Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 9 - Los Angeles, CA to Orlando, FL
July 4-7, 1999
After my supper at Phillipe's, I returned to LAUPT to begin the last part of my 1999 trip. The first task was to find my luggage. Before I had left for dinner, I gave my suitcases to a baggage handler in a baggage cart. When I write Part 6 of this submittal, I had forgotten the fellow's name, but I remember it now -- his name was "Eddie," and he told me to look for him when I returned from dinner and he would get my suitcases. As I returned to LAUPT, the crowd was beginning to line up to board the Sunset Ltd. I hunted for Eddie, but did not find him -- in fact, I saw very few, if any, baggage handlers around the station! I walked past the boarding gates into the large open area which leads to the tunnel to the tracks behind the main waiting room, and found 2 or 3 baggage handlers lounging around on golf carts, but Eddie was not there. I asked someone if Eddie was around and was told he had probably gone to dinner, but would be back soon. Half an hour later, I still had not seen Eddie, and was again told that he'll be back "in a few minutes." The boarding line for the Sunset was growing longer, but I did not worry, since I had a reserved sleeper room again. Still no Eddie, so I found another baggage handler, and told him that Eddie had taken my suitcases, but that I'd be happy to retrieve them myself if they could tell me where he put the suitcases. The handler I talked to had no idea where Eddie put my suitcases, but I soon saw an open baggage storage room down the hall behind the main waiting room gates and walked into it. I again told someone that Eddie had taken my baggage, and did he possibly store it in here? Again I was told by the on-duty person that he did not know where Eddie put my suitcases, but that he would be back "in a minute." Fortunately, I saw my suitcases sitting in the corner of the baggage room, so I grabbed them and left. The on-duty handler didn't seem to mind. I took them out and got in line at the "sleeping car passengers" gate at LAUPT, and, as I was standing in line, Eddie finally reappeared, still driving his baggage cart.
It was soon boarding time and the sleeping car passengers made the long journey through the boarding tunnel and up the ramp to the waiting train. I found my sleeper, a Superliner I sleeper, without a "State" name. Again, I was in Room 2 of the sleeper, and the attendant was "Harold." As usual, I stashed my suitcases in the room, then went back outside and stood on the platform. Since it was the 4th of July, there was an excellent view of the fireworks at Dodger Stadium from the platform! Several of my fellow passengers and I watched the fireworks for several minutes while the train was boarding, and I even caught some of it with my video camera. It was soon time to depart, so I got back onto the train, and the Sunset left Los Angeles on time. It had been a long day, and I soon journeyed to the Sightseer Lounge and had a drink with a woman I had met in Sacramento, who had boarded the Starlight the previous night in Chemult, OR, before the rockslide, and who had made the same "San Joaquin Valley" connection from Train #11 to Train #2 that I did.
I woke up in the morning in the desert of southeastern Arizona. The Sunset Ltd has a different route than it did when I last rode it. It no longer stops in Phoenix, but uses a more southerly Southern Pacific route from Yuma through Gila Bend on its way to Tucson. Phoenix is now served by a connecting Thruway bus from Tucson. Of course I was aware of the route change, so I had updated my route maps earlier in the year to reflect the new routing. In the past, my experiences on the Sunset have been that the train is normally 2 to 3 hours late already by this time, but such was not the case this year! We appeared to be running on schedule, based on where I located the train on my maps. The only problem was that, since we were on time, I missed much of the "new" scenery on the new route, since we had passed it before I awoke. That was okay though -- I'd rather miss scenery than be several hours late! It was about time I was finally on an on-time train!
After I awoke, I took a shower in the Superliner shower, which worked pretty well. I then went to the Sightseer Lounge for most of the day. Passing through Casa Grande, AZ, I met a woman about my age named "Julie," who was traveling from Simi Valley to Waco, TX (she was in the through sleeper from Train #2 to Train #22). She was a very interesting person, but loved to talk -- and talk - and talk - and talk - and talk! Apparently she was some kind of fashion photographer, and wanted to take a video of me "interviewing" the woman I had shared the drink with the previous evening, since she thought "she [the other woman] and I were a good match." I did not take her up on her offer. Julie enjoyed the little "Old West" towns through which we were passing. We arrived in Tucson several minutes early! I believe this was my first trip on the Sunset when we arrived early in Tucson. We then left within 5 minutes of schedule.
The next stop beyond Tucson is Benson, Arizona. Between Tucson and Benson, the conductor announced that we would be shutting down the head end power for a few minutes at the Benson station, in order to inspect some kind of air conditioning problem. I was rather surprised, since I had thought the air conditioning was working fine, and did not experience any symptoms of a problem. We arrived at the Benson station 5 minutes early, then the crew pulled the Sunset past the station a quarter of a mile or so to stop and inspect the air conditioning. I do not know why they didn't inspect it at the station -- maybe the train was blocking a road or something???? It only took a few minutes to do the inspection, then we left 17 minutes late. I assumed they had found the problem, if there actually was one, and gotten it fixed. Again, the on-time performance of this train was not critical to me, since it was the last segment of my trip, and I had no connections at the other end. If I got home 5 or 6 hours late, that would be okay.
As the train rounded a bend, I noticed we were being pulled by 3 Genesis units today, and, on the rear of the train, we were carrying 8 "material handling cars." I guess AMTRAK is now in the freight business as well as the passenger business. If it increases the revenue for AMTRAK, and reduces the need for Federal operating subsidies, that's fine with me! I was still in the Sightseer lounge talking with Julie and with the woman I had the drink with the previous night (whose name was "Pam"). Now and then the lounge attendant would make an announcement that he would be going to his meal in 10 minutes, and to come downstairs now if you want anything. Each time he made an announcement, it sounded like he had just gotten out of bed and wasn't even sure what he was supposed to be doing. Not AMTRAK's most dynamic on-board personality! As we continued across the Arizona desert, no more mention was made about the air conditioning "problem," but the conductor (or the Chief?) pointed out many of the natural features we were passing, such as the old Butterfield Stage Route parallel to the tracks, Cochise Mountain, and the small town of Vanar, known locally merely as "V."
As we were passing through Lordsburg, I was waiting for the station stop so I could video it, but the train did not stop in Lordsburg! I was a bit confused, and I didn't even see the station. I looked at the current timetable then, and realized that both Lordsburg and Deming, NM, are now flag stops only for the Sunset. Apparently they never generated very much revenue for this train. On today's run, the train did not stop at either station, but, in not stopping, made up some of the lost time from the air conditioning stop. I sat in the room between Lordsburg and Deming, and soon went to the diner for lunch. I sat with Julie and a fellow about my age who looked Middle Eastern. While we were eating, Julie told both of us her entire life story, and talked so much and so long that she didn't even finish her Rueben sandwich! After listening to her for an hour or so, I was ready to go back and resume my videotaping, so I very politely excused myself and went back to the Sightseer lounge. She finally left the diner, but I don't know if she actually finished her lunch! In the lounge, she told me about the railfan who was in the room across from her in the Texas Eagle sleeper (Train #22) who had a railroad scanner and whose room was full of railroad stuff, and that I should meet this fellow.
Throughout the early afternoon, announcements continued to be made about "air conditioning problems" on the train, but I still had not observed any problem with the air conditioning in either my sleeper, the diner, or the Sightseer lounge. The announcement was made that the problem would be fixed in El Paso. I sat in the room for the last half hour or so before El Paso and continued the video coverage of the trip. At one point, I heard a thud somewhere, and the train came to a complete stop as it went into emergency. Apparently some kind of air conditioning cable had snapped in the transition sleeper, which was the next car in front of my sleeper. The crew got out and walked around for a few minutes, but soon reboarded, and we still arrived in El Paso 38 minutes early! (talk about padded schedules......). The conductor announced that an AMTRAK electrician had been called and was flying from Houston to El Paso to work on the train, and that the problems would be repaired in El Paso. It was also announced that it was now 100º outside, and if people were feeling warm, they should get off the train in El Paso and go inside the "very well air-conditioned" station while the train was being worked on. He also announced that, until we arrived in El Paso, people should not walk between cars, but should stay put and take advantage of what little air conditioning was still working. My sleeper was still not unusually warm, but, after the cable break, the car began to feel noticeably warmer. Oh well -- so much for on-time performance! I knew we wouldn't get the problem fixed in 45 minutes (the Sunset is scheduled to leave at 3:05 PM), and the electrician's plane wasn't scheduled to arrive in El Paso until 2:35 supposedly. I believe the Sunset has had air conditioning problems every time I have ever ridden on it! This seems to be a perennially occurring problem on this train, and I don't know if it's because of the harsh climate through which the train travels, or if AMTRAK continually assigns "lower quality" equipment (such as older Superliner I equipment) to the train.
In El Paso, most people got off the train and went into the "very well air-conditioned" station; however, the station was far from "very well air conditioned!" It was almost as warm inside the station as it was outside! (maybe 10 or 15 degrees cooler) Since El Paso has a dry climate, the heat didn't bother me as much as the same heat at home, in humid muggy Florida! I hung around both inside and outside the station, and met Julie's friend with the railroad scanner. The El Paso station has a tall bell tower, from which very nice music emanates now and then. I enjoyed listening to the music from the tower.
It took approximately 2 hours to repair the train. There were a couple problems apparently -- one in the transition sleeper, and another in some other car, which turned out to be the sleeper behind mine. The transition sleeper was cut off the front of the Sunset and put on the end, behind the MHC's. That way, the head end power can flow throughout the train uninhibited. The head end power runs from the engine through a single cable throughout the train, and if there is a blockage or a short anywhere in the cable, nothing behind the blockage gets power. Apparently that was the problem in the transition sleeper.
We finally reboarded and left El Paso, only 1 hour 48 minutes late -- not bad, considering all the switching which was necessary to isolate and inspect the air conditioning in each car of the train. However, as we continued traveling across the desert, in the lounge car, I noticed that the air conditioning continued to cut on and off often, so I did not believe they really got the problem fixed. Additionally, the sleeper behind me was still quite warm and had a "burnt" smell to it. Apparently, they could not fix the problem in that car, so they evacuated the sleeper and put some passengers in the Texas Eagle sleeper or in my sleeper, wherever space was available. A second sleeper was eventually added to the rear of the train, in San Antonio the following morning. An hour or so outside of El Paso, the Sunset again stopped, and I thought there were additional air conditioning problems which needed to be addressed, but this stop was to allow the westbound Sunset to pass. There was a stop again in the small town of Sierra Blanca, at which some adjustment did in fact need to be made to the air conditioning system. The electrician stayed on the train overnight, and stayed all the way until Houston. Apparently the system was again fixed in Sierra Blanca, but I don't believe all the problems were ever completely repaired on this train. I had a late dinner, at 7:45 PM Mountain Time (even though we were in the Central time zone when I ate, so I actually ate at 8:45 PM). I sat with a grandmother and a couple boys who were traveling to Michigan. We left the Alpine station approximately 3 hours late, because of the additional stops we had to make since leaving El Paso, and I had a beer in the lounge before turning in for the night. I had walked back to the Texas Eagle sleeper once to look for Julie and say good-bye to her, since her sleeper would be switched onto Train #22, the Texas Eagle, in the early AM, but did not find her. I guess she had closed her door and gone to bed early.
I awoke in the morning at the San Antonio station, where it seemed like at least 6 switching/backup moves were made, to split off the Texas Eagle portion (Train #22) and to add a sleeper to the Sunset portion, and to move MHC's around. I walked around outside for a few minutes, then boarded, and the Sunset departed San Antonio 3 hours 5 minutes late. In the first 10 miles or so outside of San Antonio, the train made at least 3 stops to wait for freight trains. Also, the further east we were traveling, the more I again had the problem of trees blocking my video scenes. The climate changes dramatically east of San Antonio, from desert into green hills. We stopped at the town of Kirby, a suburb of San Antonio, for about half an hour, and I did not know why initially. It turns out that is a fuel stop! And the hot sleeper was still in the train's consist, behind my sleeper. Harold the attendant and the female attendant for the other sleeper were discussing where to put sleeping car passengers for the rest of the trip. There was only one night left on this run, and the hot sleeper was never removed from the consist.
The train was soon traversing the coastal plain area of east Texas, and passed through the town of Lissie, where, on the very next run of this train, 2 days later, there would be a derailment as the Sunset hit a truck at a grade crossing. Little did I know then how glad I was to be traveling today, and not 2 days later! The rain soon began again, so my video scenes were again dominated by raindrops. We arrived at the small Houston station 2 hours 30 minutes late. The Houston station is located beneath a highway interchange several blocks north of the downtown area -- an unusual place for a train station. Good views of the downtown skyscrapers are available at the station, however. My friend Pam got off in Houston, and I said good-bye to her, then continued my video. Upon departure from the Houston station, the last call to lunch was announced, so I went to the diner and had lunch with a couple who had been on the train since Los Angeles, but who I had not yet seen. We departed Houston 2 hours 39 minutes late. As we traveled through downtown Houston, I saw an unusual sight -- 3 people sitting at a picnic table under a highway overpass along Buffalo Bayou next to the tracks having lunch -- not the most scenic spot in town for a picnic lunch! I sat in the Sightseer lounge again for the afternoon. The remainder of the trip to Orlando was rather uneventful. The air conditioning appeared to be working satisfactorily, and the interesting characters I met had left the train. During the afternoon, someone had made at least three announcements asking parents not to let their children run rampid through the train. We departed Beaumont, Texas, 2 hours 44 minutes late, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, 2 hours 45 minutes late.
I sat in the room again for a while later in the afternoon, when the movies began in the Sightseer Lounge. The first movie shown by the sleepy lounge car attendant was "Jungle Jim," a silly kid's movie about a boy who lives with wild animals and can tame them. As I was sitting in my room, the dining car steward announced there would be "open seating" for dinner, and that reservations were not necessary. Apparently, the number of passengers on the Sunset is much less east of Houston, and even less east of New Orleans. There would be a couple dinner calls, and that would be it. The rain slowly disappeared as the afternoon went on, and we departed the Lafayette, Louisiana station 2 hours 49 minutes late. The Lafayette station was burnt out! It looks like it used to be a nice little brick building, but all that is left now are a few bricks and a burnt out building! I don't know if the station has always been like that, or if the fire took place in the recent past. Passing through Cajun Country, the next stop was New Iberia, where we departed 2 hours 48 minutes late. I enjoyed videotaping the portion of this route which passes through the Louisiana Cajun country -- lots of small towns and bayous. I had dinner in the diner as the train passed through Morgan City, a petroleum shipping town on a large bayou which is crossed by a long bridge. I ate with a couple from Alabama, who were traveling on AMTRAK from New Orleans to San Antonio and back "just to check out this mode of transportation." They told me they had enjoyed it so far. After dinner, I went back to the Sightseer lounge as it was beginning to get dark. We departed Schriever (the AMTRAK station serving Thibodeaux) 3 hours 2 minutes late. I was hoping to be able to cross the Huey Long Bridge outside New Orleans in the daylight so I could take a video of the river. I took the first video of the bridge about 15 miles away, where it is visible on the horizon. I used the "zoom" function of the camcorder. As things turned out, the train did approach the bridge as it was getting quite dark, but I was able to video the river from the bridge, with the lights of all the industrial facilities lining both banks. We arrived in New Orleans 2 hours 15 minutes late, as I got ready for bed. I did not get off the train in New Orleans, and we left the station only 1 1/2 hours behind schedule.
On the last day of the 1999 trip, I awoke between Pensacola and Crestview, Florida, and estimated the train was 2 hours late. We had apparently lost some time overnight due to signal and/or freight problems, and early in the morning, I observed that we would travel a mile or so, then stop, then travel another mile, then stop again, etc. So, as usual, whatever time we had made up in Texas and Louisiana, we again lost in the Florida Panhandle. In the Sightseer lounge, there were very few people. I believe the entire train had very few passengers left on it, which is usual for this portion of the route. I normally sit on the north side of the train as we pass through the Florida Panhandle, since most of the main highways and towns are on that side. This year, however, I sat on the south side and saw things from a slightly different viewpoint, and took video of areas I had not videotaped in previous trips. The station at Chipley is a very small station, and has a sign on it saying "Bill Lee Station." I don't know who Bill Lee is or was -- probably a local developer or railroad promoter.... We left Chipley 2 hours 5 minutes late. The freight delays continued all morning, and I was beginning to get anxious to get home, after this 12-day trip across two countries. I did not take very much video on this last day, and did not follow my route maps as much as I usually do. We departed Tallahassee 2 hours 9 minutes late, then another movie was shown in the Sightseer lounge by the sleepy lounge attendant -- "Jack Frost," a movie about a teenage rock & roll star that turns into a snowman or something (not that I watched the movie or tried to follow it, but when I am sitting in the lounge trying to take video, you can't really escape the movie!)
At the Madison stop, we were delayed about 20 minutes due to freight traffic, then a mile or so past the station, we stopped again for 20 minutes or so. We had left the telephone booth-sized Madison station 2 hours 13 minutes late. I had lunch with a couple from New Orleans as we passed through Lake City, but I did not notice that we had made a stop in Lake City. It must have been a very short stop, since Lake City is not listed as a flag stop. Back in the Sightseer lounge it was time for yet another movie -- "You've Got Mail" this time. I was not going to get off the train at Jacksonville, but gave in and decided to after all, just to see how warm it was outside. We arrived in Jacksonville 3 hours 2 minutes late, then departed 2 hours 32 minutes late, as we did not use the full 15 minutes allotted. Beyond Jacksonville, I no longer followed my route maps or took much video, since I had done that numerous times before. The only video I took was of the passing northbound Silver Meteor and Auto Train. We pulled onto a siding and waited approximately 30 minutes waiting for Auto Train. Just as the Sunset was pulling into Orlando, we had passed the northbound Silver Star, which was running approximately 1 1/2 hours late, for reasons unknown. All northbound trains which pass through Orlando are usually on schedule, so it was very unusual for the Star to be so late. We arrived in Orlando at 6:11 PM, exactly 2 hours 51 minutes late, which wasn't bad considering the air conditioning problems and the freight delays.
And that ends my 1999 vacation trip. As usual, I enjoyed the entire trip, got some great video, and met some interesting people. The number 1 problem I again noticed, as usual, was the on-time performance! The new modern AMTRAK trains are getting more high-tech and more comfortable each year, and the crews are getting friendlier, more helpful, and better trained, and even the tracks aren't that bad in most areas, but AMTRAK trains continue to run late, and thus continue to be less than reliable options for many travelers, who may use the trains more if they were closer to schedule.
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