Commentary by Russ Jackson

NOTE: Part 1 is a PHOTO report which can be found at https://ntbraymer.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/trip-report-round-trip-from-ft-worth-to-benson-on-amtrak-part-1/

Who would travel from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Benson, Arizona? Someone who has a sister who lives closer to the Benson Amtrak stop than to the downtown Tucson station. I’ve always wanted to be on an Amtrak train that calls at a flag stop, and this was the opportunity. The reservation was made very efficiently by calling 800 USA Rail and asking to speak to an agent, who booked me departing Ft. Worth on May 25. The train is actually trains, as the trip requires through service from the Texas Eagle to the Sunset Limited. My request for a Roomette was denied, as they were all sold out, so I was offered the Family Bedroom which I took knowing that a cancellation in the time before my trip would make it possible to get what I wanted, and it was when I called back 10 days before departure. Someone snapped up the Family bedroom thereafter, as it was occupied when I boarded the train. I received the price difference not in credit but a voucher. My e-tickets arrived by e-mail before I hung up the phone.

Train 421 in Sleeping Car #32063
The Eagle/Sunset through Sleeping car is now placed behind the Transition Sleeper and just ahead of the Diner-Lounge Car instead of at the end of the train. There were some riders in the Transition Sleeper, all of whom had Texas Eagle destinations. My Sleeping Car was fully occupied out of Ft. Worth, as was the Coach car that would go through to Los Angeles. Most of the intermediate destinations were represented. Amtrak could have easily sold out a high revenue second Sleeping Car on all my trains. Our departure was only 5 minutes late, given that it had been upwards of 2 hours late at one point coming from Chicago, and we met the northbound Texas Eagle at Crowley, where the tracks cross I-20 south of Ft. Worth. Isn’t it amazing how much recovery time is built into all the long distance train routes? Sending the trains between Dallas and Ft. Worth on the TRE tracks has helped on time performance greatly.

… The PA system could not be heard in the Roomettes, so there were few comments offered. … Dinner reservations were to be at 5, 5:30 (which I chose), and 6:15. … Eight of the 10 tables were open at dinner, the other two were used by the crew. … The Lounge section of the Diner-Lounge was not open, but the Sightseer Lounge Car had an attendant downstairs, the usual practice except on the City of New Orleans where Andrew Selden reported from his recent trip that the Lounge section was open, but the Lounge Car was unstaffed. … Our dinner “Special” was Black Bean Enchiladas, but I had the steak and it was perfectly prepared. … There were several Coach passengers who came in for dinner in the Diner. … The couple across the table were from Norman, OK, who had come to Ft. Worth on that day’s Heartland Flyer, and were traveling to Tucson then going up to San Francisco on the Coast Starlight and back to Denver on the Zephyr where they would be met. … One traveler had taken the new connecting bus from the Southwest Chief at Newton, KS, enroute to Austin. RailPAC’s Anthony Lee reports that this bus was sold out over the Memorial Day weekend. It’s good news that Oklahoma has extended the Flyer another year, and interesting that they are putting out feelers for private operators. … Little freight interference; only one coal train on the BNSF. Our train was very efficiently run and had a top notch crew.

Train #1/421 from San Antonio to Benson
As mentioned above, the two interchange cars were sold out. The usual slam-bang while the cars are moved from the Eagle trainset to the Sunset Limited was efficient, if loud. … Departure from San Antonio was on time. … Breakfast service (no reservations) began on time, and shortly thereafter a wait-list was required, just as happened to Andrew Selden when he traveled this route a week earlier. … The tasty breakfast special was french toast with scrambled eggs. … The PA was working well enough for the crew to mention the small “Prada” store that sits by itself outside Marfa. … Light freight traffic on the UP, but what there was stood waiting in sidings for us to pass by, with the exception of a meet at McNary (see Photo report). … Plenty of trucks could be seen on I-10. … Lunch was ordered in my Roomette, and I had that great Amtrak cheeseburger (see my Photo report)! … Almost an hour early into El Paso, and, on time into Benson which was appreciated by sister and brother-in-law meeting me. … This train likewise had excellent crews on board. … What made the trip more enjoyable this time was there were no obnoxious drinkers or smokers needing to be removed. And with the very high load factor all the way, it is really time for additional cars or, even better: DAILY SERVICE. … One railfan treat is seeing almost a hundred UP yellow locomotives stored beside I-10 near Vail, Arizona.

Train #2/422 from Benson To San Antonio in Sleeping Car #32117
After a wonderful family reunion which included a side trip to Phoenix to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the San Diego Padres, it was time to go back to Benson to board the train on May 30. Just as was the case on the arrival, it took three stops for all the passengers to board, all five of us, because of the non-existent platform. This time my Eagle Sleeping Car was the last car on the train, with the Eagle Coach just ahead. … The Lounge Car attendant was quite vocal and humorous. … To my surprise when the announcement that lunch/dinner reservations would be required they added that Coach passengers could order a meal served by their car attendant at their seat just as is done on other western long distance trains. That day it would be barbecued chicken sliders. When the LSA trainee attendant reached my Roomette I asked if I could have them on room service, too, he went to ask, and permission was granted. (See my Photo Report!) … After lunch the same LSA attendant came to ask what I thought of the sliders lunch! … As Andrew Selden said of his trip, which also included the California Zephyr and the City of New Orleans, “After four days the same standard menu in the diners gets really boring,” but there is some variety on different routes now and that’s a good start. … Full loads on the Eagle section this time, too, in the Memorial Day holiday travel period, but the Sunset Limited Coaches had room to spare. … At El Paso a large family boarded our car, taking the Family Bedroom and a Roomette for their trip to Chicago! … For dinner I had the pasta special, which is basically mac ‘n cheese, but is tasty. The dinner companion conversation was with a retired couple traveling to Austin from Los Angeles. He was the author of a book about how the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” was made. … For dinner the Coach passengers were offered red beans and rice with cornbread served at their seats. The attendant told me later that many riders ordered it. … The fresh air 4,000 ft up at Alpine was great to experience during an almost hour crew change stop, before going to bed and trying to sleep while we traveled the very rough track between Del Rio and San Antonio.

Train 22/422 from San Antonio to Ft. Worth
It was Memorial Day, with many travelers returning home. The weather started to turn ugly almost immediately outside El Paso the day before, and it had rained much of the night beginning five days of almost continuous rain storms in South Texas. … At San Antonio the slam-bang in the middle of the night put our Sleeping Car up front behind the Transition Sleeper, which now seems to be standard on the Texas Eagle, and is much appreciated. This Eagle consist had a full Dining Car rather than the Diner-Lounge, but they only used half of it. … Breakfast was served on time, and the companions included a lady traveling to Chicago and a couple going from San Antonio to Ft. Worth. He, it turned out, attended the same Tucson elementary school I did and had the same teacher for 6th grade that I’d had for 5th, a LONG time ago. You just never know who you are going to meet on Amtrak trips, part of the joy of train travel. On the Temple, TX, platform some of us visited with a lady who looked exactly like actress Judi Dench, but wasn’t. … On this trip there could be no complaints about cleanliness, or On Time Performance unlike what happened to trips on this rainy route the next few weeks. We arrived early into Ft. Worth. … Oh, did you know that Kosher meals can be ordered on Amtrak trips if you order three days in advance? RailPAC’s VP Long Distance Services James Smith decided to try one on his recent trip and found it excellent, and the crew and other passengers all wanted to know about it. … Yes, there are criticisms to be made and the most important is one expressed by Andrew Selden, “Amtrak is leaving a mountain of money on the table by not running more sleepers on these trains. All of the sleepers on my trip were full,” and this writer can attest to the same. As expressed by RailPAC’s former Treasurer, Bill Kerby: “When onward to status quo is the performance bar, the organization is in trouble.” From reading this report it might not be evident that such is the case, but looking at the big picture it sure is. Let’s get Joe Boardman replaced and get on with doing what is necessary to not just preserve what we have as good as it may be, but to GROW!

 

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