Railroading North America

February 6, 2016

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief / 43:00 hours / 2265 miles / Los Angeles to Chicago

=== INDEX to this POST ===

01 == MAP Amtrak Map of the Route & Introduction
02 == HISTORY of the Santa Fe Chief, and The Santa Fe’s iconic Theme Song
03 == DAY 1 / Los Angeles, Departing (Day 1)
04 == FOOD Menu & The Santa Fe Chief French Toast Recipe
05 == DAY 2 / California to Arizona (Days 1-2)
06 == DAY 2 / Albuquerque

07 == DAYS 2/3 / New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas
07 == DAY 3 / Kansas City
08 == DAY 3 / Missouri & Illinois
09 == DAY 3 / Chicago (arriving, end)

The Chief runs daily — Train 3, Chicago to Los Angeles; Train 4, Los Angeles to Chicago



At 5:45 pm in early March 2011, we boarded Amtrak’s Southwest Chief at the Los Angeles Union Station. Over the next 43 hours, snugly in the largest and best sleeper accommodations that Amtrak offers (which, jeech — cost a fortune), we rode to the end of the line, Chicago’s Union Station.

(CLICK to ENLARGE) Where’s the Los Angeles station? Union Station is located north of Highway 101 in downtown Los Angeles. The address is 800 North Alameda, Los Angeles, California 90012.

So how was it? What’s the best and the worse? A few things surprised; some disappointed; and several things truly appalled: A dining car attendant, angered that I requested a larger plate in order to split a meal with my wife, smashed the smaller plate he had provided in front of us and stomped off.

We’ll tell the story and illustrate it day by day over the next few days. But before we begin, here’s a little history about this once proud train.

The Southwest Chief follows the route of one of the most famous, and respected, passenger trains in history — the Santa Fe Super Chief. Santa Fe was fastidious about the quality of the Super Chief which ran daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. It sent a representative out to scour for Indian artifacts to sell in its stations along the route and became famous for its wares. Once when the train ran late the head of the Santa Fe railroad sent a note to his head of operations which stated “the Super Chief will be on time tomorrow” and it was, and it remained on time.

The Santa Fe Super Chief, from a 1940s postcard. It was not that Amtrak ran a bad train after taking over the Super Chief’s passenger route in 1971, it was that they were unable to run a train that matched the quality and meticulous excellence that marked the train. The Santa Fe eventually made Amtrak surrender the name, Super Chief, and the Santa Fe retired the name.

The story of the Sante Fe Super Chief is a great story, well documented and written about. An excellent primer, with links to additional information, can be found HERE. A second must-read, especially for those interested in the equipment the Santa Fe, can be found HERE.

When the Santa Fe surrendered the Super Chief to Amtrak in 1971, they retained the right to withdraw the name, Super Chief, from the train if Amtrak did not keep the strict high quality that had charactered the train. Amtrak gave it the old college try, but had neither the resourcers, nor the inclination. Soon the Santa Fe came calling and took the name, “Super Chief” away. Amtrak quickly renamed the train which runs the route of the old Super Chief, “the Southwest Chief”, and that name endures forty years after the real Super Chief last plied these rails.

No story of the Super Chief is complete without mention of the Harvey Houses and Mary E.J. Colter who designed the restaurants and furnished them with remarkable artifacts from the Indian culture found along the route of the Super Chief. A living last example of her work is on display still in Union Station in Los Angeles in the architectural style Streamline Moderne where, although the restaurant is long closed, views of what once was the Los Angeles Harvey House can be seen by peering through the window. Learn more about Ms. Colter and the Harvey Houses HERE.

In 1946 MGM released the musical motion picture, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland with the song, “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” written by Johnny Mercer. Although Judy Garland sang the song in the motion picture, Johnny Mercer sang and recorded his own version. Mercer’s version, not Judy Garland’s became the Number One hit in the country. The song was widely covered in the years following by Bing Crosby and others. It became an standard and a great promotion for the Santa Fe which would later use the song in commercials in the 1970s (VIEW HERE). This is a great song and a great piece of music — if you’re not familiar with it, give a listen below. And if you are familiar with it, come enjoy it again …
Johnny Mercer’s number one hit version is HERE.
Judy Garland’s version reached number four on the charts and is HERE.

To say this journey got off to a shaky start is putting it mildly. The last time we traveled out of Union Station in Los Angeles there was a first class lounge and Amtrak staff greeted us, provided us with coffee, loaded us and our bags onto a golf cart and deposited us at the door of the train. Waiting for us at the side of the train, our car attendant took our bags, and placed them upstairs in our compartment.

Platform 11, Los Angeles’ Union Station, On right, the side of the Amtrak Southwest Chief, Train 04, reflects light from the platform against its side.

That was the Amtrak Coast Starlight, Los Angeles to Seattle, in November 2010 (scroll down).

This time we were boarding the Amtrak Southwest Chief. What a difference taking a different train makes. What a difference a few months has made in services at Los Angeles’ Union Station.

In March 2011 the first class lounge that was in the Los Angeles station in November 2010 was gone (“we’re working getting a first class lounge,” we were told). Hmmm. What did you do with the one you had?

Fair enough — no lounge. How will we find our train? “Hang loose like everybody else near the departure board and we’ll call you” — which we did and they did. No surprise — it was a mess.

Then we began a trek, suitcases and all, 11 gates down the concourse underground and then up the long ramp where two guys dressed in Amtrak uniforms were talking and blocking the way. In no time we joined others traveling on our sleeping car in calling them Moe & Curley.

Where exactly did the Amtrak First Class lounge, so nice, so convenient and so stocked with golf carts as recently as November 2010 go? Here’s the ramp at Track 11, at the top of which were two car attendants, neither interested in helping, and a final climb up a narrow staircase to our Sleeping Compartment. We have had good service on Amtrak trains before — not great, but good. We weren’t even on the train and we already hated our can attendants — and, by the way, since when does Amtrak have two attendants working a single sleeping car? The answer was one was training the other.

…Moe & Curley…
Amtrak personnel were at the top of the ramp but largely uninterested in helping passengers find their cars. Eventually when we did find our car, Moe and his chum Curley (names have been changed because some Amtrak hired help are beyond humilation) were hanging around busy in conversation. We were looking for Car 430, and I suspected Moe was leaning against the number of the car, not that it mattered. They were blocking entrance to our car anyway, and clearly neither planned to step aside and let us on.

“Lots of bags you got there ma’am.” Well, yeah, and …

Eventually we were able to get Curley to take a look at our tickets but he immediately declared that our tickets were smudged so badly he couldn’t determine where we were supposed to go. Apparently we looked like Coach customers to him, however. He informed us he was working a sleeper car, and that the coach cars were down the way somewhere in the gathering darkness, and, by the way, we might want to shake a leg because the train was getting ready to leave.


“Maybe I can help you find my car,” I suggested. “We paid $1,200 for this two day ride to Chicago.”

That interested both of them – they wondered, as did I, what kind of nut would pay that kind of money to ride on a train, especially one on which they were working.

The bunks in our sleeping compartment run from side-to-side not front-to-back in relation to the train. This layout, which is also found on Via Rail Canada trains in eastern Canada, makes for a much smoother and more comfortable ride. Yes, those are my feet on the left. I am lying on the couch in the compartment. The bathroom is to my right, just inside the door. Carol Anne is in a chair on the right wearing her heavy “Queen Victoria” sweatshirt which, luckily, we copped the last day on the Queen Victoria for 12-bucks. The compartment was cold because the car attendant had forgotten to turn the heat on before he left Los Angeles. He figured it out in New Mexico.

So Moe looked again and conferred with Curley who took a peek. Surprise: “That means you get a room with our own shower and toilet!”

They had it figured out.

His thumb been covering our car and compartment number.

…Baggage lugging…
No reason to start working on a tip when the end of the journey was still 43 hours ahead.

We were invited onto the train, and instructed on how to lug our luggage upstairs, which my wife began trying to do.

When moments later I blocked the stairs with our luggage as I tried to move our six bags upstairs, interest was finally taken, and irritation was expressed: Curley now wanted to get up the stairs himself (an unannounced donut sale perhaps on the second level of the car?). He brusquely cleared the stairway leaving our luggage in the hallway but out of his way. We moved our stuff into our room ourselves.

Nonetheless, help like this is more fun to watch than people who care – could they out-awful the Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) in 2008? They were off to a solid start.

…Six Bags?…
Now, time out for a question: Six bags? Did I just say we were hauling six bags? It’s true — six, count’um six.

We had a fair amount of computer and photographic gear with us — several computers, several cameras, several severalseveralseverals, on and on. This was not a trip of simply 43 hours on a train. When we left Florida weeks earlier, it was to begin a journey that would eventually span 12,000 miles and place us in all types of weather from tropical to sub-freezing. Events along the way additionally would require formal clothes on occasion, and casual on others. Need I mention Carol Anne is a woman? Believe it or not, we had packed lean.

…Good-bye LA / The first evening…
The train left on time at 6:15 pm and soon enough our car attendant duo glided in to brief us on our room, emphasizing their real role was to keep us safe if anything awful should happen. Like, say, if my wife strains her back hauling luggage up narrow stairs on your car trying to get around the two of you?


The observation cars on the Southwest Chief are comfortable and first rate. A snack bar is downstairs so, for Coach class customers, this is almost a perfect place to camp. Plenty of sleeping car customers also wind up here too because of the stunning array of windows allowing views from both sides of the train.

Then what kind of terrible things did they have in mind to keep us safe from?


Soon these two car attendants became three car attendants (a guy from an adjoining car showed up). His arrival meant that now all, or parts of all five people, were now in our compartment. They had come, they said, to tell us what we already had figured out: where the light switches and electrical plugs were.

“What about dinner? We’re hungry. Because we’ve been hauling six bags and …”

They were Car Guys. A Dinner Babe will be along later — we should talk to her.

Finally, we were told, not asked, our room would be made into beds at 8 pm. That we figured had a ring of truth –Afterall, the faster they made up the sleepers, the faster they could go to bed themselves. We figured that’d do it by 7:30 pm.

We were wrong. Were they were in another time zone?

After 9 pm came and went, I went and found find them. They were chatting as usual; I asked them to make up our compartment: “No problem!”

Now I learned that one of our two sleeper car attendants was training the other.

No kidding? — which one was training which?

04 = FOOD & The Santa Fe French Toast Recipe

Cover of the March 2011 Amtrak Southwest Chief Menu. There are separate menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, children and beverages. French Toast costs $7.50.

AMTRAK MENU “Southwest Chief/Dining Menu” – PAGES at RIGHT >>>
The snack bar is downstairs in the observation car and has sandwiches, soft drinks, including Coke which is not offered in the Dining Car (why in the snack bar, but not the dining car? — no one could tell me). Items in the snack bar are more reasonably priced than the Dining Car, but that is relative — nothing is priced anywhere near what you can purchase food items for off the train. Best bet is, unless you are in a Sleeping Car where all of your meals are provided with your ticket, backpack your own food and drinks on board.

Carol Anne waits to enter the Dining Car. Sometimes lines get long and to be seated passengers have to wait in the next car.

The food is the Dining Car is solid and serviceable. They do some things much better than others. Steaks are generally pretty good although quite pricey if you’re having to pay for it. Vegetables, not so good — more often than not vegetables are cold on almost every Amtrak train we have ridden — and if not cold, then chilly. This suggests Amtrak chefs are microwaving, and not always microwaving thoroughly.

Nonetheless, this isn’t a gourmet train so don’t expect gourmet food.

We do need to mention the Amtrak French Toast, however — and the history of French Toast on this train.

The Santa Fe Chief was famous for its French Toast and people who traveled her still get misty about how great it was. Today, 40 years later, the staff on board that we chatted with had never heard about the Santa Fe French Toast. Well, why would they? As one waiter told me, “I wasn’t even born in 1974” when the Amtrak “Super Chief” became the Amtrak “Southwest Chief”. So no one we talked to on the Southwest Chief knew whether the French Toast being served in the Dining Car was the old Santa Fe French Toast recipe. We suspect the current recipe is not the Santa Fe’s recipe. If it is, it is not produced with the exacting quality the Sante Fe used to lavish on its French Toast.

But no matter — if you want the old Santa Fe French Toast recipe, you’ll find it HERE. And, if you do ride the current iteration of The Chief, you’ve got to eat French Toast on board. I mean, come on, how can you ride the Southwest Chief on the rails where railroad French Toast became famous without ordering a helping?


The Santa Fe route map, California, Nevada, Arizona and part of New Mexico. Today the Southwest Chief follows the same main route; the feeder lines are, f course, long gone. Date of the map is unknown..

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief leaves the Los Angeles Union Station at 6:15 pm, and the first night runs across California, Nevada and Arizona. As dawn comes, the Southwest Chief is nearing New Mexico. If it is winter, and if the Moon is not full, little can be seen of the Grand Emptiness that the train has passed through during the night. But if you are taking the train in the summer, where there are longer days, or if you have chosen a night when the Moon is full, you will have seen quite a lot if you have chosen to remain awake.

If you are an early riser, you have noticed the first of the longer stops at Flagstaff, AZ. Here, 566 miles into your 2,265 mile trip, the Southwest Chief has paused briefly at 5:30 am. Smokers have piled off the train for a few minutes. Flagstaff is high country, and is south of the Grand Canyon. If you are on the west coast, Amtrak would be a pleasant, albeit abbreviated, overnight ride for a vacation at the Grand Canyon. In more gentile times, the old Santa Fe Chief stopped west of here at Williams, and a second train carried visitors by train up to the Canyon. The Santa Fe was an important promoter in the development of the Grand Canyon.

Today most visitors go to the Canyon by car, but a train actually does still run daily from Williams and you can check that schedule HERE and get lots of other interesting information about the history of the train as well.

… The Sleeping Compartments …

CLICK to ENLARGE / The Superliner Bedroom on the Southwest Chief is 6’6″ by 7’6″. The lower berth is larger than the upper — 3’4″ x 6’3″ versus 2’4″ x 6’2″. The bathroom and shower are in a separate enclosed room in the compartment. This is the room that we booked.

Our Southwest Chief has two engines, a baggage car, three sleepers, a diner, an observation car and two coach cars – a total of 10 cars, including the engines.

What we found interesting is that there are more sleeper cars on the train than coach cars.

Sleepers are substantially more expensive, and if you secure the largest sleeper as we did, the cost on the day we were traveling was an astronomical $1,200 for tickets for the two of us and a room with a private shower and toilet. Amtrak has three classes of sleepers — the Family Bedroom which sleeps four (no shower or toilet); the Superliner Bedroom which sleeps two (private shower and toilet); and the Superliner Roomette which sleeps two in a smaller area than the Superliner bedroom (the shower and toilet are down the hall).

You can find diagrams and information on all three classes of sleeper on the Southwest Chief under PAGES Southwest Chief/Sleepers on the RIGHT >>>

We were in these stately digs for several reasons: first, it was not because we are filthy rich or into spending frivolously, although I will admit that can be fun. We booked this compartment because we wanted to know if this room really was more comfortable than the smaller sleepers. It is.

We did not consider booking the family bedroom which sleeps four, has much more room, but has no private bathroom or shower.

Since we were carrying a large amount of luggage and since this train trip was coming at the end of a much longer journey, would the extra room help? It might have if we weren’t carrying so much stuff or if we have been trusting enough to put some of our luggage in the public bins downstairs at the exit doors of the train. We weren’t.

… Enroute, Day 2 ...

Spectacular views of the desert are on both sides of the train. I-40 runs for much of the way just to the north through Arizona and New Mexico before the route turns north and east.

By Saturday morning California and Arizona were behind us and we are in New Mexico. The grandeur and the colors of the desert was stunning in the bright morning sun.

It has been a cold night crossing the desert. Nothing we tried would warm our compartment.

In Canada on ViaRail I faced a similar problem before realizing that the window shades on Canadian trains are actually insulating. When I drew the shades on the Canadian trains, my compartment was instantly warm. Not so on Amtrak apparently. Nothing, including bundling in our ski clothing, could keep us warm. We were very uncomfortable.

We have mellowed toward the crew, but that won’t last the day. This morning we are forgiving because they were training new personnel, and it was not going well. Vincent was training Greg in our sleeping car, and over in the dining car, just next door, another new hire working as a waiter was struggling with how to take our orders.

The crews on Amtrak trains rotate jobs. On one train an attendant may be working the dining car. Then on his/her next train, they may be working a sleeping compartment (one attendant per car) or the lounge cars (1 attendant for two cars). They also rotate and work the snack bar on some trains. So they must be trained to do all of these jobs.

At breakfast, with the order taking becoming a hash, a more experienced and senior dining car attendant steps in and sorts out our orders. When I ask this older dining car attendant if the recipe for the breakfast menu French Toast is the old Santa Fe Super Chief receipe he looks confused, and asks when Santa Fe ran this road. I reply Amtrak took it over in 1971 and he shrugs. “I wasn’t born in 1971.”

The dining car has only tables for four so, unless you are traveling with a lot of people, you’re going to meet a lot of new people while dining. The people you meet along the way is one of the best parts of train travel. Introduce yourself. Ask them where they are from and what they do/did for a living and get ready to hear some wonderful life stories. Food is free for those in sleeper cars and costs a fortune if you are traveling in Coach.

I decide to order the French Toast anyway. I eat most of it decide that it is the old Santa Fe recipe, although not prepared with the loving care that Santa Fe once devoted to it. Eaten as served it was middling fare at best.

I didn’t ralph it back up.

… Dining Companions #1 — the Contest Winner …

We had dinner Friday night with a woman and her daughter, a ninth grader, from Omaha. They are on their way back to Kansas City from Los Angeles, and will drive home to Omaha after leaving the train.

The mother has won a contest on an Omaha radio station that gave her a free roundtrip to any of three Amtrak destinations plus accommodations at an upscale hotel for three night. She chose to go from Kansas City to Los Angeles and back because she has relatives there and years ago lived in Los Angeles.

She and her daughter have stayed both with relatives and at the new Marriott at Staples Center, a gorgeous hotel. They have had a wonderful time together and later the daughter confides to us that she and her mother had grown apart, as happens when teens hit 14 or 15, but they have re-bonded on this trip which has made her very happy. The daughter has been to Disneyland for the first time, and to an In-N-Out burger (we are reverential about IOB as most most who frequent the west coast, including now the daughter). And they have done and seen lots, lots more.

When the mother received notification that she had won, it had come by email and, thinking it was spam, she had deleted it. When the station, one of the Clear Channel stations, persisted in trying to contact her, she finally called them and asked if this was for real and discovered, to her surprise, that it was. She had entered a contest on line months before and had forgotten about it.

… The Amtrak Route Guide …

The Southwest Chief’s Route Guide is a gem. Download it by following the link in this section and at least glance through it before boarding the train. You’ll find that you’ll be passing lots of things easily visible that you probably had no idea were out there.

On most routes Amtrak publishes a perfectly superb Route Guide. The Guide is packed with information, such as job descriptions of the personnel on board and various other useful tips.

But the most valuable part of the Route Guide is the myriad of detail about what is along the route visible just outside your window. The Guide is not merely a reciting of station stops, or of the towns along the way. The Guide points out all kinds of points of interest.

The Guide should be in each sleeping compartment tucked in with other information along the window (repeat: it should be). Hector your car attendant and get one if it is not there. I’m not sure of the availability of the Guide elsewhere on the train, but no matter — : the Guides are available on the Amtrak web site. Just follow the link and instructions in the next paragraph, then download and print your own copy.

You should download a copy before you climb on the train even if you are traveling in a sleeper.

(CLICK to ENLARGE) An excerpt from the perfectly excellent Amtrak Route Guide for the Southwest Chief. Most Amtrak routes also have Route Guides easily found on the web page about that particular route. A link to download the Southwest Chief Route Guide is found a paragraph or two up.

You’ll get lots more out of your trip if you glance over the Route Guide before you get on the train because you’ll find things along the route that you will want to see, and which, without reading the Guide in advance, you would have had no idea about.

The downloadable Southwest Chief Route Guide is HERE Once on this page, look halfway down on the righthand side under the map for a link that reads “Printable Route Guide”/ Click this and the Guide will download. Other useful information about the Southwest Chief is also on this page so look around.

By the way, the Amtrak web site is improving. A couple of years ago we found it confusing and clunky, but someone at Amtrak has been busy.

Today the Amtrak site is packed with information and happily the information is easy to find. Our favorite on the site, besides the Route Guides, is the guide to the stations. The station information includes phone numbers, hours and street locations.

Finding an Amtrak station in some cities is not as easy as you might think; Amtrak’s on-line web listings are helpful.

06 == DAY 2 / Albuquerque …..
Albuquerque is one of the two long stops on the Southwest Chief. The other is Kansas City.

Crew change. Engineers (right) board train shortly before Noon, March 5, 2011, in Albuquerque. In the distance further down the train, a diesel truck re-fuels the train after its run from Los Angeles overnight.

Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico and quite old. It was first settled as a Spanish outpost in 1706. Two major Interstates intersect here (I-40 and I-25) in addition to the city being a railroad hub.

Officially the train in March 2011 was due to arrive in Albuquerque at 11:42 am and leave at 12:10 pm. The day we took Train 4, we arrived much earlier and had more than an hour.

Amtrak builds flex time into its schedules in an attempt to stay on time. This is important because Amtrak has agreements with the freight lines regarding the times it is allowed to run freely on their tracks. When an Amtrak train runs late, it can wind up running very late, indeed, because freight trains will reclaim their tracks pushing Amtrak aside. That’s the deal.

Therefore, if the Southwest Chief is running late, it has about half an hour in Albuquerque to try to get back on schedule. The Southwest Chief will leave Albuquerque at 12:10 pm no matter what time it arrives. If it is running late, as happened to us on the Empire Builder in November 2010 in Minneapolis, the train will pause only briefly before hurrying on.

The Albuquerque Train Station is new, clean, sparkling and an homage to New Mexico’s culture. You can also catch buses and commuter trains from this same building.

The train station, and its surroundings, is worth a walk around if time permits. The station is new, although it has been built charmingly retro. It is part of a larger transportation center that includes an adjoining bus station. Exiting the station onto the street, you’ll find some fun street art.

The train arrives at about Noon which means you’ll likely have a chance to notice the stunning sunlight in Albuquerque. The movie industry loves this place because of the sunlight. Sandia is nearby to the east and the sunlight gorgeously plays on its peaks. There’s also a lot of nuclear here — much of the scientific work on development of the atomic bomb during World War II (1941-1945) was done nearby — and I-29 which runs south to here is “the nuclear highway”. The city even used to have — and probably still does have — a museum devoted to nuclear weapons at the nearby Kirkland Air Force base on one side of the Albuquerque airport.

For shopping, head down the platform toward the back of the train. For street art, and a look outside the terminal, walk through the station and out. Here you’ll find this. We’re not sure what it is, but we are sure the gentleman on the left has no more idea what it is than we did.

In Albuquerque on the platform you’ll usually find Indian artifacts for sale, spread out on blankets. Generally, they are usually located on the platform at the end of where the train parks.

Leaving Albuquerque, the route slows and now turns north and begins climbing into mountains with gullies and ridges. A leisurely afternoon of slow travel is ahead as the train works its way up easternmost New Mexico and by evening enters the southeasternmost corner of Colorado after passing through the Raton Pass and Uncle Dick Wootten’s ranch (story just below).

By now the Southwest Chief has climbed fully a mile above sea level as it turns north and easterly onto the flat plains and crosses in Kansas.

… Uncle Dick Wootten and the Santa Fe …
On Saturday afternoon we have wound our way around a curve passing the well-marked Wootten Ranch which was built by “Uncle Dick” Wootten, a 19th century guy with a resume longer than your arm. Wootten was a trapper, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, guide, teacher, yaddadadda, including operator of a toll road. He was also involved in politics — the story is that the first meeting to consider statehood for Colorado was held in the second story of his store. Maybe, or maybe this guy had a terrific public relations sense and knew how to promote himself.

What does intrigue us about Mr. Wootten was his ability to negotiate a killer deal with the Santa Fe. You can read more about this truly engaging character HERE.

In 1878, instead of selling right of way, he got free groceries and free passage on the railroad for both himself and his wife for life. We’re not sure how long Mr. Wootten lived, or what he died of — but if he lived too long, we wouldn’t be surprised if the railroads had not sent someone out to terminate his contract. The 19th century was like that, you know.

… fighting the cold in our sleeping compartment …

Our compartment came with no heat, and by dawn of the second day we were bundled in our ski clothes, ski cap and gloves. At first our car attendant lamented about the age of the Amtrak rolling stock, but when we persisted he looked around and discovered he had failed to turn the heat on in the car before leaving Los Angeles. (Pete, self-portrait)

As evening approached, we decided to engage our car attendant on the issue of no heat. It was cold outside, and plenty cold inside. We had spent the first night bundled up trying to keep warm and weren’t looking forward to a second night of the same.

Frostbite was lurking.

Moe appeared distraught about our plight, and oozed sympathy. But, alas:

“These are old trains — twenty years old or more,” Moe said.”There’s really nothing I can do.”

“Well, something must be done,” I replied. We were considering burning the sheets and any wooded items we could find in our compartment for warmth. We were willing, in fact, to burn down the entire sleeping car or train itself.

“We cannot have that,” we were told sternly. “Did you just say you were considering starting a fire on this train?”

“I see nothing in the train rules that say I cannot start a fire on board, so long as my fire does not have smoke. There is no smoking on the train, but nothing about no fires.”

This was not sitting well, but, after a bit more of this preposterous banter, Moe agreed to go look around and see what he could do. “I doubt very much that I can help,” he said, but being the kind of guy he is, he sure was willing to give it his all. Plus, I’m pretty sure he wanted to get away from us as fast as he could.

He vanished.

But in moments, he was back — and he had had success!

“The heat was not turned on downstairs,” he proudly told us. “I turned it on!” And that appeared to be true because heat was now flowing into our compartment.

Our geriatric sleeping car could produce heat after all!

But only if the car attendant turns it on.

07 == DAYS 2/3 / New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas

… across Kansas to Kansas City …
The train rans in darkness across the flats of Kansas all night, darting into and out of the towns, pausing for only a few moments. By dawn we were on the outskirts of Kansas City and, again an hour early, we pulled into the old, classic, gorgeous Kansas City station.

07 == DAY 3 / Kansas City

The Kansas City skyline viewed through wire mesh, looking north from the station’s walkway adjacent to the tracks.

Kansas City was bitterly cold, but I bolted from the train and headed for the station. I have spent a fair amount of time in Kansas City, including covering the 1976 Republican National Convntion here. And I have been in this station before — I love the place. I wanted to go visit it and have a look.

… the Kansas City train station …
The Kansas City train station, like the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles and Chicago, are worth a long walk around. Happily, the Southwest Chief stops in Kansas City for about forty-five minutes, and on the day we were on board, the train was early affording even more time to have a look around.

Entrance to the trains. Most of the great train station cathdrals in the United States survive in one form or another. Some, like the St. Louis Union Station, became shopping and hotel malls while some, Portland, Seattle, Chicago. Los Angeles and others still have passenger traffic. The destruction of one of the most beloved amd famous train stations, Pensylvannia Station at 34th street in New York, so outraged people that it marked the beginning to architectural preservation in the United States in the early 1960s. The building is gone, but the station remains — Penn Station today is buried under Madison Square Garden and remains a busy passenger depot.

The tracks are a fair amount of distance from the station. A long climb up stairs and a hike awaits anyone boarding or leaving the train. There is an elevator. Passengers waiting to board gather in a waiting room in the end of the long walkway and, when the train is ready to board them, off they go. But there really is nothing to stop anyone from heading on down whenever he or she want and getting on board that we could see.

We exited the train and went into the station passing the passengers waiting to board, and then walked right past them again and re-boarded the train. No one asked to see our ticket (good thing, because I had not brought it off the train with me) nor did anyone stop us.

The Kansas City train station opened in October 1914 and was the second largest train station in the country at the time at 850,000 square feet. The architecture, common for the grand railroad stations built in the latter 19th and early 20th century, is Beaux-Arts. Walk outside the main entrance and you are at the location of one of the noir gangster killing locations. On June 17, 1933, Kansas City mobsters trying to free gangster Frank Nash killed four FBI agents.

Inside the station don’t miss the three chandeliers each of which weight 3,500 pounds or the Grand Hall clock whose face alone if six feet in diameter. When you look up at the ceiling in the Grand Hall you are gazing up 95-feet. The building fell on hard times after train traffic peaked in 1945 at 680,000 passengers. By 1973 the fourteen train companies once serving the station had fallen to one, Amtrak, and the future of the station (passenger traffic 33,000 by now) was in doubt. Happily, local city officials rallied and the station has been saved. Like other great stations, it now has multi-uses. Unlike some stations like the St. Louis Union station where the trains no longer come, the Kansas City station remains an Amtrak station.

08 == DAY 3 / Missouri & Illinois
Leaving Kansas City, the countryside becomes gently rolling hills as the train passes north of the Ozark Mountains and crosses the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States. It begins in Montana and ends 2,500 miles later when it joins the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. This is green and amiable country to see. The train route winds north and east finally passing into a small corner of Iowa at Fort Madison and then, almost as quickly, passing over the Mississippi River into Illinois.

The Fort Madison Bridge over the Mississippi River spans Iowa and Illinois. Like many bridges, it is hard to get a good look at it. Today, the bridge built in 1927 is the last remaining example of its type of architecture on the Mississippi.

The bridge at Fort Madison over the Mississippi is worth a look, but only imperfectly can be seen – and even then, it can be seen only from the right-hand side of the train as the train curves just after leaving Fort Madison. This is the last remaining double swing-span bridge on the Mississippi and it is ancient – built in 1927. The top level is for cars; the bottom for trains.

By now the Southwest Chief is only about three hours from Chicago and the crew is becoming restless. Dining car attendants are nudging passengers to eat up and leave. At lunch our waiter took away our dishes and bid us good-bye before offering us desert which grudgingly he did serve. Here too was the waiter who when we asked for a larger plate to split a meal smashed the small one he had given us angrily. Meals are included in Sleeper class, so we were actually saving Amtrak food since we had long since stopped starving. You will not starve on Amtrak in sleeper class – the meals just keep coming.

… wait! — dirty pillowcases? …
Moe and Curley were back after a long absence. They wanted all of the trash. Then they wanted our sheets. Then they wanted to pillows. Zip/Zap/Zup. They just keep circling back after grabbing this thing and that. I have never quite understood this hectoring of passengers but it occurs on each Amtrak trip. I decided to challenge Curley on the pillows:

The way they handle things suggests Amtrak does not routinely change the pillows cases in the Sleepers. Geech! What about the sink (above) — do they clean it? And what about the shower and that toilet? Oh. My. God.

“Why don’t you wait until the train arrives and then gather them after the passengers leave?” I ask. I have assumed that it is because they themselves want to flee the train as quickly as possible, but the answer did intrigue:

“The train goes directly to the shop and there is no time to gather the pillows,” he said. “The cars immediately get made up into other trains and sent out again.

I thought about that and guessed part of that made sense. Amtrak really cannot leave their trains sitting around the tracks in the station, I suppose, in the way of other trains. As for sending the cars immediately out on other trains? What other trains? The Southwest Chief leaves for Los Angeles an hour before our train arrives. But maybe it’s true.

The real problem is where the pillows go – right into the overhead bunk in our compartment. No new pillowcases or anything – just heaved up there an hour or so before the train arrives in Chicago. It takes very little to wait until the car attendant vanishes, then open the overhead bunk and take the pillows out and continue to use them. It’s not like you’re using someone’s clean pillow case or anything … and by the way, you might want to remember that: You’re putting your head on a dirty pillow case that may have made many trips before it got changed.

Unless they change the pillow cases after passenger leave the train – but if they do, what’s the purpose of taking them away from passengers and putting them in overhead bunks that must be first opened by those charged with changing the pillow cases?

09 == DAY 3 / Chicago (arriving, end)
The train was ahead of time.

Getting off the train is not the easiest thing in the world. In Chicago the platform is narrow and chances are you’re going to get stuck behind some very slow people. Be patient. Moreover, you will not be penalized if you have traveled in sleeping class. The coach cars are closer to the front of the train and the train has pulled straight in. Sleeper car passengers are at the end of the line, but the good news is younger and more vigorous kids tend to travel coach and they vanish quickly. It’s you fellow sleeper class geriatrics that will hold you up.

… baggage claim …
We took what we needed and had checked everything else, except for our electronic gear. Amtrak is quite efficient in getting the bags off the train and into the baggage claim area. We waited only a few minutes. That is because not a lot of people check baggage.

Galesburg, IL, is one of the last few stops before Chicago. The city is charming and the station charminger. Is charminger a word? You know what I mean. By the way my great grandmother was married in Galesburg in the 1870s to a Civil War veteran, Simon Peter Evans. I was named for the guy.

Within minutes we were outside threading our way through the confusing taxi stand area. Instead of a dispatcher, the cabs at the station dispatch themselves, but there are usually several street people acting like they are dispatchers, signaling cabs to move up and trying to put your bags in the taxi. Keep your nags with you, if you are catching a cab, and ignore those trying to help you. Walk to the next available cab and the driver will assist you. Be wary in the cabstand area to keep you luggage with you and in sight.

Why Chicago allows this confusion to exist beats me – but it’s happened each time I have passed through the Chicago train station and caught a cab.

… the First Class Lounge …
If you are transferring to another train in Chicago, and if you are in sleeper class, head for the Amtrak first class lounge (signs will point the way, or you can just ask). This is a great lounge with free soft drinks, goldfish and receptionists who will keep an eye on when your train departs and will spirit you onto the train. We have not visited many Amtrak lounges and most stations do not appear to have them (or when they do, they tend to vanish as the one in Los Angeles). The Chicago First Class Lounge is the largest of the ones we have visited and although it is not our favorite (Portland, OR, is our favorite), it’s got the best location. The lounge is not merely an oasis where you can spread out in solitude, it is only steps away from fast food and other shopping that are only steps away just outside its entrance. This is a great place to spend them between trains.

… airports …
The closest airport to the Chicago Train station is Midway Airport which is located to the south and west. In March 2011 a taxi cost about $50; the elevated subway trains also connect the station and both airports (Midway and O’Hare) for a fraction of the cost and most people choose this option. Both Midway and O’Hare are served by a large number of airlines.

… endings …

Chicago, one of America’s great cities, as seen from Midway Airport, evening, March 6, 2011.

As almost always happens when we take the train, we usually fly home. In Chicago, mindful that the lateness of the Empire Builder the previous November had made a hash of our plans, I booked us into a Chicago hotel for the night. Although the Southwest Chief was scheduled to arrive at 3:15 pm leaving plenty of time, in theory, to catch a flight out that evening, the previous November the Empire Building was hours late. Carol Anne had to leave the train in Minneapolis while I went on to Chicago – and when I arrive in Chicago it was too late to catch my flight that night. I had spent the night in Chicago and flown out the following morning.

This time, just to keep things simple, we booked our flight out for the following day. Arriving in Chicago mid-afternoon, we left the Southwest Chief, checked into a hotel at the airport for the night and headed out to have a leisurely dinner.

The following morning we caught a Southwest Airlines flight and two hours later, by late morning, were landing in Orlando.

We made it home in time for lunch.

“Railroading North America” is the literary property of Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, Studio City, California, to include all text and all photography, unless otherwise credited. “Railroading North America” is © 2008-2011 jointly by Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, and by its author, Peter Michael Crow. All rights are reserved.


February 5, 2016

Amtrak’s Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

For the Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago, 2008, see “Seattle” Pages #19, #20, #27 and “Minot” #28 on right >>>>

Topics in this Posting
What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines
What to take on the train and What to check
Dining and Snack Cars
What makes you think you know where your checked bags are?
Mixing it up in Minneapolis with Amtrak’s hired help
Bathrooms and Showers
People Dudes, including Pete passes on becoming a Pothead Dude

The Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

Route of Amtrak’s Empire Builder

The days before. (skippable)
Carol Anne and I flew to Los Angeles in early November 2010 on a tight schedule. We had been accredited to cover the STS-133 shuttle mission in Florida that was to launch at 4 pm Monday, November 1. But NASA ran into problems and first NASA pushed the launch back a day — then pushed it back three days more and eventually back, back and back again. Currently, NASA plans to launch the Shuttle Discovery on its final mission in February 2011. You can find the latest launch information here or here.

Once NASA missed its November 1 launch date, prior scheduling precluded our waiting any longer in Florida; we flew to California on November 2.

Hollywood, southwestern view overlooking the Kodak Theater, evening November 5, 2010

I had come to Los Angeles for several Motion Picture Academy events, among them: – a dinner honoring the 25th anniversary of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships (I am a 1991 fellow of the program) and an annual alumni meeting of the fellows to be held the following night. I had built in extra several days to relax in Ojai at the comfortable Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a 1920s atavism so decadent they even offer massages for couples together and have mud baths.

With Ojai and the Academy functions behind us, we set off on a circuitous route back to our winter home in Florida to re-inspect several trains I blogged about in 2008 (that blog is found on the right >>>). We first took the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland (scroll down) and then, late the afternoon on November 7, we boarded the Empire Builder for a 47 hour 10 minutes ride to Chicago, 2,225 miles east.

We planned to fly from Chicago to Orlando the night of November 9.

It would not quite work out the way.

Streetside view of the Portland Amtrak Station

What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines

Amtrak does own some of its tracks, primarily in the east, and Amtrak does not operate at the mercy of freight dispatchers, although that is a popular misconception.

Amtrak has specific time slots allowing them free operation on freight lines and if they are able to abide by these time slots, the freight trains will stand aside. While hardly close buddies, Amtrak and the freight carriers do work together as they did the day I took the Coast Starlight in 2008 and we ran the Tahachipi loop arriving in Los Angeles an astounding four hours early.

Amtrak personnel is rewarded with bonuses for operating their trains on time so it is very much in their financial interest to enforce strictly the freight line time agreements. Here’s the practical importance for you:

You need to be waiting on the platform, baggage in hand, when the train comes, and you’d better get on promptly, especially across the northwest. Amtrak, often as not, will arrive (and leave) on the minute. This precision can catch the casual Amtrak passenger off-guard and get them left behind.

No, Amtrak will not hold the train if you dawdle. Yes, Amtrak will leave you behind.

That said, Amtrak does build flex time into its schedules which again helps it maintain its schedules, particularly in the northwest and midwest corridors through Spokane, Minneapolis and several other cities where the train must be provisioned or re-fueled. This extra time allows Amtrak, if off schedule, to get back on schedule — or quite close to it — unless they encounter other difficulties with weather, freight lines reclaiming their lines when Amtrak is late, or if Amtrak is forced to wait for a launch at Vandenberg Air Force base in California (which, whoa!, can take hours)

Learn more: Interesting Amtrak factoids.

The Empire Builder and me.

In 2008 I took the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago.

The eastbound Empire Builder actually begins as two trains in two different cities — Seattle (Train 8 ) and Portland (Train 28), depart their respective cities five minutes apart. The Empire Builders meet and are joined together in Spokane departing as a single train from Spokane (designated Train 8/28) about nine hours into its eastward journey. Coming west from Chicago, the procedure is reversed — the westbound Empire Builder train number 7 / 27 is split into two trains in Spokane about nine hours before the separated trains arrive in Portland (train 27) and Seattle (train 7).

When I took the train east from Seattle in 2008 it quickly became a ghastly train. Toilets stopped working in the sleepers. The stink became overpowering and the cabin attendants vanished. No effort was made to repair the train during its two-day trip east. And there was more which should you wish is elsewhere on this blog.

The question was – is the Empire Builder an awful train every night or did I just catch it on a bad day? I’m happy to say our experience on the Empire Builder in 2010 was much better and we had no complaints. But, again, did we just catch it on a good day this time?

Learn more: Amtrak’s excellent, downloadable Empire Builder Route Guide about towns and sights along the routes (right side below map)

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland, OR, for Sleeping Car/First Class Passangers

Train 8 / 28 to Chicago

Amtrak runs small, if amiably comfortable lounges for its First Class customers in many trains stations, including Union Station, Los Angeles.

Unlike its other lounges, the Los Angeles Union Station lounge is like Brigadoon. It’s there, and then it’s not. The Los Angeles lounge is a collection of chairs and tables in a taped off area that creates a sitting area. It is located in and adjacent to the Bar on your right as you enter the main station entrance from the street – if it is there at all.

Generally, this lounge seems to be set up shortly before a train leaves, although it may remain there all day for all we know. There is coffee (but no Danish like Via Rail Canada’s lounges) nor are there other amenities except a cordial Amtrak employee who checks your vitae before he allows you inside the ropes, and then keeps track of you. He’ll also arrange for you and your carry-on baggage to be taken, free of charge, to your train on an electric cart, delivering you right to your Sleeping car.

But he is careless about including everyone.

He overlooked us (how? we were sitting almost right beside him). This caused him to dither and question whether we really wanted a ride to the train (and yeah, with all our stuff we did). Finally, he relented and chased down an electric cart for the remaining passengers, including us, and we rode out to the train.

The ride to the train is a considerable perk in Los Angeles, since the trains are a good distance underground and then up onto the platform.

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland for Sleeping Car/First Class passengers is our favorite Amtrak lounge, although we have not visited too many. Comfortable chairs. Private clean bathrooms. Free fast Internet. Drinks, including soft drinks – no food. The staff is expecting you and checks you in by name, and then gets you and your bags onto the right car and into the right cabin at the appropriate time.

Baggage Car on the Coast Starlight where our bags weren’t; our checked bags were sent directly to Chicago and never traveled the trains we were on

And they are cordial. Presumably lounge class customers are on their own. However, this is a small station and the trains are just steps from the station, no more than two sets of tracks away. This is not a hardship station with longs walks, unlike Los Angeles, Chicago and, depending on where your car is. New York City and Washington, DC.

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your checked bags are?
Our’s were lost in America.

In Los Angeles we checked two bags, and packed carefully so we would (and did) have everything we might need on the train for the next three days.

It never occurred to us that our bags would not travel on the same trains with us, but they did not – and checking these bags would present a big problem when, later as the Empire Builder ran further and further behind, we decided we would have to leave the train in Minneapolis in order to keep appointments we had to keep in Florida.

My previous experience with Amtrak was that their trains, especially in the west, ran on time (well they do not – ). We had planned to arrive in Chicago at 4 pm and catch a 7:45 pm flight to Orlando. I figured four hours to go from downtown to Midway Airport would be more than enough – and actually I was right.

Even leaving Union Station at 6:30 pm as I did, I was at Midway in a mere 50 minutes and had a difficult by do-able 20 minutes to navigate the airport and make my flight. What did me in was having to recover my checked bags which had been sent ahead on the Amtrak Chief and which arrived a full day in Chicago before we did.

With our checked bags in Chicago, someone had to go get them. Carol Anne and I split up in Minneapolis. She flew to Florida. I took the train on to Chicago to get our bags.

Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station. Okay, okay — this could have been a better picture. Actually: it couldn’t have been considering …

The Sandpoint, ID, Train Station

Last June Carol Anne and I biked the Hiawatha Trail in Montana and Idaho and then headed north to Sandpoint, ID, where we photographed a classic train station that, apparently is doomed. New roads are being built on both sides of it and it soldiers on atop of a narrow spit of land.

The question was: Would the station still be there when we passed through Sandpoint in November?

This is actually what the Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station looks like: June 2010 … in the daylight.

I was determined to find out, but it would not be easy. The Empire Builder stops only for moments in Sandpoint, and the eastbound train stops at 2:40 in the morning. Setting foot of the train was unthinkable and, worse, I was not even sure which side the station would be on — although I guessed correctly.

So there I was, in the middle of the night, watching and waiting and I was rewarded: My car on the Empire Builder stopped squarely in front of the station. There it was – looking as healthy as ever.

Time to snap pictures. The light was poor, but I got everything in focus through the window and LURCH! — the train was moving.

SNAP! … SNAP! again. I got off only two shots.

Look up and to left to see the better of the two shots, then lemme know how many 8×10 copies of it you want.

What to take on the train, and what to leave behind

If you are in Couch – the seats are surprisingly large with lots of legroom. This means you can keep your possessions close while not overly crowding yourself. Many in coach are not on for the entire two-day trip, but some are. If you’re going the entire distance, you’ll probably want at least one change of clothing, and of course will need to bring along toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, yaddadadda).

A break in Shelby, MT, for the smokers

Amtrak will provide you with pillows and blankets, but cross Montana in winter or summer might be cold. Amtrak doesn’t always get the heat/cold thing down. Be prepared to shed clothes and the put them on again. Be prepared to protect your ears with a ski cap and your feet with more than one layer of socks.

You can, of course, check your bags – but once checked, they are gone until you get where you are going. Amtrak also has space in both Sleepers and Coaches for extra luggage in the lower level of the cars. That’s good news, unless you are anal and worry about someone ripping you off.

Theft on Amtrak is rare, but coming out of Los Angeles someone did steal a pack of cigarettes, a religious book and another item from a fellow passenger in coach. We quizzed Amtrak personnel through the rest of our trip how common this was. All expressed surprise, and most were shocked.

And in Sleeper/First class it is unheard of.

On the other hand, if you are in coach or sleeper, keep valuables hidden and in sleeper, keep your doors closed and blinds drawn at least when you are not in your compartment.

Food: Dining Car and Snack Bar

Food is expensive on Amtrak and generally not worth the price. Twenty-two-dollars for a bad steak and cold microwaved frozen vegetables

The Empire Builder’s Observation Car, east of Havre, MT, November 8, 2010

served on cheap plastic plates? Come on. Price is a little better if select from the Snack Bar menu, and at least there, unlike the Dining Car, if you want Coca-Cola rather than Pepsi, you can get it. The Dining Car only serves Pepsi.

The price of the food actually puts the issue of whether to book a Sleep versus Coach into play. Here’s why:

All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, are included in Sleeper. That’s about $50 a day – and if two of you are traveling for the entire two day trip, that’s a robust $200 or so. Compartments add about $250 and up to the cost of your ticket, but if you discount the cost of food ($250 minus $200 for food), you’re getting a private compartment where you both can sleep, and very likely cleaner bathrooms which receive much less use than in Coach for $50 (or $25 a day).

Bathrooms and Showers

It is not clear to us who, if anyone, is responsible for keeping the bathrooms and showers fresh on Amtrak trains. We suspect it is supposed to be the car attendant (there is one car attendant for each car in Sleep class; one attendant for each two cars in the Coach), but we’re yet to encounter a car attendant who bothers.

Winona, MN, Amtrak Station, November 9, 2010

What I think happens is that crews go through the trains before they depart in Seattle, Portland and Chicago, clean them and again provision the toilet paper, cloth and paper towels – and then no one ever comes through the train again. For two days, passengers are on their own while car attendants have their own bathrooms and room in the transition car, never venturing into the bathrooms for passengers.

If this is true, Amtrak needs to work on it. Faced with filth, passengers often flee off the train into station bathrooms during smoke breaks which are not always much better.

The showers in Sleeper/First Class are large and, although soap used to be small and awful, Amtrak now provides decent bars or soap and plenty of towels. Take along flip/flops because you likely won’t want to walk barefoot in the shower, and you might consider showering during one of the lengthier stops so you aren’t swaying back and forth. But the showers work. The water does get very hot (be patient) and once adjusted it stays adjusted.

The bathrooms stay clean as long as you and your fellow passengers take a moment before you leave to run a paper towel around the sink.

But paper towels in the bathroom in Sleeper class didn’t last forever – and once gone they were not replaced. After Minneapolis the paper towels in our bathroom were gone, and within an hour the bathroom was quite a lot worse for wear.

People Dudes on Board the Empire Builder
As we travel, we always ask Amtrak personnel what their favorite stories are.

The Beer Cooler and Plasma TV Dudes
Within the past year two guys climbed on the Empire Builder, according to a car attendant, with two large ice chests and a plasma TV and headed for their Sleeping compartment.

Passengers embarking at the Havre, MT, station; none had beer coolers or plasma TVs to my knowledge

They set up the TV and began playing videogames, and soon enough traffic picked up in the Sleeper car. “That’s a sure sign that someone is dealing drugs,” we were told.

Police may not always be visible on Amtrak trains, but they are never far away. Soon enough police were talking to these guys (declining the opportunity to compete in a videogame that was underway), and not long after that they hauled the guys – and their drugs – off the train under arrest. When a passenger in an adjoining compartment objected, the police searched his compartment, found even more drugs, and hauled them away too.

The Border Patrol Dudes

At one stop three Canadian Border patrol guys passed me on the platform and climbed on the train/. Then they started through the cars. I asked what was going on, mistaking them for the TSA and was told that the Canadian police are frequent travelers looking for Canadian border violations.

I didn’t get it – and still don’t.

But if you have issues with the Canadian police, you might want to think twice about riding the Empire Builder. Otherwise you might be saying Hi to these guys.

Dude takes the fall for his Granny

When police pulled a suitcase off the rack in Coach not long ago, a young guy riding with his elderly Grandmother promptly claimed the bag and said, even before it was opened, “you’ve got me.” Indeed, they had someone because the bag was filled with pot. But the police were suspicious. Granny was old, and she looked sweet, but she also looked guilty.

Soon enough, police discovered the dealer was not the Grandson, but the Grandmother who had stashed suitcases every second or third car through the train.

“They’re really quite good at catching drug dealers on our trains,” an Amtrak car attendant told me with admiration – “even when someone is willing to take the fall for their elderly Granny.”

I’m invited to become a Pothead Dude

At longer stops I always amble off the train and begin snapping pictures. In the middle of the night at one smoke break in Montana or North Dakota, I discover the train was longer than the station platform so I head down the platform toward the front of the train to have a look. I begin smelling marijuana and a moment later am surrounded by 6 or 8 people. It is pitch black. They were a few steps back from the train and in the dark.

“Hey there, dude,” an unfriendly voice says.

Now I see them, and they see me. We stare, but a girl in the group decides that I look more like Pothead-Dude than Police-Dude.

“Get on in here, dude,” she says. “I’ll give you some of my grass.”

How to get left behind, with Bonus Credit:
How to get a Conductor to shout at you in Minneapolis

We had decided reluctantly to leave the Empire Builder in Minneapolis because Carol Anne had obligations in Florida the following day – and because it had become clear twelve hours before we would arrive in Chicago that we would not be able to make our evening flight.

Long before dawn, I made new reservations for Carol Anne and I to fly from Minneapolis to Orlando. We would claim our bags in Minneapolis and head for the airport. Minneapolis is an hour stop for the Empire Builder so, my car attendant assured me, the crew would have plenty of time to find and pull of two bags off the train.

Let the duck-waddle begin:

A search of the luggage compartment on the side of our sleeping car revealed our luggage was not there. Our car attendant, the Conductor and I headed for the baggage car. It too was nearly empty, but our bags were not there.

“This has never happened before,” the Conductor said (he must not fly much). But the car attendant was much more savvy. “Their bags probably went directly to Chicago – they must be in Chicago!” So off we went into the station to find a clerk who could call Chicago and confirm that our bags were there.

But there was a line and time passed. The Conductor began to fidget. The clerk once we got to him was uninterested. “The train is leaving,” the Conductor suddenly said, heading for the door. “ALL ABOARD!”

Uh-oh. Now our car attendant rallied, placing himself between the Conductor and the door leading out to the platform. The clerk suddenly grasped what was happening and came alive. He furiously dug and found the private number for the baggage room in Chicago and gave it to me.

Now the car attendant (who had my bags) was running for his life – and for the train – as was I. “Honk, honk!” went the engine which in Train-Speak means the train is starting to move.

Holy crap. Carol Anne was just standing there like a deer frozen in the headlights. “Go to the airport,” I told her.

“I don’t have the plane reservation number!”

It was worse than that: She didn’t even have an official reservation. She flies on Southwest as my “Companion” which means she flies free, but only it I’m with her on the same flight.

“I’ll call you in thirty seconds,” I yelled stepping onto the train and bumping into the out-of-breath car attendant. The train was moving.

Carol Anne was left in Minneapolis without a plane reservation. We still didn’t know if our bags were in Chicago. And the Conductor? “Don’t let that happen again,” he grumbled.

How to really get left behind

Amtrak leaves passengers behind all the time, I later discovered. In 2008 I wandered so far away taking pictures in the middle of the night that a car attendant refused to board the train without me as I ran flat out to get back on.

Another car attendant told me it depends on how the train is doing. “We get bonuses for being on time,” he said. “If we’re running behind we’ll leave you.”

He told me about a guy smoking cigarette on the platform exactly one step from the door. “I told him to get on, NOW,” this Amtrak official told me. “He took another puff, and by the time he looked up he was looking at the side of the train. He spent 24 hours in Whitefish, MT. I hope he had some extra cigarettes.”
My advice is ‘Whoa’: Don’t screw with these people.

This blog, including photographs are © Copyrighted 2008-2010 literary property of Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California. All rights are reserved.

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