Eric & Pat Beheim’s AMTRAK Trip Report
San Diego - Toledo - San Diego
Even before we returned from last summer’s trip to Ohio, we’d made the decision to go back there again in October. (Pat has family members living in the Findlay area whom she seldom gets to see, and Eric needed to obtain photographs of Ohio’s fall foliage for his toy train photography work.)
Whenever we travel to Ohio via Amtrak, our departure and return dates are determined by the availably of bedrooms on the Southwest Chief trains to and from Chicago. (It is only after these bedroom reservations are confirmed that we make our hotel and rental car reservations.) To be sure of getting bedrooms for the dates we want, we usually purchase our tickets at least four months prior to when we plan to leave. This time, however, the earliest we were able to call Amtrak was July 28th. Despite this relatively short lead-time, we had no problem reserving bedrooms for the dates in October we’d been hoping for. The agent also helped us apply our Amtrak Guest Rewards points towards paying for our connecting trains to and from Toledo. This was the eighth time that we’d traveled from California to Ohio and back via Amtrak and the first time we’d made this trip in October. It was also the first time we’d taken this trip twice in the same year.
About four and a half weeks before we were scheduled to depart, we received an advertisement for Amtrak’s Double Days, a special promotion allowing Guest Rewards members to earn double points for travel undertaken between September 18th and November 18th. Since our travel dates fell within this period, we both registered for it. We then called Amtrak to see if we did, in fact, qualify, since our tickets had been purchased in July before Double Days had been announced. We half expected an argument but, after verifying that we were both registered, the agent said that we would receive double points, once our travel had been completed. As Nero Wolfe would say, “Satisfactory. Highly satisfactory.”
On September 21st an Amtrak Unlimited post alerted us to the new Pacific Surfliner schedule that would be going into effect on October 9th. According to the new schedule, the northbound No. 777 train that we were planning to take to Los Angeles was to depart 3 minutes earlier than the time indicated on our e-ticket.
Over the years, we’ve fine-tuned detailed packing lists of the clothing and other “essentials” that we take with us whenever we travel via Amtrak. By following these lists, we know exactly what items to pack into our checked luggage, our various carryon bags, etc. For this trip, these lists had to be revised to include the jackets, sweaters and layering pieces we anticipated we’d need for a visit to Ohio in October. To accommodate this “cold weather” wardrobe, we ended up with two large suitcases (which would travel as checked luggage), and a small carryon suitcase. Our other carryon items included a laptop, Pat’s purse, and Eric’s canvas shoulder bag that contains his camera, VHF scanner, maps, route guides, etc. (Compared to the average airline passenger, we pack like movie stars or visiting royalty. Even so, our checked luggage has never exceeded the maximum number of pieces that Amtrak allows each passenger!)
Eric’s little Uniden SC230 scanner is pre-programmed with all of the American Association of Railroads frequencies used by the Pacific Surfliner, the Southwest Chief and the Capitol Limited, plus the frequencies used by Los Angeles Union Station and Chicago Union Station. Listening in on conversations between crewmembers, the conductor and the engineer, the dispatchers and the engineer, station personnel, and the reports from automated trackside radio alarm detectors (or RADs) always makes the trip (and our trip reports) more interesting. This radio traffic also provides a greater appreciation for what it takes to keep our trains running in a safe and timely manner.
About two weeks before we were due to leave, we began paying closer attention to the arrival times of the No. 4 eastbound Southwest Chief trains into Chicago. In order to continue on to Toledo, we needed to be there in time to catch the No. 30 eastbound Capitol Limited scheduled to depart from Chicago Union Station at 6:40 p.m. In previous years, we’d never had a problem making this connection and had never given it much thought. But then, beginning last summer, track maintenance caused many of the No. 4 trains to arrive as much as seven or eight hours late! With the exception of the October 6th train, which arrived almost 22 ½ hours late due to a track washout, it appeared that the No. 4 trains were arriving in time to connect with the No. 30, which we found encouraging.
Part 1: San Diego, California to Toledo, Ohio
Stage 1: San Diego to Los Angeles (October 18th)
At last the big day arrived. We left in plenty of time to make the 40-mile drive from our home in east San Diego County to the long-term parking lot where we always leave our car when we travel. From there, a shuttle dropped us off at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego well in advance of Pacific Surfliner No. 777’s scheduled 12:05 p.m. departure.
Our “check in” consisted of an Amtrak agent looking at our photo IDs and e-ticket, and then tagging our checked luggage through to Toledo. (What airline passenger gets off this easy?)
Back in 1969, when Eric first arrived in San Diego (courtesy of the U.S. Navy), the Santa Fe Depot was the largest and most impressive building in this section of downtown San Diego. Although dwarfed by the tall buildings that have since sprung up around it, it still looks pretty much the same as it did when it first opened in 1915. In addition to Pacific Surfliner passengers, it also serves the San Diego Trolley and the Coaster, the commuter train that links San Diego and Oceanside.
Although San Diego had been experiencing temperatures in the mid-80s, the station was cool and comfortable, thanks to a breeze blowing in from the ocean. It being a nice day, we opted to wait outside in the unreserved coach line. (We ended up being the first ones there.) A woman was already waiting in the business class line, and she and Pat were soon having a friendly conversation to pass the time.
While we were waiting in line, a San Diego Trolley rolled by with a sign that read Electric Transportation is Beautiful.
By 11:24 a.m., other passenger had begun to line up outside, too.
As was the case last summer, we only saw two unarmed contract security guards.
When Eric asked one of the guards why there weren’t any bomb-sniffing dogs there, she replied that they only come in randomly and unannounced. (Their showing up probably has something to do with the current “threat assessment” as determined by Homeland Security.)
As it got closer to train time, one of the security guards started going down the business class line, checking tickets. (Perhaps this was to insure that someone with an unreserved coach ticket hadn’t snuck into the business class line in order to get early boarding!)
The southbound No. 566 Pacific Surfliner arrived at 11:54 a.m., about 13 minutes behind schedule.
Among the passengers we saw detraining were a number of Amish families. (It seemed rather strange to see the women, dressed in their traditional 19th century attire, wheeling modern-day suitcases. One of the men was carrying a plastic ice chest.) We can’t think of a trip we’ve made on Amtrak where we didn’t see a few Amish passengers. We’re both originally from Ohio and are familiar with some of the Amish farming communities where the residents still live an 1800s lifestyle with no electricity, telephones or anything run by internal combustion engines. (The Amish family shown in the Harrison Ford film Witness is a good example.) Apparently their beliefs do allow them to travel across country by train and they take full advantage of it. But how will they manage if Amtrak’s long distance passenger service is ever eliminated?
At 12:07 p.m., business class passengers were allowed to board. A minute or so later, our unreserved coach line was allowed out onto the platform.
The highball message came at 12:12 p.m. and we departed 7 minutes behind schedule. Eric had his scanner on in time to hear the dispatcher tell our engineer, “Have a good trip.”
About 6 minutes after leaving the downtown Santa Fe Depot, we made our first stop at the Old Town Transit Center located adjacent to the Old Town San Diego State Historical Park. According to the new schedule, all Pacific Surfliner trains to and from San Diego are now stopping there. (During our previous trips, Solana Beach had always the first stop after leaving San Diego.)
Directly across the street and just to the north of the Old Town Transit Center was where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used to unload its elephants, horses, camels, and other “lead stock” when it came to town each year for a one-week appearance in the San Diego Sports Arena. Eric, who is also a circus fan and who played in the circus band each year, would usually be on hand to take color photos and shoot movie footage of the animals being unloaded and then walked to the arena. To accommodate the extra tracks needed for the San Diego Trolley’s extension into Mission Valley, the Old Town siding was eliminated some years ago. The circus then unloaded its animals further to the south. (Eric has always regretted not having had the opportunity to ride on the circus train.)
About 17 minutes after leaving the Santa Fe Depot, the topography of the land requires the right-of-way to swing to the northeast for a few miles before curving back towards the coastline. We got our first good view of the ocean at 12:44 p.m. and shortly after afterwards were passing through the upscale resort community of Del Mar.
Before it was replaced by the Solana Beach station further to the north, Del Mar was one of the Santa Fe’s and later Amtrak’s busiest stops. Its historic 1910 brick station is still there, just in case Amtrak ever decides to restore Del Mar to the Pacific Surfliner’s timetable.
At 12:47 p.m. we went passed the county fairgrounds and the famous Del Mar racetrack. Years ago, during the horse-racing season, the Sante Fe used to offered a special excursion train that departed from the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal in time to be in Del Mar before the first race. A returning special would leave from Del Mar for L.A. about an hour after the last race. Today, racing fans must use the regularly scheduled Pacific Surfliner trains, which are noticeably more crowded during the racing season.
We arrived at Solana Beach at 12:49 p.m. Two minutes later, we were back underway. There were still plenty of empty seats in our coach for the new arrivals.
Whenever the right-of-way ran beside the public beaches, we could see surfers and a few beach-goers, even though it was a mid-week day in October when most people had to be at work.
At 1:23 p.m., we went by the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Here we transitioned from San Diego Northern Railroad (SDNR) tracks to Metrolink (SCAX) tracks, and the radio frequency changed to Channel 30. (During its relatively short passage from San Diego to Los Angeles, Pacific Surfliner trains change radio frequencies 3 times.)
At 1:24 p.m. a trackside radio alarm detector (RAD) reported that we were traveling at 91 miles per hour and that our train had 28 axles.
North of San Onofre, the right-of-way is so close to the beach that, at high tide, it appears that the waves are almost breaking against the roadbed.
Back in 1988, we celebrated Valentine’s Day by taking a Pacific Surfliner up to San Juan Capistrano to have lunch. On that day, a slight earthquake occurred that required our train to stop and then proceed at 25 miles per hour until the tracks ahead could be inspected for damage. Although Southern California had recently been experiencing an increased amount of seismic activity, no earthquakes occurred on this trip and “Triple 7” arrived at San Juan Capistrano only about 6 minutes behind schedule.
The exterior of San Juan Capistrano’s brick station looks much the same today as it did back when it first opened in 1894. The station itself is now a restaurant and the Amtrak ticket office is located in a vintage railroad car located at the station’s far north end.
Our stop at San Juan Capistrano was another brief one, and we departed at 1:41 p.m.
Shortly afterwards, the conductor and the engineer had a brief radio conversation regarding the train’s power distribution and if it needed to be reported.
We arrived and departed from Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton in good order. There were now more people in our coach, but still it didn’t seem particularly crowded.
Shortly after passing Milepost 144.45, we crossed the Los Angeles River and made a sharp turn to the right for the approach to Los Angeles Union Station.
We passed Mission Tower at 2:53 p.m. and came to a stop at LAUS a few minutes later.
Stage 2: Los Angeles to Chicago (October 18-October 20th)
After detraining, we used a ramp to descend one level to the wide pedestrian tunnel that connects the platforms with the station’s interior. (Perhaps this was the same ramp that Dick Powell can be seen descending in the 1950 film noire Cry Danger.) Just before entering the huge public waiting room, we turned to the left towards the Amtrak ticket counter. Just around the corner from the ticket counter is 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 while Eric got out the laptop and started working on this trip report.
Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal was built in the late 1930s to serve Southern California’s three major railroads: the Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, and the Union Pacific. When it opened in 1939, its 16 tracks were barely able to accommodate all of the passenger trains that arrived and departed there daily. Today, the daily departure count is something like 70 Metrolink commuter trains and 19 Amtrak trains plus the tri-weekly Sunset Limited.
All the while he was working on our trip report, Eric was monitoring the LAUS Station Services radio channel for news of the No. 4 Southwest Chief.
Incidentally, the Southwest Chief’s numbers (No. 3 westbound and No. 4 eastbound) are not the numbers of the original Super Chief. No. 3 and No. 4 were actually the numbers assigned to Santa Fe’s all-coach El Capitan trains, which operated on the same fast schedule as the Super Chief. (In later years, the El Capitan was combined with the Super Chief.)
The LAUS Metropolitan Lounge is not as large as the one in Chicago and by 4:47 p.m. it was starting to become crowded with sleeping car passengers.
At about 5:17 p.m. the scanner reported that No. 4 had been released from the coach yard and was making its way towards the station. 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.
Our reservations were for Bedroom B in car #0431. Informed of our car number, the red cap dropped us off at the approximate location on the platform where #0431 would be standing once the Southwest Chief had pulled in and come to stop. As it turned out, however, he was off by one car length. This might have been because our train only had two coaches. Had a third coach been in the consist, we would have been standing right next to #0431.
By 4:47 p.m. we had been checked aboard by our sleeping car attendant Carmen, and were settled in our bedroom. Listening to the LAUS Station Services channel on his scanner, Eric heard red caps being directed to various locations within the station to pick up passengers for Train No. 4.
At 6:02 p.m., someone radioed that our train had been “released to the conductor.” We departed on time at 6:10 p.m.
The engineer didn’t waste any time getting us out of Los Angeles, and we made the entire passage to Fullerton at express train speed.
Dinner that night was by reservation.
Back during the golden era of rail passenger service, it was said that there was no finer experience than enjoying a meal in a Super Chief dining car. Although the Southwest Chief’s menu doesn’t include such Super Chief Table d’Hote entrees as Mountain Trout Saute Meuniere with Capers, Omelette with Julienne of Ham or Braised Duck Cumberland, its selections are still superior to what airline passengers are being served. (Those wishing to experience dining car cuisine from yesteryear can find the recipes posted on-line and in books such as Will C. Hollister’s Dinner in the Diner.)
This trip was the first time that we ordered from the new menu that, we understand, is now more or less standard for all Amtrak long distance trains. For our first onboard evening meal, Pat had the Amtrak Signature Steak, while Eric ordered the Land and Sea Combo (i.e. the Signature Steak served with a seafood paddy consisting of ground up crab, shrimp, and scallop.) We’d read the reviews of this seafood paddy -- both favorable and unfavorable --that were posted on AU. Eric, who is fond of crab cakes, found it rather bland although it was improved by dipping it in the Béarnaise sauce that comes with the meal. Considering the price difference between the Signature Steak ($25.00) and the Land and Sea Combo ($39.00), the paddy is rather overpriced for what you get. We both ordered the cheesecake for dessert. We were expecting to get the pumpkin cheesecake, which is usually available around this time of the year, but received regular cheesecake instead.
Since it had been a long day for us, we had Carmen make up our bed early. When Eric went to take a shower, he discovered that there was no hot water.
Just before 10:00 p.m., it was announced that the coaches were now observing “quiet time” and that those who wished to continue their conversations should move down to the lounge car.
To help us keep track of the correct time once we shut off the lights in our bedroom, we pack along a little battery-operated digital clock with large red LED numerals. It has become so indispensable that now, whenever we travel, we never leave home without it.
Eric was up at a little before 6:00 a.m. It was just starting to get light outside when we went past Holbrook, Arizona at 6:18 a.m. The bed of the Little Colorado River was meandering along beside us, just south of the right-of-way and was as dry as it had been last summer. The leaves on the trees were a golden yellow.
For breakfast, Pat ordered the Continental Breakfast with oatmeal and Eric had the Three Egg Omelet with a side of Apple and Maple Chicken Sausage.
We can remember back to when a copy of the ARIZONA DAILY SUN would be slipped under our bedroom door shortly after departing from Flagstaff. This extra little courtesy was still being offered when we rode the Southwest Chief in 2005. But when we next rode this train in 2014, the complimentary newspaper had been eliminated. (Not having a newspaper to read with her morning coffee is as much of a disappointment for Pat as not having a hot morning shower is for Eric.)
At 6:39 a.m., when we were at about Milepost 225, the engineer suddenly applied his brakes and began sounded the air horn frantically. From a subsequent radio conversation he had with the conductor, we learned that about a half dozen cattle had been on or near the tracks and had “just cleared in time.” The conductor responded with, “We don’t need a mess today.” After we were back up to full speed, the engineer radioed the dispatcher and the engineer of a westbound BNSF freight that had just passed us to warn them about the cattle on the tracks.
The day was mostly overcast with a few patches of blue sky. Off to the south it appeared to be raining.
At 7:07 a.m. there was more radio traffic from trains further to the west about the cattle on the tracks.
At 7:15 a.m., an announcement was made that we had entered New Mexico and that we should set our watches ahead an hour.
We arrived at Gallup about 18 minutes behind schedule. Outside, it was chilly enough for people to be wearing jackets.
Ten minutes after leaving Gallup we went by the Fort Wingate Army Depot with its rows of ammunition storage bunkers constructed to blend into the hillside. These bunkers, or at least one of them, figure prominently in the plot of The Wailing Wind, a Tony Hillerman novel featuring Navajo Tribal policeman Lt. Joe Leaphorn.
We went passed the exposed black lava rock beds at Anzac at 9:34 a.m.
At 10:22 a.m. we entered the Rio Puerco-Isleta segment of the route, and the radio frequency changed to Channel 32.
Just west of Albuquerque, we saw a number of buffalo in what might have been a large holding pen used by the Albuquerque Zoo.
Just before coming into the Albuquerque station, we had a good view of the former Santa Fe Railroad repair shops, now empty and apparently no longer in use.
We arrived in Albuquerque early. The weather was sunny with some cloud cover. When we got off the train to stretch our legs, the temperature was cool enough for us to be thankful that we were wearing long sleeve shirts.
During this extended service stop, we walked the length of the train and noted the cars in the consist: Lead Engine 180, Helper Engine 14, Baggage Car 61028, Sleeper 39007, Sleeper 32072 (the one we were in), Sleeper 32021, Diner 38000, Lounge Car 33048, Coach 34113, and Coach 31029. (During our trip last summer, there had been four coaches in our train.)
In keeping with a long-standing Albuquerque tradition, outdoor vendors were set up on the platform selling Native American jewelry, rugs, pottery, etc. Among those passengers we saw looking over this “Southwest Merchandise” were several Amish families.
We returned to our bedroom in time to see someone clean the windows using a squeegee on a long pole.
We departed Albuquerque on schedule at 12:10 p.m.
For lunch, we ordered Angus Burgers.
Speaking of burgers, while we were in Chicago, we had a chance to look over the Amtrak café/lounge car menu and noted that it now includes White Castle cheeseburgers. These small, square hamburgers (sometimes referred to as “sliders”) were first introduced back in 1921. In fact, White Castle is generally credited as being the country’s first fast-food chain, even though its restaurants are only found in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. Both of us are originally from Ohio and, back when we were in college a White Castle restaurant was located just off campus. That was when White Castle hamburgers sold for 15 cents each!
Last summer, track work had caused us to be about 73 minutes late arriving at Lamy. This time we arrived there 4 minutes early. At 1:15 p.m. we departed Lamy and began the ascent to Apache Canyon.
For us, one of the highlights of a trip onboard the Southwest Chief is the passage through Apache Canyon. Back in 1999, while traversing one of its narrower sections, we saw a bear ambling along beside the right-of-way! This time, it was the trees with their golden fall foliage that made our trip through the canyon particularly memorable.
At 1:43 p.m., while we were still passing through the Santa Fe National Forest, we heard our engineer talking with the No. 3 eastbound Southwest Chief, which we would soon be meeting. By 1:47 p.m., we were already stopped on a siding. No. 3 went by two minutes later. (Last summer, No 4 had been running late and this meeting didn’t occur until after we had negotiated the famous double S-curve west of Starvation Peak.) At 1:50 p.m. the engineer received a “clear signal” and we were soon underway again.
At 2:23 p.m., just before we entered the double S-curve, we saw two buffalo on what appeared to be private property. A sign on the gate to their pasture read, “Keep This Gate Locked.”
We arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico on schedule.
When we passed through Las Vegas in 2014, 2016, and last summer, the historic Castaneda Hotel was completely fenced in and it didn’t appear that work had begun on the restoration announced back in 2014 when the hotel was purchased by Allan Affeldt, who had restored the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. This time, however, a construction crew wearing hard hats was working on the hotel grounds, so apparently the restoration is finally underway.
Our stop in Las Vegas only lasted about two minutes before we were underway again and still on schedule. Someone radioed, “We’re about to set records on this trip.”
At 3:09 p.m. the conductor radioed the engineer to see if he was experiencing a side-to-side vibration that had begun after passing over a switch. The engineer replied that he wasn’t. Almost immediately the conductor radioed back that the vibration had stopped.
At 4:12 p.m., a RAD reported that the outside temperature was 74 degrees. (Last summer, it had been 90 degrees in this same area.)
Arriving in Raton, it seemed strange not to see a large contingent of Boy Scouts waiting to board the train after having spent a week or so camping out in the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch. (The Ranch was now closed for the season and the Scouts are all back in school.)
As we were ascending Raton Pass, the trees and vegetation on the distant hills appeared as a patchwork of autumn colors: red, brown and yellow.
We emerged from the Raton Tunnel and into Colorado at 5:12 p.m., arriving at Trinidad thirty-eight minutes later.
For supper, Pat ordered the Signature Steak and Eric tried the Griddle Seared Norwegian Salmon. For dessert, we both ordered the Southern Pecan Tart, which we found to be a little too rich for our palates.
We were 19 minutes ahead of schedule when we arrived at La Junta. With 29 minutes to spare before our departure, we used the opportunity to get off the train and take a short stroll up and down the platform.
After we got underway again, we heard the engineer refer to our train as Amtrak 180 when radioing the dispatcher.
Nothing happened during the night to delay us, and we arrived at
Kansas City Union Station 21 minutes early. (By now, we were beginning to feel confident that we’d arrive in Chicago in time to make our connection with the No. 30 eastbound Capitol Limited.)
We started across the Missouri River at 8:17 a.m. Central Time. Here, the trees were just starting to show their autumn colors.
For breakfast, Pat ordered the Scrambled Eggs, while Eric tried the Cheese Quesadillas with Eggs & Tomatillo Sauce. (He liked it so much that he made a note to order it again on the return trip.)
At 8:25 a.m. the engineer radioed the dispatcher, “No. 4 on 3-Track.”
At 8:51 a.m. an announcement was made that the dining car was closed for breakfast and that the lunch hours would be abbreviated in order to prepare for the arrival in Chicago.
At 9:24 a.m. the dispatcher radioed that we had maximum authorized speed. (Although the RADs weren’t reporting our actual speed, the “maximum authorized speed” must have been a
When we arrived at La Plata, the sleepers were unloaded first, then the train was pulled forward to unload the coaches.
Fifty-three minutes later, we crossed the Des Moines River.
It seemed that the further east we traveled, the more pronounced the fall foliage colors were.
Our stop in Fort Madison was another quick one, and we departed at 11:35 a.m. Five minutes later, we started across the Mississippi River.
For lunch, we ordered two All-Beef Hot Dogs. (According to the menu, these are only served to children 12 and under, but we received them anyhow.)
We arrived at Galesburg at 12:36 p.m. It had been a little over forty-eight hours since we had left San Diego.
More coach passengers had now come onboard and an announcement was made that every available seat would be needed for the rest of the way to Chicago.
About this time there was some radio traffic about a malfunctioning crossing signal at Galva. Apparently the crossing gate had been damaged and there was even some debris on the tracks.
From time to time, we saw farmers using heavy equipment to clear away the dead corn stalks and soybean residue from their fields.
After passing through the small towns of Oneida, Kenawee and Buda, we arrived at the “depot side” of Princeton’s historic 1911 brick station at 1:36 p.m. It appeared that the Princeton station was undergoing some repairs or restoration as a portion of it was fenced off.
After stopping at Mendota, we passed through the small towns of Somonauk and Plano. East of Plano, the farmland began to give way to new housing developments.
Just before we reached Naperville, an announcement was made that the café/lounge car would be closing soon and that everyone should return to their seats.
After departing from Naperville, we had to stop briefly for a freight train to clear. Even so, we arrived in Chicago only 16 minutes late.
Stage 3: Chicago to Toledo (October 20th)
Our train docked at a platform opposite from another Amtrak train that was already loading its passengers. The “traffic pattern” had those heading towards the station on one side the platform, and those heading to the coaches on the other side, with no room for passing the slower people in front. The noise of the engines when we walked passed them was quite loud and a little unnerving.
Once inside Chicago Union Station, we went directly to the Metropolitan Lounge. During all of our previous trips, we had been unaware that, by virtue of having arrived on a sleeper, we could have waited for the No. 30 eastbound Capitol Limited in the Metropolitan Lounge rather than the bedlam that is Chicago Union Station’s South Waiting Room. Fortunately for us, someone who read our trip report from last summer sent us a post that set us straight.
Usually when we detrain in Chicago, the first thing we do is to check our little carryon suitcase through to Toledo so we don’t have to bother with it until we arrive there. This time, however, we decided to keep it with us. During last summer’s trip, the carryon suitcase checked in Chicago arrived OK but the luggage we’d checked in San Diego was MIA. (It later arrived on the Lake Shore Limited in the wee hours of the morning.) Fortunately, our carryon suitcase had our “travel essentials,” allowing us to make do until the rest of our luggage showed up. Now, rather than risk the carryon being delayed too, we keep it with us at all times.
After checking in with the Metropolitan Lounge’s front desk and dropping off our carryon suitcase in the self-service checkroom, we headed up to the McDonald’s Restaurant located in the Food Court for an early supper. Afterwards, we returned to the Metropolitan Lounge to enjoy its many perks, including the free WiFi, which allowed us to read our e-mails for the first time since leaving home.
Early boarding for Train No. 30 began at about 6:00 p.m. Once again we opted to have a red cap drive us to where our coach was parked on the platform. (Zipping through the crowded station and along what seems like the very edge of the platform in an open cart is something that everyone should experience at least once!) This time, we received an extra thrill when our cart’s driver made a U-turn on the platform while dodging passengers waiting to board.
Coupled onto the back end of our train were Imperial Leaf and Golden Moon, two “private charter” cars in NYC 20th Century Limited colors. We later learned that they are owned by the Charter Manufacturing Company and that they are considered to be among the finest “private varnish” cars in North America. (They were undoubtedly carrying some VIPs from Chicago to Washington, D.C.)
When it was almost time to depart, there was some last minute radio traffic about getting someone off of the train: “You’re going to make this train late.” We departed at 6:44 p.m.
Although Chicago was still observing Daylight Saving Time, it was already dark outside when we emerged from under the post office building. Amtrak’s extensive 21st Street yards were to our left. The crew was now using Channel 46 for its radio communications.
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, which we maintained all the way through to our first stop at South Bend. It was here that we set our watches ahead an hour.
It was at about this time that we debated on whether or not one of us should go down to the café/lounge car to bring back a snack to see us through to Toledo. The couple in the seat behind us apparently had the same idea and the wife went forward once it was announced that the café was open for business. Quite a while later she returned empty-handed and told her husband that the line had been too long. Upon hearing this, we decided to take a pass on going for a snack.
After leaving South Bend, we made good time to Elkhart. After that, however, it was slow going all the way to Waterloo. (Eric overheard the conductor radio the engineer, “Are we following someone?”)
Shortly after leaving Elkhart, the air conditioning in our coach turned off and the heater came on. Just when the heat was starting to become uncomfortable, an attendant came in and turned the air conditioning back on, but at what seemed like its maximum setting.
After departing from Waterloo, we were back up to express train speed. Even so, we arrived in Toledo 59 minutes late. In the way of a compensation for our late arrival, both of our checked pieces of luggage had arrived, too. While Pat collected it, Eric called for a cab. (When in Toledo, we always use Black & White cabs to get to and from the train station. Their phone number is 419-536-8294.) A cab arrived about 5 minutes after we called, and we were soon on our way to our hotel in nearby Maumee. There, we spent the night before continuing on to Findlay the next morning.
Part 2: Toledo, Ohio to San Diego, California
Stage 1: Toledo to Chicago (October 31st)
Eric was up before 3:00 a.m. in order to log onto the Amtrak website to check the arrival status of the No. 29 westbound Capitol Limited into Toledo. (This is the one train that we wouldn’t mind being 3 or 4 hours late!) Learning that it was only about 9 minutes behind schedule, we checked out of our hotel and had a cab pick us up there at 4:15 a.m. for the 8 ½ mile drive to the train station. (We’d checked our large pieces of luggage at the station the day before, and only had to deal with our carryon items.)
When we reached the station, an agent was behind the ticket counter and there were already a few people on hand, waiting for No. 29.
That morning it was 41 degrees in Toledo and the wind chill made it seem even colder. The station’s waiting room was nice and warm, however. While we were sitting there, we overheard a passenger telling a companion about how he had once had to wait there four hours for his train to arrive.
The Capitol Limited arrived about 36 minutes late. After a long, cold walk down the platform to where the reserved seat coach was parked, we were soon settled in our seats. It was still several hours until dawn.
The temperature in our coach felt like it was cranked up to its maximum, and we were soon discarding our extra layers of clothing to keep from overheating.
We departed at 5:51 a.m. and almost immediately had to stop and wait for a long freight to go by.
Neither of us had slept too well the previous night out of concern that we might oversleep and miss our train. (We’d requested a “wake up” call from our hotel’s front desk, which we did receive. However, on one of our previous trips, the front desk forgot to call us. Fortunately we woke on our own and in time to catch our train. But memories of that experience still cause us a fitful night’s sleep whenever we have to catch an early morning train.) Once we were outside of Toledo, we tilted our seats back, intending to doze a bit. As it turned out, we dozed all the way to South Bend. Outside, it was now light, but a heavy overcast made the day gray and gloomy. West of South Bend, the fall foliage colors appeared to be at their peak.
Listening to his scanner (using earphones, as always) Eric heard our engineer inform the dispatcher that Amtrak 29 was “West on Track No. 1.” The dispatcher responded with, “Do not exceed maximum authorized speed.”
At 8:29 a.m. Central Time, we went passed Milepost 490.0. (During our trip last summer, a conductor informed us that these milepost numbers begin at Buffalo, N.Y.
By 8:39 a.m., we were going by U.S. Steel’s Gary, Indiana facility. We got our first good view of Lake Michigan 10 minutes later. Right about that time, we slowed down.
By now, the scanner was starting to pick up radio traffic from other trains and, to filter them out, Eric eventually paused it on Channel 13, the one being used by our train.
We arrived at Chicago Union Station 37 minutes late. Just before we came to a stop, the conductor announced, “We do apologize for our tardiness.”
Stage 2: Chicago to Los Angeles (October 31-November 2)
It was 33 degrees in Chicago when we detrained.
As we were making our way to the Metropolitan Lounge we saw a group of young men wearing identical straw hats. From their clothing, we assumed that they were young, unmarried Amish men since they didn’t have beards. (Usually we see the Amish traveling in family groups, and it seemed strange to see a group of young men only.)
We checked in with the Metropolitan Lounge attendant who made a squiggly mark our on e-ticket to so it could be used as a “flash pass” to get us back into the lounge. After parking our carryon bag in the self-service checkroom, we went up to the McDonalds restaurant in the Food Court for breakfast. (While we heading there, we passed several policemen escorting a suspect whom they had in handcuffs.)
While on our way back to the Metropolitan Lounge, we saw two people in Halloween costumes. (This was, after all, October 31st.)
Once we were back in the Metropolitan Lounge, we set up the laptop and used the free WiFi to send e-mails to family members to let them know that we had arrived in Chicago. Afterwards, Pat read while Eric worked on this trip report. While we were sitting there, a member of Amtrak’s K-9 force walked by with his dog.
By 12:00 p.m., the Metropolitan Lounge had begun to fill up with passengers waiting to depart on Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, Empire Builder, and Southwest Chief.
By 2:20 p.m., red caps and their carts were forming up outside the Metropolitan Lounge for those who of us who wanted “assisted boarding” for the Southwest Chief. Since it’s a long walk to where the sleeping cars are parked, we took advantage of this service. Out on the platform it was quite chilly and we were glad that we had dressed warmly before leaving the Lounge.
Our reservations were for Bedroom C in Sleeping Car #0331. After checking in with our sleeping car attendant TJ, we headed up to our bedroom. Someone had thought to turn on the heat in our bedroom ahead of time, and it was warm and inviting when we entered it.
By 2:33 p.m. we were settled in and Eric was listening to the pre-departure radio traffic: “Lead engine 3 needs drinking water.” “I got 6 people for a red cap on track 18.” And so on.
At 2:52, the conductor stopped by to scan our ticket. Then at 2:59 p.m. the scanner reported, “Clear on the rear.” We departed on time at 3:00 p.m. Outside the day was overcast with some sunlight breaking through in the west.
At 3:56 p.m. a RAD reported that our train had 40 axles.
Passing through Wyanet, Illinois we got a brief glimpse of a time/temperature display outside of a bank. It indicated that it was 5:00 p.m. and 30 degrees. It was already starting to get dark and, in the residential areas, we saw groups of children in Halloween costumes.
For dinner we both ordered the Griddle Seared Norwegian Salmon with cheesecake for dessert. (Once again, we were served regular cheesecake and not the pumpkin cheesecake we’d been hoping for.)
It was already dark when we crossed the Mississippi River. By 9:00 p.m., our bed had been made up and we decided to call it an early evening.
Eric got up at 6:22 a.m. while we were stopped at the Garden City station. Much to his delight, he was able to take a hot shower before getting dressed.
Once out in the open country, it was pitch black and nothing could be seen. This monotony was finally broken by the running lights that outlined the contours of a large truck that was traveling west on a highway that paralleled the tracks.
When talking to the dispatcher, the engineer sometimes referred to our train as Amtrak 155 west.
At 7:34 a.m., an announcement was made that we were now in Colorado and that we should set our watches back an hour. Outside, it was just starting to get light.
About 15 minutes before we arrived in La Mar, the conductor and the La Mar station agent conferred by radio about the passenger count: “2 off and nobody on.” We were still running on schedule.
At 7:16 a.m. it was announced that the dining car would close at its usual Chicago (i.e. Central Time Zone) closing time. We opted to have our breakfast brought to us in our bedroom. Pat ordered the scrambled eggs and Eric had the Cheese Quesadillas with Eggs and Tomatillo Sauce, which he hopes will still be available during our trip next summer.
We arrived at La Junta 15 minutes early. We used the 30 minute stop to walk the length of the train and note the cars in its consist: Lead Engine 155, Helper Engine 72, Baggage Car 61028, Sleeper 32023, Sleeper 32072 (ours), Sleeper 32021, Diner 38000, Lounge Car 33046, Coach 34113 and Coach 31016.
At 8:30 a.m. the scanner reported, “Clear block,” and we departed on schedule. In La Junta, there had been a crew change and the new engineer reported to the conductor, “Engine 3 to Conductor 3. We have a good test on all running gear.” “Doc,” the assistant conductor made an announcement to acquaint newly arrived passengers with Amtrak’s rules and regulations.
At 9:05 a.m. the RAD at Milepost 584.5 reported that the outside temperature was 63 degrees.
Off to the north, we could see a snow covered mountain range that is part of the Colorado Rockies. We also had a good view of the East and West Spanish Peaks, which the Indians called the “Breasts of the World.”
Shortly afterwards, another RAD reported that the outside temperature had dropped to 58 degrees.
An announcement was made that one of the coach restrooms was out of order because someone had flushed a paper towel down the toilet. Not along afterwards, another announcement was made that someone had scattered toilet paper all over the floor of another restroom. The culprit was warned that, if caught, “You will be removed from the train for vandalism.”
The station stop at Trinidad requires the front end of the train to block a major street. To prevent a major traffic tie-up, there is a time limit on how long a train can sit there. On one of our previous trips, this time limited was almost exceeded when we had to wait for law enforcement to arrive and remove an unaccompanied minor who had been put on board the train in Chicago by her mother without the proper paperwork.
We had perfect weather for the ascent up Raton Pass. Emerging from the Raton Tunnel, the tracks run next to a line of telephone poles with a multitude of wires strung between them. Each pole has 4 cross arms and, as the poles flashed by, we tried counting the glass insulators on each cross arm to see how many wires there were in total. We came up with an average of 31 insulators per pole so there were 31 wires strung between them. In some places, the poles were damaged or had fallen down, so apparently these lines are no longer in use. (One wonders why the copper wire and glass insulators haven’t been removed and recycled.)
When we arrived in Raton, we didn’t see the connecting bus from Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Even so, we still left on time.
Shortly afterwards, the dispatcher radioed the engineer that 65 mile per hour winds were being reported from Mileposts 734 to 791. A RAD reported that the outside temperature was 71 degrees.
At 11:28 a.m., the wind warning to downgraded to 55 miles per hour, and we were given permission to proceed at our maximum authorized speed. Four minutes later we crossed the Cimarron River.
By 12:01 a.m., we were in the area affected by the high wind warning and we slowed down briefly. Outside, there were no signs of high wind and, within a few minutes, we were back up to speed.
From lunch, Pat ordered the Romaine & Goat Cheese Salad while Eric had the Baked Chilaquiles, which he also hopes will also be available next summer.
We were only 5 minutes late departing from Las Vegas, and by 1:20 p.m. No. 3 was negotiation the Double S curve. The weather was clear and beautiful.
The No. 4 eastbound Southwest Chief was apparently running late and someone radioed, “Don’t know what happened to 4.” The dispatcher eventually radioed that the meeting with No. 4 would take place west of Lamy. Once this information was received, someone radioed, “I wonder what’s going on with that train?”
At 2:03 p.m. we stopped briefly at Glorietta to wait for a clear block before continuing on to Lamy. There, we saw passengers waiting for the No. 4 train to arrive.
Just west of Lamy we stopped to wait for No. 4 to go by. (When it finally arrived in Chicago on November 3rd, it was 2 hours and 38 minutes late.)
Despite the delay caused by our having to wait for No. 4, we were only 5 minutes late arriving in Albuquerque. The weather was sunny, but cool and a little breezy. We used the opportunity to walk through the “new” Albuquerque station, which serves both Amtrak and Greyhound. We left on schedule and were still on schedule when we arrived and departed from Gallup.
By now, we felt certain that we would be arriving in Los Angeles on time. Looking over the Pacific Surfliner schedule, we saw that we could probably catch No. 566, which departs at 8:41 a.m. rather than having to wait for No. 768, which doesn’t depart until 9:55 a.m. The only question was whether or not there would be enough time to transfer our luggage over to No. 566. If it missed being put onto the train, we’d have to wait for it in San Diego.
Eric was up before 5:00 a.m. in order to take a shower and get dressed before we reached San Bernardino. Outside it was dark and there was no way to tell exactly where we were. But judging from the speed of the train and all the creaking sounds it was making, we were either ascending or descending Cajon pass.
The previous evening, it had been announced that the dining car would only be serving breakfast for a limited amount of time. When TJ made up our bed, we arranged for him to bring our breakfast orders to us in our bedroom.
It was still dark when we arrived in San Bernardino at 5:57 a.m. It appeared to have rained recently and people on the platform were wearing jackets.
For breakfast, Pat had the scrambled eggs and Eric tried the pancakes, which he found a little doughy. (He would much rather have had the Railroad French Toast, but that wasn’t on the menu for this trip.)
By 6:42 a.m., it was just starting to get light. Despite the early morning hour, the westbound lanes of the freeway just to the north of us were already in a bumper-to-bumper gridlock mode.
It was 7:32 a.m. when we went passed Milepost 144.45, which is about 10 minutes out from Los Angeles Union Station. Here, someone radioed, “Let’s go the Disney Channel” (i.e. Channel 47, the primary one used by LAUS.) Once we had passed Mission Tower, the conductor radioed, “Train 3 on the approach. Standby for arrival.” We came to a stop at 11:42 a.m., 33 minutes early.
Stage 3: Los Angeles to San Diego (November 2)
The Southwest Chief had docked at track No. 12, directly across from Pacific Surfliner No. 566, which was already parked on track No. 11. We decided not to wait but to take this earlier train and then figure out what to do about our luggage later. Things continued to go well for us. Not only had we arrived in time to catch No. 566, but our luggage was loaded onboard, too. We left on time at 8:41 a.m. (Since No. 566 originates in Los Angeles rather than in San Luis Obispo, it is not subject to a late arrival.)
Overhead, the sky was overcast with a few patches of blue. A RAD reported that our train had 28 axles and that we were traveling at 72 miles an hour. Someone radioed that one of Car No. 5’s doors was sticking.
From time to time, the café/lounge car attendant would come on the train’s PA system and sing. We found this early morning impromptu entertainment rather annoying, but some Japanese tourists sitting ahead of us apparently liked it since they would clap whenever he finished one of his musical outbursts.
As we went passed the Anaheim Regional Transportation Modal Center, we saw what appeared to be a fairly large homeless camp, complete with tents, right next to it.
It was still overcast when we stopped at the San Clemente pier. Although there were no swimmers in the water, there were a few surfers. Directly across the tracks from the pier is a little park, where some “stroller moms” with pre-school age children were having some sort of gathering. Some of the little ones waved at the train and we waved back at them.
As we were approaching Oceanside, someone radioed the conductor to tell her that she needed to call the Oceanside station. She apparently did this on a cell phone rather than using the radio, and we never did get to learn what was up.
We were just passing under the I-805 overpass when we had to stop and wait for a northbound Pacific Surfliner to go by. Looking ahead out the window, we could saw the red signal light turn yellow just before we got back underway at a reduced speed.
We arrived in San Diego at 11:45 a.m., only 5 minutes late. By now the clouds had parted and the day had become sunny, with temperatures in the low 70s. In no time at all, we had reclaimed our checked luggage and had called to request a shuttle pickup. By 12:45 p.m. we were back in our car and heading towards home.
Thanks to the Double Days double travel points promotion, we have a substantial number of Amtrak Guest Reward points to use when we go back to Ohio next summer. Another trip report will be posted once we get back.