Trip Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson
We have just returned from our semi-annual round trip on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited from Ft. Worth Central Station to Los Angeles Union Station. And, what a summer trip it was! Every Amtrak trip is an adventure, with something new always appearing; this one was no exception.
The “good” to report involves the On Board Services of the Sunset Limited, and the Texas Eagle one way. Outstanding! The Sunset Limited sleeping car attendant on both trains 1 and 2, Cyndy, was, and is, the example of what all Amtrak employees should strive to be. She knows what they are there for, and she comes to the passenger to see what they need AND when they need it, and is AVAILABLE. We have noticed on recent trips that the quality of OBS is excellent, and we were pleased to learn as did other fellow passengers that it is continuing in spite of the pressure the employees are under not knowing what the future of the long distance trains is going to be. On our cars on 421 and 422 the food quality was as good as ever, even though the menu doesn’t change. I still like the steak, the scrambled eggs, and the Angus cheeseburger. They are always prepared to order, and delivery to our room was on time. I heard no complaints from other passengers about the Dining Car crews or service!
Unfortunately, the “bad” must be reported. It started at the Ft. Worth station. We arrived early, about 1:20 PM, knowing that train 21 was running late. We had an email from Amtrak to let us know “that train #0421 scheduled to depart Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday, July 17th, has been delayed. The estimated arrival time is now 3:00pm, but trains can make up time during travel….etc.” That was transmitted to us at 11:08 AM before we left home, and was much appreciated. Then, whoops, came another at 12:08 saying arrival would be 3:13. OK, then at 1:08 while we were enroute to the station, it would be arriving at 3:46. After we arrived at the station and took seats on the hard wooden benches in the waiting room, the next message was at 2:30 saying 4:13; at 3:30 it would be 4:08 (but this one came to my wife’s phone). At 4:00 they said it would be 4:32, but this one came after we had moved out to the platform in 95 degree Texas heat. The PA from the office then announced that the northbound train 22, arriving very late, would arrive in the station first because otherwise both trains would be there at the same time. Naturally, the 22 arrived and departed, but 21 did not (it was trapped with the arrivals of TRE and TexRail services) and we continued to sweat it out on the platform along with all of the other passengers. The last message came at 5:00 saying it would arrive at 5:02. The train showed up at 6:00. By then we were all hot and tired, but cheerfully boarded. Actual departure for us was at 7:05, because two cars from the Heartland Flyer had to be transferred to our trainset bound for San Antonio.
When checking in with the Eagle’s conductor and male car attendant we learned that we had been switched from bedroom D to B, which was ok as both are identical. Whoever was in D was ticketed to Alpine, Texas, and that room would then be empty for the remainder of our trip (he was supposed to be in B). Arrival in San Antonio for the loud bang-bang switch of cars was quite late, as was our departure west as the last car on the Sunset Limited. The “bad” continued. . . the title of this writing may give you a hint. When the new on board crew boarded in Maricopa they were not told of our change of rooms. So, as they do, they checked the rooms and who was destined where, and finding that room B was supposed to be empty, they investigated…at 2:43 in the morning near Yuma. That investigation consisted of BANG BANG BANG BANG on our bedroom door, and when we awoke enough to answer the knocks, we were asked why we were in there. It took a few minutes to solve that, got an “apology” from the two conductors, and naturally I was awake to see the reconstruction of the Yuma station and other things I usually sleep through out there. An unusual event at Palm Springs, though, as after passengers were served the train reversed a mile back to the main line before continuing to LA. Arrival in LAUS was 2 1/2 hours late, which is better than the scheduled 5:30 AM, so no complaints there. Cyndy was on duty to help us onto the Red Cap tram and say goodbye to all of her passengers. We were happy to learn she would be our attendant on our return trip!
When we returned to LAUS we got to visit with two old friends, RailPAC’s VP James Smith and E-Newsletter editor Noel Braymer. Naturally, the conversation turned to the current state of affairs at Amtrak corporate HQ. The consensus of our conversation was that the Anderson-Gardner leadership has “learned” from what the Southern Pacific did in the 1960s to discourage long distance train riders…the drip-drip-drip removal of the experiences that make train travel a great way to travel. While most of those changes are now taking place on the eastern long distance trains, (box meals on all of them by October, for example), what is next? Rumors were flying that the Texas Eagle will be one of the trains losing its Diner-Lounge car when food service is changed in the East this Fall. They are even tinkering with the Auto Train!
Now for the “ugly” . . . Departure of train 2/422 from LAUS was 33 minutes late, as the trainset did not arrive on the platform until after 10:00, which was an uncomfortable wait for the passengers who were sent out to the platform by 9:15. That was an ominous start to the trip. Cyndy greeted us warmly, and was pleased to see James Smith was with us as he has traveled with her many times! We were nearly on time through Arizona, but then it began. About 20 miles west of Deming, New Mexico, the train came to a halt which lasted 3 1/2 hours. The conductors kept us informed of their progress talking to Union Pacific officials. Because of the lateness, the next on board crew changed at Deming (the Amshack there has been painted Amtrak blue, by the way, as has Benson, AZ.) We later learned that this delay may have been due to a hazmat issue on a UP freight train. Underway from El Paso was 4 hours 8 minutes late. But, what happened overnight between there and Alpine? At 11:27 PM MT I awoke to find our eastbound train was sitting in the Tornillo,Texas siding, and watched while three westbound UP freight trains passed by followed at 12:29 by us reversing out of that siding and resuming travel. Departure from Alpine was 8 hours 33 minutes late. Whatever happened during the night that lost 4 more hours we never learned, but obviously there had been debate between Amtrak and the UP.
More “ugly:” Arrival in Del Rio was 8 hours 37 minutes late. The UP then informed our crew that there were two incidents ahead, including a tie fire, which was quickly extinguished, and then a broken rail. We waited for 50 minutes at MP 354 while that rail was repaired; then there was a stop at 11:17 AM for a crew change two hours from San Antonio where we arrived to the expected news that train 22 had departed north and we would be bused to Ft. Worth. We said a sad farewell to Cyndy, who made sure all of us were on the correct buses (two carried passengers going past Dallas which met the 22 at Longview to go on to Chicago). Arrival back at the Ft. Worth Central Station was at 9:00 PM after stops at Austin, Temple, Waco (driver’s dinner) and Cleburne, and “enjoying” the Friday night traffic on Interstate 35. There was indeed good, bad, and ugly this time, but would we travel Amtrak again? Of course, after our history of doing so since 1971 (and the Santa Fe before that) we won’t change now, unlike a passenger we talked to on the El Paso platform who declared it was his first and last trip in that he had been bused on his westbound trip. Then when he later found he was going to be bused again from San Antonio it must have cemented it. Timekeeping on all the western long distance trains this summer has been horrible and discouraging to all with the possible exception of the Anderson-Gardner regime at Amtrak HQ. Are they, the UP, and the national administration in cahoots (collusion) to return to the 1960s? We have to work even harder than the past and hope the support of the U.S. Congress continues for “us” in flyover country.