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

01 = INTRODUCTION

TIMETABLE (CLICK to ENLARGE) March 2011

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.

02 = HISTORY of THE SANTA FE CHIEF
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.

===>>> THE HARVEY HOUSES and MARY E.J. COLTER
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.

===>>> THE SANTA FE’S ICONIC THEME SONG
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.

03 = DAY 1 / LOS ANGELES, DEPARTING
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.

Really.

“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?

“No.”

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?

“Terrorists.”

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?

05 == DAY 2 / LOS ANGELES to ALBUQUERQUE

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.

Shopping.
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.

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September 15, 2009

All Aboard Auto Train // … non-stop Orlando to Washington, DC

(“Thirty Days on Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada” is on the right and following this Auto Train post.

Note: Another Auto Train post was published here on September 15, 2011, with photos of the new Sanford Terminal and other updated information.

Auto Train turned 25 the other day. Amtrak, which took over Auto Train after it floundered, takes a lot of pride in this train, and it shows.

Auto Train is the fastest way for you and your car to get from Washington, DC, to Orlando — or back. The train runs non-stop both ways nightly from Lorton, Virginia, south of Washington, DC, auto train poster -- DSC06549 usemeCOLORjust off the I-95 Exit 163, non-stop to Sanford, Florida, north of Orlando (Exit 101C off the I-4). There is a crew change about one a.m. in Forence, South Carolina, but you’ll probably be sound asleep and never notice.

Auto train is, at varying times, very cheap or very expensive. During the slack months when few people are heading north, prices drop. When the Florida snowbirds are in flight, the price rockets.

No one can just climb on Auto Train and go. You have to show up with a car or motorcycle — and the vehicle is a separate charge. The basic price includes a seat for you; if you want a room that is a separate price and, like all other costs on Auto Train, the price varies depending on the time of the year — and even sometimes varies from day-to-day. auto train MAPCheck back often and be flexible for a better deal.

The train departs promptly at 4 p.m. seven days a week from both Lorton, VA, heading south, and Sanford, FL, heading north, passing each other during the night. SUV Vehicles have to be checked in by 2 p.m. and are the largest vehicle Auto Train can handle. Regular vehicles and motorcycles must be checked in by 3 p.m., an hour before departure. To repeat, Auto Train departs promptly at 4 p.m. Be smart, though — come early: Auto Train has a complementary wine and cheese party from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily prior to departure. For those with private rooms, there is also coffee and water available in the cars.

Amtrak packs an unusual amount of value on this train. Besides being a non-stop train, the on-board staff is as good as it gets for Amtrak. Courteous, friendly and knowledgible, the staff is downright likeable, and that’s not true on other trains (think Empire Builder from Seattle/Portland to Chicago). The trains and cars are also clean engine at sanford DSC06568 usemeand well-maintained which really isn’t true on other Amtrak trains.

Dinner and a continental breakfast are included in the price of your ticket. Unlike other Amtrak trains the food is served on china (versus styrofoam with meals as high as $22 on other Amtrak trains) and the food is generally good. Pride again.

The biggest benefit of going by train is avoiding the I-95. That road is a monster and can be bumper to bumper from Virginia straight into Florida during the holidays. The train is simplicity itself — the train leaves at 4 p.m.; you have dinner; you sleep; and in the morning by 9:30 a.m., and usually earlier, you are in Lorton (about ten miles south of Washington, DC) or Sanford (about fifteen miles north of Orlando).

The biggest drawback, other than price, are the rails themselves. Amtrak does not own the track. The tracks are used for freight which means there is no effort to improve the smoothness of the rails for passengers. The result is that the rails are uneven and when there is little freight traffic pushing Auto Train aside, Auto Train barrels through the night sometimes arriving as much as two hours early but at a cost: the speed on the uneven tracks beats passengers around and on the nights when the train is making the best time, some passengers have trouble sleeping.

That said, Auto Train is simply a hoot and easily the longest non-stop train in North America. It is a must-do for train buffs.

I have ridden Auto Train half a dozen times or more, usually with my wife, sanford yard DSC06548 usemeuseme2but once by myself sitting up all night in coach.

In mid-September 2009, I set out north on Auto Train on one of my periodic prowls of the United States — primarily to travel and to write. After some debate, I took our SUV (a hulk which we call McMansion, but which is actually an Infiniti QX56). I took the SUV rather than a smaller car we keep in Florida because Auto Train, on this particular day, was charging only a few dollars more to carry it. This price for the SUV was unusual. SUVs are usually much more expensive on Auto Train, although oddly, occasionally Auto Train charges less for SUVs than for regular vehicles. That disparity is probably caused by operational necessity: on days when Auto Train has few SUVs booked, they still must send the larger SUV railroad cars down to Florida or up to Virginia to accommodate the Auto Train bookings on subsequent days.

After I would leave Auto Train in Washington and set out driving, the amount of room and stuff in the SUV soon resulted in my beginning to misplace things, and eventually to misplace everything. I do better in small spaces with less stuff. I considered ruling the back seats of the SUV off-limits for storage and then told myself to get a grip. Soon I was even heaving fast food wrappers and bags over my shoulder into the backseats. engine fueled DSC06575 usemeFor awhile it began to look like a dumpster. … but wait: This is about Auto Train, not my porcine behavior.

I may have taken the Auto Train a lot of times, but I promptly forgot how to find the Sanford Auto Train station itself. Once I exited I-4 at Exit 101c, I looked in vain for the signs to Auto Train. Along the I-4 the directions to Auto Train are well marked. But once you exit, you are on your own until you see a single sign (just over a high train bridge where the Auto Train yard is located as you are heading east). Then it’s easy, if you consider making a right turn over two curving sets of railroad tracks into the Auto Train yard easy.

I’m always amused that they are waiting with a video camera and pointer. Once you surrender your car, Auto Train personnel swarm the vehicle photographing the entire outside and pointing out each nick and dent. Smart move. They’ve got a record when you grouse that they dinged your car.

I went looking for the snack bar which used to be on the west side of the station but which now has been leveled in preparation for building an entirely new station. Lorton, VA, already has a sparkling new station. One for Sanford is on the way, according to posted signs.

On board.

On the day I took Auto Train (Monday, September 14, 2009) there were only 72 vehicles on board and about 125 passengers. The light load explains why my SUV and I got the ride for $370 and that included a private room (bathroom and shower down the hall). DSC06271_2 useme

For some reason, even with few people, Amtrak booking placed all of the passengers in our car next to one another (there were only six of us in three rooms). It was probably done for the convenience of their personnel, certainly not for the passengers. Across the hall was a couple going to Pennsylvania. A famly of three, including a LOUD child, was at the end of the hall. Upstairs only one of the rooms was filled, and it was comped, which means that Amtrak took care of its own, giving the comped passenger privacy and quiet not accorded to paying customers.

Marriott or Hilton, Amtrak ain’t.

From a practical standpoint the light load did mean the common bathrooms on the bottom level of our car remained clean. Amtrak bathrooms can be ghastly (try the Adirondack, NYC-Montreal, or the ever-grim Empire Builder, Chicago-Seattle/Portland)

Usually I socialize, but I had little interest on this trip because I was working. I settled into my private compartment and asked the cabin stewart, to make up the bed so I could stretch out and work. I skipped the free wine, fruit and cheese (3 p.m. to 4 p.m.).

DSC05743 usemeTrouble soon began: My neighbors with the LOUD child were considering the entire mostly empty car their child’s playground — eventually I asked if they would close their door and, happy surprise, they were not insulted by the request: things quieted down.

But now I had attracted the attention of the couple across the hall so we chatted an appropriate amount of time and, escaping, I asked him when he had served in Vietnam since he proudly was sporting a “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap.

He said he had served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and had been in a unit that flew missions in Vietnam. He began retreating when I asked him more, saying he himself hadn’t actually been in the unit when it was flying Vietnam, and, he stammered on, he himself had never set foot in Vietnam. Oh. A Vietnam veteran who had never set foot in Vietnam. I retreated, saying no more, deciding that I’ve gotten too sensitive about this Vietnam thing …

A lot of older guys in recent years apparently are now claiming they were in Vietnam while they were actually in Canada or Sweden evading the draft — some now apparently have even bought medals and have been wearing them (along with ball caps, too?). The federal government passed a law not long ago making all of this bogus stuff a crime (gawd, more laws?) I don’t know what to make of it. Few people know I was ever in the Army, or that I spent 21 months in Vietnam. War is a ghastly business. No one has ever seen my medals; no one probably ever will.

Dinner and Breakfast
There were only two dinner seatings (5 p.m. and 7 p.m.). When Auto Train is running heavier, there is a third seating (9 p.m., I think, but am not certain).

Dinner was surprisingly good, as I have mentioned, although breakfast was only a continental breakfast. No complaints.

From the amount of bumping through the night, it was apparent that we were running fast. Usually the crew change in Florence is 1 a.m., but this trip it was about 11:30 p.m. That meant we made great time coming out of Florida. It also meant that by 7 a.m. we were approaching Lorton, VA, and were two hours ahead of schedule.

This had some direct practical, and irritating, effects:

When I got up to go to the bathroom at 6 a.m., intending to return and go back to sleep, Priscella, the steward who up to now I had been getting along with, raced in and turned my bed back into a sitting room. When I protested, she was unrelenting saying we were arriving in Lorton in less than half an hour (you were wrong, Priscella: we arrived an hour and a half later). I considered how to turn the room back into as bedroom and decided it was not worth the effort (the bedsheets had been snatched and had vanished, fer crissake). Peeved I headed up to breakfast.

Amtrak personnel insist on trying to run compartment passengers out of their rooms long before trains arrive at their destination. I mixed it up with them on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago last year pointing out I had roughly 15% DSC05747 usemeof my trip left and asking if I would get a 15% refund on my room charge. They were humorless. I assume Amtrak stewards do this so they can flee the train as soon as it arrives and go home. They get their work done at the expense of their paying customers. It’s crazy.

There are a myriad of practical ways to fight Amtrak’s unfriendly behavior.

If you are not traveling alone (as I was on this trip and was on the Empire Builder), have your traveling companion guard the room, and do not go to eat or adjourn to the bathrooms or showers together unless you are ready to have your room grabbed while you are gone. Unguarded, the compartment you’ll return to will probably have been tossed and your bedding and bedsheets gone. Worse, finding whatever you had carefully stored in one place or another in the compartment may prove difficult. If you do not search the compartment thoroughly before leaving the train, you could cruise off the train leaving things behind that Amtrak personnel stuck somewhere while re-making your bedroom into a sitting room.

Arriving early creates a Dither.
The practical effect of arriving early on the day I took AutoTrain in September 2009 was to throw everything off in Lorton. We arrived at 7:30 a.m., two hours early.

The drivers who unload the cars do not arrive until 8:15 a.m. so no one could get their cars.

Breakfast was supposed to be served to 9 a.m., but was cut off much earlier.

And, like airplanes arriving too early at their gates, Amtrak would not allow any of us to get off for 45 minutes until the drivers arrived — so I sat (instead of lounged in bed) in my well-made-up compartment, feet on the furniture and worked.

Still — Had I set out to drive this 900+ miles from Orlando to Washington on the murderous I-95 at 4 p.m. the previous afternoon, I would have been only halfway to Washington and probably would be exhausted. Yet here I was, well fed and rested and with quite a bit of work done overnight, as well. And within an hour and a half, my car was unloaded and I was on my way.

I’m a fan. Auto Train is one of my favorite trains. This is easily the best train that Amtrak — which, god knows, is not a great railroad — has to offer.

pmc THEMIS photo 021707 usemeautotrainblogPhotographs:
1/ Auto Train poster;
2/ map from Amtrak web site showing Auto Train route;
3/ leading engine Engine 130 (one of two) of Auto Train in yard in Sanford, Florida, Monday, September 14, 2009;
4/ Sanford, Florida, Amtrak yard with yellow loading ramps for automobiles and motorcycles in background;
5/ fuel tank on Engine 156, trailing engine of two engines, with amount of fuel on board on left
6/ Yellow ramps and Auto carrying rail cars backed into Yard, awaiting unloading, Lorton, VA
7/ Close up, closed end auto carrying car, Lorton, VA
8/ Doors open, automobile visible inside, ready to be driven off car down ramp
9/ (left) Me, reporting a Space Shuttle Launch in Florida in February 2007.

(the content and photographs on petecrow.wordpress.com are jointly copyright 2008-2009 by peter m. crow and by seine harbour productions, llc, studio city, california)

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