Report and PHOTOS by Russ Jackson
Yes, I know those trains don’t go to Sacramento, but on January 13 we boarded Texas Eagle # 21 at Ft. Worth and headed for San Antonio, then on to Los Angeles and drove up the Valley to Sacramento, combining a winter vacation with attending the very successful RailPAC-NARP meeting on the 16th. Departing Ft. Worth was on time, but two minutes later we waited 15 minutes for clearance to cross the infamous “Tower 55” controlled BNSF-UP junction.
Thru-sleeping car 32041, a rebuilt Superliner I, was comfortable and in very good condition. The trainset had a Transition car, our sleeping car, a Diner-Lounge, a Sightseer Lounge, and 3 Coaches one of which would go onto the Sunset Limited with us. This was our first experience with a “Diner-Lounge,” and “dinner” was announced as being at either 3:30 or 3:45, as the crew would get off the train at Austin. The northbound Eagle is shown at the Austin station. The steak was very good, the service spirited, and we enjoyed talking to a couple from Illinois who were going to Tucson. Conductors made timely announcements including about an exaggerated backup move into San Antonio station because of track work, which took an hour to accomplish.
Comment: When this train goes daily (and it looks like it will sometime soon) the idea of having through passengers wait 8 or 9 hours overnight in San Antonio, being treated to car shuffles twice during the night, must be addressed. Some passengers didn’t mind it, though, as they were able to visit the social life near the River Walk.
Sunset Limited train #1, with two locomotives, a sleeper car being transported back to LA, baggage, transition, sleeper (from New Orleans), diner, lounge, 3 coaches (including the one from the Eagle, and on the rear our sleeping car, departed on time on the UP at 5:45 AM. We visited the train’s full dining car for a tasty breakfast at 7:00, where we met a couple from Ohio who were traveling to Tombstone, Arizona to visit a relative who moved there two years ago! Shown here talking to Sleeping Car attendant Lloyd Berry on the Del Rio platform. It was their first Amtrak trip. They had researched it on the internet in advance, and were finding it to be a very enjoyable way to travel. We would have two more excellent meals with these nice folks who got off at Benson. Arrival at Del Rio was a bit late, but passengers were allowed their “smoke break” on the platform. The conductor told everyone on the PA to not wander far from the train, as “the next train from Del Rio isn’t for 3 days.” Alpine, Texas, is an historic town, and is now a crew change location. Talk about a place that is isolated! Sul Ross University is there, and the cowboys who attend play real Texas football. It’s primarily an agriculture curriculum. Past the famous Sierra Blanca junction where the line converges with the rebuilt UP line from Abilene and Midland-Odessa, we were held on an upgrade on the main line while a hard working eastbound coal drag passed us using the siding, the only time we went in the hole. Have you noticed that many UP freight trains, not just coal drags, now routinely travel with a helper on the back end?
At El Paso the train was greeted by the local PD and EMT. A very unruly coach passenger left with the PD, and a lady conductor who had been allegedly bitten and kicked by said passenger left with the EMT, the only incident our train encountered, but a very serious one. At Tucson we were very impressed with several things: the facility looks just great, with a restaurant now on the east end. It sure looks different from when this writer hung out there with my Dad watching trains; there were many “offs” and “ons” this time, and we departed on time having sat there to “wait for time” for almost 90 minutes.
Comment: Most of the passengers we encountered were traveling from the mid-west to Tucson, some to Maricopa and Yuma, but that proves what Arizona RPA’s Rob Bohannan said, that this is the real market for this train and it must be daily and stop in Phoenix again. All bedrooms were sold out, but our car was almost vacant thereafter. Overnight arrival in LA was also early, but limited tasty breakfast service was available starting at 5 AM after Palm Springs, and we met a Dr. from New York who was a veteran Amtrak and world train rider heading to Portland. He would transfer to the Coast Starlight, while we got our rental car at LAUS and wound our way up the Valley. Our report of the Sacramento meeting appears elsewhere and here on www.railpac.org.
Sunset Limited #2 had quite an adventure at the start of our return trip, although “it could have been much worse.” Wednesday, January 22, was the start of the massive storm that plagued Southern California for several days. Our scheduled departure time of 2:30 was “delayed for a mechanical problem in the second locomotive.” (Amtrak 44, still running, at the El Paso station.) When we asked what was wrong up there, the conductor replied, “don’t ask, it happens all the time.” At 3:20 we were underway, but held ten minutes at the LAUS throat while Metrolink moved several trainsets into position for commuter departures. Lloyd Berry, our fine, experienced sleeping car attendant on both #1 and #2, said if we were delayed much longer Metrolink dispatch would put our train way down the priority list. We had the same number of cars in the consist as were on #1 except for the transferred car. Our sleeping car was number 32106, a Superliner II which was showing wear but still in operable condition. We were sent out the Alhambra branch line, observing the roaring Los Angeles River which would be getting much more rain contributing to it in the next few days.
The rain picked up and by the time we reached Pomona at 4:55 there was rain standing on the ground, and water covered the adjacent Metrolink track with passengers waiting apprehensively for their train. We had speed restriction to Ontario, and didn’t arrive at Palm Springs until 7:05. Tucson was reached at 2:25 AM MT, where the Tucson EMT was waiting to treat a passenger; a black cat strolled around the display steam locomotive; and we were out at 3:25. We made up time, and reached El Paso at 8:20, but a question: what is the life of a concrete tie? UP’s double track project across Arizona is complete, but they are already replacing concrete ties between Akela and Lanark. Passenger load was lower than on the westbound train, but the New Orleans sleeper was full, our through Eagle sleeper was only about half full, as was the Eagle coach.
A surprise was to see the NOAA balloon high above the weather station near Marfa. (the white dot in the photo taken from the rear window of the sleeping car, with lonely US90 paralleling the rail line.)
Arrival at Alpine, elevation 4485 ft., was a bit early, and shortly thereafter we met the westbound #1, stopped to let passengers off at Sanderson’s ancient empty station,
crossed the famous Pecos River bridge,
and arrived only 15 minutes late at San Antonio where we spent 9 hours while cars were shuffled waiting for Eagle departure time.
Texas Eagle #22. Out right on time at 7:00 with a standard consist including the coach and our sleeper from the Sunset Limited. Attendant Jim had set up a magazine table, everything was ready, and he provided us the box breakfast sleeping car passengers receive, as the dining car crew does not rejoin until Austin to prepare lunch. Arrival in the Texas capitol city was early, and it was noted that passengers were standing in a line waiting to board. Austin also has one of Amtrak’s new station signs.
Arrival at Temple was early, and perhaps the most interesting conversation transpired there. A lady pointed to the “Santa Fe depot” building, saying her father had worked there, but one day as he was leaving the boss’s office after an argument he was shot by the boss and died. That led to a discussion with other passengers and crew about incidents on the train, including the one from our westbound trip at El Paso. Comments were made that alcohol should not be served on board as a help to control potential problems. A crew member pointed out that he had been robbed twice by persons now serving hard time for it. Another story was about six people who boarded in St. Louis a few years ago and thought they could get away with robbing passengers; they were greeted by police at the next stop as they found they were not able to get off when they wanted to at 80 mph. A World War II troop train car is on display at Temple’s rail museum; a traveler told us he had ridden in one and remembers the car where they shaved, complete with the old razor straps. Lunch, while going through Crawford, was very tasty. Amtrak knows how to prepare a great cheeseburger! We sat with a man who was traveling from Los Angeles to Little Rock, because he could not find employment in California and was going to work for his brother in Arkansas. Our arrival back in Ft. Worth was only ten minutes late. What a great trip! What a great experience travel on Amtrak’s long distance trains is!
Comment: That experience must be kept positive; too often we hear “never again” from passengers who have bad experiences. Not this time.