Rail Photos, Reports

To Sacramento by way of the Sunset Limited-Texas Eagle

Photo and Trip Report in newly rebuilt Superliner cars by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

“It isn’t the destination it’s the journey.” That’s what the retired doctor sitting across from us in the Sunset Limited dining car said about train travel. He was the personification of that statement, as his trip started in Seattle on the Coast Starlight, joined us on the Sunset Limited on our return journey to Ft. Worth from attending the RailPAC Steel Wheels Conference in Sacramento, and stayed on the Texas Eagle to Chicago where he would board the Empire Builder for his trip home. That’s a veteran train traveler, and the type who is willing to spend to enjoy his trips. We all were satisfied travelers, pleased with our journey and the opportunities to see the country close up. There was a full train-load of passengers both ways, with “on’s” and “off’s” at every station.

Free enterprise at work: the “burrito lady” selling $2 home made burritos to Sunset Limited passengers and crew at the El Paso, Texas station.

Let’s back up and start our journey. Getting a reservation from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles and return was a two-step procedure. The first attempt showed nothing available when we wanted to go, but a wait of a few weeks into July yielded our reservation in sleeping car 32059 on train 421 which would get us into Los Angeles on September 14 so we could get to Sacramento in time for the meeting the next day. The return reservation was in sleeping car 32032. We were delighted to discover that both cars were recent rebuilds out of the Beech Grove Amtrak shops, with the new easier-to-clean wall panels replacing the carpeted walls that had become so shabby.

Superliner easy-to-clean panels.

New sinks and the non-splash faucets.

Touch-type lighting controls.

When we discussed this with Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald at the Sacramento meeting we talked about our approval of the new interiors, new sinks, non-splash faucets, and restroom-shower design. He spoke of how he was working on new mattresses, new lighting wattage, and expressed concern when we told him there were no soap bars, no sink cups, no hooks to hang clothes on, the air conditioning was too cold and is still not adjustable. On our return trip car 32032 had soap bars and cups, but not the new mattresses or hooks, had the bright new LED lighting with touch-type switches, and the temperatures were bearable. Those newly rebuilt sleeping cars are comfortable, and we dare say “healthier” to travel in even if the door between bedrooms still rattles and the PA in our 422 car did not work.

Private varnish “Patron Tequilla Express” on the rear of the Sunset Limited at Alpine, Texas station.

How did Amtrak and the BNSF-UP handle our trips? Our train 421 had been held on the UP at Alton, IL, the day before “because a truck with a propane tank was parked too close to the tracks,” according to our attendant Reggie, and “that was scary.” The usual bang-bang-bang of moving the through cars between the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited at San Antonio was loudly accomplished, but there was a private car on the westbound Sunset that had to be set aside first so it could be placed back behind the Amtrak through-sleeper and coach. Amtrak on time performance was nearly perfect both ways, with UP and BNSF freights standing by on sidings. There could have been a significant delay departing Los Angeles on 422 because the connecting Coast Starlight was running 5 hours late due to a bicycle rider fatality near Eugene, but passengers either rode the San Joaquin from Sacramento or were on buses on the Coast Line, and they arrived in time for our 10 PM departure! As for the sleeping car attendants, Reggie and the others were friendly. efficient, and responsive. They confirmed there is a plan for them to ride the entire length of the Chicago to LA trip, and Reggie was looking forward to seeing California for the first time when that happens. Jesus told us he was 67, had worked for Amtrak since 2005 and would work until he was 70.

Sunset Limited cheeseburger lunch.

Coast Starlight salad lunch.

How were the food and beverages and the dining car service? We were satisfied customers! In the article, “What did I learn from listening to Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald,” published on www.railpac.org and printed in the Steel Wheels newsletter we discussed the food and beverage situation and that Mr. Rosenwald had seen our previous article about having 24 hour service in the dining car, which would have made it possible to sell more of those great Angus cheeseburgers, salads and other menu items and more beverages, to passengers who board at the intermediate stations many times at strange hours, eliminating the “reservation” system for the limited hours of service now. Look at how many hours of unproductive use there is in those dining cars today. We heard after our return that Amtrak cut back the dining car staffing on the Sunset Limited ostensibly because of the “end of the season.” You’d never know it from the full trains in September. There is NO doubt that an added Superliner sleeping car and/or coach would also have sold out and put NO added burden on our dining car crews.

Passengers visiting on the platform at Alpine, Texas, a crew change-smoking break-wait for departure time location.

The passengers we meet in the dining cars add to the journey enjoyment, like the retired doctor mentioned above, and the couple from Arkansas who had driven to Oklahoma City, rode the Heartland Flyer to Ft. Worth, then were on our trains to Los Angeles where they would transfer to the Coast Starlight for the trip to Klamath Falls. They were going to vacation on the Oregon coast, then drive to Eureka, and fly home via Sacramento, Denver, and Oklahoma City before driving home. It was their first Amtrak trip and they were loving it, even making plans for another journey. Another couple was traveling round trip between Virginia and Los Angeles on the Crescent and Sunset, and did so every six months for business reasons. There was the breakfast with a young couple who were going from Vancouver, Canada, to Tucson and would visit the Grand Canyon, who had plenty of time to eat before the arrival at Tucson, as the delay at Maricopa, AZ, still lasts up to more than a half hour. See a pattern of what the long-distance train traveler is?

Traffic backed up from the SR 347 crossing next to the Maricopa, AZ train station on a Saturday morning waiting for the Sunset Limited to depart.

Then, there’s the problem for “law enforcement.” Amtrak has a hard rule of “no smoking” anywhere on trains. Sometimes individuals choose to not obey or wait for the designated smoking stops. Amtrak and local law enforcement agencies cooperate to enforce the rule as well as deal with unruly passengers who, shall we say, drink too much. Amtrak conductors make their threats on the PA system, but there’s always someone who doesn’t believe them. The clue is when an attendant will call for a conductor to come to a coach car for “assistance.” Westbound, a man was removed at a crossing just east of Tucson and handed to the Pima County Sheriffs Office after he had sipped too much from two bottles of gin he was carrying. He told the conductor that it was ok as he had a “prescription” for gin. Yeah, well, off he went. Another unruly passenger went to the Casa Grande, AZ, police who took custody. On the return trip, two young “smokers” carrying backpacks had their journey end with the Willcox, AZ police. Neither Casa Grande or Willcox are scheduled stops. Then in the middle of the night, the U.S. Border Patrol boarded at Del Rio, TX, with a drug-sniffing dog. Coach passengers were told to “keep your feet out of the aisle or the dog might bite.”

Add in the great views, and how is that for an interesting journey that eventually reached its destinations?

Photos by the author; salad photo by Alexander Friedman!

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