Journey on the Southwest Chief
Tuesday, January 17th, 2006 Train 49 Lakeshore Limited
Allowing for delays, we set out from Brockville, Ontario for the train station in Syracuse N.Y. six hours before departure time. Normally this would be 2 ½ hour drive but with freezing rain, snow and high winds in the forecast plus the uncertainty of a speedy border crossing, we thought it best to prepare for the worst. I would rather wait an extra few hours in a station than nervously stew in traffic counting down to my train’s departure. Luck was with us as the border guards basically waved us through and the only precipitation we encountered was a light rain drizzle.
Upon arrival we picked up our reserved tickets at the Amtrak counter, then enjoyed a quick dinner with our husbands at the Subway outlet located in the station before sending them home early in hopes of avoiding the impending inclement weather. We passed the time watching television and chatting with a young gentleman who introduced himself as Nathan. He was from Arizona but had been living in Syracuse the past five months and was looking forward to a visit from his friend arriving from Tennessee on the next train. There were now quite a few people waiting, some on cell phones others using laptops, and I marveled at one woman calmly working on a handicraft project.
Our 9:26pm train arrived a bit late at 9:40pm. An elevator took sleeping class passengers to the upper platform level where we waited inside a glass enclosed structure until the train came to a complete stop. George, our car attendant, stored our big bags then led us to our room where he ran through some of the features and reminded us to buzz if there was anything we needed. The diner was closed at this late hour; however we were welcome to go to the lounge car. I inquired about the train consist and in short order George was back with a list so that I didn’t have to brave the elements to get those numbers.
Train 49 Lakeshore Limited Consist
Lead unit – 152
The train departed the station at 9:50 pm.
On the way to the lounge car we talked to one of the conductors who was finishing up some paperwork. Talk centered on Amtrak and some of the problems it faced. He thought Mr. Gunn had done a good job the short time he was at the helm, yet he worried about the future of passenger rail and the many invaluable employees. When I mentioned that the Lakeshore is often nicknamed the “late shore”, he exhibited a sense of humor by remarking that he has heard it referred to as the “never on time 49” and the “always late 48”. Back in our room, we retired at 11:00 pm.
Wednesday, January 18th, 2006 Train #3 Southwest Chief
I slept poorly as most of the night was spent listening to one
side of a cell phone conversation. The “cell phone lady”,
a door away from ours, talked well into the night in a loud voice
with her door open. She must have fallen asleep around 4:00
am. Because that’s the last time I remember looking at my watch.
At 7:00 am. I washed up, making the best of my “bed head”; no shower
today. Darlene was stirring so I took the complimentary U.S.A.
Today, and told her I’d meet her in the lounge car, thereby giving
her some privacy to ready for the day.
An 8:30 announcement stated that the diner was now closed. I went looking for Darlene to let her know that we missed breakfast but could buy something in the lounge. Miscommunication, she had already eaten breakfast. Back in the lounge I got another coffee and sat with Linda, who was on her way to Chicago to meet her son. Linda was from Bad Axe Mich. and had run a gift shop in the Ace Hardware store for over 40 years. We chatted about everything while watching the passing scenery. At 9:00 am. The train pulled into South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame University. I returned to my room to pack and to thank George. Darlene was raring to go as we pulled into the Chicago station at 10:05 am.
We made our way to the Metropolitan lounge to check our baggage
and relax for a few minutes. The lounge was quite large with
numerous couches and chairs and two large screen TV’s. Fresh
coffee and tea, cold drinks and juices plus a tray of fresh muffins
were available at the courtesy counter.
We found our way back to the lounge and settled in to wait for our train’s departure time of 3:15 pm.We struck up a conversation with Don, from Cleveland Ohio, who was on his way to rendezvous with his son, a student at the University of Edmonton. Here was a super train buff who admitted he required a few train trips a year, and believed, like many of us, that the train ride was the holiday. He had many worthy travel tips such as, “be sure to book by the full moon so you can see more scenery”, and he told us he was an avid collector of those Amtrak guest rewards points. The call for the Empire Builder was announced and Don set out on his adventure, but not before wishing us luck on ours.
Announcements at 2:45 pm. directed us to line up at the exit door where someone would take us to the train. My large suitcase was stored on the luggage rack as we boarded leaving only a satchel, my purse and camera bag to store in the Super liner Roomette. As we made our way to the upper level, I was startled to see an Amtrak Policeman standing at the top of the stairs. He seemed to be scrutinizing everyone, but I suppose it was for security purposes. My coat was hung in the tiny closet before heading to the sightseer car. For the next two hours we enjoyed the changing vistas from our seats. With the high-rises of Chicago behind us, we were enjoying vast panorama of farmland. A farmer on his tractor working the land in January would be an unfamiliar scenario in Ontario.
Darlene and I were both hungry so we made our way to the diner for the 5 o’clock seating and sat with a lovely couple, Vivian and Stan, who were on the return leg of their journey to Los Angeles. Both were retired teachers originally from New York but for the past 25 years have called Los Angeles home. This was their first trip on Amtrak and they absolutely loved it. They proclaimed “very good food, courteous staff, and wonderful, interesting traveling companions”. For the next 1 ½ hours we mostly talked politics and discussed the imminent federal election in Canada. My dinner selection this evening was cod with baked potato and green beans accompanied by a fresh baby green salad and cheesecake with strawberry sauce. The meal was not overly hot, but very tasty. John Isler, our server tonight, was not only attentive but friendly and personable. Normally we wouldn’t sit that long in the diner, but very few people were eating and we weren’t made to feel rushed at all.
I stepped off the train in Fort Madison for a bit of fresh air.
It would be an early bed time tonight to try to compensate for the
bout of sleeplessness caused by the inconsiderate “cell phone lady”.
Wherever she was I hoped “cell phone lady” had slept in and
missed her stop.
Thursday, January 19th, 2006
I slept soundly until 6:00 am when I arose and took my shower.
The shower room was located on the lower level of the sleeping
car. There were three bathrooms on this level as well, plus
one on the upper level at the top of the stairs. Towels, facecloths
and individual bars of soap were provided but you had to supply
your own shampoo. The bedroom across from ours was vacant so Pinkey,
our car attendant, suggested we use it as a dressing room. That
proved to be a lifesaver as the rooms were so small when the beds
were down that it was really quite awkward to dress. Pinkey
did everything to make our stay as comfortable as possible. She
made the beds the way she had been taught when she first joined
Amtrak 26 years previously. That meant you could gently loosen
the sheets to get between them and not feel that you needed a can
opener. When I asked her about the train consist she replied,
Train #3 westbound Southwest Chief Consist
Lead Unit - 181
We had breakfast with Tom who had just returned from a 1 ½ year stay in Europe and was on his way to visit his son in Las Vegas. I dined on a complete western omelet with ham, green pepper, onion and Monterey jack cheese. It was accompanied by bacon, potatoes, a hot biscuit, orange juice and fresh coffee.
We arrived in La Junta Colorado fifteen minutes early and made
a half hour stop. Passengers seemed more familiar to us now
and greetings were parlayed in friendly fashion, especially at these
stops. Some people looked forward to the smoke breaks while
others liked the fresh air and the opportunity to walk on solid
ground. Announcements forewarned us at every stop to listen
for the train whistle which alerted us to board immediately. People
often had been left at stations because they had wandered too far.
The train waits for no one.
Pinkey informed us it was Pike’s Peak at an elevation of 4,300 feet and as we got closer, we realized it was part of the mountain range. The train began the slow, laborious ascent of the mountainous terrain. It creaked and groaned as it traversed the winding tracks, and the powerful engines spewed long trails of diesel exhaust as they strained against the steady incline. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” echoed the childhood story of “The Little Engine that Could”. We were headed toward Raton Pass, the highest point we would attain in the Sangre de Cristo Range, and then would pass through the tunnel to begin the very long cautious descent. The wheels squealed as the brakes were applied and the cars rocked from side to side as we continued the slow descent into Raton, New Mexico, arriving at the station at 10:38 am.
We responded to first call for lunch and were seated with T.R.,
whose love of the rails began when his grandparents took him on
his first overnight ride back in the early fifties. His recollection
of the different types of cars over the years was truly amazing.
Also seated with us was Jerry who had enjoyed many Amtrak
trips and had fond memories of a trip across Canada on the “Canadian”.
I ordered the veggie burger and feasted on lemon shortbread
for dessert. Jeanine and John, the two servers in this diner,
worked very well together and covered for each other in the busiest
At 1:10 pm. we pulled onto a siding and the power was shut down
to let the engines cool (that was what I was told). Twelve minutes
later the power was restored and we continued on. It didn’t look
like there would be much spring run-off this year. Most of
the creeks were bone dry, with a few having the barest amount of
ice in them.
At 4:14 pm. we pulled into Albuquerque, 19 minutes late. This was the only stop where I’d have enough time to take pictures of the units pulling this train, but this was a service stop so I had to wait until the fuel truck finished. Most people detrained as there was plenty of time to check out the vendors selling authentic native ware and go for a leisurely walk along the platform. The whistle sounded, and the train departed at 4:48 pm.
On the way to my room I stopped to talk to Pinkey and let her know that I had noticed some of the little extras in this car. The candy dish with the never ending supply of assorted, hard candies, the box of chocolate mints and the ginger cookies were an appreciated addition, and the constant supply of ice and juice did not go unnoticed. I complimented her on the cleanliness of our car and emphasized the pleasure of using a well stocked immaculate public washroom. She said this was her home away from home and she considered anyone who stayed in her sleeper to be a guest and treated them as such. Something else we noticed was the great camaraderie among the staff. They often aided each other and genuinely seemed to care for one another. Pinkey agreed and added “Crew number 9 has been together for many years and, yes, we all look out for one another.”
In the diner tonight we were joined by Tom from Saratoga Springs, not far from Albany, N.Y., his destination was Los Angeles. This active retiree had been a college math and science teacher in Saratoga Springs. His persona and intellect reminded me of “My Fair Lady’s” professor Higgins, only without the accent. Gary, also seated with us, is an Amtrak employee who truly wishes for the success of passenger service. It was his job to maintain good relations with the freight companies in order to secure expedient operating of the passenger trains on their rails. I enjoyed the turkey tenderloin wrapped in bacon as well as the conversation.
We decided to pack up tonight rather than tomorrow morning as the train was due to arrive in LA at 6:34 am. We stopped to say hi to Harrietta and Virginia, two sisters we had met many times on the platform when the train made scheduled stops. Through the course of general conversation we came to find out that Virginia had written a book about the struggle she and a group of parents endured to help bring school choice in the District of Columbia. She talked of the personal pride she felt toward her fellow parents as they watched from the gallery when the house voted and the bill passed by one vote. It was very inspiring listening to these girls and to feel the love and respect they had for one another. The book is titled “Voices, Choices and Second Chances” by Virginia Walden Ford.
By the time we organized our belongings and readied for bed it was almost eleven o’clock. I awoke a few times during the night when I had the sensation that we were flying. That’s my favorite type of ride and I imagined the engineer to be asleep at the throttle or perhaps trying to break the ultimate speed record. Momentarily I returned to reality and nodded off once more.
Friday, January 20th, 2006
At 4:30 am. I went to the shower and finished getting ready in our “dressing room”. The roomette is definitely fine for one woman, or a man and wife. When two females are trying to prepare for the day ahead with barely enough elbow room for one and only one power outlet, that’s pushing the limit. We went for an early breakfast as the diner was open at six this morning. We enjoyed another savory meal and thanked John and Jeanine for the splendid service.
The train, which had been on time or early all trip, was one hour late. We sat in the sightseer waiting for the sunrise. The professed population of California is 35 million but as I looked at the throngs of people and congested traffic at this early hour, calculated I may have seen 12 million so far. The train pulled into the Fullerton Station at 7:33 am. We gathered our luggage, stepped off the train and were greeted by Ray of Trainweb.
Ray became our personal chauffeur during our stay. We
spent Monday at trainweb helping out in the afternoon with the Train
Party orders. There were six of us boxing, checking, packing,
labeling and taping to meet the 4:30 pm UPS pickup deadline. The
remainder of our visit was spent shopping and enjoying a week of
warm temperatures and solid sunshine, but too soon it was time to
Friday, January 27th, 2006 Return trip, Train #4 Southwest Chief
We arrived at the platform close to 6:50 pm with plenty of time to gather our thoughts and take a few pictures before our 7:20 pm departure. The last metro of the evening arrived and departed. From way down the track a headlight could be seen slowly getting brighter as it progressed towards the station. Ice gripped my spine as Ray exclaimed that the train looked like it was on the other track. It was too far away to tell for sure so we waited for an announcement that never came. Other people had picked up suitcases and were anxiously watching too. By the time we could determine the situation, Ray and Darlene were at the elevator while I took the stairs. When I got to the first level I whacked the other elevator button so that it would be waiting for them when they reached this floor. Then I raced down the second set of stairs. The important outcome was that we did get aboard, but just.
The train departed at 7:28 pm. We met cool, calm Bob who stashed our suitcases on the rack and escorted us to room #5. He excused himself for half an hour while he went for dinner. At 8:00 pm the last call for the diner was announced but we had already eaten dinner in Fullerton. The train pulled into Riverside Station and departed five minutes later. We met Ed and Barbara, our neighbors across the hall, and the three of us had a good laugh watching Darlene struggle to the top bunk. I had a hard time getting to sleep.
Saturday, January 28th, 2006
I heard every mechanical creak and groan imaginable. The most annoying rattle was traced to a strip of chrome which ran under the window. A bit of pressure and the threat of ripping it off the wall solved that problem. The loudest squeaking sound came from the headrest area but the most irritating sound was the ticking of Darlene’s alarm clock. This was the first time she had ever used one, and I suspected she was apprehensive about oversleeping because of the time zone we would cross during the night, and she feared that she might miss breakfast.
I awoke at 2:00 am and watched the hands pass 5:00am. Realizing I wasn’t going to sleep anymore I got up and took a shower. This was a different, more compact shower layout than on the #3 southwest Chief, but nonetheless appreciated. I poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee available in each sleeper car, and walked forward to the sightseer car until Darlene made an appearance, and then we went for breakfast. I had the tasty omelet once again. Our server this morning was Cindy, and Elaine and another Cindy joined us for breakfast.
We stopped in Winslow Arizona at 7:00 am. Near Holbrook we thought we saw huge clouds of smoke in the distance but as we got closer we realized it was billows of steam from what looked like a co-generation station. The train raced along the flat lands of the plateau, skirting the painted desert of Arizona. The pattern was punctuated by a few mountains, but unfortunately, photos do not do justice to the striking, colored rock formations of the Zuni Mountains.
Shortly after 8:00 am a sign welcomed us to New Mexico, identified
as the land of enchantment, and a half hour later we reached Gallup.
There was a bit of confusion at the gate in the station, as passengers
who had just detrained couldn’t get to the station and those waiting
to board were idling on the other side, but it was all sorted out
when someone came hurrying with the key.
Train #4 eastbound Southwest Chief Consist
Lead unit - 152
I was snoozing a bit when I heard the announcement that we would
arrive early in Albuquerque. Bob said the10:55 am arrival
time was the earliest in his ten years on this run and we would
enjoy a two hour interval to investigate the surrounding area. The
day was sunny but cool and windy as Darlene and a bunch of others
went for a walk downtown. I stayed behind to take some pictures
and sample one of the highly recommended burritos sold by platform
vendors. Because of our early arrival, there were only two
or three vendors commencing to set out their wares so I went to
my room and enjoyed my very excellent tasting burrito.
Back in my room I relaxed, but unfortunately the glass on the
bottom half of the window in our roomette looked permanently mottled
so picture taking was limited. I found by standing and bracing
my forehead on the upholstered underneath of the top (stashed) bunk,
it left me both hands to steady a shot directed out the top half
of the window. I had the best results placing the camera lens
flush to the window; (especially in the sightseer car) this seemed
to prevent most of the reflections that occurred when the camera
was angled to the left or right.
We stepped off the train in Las Vegas, NM to stretch our legs. The route guide informed us that the house beside the tracks was called Castaneda, one of the old Harvey houses. While it looked in need of some repair, one could easily imagine its former grand state.
I had to ask Bob to rescue my battery charger as it had fallen
between the seat and wall. Unfortunately he had to take the
seat apart, and then he adjusted the heating for us which we found
to be too warm. He was a handy man to have around. I
really liked the privacy afforded by the one-piece, floor length
curtains on the doors in our car. No problem with not staying
At 4:30 pm we watched a bit of the movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, until dinner call. I tried the Delmonico steak which was very tender and cooked just the way I had requested. For the next hour we enjoyed a relaxing meal with Ed and Barbara. We watched the unfolding landscape until darkness closed in around us.
Back in the sightseer car we watched the second feature of the night, “Must like Dogs”, a comedy we all enjoyed. By 10:30 pm we had retired for the night. The room was all quiet thanks to Bob’s sticky tape but I stuck a pair of earplugs in just in case.
Sunday, January 29th, 2006
I couldn’t believe it was almost 5:30 am. I hadn’t awakened
once during the night. When I returned from my shower Darlene
wasn’t ready to follow like she usually was. I immediately
felt guilty after waking her when she informed me of the very poor
night’s sleep she’d had.
The air was fresh but not too cold when we stepped off the train
in Kansas City. For whatever reason, I like detraining and
leaving my footprints in a place I’ve never been before. I
had really hoped to be awake when the train stopped in Dodge City;
I think there’s a little inner cowboy in all of us.
The skies were beginning to cloud over and the soil appeared
to be saturated with plenty of rain.
My Angus beef burger was absolutely delicious. We sat with Joe, a documentary film maker just back from Peru, who would be returning to China in the near future. Sharon was enjoying her first train ride. She told us she had been quite nervous traveling alone and had almost changed her mind while waiting in the Chicago station. She had high praise for the personnel and gave top marks to the food. “It doesn’t take one long to get into the swing of things” she remarked.
The air was definitely colder as we stepped off in Galesburg, Illinois to take a few pictures. I returned to my room to double check everything and repair a bag with some tape Bob had lent me. Until our train arrived in Chicago, I just sat in the room looking at everything outside. The train pulled into the station at 3:40 pm. just 20 minutes late. We detrained into the dampness and made our way to the station to once again enjoy the comforts of the Metropolitan lounge.
We did the tour again after checking our luggage but, being fatigued,
we plopped into those comfy chairs in front of the t.v. and vegetated
for a while.
We all sat together in the diner and had a very jovial dinner laughing at nothing in particular. I enjoyed a very crisp salad and ordered the New York steak which was a bit tough but the fresh broccoli and carrots were hot and delicious. Kwame was our server tonight; extremely efficient and professional with a sly sense of humor.
We retired to our room but not to sleep just yet as everything seemed to be hilarious. Roger marveled that we were still friends after being together for two weeks. He also found and fixed an annoying squeak on the car. I finally plugged those earplugs in and went to sleep.
Monday, January 30th, 2006
I awoke a few times during the night when the train either stopped
or started but overall enjoyed a pretty good night’s sleep.
Back at our room we packed up and Wallace came by to ask how we slept. We talked about Disney World and how he and his wife and four year old had enjoyed their recent trip. He was, like all of the other staff we met on the trip so far, just great. I asked him about the consist numbers and he told me I would have to check with the conductor as he was the one with the paperwork. I asked but they weren’t available so I walked the train when it stopped in Syracuse and got most of them before the train left.
Train #48 Lakeshore Limited Consist
Lead unit - 189
I enjoyed a wonderful journey on the Southwest Chief. The staff were proud Amtrak employees who did the best with what they had, and did it well. All of those personal touches were noted and appreciated. The cars were kept clean at all times and the food while not gourmet was certainly very good. I think it’s a mistake to bring aboard prepared food, because entering a diner and sensing the aroma of good food is indeed part of the adventure. Crew Number 9 working as one, was the best crew I’ve experienced on Amtrak.