Trip Report with PHOTOS by Russ Jackson
This time we took a winter trip, in January 2019, and fortunately our Amtrak journey was scheduled before the timetable was changed because the Union Pacific would be doing a project between San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, that would last for two months on that single track segment . We were notified that the schedule would change in a e-mail from Amtrak, but only the eastbound return portion of our round trip between Ft. Worth and Los Angeles would see a schedule change: Departure from LAUS would be at 7:26 PM instead of ten o’clock on that Wednesday. Sunday night departures would be canceled for two months, too! We were not disappointed, as it meant not having to sit in the Metropolitan Lounge all evening, just part of it, even though that is a very pleasant place to wait before going to the sleeping car.
The schedule change was posted on the wall of the Sightseer Lounge on the eastbound train 2. The exact scope and location of the UP’s project was unknown, and observation by this writer found few clues. We can attest that the segment between San Antonio and Del Rio, Texas, is in desperate need of UP track maintenance as is the segment from Temple to Taylor, Texas which is not included in the current project. On the way west we saw a culvert-building crew working 90 miles east of El Paso, and a big track maintenance gang working on the double track segment west of El Paso. Those observations were in daylight, so it’s possible that the big gang moved to the single track area for the two month project there. But, on our return trip nothing was obvious. Any worksites that existed overnight were not observed due to this traveler trying to sleep. Because we have been on this trip many times, the exact details of this trip on 421 headed west will not be covered extensively.
Service, both from the crews and on-board service crews on both 421 and 422 can be summed up as excellent. The attendants, all Amtrak veterans, were congenial and available. Each one was concerned about the future of the long distance trains, of course, but were intent on taking care of their passengers throughout the journey. The food was excellent and promptly served. The new long distance train menus, above, are now standard on all the trains, unfortunately, but the most popular items have been retained and there is some variety. On the southbound Texas Eagle I had the steak, cooked perfectly, and my wife had the chicken breast. On the Sunset Limited breakfast was the scrambled eggs and bacon for both of us, for lunch we shared an Angus cheeseburger and a big salad, and at dinner she had the salmon and I tried the vegan pasta. We can recommend any of those items (maybe less so for the pasta though)! Coach passengers were offered the “at your seat” dinner choice of a salisbury steak. Ridership was heavy for this time of year, as all 5 deluxe bedrooms on the Eagle sleeping car were sold when we boarded at Ft. Worth, and our room had been used from Chicago to Dallas. The Eagle Coach was nearly full, too, with most destinations represented.
It’s always a pleasure to return to Los Angeles Union Station, which is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. Our Sunset/Eagle arrived in Los Angeles at 5 AM, a half hour early, and we lounged in the Metropolitan Lounge until our rental car office opened at 7:00. A walk through the south patio at the station showed that the famous Birds of Paradise (above) were in bloom. Because breakfast is non-existent on the train at that early hour we always head across the street to Philippe’s, then we were off to the Central Coast.
We made a brief stop at the historic, beautiful Santa Barbara Amtrak station that morning. We had spent many good times there when we lived out that way, visiting with the now retired agent, Richard Marshall, and George Thorpe the volunteer. Mornings at the station are very quiet, as you can see, as there are only Thruway buses from the time the early morning Surfliner departs until the first trains arrive near noon. Now we will start the return part of our trip with related photos.
It had been a long time since we were on the platform at the San Luis Obispo Amtrak station. We had many visits there, too, with the now retired agent Ken Miller and his staff, learning so much about how a station operates. The city of SLO is a great place to visit, and Amtrak service is of course available with both trains and connecting buses to and from there, north and south. Back in “our day” only the Coast Starlight stopped there. On the afternoon of this visit, around 4:00 PM, the northbound Starlight, 14, had already departed on its journey up Cuesta Grade, but the southbound train 11 was running 90 minutes late. Instead, on the platform were twelve hardy travelers, I thought waiting for number 11, but instead they all boarded Surfliner 796 which departed, above, on time at 4:15 as shadows were creeping across the scene. No one was left to board the late train 11 which could be advantageous to Amtrak on busy days, as longer, high revenue trips could be sold without the seats being blocked at SLO. Surfliner 796 normally follows 11, and goes though to San Diego where it arrives at 1:15 AM. It would be interesting to know if any of the 12 SLO riders went through to destinations beyond Los Angeles that Tuesday.
Back at LAUS and we are ready to head home on Sunset/Eagle train 422. What a pleasure it was to have a reunion with these RailPAC veterans, (l-r) President Paul Dyson, VP James Smith, and e-newsletter editor (and former President) Noel Braymer. We have all been involved in passenger rail advocacy for over 35 years. There is never enough time to talk about everything, but we were very happy they came to see us as and they became “red caps,” helping us take our stuff downstairs from the Lounge, out the great tunnel, and up the ramp to the platform where the Superliner trainset and our sleeping car attendant, seen in the background, was waiting for us to board. Noel pointed out the 40th Anniversary of the station was when he first became acquainted with RailPAC and now it’s been 40 years later for him leading into the station’s 80th Anniversary. Paul and James came with RailPAC in the 1980s as did I. It’s great that they are continuing their advocacy. All of us have seen major changes in California rail, and are looking forward to the new developments while working on finishing what still needs to be done. Paul Dyson commented that sometimes it looks like we are going backward, like with a daily Sunset Limited. “It’s been tri-weekly forever, and now it’s twice weekly,” he said with a big smile. Amtrak says the Sunset Limited’s schedule will revert to its tri-weekly schedule in mid-March, and we expect that, although daily service is warranted! I told them that a 19-year veteran attendant had said that she missed the leadership of Brian Rosenwald at Amtrak, and we all agreed. Positive leadership for GROWTH in ridership AND revenue at Amtrak is sadly missing today at the top levels.
During a stroll around the station with Noel I aimed my phone camera at the door to the new brewhouse that has finally opened in the historic Harvey House location in the southwest corner of the south patio. The place has become very popular, and the restaurant menu has some Fred Harvey items. It opens daily at Noon. We noted that the Sees candy stand has now been moved to the display cases in the waiting room. Frankly, we hope the “plan” to rebuild the “concourse” does not come about. The layout is just right now, and for the future. Don’t mess with success!…just do the run-through tracks! 40 years ago there was a proposal to do that so trains would not have to reverse out of the station. It’s time to “get it done.”
Train 422 departed LAUS on time at its new temporary time, 7:26. While there were frequent delays, none were too disruptive to our progress that night. The new schedule has the train arriving in Maricopa, Arizona, in the middle of the night (see the schedule above) and Tucson before daylight. I was awake to see that the new road overcrossing at Maricopa is coming along and should be finished soon, which will end the highway crossing delays there while the train does its multiple stops at the short platform. I did not get off at the Tucson station to breathe the hometown air as usual, as I was still waking up and it was a very cold morning there. Later that afternoon I took the above photo from the rear door window of our sleeping car at the spot where the Union Pacific “Sunset Route” double tracks almost touch the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico, just west of El Paso, so riders can see what the “border wall” looks like there. No political comments here.
Well, here we are at the El Paso, Texas Amtrak station. Train 422 was running close to on time at this point, one of the stations enroute where riders can get fresh air and/or pollute the air with cigarette smoke. This time our car was greeted by an official with a dog, and they boarded all cars so the dog could sniff for something. Nothing was found in our car, but our attendant told us that there had been instances lately where contraband was found on trains. Anyway, we re-boarded and were off to a scheduled arrival in San Antonio after 5 AM Central time. While there were a few delays across Texas that night, we arrived in San Antonio at about 3 AM, giving the workers there plenty of time to switch cars onto the waiting Texas Eagle consist. Our car became the second sleeping car up front, right behind the dining car. We were the only passengers in a deluxe bedroom that continued on, but our sleeper was again filled with passengers. Departure from San Antonio was on time at 7 AM.
A new crew takes over the Texas Eagle cars in San Antonio. As I said above, all the crews were outstanding and deserving of tips and praise. Breakfast became available at 7:30, and I ordered the pancakes! while my wife had the Continental breakfast. “Railroad French Toast” is sadly no longer on the national menu. But, if you like pancakes don’t hesitate to order Amtrak’s, seen in this photo. Later in the day I saw the Chef and complimented her on them. It’s great that Amtrak can do a lot with so little. While the fate of the national system of long distance trains, particularly those in the West, is not secure and this coming year will tell a huge story on that issue, we urge you to travel when you can and we hope your experience will be as satisfying as ours. The two of us have been riding the rails together since 1967, have lots to compare the present with the past, and will continue working through RailPAC and other advocacy groups that want to work to retain this mode of transportation for riders everywhere on safe, reliable, clean, efficient trains to destinations all across the country. Oh, by the way, our arrival back in Ft. Worth would have been right on time to the minute, but when we arrived at the (in-)famous Tower 55 south of the Ft. Worth station we sat and sat for over 15 minutes due to “freight interference.” A crew member told us, “It’s always freight interference.” Oh, well, that’s another long term issue that must be dealt with.