For our July 2016 TrainWeb article, we are going to conclude telling you about the cross-country train trip that we took between April 28, 2016 and May 8, 2016. Before beginning to read this article, you may wish to read last month’s (June 2016) article, which covers the pre-trip planning and the first half of the trip, including our travels on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, Silver Meteor, and City of New Orleans. This month’s article will focus on the second half of the trip, including time spent on the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight trains.
We boarded the westbound Southwest Chief around 2:15pm on Tuesday, May 2, 2016 from Chicago’s Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge. We noticed a large group of America by Rail passengers boarding as well and figured this is why we were not able to get into the 0330 sleeping car. Typically, we like to get in the sleeping car adjacent to the diner so that it’s more convenient at meal times. We were able to do that arrangement on all trains for this leg of the trip. Groups booking almost out an entire sleeping car the moment the train goes on sale at 11 months out has been a point of recent contention for Amtrak and traditional passengers who travel solo. In fact, Amtrak recently announced must stricter cancellation penalties for groups booking. Passengers with this America by Rail group were headed to Flagstaff on the Southwest Chief and would then spent the next week or so exploring some of the national parks of the far west. Our sleeping car attendant in the 0331 car was Milton; he said he had enough seniority with Amtrak to hold regular jobs, but enjoyed bouncing around the various Los Angeles-based trains and going to Chicago, Seattle, or New Orleans.
The both of us were quite familiar with the first 298 miles or so of the route of the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri. This is because we were the managers of the Trails & Rails group that operated on that stretch of the train from December 2012 to June 2015. We continue to do route guides and narration on the route as part of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s Rail Rangers program. It was definitely an interesting perspective taking it all in as just a regular passenger and being able to sit back and relax and just enjoy the scenery. Believe it or not, we actually saw some new things we had never seen before by just looking out the window and not having to focus on narrating to passengers.
Robert and Kandace hanging with Amy Lambert - one of our favorite station agents in Fort Madison, Iowa
The first “fresh air stop” on the route of the westbound Southwest Chief is Fort Madison, Iowa; it is just across the Illinois-Iowa border and is about 235 miles from downtown Chicago. We had to wait for a few minutes outside of Fort Madison for the Mississippi River railroad bridge to go back into position. I don’t think anyone minded sitting near the river because the views were amazing. We proceeded across the river and rolled into Fort Madison. We are friends with the station agent, Amy Lambert, who was on-duty. We didn’t really have too much time to chat as she was busy loading and unloading the bags, but we did get a quick selfie with Amy. Amy is actually the only station agent in Fort Madison, meaning if she is on vacation or if it’s the weekends, the conductors have to load the checked bags into the baggage car. We were rolling again, just a few minutes late. Fort Madison is about 530 feet above sea level and is the lowest elevation on the whole route of the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles.
One may notice that the terrain changes as the train crosses over the Mississippi River. It’s not the Rocky Mountains, but once you get into Missouri there are some rolling hills. The reason why Illinois is so flat and Missouri has more rolling hills is because the last advance of the Ice Age did not reach Northeast Missouri. The glaciers did hit Eastern and Central Illinois, flattening them out like a bulldozer. About an hour after Fort Madison we were rolling into La Plata, Missouri. One of the downsides of an 11-day Amtrak trip is you really do get tired of the same menu selections every night. The menu on the Southwest Chief was pretty much identical to that of the Capitol Limited, Silver Meteor, and the City of New Orleans which we had on the eastern part of our trip. So, when possible, we asked friends along the route to bring a nice delivery to the train for us. When Robert was out in La Plata on business back in April, he gave Bob and Amy Cox money to bring a Mexican dinner from La Pachanga’s in La Plata to the train. Bob and Amy didn’t disappoint! Even though La Plata was not a smoke stop, the conductor let us hop off real quick and pick up our dinner from Bob and Amy. Their 15-year-old daughter Karri was also along and greeted us. Again, just enough down time for a selfie! We proceeded back to the Sightseer Lounge Car and enjoyed our special dinner. I think other passengers and the crew were quite envious. We had at least 5 or 6 people walk by and ask us – “Hey, where did you get the tacos?”. Robert had his usual order of tacos and nachos with queso and Kandace has her usual choice of Pollo California with a side of rice. The staple of sweet tea was also ordered.
Plenty of time to walk the platform at Kansas City, Missouri
A look inside Kansas City's historic train station - plenty of time to explore with an early arrival on the Southwest Chief
We slept good during our first night on the Southwest Chief and woke up as we were crossing the Kansas-Colorado Border. We decided to have an early breakfast so that we could get a seat in the Sightseer Lounge car for the mountains that would be coming up later on in the morning and in the early afternoon. It always amazes that some passengers wonder out loud – where are the mountains? – as soon as they cross into Colorado. Those who know their geography realize that the eastern third of the state is just as flat as Nebraska or Kansas. We rolled into La Junta about 15 minutes early which meant the train would be sitting there for almost an hour. We took advantage of the down time and decided to walk around the town. With it being around 8am, there wasn’t much open, but we walked 6 blocks deep into the town and 6 blocks back. It was nice to be able to stretch our legs to that extent. One of my favorite sites in La Junta is the mural that shows how many “Amtrak miles” you are from various points across the United States. US 50, which is a cross-country US Highway, goes through the town.
Our early arrival streak continues at La Junta, Colorado - letting us walk around the town for close to 1 hour
The first view of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado from the Southwest Chief
The train is working hard to climb towards Raton Pass - we are still in Colorado here
Ok - is this the windmill that Amtrak used for inspiration on its Southwest Chief posters?
We left La Junta on time and were again on our journey west. We had a booth in the Sightseer Lounge car and enjoyed spending the morning playing our favorite train-themed board game, “Ticket to Ride”. We slowly began to enter the mountains as we approached the Colorado-New Mexico border. We kept our eyes out for the famous old Santa Fe signs marking Wooton’s Ranch and Raton Pass. We like to know what we are seeing out the window, so we always bring along the railroad route guidebooks written by Eva Hoffman. About 10 years ago, Eva wrote a series of route guidebooks for the California Zephyr and has gradually expanded to other routes across the country. She serves as the inspiration for our “Outside the Rails” route guidebook series. You may notice that the layout of our books is very similar to her style. In 2015, we had the chance to meet Eva, when she rode the Zephyr with us from Denver to Granby. She is retired geologist who loves train travel. Since Eva isn’t that familiar with websites, we made a deal with her to carry her books on our website. You can order both her guidebooks (which focus more on the long-distance routes) or our guidebooks (which are more detailed, but focus exclusively on the Midwest routes) at www.outsidetherails.com. A train ride is a lot more fun for us when we know what we are looking for out our windows. Soon, we were through the Raton Tunnel and were able to step off at the “fresh air stop” in Raton, New Mexico. At both Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico passengers can look up at the mountains and see the letters of the town looming large on the mountainside – much like the Hollywood sign out in California.
We continued on across New Mexico with stops in Lamy and Las Vegas. We spent the afternoon having lunch in the dining car, and enjoying the sights from the lounge car… plus playing a few more rounds of our board game. We were making good time and ended up arriving into Albuquerque about 20 minutes early; this gave us about a full hour to explore around town. We were a little disappointed that there were not many vendors on the platform. Normally, there is a large group of Native Americans selling jewelry and pottery – and sometimes even fry bread and other treats. This day there were only about five vendors. We ended up buying a couple of goodies, but it was the least amount of vendors we had ever seen. One of the vendors told us that a lot of them don’t show up until the summer when there is a larger passenger load. Going back to the Santa Fe days, a Native American guide would step aboard the train here and narrate to Gallup for passengers about their history. This tradition carried on with Amtrak. However, we were told that maybe 15 or 20 years ago, the Native American guides wanted to get paid and Amtrak wanted nothing of the sorts. When Amtrak refused to pay them, they stopped providing their services. I vaguely remember a Native American guide being on the Southwest Chief when we took the train to Los Angeles in the late 1980’s. It’s too bad something couldn’t have been worked out because it would have been a nice diversion. Anyway, we got some drinks and a snack in the station and walked around town and to the bridge over the yards to get some photos of the train.
Getting off the train and going for a walk in New Mexico
We ended up leaving Albuquerque on time, and we thought would likely have an early arrival into Los Angeles to stretch our legs before connecting with the Coast Starlight. Shortly after Albuquerque, the Southwest Chief joins back up with the BNSF Transcon route from Chicago to Los Angeles. For those who don’t know the routing that well, between Central Kansas and just west of Albuquerque, the vast majority of BNSF freight trains use a route through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. This route is a lot more flat than the route Amtrak uses over Raton Pass, which allows the freight trains to move faster and not face as steep of a grade. I honestly don’t think we saw one freight train pass us or meet us between when we woke up in Western Kansas and just past Albuquerque. Of course, there has been a lot of debate as to whether the BNSF should abandon the route over Raton Pass and Amtrak should re-route the Southwest Chief through Oklahoma and Texas. Anyway, you could definitely tell where the BNSF Transcon route comes back in, as there were countless freight trains in sidings and running next to us.
Gallup, New Mexico was where on streak of early or on-time arrivals came to a screeching hault
We headed to dinner around 7:00pm that evening, and since we were continuing to run early, the conductors let us off in Gallup, which normally is not a “fresh air stop”. It was a quick one, but Robert had time to jump up from the table and get off and get some quick pictures; Kandace stayed at the table so that they wouldn’t clear off our plates.
My GPS ran the entire train route - from Chicago Union Station to Los Angeles UPT
After dinner, we decided we would do the same thing we did the night before – take our showers early – but stay up so that we could get off at the “fresh air stop” (of course, in Flagstaff, vs. Kansas City which we were in 24 hours earlier. We had a large group of America by Rail passengers on board who were getting off in Flagstaff, so we figured we would be sitting there for quite sometime. We took our showers and noticed how easy it was to shower – which isn’t always a good thing. It turns out that rolling into Winslow, a freight crew decided to park the train between the track our Southwest Chief train was coming in on and the station. Scanner traffic indicated that the conductor was going to try and walk the passengers around the freight train to the station – but decided that would be too dangerous in the dark. So, he made the call to sit there and wait for the freight train to move. We sat in the Winslow station for a good 30 minutes waiting for the freight train to move. This was the latest we had left any station since Chicago. It would be another hour or so before we would even get to Flagstaff, so we decided to call it a night and not get off in Flagstaff.
The lead LSA in the dining car said (if we were running on-time) that we would need to be in the dining car by no later than 6am if we intended to have breakfast. The plan was Kandace was going to sleep in and Robert was going to get two continental breakfasts to go. There was an “abbreviated menu” coming into Los Angeles anyway that meant the crew did not have to turn on the grill. When Robert work up at 5:30am to the alarm, he checked the GPS and noted that we were just outside of Barstow and running between two and three hours late. I guess that little incident at Winslow really made up lose our slot during the night. This also meant that we would not have to get in for breakfast quite so quick! Robert watched out the window for a bit, and woke Kandace up around 6:30am as we were pulling out of Victorville. This was the first time that Robert had been on a train that went over Cajon Pass in daylight too – so it was quite a treat. The interesting thing that we noticed was the extreme weather change that happened almost in an instant going over Cajon Pass! It was crystal clear in Victorville and by the time we got to the top of Cajon Pass and into San Bernardino it was foggy with heavy rain. I guess the Coastal Mountains can play that much of an influence on the weather in Southern California. We had our breakfast as we rolled through Riverside and Fullerton. Since we were connecting to the Coast Starlight and we were still running about 2 hours down, we were a tad worried about our connection. But our sleeping car attendant advised there was a good 30-45 minutes of pad before arriving in LA and we would be arriving just after 9am and would still have an hour of free time between the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight – and he was correct!
Going over Cajon Pass in daylight on the Southwest Chief for the first time ever
Kandace looking out the window at the platform work going on in San Bernardino, California
We arrived into LAUPT at about 9:05am on Thursday, May 4th. Since the Coast Starlight would be boarding in about 30 minutes, Kandace decided just to wait in the main corridor of the boarding gates with our bags, and Robert made a quick dash over to Phillipe’s to get some spicy mustard for our friend Delano that we would be visiting in Minnesota in June. Normally we would have got a bight to eat there, but the the timing was a little too tight.
A selfie showing our Southwest Chief arrival at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal
Robert got back to the station around 9:40am and the Coast Starlight was beginning to board already. It almost always comes in on Track #10, so one does not need to guess or wait for the track assignments on the boards. We went up the left hand ramp which is for sleepers (coach passengers go up the right hand ramp). The first thing we noticed, sadly, was a lack of a Pacific Parlour Car. This is, of course, the First Class lounge car that only operates on the Coast Starlight train sets. The Pacific Parlour Cars are restored hi-level lounge cars built for the Santa Fe in 1954. At one time, Amtrak used many of the Santa Fe’s hi-level cars, but they were generally phased out with the production of more and more Superlines. The Superliners, in fact, were based of the Santa Fe’s hi-level designs. Anyway, the only former Santa Fe hi-level cars still in regular use by Amtrak are the Pacific Parlour Cars. Amtrak had 6 of these cars prior to around 2001, but decided to sell one off – deeming they only really needed 5 (4 that would run on the train sets at any given time and one spare that would be kept as a back-up). The car that was sold off has actually been sitting in a railroad yard on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metro area that my friend Roger owns for the past 10 years now (I am hoping to do a TrainWeb article specially on the Parlour Cars sometime soon). Anyhow, it turns out that Amtrak really should have kept that sixth Parlour Car, because due to the age of the cars, two spares really would have really been a better option. Thanks to some friends who work for Amtrak, I found out the reason we didn’t have a Pacific Parlour Car on our northbound Coast Starlight was because one of the cars (#39973 “Santa Lucia Highlands”) was undergoing major refurbishment in Chicago and Beech Grove, Indiana after a fire in December 2015. Then, another car was going through its regular 90-day cycle of service. This left our trainset without a Pacific Parlour Car. Amtrak did substitute a Sightseer Lounge in its place – but the Pacific Parlour Car was the major reason we wanted to ride the Coast Starlight.
Now, if you read the first part of my trip report that was published last month, you will note that our plan for the Coast Starlight (the last 2 trains of this 11-day trip) was that we would get on the northbound Coast Starlight in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 5. From there, we would ride up to Salem, Oregon and de-train there on the early afternoon of Friday, May 6th. We would have about a 2 hour layover there and get on the southbound Coast Starlight late afternoon, and arrive back in Los Angeles on the evening of Saturday, May 7. So,we were standing there – should we still ride as planned without the Pacific Parlour Car? Should be come up with a different game plan? Even just spending the last three days of our trip touring around the national parks of California and not do the train and get some of our Amtrak Guest Rewards points back? The time was ticking – as it was now 9:50am and we would be leaving in less than 20 minutes. My first call was to a station agent friend of mine who has access to Amtrak’s consists. I was told by my friend that our return train home would likely have a Parlour Car on it, as it left Los Angeles the day before with a Pacific Parlour Car in the consist. Of course, I was reminded there would be no guarantee there would be a Parlour Car on the southbound, but something pretty dramatically wrong would have to happen in order for it to be pulled in Seattle. So, we decided not to scrap the whole Coast Starlight portion of our trip – and were glad that we decided to do double Coast Starlights as part of our route to double our odds of getting a Pacific Parlour Car. Now that we had that bit of information – what do we do next? Kandace suggested just riding the northbound to Salem, OR without the Parlour Car, as we would still have one going south, but Robert was not very keen on that idea – and kept trying to think of something else. By 10:05am, Robert got ahold of his friend who has a very high managerial position with Amtrak in Washington, DC and explained the situation. Robert asked we skipped the northbound and caught a flight to Seattle, would there be any chance to catch the southbound Coast Starlight (with the Pacific Parlour Car) in Seattle in the morning? That would give us about 9 more hours on the Parlour Car than if we rode to Salem and back. While Robert’s friend was working out the details and changes in the computer system, the northbound Coast Starlight was leaving. We decided to hop aboard just to make sure we had a ride to Salem in case things fell through. Being train savvy enough, we knew we really could have rode all the way up to Santa Barbara (or, heck, maybe even San Luis Obispo!) and returned to LA the same day to catch a flight. About 5 minutes after the northbound Starlight departed LA, everything was in place. We ended up hopping off the northbound Starlight at the next stop – Bob Hope Burbank Airport – and catching a Southwest Airlines flight up to Seattle. The funny thing was our sleeping car attendant, a young woman whose name we didn’t catch, actually argued with us that the substitute Sightseer Lounge was actually a Pacific Parlour Car. Um, no!! We were explaining to her why we wanted off in Burbank. Another sleeping car attendant emerged and it turns out she was in training. The trainer corrected her about the Pacific Parlour Car. The funny this is she made the comment that she had had three runs up until that point and the Sightseer Lounge ran in place of a real Parlour Car on all of them. Wow, 0 for 3… not good odds this spring for the Parlour Car. Anyway, we were actually able to grab an amazing rate on Southwest for booking last minute and found a pretty decent price for a Seattle hotel by the airport. We were both tired after the long day of train hopping and the flight – so we were in bed by around 8pm.
Jumping off the northbound Coast Starlight at Bob Hope Burbank Airport - you can see this train has no Parlour Car, but instead two Sightseer Lounges
We got up early on the morning of Friday, May 5th and took the light rail from Seattle Airport to Downtown Seattle. We got going earlier than we had to and had some time for breakfast at the “original” Starbucks location in Pike’s Place Market; we also had time to watch the fresh fish being loaded in the market stores. We also thought we might of had time for a spin on the monorail, but decided to play it safe and save that for another time. We arrived around 9:00am for the 9:45am departure of the Coast Starlight. This was our first time back at King Street Station since the renovations; we can reports back that crews did a wonderful job. It’s a shame to think that workers actually hid the beautiful ceilings at one time! Passengers were already lining up, so we got in line too to have our tickets scanned by the conductor. Of course, we got the chance to peek out the window and saw – yes, indeed – we would have a Pacific Parlour Car on our train.
Kandace enjoys watching the workers throw fish at Seattle's Public Market
Kandace also enjoyed getting coffee from the original Starbucks location at Pikes Place in Seattle
We had the chance to take in a ride on Seattle's Sounder Public Transit
We headed up into our bedroom in Car #1130 and got settled in. While getting some pictures of the exterior of our train, we noticed some private cars sitting over on the next track. Among them was lounge car “Montana” with its open platform on the rear – this really caught our attention as it was painted in Milwaukee Road maroon and orange. As luck would have it, some people were getting off “Montana” so I started a conversation with them. It turns out one of the crew members was none other than Tim Tennant – the President/CEO of the Friends of the Cumbers and Toltec Railroad, Inc. I had just emailed him a week earlier about having some of our APRHF Rail Rangers docents aboard an excursion he was planning between Chicago and La Plata/Kansas City on October 1, 2016. We had never met before – and I have to say – meeting in Seattle probably put the seal on the deal – and when we spoke again when I got home – Tim made us an offer to be part of his trip. We also met the owners and got a quick peek inside. We would have had more time to sit in the “Montana”, but it was final boarding for the southbound Coast Starlight.
We are now onto pictures from the following day -- Amtrak's Coast Starlight climbs the passes in California
Robert grabs photos too, from his favorite chair in the Pacific Parlour Car
We also had a handful of special
visitors who rode with us on the southbound Coast Starlight. Our friend Mike
from Boston was on his own cross-country Amtrak adventure and rode with us from
Portland to Emeryville on the southbound Coast Starlight. Mike also had a huge
collection of points and was burning them up under the old Amtrak Guest Rewards
points rules. He actually booked his trip first and we did the timing of our
trip around his so that we could ride the Coast Starlight together.
Some bicycle rides paralleling our train route near San Luis Obispo, CA
Pictured here with our friend Mike Pace, who rode with us on the Coast Starlight from Portland to Emeryville
Between Sacramento and Salinas, our friends Bob and Julie rode with us. We actually met the two of them about three years ago through an on-line information board about Amtrak. Kandace, who was raised in California, is a big fan of In N Out Burger – for those of you not in the know – it’s a hamburger chain with stores only in the west, mainly in California. Anyway, three years prior we knew with the timing of the trip we would not be able to get In N Out. We asked if anyone on the forum would be willing to deliver us In N Out to the train and we would pay for the time and trouble. We didn’t expect to hear from anyone, but Bob and Julie ended up writing us back. They have done two In N Out Burger deliveries to the train. This was going to be their third attempt! Bob got off in San Jose – and planned it out that he would have enough time to get ahead of the train and deliver the burgers at Salinas – where Julie would get off. Well… it turns out the Coast Starlight was extra fast and In N Out was extra slow that day. Bob was literally pulling up as the train was rolling out of Salinas. We figured that Bob and Julie would just enjoy our burgers for lunch – but it was not be for them! They called us up on the train and said they felt bad for missing the train – and instead – insisted on meeting us with the burgers and fries down in Paso Robles. We said sure – but looked at the timetable and saw this would be a 200 mile round-trip drive for them! We called back and said – don’t worry about it – but again, they insisted. Wow, talk about friends! They were able to do it – and we got out In N Out in Paso Robles. I think the smell of the In N Out in the Parlour Car make everyone want some. We had more than 10 crew and passengers ask where we got those burgers from. This is one story we won’t soon forget!
Enjoying time with our friend Julie, who rode with us from Sacramento to San Jose, in the Pacific Parlour Car
A delivery of In N Out Burger, courtesy of our friends Bob and Julie, on the platform at Paso Robles, California
Anyway, our final special visitors on the southbound Coast Starlight that rode with us – were Robert’s best friend from high school, Alexander, and his wife Jennifer and 4-year-old son, Jacob. They rode the train up earlier in the day to Santa Barbara. They got on around 6:00pm on Saturday night in Santa Barbara and rode with us back to Van Nuys, where we would be getting off and spending the night at their house. The three of them had never ate in a real Amtrak dining car before, so we treated to dinner and make special reservations with the crew so they could get in and eat – even though dining car service ended for everyone else just outside of Santa Barbara. We had a very friendly Amtrak crew and they allowed us to show Alexander, his wife, and son the rest of the First Class part of the train. We showed them the Pacific Parlour Car and what options they would have if they ever took a sleeping car. I think a lot of people from larger cities think they all passengers trains are like Metra – or a commuter rail car – and they don’t have nice accommodations and dining facilities on the train. Before we knew it, we were rolling into Simi Valley and began to get our things together. We got off the southbound Coast Starlight in Van Nuys and said goodbye to the last rail portion of our trip.
A selfie of us with our friend Alexander and his 4-year-old son Jacob in the Sightseer Lounge Car
That's it folks - the end of the line. The train portion of our 11-day trip comes to an end in Van Nuys, California
We ended up spending the
night at Alex and Jen's apartment on the border of Los Angeles and
Santa Monica. Since we had an early flight back home the next morning
to Chicago, we stayed up and talked a bit - but also worked on getting
some sleep -- especially on something that wasn't moving. Alex and Jen
were nice enough to provide us a lift to LAX Airport for our direct
flight back home.
Well, that is it! We hope you enjoyed reading both our June 2016 and this, our July 2016 article here on TrainWeb about our major 11-day Cross-Country train adventure that we did in April and May 2016. We had fun, but since this was all done on Amtrak Guest Rewards points, and the redemption and earning opportunities are less favorable for long distance travel in a sleeper - I doubt we will ever do something quite of this magnitude ever again. But, I guess one never knows, right?
OUTSIDE THE RAILS @ TRAINWEB
NEXT MONTH'S ARTICLE (AUGUST 2016):
A look at our marriage proposal and wedding reception that took place on train! All aboard for the "rolling reception" and how Robert pulled off his proposal to Kandace on Amtrak's Empire Builder going through his hometown of Northbrook, Illinois on January 1, 2012.