On the train again! It is now Monday, June 17, 1996 at about 9:00 AM Central Time (CT). The Southwest Chief had stayed on-time, even arriving early at some stops, almost to Kansas City. There was some unspecified mechanical problem and we are now about an hour late. Kansas City is a pretty big rail center and has always been that way since the early days of rail. We are moving slowly through a huge switching yard and I've seen many moving freight trains and other rail equipment in just the last few minutes. But, let's go back to the start of the trip ...
Click here for photos & more info about the Southwest Chief.
I had been looking forward to this trip for quite a few weeks. My kids just finished school for this school year on Friday. They flew to visit their grandparents in Florida on Saturday morning and my wife and I were to leave on a train vacation for just the two of us on Saturday evening. Everything went just fine until 7 P.M., just two and a half hours before the train was scheduled to leave.
My guess is that almost every marriage has some unresolved issues for which there seems no solution. Once in a while they come to a head, but for the most part, we just avoid talking much about them. Well ... one of those issues came up just before we were about to leave.
We both became pretty worked up. My wife stormed out of the house. Later I found out that she went down to our office which is only a few miles from our home. (We both tend to remain logical even when trying to demonstate our anger by acting irrational). After I calmed down, I tried to think clearly what would be the right thing to do next. Whatever I did, I wanted to make sure this train trip that I had been looking forward to with my wife could be salvaged.
We had planned to leave our house at 8:20 PM for the station. I decided to stick with the plan. If my wife didn't calm down, the train was a better place to sleep than the dog house. If she did calm down tonight, tomorrow, or whenever, she could always catch up with me enroute.
By 8:30 PM, we had both calmed down and were ready to get back together and head out on our trip. The only problem was, I was half way to Fullerton with not enough time to get home and back in time for the train. I don't think my wife could have driven to Fullerton in time to make the train either! She called a taxi to take her to the station. They said they'd be at our house in ten minutes, but it was well after 9 PM when they got to the house.
This created a serious dilema. She called from the taxi once it was on the way to Fullerton. I recommended that she have the taxi drive her to the San Bernardino station instead. As long as the cab driver didn't get lost and could find the station, I felt the taxi could make it to San Bernardino in time for the train. The train would not leave San Bernardino until 10:37 PM. San Bernardino is about 45 miles from our home and the taxi would have an hour and twenty minutes to get there.
My wife decided to try and make the train at Fullerton station instead. She had less than 20 minutes to make the train and this train is seldom late out of Fullerton since it is the very first stop from its Los Angeles point of origination. The only problem is, if she did miss the train in Fullerton, there was no chance to make it in time to San Bernardino! You cannot out race the train from Fullerton to San Bernardino. I've tried.
I waited patiently for her taxi to arrive. Through my mind went one of those scenes from movies where a couple lovingly embrace at the train station, reunited after almost having each gone their own way. But that wasn't to be. The train pulled into the station on time, and still no taxi.
I raced to my seat and got on my cellular phone. I figured the only hope now was to tell her to head for San Bernardino before she lost any further time driving in the opposite direction. No answer. I got to her message service and started to leave her the message to head for San Bernardino. But suddenly, I heard my name being called from somewhere in the train! She made it! Out of breath, but she was heading up the stairs on the train. Any loving embraced would first have to wait until I could explain why I was already on the train instead of still waiting for her taxi to arrive. Being already on the train placed me at a bit of a disadvantage since it looked like I was willing to leave, with or without her.
In worst case, I figured she could catch up with me by flying to Albuquerque, New Mexico or somewhere else along the route. She understood my logic, but it still would have been better had I been outside still waiting for her, even if it meant missing the train.
In any case, it did work out and we were on the train together! The rest of the story of our trip is less dramatic, but I just felt that I had to write about this incident since it is one of the more unusual things I've been through related to my train travels.
This was my third overnight trip on the Southwest Chief. The first was just a quick trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. The second one was all the way to Chicago and back on business last December (1995). I took one of my daughters along on that trip. I enjoyed the time with my daughter, but it almost would have been worth flying.
My children can only take so much, which is not very much, looking out the window before they become bored and want to play games. I must have spent most of the trip playing games. My previous impression of the trip on the Southwest Chief was that it was a dull trip with nothing but farmland for scenery.
I couldn't have been more wrong! I just must have been distracted away from the scenery by trying to keep my daughter entertained on the trip. On this trip, I had already taken over 100 photos by Kansas City! (Don't expect to see that many on-line. I always shoot 4 to 5 times more photos than I actually use. I'll often take 2 or 3 photos of the same thing just to get different angles and ensure I get one that I'm going to want to post on-line).
Let's start in Fullerton. Our Car Attendant is Ron Harris. He came to our room immediately as the train left Fullerton. He gave us our meal pass along with a little "Welcome Aboard!" slip that read "Thank You For Traveling With Us! As your sleeping car attendant, I am here to make your trip a pleasant one. Please call me any time if I may be of assistance. Your Attendant, Ron Harris." In the room we found a gift "Southwest Chief" deck of cards, and a "Southwest Chief" sundry kit with shampoo, body lotion, and traveling toothbrush.
I was also very please to find two "Route Guides" for the "Southwest Chief" and a schedule. As far as I know, the only place to get these "Route Guides" is onboard the train, and even there they aren't always available. Just yesterday I asked an Amtrak ticket agent that is a friend of mine if he knew where I could get "Route Guides" for the train routes that I have not yet experienced. He never even knew that these "Route Guides" existed! Thus, I consider these "Route Guides" as my "Certificate of Achievement" for each trip that I travel. Since you can only get them onboard, it is like proof that you took the trip!
Just a side note: If you board the Southwest Chief and notice that the "Route Guide" says the train goes through Pasadena instead of Fullerton, don't panic! The "Route Guide" is out of date. The Southwest Chief has not gone through Pasadena since 1994. They just haven't published a new Southwest Chief "Route Guide" since then.
Ron told us that we could get finger sandwiches and champagne if we hurried to the Dining Car. We did that and there was also fruit and cheese in addition to the finger sandwiches. We asked for the champagne. They gave it to us but said they normally close up the Diner as they pull into Fullerton. If they've always had this treat on the way out of Los Angeles, I wasn't aware of it before since I've always left out of Fullerton.
Usually I stay in my Economy Sleeper with all the lights turned out so that I can see outside between Fullerton and San Bernardino. I'm familiar with many of the cities and streets along those tracks and always find it entertaining to be traveling by familiar sites from the unusual vantage point of the train. With all the lights turned on in the Dining Car, it was difficult to see anything out the windows at night.
I got out to walk a little when we reached San Bernardino. You can do that at many stops as long as you stay close to the door so that you can re-board with little warning. The train held there for a few extra minutes while the Conductor tried to determine what happened to the connecting passengers from the Coast Starlight. I was a bit surprised at this. Ever since schedules changed on April 14th, the Coast Starlight no longer officially connects with the Southwest Chief!
The Coast Starlight used to be scheduled to arrive at 7 PM and the Southwest Chief used to leave at 9:30 PM. The Coast Starlight would be delayed by frieght trains so often that they officially rescheduled it to arrive at 9:15 PM. Since the Southwest Chief no longer had to wait for the Coast Starlight to arrive, they rescheduled it to leave earlier at 8:55 PM.
I image that the Coast Starlight often does arrive well before 8:55 PM, but Amtrak no longer sells tickets where a connection between the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief is expected. Under the old schedule, if the Coast Starlight was running very late, they'd have passengers connecting to the Southwest Chief get off at Santa Barbara. Amtrak would then bus them to San Bernardino where they could easily get ahead of the Southwest Chief by bypassing in and out of Los Angeles.
Only thing I can guess at is that this Conductor did not realize that the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief no longer have connecting timetables. Other than that, I don't know why he was asking about connection Coast Starlight passengers in San Bernardino. My reasoning does explain, however, why there weren't any!
During the night we stopped in Victorville. You won't find that on your "Route Guide" either. The "Route Guide" isn't accurate until you get to Barstow and Needles. They had to "double spot" in Victorville. That means the train is too long to fit into the station so they have to stop once to let people off and on of the front cars and then have to move the train up and stop again to let people on and off of the rear cars.
In the morning, Ron Harris had coffee and juice waiting for us. There was also plenty of cream, sugar, sugar substitutes, and cups for the coffee and juice. You might think I'm making a big deal of nothing, but I've been on a lot of train trips where one or more of the above items have been missing. Ron kept coffee and the additives available for most of the entire day. That really places him high on my list considering the number of attendants that close up the coffee service after the first pot is empty.
Just after Flagstaff, Arizona, I spotted a deer right by the tracks. There were two sets of tracks inside a depression that was dug through the terrain to keep the tracks level. The deer was up near the wall across from the other set of tracks. He didn't seem to be frightened. He just stood and watched our train go by!
The train stops in Albuquerque, New Mexico to refuel so it is there for about 25 minutes. Indians sell jewelry from stands on the platform. There used to be a grand old station in Albuquerque, but it burnt down a while ago. Now there is just a small newer station there, but a very large platform that used to go with the old station. If you are looking for a place to buy a few items, try the Greyhound Bus Terminal that is almost across the street from the Amtrak station building. They carry a few items like film, batteries, sundries and souveniers.
After lunch, Ron brought us a certificate that was good for 2 free beverages of our choice from the Lounge Car Cafe or we could have our Car Attendant bring them to us. I asked Ron if they were good for wine. He replied "Anything you want!" So, I asked him to bring us two White Zinfandels when he got a chance. Ron had them up to our room in about 10 minutes, chilled and with clear plastic wine cups.
I goofed with the time for which I made dinner reservations (6:20 PM). That was exactly the time we started going through the scenic Raton Pass. I wasn't able to get to many good photos from the Diner table. I've made a mental note to take this trip again during the longest days of Summer so that I can get pictures of this segment while there is still good daylight during these late hours.
After Kansas City, there was a lot of green scenery: forests, fields and farms. Though it was very scenic and relaxing, I didn't take too many photos of this segment as one photo would look much like another. There were a few interesting sights, especially in La Plata, Missouri, where horse drawn carriages waited at railroad crossings. Unfortunately, there were many scenes like this that came and went faster than I could get my camera ready.
Long before I embarked on this journey I would occassionally stop by the Fullerton Station and watch the Southwest Chief come and go. I noticed that the last sleeping car was always a "Transition Sleeper". I've seen "Transition Sleeper" cars on trains before, but they were for the use of the train crew. This "Transition Sleeper" was being used by passengers.
I should have asked at the start of the trip for a tour of the "Transition Sleeper" car, but instead I waited until almost the end of by trip on the Southwest Chief before asking about it. As it turns out, the "Transition Sleeper" is being used as sort of a Lounge Car for Sleeping Car Passengers. The Car Attendant said that more Sleeping Cars were needed on the Southwest Chief (I noticed that there are always 3 on each train set now) and Amtrak just plain ran out of equipment. Thus, Amtrak is using some of the Transition Sleepers, which were designed as dormitory cars for the crew, to be used by passengers. The crew have instead been given an older car to be used as the dormitory. The bathrooms on those older cars are not suppose to be used since they are still style that just dumps onto the tracks instead of going into a tank on the train.
The Transition Sleeper is very similar to other Superliner Sleeping Cars. One big difference is that there are no Deluxe Bedrooms and no Family Room in it. It was actually designed as a dormitory for the crew members. Upstairs are all Economy Sleepers. Downstairs there is one Special Bedroom for handicapped use and the toilets. Where you would normally find four more Economy Sleepers and one Family Room, there is a good size lounge area instead!
I took a number of pictures of the lounge area in the Transition Sleeper and they will be posted in the photo section when they are ready. That Lounge area had four "Captain Seats", big comfortable chairs with arms that swivel and also two full tables similar to what you would find in the Dining Car or the cafe in the Sightseer Lounge Car. Most of the space in that lounge area is pretty open. There are windows on both sides that you can see out from every seat. The captains chairs will swivel around to either directly face the closest windows or can be made to face each other and the windows on the opposite side of the car.
I asked the Car Attendant if many people use that lounge as it was empty when I went down to take pictures of it. She said it depended on what type of passengers were on the train that trip. If there were a number of card players or talkers, they would often spend most of the trip in that lounge. She said that the Transition Sleeper was empty for most of this trip since the people on this train didn't seem to be either card players or very talkative.
I have another explanation for the lack of use of the Transition Sleeper Lounge Area. I don't think that most passengers even knew that it was on the train! And those that were aware of it, didn't even know they had the right to use it unless there room was in the Transition Sleeper Car. I earlier had heard two people talking about that car. One was very disapointed as her travel agent had promised her that her room was in the Transition Sleeper Car. Evidently she believed she wasn't allowed to use that lounge unless her room was in that car. Two Car Attendants made it clear to me that it was available to ALL sleeping car passengers in any of the sleeping cars!
I would have mentioned something to those people myself, but at the time I overheard the conversation, I didn't know what was in the Transition Sleeper nor who was allowed to use it. The fact that the Transition Sleeper existed, what it was, and who was allowed to use it was never mentioned or explained by any of the staff to the passengers! I had to specifically ask about it to learn about it.
(Special Note: Click Herefor updated information about the Amtrak Superliner Transition Sleepers.)
Here is a little tidbit that I discovered that probably isn't useful for much: The car number that you see from outside the car can be accessed from behind the baby changing table in one of the downstair toilets. When changing clothes, I like to use the baby changing table as a convenient place for some extra room. When I put it down this time, a panel that was hidden by the table when it was up was hanging loose. I thought I would probably be able to see outside the train by looking behind the loose panel. Instead, I saw a glass panel that was sort of frosted. On the back of the loose panel itself was all these strange roller like things. I thought it was something electronic and was curious what it was for. On closer inspection, I noticed it had our car number showing out toward the frosted glass panel! The rolls contain the digits 0 through 9 and can be rolled to show whatever is the car number.
Once you get to Chicago, how to you get where you are going? We were on our way to Oak Brook and decided to take one of the many "Metra" commuter trains. Elmhurst looked like the closest station to where we were going and made plans for someone to pick us up at the station. What we didn't realize is that only some of the Metra trains depart from the Chicago Union Station where the Southwest Chief pulls in!
The train we wanted departs from another Chicago station two blocks north of Union Station. That wouldn't have been two bad except that we had two pull suitcases and two very heavy carry-on bags. After much exercion and many short rests, we made it to the other station. We purchased our tickets and were able to immediately board the train. These trains were not built for people carrying luggage! We had to lug our luggage up four steps and then blocked the aisle for any other passage! Fortunately, this was an express train and we would be getting off at the second stop!
Later, we found out that we could have taken a different train directly from Chicago's Union Station to Western Springs. This would have been just as convenient for the person picking us up at the station. So, if you plan to take a Metra commuter train to get to your final destination once you arrive in Chicago, either find one that leaves directly out of Union Station or be prepared to hike two blocks with your luggage! Also avoid the rush hour if you can. That way you won't have rush hour commuters trying to get around your luggage and you might even find a seat on the train!
Just as a side note: Metra has their own site on the web with all their schedules, fares, and maps! Click here to get to that web site.