Eric and Pat Beheim's Trip Report
San Diego - Toledo - San Diego
Our 2016 San Diego-Toledo-San Diego Amtrak trip went so smoothly that we repeated it again in 2017.
Since we always book our reservations well in advance, we called Amtrak on February 7th and had no trouble getting the trains and accommodations we wanted: a Pacific Surfliner (unreserved coach) to Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief (bedroom) to Chicago, and the Capitol Limited (reserved coach) to Toledo, with these same trains and accommodations being used for the return trip. (The Amtrak Guest Rewards points that we had earned from last year’s trip paid for our return passage from Toledo to Chicago on board the Capitol Limited.) As soon as our credit card information was verified, an e-ticket arrived almost immediately. This year’s trip was the seventh time that we’d traveled from California to Ohio and back using Amtrak.March
On March 17th, we were e-mailed a new e-ticket with a revised departure time for the #777 northbound Pacific Surfliner that we would be taking from San Diego to Los Angeles. We also received an e-mail and an automated phone message informing us of this schedule change.
For those who prefer to travel by train, it’s not the destination that counts so much as the ride in between. To get the most out of this year’s trip, we spent the weeks leading up to our departure organizing our maps and route guides, and reading up about the great passenger trains of yesteryear whose routes we would be retracing. (Bill Yenne’s Sante Fe Chiefs does a particularly good job of describing the Santa Fe’s premier train Super Chief back when it was the train of choice for the movie stars, celebrities and VIPs traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago.)
The week before our departure, Eric, who is also a railroad radio enthusiast, updated his little Uniden SC230 scanner with the radio frequencies currently being used by the trains we would be riding on. (These frequencies, along with their corresponding American Association of Railroads channel numbers, are available at the On Track On Line website.) Over the years, he has never had any problems using his scanner while onboard Amtrak trains. He makes it a point to always use earphones while listening, plus he identifies himself as a rail fan by wearing an Amtrak or Sante Fe Chief ball cap. (It has been our experience that Amtrak on-board personnel are usually happy to accommodate passengers who identify themselves as rail fans.)
A few days before our departure, we began checking the #4 Southwest Chief’s Chicago arrival times to get a better feel for how well it was maintaining its schedule. (We needed to be there in time to catch the #30 eastbound Capitol Limited in order to continue on to Toledo. Missing that connection and/or being delayed in Chicago would play havoc with our advance hotel and rental car reservations.) When it became apparent that the #4 trains were routinely failing to arrive in time to make connections with the #30 trains, we went to the Amtrak Unlimited Discussion Forum to see what we could learn. Sure enough, there was a discussion thread about the #4 late arrivals, which someone said were being caused by track work between Albuquerque and Lamy. About all we could do was to stay optimistic that our train would arrive in Chicago in time for us to connect with #30.Part 1: San Diego, California to Toledo, Ohio
Stage 1: San Diego to Los Angeles (June 28)
A shuttle from the long-term parking lot where we’d left our car dropped us off at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego well in advance of our train’s departure time.
The first thing we did was to present our e-ticket to an agent. Last year, we’d been issued separate tickets for each of the trains we’d be riding on. This year, however, we were told that the e-ticket was all that we’d need. After checking the luggage that would be traveling to Toledo as baggage, we settled down on one of the station’s benches to wait for our train to arrive.
San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot looks much the same today as it did when it opened in 1915. If you enjoy being inside old train stations that make you feel like you’ve been transported back in time, you’ll love the Santa Fe Depot.
A brisk breeze blowing in off the ocean made the waiting room just chilly enough for us to break out our jackets. Eric, who had been wearing shorts, soon changed into long pants. Shortly afterwards, Pat changed from a skirt into slacks.
At 11:15 a.m., coach passengers for the #777 Pacific Surfliner started lining up outside so we got into line, too. Last year when we made this trip, two members of Amtrak’s K-9 police force had been there with a bomb-sniffing dog, checking out passengers’ carry-on items and the checked luggage on the baggage cart. This year, we only saw a single unarmed contract security guard.
While we were waiting in line, we saw our checked luggage being loaded onto a baggage cart along with the other checked items, including a long padded bag the size and shape of a surfboard.
Because the #566 southbound Pacific Surfliner arrived late, the northbound #777 didn’t start boarding until 12:01 p.m. We had just got settled in our seats when “Triple 7” got underway at or near its scheduled 12:08 p.m. departure time. (Eric hadn’t even had time to turn on his scanner to hear the “highball” message.)
About sixteen minutes after leaving the Santa Fe Depot, the right-of-way veers off to the northeast towards the western border of Marine Crops Air Station Miramar. At 12:28 p.m. Eric heard our engineer report “7 clear of Miramar” just before the tracks started curving towards the northwest. After passing under the I-805 and I-5 freeways and cutting through a marshy section of the Torrey Pines State Reservation, the right-of-way swings to the right and begins heading north along the coastline. We got our first good view of the ocean at 12:39 p.m.
A few minutes later we went passed the Del Mar fairgrounds and the famous Del Mar racetrack. Although the racing season wouldn’t start until mid-July, the San Diego County Fair was in full swing.
We arrived at Solana Beach, our first scheduled stop, at 12:45 p.m.
It seemed like we had just come to a stop when the engineer received the highball message. (Some of the later stops were also only a minute or two in length.)
At 1:23 p.m. Eric heard the radio alarm detector (RAD) at milepost 210.3 report that we were traveling at 89 miles per hour and that our train had 28 axles.
Just before reaching San Juan Capistrano, the road frequency changed to Channel 30. Surprisingly, our train was not as full as we expected it to be. An announcement was even made that there were plenty of empty seats in Cars 2 and 3 for those who wanted to “spread out.”
During the station stop at Santa Ana, the stationmaster apparently made our conductor’s day by radioing that there were “no bags for you.”
In Fullerton, someone radioed the conductor to be on the lookout for two women, one dressed in an orange sweater and one in a black dress, who didn’t have tickets. A follow-up message said that they did have bus ticket connections.
Shortly after passing the RAD at milepost 144.45, we crossed the
Los Angeles River and made the sharp turn to the right for the approach to Los Angeles Union Station.
Off to our left we could see Amtrak’s Redondo Junction coach yard where our Southwest Chief was being readied for its eastbound passage.
Looking to our right, we got a good view of the concrete channel through which flows the Los Angeles River. (Part of that incredible car chase from the 1985 movie To Live and Die in L.A. was filmed down in this channel. It also figures prominently in the 1954 science fiction classic Them!) On a ledge under a bridge arch we saw a homeless camp complete with a tent.
We passed Mission Tower at 2:54 p.m. and came to a stop at Los Angeles Union Station three minutes later.
Stage 2: Los Angeles to Chicago (June 28-June 30)
If your travel plans have you passing through the Los Angeles Union Station, take the time before hand to read Bill Bradley’s book The Last of the Great Stations. It provides a fascination account of how the station was built and what its operations were like back when it was known as the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal and handled some 7,000 rail passengers daily. (It still looks much the same today as it did back in 1939 when it first opened.)
Over the years, Los Angeles Union Station has been used as a location for many Hollywood features films and television shows. (The IMDb movie database lists 124 titles that had scenes filmed there.) If you’re a film fan, Los Angeles Union Station is a great place to explore to search out those areas where scenes from specific movies were filmed. (Union Station, a 1950 feature film starring William Holden and Nancy Olson, makes extensive use of the station’s interiors.)
Making our way down the wide underground corridor that connects the platforms with the station’s interior, we eventually reached the elevator that goes up to the Metropolitan Lounge. After checking in with the attendant, we settled down to wait for the Southwest Chief to arrive. Pat read the newspaper while Eric monitored Channel 47, LAUS’ primary radio channel.
At about 5:20 p.m. the scanner reported, “No word on 4” (i.e. the Southwest Chief.) But then at 5:25 came the word, “4 is on the move.” Shortly afterwards, red caps with carts arrived at the back door of the Metropolitan Lounge to assist those of us who wanted a lift to the platform. #4 was already parked there when we arrived.
Our reservations were for Bedroom D in car #0430. By 5:45 p.m., we had checked in with our sleeping car attendant Pam and were settled in our room.
At 6:06 p.m., someone radioed that our train had been “consigned to the conductor.” We departed on time at 6:10 p.m. After a brief stop at Buena Park caused by a “conflicted movement,” we arrived in Fullerton at 6:57 p.m., two minutes behind schedule.
In many ways, riding on the Southwest Chief in 2017 provides a better travel experience than even the Super Chief offered during its glory years. High-level coaches, offering superior viewing of the passing scenery, didn’t appear until 1956, and these were only available on Santa Fe’s all-coach train El Capitan. It was also an era when many people smoked. If you were a non-smoker, you had to put up with second hand smoke in the sleepers, in the dining cars, and in the lounge cars. All things considered, taking the Southwest Chief in 2017 has a lot more to recommend it than traveling on the extra fare Super Chief back during the “golden age” of rail passenger service.
Dinner that night was on a first come-first served basis. Since our sleeper was right next to the dining car, we were among the first to be seated once the diner officially opened for business.
Books about the Super Chief invariable mention the gourmet meals that were served in its dining cars. Those expecting the Southwest Chief to still offer such Fred Harvey specialty dishes as Braised Duck Cumberland, Stuffed Zucchini Andalouse, or Quick Dobos Torte, served on fine Mimbreno chinaware, will be disappointed. Even so, we doubt that any airline is serving meals as good as the ones we had on this year’s trip.
For our first onboard evening meal, Pat ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak, while Eric had the Field and Sea Combo (i.e. the Signature Steak served with a few pieces of shrimp.) We both had the cheesecake for dessert. Our dinner companions were an interesting couple from a small town just outside Kansas City. They owned their own horses and, since we had once owned horses, we had much in common to talk about.
We were back in our bedroom by the time we reached Riverside. The crew was now using Channel 72 to communicate.
Since it had been a long day for us, we had Pam make up our bed early. Just before 10:00 p.m., an announcement was made requesting that all cell phones be turned off so as not to disturb sleeping passengers.
During our previous trips, we’d always had difficulty keeping track of the correct time once we shut the lights off in our bedroom. For this year’s trip, we brought along a little battery-operated digital clock with large red LED numerals. It worked out perfectly.
Eric was up at 5:00 a.m. shortly after we left Flagstaff. At 5:24 a.m., he heard the RAD at milepost 327.7 announce that our train had 48 axles. Six minutes later we crossed over Canyon Diablo.
We passed Holbrook, Arizona at 6:32 a.m. The dry bed of the Little Colorado River was now meandering along beside us, just south of the right-of-way.
At 7:31 a.m., an announcement was made that we had entered New Mexico and that we should set our watches ahead one hour.
We arrived in Gallup at 8:47 a.m. Mountain Time, twenty-six minutes behind schedule.
We went passed the exposed black lava rock beds at Anzac at 9:55 a.m. At 10:07 a.m. Eric heard our engineer receive his train orders from the dispatcher.
During the service stop in Albuquerque, we walked the length of the train and noted the cars in the consist: Lead Engine 193,
Helper Engine 81, Baggage Car 61030, Sleeper 39018, Sleeper 32118, Sleeper 32040, Diner 38056, Lounge Car 33048, Coach 31031, Coach 34024, Coach 34088 and Coach 34064. Pat, who enjoys Amtrak’s coffee, had brought a cup of it along with her when we set off on our inspection tour. When we encountered our SCA Pam on the platform, she was curious as to why Pat was drinking hot coffee outdoors on what was a hot day in Albuquerque.
Unlike previous years, there were only a few outdoor vendors set up on the platform selling “Southwest merchandise” (i.e. Native American jewelry, trinkets and other souvenirs) to the passengers.
We departed Albuquerque on schedule at 12:10 p.m. About forty-eight minutes later, we reached the area where the track work was taking place and an announcement was made that we would be going slow “for the next seven miles.”
After lunch, we moved down to the lounge car.
Despite going slow for over an hour, we were only about seventy-three minutes behind schedule when we reached Lamy. The crew was now using Channel 32 for their radio communications.
For us, the highlight of a trip onboard the Southwest Chief is the scenery between Lamy and Trinidad, and the passage through Apache Canyon. (Through this narrow gorge have passed all the Chiefs and Super Chiefs and all the movie stars, celebrities and VIPs who once rode on those trains.) Emerging from Apache Canyon, we could see I-25 to the north.
By 2:54 p.m., we were in the Santa Fe National Forest. Although the weather was sunny, clear, and ideal for viewing the scenery, there were quite a few empty seats in the lounge car. By 3:16 p.m. we were once again moving out at high speed. By this time last year, we had had already met and passed the #3 westbound Southwest Chief. For this run, however, the meeting didn’t occur until 3:42 p.m., after we had negotiated the famous double S-curve west of Starvation Peak.
Arriving in Las Vegas, New Mexico, we noted that the famous Castaneda Hotel dating from 1898 still remains closed and completely fenced in. (It has been this way now for several years.)
Our stop in Las Vegas only lasted about a minute before we were underway again at 4:21 p.m., about an hour and nine minutes behind schedule.
Just outside of Las Vegas, the scanner reported that we had a “yellow flag,” then a “green flag,” and finally a “green flag burst sixty.” (Can anyone explain what a “green flag burst sixty” means?)
At 5:00 p.m., the RAD at milepost 728.0 reported that the outside temperature was 90 degrees. Looking off to our right, we could see abandoned telephone poles with large bird nests built on their cross arms.
A large herd of elk was seen at 5:42 p.m., just west of Wagon Mound. (Someone once told us that this area is part of a state game preserve.)
A large group of Boy Scouts, whom we assumed were returning from the Philmont Scout Ranch, boarded the train in Raton. (We later saw them detraining in Chicago.)
We passed through Raton Tunnel and into Colorado at 6:23 p.m.,
arriving at Trinidad twenty-eight minutes later.
By the time we left La Junta, dark clouds and lightning flashes could be seen off to the south. By then it was getting dark, so we turned off the lights in our bedroom and watched the storm show.
We were up and dressed by 8:00 a.m. Central Time. The sky was overcast and it appeared to have rained recently. We arrived at Kansas City Union Station at 8:11 a.m., only fifty-seven minutes behind schedule. (By now, we were beginning to feel more confident that we’d arrive in Chicago in time to make our connection with the Capitol Limited.)
Shortly after leaving Kansas City, an announcement was made that ours was a “full train.” The dining car was already out of some of the items listed on the menu.
The Missouri River was to our left when we saw our first cornfield at 8:52 a.m.
By the time we crossed the Missouri River at 9:01 a.m., the sun was starting to burn through the cloud cover. Partially flooded fields beside the tracks attested to a recent and heavy rainstorm.
We were moving out at high speed when we went passed Walt Disney’s old hometown of Marceline at 10:09 a.m.
Arrived at La Plata at 10:47 a.m., the sleepers were unloaded first, then the train was pulled forward to unload the coaches.
Shortly after leaving La Plata, we had a brief “race” with a BNSF freight train that was on the track next to us. (We eventually won.)
At 11:01 a.m., the engineer radioed that he was switching to Channel 18. Thirty-seven minutes later, we crossed the Des Moines River.
Our stop in Fort Madison was another quick one, and we departed at 12:01 p.m., fifty-two minutes behind schedule. Seven minutes later, we started across the Mississippi River. By now, our sleeper was out of water and only blasts of compressed air were coming out of the sink faucets.
Since leaving Los Angeles, we’d been traveling over the former Santa Fe route. From Galesburg to Chicago, we used the former Burlington route.
Shortly after departing Princeton, Eric heard our engineer refer to our train as Amtrak 193 while talking to the dispatcher. (Earlier, it had been referred to as Amtrak 4.) It had been just about forty-eight hours since we’d left San Diego.
At 3:15 p.m., an announcement was made that the café/lounge car would be closing after we left Naperville and that everyone should return to their seats.
Departing Naperville, we got in behind a commuter train that slowed us down somewhat. Even so, we arrived in Chicago at 4:11 p.m., only fifty-six minutes late. (We later learned that ours was the only #4 train that week to arrive in time to connect with the #30 train.)
Stage 3: Chicago to Toledo (June 30)
Making our way into Chicago Union Station, we went to the Amtrak ticket counter that we had used last year to check our carryon bag through to Toledo. There, we discovered that the ticket counter had been relocated up near the Great Hall. Fortunately, luggage could still be checked at the old location, which saved us a trip upstairs.
Compared to the stations in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Toledo, Chicago Union Station is exceptionally crowded and busy.
Taking an escalator up to the food court, we were immediately confronted by a swiftly flowing river of commuters going in the direction opposite from the one we wanted to take. Plunging into the maelstrom, we fought our way against the current and eventually made it to the McDonalds restaurant, where we ordered some takeout sandwiches to sustain us through to Toledo. After eating, we made our way down to the south waiting room, where we settled in to wait for #30 to start boarding.
Having to spend time in the south waiting room has always been the least favorite part of our eastbound train trips. In addition to passengers waiting for the Capitol Limited, this area is usually filled to capacity with passengers waiting for several other Amtrak trains, all of which seem to leave at about the same time. Delayed train departures only add to the congestion. This year, the situation was relieved somewhat by a new policy that only allows the south waiting room to be used by seniors, families with small children, and members of the military. Everyone else had to wait up in the Great Hall. (We have since learned about the Legacy Club and Priority Early Boarding, and plan to take advantage of these extra-fee services on our next trip east.)
Among the passengers waiting to board was an Amish family with several small children. We also saw four men with touring bicycles that were loaded down with saddlebags, panniers, handlebar bags, sleeping bags, etc.
The video display showing Amtrak arrivals and departures did not indicate which gate #30 would be boarding from. We assumed that it would be Gate C, but had to ask a uniformed member of the Amtrak staff to be sure.
The boarding call for the Capitol Limited came at about 6:10 p.m. Since our train had backed in, it was a relatively short walk down the platform to where our reserved seat coach was parked. We departed on time at 6:40 p.m. Shortly after leaving the station, an announcement was made that ours was a “packed train” and that every available seat would be needed. Once outside of the station, the crew began using Channel 46 for its radio communications.
At 6:45 p.m. we crossed the South Branch of the Chicago River. Looking off to the west, we saw several historic old buildings including one that is abandoned and covered with graffiti.
A RAD reported that we were running on tracks owned by the Norfolk Southern and that our train had “no defects.” Once out of Chicago, we were soon up to express train speed.
Shortly after leaving the South Bend station, we went by a large and very old brick building that still bore faint traces of the lettering that identified it as having once belonging to the Singer Sewing Machine Co. (We later found an on-line article telling about Singer’s South Bend operations, which had begun there in the 1860s and ceased in 1955.)
We were almost to the Toledo train station when we had to stop and wait for what seemed like a 10-mile long freight train to go by. We arrived in Toledo at 12:21 a.m., about forty-two minutes behind schedule.
When we went to collect our luggage, we discovered that the two bags we’d checked in San Diego weren’t there. We were told that they would be arriving on a train due in at about 3:30 a.m. (Several other passengers’ luggage had been delayed, too.) Fortunately, the carry-on bag that we’d checked in Chicago did arrive, so at least we had our “travel essentials.” The hotel where we were staying at that night was close by and, in the morning after we had picked up our rental car, we drove back to the station and retrieved our luggage before continuing on to Findlay and the hotel where we would be staying.
Part 2: Toledo, Ohio to San Diego, California
Stage 1: Toledo to Chicago (July 11)
We were up and dressed by 3:00 a.m. and immediately logged onto the Amtrak website to check the arrival status of the #29 westbound Capitol Limited. Learning that it was only about fifteen minutes behind schedule, we checked out of our hotel and had a cab pick us up there for the 8 ½ mile drive to the train station. (Since we had checked our large pieces of luggage at the station the day before, we only had to deal with our carryon items.) Once our cab arrived, it was only an eighteen-minute drive to the station, and we arrived there at about 4:15 a.m.
If you’ve ever been in the Toledo train station’s waiting room and wondered why the ceiling is so low, it’s because, back when the station first opened in 1950, it was the baggage handling area. The original waiting room was up on the third floor. To get down to the platforms, passengers entered a concourse-bridge on the far side of the building and descended on staircases that curved to the southwest in order to fit into the station site.
The Capitol Limited arrived 5:47 a.m. (about thirty-nine minutes late) and we were soon settled in our reserved coach seats. Outside, it was just starting to get light.
Although there were quite a few empty seats in our coach, the unreserved coach next to ours was filled almost to capacity. We got underway at 5:57 a.m. Once outside of Toledo, the train crew started using Channel 46 to communicate.
Listening to his scanner (using earphones, as always) Eric heard the dispatcher advise our engineer that a crossing signal further to the west had an “activation failure” and that someone was “on site to provide manual activation.”
We went through Bryan, Ohio at 7:05 a.m. When talking to the dispatcher, our engineer referred to our train variously as Amtrak 29, ’trak 29 and 29.
We went passed the concrete obelisk that marks the Ohio-Indiana border at 7:17 a.m.
Even before we reached Waterloo, members of the Amish sect – men, women, beardless teenage boys, and young children – were passing through our car in a steady stream on their way to and from the café/lounge car.
We departed Waterloo at 7:54 a.m., about an hour and eighteen minutes behind schedule. Someone must have turned up the air conditioning in our coach since it was now noticeably cooler than when we first had boarded it.
At 8:04 a.m. Eric heard the RAD at milepost 370.8 report that our train had “no defects.” Twenty-one minutes later, he monitored a report from the RAD at milepost 386.3. When asked, the conductor informed him that these milepost numbers start at Buffalo, New York. Our engineer also included them in his reports to the dispatcher: “Amtrak 29 approaching (milepost number)” or “Amtrak 29 clear of (milepost number),” etc.
At 9:12 a.m., Eric heard our engineer report, “We have track authority.”
Arriving at Elkhart at 9:19 a.m., we got a brief glimpse of New York Central steam locomotive 3001, on display at the National New York Central Railroad Museum, located across from the Elkhart station. For the record, No. 3001 is a 4-8-2 "Mohawk" (i.e. Mountain type) locomotive built for the NYC in 1940 by the American Locomotive Company.
We arrived in South Bend at 9:37 a.m., an hour and forty-seven minutes behind schedule. Although no announcement was made about entering the Central Time Zone, we set our watches back an hour.
After a long wait in La Porte, we got underway at a greatly reduced speed. Just west of town, we saw track work going on, which helped to explain the delay and the slow speed.
By 9:56 a.m., we were going passed U.S. Steel’s Gary, Indiana steel mill complex. At 10:04 a.m., we got our first good look at Lake Michigan. Eleven minutes later, we could see the Sears Tower in the far distance. Shortly afterwards, the dispatcher gave the engineer his Chicago Union Station docking instructions: “It’s going to be track 22, spotted for power.”
At 10:23, a RAD near the Chicago White Sox stadium reported that our train had 40 axles.
We arrived in Chicago at 10:31 a.m., an hour and forty-six minutes late.
Stage 2: Chicago to Los Angeles (July 11-13)
As soon as we detrained, we went directly to the Metropolitan Lounge. (Chicago Union Station is undoubtedly an interesting place to explore, but we don’t like being in crowds or in crowded areas. Those wishing to know more about the station and its history should read Edward M. DeRouin’s Chicago Union Station – A Look at its Operations before Amtrak.)
Among those waiting to check into the Metropolitan Lounge were several families dressed in traditional Amish garb. These might have been Conservative Mennonites who are a little more “worldly” than the “old order” groups. (One young family from this group even had a bedroom in the same sleeper that we were in.)
After checking our carryon bag, we went up to the food court for an early lunch. Afterwards we retreated back down to the Metropolitan Lounge to wait until train time. Eric set up his laptop and used the free WiFi to send e-mails to family members to let them know that we had arrived in Chicago. He then worked on this trip report while Pat read a magazine that she had picked up in the Toledo train station.
By 12:00 p.m., the Metropolitan Lounge was filled almost to capacity with passengers waiting to depart on Hiawatha, Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, Empire Builder, and Southwest Chief.
It’s a long walk from the Metropolitan Lounge, to where the Southwest Chief’s sleeping cars are parked. When the call for “assisted boarding” for train #3 finally came at 2:20 p.m., we took advantage of this service. (Zipping along in an open cart through the crowded station and along what seems like the very edge of the platform provides its own special thrill!) Just before our cart started down the platform, we saw a uniformed member of Amtrak’s K-9 police force with a bomb-sniffing dog, waiting for the coach passengers to start passing by.
Our reservations were for Bedroom E in Sleeping Car #0330. When we met our sleeping car attendant Steven, we immediately recognized him; he had been our #4 train SCA last year on the eastbound passage from Los Angeles to Chicago.
By 2:33 p.m. we were settled in our bedroom and Eric was listening to the pre-departure radio traffic. (One of the first things he heard was, “Three, here we go, right?”) At 2:56 p.m. came the PA announcement, “Three is clear of all departments.” Then at 2:58 p.m., “Attention all attendants, please close all doors.” We departed on time at 3:00 p.m.
Last year, we’d made slow progress leaving Chicago because of track work. This year, we arrived early at Naperville and also at Mendota. (We took this as a good omen.)
At 5:10 p.m., a RAD reported that our train had 48 axles.
We arrived at Galesburg twenty-one minutes late due to “freight activity.”
West of Galesburg, we saw a helicopter swooping and darting over a field north of the tracks. At first we thought the pilot was practicing evasive combat maneuvers, but a closer examination revealed that the helicopter was actually spaying crops.
At 6:53 p.m., we started across the Mississippi River. By the time we reached Fort Madison, we’d already logged in 454 rail miles since leaving Toledo that morning. Since it had been a long day for us, we had Steven make up our bed early and were asleep long before our train arrived in Kansas City.
During the night, we could feel the vibration of what was a high-speed passage as our train battled its twin adversaries: time and distance. A little after 5:00 a.m., Eric woke up and realized that our train was standing still. Peeking out through the curtains, he saw that we were next to the big Dodge City station, making a regularly scheduled stop.
Eric was up and listening to his scanner at 7:00 a.m. The crew was now using Channel 23, which placed our location somewhere between Hutchinson, Kansas and La Junta, Colorado. Our exact location was determined at 7:18 a.m. when we arrived in Garden City, Kansas, fifty-seven minutes behind schedule. After leaving Garden City, there was considerable radio traffic regarding meeting a freight train further to the west. By 7:39 a.m., we were back up to speed.
For this westbound passage, we referred to a vintage route guide originally issued by the Santa Fe Railroad back in 1964. Unlike the modern-day route guides, it has information on just about every little town located along the main line.
Since there was already a waiting list for breakfast, we arranged to have Steven deliver our breakfast orders to us in our bedroom.
Speaking of Steven, of the various SCAs we’ve had over the years, he ranks as one of the very best! Beginning when he first welcomed us on board our sleeper, we could sense that here was someone who would be making a best effort to see that we received VIP treatment while in his care. The few times that we had to summon him using the “call” button, he was always there promptly. If we were in our bedroom, he would periodically and on his own initiative stop by to see if there was anything we needed. His patience, tact, and cheerful, “can do” attitude added greatly to the enjoyment of our trip. In his books about the great passenger trains of yesteryear, Lucius Beebe relates how experienced travelers would book passage on a particular train specifically because of its on-board staff. If we could book our future reservations based on having Steven as our SCA, we would certainly do so.
At 8:21 a.m. when we went passed Cooliage (the last town before crossing into Colorado) we set our watches back an hour to Mountain Time. We arrived in LaMar at 7:58 a.m. Mountain Time. Within a minute of arriving, someone radioed the engineer, “We’ve got a highball on the rear,” and we were underway again.
At 8:50 a.m., ten minutes prior to our arrival in La Junta, the dispatcher radioed the engineer his instructions for coming into the depot.
Although La Junta is a 15-minute stop, we opted not to get off the train but moved down to the café/lounge car so we could find two good seats together.
After leaving La Junta at 9:16 a.m., we crept along at what seemed like a snail’s pace. Eventually an announcement that we were going slow because of track work. Wild sunflowers were growing in profusion next to the right-of-way and we later learned that this area is known as Sunflower Valley.
Finally, at 10:37 a.m., the engineer radioed, “Clear. Here we go,” and we once again began to pick up speed. At 11:03, a RAD reported that the outside temperature was 85 degrees. The weather was sunny and clear enough for us to see Pike’s Peak to the north. We arrived at Trinidad at 11:45 a.m., about an hour and fifty-five minutes behind schedule.
We had perfect weather for the ascent up Raton Pass. At 12:20 p.m., we went passed the large sign telling about the original Dick Wootton Ranch. Five minutes later, we went by another large sign telling about the Raton Tunnel. (We once read that these signs were originally put up by the Santa Fe Railroad years ago. Apparently Amtrak or someone is continuing to maintain them.) Just before entering the Raton Tunnel, we caught a quick glimpse of the little concrete obelisk that marks the Colorado-New Mexico border.
We entered the east end of the Raton Tunnel at 12:27 p.m. This tunnel, by the way, plays an important role in David Balducci’s novel The Christmas Train, which is largely set onboard a westbound Southwest Chief during the holiday season.
We arrived in Raton at 12:45 p.m. A large contingent of Boy Scouts and their gear, bound for the Philmont Scout Ranch, needed to be unloaded. We also took on passengers who had arrived from Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo via a connecting bus. At 12:54 p.m., the conductor radioed the engineer, “Conductor to Head End Three. Can we get a boarding whistle?” We departed four minutes later and were soon up to speed.
At 1:36 p.m., a RAD reported that the outside temperature was 96 degrees. Dark clouds and some lightning flashes could be seen off to the north. A few minutes later, the dispatcher radioed a high wind warning for the area between mileposts 745 to 762. We went by Wagon Mound at 2:00 p.m. Twenty-six minutes later, we were in the area affected by the high wind warning and the engineer slowed down.
It was raining quite heavily when we arrived at Las Vegas at 2:51 p.m., about two hours and thirteen minutes behind schedule. At 2:58 p.m. we departed Las Vegas, “out on a clear” and by 3:16 p.m. had outrun the rain.
The meeting with the #4 eastbound Southwest Chief occurred at 3:38 p.m., just east of the double S curve. Even after #4 went by, we didn’t get underway for another eight minutes and then at a greatly reduced speed.
At 4:20 p.m., the dining car announced that orders were being taken for a “Just for You” meal being offered “for coach passengers only.” Those who ordered this special meal, consisting of country fried steak, mashed potatoes & gravy, vegetable side, large chocolate chip cookie and a bottle of water, would have it delivered to their seats.
Since leaving Las Vegas, the weather had been mostly overcast with some occasional rain. However, just as we reached the Santa Fe National Forest, the clouds parted and the sun came out, providing ideal weather for viewing the scenery. After descending Glorieta Pass and going through Apache Canyon, we arrived at Lamy at 5:03 p.m., about two and a half hours behind schedule.
Once we entered the area west of Lamy where the track work was taking place, we had to travel at about 25 miles an hour.
At Santo Domingo and again at Bernalillo, we had to stop and wait for New Mexico Rail Runner commuter trains to go by, costing us another forty-five minutes or so. We arrived in Albuquerque at 7:42 p.m., three hours and forty-seven minutes behind schedule.
This being an extended service stop, we got off to stretch our legs and note the cars in our train’s consist: Lead Engine 184, Helper Engine 2, Baggage Car 61040, Sleeper 39030, Sleeper 32021, Sleeper 32011, Dining Car 38917, Café/Lounge Car 33040, Coach 34061, Coach 34048, Coach 35001, and Coach 34113.
The boarding whistle came at 8:28 p.m. and we were underway a minute later.
A crew change had also occurred in Albuquerque and, shortly after our departure, the new conductor came on the PA system and apologized to everyone for the delays. He also gave out the Amtrak app for tracking the status of train arrivals. He assured everyone who had connecting trains to catch that arrangements were being made to insure they would be able to catch up with any trains that were missed.
Eric was up in time to see us pass over the Colorado River and into California at 4:56 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, we arrived at Needles. In the east, it was just starting to get light.
During World War II, General Patton’s troops trained not far from here before deploying to Tripoli in North Africa. (When they complained about the desert heat, Patton replied, “I know it’s hot out here. But let me tell you, it’s cold compared to what you’re going to run into later on.”)
We arrived at Barstow at 7:52 a.m., a little over four hours behind schedule. Usually we’re asleep or it’s dark when we arrive in Barstow. This time, it was light enough for us see and admire Barstow’s beautifully restored 1911 Harvey House train station.
At 9:23 a.m., as we were ascending Cajon Pass, a train dispatcher radioed to someone, “I’ve got Three, which is pretty darn late.” (It was just about forty-eight hours ago that we’d left Toledo.)
Just outside of Riverside, the conductor came on the PA system again to let those with connecting trains know the specific arrangements had been made for them to catch up with their missed trains. In some cases, this involved taking Amtrak Throughway buses. In our case, we would be catching a later Pacific Surfliner to San Diego.
In Fullerton, a uniformed member of the Amtrak K-9 police force and a bomb-sniffing dog were waiting on the platform. Once we were underway, an announcement was made that the dog and its handler would be going through the cars and that passengers shouldn’t try to touch or pet the dog.
At 11:32 a.m., just before we crossed the Los Angeles River, someone radioed the crew, “Let’s go the Disney Channel” (i.e. Channel 47, the one used by Los Angeles Union Station.) We arrived at 11:42 a.m., not quite three and a half hours behind schedule.
Stage 3: Los Angeles to San Diego (July 13)
The next southbound Pacific Surfliner was #774, scheduled to depart at 12:32 p.m. from platform 11B. As it got closer to train time, the platform began to fill up with people and we began to wonder if we would be able to find seats together. (If not, we both had our own copies of the e-ticket.) We also wondered if there had been enough time to transfer our checked luggage over to #774. We began making contingency plans for what we would do if our luggage failed to arrive with us.
Although #774 was packed, we were able to find seats together. We departed on time at 12:32 p.m. At 1:04 p.m., we stopped in Fullerton for the second time that day.
Just outside of Fullerton, we heard a loud voice coming from the café in the lower level of our coach. Shortly afterwards a loudmouth, belligerent man came up from below and took the seat directly behind us. Just outside of Anaheim, he got into an argument with the conductor when asked to show his ticket. The conductor handled the situation well and the loudmouth (who was probably drunk) eventually produced a ticket for a passage from Oxnard to Los Angeles, where he had failed to detrain! Fortunately, the conductor was able to hustle him off the train at Anaheim without further incident.
Right after we left Anaheim, someone came down the aisle carrying a surfboard and a skateboard. Surprisingly, he quickly found space for both of them in the overhead rack.
When we went by the lifeguard stations by the San Clemente pier, we noted that they were flying the solid red “B” or “Bravo” signal flag (indicating that the surf was high and that there was a dangerous undertow) and the “I” or “India” signal flag (indicating that surfing was prohibited in this area.)
When we went by the Del Mar racetrack, we could see that preparations were underway for the Thoroughbred racing season’s opening day on July 19th.
We arrived in San Diego at 3:25 p.m., only three hours and twenty-five minutes later than if we had caught the Pacific Surfliner we had originally planned on taking. Our checked luggage had also arrived, so we were able to call the long-term parking lot where we’d left our car and request a shuttle pickup. By 4:10 p.m. we were in our car and heading towards home.
Since we’d missed lunch, we decided to stop off at a little hamburger restaurant we sometimes eat at. There, we met two of our neighbors who told us that they had just returned from a trip to Cincinnati. Their return flight had been delayed 20 hours because of bad weather. All things considered, we hadn’t done too badly choosing to travel with Amtrak!Post Script
As was the case last year, we both received on-line surveys from Amtrak, asking about our experiences while riding on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, and for our opinions on Amtrak in general. Our answers about the Los Angeles-Chicago trip conveyed our general satisfaction. (After all, our train did arrive in Chicago in time to catch the Capitol Limited!) When asked what we liked least about riding on Amtrak, we both cited the late arrivals & departures and the infrequence service. When asked if we would still use Amtrak for long distance travel if sleeping cars weren’t available, we both answered no. Towards the end of the survey we both indicated that the “positives” of traveling via Amtrak outweigh the “negatives.”
Right now, it looks like we’ll be making another trip back to Ohio via Amtrak in October. We’re counting on the fact that most of the track work will be completed by then and that both our east and westbound trains will be running on time. Another trip report will be posted once we get back, so stay tuned.