor, with new seat upholstery, curtains, carpets, wall covers, and other touches, but with many of the original fixtures remaining, especially in the restrooms. This was one of the sleepers with unique corrugated plastic material covering the corridors and upper bunk beds. None of the other cars on our train were refurbished, but I would hope for a newly refurbished sleeper from President Gunn's "State of Good Repair" program on our Southwest Chief out of Chicago. Bill soon came by our room to introduce himself. I had attempted to give him a preemptive gratuity, but he declined, explaining that his policy is only to accept tips at the end of passengers' trips so that he would not risk failing to meet passengers' expectations based on money. We certainly respected him for his principle, and he would later prove to be an exceptional attendant based on his own merits.

Our conductor commented on the radio that we had many connecting passengers and much baggage from train 11, and the engineer notified the Metrolink River Sub dispatcher that we might depart a few minutes late. Indeed, we departed Los Angeles at 10:38 PM, eight minutes late. To my great surprise, we took the Union Pacific Alhambra Sub instead of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (which is the route that goes on the median of the Interstate 10 Freeway). The Sunset Limited / Texas Eagle usually takes this line for the first 11 miles, and switches to the Alhambra Sub (which is the original Southern Pacific Sunset Route) at El Monte. We went to the Lounge Car to stretch out and enjoy the scenery, as our car was too hot. Our train stopped to meet several UP freight trains early in the trip, and we departed Pomona about a half-hour late. Krista and I soon returned to our room, made up the beds, and went to sleep for the night, with me taking the upper bunk.

Thursday, July 3

I briefly awoke during our stops in Palm Springs and Yuma, and we woke for good at 6:45 AM to the bright Arizona desert sunrise streaming into our room. We soon got dressed and I peeked my head out the door at our station stop in Maricopa. The Maricopa "station" is the Silver Horizon, formerly a privately-owned round-end dome-lounge car, originally used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy on the California Zephyr. This recently operational car is now permanently stationary, with its innards having been removed to be replaced by a modest Amtrak ticket office and waiting room. Unfortunately, this isolated station, which is supposed to pass for service to Phoenix, may be abandoned by Amtrak if the State of Arizona does not provide upwards of $200,000 to lengthen the platform so that the Sunset Limited does not have to double- or triple-spot, blocking a local main thoroughfare for long lengths of time. If Arizona ever ponies up, why could this money not be put towards returning Amtrak to the UP Phoenix Line (which is out of service west of Phoenix) and serving America's eighth most populus city again? Stay tuned.

Also stretching at Maricopa was a railfan headed for the National Railroad Historical Society convention in Baltimore. Krista and took the long trek to the dining car and got our name on the waiting list for breakfast. After enjoying the scenery in the lounge for several minutes, we were called to eat, and we were seated with a couple from Tustin (in Orange County), who were headed for the Elks Lodge national convention in Saint Louis. I had the delicious Vegetable Frittata, while Krista had French Toast. To our left, smoke billowing from the nearby Aspen wildfires was clearly visible, but the inferno was far enough from the UP railroad to not pose a threat. As we finished breakfast, our train arrived into Tucson, and we detrained from the first coach. Tucson's ex-SP Amtrak station is undergoing major renovations, and will look radically improved once completed. I used the lengthy service stop to clean our room's windows from the exterior (an advantage to having a lower-level room). We didn't depart until 9:27 AM, 47 minutes late.

We spent the morning admiring the scenery from our room, which became increasingly warm during the course of the day. At Willcox, some time after Benson, our train stopped and backed up to allow ambulance access due to a medical emergency, which turned out to be a passenger having had heart attack in the coach in front of us. We never found out if the passenger survived, but the ambulance did show up quickly. Around 1:30 PM, we went to the dining car for the last call to be placed on the waiting list for lunch, and waited in the lounge for quite a while to be among the last passengers to be seated. The highlight of the sparse New Mexico scenery was numerous dust storms south of the I-10 freeway. We were eventually seated in the diner with an amiable couple from West Hills (in Los Angeles), the husband a home cabinet maker, and the wife an employee of the Mexican Government. I enjoyed the Grilled Chicken Sandwich (which I already knew to be very flavorful), and Krista had the Gardenburger, which is always a safe bet. We split a slice of Key Lime Pie for dessert, then decided to walk the entire length of the train to burn off some calories. We walked to the front of the 0231 sleeper, then walked the entire length of the train to the rear of our 2230 sleeper, a total round-trip distance of 20 car lengths! The dining car steward eventually came by for dinner reservations, and we opted to have dinner at 7:30 PM.

I began working on this travelogue while Krista worked on her computer, and the heat began to become unbearable. Mexico soon came into close view, and we crossed the Rio Grande. When we arrived in El Paso, Texas, I asked Bill what was wrong with the air conditioning system, and he indicated that the damper (distributor) was malfunctioning. In other words, the passengers in the A end of the car were freezing cold, while us passengers in the B end of the car were sweltering hot! He said that he would try his best to fix the problem, and indicated that he was already applying duct tape to the vents in the rooms on the A end, to avoid having to turn the air down.

After a US Border Patrol agent walked the train, we departed El Paso at 5:14 PM, almost an hour and a half late. Fortunately, we left the city under a brief thunderstorm, which helped to cool the temperature inside our car a bit. After more computer work, we went to the lounge to watch the varied Texas scenery and wait for our 7:30 PM dinner reservation. We went into a siding to be passed by a military equipment train, which consisted of various Army supply vehicles, likely returning from Iraq. Whether one supports war or not, the amount of industrial processes and resources needed to fuel a military campaign can never be underestimated.

Since we knew announcements weren't reaching the lounge car, we went into the diner at 7:30 sharp, and the steward told us and other waiting passengers that he hadn't called our time yet, but grudgingly seated us anyway. We had the pleasure of being seated across from an older couple, also traveling in our sleeping car for Chicago, who had Native American blood and strongly identified with that part of their heritage (even though they would appear "white" to most). It was a commitment that permeated infinite aspects of their ways of life, and provided for fascinating and engaging conversation. Krista opted to have the Catfish, and I had the Veal Chop. Both of our entrees were delicious, and we both ended the meal with vanilla ice cream and chocolate topping. We returned to our car and showered, and I made up the bed for the night. We departed Alpine almost 3 1/2 hours late, having lost much time since El Paso. Krista and I stayed up watching the countless stars underneath the vast desert sky, and eventually went to bed.

Friday, July 4, Independence Day

It was 227 years ago today that the founding fathers of the United States of America proclaimed their intent to free the nascent colonies from British imperialist tyranny. It was also on this day fifty years later, on July 4, 1826, that bitter political rivals John Adams (second President) and Thomas Jefferson (third President) passed away, while the legendary American musical composer Stephen Foster was born.

As for July 4, 2003, I awoke as our train lurched towards the recently rain-soaked San Antonio at 6:50 AM. While Krista stayed in bed, I got dressed to investigate our Texas Eagle section's splitting from the Sunset Limited. Head-end power was briefly turned off, and with a few quick jolts, we wound up on track 2, attached to the main daily Texas Eagle, with the Sunset Limited next to us on track 1. The ExpressTrak cars stayed on that train, and our sleeper truly became the last car on the train. After the Sunset's lengthy station work was completed, we officially arrived into San Antonio sometime near 8 AM, and the doors were opened. I exited the train into the warm, humid air to explore the Amtrak station, a single-story structure opened in 1999 after the original SP Sunset station was closed to passengers and transformed into an entertainment complex. While the new Amtrak station was charming, having been built in classic mission style, its interior space was completely inadequate for the volume of passengers waiting to board our train. I could not imagine how chaotic it must have been with them in addition to the Sunset Limited passengers, who had just departed.

I noted the lack of a sleeper in front of the diner, to allow for single-engine operation. I would have to later explore the use of part of the Transition Dorm car for revenue space. I boarded our car and watched as we departed at 8:18 AM, eighteen minutes late. To save labor costs, Amtrak had recently ceased dining car service between San Antonio and Fort Worth, with crews turning back to Chicago in Fort Worth. As a result, sleeping car passengers would be given cold boxed meals for that segment, much in the fashion of the Empire Builder's Portland section. Today, however, there were no boxed meals, and we would have to obtain our food from the lounge car. I walked forward, only to discover, along with other passengers from my sleeper, that the doors were still closed off between the section from Los Angeles and the main portion of the Texas Eagle. A conductor eventually came by to open the doors, and I went to the lounge, only to find a disappointing selection of breakfast foods. I got us both sausage and egg breakfast sandwiches, a glazed donut, and juice. We ate our atrociously bad breakfast in bed, and at 9 AM, went back to sleep for a nap. We awoke an hour and a half later during the train's stop in Austin, the capital city of Texas.

We departed from Austin at 10:31 AM, on-time, the first station from which we departed on schedule since our trip began! I made up the beds and we prepared for our day. Our room had become unbearably hot again, and we escaped to the cooler lounge to enjoy the gently rolling hills and markedly greener scenery than the desert landscapes which had reigned the previous day. I walked forward to inspect the Transition Dorm's 8 standard bedrooms in revenue use. The car attendant, Brian, who was sitting in the diner, cheerfully gave me a tour of the rooms and the shower, all of which looked to be in excellent shape. Meanwhile, a lady walked in from the coaches, having upgraded to a bedroom with the conductor. Our train arrived a few minutes early into Taylor and, knowing we would arrive fifteen minutes early into Temple, we went downstairs in one of the coaches to detrain. The conductor came down and asked about our trip. I informed him of our unfortunate mission, and he replied with bewilderment that he didn't even know the Kentucky Cardinal existed!

Our train diverged off Union Pacific tracks for the first time since leaving Los Angeles, onto the BNSF, and we arrived into Temple with plenty of time to spare. I walked to the front of the train to record our consist, which went as follows:
  • P42DC #145
  • Heritage Baggage Car #1211 (Phase IV)
  • Superliner II Transition Dorm Sleeper #39029 (2219)
  • Superliner I Diner #38018
  • Superliner I Sightseer Lounge #33023
  • Superliner I Smoking Coach #31545 (2210)
  • Superliner I Coach #34095 (2211)
  • Superliner I Coach #34010 (2215)
  • Superliner I Sleeper (Refurbished) #32052 (2230)
  • Superliner I Smoking Coach #31532 (STL-CHI)

I also used the opportunity to photograph the numerous pieces of historical rail equipment at the Temple ex-ATSF Amtrak station, which is historical in its own right. We departed on-time at 12:25 PM, and Krista and I went to the lounge for lunch. Unfortunately, the line was long, and, even worse yet, the menu was extremely depleted. (Bill later explained that there is no commissary in San Antonio, so train 22 must return with whatever provisions were leftover from train 21.) Fortunately, we were able to obtain tasty turkey and swiss sub sandwiches. We would also discover that supplies were running short in our car (particularly water), though Bill was always great about making sure there was as much soda, juice, and ice available as possible, and that there was almost always fresh coffee. Another sign of his greatness as an attendant was always being out and about in the halls to ensure everyone's needs would be attended to. After eating a leisurely lunch, Krista and I returned to our room to do computer work until our arrival into Fort Worth at 3:04 PM, six minutes late. (We had been running early, but stopped short of Tower 55 for a freight train to clear.) Krista and I detrained at the new Intermodal Transportation Center, which did not yet exist on my only previous trip on the Texas Eagle in 2000 (Amtrak still occupied the old Texas & Pacific station, until they and Trinity Railway Express consolidated into the ITC recently).

We did not let the intense heat hinder us, and we walked towards the end of the platform, where the trainset for the Heartland Flyer was parked nose-to-nose with our train. Bill took a picture of us with that train, and we returned to our car for an on-time departure at 3:20. The heat in our room once again became too much to handle, and we went to the cool and empty lounge car to relax. Our train backed past Tower 55, where we waited twenty minutes for a UP hopper train to clear, and for our southbound counterpart, train 21 (which had an identical consist as our train), to pass. We soon entered the usual UP line and enjoyed the scenery through Arlington. We got into a conversation with a mother and her 13 month-old daughter, who were headed from San Antonio to Dallas. It was their first time riding the train, which proved to be a lovely experience, as it would take the same amount of time as Greyhound, but much more pleasant! A few minutes later, the mother returned to ask for my help -- a passenger from her car was frantic because the woman's family was left on the platform in Fort Worth. I offered to lend my cell phone, but by the time we got to the coach, the lady was using someone else's. Fortunately, her family had found alternate transportation to Dallas and had already gotten there! All's well that ends well.

Krista and I returned to our car to receive dinner reservations for 5:30 PM from the dining car steward. I stepped off the train briefly at Dallas Union Station and snapped a picture of the book depository that served as Lee Harvey Oswald's perch when he assassinated President John F. Kennedy. We departed Dallas at 4:49 PM, nineteen minutes late, and Bill soon came to our room to tell us that he was working on moving us to cooler accommodations, either the Accessible Bedroom or, better yet, a Deluxe Bedroom. In the meantime, we worked on our computers until going to eat dinner with a rather reserved elderly couple from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Krista had the rich Pasta Primavera, while I delighted in the special, chicken stuffed with brie and raisins and topped with red sauce. Upon returning from dinner, after the on-time stop in Longview, Bill said that deluxe room B was ready for us, and we promptly moved our belonging to our new, spacious, and thoroughly air conditioned room. Bill's gesture of kindness would not be forgotten!

Our train stopped just short of Marshall and a freight train passed; presumably, we were in a siding that did not extend all the way to the station. It was frustrating that we would have been twenty minutes early. We soon pulled towards the station, but after being stopped momentarily, backed up to where we were after being given permission to backup by the dispatcher! Listening to the radio communications offered no clue as to what was happening, but yet another freight soon passed us. Finally, we passed the Marshall station at the scheduled departure time of 8:01 PM without our end of the train stopping. I suppose the necessary station work had already been done during the earlier stop, and we were on our way. This portion of the route between Minneola and Texarkana was new mileage for me, as my other trip on Texas Eagle was affected by the temporary "directional running" detour via Gilmer, Texas that UP forced upon Amtrak a few years back. We had hoped to see at least some Fourth of July fireworks, and we got our wish upon arrival into Texarkana, Texas / Arkansas, where we partially saw their municipal pyrotechnics display from a distance. We soon showered and made up the bed, going to sleep shortly after the stop at Malvern.

Saturday, July 5

We awoke near 7 AM rolling through the picturesque hills of Missouri. After being lazy and enjoying the scenery, we had breakfast with two gentlemen, one going to Chicago and the other to New York. I had the classic railroad breakfast of French Toast with turkey sausage links, while Krista enjoyed Pancakes. During our meal, the train hugged the Mississippi and Meramec Rivers, until the train entered the suburbs of Saint Louis after we returned to our room. We stopped for ten minutes, with Saint Louis on the horizon, to get permission to proceed from the Terminal Railroad Association dispatcher, then slowly proceeded over the rickety TRRA track. After passing the original Saint Louis Union Station, we arrived into the Amshack that passengers must now face. Krista and I detrained to stretch (presumably for the last time before Chicago) and take pictures. Superliner I Smoking Coach 31532 was added behind our car for added capacity to Chicago, reaching Amtrak's maximum allowable load for single-engine operation of 9 cars. After all servicing was done, we departed at 9:15 AM, a half-hour late. We, along with two other passengers, crowded the hall to photograph downtown Saint Louis and the signature Gateway Arch as we crossed the Mississippi River and entered the State of Illinois.

At the mostly abandoned steel production center of Granite City, we waited for permission to enter the Gateway Western Railroad, and moved at a modest speed over its jointed rail. I can't be sure, but I think Amtrak's local trains between Chicago and Saint Louis utilize the parallel Norfolk Southern tracks between Granite City and Alton, which have much better infrastructure than the Gateway Western. Considering that these are the same trains that will soon utilize the Positive Train Control system to allow for 110-mph operation over much of the route, I could not imagine that they would use these tracks which have a speed limit of 39 mph! Sadly, these tracks are in better shape than those of the LIRC, which we would soon experience on the Kentucky Cardinal. At Lenox, we diverged onto the UP, and quickly reached 79 mph. In Wood River Township, we passed a UP yard with numerous deadlines of old locomotives.

Upon arrival in Alton, the conductor opened the rear coach and boarded some of the passengers there, sandwiching our sleeper between coaches. I went to the beverage service area to try to salvage any beverages that were out, but Bill was on the ball as always, having beat me to the punch and removed them -- a smart move! We departed Alton 10:07 AM, thirty-five minutes late. Before detraining in Chicago, Krista and I made a point to shower again, as we would not be able to do so until Louisville. The train remained between a half-hour and an hour late, until the usual freight delays approaching to Chicago. We finally arrived into Chicago Union Station at 3:38 PM, one hour thirteen minutes late (coincidentally enough, our train 22 arrived on track 22). After giving Bill a much-deserved, healthy gratuity, we proceeded to the Metropolitan Lounge, which was surprisingly empty given the typically busy time of day, though travel tends not to be terribly heavy on the Saturday of Independence Day weekend.

Click on the below links to view each set of photos:
Set #01 - Texas Eagle out of Los Angeles
Set #02 - Texas Eagle through Arizona
Set #03 - Texas Eagle through Arizona
Set #04 - Texas Eagle through New Mexico
Set #05 - Texas Eagle at El Paso
Set #06 - Military train
Set #07 - Texas Eagle at San Antonio
Set #08 - Trans. Sleeper in revenue service, Texas Eagle at Temple
Set #09 - Texas Eagle at Fort Worth
Set #10 - Texas Eagle between Fort Worth and Dallas
Set #11 - Texas Eagle at Dallas
Set #12 - Texas Eagle through Missouri
Set #12 - Texas Eagle at Saint Louis
Set #13 - Gateway Arch, Texas Eagle through Illinois
Set #14 - Texas Eagle through Illinois

Click here for the next segment of this travelogue:
The Final Run of the Amtrak Kentucky Cardinal

Questions? Comments? E-mail matt@trainweb.com .

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