A trip on the Eagle-Sunset to Tucson, a joyful experience of surprises

Report and Photos by Russ Jackson, RailPAC Associate Director

Tower 55 Ft. Worth TX. No BNSF trains waiting to cross, no UP traffic moving across it? No problem? Astounding. But, what happens when a westbound UP freight has a disabled car and blocks access to the Ft. Worth Intermodal Center for the southbound Texas Eagle, and it is not a dispatch situation? Passengers wait on the platform where they can see their train so close but they must wait and wait for it to back in to be loaded. On Wednesday, April 2, 2014, the wait was only about 30 minutes, but still frustrating. After efficiently loading passengers we were off and settled into car 32011 behind locomotive 170 for the overnight journey to San Antonio and on to Tucson.

Wait a minute, though, there was no conductor on the platform to scan my e-ticket. If that is not done Amtrak’s computer will assume I am a “no show,” and may re-sell that room! A hurried search for the conductor found her, and all was well. Another surprise!…there were two Eagle sleeping cars instead of the usual one, and they were on the front end of the train. Yes, they can do that, and move it all with one locomotive. First explanations were that there were more transferring passengers in Chicago than usual. Oh, yes, the flatiron steak dinner was excellent…as was my favorite lunch the Cheeseburger on both trains.! Too bad they don’t have a BLT, though.

Amtrak 189, still advertising service to the Texas-Oklahoma football game, led the Sunset Limited westbound.

The overnight slam-bang shuffling of cars between the Eagle and the Sunset Limited at San Antonio seemed to be more than usual, but it was accomplished and we were out on time at 2:45 a.m. Arrival at Alpine, TX, was early, so passengers had plenty of time to enjoy the cool weather, and learn about Sul Ross University and the Big Bend country. Arrival required double “spotting”, as a large group was detraining there from the front sleeping car, another reason for the added sleeper on the back, so they reached the platform first and the rest of us waited for the next spotting. My sleeping car attendant, Tony, was on his first trip on the Sunset Limited. Because of some personnel problems from the Eagle, he had been flown from Chicago to San Antonio to take over the rest of the journey to Los Angeles. Tony was a good one, experienced and enthusiastic. Johnathan, a Los Angeles bound fellow passenger who also boarded at Ft. Worth, said he “had never seen more joyful crews” than we had between the Eagle and Sunset. The subject of fewer amenities did not come up. We heard later that a sleeping car passenger was still sleeping when the conductor was ready to get off the train in Los Angeles Union Station. Now for some photos from this trip and the return trip on train #422.

Amtrak train 1, the westbound Sunset Limited is at the Alpine, TX station on April 3, with 10 cars and locomotives 189 and 192.

West of Alpine the barren desert of the Texas southwest has few surprises, but when one gets past Marfa sights like this weather balloon can be startling and produce theories that it is a UFO.

Union Pacific has been constructing a 5-mile long new yard at Santa Teresa, west of El Paso in New Mexico, on the double track Sunset Route. That facility is now open, and this photo shows a freight train being refueled at the west station. Amtrak still refuels at the El Paso station.

Although there has been improvement over the two benches out in the open that were there a few years ago and commented upon by us, the new shelter and sign do look better for Amtrak at the Deming, NM station in this photo taken from the Sunset Limited sleeping car. The barrier helps keep motorists from running around the gates at this intersection, where the road is used as the “platform” for passenger loading and unloading.

On April 3 there were no passengers for Deming, but this Union Pacific work crew was west of there which slowed the Sunset Limited’s progress. The advantage of the “flag stop” at Deming is the train can go through without stopping, but that was overcome by the necessity to wait for this work crew to clear the track. Even so, the train arrived in Tucson on time.

When the two Sunset Limited trains meet it is usually on the double track in New Mexico. Here train #2 that left Los Angeles on April 2 zips past in this view from the rear car window of #1. Interstate 10 is to the right.

The return trip on Amtrak’s Eagle-Sunset #2 was just as enjoyable to this veteran train rider, but the quality of service and reliability was somewhat diminished over what we had on #1. Amtrak had notified me that instead of the original departure time from Tucson we would depart two hours later, at 10:05 on Saturday, April 5, which was certainly acceptable. Arrival at the Tucson station at 9:00 would give time to explore the area around the station, see the famous Congress Hotel where John Dillinger lived before he was captured, see the progress with the new Tucson Trolley, and visit the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum located in the western part of the station complex. Ten o’clock came and went, but the train didn’t. The station agent kept us informed, and eventually it showed up at 11:40 due to a UP crew working west of Tucson. Departure was 12:05, two hours late but taking into account we were now really four hours later than schedule and then we were dispatched on the old line east of Vail that runs much slower, the prospect for a late connection with #22 at San Antonio was on our minds. Then the issue of a crew that would run out of hours meant stopping at a crossing 15 miles west of Deming rather than changing crews in El Paso. A quick stop for refueling at El Paso and we raced east. Fortunately, Amtrak held #22 in San Antonio, as we arrived 30 minutes later than that train’s scheduled departure. Amtrak did in one hour what it took most of the night to do on our westbound connection at San Antonio, and the Eagle was out at 8:30. Amenities? I thought newspapers would no longer be available, but did no one tell the Austin American-Statesman? We had the Sunday paper to read.

The Tucson Trolley is testing now and will begin service on its route between the University of Arizona and downtown Tucson this summer. This picture, taken from the Sunset Limited sleeping car window, shows a train at the trolley’s maintenance base.

Because of the late arrival in San Antonio it was light enough to take a photo of the two Amtrak trains in that station. On the left is the Texas Eagle trainset, after the through cars had been removed from the Sunset Limited on the right. A yard crewman has just set up the hose to “water” the car, which had run out of water overnight due to the late moving.

Home was two hours late, but who cares? It is always a pleasure to write positively about an Amtrak long distance train trip. Both trains, east and westbound, were full of passengers with large turnovers at El Paso and Tucson. I will refrain from my usual cranky analysis of the Sunset Limited’s three days a week schedule and that Amtrak should more often respond to demand for space on this train by adding an additional car. We learned on this trip that they can do it when they want to.

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