Rich Kimmel's 2002 Train Trip
Part 3 - Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA
June 30-July 3, 2002
Train #421/1 Texas Eagle (Thru Sleeper via San Antonio)
After I found the plug adapter in Chicago and had my “yummy yummy” Cajun chicken lunch, I sat outside the station by the river for a few minutes and watched numerous boats, including a large tour boat, ply their way up and down the muddy polluted Chicago River -- not exactly a pristine mountain stream….. Why would anyone want to go pleasure boating on the Chicago River? We boarded the Texas Eagle from the Metropolitan Lounge, and I made my way to Room 3 in an unnamed Superliner I sleeper (train car #2130, I believe). Our sleeper attendant was a young Jamaican-looking fellow with corn braids named “Tony.” He welcomed me aboard, and I got settled in the train. For some reason, we departed approximately ½ hour late from Union Station. I sat in my room for the first few minutes of this trip, and asked Tony if there was by any chance a wall outlet someplace in the Sightseer Lounge that I could plug the camcorder into, and he said yes, he thought there was one someplace around the “upstairs bar” in the middle of the car. I made my way to the Sightseer Lounge before the Joliet stop and hunted for the plug. I found a wall outlet all right, but it is located on the floorboard right next to the steps which lead downstairs to the food serving area, and is not located convenient to any seat in the car. To use it, I would either have to stretch the cord across the car (unacceptable) or find a long extension cord and stretch it to a seat nearby (also unacceptable, as well as impractical). Why would AMTRAK place a wall outlet there? Who can possibly use it? So I surrendered to the fact that I would have to continue to use the rechargeable battery packs except when I am in my room. I was glad I bought the plug adapter, because there is only one wall outlet in the standard sleeper rooms on Superliners, and I need a place to plug in my camcorder charger/AC adapter as well as my rechargeable electric razor.
I also felt that, initially during this leg, the air conditioning wasn’t working very well in my room, and Tony said he would check into it. It seemed to be working fine in the hallway of the car. One reason the air conditioning may have felt like it wasn’t working was that, in Superliner sleeper rooms, I typically pull down the top bunk and use it to store my big clothes suitcase and my smaller suitcase that I carry my map books in. In the Viewliner rooms, there is a convenient “crawl space” at the top of the room above the toilet to put my large suitcase in (the small suitcase goes on the floor between the two seats, and beneath the lower bunk when it is folded out). In the Superliners, I have found it just as easy to store both bags on the top bunk, and when the bunk is folded down, I wonder if perhaps the air flow doesn’t get down to where I am sitting because the bunk is in the way….???? Also, when you are sitting in the Sightseer Lounge, you can hear the white noise of the air conditioning when it is operating, and it is quite noticeable when the air conditioning goes out, since the white noise stops and the car is very very quiet. In the sleeper room, you don’t hear the white noise much, so it is hard to determine whether the a/c is actually working.
Additionally, Tony told me that the PA system was not working in our sleeper car, so I would not be able to hear any announcements. I sat in the Sightseer Lounge then, but went back to the room later to make my dinner reservations for the latest dinner seating that was available that day. I don’t remember what time my reservation was for -- I believe it was either a 7:30 or an 8 PM reservation. I spent most of the afternoon and evening in the Sightseer Lounge. We departed the Joliet station 38 minutes behind schedule, and I soon went to the downstairs serving area of the lounge car to get a beer. I asked the female café attendant about the connections between the Eagle and the Sunset in San Antonio, since I was concerned about making the connection in the through sleeper. She told me that Train #21 just about always makes the connection to #1 in San Antonio going west (which I was doing on this leg), but that the connection was often not made going the other direction (Train #2 to #22). This of course confirms what I have been hearing from various sources at Train Web. I went back to my room for a while a little later, and noticed that the window in my room was exceptionally clean, compared to other AMTRAK windows I have seen over the years. I continued my video, and again went back to the Sightseer Lounge later. We departed Pontiac, IL, 43 minutes late, and soon were passed by northbound Train #304, the Ann Rutledge. We departed Bloomington-Normal 55 minutes late. Since this was a very pleasant Sunday evening, I saw quite a few people on bicycles along the tracks throughout central Illinois, many of whom would stop and wave as the train went past them. We departed Lincoln 52 minutes late, and soon, the first movie of the trip was started in the Sightseer Lounge. I do not like the idea of showing movies in the Sightseer Lounge, for a couple reasons -- first, they are usually played at the one volume which the VCR system on AMTRAK is capable of running -- LOUD! I enjoy the scenery views in the Sightseer Lounge, and take quite a bit of video from the lounge, but the movies always interfere with the narration I include with my videos, and when I play back the videos after I get home, I can’t hear what I was saying, so I miss many important details. The other reason I don’t enjoy movies on trains is because I am on VACATION -- I can see movies at home, and really do not want to spend my vacation watching movies. I can, however, see the justification of showing movies for the kids on board, to give them something to do. I would suggest showing the movies maybe on the lower level of the lounge only, and not on the upper, like is done in the Pacific Parlour cars on the Coast Starlight. And often, when movies are shown at some times of the day, such as in the AM, there are often very few people watching the movies, unless it is a cartoon program for the kids. I typically leave the Sightseer Lounge car when the movies begin and go back to my room, where I can hear my video commentary. Of course, the down side of that is that, from my room, I can only see half the scenery, and inevitably, the “best” scenery is usually on the other side of the train from my room! For this first movie, however, it turned out to be merely an AMTRAK “safety video,” which is something I have not previously seen on AMTRAK. It is about a 10-minute video, and for some reason, it was shown twice today, and a few minutes after it was shown, the first “full-length” movie of the trip was shown, which I believe was “A Beautiful Mind.”
I was beginning to get hungry, and the meal calls had been late today. Often I have noticed that the meal calls on trains are either 10 minutes late or 15 minutes early, but rarely at the time they are supposed to be. We departed Springfield 51 minutes late, and shortly after the Springfield stop, my dinner call was made. I sat in the diner with a young lady from Greencastle, Indiana, which is the home town of the college I attended, DePauw University (http://www.depauw.edu), and a mother and daughter from Texas. I happened to be wearing my DePauw University T-shirt, and the woman from Greencastle noticed it and asked me about it. I had the New York Strip steak again this evening, plus a couple glasses of wine, and did not have dessert. Of the very few dinner choices on the current AMTRAK menu, the New York Strip is my favorite, and I could have eaten that every night, but I forced myself not to, and to eat a “variety” of meals on this trip. After dinner, I went back to my room so I wouldn’t have to listen to the movie in the Sightseer Lounge car. Over dinner, we had departed Alton 54 minutes late. By the time we got to St. Louis, it was dark, but I was able to still follow parts of the route into town, guided by the bright city lights. I then found yet another mistake on my railroad maps!! The route from Alton into St. Louis has also changed since my last trip on the Texas Eagle many years ago. The route formerly crossed the Merchants Bridge, north of downtown, then followed the line along the west bank of the Mississippi River, which went beneath Gateway Arch in a series of short tunnels. The present route does not cross the river until MacArthur Bridge, which is the first bridge south of the interstate highway bridge downtown. So I will need to make yet another correction to my maps. At the St. Louis station, I got out and walked around for a few minuets, and asked Tony to make up my bed. We arrived in St. Louis 32 minutes late, and departed 34 minutes late. After the St. Louis stop, I went to bed.
On Monday morning, I awoke just after the Little Rock stop. Before I got up, I glanced out the window of the room and saw that we were crossing the wide Arkansas River at Little Rock. It was a cloudy day, and I took my first on-board shower of this trip in the sleeper. The shower on this car was very nice, and had a good supply of nice warm water, which was even the right pressure. It felt good. Showers on some Superliner cars are better than on others. Some of the cars have the “pump” type shower, where you have to continually pump the nozzle to get a short little spurt of water at a time. The shower on this car was a continuous spray type shower, and you could adjust the temperature by turning the handle. I soon got up for the day and went back to the Sightseer Lounge. It was cloudy today, and the lounge was not very crowded yet. We departed Malvern, Arkansas, 40 minutes late, and Arkadelphia 35 minutes late. In the lounge car, I met up with Richard Don Simms from Fort Worth, a banjo player/pianist/comedian (click on “Stockyard Opry” under www.usoftrecords.com). Richard had been to a reunion in Chicago for sailors from the U.S.S. Franklin in WW 2. He was not on the Franklin, but his father was. I told him that my father was on the U.S.S. Bailey in WW 2, so we visited for a while. The Franklin has been featured on the History Channel.
The further south we got, the more prevalent the rain was. We departed Texarkana only 30 minutes late, but the Union Pacific freight delays began just about the time we entered the State of Texas. We had several delays throughout the day, and they were typically multi-train delays. The Eagle would be pulled into a siding, and in most cases we waited for not 1, but 2 or 3 freight trains going the opposite direction. There was not very much interesting scenery to videotape in this part of the country, but I managed to keep the tape and documentary of my travel going. Then the morning cartoons began in the lounge car, so it was back to the room for me to continue my ride and videotaping in peace and quiet!! My room was on the right side of the train heading south, and, as I have stated many times, the problem of trying to look at scenery in my room and follow my maps is that I can see only half the scenery, and, in many cases., the things I want to see end up being on the other side of the train. We had several freight delays, and I saw the freight trains passing, then we were stopped at a curve for a few minutes, and I did not see any freight trains passing us, so was wondering why we had stopped there. It turned out that we had stopped at the Marshall station, which was on the other side of the train, and I didn‘t realize we were at the station. Across the tracks from the station is not part of the city, but a wooded area with apparently no civilization or development of any kind, so one would not typically realize we had stopped at a station! I looked out the window in the stairwell then, and saw the station as we were departing, now 1 hour 5 minutes behind schedule. I changed video cassettes again and soon went back to the lounge, where the cartoons were over, but the next featured movie of the day, “Maverick,” was being shown, and had very few, if any viewers. I was tired of sitting in the room, so I sat in the lounge and suffered through this movie this time, so I could get video out both sides of the train.
We departed Longview 55 minutes late, and I was hoping to take some video of the Gladewater Oil Field, which the Eagle passes through between Longview and Mineola. But this is a hilly and quite wooded area of Texas, and if you didn’t know there was an oil field there, you never would have noticed even the very few oil wells that are visible from the train. It was soon time for lunch, and I went to the first call. On trains, I always make reservations for the latest dinner call, but go to lunch at the first lunch call, so I can get it over with before the diner gets full, since typically reservations are not made for lunch. I do not eat breakfast on the train, since even at home, I do not typically eat breakfast. I had the reuben sandwich for lunch today and a can of beer. I ate lunch with the woman from Greencastle, Indiana again, and an older woman teacher from Maryland. I actually like the reuben sandwich better than the steakburger. On many trains, the steakburger tastes like a twice-microwaved pizza crust with meat in it, but the reuben is always good.
We were now approaching the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and the rain was continuing. We experienced several freight delays between Mineola and Dallas, and, passing through Mesquite, Texas, a Dallas suburb, there was extensive track work underway on the adjacent track on the main line. At one spot we had stopped for several minutes, and an announcement was made that we were stopped to allow another freight train to pass; however, there was no place for the freight to pass us, since the track crews had the adjacent track occupied for several miles! And the rain started falling harder. A few minutes later, yet another announcement was made that the reason we were stopped was because Vice President Cheney had been in Dallas that day, and, for security reasons, no trains were being allowed into Dallas until after 3:30 PM. We had been stopped since approximately 2:30. Sounds reasonable….. At about 3:15 PM, we again began moving, and were in the Dallas station somewhere around 3:30 PM. I have not been to the Dallas station since the middle 1980’s, when I had taken AMTRAK to Dallas for a convention. The station has changed a lot since that time! There are now two light rail systems which occupy several tracks and facilities at Dallas Union Station, the Trinity Railway Express (TRE), which apparently connects Dallas, Fort Worth, and all the cities in between, and another light rail service which consists of blue, white, and yellow cars. I did not see any name identifying that service, but, again, if anyone knows what it is, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dallas station is still connected to the adjacent Hyatt-Regency (?) Hotel by an underground walkway, as it was in the 80’s when I was in Dallas at my convention (and stayed at that hotel). We arrived in Dallas 1 hour 46 minutes behind schedule. Due to our tardiness, an announcement was made that all passengers who had intended to connect to the Heartland Flyer in Fort Worth were to detrain at Dallas, and would be bussed to Fort Worth to catch the Flyer. The Eagle is scheduled to arrive in Fort Worth at 3:25 PM. and the Flyer is scheduled to depart at 5:25 PM. Dallas and Fort Worth are only 31 rail miles apart, but the current AMTRAK timetable allows 1 hour 20 minutes to travel from Dallas to Fort Worth, but only one hour to travel the other direction, since there is “padding”: in the westbound schedule. So, if the Eagle had no further freight delays between Dallas and Fort Worth, and was less than 2 hours late, which it currently was, the passengers could still theoretically make the connection to the Flyer in Fort Worth. We finally departed Dallas 1 hour 57 minutes late, which admittedly would be a close connection for Flyer passengers at FTW at this time.
We appeared to be traveling at track speed between Dallas and Fort Worth, and there were no further delays. The westbound Texas Eagle initially goes past the Fort Worth station on the main line, then backs into the station beneath a freeway. Prior to our backup move, I walked to the last car on the train, and was able to watch the conductor release the air and guide the train on its backup move into the station. We were not carrying any express cars today, so it was easy to watch the entire backup move, and I videotaped the entire operation. Shortly before we began our backup move, the northbound Eagle passed us, which was approximately 2½ hours late by my calculations. We backed beneath the freeway and passed through two or three switches into the station. During our final approach into the station, a northbound TRE train passed us. We arrived into Fort Worth only 1 hour 34 minutes late, in a moderately heavy rain. The Fort Worth station, like Dallas, has also grown a lot since my last visit there several years ago. The station is now an intermodal station, and hosts city busses as well as AMTRAK and TRE trains. Even though it was raining, I got out for a few minutes and took some outside video. Fortunately, there are roofs along the platform, so I did not get wet while I was outside. And, sure enough, on the adjacent track was the Heartland Flyer, all set to go north to Oklahoma City. The passengers who were told to detrain in Dallas and catch a bus did not have to go that route after all. The Heartland Flyer apparently operates in push-pull mode, as there were Genesis units at each end of the short train. The train consists of 3 cars, two Superliner coaches separated by an older Superliner coach-café car. I watched the Flyer leave, on time. It too backs out of the station, but only a short distance before it switches forward and travels on the track furthest away from the station heading north.
We lost some more time in Fort Worth, and initially pulled out 1 hour 35 minutes late, but before we had even cleared the station, we stopped again for approximately 20 minutes, presumably waiting for a freight to clear the track ahead of us. Our “final” departure from Fort Worth was 1 hour 55 minutes behind schedule. Between Fort Worth and Temple, the route of the Eagle uses the BNSF trackage. Since I believe BNSF is more “AMTRAK-friendly” than Union Pacific, I figured that we would not likely have many freight delays for a few hours, and apparently I was somewhat right. We did not lose any more time between Fort Worth and Temple, and departed Cleburne 1 hour 52 minutes late, McGregor 1 hour 45 minutes late, and Temple 1 hour 45 minutes late. Since we were still not carrying any express cars, I stood at the back of the train for a while and took some videotape for a couple miles out the rear of the train. Eventually it was time for dinner. Again, I do not remember what time my dinner reservations were, but guaranteed it was the latest sitting available! I had the pork chops tonight, which were okay (but I still like the New York strip better!!) and a glass of wine. I sat with an older couple who were connecting to the Sunset in San Antonio, but who were going the other way -- east, toward Florida! If all trains are on time, that connection involves a 6-hour overnight layover at the San Antonio station. I don’t believe I have ever met anyone else making that connection….. Also at the table was a good ol’ boy from Louisiana who was traveling to Los Angeles, and had never been on a train before. For some reason, he wasn’t able to make the flight connection he wanted, so he decided to take the time and go by AMTRAK. There are better trains for a person to use on their first train trip….. Also at dinner, Tony the sleeping car attendant was “moonlighting” and helping out the dining car staff. While at dinner, we switched back to Union Pacific at Temple, and the train became noticeably slower and began experiencing more delays again.
After dinner it was getting dark, so I retired to my room for the evening. It had begun to rain harder. We departed both Austin and San Marcos 1 hour 40 minutes behind schedule, which was not too bad compared to the recent on-time performance history of this train! I went to bed after the San Marcos station, but did not stay in bed very long, as we soon stopped 10 miles before San Antonio for a very long time, and no other trains had passed us. I was dozing on and off and not paying a whole lot of attention initially, but I believe we were stopped approximately 2 hours before I decided to “investigate.” I got up then and walked back to the Sightseer Lounge car and found a conductor, to whom I asked “Do you have any idea why we have been stopped for so long?” His reply was “Sure -- I know exactly why we‘ve been stopped for so long -- the tracks are washed out ahead of us!” San Antonio and south Texas were in the middle of record rainfalls for the last week, which I wasn’t aware of until that evening. We soon began moving again, although very slowly. I went downstairs to the vestibule in the sleeper and opened up the window (OK, so I broke that rule again…..!) What I saw was a lake which was lapping against the bottom of the ties on our right-of-way -- a lake with trees growing in it! It was not really a lake, of course, but a flooded golf course! The conductor had told me that a track crew had been dispatched to put rocks beneath the track, and I saw the weary-eyed track crew as we crept past. I checked out our location on my railroad maps, and found the golf course -- located in a topographic feature called the “Olmus Flood Basin.” Enough said!!! What a place to build a golf course and a railroad right-of-way!!
We arrived into San Antonio at 3:10 AM, 3 hours 25 minutes behind schedule. The AMTRAK timetable allows approximately 4 hours layover between the arrival of the Texas Eagle into San Antonio and the departure of the combined Texas Eagle and Sunset Ltd, so the lounge attendant was probably right when she told me that the two trains rarely miss this connection in San Antonio. The scheduled departure time of the Sunset was 3:50 AM. As we arrived into San Antonio, I was awake, and stayed awake in my room for most of the night. The weather outside consisted of non-stop, pounding, torrential rain accompanied with lightning, thunder, and even heavier rain. The first thing that took place after our arrival was the endless switching of cars necessary to properly combine the through cars from the Eagle with the westbound Sunset Ltd, which had arrived only approximately one hour late, in spite of the weather! I still cannot figure out why so many switching moves are needed to properly combine these two trains. The combined trains finally left only approximately 1 hour late, miraculously, and I finally got a couple hours of sleep.
I awoke in the morning to a modified consist on the Sunset Ltd. Instead of switching the order of the cars, they simply tacked the 2 through sleepers and 1 through coach onto the back of the Sunset. Ahead of the “Chicago section” (through cars) were three “Orlando coaches,” then the Sightseer Lounge and diner, so it was a much longer walk to the lounge for me now. I made my way to the lounge before the Del Rio stop, and continued following my railroad maps and continuing my video. Since the Sunset Ltd departs the San Antonio station in the same direction the Texas Eagle comes in, the through coach ahead of me had all the seats facing “backwards.” Apparently the seats are usually turned somewhere around Austin, but perhaps because of the flooding and other responsibilities, the crew didn’t get around to turning them until much later in the morning. Of course, in the sleepers, nothing needs to be “turned”, since each room has two facing seats, so you can sit facing whichever direction is appropriate, and the bed can be made with the head at either end. As soon as I had arrived in the Sightseer lounge, one of the coach attendants came through to wake up all the “sleepers” in the lounge -- coach passengers that have to share their double seats will often go into the lounge car at night with a blanket and spread out on one of the double seats in the lounge for the night. The coach attendant woke people up and informed them that they are not allowed to sprawl out and sleep in the lounge during daylight hours. It took a few minutes, but most of the tired sleepers got up and moved back into their coaches. Also at that time, the lounge attendant made an announcement that the downstairs part of the lounge is now open for service, and has been since 6:30 AM.
I noticed that we were still traveling quite slow, and had apparently lost some more time since our 1 hour late departure from San Antonio, and I soon found out why. Just east of Laughlin Air Force Base, there appeared to be some flash flooding directly ahead of us. The tracks were not washed out, but there was quite a bit of water flowing beneath the tracks in this otherwise dry parched rainfall-starved part of Texas. As we gained elevation, the flooding and rainfall eventually vanished, but it was still quite cloudy for much of the day. I had met several fellow passengers from California in the lounge, whose one goal on this trip was to make it to the next “smoking stop.” The Sunset, like most AMTRAK trains is non-smoking, but at many of the station stops, passengers are permitted to step off the train and smoke. Since we were behind schedule, there would be no smoking stop at Sanderson, but at Alpine, and I believe Del Rio, there were smoking stops. This group, who sat near me and talked with me most of the trip, consisted of Scott from Lake Elsinore, who was returning to San Juan Capistrano from a 3-month stay in Houston, Mitch from San Diego, a young good ol’ pregnant couple from Texas, a young lady who played the guitar and was traveling with her parents, and a few others. We saw a few deer and antelope on the approach into Del Rio, then left Del Rio 2 hours 10 minutes late. The former Southern Pacific line (now Union Pacific) over which the Sunset travels sees a lot of freight traffic, and on this line, freight traffic has priority over passenger trains. Much of the line is single track, and at quite a few of the sidings, either the Sunset had to wait for a freight train (sometimes for an hour or more), or rarely, we passed a freight train in a siding. This, of course, has been a very big AMTRAK problem for many years. The rain had stopped, and those of us in the Sightseer lounge enjoyed this rugged plateau country of Texas. The route crosses Amistad Reservoir, and later, the Pecos High Bridge. An announcement was made that we were about to cross the High Bridge in “6 minutes,” but the 6 minutes turned into about one hour and 6 minutes, as we were delayed by several eastbound freight trains. The people with cameras (including me and the video camera) got some good shots of the bridge. Also through this area, we saw quite a bit of wildlife, mainly deer and antelope.
The dining car opened for lunch at noon, and, as stated previously, I always take the first call for lunch, but the latest seating for dinner on my trips. I sat in the diner with a couple black women who were not very talkative, and I ordered the steakburger for lunch, and a beer. Service was quite slow, since there were only 2 waiters on duty! The steakburger today tasted “microwavey”, kind of like reheated pizza crust in a microwave. We had made the Sanderson stop while I was at lunch, and had departed approximately 3 hours late now. On this leg of the trip, the conductors kept us pretty well informed about delays, as well as about scenery we were passing. They pointed out Amistad Dam, the little border town of Langtry (home of Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos” in the late 1880’s into the early 1900’s), as well as the “Malvado Star,” which was the remains of a foundation built for a fort to guard the Malvado bridge sometime in the 1800‘s.
We continued to experience numerous freight delays throughout the afternoon. I was beginning to wonder what time we would arrive in Los Angeles at the end of this trip, not because I was afraid of missing my next connection, however. There are many Los Angeles-San Diego Pacific Surfliners every day, but I was hoping to get to San Diego early enough to go to the beach or to the San Diego Zoo, and was thinking I may not have time for that -- it depended a lot on how late the Sunset departed El Paso, since, on most trips I have taken on the Sunset, there have been delays at El Paso. At one lengthy freight delay between Sanderson and Alpine, the conductor announced that, after the freight train had passed, our conductors had to manually switch a switch ahead on the train, since for some reason, the Union Pacific dispatcher could not do it. The next announcement concerned the next “smoking break” at Alpine, so the ears of the gang in the lounge car were attuned. At the Alpine station, we would make 2 stops -- one stop to let the smokers get off, then another stop to let the Alpine passengers detrain and to pick up the smokers, who were supposed to walk from the first stop to the second stop. And before we got into the station, the conductor announced that Alpine is the home of Sul Ross University, which is where Dan Blocker, aka “Hoss” in the TV show “Bonanza,” went to school. We made the first stop at Alpine, and the smokers got off the train a little before the actual station building. As they walked past the lounge, I had the video camera going, and they all saw me inside and waved at me, then they began walking toward the station. A few minutes later, the train pulled up and the Sightseer lounge was even with the station building, and the smokers got back on board. The next “smoke break” would not be for another 4 hours, at El Paso.
We departed Alpine 3 hours 10 minutes behind schedule, and the next major delay was at a siding called Ryan, which is approximately 170 miles east of El Paso. I had retreated to my room by then, since the movie “Harry Potter” was being shown in the Sightseer lounge, and I do not like to have to listen to a loud movie in the background while I am trying to narrate my video. We were stopped at Ryan for 45 minutes or so to allow a couple freight trains to pass. My room was on the south side of the train, and at Ryan, off in the distance was a strange blimp-looking aircraft attached to a mooring at a facility half a mile south of the track or so. I was curious as to what this thing was, and never did find out, but I assumed it was some kind of weather craft. While we were stopped, another announcement came over the PA system, which said that this train has “smoking stops” for a reason, so that people do not smoke on the train, and if they are caught smoking on the train, they would be removed from the train. I am not a smoker, but that sounds a bit harsh in my mind. I also made dinner reservations for the 8:30 sitting while I was in my room when the dining car steward passed through.
Then came El Paso. I had mentioned that, on every trip I have made on the Sunset, the train was delayed for some reason or another in El Paso. To my knowledge, this train had no mechanical problems like air conditioning or flat wheels, so I figured we would get out of El Paso without losing any more time. As the train crept into the yards just east of the El Paso station, we were again delayed, and the conductor announced we were waiting for another freight train. We were stopped for another 45 minutes while a very very long freight passed us. Then the last mile or so into the station was taken at a very slow pace; however, due to schedule “padding,” we only arrived into the station 3 hours 5 minutes late, in spite of the long delays at Ryan and in the yards. Many people got off the train to walk around during the normal 47-minute stop. After we had been stopped, many of the downtown buildings visible from the station began to look fuzzy and faint, since a mild dust storm was apparently passing through town, but, fortunately it did not delay the train. Soon I saw some mechanics inspecting all the wheels of all the cars in our train, including the several express cars on the end. Two mechanics were driving around in a golf cart from one end of the train to the other, and one gentleman, who I thought was the head mechanic or foreman was standing near me outside my sleeper car. Soon the mechanics went somewhere, got a crowbar-looking tool and began pounding at the wheel assemblies of one of the cars, then they went to the baggage car at the head of the train, and began doing some kind of work underneath the car. I asked the “foreman” what was going on, and he told me that normally at this station, a “routine inspection” is done of the train to make sure all the wheels, brakes, and couplings were okay, and that they had found some bad brake shoes on the baggage car. The problem at the other end of the train, where the mechanics were prodding something with the crowbar, had been corrected. But because the baggage car had defective brake shoes, that car had to be removed from the consist. Fortunately, there was a deadhead coach car between the baggage car and the Genesis units at the head end, so the new crew and the mechanics unloaded all the baggage out of the baggage car and put it in the deadhead coach. Meanwhile, we had been in El Paso much longer than 47 minutes. Inside the train, the earlier dining calls had been made, but the power was continually cut and turned back on while all the mechanical work on the train was being done. After the baggage was transferred to the coach, I assumed the next activity would be to uncouple the baggage car, coach, and power units from the head end, switch the bad baggage car onto another track, switch the power units and coach back onto the rest of the train, and take off. Well, that is what happened, but it should have been completed in about 10 minutes, but it took another hour. Nobody went to uncouple the head end cars for at least 45 minutes after the baggage had been transferred. I was then concerned that we would be several hours late into Los Angeles the next day, so I scratched my plans to do my sightseeing and beaching in San Diego. And it was now getting dark. I was standing outside with the “smoker” gang, and the woman who was traveling with her parents brought a guitar out and Scott played on it for a couple minutes, and they had planned on having an impromptu “jam session” back in the Sightseer lounge, once we got moving again. I walked around some more, and soon found out that the gentleman who I thought was the AMTRAK mechanical foreman did not work for AMTRAK at all! He was a Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector, and he told me that when he works this train in El Paso, he “always” finds problems with the Sunset! So this entire delay was his doing, eh?
After they switched out the bad baggage car, we finally departed El Paso at 9:35 PM, now 5 hours 28 minutes behind schedule. After we got going, the dining car steward made an announcement that they would now continue serving dinner and they would announce the original reservation times as soon as they had room for each sitting. Since it was late, I initially decided I wasn’t going to have a big dinner so late, but I later changed my mind and decided to eat after all. He called the 8:30 reservations at about 10:15, so I went to the diner and sat with a grandmother from Placentia, California, and two very very tired grandchildren, who were barely able to stay awake during dinner, but the grandmother kept forcing them to eat. I ordered the chicken l’orange and my traditional glass of wine. It was okay, but I don’t normally eat chicken that way, since I don’t like having to deal with bones and tearing meat off them. The New York strip steak is still the best AMTRAK dinner selection! And again, Tony the sleeping car attendant was helping out in the diner. After dinner, I walked back to my sleeping car, and by that time, Tony too was back, and I had him make my bed, so I turned in for the night. On my way back through the coaches, I saw my buddy Scott sound asleep in his coach seat -- oh well, so much for the big jam session he wanted to have in the lounge car!
I slept fairly well that night, and woke up for a few minutes while we were stopped in Tucson. At about 4 AM, probably no more than an hour beyond Tucson, we stopped again for a very long time. My room was on the south side of the train, and we were stopped next to Interstate 10. I thought we were waiting for a freight train, and sure enough, two freights did pass, but after they passed, we still did not move again for several minutes. I was just about to get up and “investigate,” but then I saw a vehicle pull off the Interstate, pull onto a dirt road next to the train and stop. A man got out of the vehicle and walked toward the back of the train, then 10 minutes later, another man (or maybe the same one?) walked back along the train, got into the vehicle, and the vehicle left. We were moving again within 10 minutes. I found out later in the morning that what happened was our crew had gone dead! No surprise, after the lengthy delays at El Paso. The stop was to allow the relief crew to board. I estimated the train to now be approximately 7 hours behind schedule. I tried to sleep some more, but within about a half an hour after we started moving with the new crew, it began getting light already, since Arizona does not observe daylight time, therefore is on Pacific time, and an hour ahead of what it should be. I got up around Maricopa and decided to take another good warm shower. The shower was still good and warm and felt good. I just caught a glimpse of the new Maricopa station, which is an old California Zephyr dome car converted to a station! We were indeed 7 hours late now.
One advantage of running 7 hours late on the westbound Sunset Ltd is that you get to see a lot of scenery which is “normally” (? what is “normal” for the Sunset Ltd?) passed overnight going in both directions. Of course, much of the scenery is pretty uninteresting desert country. I made my way back to the lounge car, and the smoker gang was there, and had told me that they all got off in Tucson at 3 AM and took a smoke break! By the time we were approaching Yuma, the crew realized that the Sunset was again hopelessly late, so began to make alternate arrangements for those passengers who were attempting to connect to the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles. I, of course, knew better, and would not be connecting to the Starlight until the following day. The PA system in the Sightseer lounge worked, but the volume of the announcements wasn’t that high, so the announcements were a bit difficult to hear in their entirety. What was arranged was that most people who had Starlight connections would detrain at Palm Springs. Those going north of Oakland would take a connecting bus to Bakersfield, then catch the San Joaquin, to connect with the Starlight in Martinez or Oakland. Those passengers traveling to destinations between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo would continue on the Sunset to Los Angeles, then catch a Pacific Surfliner to their final destination. Passengers going to stations between San Luis Obispo and Oakland would be bussed directly to their destination from Palm Springs. This appeared to be extremely confusing to most passengers, especially those who are not as familiar with routes, trains, and services as some of us, so, as often happens, I ended up explaining the connections again to many people. I somehow have a feeling that these bus connections are invoked more often than not on this route!!
A mile or two before the Yuma station, we had another moderately lengthy freight delay, then we departed Yuma 7 hours 39 minutes late. At one point, I was talking to Tony the sleeping car attendant, and he told me he thought we’d be into Los Angeles by 2 PM. Continuing across southern California, I was able to get some rare (?) video of the Algodones Dunes and Salton Sea, which are normally passed through at night. As we approached the Palm Springs area, one of the woman passengers saw my maps and asked me where we were. She was traveling to Palm Springs, but told me that her station was really Indio, but they called it Palm Springs because the city code on her ticket was “PSN” and that the other Palm Springs city code was “PSP,” but that was a bus stop in Palm Springs itself. She of course was half right - PSP is a bus stop, but the new Palm Springs station (PSN) is north of Palm Springs at an exit from Interstate 10, and not in Indio. I told her about the new stop, and, as we passed through Indio and did not stop, she finally believed me -- she apparently used to live in the area, but hadn’t been back for many years. The Sunset Ltd stopped in Indio for many years in the past, but since the new station at Indian Road & I-10 was built a few years ago, AMTRAK abandoned the Indio stop. We were told that the stop at Palm Springs would be about a half an hour, to allow the connecting passengers to board their busses, so it would therefore be a “smoking stop.” I got out for a few minutes at the station, but since the station platform is very short, the train double stops, first for the front end of the train, then for the back. I attempted to get off from my sleeper, but at the first stop, there isn’t even a boarding platform at that location, so I walked into the Orlando coach and disembarked there. The Palm Springs station is surrounded by several hundred wind generating “windmills” on the hillsides, which are interesting to see. Again, you will not see them if the Sunset is on schedule. I walked around some, and it was quite hot today. Three Inland Empire busses were at the station to take the connecting passengers as soon as the checked baggage was offloaded from the deadhead coach it had been stuffed into at El Paso. The Palm Springs station is a modernistic new sheltered platform with restrooms and racks for timetables and brochures -- there is no agent on duty. In the covered waiting area were two men who looked like characters from the movie “Deliverance.” They told me they were waiting for a train “from L.A.,” which was supposed to arrive at 11 AM, but were confused because this train pulled in from the opposite direction. I told them perhaps they were waiting for a Metrolink train (I don’t even know if Metrolink goes this far out from town -- I don’t believe it does), and they said no it was supposed to be an AMTRAK train. So I am not sure what they were waiting for -- the eastbound Sunset arrives in Palm Springs at 1 AM, so maybe they got confused. Quite a few people made the bus connections at Palm Springs, and we finally departed 8 hours 23 minutes behind schedule.
After our departure, the diner was open, so I had lunch and sat with an older couple from Yuma and a young, very polite young lady from Biloxi, Mississippi. I didn’t write down what I had for lunch, but I would guess that I had the Reuben sandwich, since I’d had the steakburger the previous day, and didn’t like it that much. We were finally approaching the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and had one more delay while traveling through San Timoteo Canyon near Redlands, due to “freight congestion,” as explained by the conductor. The next stop was Ontario, where we departed 9 hours 9 minutes late. I estimated our ETA into Los Angeles as 3:30, taking into consideration that there is about two hours of “padding” in the schedule between Pomona and Los Angeles Union Station. It had been a long day, and many people were getting tired of the Sunset Ltd, and just wanted to get home! (or wherever they were going). I did not record the departure time from Pomona, but believe we were just as late as we were leaving Ontario. In other words, it didn’t matter any more! We had a few more delays between Pomona and Los Angeles, but they were not caused by freight trains, but by Metrolink! (Los Angeles commuter rail service). I then discovered yet another error in my railroad maps. The route of the Sunset between El Monte and Los Angeles Union Station follows the median of the San Bernardino Freeway once again. For many years, this had been the route of the Sunset; however, in the last 10 years the route had been changed to follow the more northerly route through San Gabriel and Alhambra, reportedly to allow Metrolink to use the “freeway line” -- or so I was told several years ago. I have not been able to verify this route for several years, but obviously the route is now back down the freeway median. So I will have to make yet another revision to the railroad maps -- oh well, one of the purposes of my trips is to verify and keep updated on route changes. So far I’ve found corrections on each segment of this trip -- hmmm. Along this route, the last delay of this segment of the trip was approximately one mile from Los Angeles Union Station -- we waited for a Metrolink train! Before long, we made the big bend across the Los Angeles River, which surprisingly had water in it today! Then it was past Mission Tower and into the station for a 3:30 PM arrival -- 7½ hours behind schedule! I believe we were actually 9 hours behind schedule, as we were at Ontario and Pomona; however, the 2 hours of padding in the schedule made it appear we were only 7½ hours late.
I got off the train and took the final video shot of the train in the station. I also gave Tony the car attendant a $10 tip, since he was an excellent attendant ever since Chicago. He always had my bed made up and folded away when I was ready, and he also did a few extra services, such as find me a couple bottles of diet coke now and then, and either bring them to my room, or stock up his service area in Room 1 with diet, as well as regular coke. I notice these additional services and courtesies, and reward those responsible.
My buddies Scott and Mitch were also heading down south, and the schedule told us we could all make Train #582, the 4:10 PM Pacific Surfliner. Mitch and I were going to San Diego, and Scott was going to San Juan Capistrano, where his wife would meet him. He had found a cell phone earlier and called his wife to tell her the Sunset was late, and that he didn’t know which Surfliner he would be on, but, by the time he had called, his wife had already left to pick him up. I was hoping to have a chance to walk outside the station and take a little video, but by the time we had disembarked and walked down the ramp and through the long tunnel into the station, it was time to board the Surfliner. There was no “platform-to-platform” connection available from the track we arrived on, and we did not know for sure which ramp led up to proper boarding track for the Surfliner, so we had to go all the way to the main boarding gate inside the station and wait. By the time we got there, the line had already started. After I got inside the station with my large suitcase and small heavy map book suitcase, I realized I had left my camera case in my room, so I set my suitcases down next to the lectern by the boarding gate and began racing back out through the tunnel and up the ramp again. Luckily I saw Scott just coming in, and told him where my suitcases were and asked him to watch them for a few minutes, which he did. I raced back onto the train, which was fortunately still on the arrival track and retrieved my camera case, which contained my charger/AC adapter, plus all my battery packs and cassettes. The camcorder itself was around my neck and had been since I disembarked. I got back into the station, still somewhat out of breath, and again asked to Scott to hold my place in line for about 2 minutes while I raced outside and took about 30 seconds of video of the front of the station. Then it was back inside to board the next train.