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Leg One - Jan 4th - 5th 2009: The Southwest Chef
andy anderson amtrak old train car image
An old Santa Fe rail car slowly rusts on the sidelines outside of Newton, Kansas.

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All Journeys Begin with the First Step

Up at 1:00AM... It's a quick shower, and finish up packing my computer and camera equipment. Then a kiss goodbye for my wife Bonnie, and the 30-minute drive though the empty Wichita streets to the Newton Amtrak station.

I attempted to stop at the McDonald's 24-hour drive-through; however, there were so many cars in line that I decided to skip it. What I want to know is why all these people are stopping at McDonald's at 2:00 in the morning? Creepy...

I arrive at the Newton Amtrak station at 2:35AM, exactly one hour before my train arrives. Amtrak likes you to be at the station 1-hour early because of the random nature of arrival times. I've seen the train come into Newton 45-minutes early, and then I've seen it hit the station over 2-hours late.

Before leaving home, I checked with Amtrak's online service called, Julie. And the pretty, automated voice on the other side of the line said that my train was going to be on time... I'll be the judge of that.

Whatever the case, I wind up sitting in the station with about 2-dozen happy travelers; waiting patiently for the arrival of Amtrak train #3, the Southwest Chief. No one is talking much... they're either attempting to catch a few extra winks, or they're trying their best to wake up. A few of them glance up and see me with my camera (no flash) blazing away, decide I'm not much of a threat, and go back to whatever they were doing.

This morning, I'm the only one traveling in first class. Since the Newton station is small, and the train is rather long, they usually make two stops to board passengers: one for first class, and one for coach. This morning; since I'm the only one boarding in first, they'll only make one stop, and I have to walk down the train to get to the sleeper cars. That means following the tracks across the street, past the lowered gate guards, and board my sleeper behind the closed liquor store on the other side of the street (Did I mention that Newton, Kansas is a small station). I really don't mind the walk; however, the temperature is below freezing, and I'm not wearing my coat... I didn't say I was very smart.

This morning the station personnel appear half asleep... must be all that Saturday night partying... even the conductor yawns as he checks my ticket and directs me down the train to the first-class sleeper cars... I hope the engineer is not that sleepy.

Traveling first class is not bad; in fact, it's kind of cool. In terms of size, the rooms are not like a 5-star hotel room; however, they do have a couch, reclining seat, full bathroom with shower, and all your meals are included.

Each first-class car has an attendant, and while I'm walking past the coach cars, Alex (my car attendant) sees me coming, and calls out my name. I thought that was a bit strange, until I remembered that I was the only one boarding in first class. I walk pass the trash bins behind the closed liquor store... full from last night's business, and head to the relative safety of my sleeper car. Alex helps me with my luggage, and closes the door against the bitter cold Kansas morning. It's good to be on the warm train, with the cold safely locked on the other side of that big metal door.

Since all the deluxe bedrooms are located on the upper floor of the sleeper cars, we carefully navigate the narrow stairway, and move quietly by the other bedrooms; currently being occupied by happy, sleeping passengers. Superliner cars only have five deluxe bedrooms and they're numbered A-E.

On this leg of the trip I'm booked in bedroom D.

Andy's Advice: In this traveler's opinion, when booking your room, always go for D or E... avoid A and B (C is iffy). Why? Bedrooms A and B are next to the connection between the cars, so when someone moves to another car, you can hear the swish of the pneumatic doors opening and closing. Okay, compared to the normal train noise, it's not that bad; however, in the middle of the night, it can occasionally wake you up. In addition, bedroom A is a bit smaller... it has to do with making the turn at the end of the hallway easier for passengers to get to the next car.
Some traveler's don't like room E because it's right next to the stairs and the snack/coffee area. They claim that it can get noisy because people hang around that area and talk into the wee hours of the night. In my own experience, I've never had a problem with Room E, so I always book D or E. I've actually, cancelled a trip, and booked it for another day, because I couldn't book D or E... Okay, I'll admit it, I'm picky.

Alex has my room ready... he's turned up the heat, and it's toasty warm against the cold Kansas morning (18f). The bed is already made up, and there are a couple of bottles of water on the collapsible table. Although it's still early in the AM, I decide not to lay down and take a nap. I usually get up around 5:00AM anyway, so what's the big deal. Whatever the case, I make some hot tea, and begin to settle into my room. Five minutes later, we leave the Newton station for the start of my big around-the-country adventure... It's show time.

Meanwhile Alex stops by one more time, and asks if everything is okay.

Andy Anderson Amtrak Deluxe Sleeper
My sleeper... before I have an opportunity to mess it up

The attendants in the first-class cars can make or break a trip. They usually get up early, make the coffee, and put out snacks. During the day, they keep the coffee fresh, and make sure there's plenty of water and snacks available. In addition, they put your bed up in the morning (usually while you're at breakfast), and they put it down in the evening. Although this journey is just in the infant stages, I think that Alex is going to make this an enjoyable trip.

As the Southwest Chef slices through the darkness, I set up my computer and start work on one of my ever-present projects. I brought my GPS along and I set it up in the window. Currently, we're traveling though the cold Kansas pre-dawn at 79MPH. We made one stop in Hutchinson, to pick up a few passengers (we were stopped for 1 minute and 40 seconds); so including the stop, we're averaging 63MPH. That's the cool thing about a GPS unit; they give you more information than you need, or want, to know.

andy anderson amtrak gps image
A GPS is a great tool to have

It's interesting traveling at night; you can look out your window and see absolutely nothing. The window looks like a piece of shiny black slate. Then you pass through a small town... all of a sudden half-lit buildings and streetlights appear out of the darkness, quickly streak by... and then it's back into the black. Did you really just pass through a small town, or did that black window merely reflect your own active imagination?

These small Kansas towns are like an oasis of light in a sea of nothingness. The only sounds are the clack, clack, clack of wheels against cold steel rails, and the mournful sound of the whistle, reaching out into the night... asking: Is anyone out there... Is anyone out there?

Andy's Advice: Train travel is fun because there's a sense of detachment... you're on your own. You can push your problems, and the problems of the world, to the side and, for a little while, relax. No airports, no flight problems... just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Why else would you travel by train? If you want to get somewhere quickly, then an airplane is what you need. If you want to truly enjoy the journey and decompress; then try the train.

Andy Anderson Amtrak Strolling the train Andy Anderson Amtrak Strolling the train Andy Anderson Amtrak Strolling the train
The first-class snack area was always clean, and well-supplied with goodies When it came time for a meal, the diner car was ready and waiting The sightseer car was the place to be for a look around, or a good conversation

Breakfast on the Southwest Chef

I work until it's time for the morning meal... I put a hold on my work, and head toward the diner car.

This morning's breakfast was a 3-egg omelet with cheddar cheese and sausage patties, hot tea, and some orange juice. My wonderful dining guest, Carol, amply supplied the conversation. She's a 60+ retired tax auditor that lives in Ohio. Four months of the year she goes to California and helps them at tax time. She always takes the train to-and-from California, and we talked about how things have changed in train travel over the years.

Actually, with train travel picking up in the United States, things are getting better. The sleeping cars are in much better shape (maintenance wise), and breakfast was actually quite enjoyable. You can also see a change in the employee's attitudes. They are more positive about their jobs, and that translates into happy employees and happy passengers.

After breakfast, I return to my room, to do more work on my current projects, and to update this travelogue. I always seem to get more done when I'm traveling on the train. Maybe it's the isolation; maybe it's the swaying of the train as it moves on it's iron tracks... heck, maybe it's the train whistle; all I know is that when I ride the rails, I seem to get a lot of stuff accomplished. While I'm plugging away at my computer, Julie, the assistant dinning-room manager comes by to take reservations for lunch.

Typically, lunch and dinner onboard Amtrak trains is by reservation only. They come through the first-class cars first, and then fill in the gaps with the coach passengers. The good news is no one is ever left out. If you want to eat, they'll find you a spot. I pick a 1:00PM time, and get back to work.

We're currently stopped in Raton, NM. Raton is a very small station and, as a matter of fact, the ticket office is only staffed in the summer months. Although we seem to be in the middle of nowhere, I'm able to pick up a free WIFI connection on my computer (Whoopee!!). Since we only have a few minutes at the station, I'm going to see if I can download this first part of the travelogue.

The download is successful, and just at the last bits, bytes, and nibbles go flying across the Internet, I hear the train whistle... five seconds later, we're saying goodbye to Raton, NM.

Andy Anderson Amtrak  Raton Station
It's a cold cloudy day, as we pull into the Raton, New Mexico station

Lunch on the Southwest Chef

I managed to get some work done by staying in my room, and drinking a lot of Alex's, excellent coffee (he really does make a great cup o' joe). However, since I don't want to go all jittery, I decide to switch to tea.

Andy's Advice: There are certain things that I like to bring on a trip... things that are not provided in the first-class car. For example, I like to drink hot tea. Alex has coffee and juice but no tea. I could go down to the snack bar and buy some, but I'm too cheap... besides I drink a LOT of tea. So I bring my own tea. To make the hot water, I bring along a small water-heating coil (pick one up at Target). Then I grab a coffee cup from the common area, fill it with water from my sink, and heat it up in my room. Think about some of the little things that you like to have and, instead of paying for them, bring them with you. Besides, the snack bar can be expensive, and it's not open 24 hours a day.

Anyway, I got some work finished (kudos to me), and found the time to take a stroll around the train. I shot some photos, and even managed to sneak in a 30-minute nap.

Andy's Advice: Get up every once and awhile a take a stroll. It keeps the old blood flowing, and who knows what you might see, or what kind of trouble you can get into... I like the trouble part.

Lunch was excellent. On my server's recommendation, I had the daily lunch special: A chili and pork dish over rice...

Andy's Advice: I like hot foods; however, this dish was quite spicy. So, if you're a spice wimp, you might want to skip this dish.

For dessert I took the plunge, and had some of the best cheesecake I've tasted in a long while... honest.

Lunch was made more enjoyable by a couple from Wisconsin on their way to New Mexico... he was an astronomer and she was a biologist working at an institute, looking for cures to cancer. He was going to New Mexico to see about a job at one of the observatories in the southwest... interesting. Since I had worked at an observatory when I was younger, (Palos Park, IL), plus we all enjoyed long-distance train travel, we had a lot to talk about. We all agreed that things on the iron highway were improving.

Andy's Thought: Some of those improvements might have to do with the new Amtrak-Friendly administration... as a matter of fact; the Vice President's nickname is, Amtrak Joe. Way to go, Joe!

Back to the Trip

We keep slowing down because of the New Mexico commuter trains. Apparently, today is the last day the public can ride them for free, so they're really clogging up the system. Case in point, we're supposed to be in Albuquerque at 3:55PM, and it's currently 4:18PM. Based on my GPS, we're still a good half hour out... That's put's us about an hour behind schedule. For me that's no big deal, and it's possible that the engineer could make up the time tonight. We're not scheduled to hit Los Angeles until 8:15 tomorrow morning. And if we're an hour late... who cares.

Albuquerque is a look-around site... the train is refueled, and everyone gets to decant and a look around a bit. Typically, we're stopped for about a half hour.

Andy's Advice: If delays frustrate you, then don't take the train. Or, at least don't take the train that I'm traveling on... PLEASE! I've seen Web sites where people are purely livid, claiming that they will NEVER take a trip on Amtrak again. Why, you might ask? Well, their seventy-hour train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) was delayed. It finally pulled into LAUS an hour and a half late. A measly hour and a half out of a seventy-hour trip... And that's something to get angry about... Go take a pill.

I leave lunch, and my dinning partners, and mosey back to my room (sometimes I walk, sometimes I trot... I've even sashayed; however, today I will mosey). It's time to get back to some writing. While I'm working, one of the diner car attendants stops by, and I make a reservation for dinner at 6:00PM.

Andy's Advice: If you're like me, and you really don't like eating meals when the diner car is packed, ask the attendant for a better time. You will get a better experience,and it helps the staff to even out the crowds of hungry people.

Andy's Advice: Just a tip on tipping (no pun intended). You should tip your server the same amount you would tip if you paid for the meal. The prices for your food are listed in the menu. Add it up, and tip fifteen percent (more for good service). When I begin a train trip I bring enough singles with me to cover daily tips.
If you're in a sleeper you should also tip your car attendant, at the end of the trip (assuming they did a good job). A rule-of-thumb is five dollars a day.
So if you're on the Texas Eagle going from Chicago to Los Angeles (seventy hours), the tip should be fifteen or twenty bucks. However, I was on one particular train, where I didn't see the attendant for almost the entire trip. The coffee was stale, and juices, snacks and ice were non-existent. I had to go into the other sleeper car to get anything. I talked to the other sleeper attendant, and she told me that our car attendant was being laid off, and this was his last trip. Okay, I'm sympathetic with anyone who is losing his or her job (been there, done that); however, if you're in the service industry, you give service... PERIOD.
No service; no tip.

Dinner on the Mighty Southwest Chef

Dinner was another excellent meal. I had the flatiron steak with garlic mash, and a bit of chocolate ice cream to round it off. As I've previously mentioned, the service and the quality of food has greatly improved... just over the last year or two.

I've never traveled this time of the year with Amtrak, so I don't know the reason; however, the first-class section of the dinning car was practically empty; as a matter of fact, I almost had the whole place to myself. I make a mental note that a 6:00PM seating is a good thing.

Andy's Advice: If you have ever traveled in a sleeper, you probably already know this, but meals are free for sleeping car passengers (you still have to pay for booze). My flatiron steak, beverage, and dessert would have probably cost something like twenty-five bucks w/tip... that adds up.

I sat with an older woman (67) who taught American Indian children on a reservation outside of Gallup NM. We got into Gallup at 8:11PM, about an hour late. When she got off the train, it was snowing quite a bit, and since she had to drive home through sparse areas of unpaved roads, she decided to spend the night at the local Super 8 hotel, and take the drive up in the daylight.

When she exited the train, it was snowing so hard that she disappeared into the haze of the storm after only twenty feet... I think her decision to spend the night was spot on.

After dinner, I return to my room, and do more work; however, being up since 1:00AM took its toll on me and I decide to hit the sack around 9:00PM. Some people have trouble sleeping on a train... I do not. The motion of the car as it sways back and forth, and the mournful whistle cutting through the black night, knocks me out better than any sleeping pill ever could.

I awake at 4:00AM refreshed, and ready for another day. We're supposed to be pulling into LAUS at 8:15; however, my GPS shows us still about an hour behind schedule. Breakfast is a shortened affair this morning. From my talks with the attendants, it takes the diner crew about two hours to put things back into shape, so breakfast will only be from 5:00 to 6:00AM. The reason they do this is so they can get off the train, and not have to spend those extra two hours after the train arrives. In addition, it means that Amtrak doesn't have to pay them for those additional two-hours. To be honest, I think that meals should be served regardless of the crew having to spend extra time. I've been on trips where the train is getting in a bit early, and they actually canceled breakfast... even though they had plenty of time to serve it.

Not many people are up right now, so it's anyone's guess as to how many people will be showing up for the morning meal... I plan to get there a few minutes early to, hopefully, beat the crowds... that is, if there are any crowds to beat.

Breakfast on the Southwest Chef

This morning, they have a limited breakfast menu, so I order scrambled eggs with sausage, and a croissant. Very few people were up for breakfast... I sat with two older ladies who were on their way home to LA from visiting in the mid-west (Ohio). We talked for a while about nothing in particular, and then I headed back to my room. The GPS says that we're traveling about 40MPH, and as I write this journal, I'm looking at a spectacular sunrise over the mountains. It's time to do some packing, before we hit LAUS. I'll be spending today at a Marriott that's close by, and then departing on the Coast Starlight in the morning for Seattle. Since I've never been on the Coast Starlight, I'm excited about the next part of this journey.

We arrive into Los Angeles at 8:45AM, only 30 minutes late... not too shabby.

I decant myself from the train and take a taxi to the Marriott hotel. I'm a Marriott fan, and this particular one is less than two miles from LAUS. My check-in time is 3:00PM, and although it's only about 9:15 in the morning, they let me check in almost 6 hours early. That's why I like Marriott properties.

At the Los Angeles Downtown Marriott

The Marriott is hosting a modeling thing (I was told by one of the participants, that it was Barbizon Modeling), so the place is full of young people; all hoping to be the next super model. Accompanying them are the ever-present Stage Moms, all determined that it will be THEIR daughter or son that gets the grand prize. I smile at youthful ambitions, and head to my room.

Here's a good one for you, someone keeps pulling the fire alarm (3 times)... kids will be kids.

Had a nice lunch at the hotel (burger/fries kind of thing), and then wander back to my room. I spend the remainder of the day working (between the fire alarms), and go to bed about 10:00PM. My eyes pop open at 3:30AM (still can't seem to get into the current time zone).

I'm excited about today's
trip... Los Angeles Union Station has a special lounge for Coast Starlight first-class passengers. They have some snacks to nosh on while waiting to board; plus about thirty minutes before the train departs, the conductor comes down, checks our tickets, and we get to board early. I've never been to this lounge before, so it should be fun.

I go down to the gym and put in about a half-hour of exercise, then it's a quick shower, and down to the main lobby... it's time for me to hit the station.

More images from this portion of the journey More images...

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Keep the faith... And keep traveling
Andy Anderson