From Ft. Worth to Benson again. Commentary by Russ Jackson
Part 1 of this report included photos . . . showing how I went from home to the Ft. Worth Intermodal station by A-Train, DART, and the TRE then had to wait 6 hours for Texas Eagle train 421 to arrive on September 28, 2016. An example of the comments heard on the platform was, “If it’s this late is this train safe?” from a first time traveler.
Part 2 now takes up the journey on Amtrak . . . that started at sunset in Ft. Worth and continued on the Sunset Limited the next day into Arizona. . . . When I booked this trip in early August the pleasant surprise was that my Guest Reward points would cover one way in a roomette, and with a voucher left over from an earlier trip the return trip would cost only $381 in a roomette, but it would be a new experience. More on that later. . . . When the Eagle finally arrived the usual servicing was expedited, and the merry band of folks who had waited, some like me for 6 hours, were checked in and boarded. In my case it would be car 32009, which railfans will recognize as the Sleeping Car named for George M. Pullman, my first trip in that car. . . . I was in roomette 9, and my arrival filled that car, the one that would transfer to train 2 in San Antonio that night. I noted that the adjacent Coach car that would also transfer was at least 90% full. Yes, comment is appropriate, and while this trip was technically “off peak,” I know they could have filled another car or two for transfer to the Sunset Limited.
Boarding the Eagle . . . On the Ft. Worth platform Sleeping Car attendant Reggie handed me a dinner reservation for 6:45, which was much appreciated. Reggie was quite popular with the travelers who had been on board all day, and he was very responsive and available attendant that night. My room was made up for sleeping while I was at dinner. . . . What did I have in the Diner-Lounge car? Well, good service and one of Amtrak’s “flat iron” steaks, which is always a good choice. I fell asleep between Temple and San Marcos, but woke to see my cross-table dinner companion, a coach rider, get off the train there. She was a recent graduate from Texas A&M who had been to Chicago to see family before she started applying for work in Texas in law enforcement. . . . Everyone has a story to tell, and other folks were busy sharing theirs to other riders who they would never see again. Train travel hasn’t changed much, thankfully.
On the Eagle. . . Timekeeping was maintained until we were just north of the San Antonio airport at 1:30 AM, where we stopped for almost an hour. No explanation at that time of night, of course, but there was speculation that there was freight interference on the Union Pacific ahead of us. . . . One more delay, about ten minutes, when it felt like someone may have pulled the cord and we rapidly stopped. It was a crawl into San Antonio station, arriving at 3:22 AM, still over six hours late. . . . Then came the bang-bang transfer of cars to the waiting Sunset Limited, and we departed about 5 AM, still two hours late, which would be maintained all day into Arizona.
A day in West Texas and Arizona . . . The scenery along the Sunset Route can be boring, and usually is very dry. Not this time. West Texas was green, after having a series of rain storms in late summer. At the high bridge, the Pecos River was running high. The Rio Grande was running higher than usual, and the desert looked magnificent. . . . As the train touched the US-Mexico border west of Del Rio my cel phone showed a text message welcoming me to Mexico and “Enjoy your stay.” . . . The Sunset Limited cars were mostly full, too, with most Coach seat checks showing Tucson or Los Angeles as destinations. . . . Breakfast in the Sunset Limited Dining Car found a USAF airman from Lackland AFB across the table, but he was worried he wouldn’t have time to eat breakfast, as he was only traveling from San Antonio to report in at the air base in Del Rio. He paid for his breakfast order before it arrived and unnecessarily left the car. . . . The Union Pacific cooperated with our travel, even though we were two hours late all the way. At least eight sidings along the way were full of stored container or truck carriers. . . . Sleeping car attendant Steven had put out magazines, including some railfan publications. He was very responsive that day. Coffee was available in the car all morning. . . . It was noted, though, that there was no PA heard in this car either the day before or today, except for ones Steven made and he relayed the Dining car reservation information. There were no announcements heard from the Lounge car at all. . . . At the Sanderson flag stop we noticed that the historic station building has finally been removed. . . . Lunch was my favorite Amtrak meal, the cheeseburger, served in my roomette. . . . Because of our lateness, the arrival in El Paso was two hours late, brief, and the eastbound sister train 2 was departing just as we arrived there. Across New Mexico and into Arizona our train had all that magnificent double trackage virtually to itself, and we arrived in Benson at 7:25 to begin the too short visit with my sister and her family.
Back to Benson on Monday . . . The eastbound Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle, train 422 arrived, crawling the downgrade into the Benson station and we departed at 9:30 AM, 15 minutes late. . . . This time the accommodation was different. While my westbound roomette was in the Texas Eagle last car on the train, the eastbound roomette 17 in car 39032 would be in the Sunset Limited Sleeping car on the front end until arrival in San Antonio. This car is actually the transition car, which is used as the overflow sleeper when the Sunset Limited sleeping car is full. The Texas Eagle Sleeping car on the end of the train was full, too; does that tell Amtrak something? I was happy to hear that the PA was working from all sources in this car, which is also the crew dorm. . . . Just as on the westbound train, reservations for lunch and for dinner were taken at the same time, offered between 12 and 2 or 5 to 8. I chose lunch at 12:30 and when I arrived found I was across from a couple from Dorchester, England, who were traveling the western U.S. They had taken the Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland, driven down the beautiful Big Sur highway 1, loved Santa Barbara, and were going to New Orleans, Memphis (Graceland), and Nashville (Grand Ole Opry) before returning to England. When I first saw him it was double take time, as he looked just like RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, complete with the same hat Paul wears. Paul, of course, is from London. . . . We had an excellent young waiter, and because it was now October the new menus were available. There are some new items on the trains now, and I was very pleased with the quesadilla! Speaking of diners, while on board our train we heard from Anthony Lee that the new Amtrak CEO, Wick Moorman, was riding the Crescent in Virginia and ate in its diner.
And then there was San Antonio . . . While the trip back across Arizona and New Mexico was in daylight this time, including running through the UP’s new refueling yard at restricted speed even though there wasn’t a freight train in sight, we were early into El Paso, and arrived just as it was getting dark in Alpine for the crew change there. Paul, the car attendant was excellent, too, and he helped greatly including bringing my dinner to the roomette. I tried the Tortellini, which was very good and cooked just right. The dessert choice was a “chocolate lava cake,” that was quite tasty. Sleep that night was difficult, just as it was on the eastbound train, between Del Rio and San Antonio. That track needs work! Arrival in San Antonio was just about on time, which meant I had to leave my roomette in car 39032 at 4:30 AM and get off the train to wait for the boarding of the Texas Eagle at 6:30. I approved that change so I could see what transpires in the San Antonio station during that shuffle of cars, etc.. . . Back on the Texas Eagle in car 39008 now, we departed on time with car attendant, Vivyan, who was quite efficient too. I had pancakes for breakfast, delivered to my roomette by her. That’s a good choice, too. They were perfect.
Notes and Comments . . . While arrival in Austin and Ft. Worth were a half hour late, overall the trip was filled with new experiences, just as any Amtrak trip is. You knew I would have some comments, if you’d ever read one of my trip reports in the past. First, the on board crews on this trip were at the top of my list of best ones ever. Cleanliness was above average. Like that? Well, there are some other things. . . . There were NO Texas Eagle printed timetables in my cars or on any of my trains or in any of the stations I had a chance to visit enroute. San Antonio and Ft. Worth had piles of Sunset Limited paper timetables, but none for the Texas Eagle. The El Paso station agent offered me one of the now out of date National timetables that are no longer going to be printed. . . . There were no on board PA promotions of the Dining car menus to try to entice riders to come in on either train. Is that by design now? The old adage, often mentioned here, is “don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” Get it? When menus have been promoted in the past they always included the price, which can be a real turnoff, particularly when $25 is mentioned for the flat iron steak. Only on the Sunset Limited did the Lounge car attendant promote herself, and that was mostly saying she was going on a break. Other than that all I can enviously say is the southbound Texas Eagle 21 was on time that day I arrived back, and thankfully those riders did not have to wait six hours. Now the standard complaint, the Sunset Limited needs to be DAILY! Everyone agree? The folks from England volunteered that. Everyone knows that! Let’s go, Wick!