Check-out was at noon and I barely made the deadline. I stepped outside the hotel to a line of taxi cabs just waiting to serve me. This cab driver drove very fast and seemed to know Chicago in his sleep. He drove so fast that I was at Union Station in 8 minutes! This fare was only $5, plus I tipped him $2. It was unbelievable what that other cab driver had charged me. He didn’t even have a meter running in his cab, but this one did. I had my fare money plus tip ready for him upon our arrival at Chicago Union Station. When in a big city, watch those crooked cabbies! Always check for a fare meter and don’t take their word for it when you enter the taxi. Live and learn.
The first thing I did at Union Station was check into the Metropolitan Lounge which is for sleeping car passengers. I dropped off my luggage and went for a long walk inside and outside the station. There were two-hour city tours for only $10! The tour company uses double-decker buses and the tours are fully narrated. This sounded great since I had five hours to kill. The Sears Tower was only a block away and that’s where the tour started, so I headed in that direction. The buses were supposed to run every five to fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes had passed and NO sign of any busses or people waiting for the bus. I’m sure I was at the right place but there was no bus stop marking for that tour company. It was Easter and the streets were all but deserted. It looked like there were no tours for me this time. That’s the price of being in Chicago on Easter.
I spent the rest of the time I had walking around Union Station and exploring the new shops since my last visit. Very boring! At this one gift shop, I bought a Chicago Bulls and Cubs logo magnets to add to the refrigerator magnet collection. I was a bit hungry so I ate at the McDonald’s in the station’s second level food level.
At 16:40, it was time to board the Southwest Chief! The train was right outside the door and my assigned car was 0331, the LAST CAR on the train! I had never been assigned to the last car on any train before. Actually, I was in the last passenger car on the Empire Builder, but there were Material Handling Cars after mine. The bad news: it was another Superliner I Sleeping car! I’m cursed! The first thing that I thought was that I wouldn't be able to use the laptop again on this leg of the trip either.
I settled into my room quickly, hanging up the J-pole antenna, readying my scanner and tape recorder for the final run of this trip. The conductor came and collected my ticket, followed by the Chief of Onboard Services, Ann. A lady Chief! Ann introduced herself, handed me my meal voucher and moved on to the next room. Then, my car attendant, Elizabeth introduced herself and asked if I had traveled on Amtrak before. Never before have I had a female car attendant. There have been female Chiefs on the Coast Starlight but I was in coach on a trip to Redding. Both were very pleasant but Ann was quite attractive too! A nice gold wedding ring gave her marital status away. “Oh well”, I thought.
In the room was a Southwest Chief Route Guide, postcards, coat hangers and a tiny cheap-o clay flower vase that appeared to be painted Southwestern style. I wonder where Amtrak gets its “junk”? the EMERGENCY EXIT handle had been broken off its metal window handle and was dangling freely. The only thing that held the window on was the rubber seal around it! I know the rubber seal is the primary support of the window, but it’s nice to know the handle that pulls off the rubber seal is locked in place and not free. This car was really old and in need of repair in many rooms. The good news is that the temperature knob above the AC outlet had been broken completely off! The laptop adapter did fit into the plug, but the “half bolt” for the temperature knob stuck up half an inch. The plug went in slightly more than half way, so contact was solid. I didn’t believe it would cut in and out. This was not my computer and I had promised to return it the way I got it.
Sleeping Car passengers were boarded at 16:30 and the conductor, Ann and Elizabeth show was over by 16:45, which left me plenty of time to try to get a train consist. I ran up as far as I could go, but the Material Handling Cars and power were far beyond the platform in the dark. I thought I would have to wait until Albuquerque to walk the train. I counted what cars I could, which included all the passenger and baggage cars. I just needed the locomotive and MHC car numbers. There were a LOT of MHC cars too!
The Southwest Chief departed Chicago on time at 17:10. It was a very smooth start too! There usually was a sharp jerk, followed by smaller jolts before smooth sailing. I had stupidly packed my camera deep within my bags and there were lots of photo opportunities through the Chicago coach yards! The Amtrak locomotives I spotted in the coach yard and in the depot were: #50, 92xxx series, 328, 372 and #400! As we were departing, on the platforms adjacent to mine were trains 49 and 30. From now on, I will keep my camera at the ready right beside me!
Outstanding dinner and dining car crew! That was my first impression. They were the best crew on this trip! I had the Chef’s Special which was prime rib with mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots and an ice tea. Finally I had apple pie a la mode for desert! I need to be more trusting of people before judging them. The man in room #5 across from me, who got on in Chicago, looked like a hard- core gang-banger! Baggy pants, white T-shirt, goatee and a baseball cap worn backwards. I kept my curtain and door shut so he would not see the laptop! I ended up sitting with him over dinner and he couldn’t have been a nicer, more genteel guy. Turns out he is a native American who goes to tribal meetings all over the country. I was fascinated by his stories about his people. I recently re-watched “Dances With Wolves” and he told me it was accurate to a point, but that they had “Hollywoodized” the film quite a bit. He was (sorry, didn’t get his name) on his way home from Wisconsin to Lawrence, KS to go back to school (Kansas State). Another woman who sat with us had moved to the US from France many years ago, but now lived in Albuquerque. She really liked to talk and did most of it over the meal!
By the way, the laptop worked perfectly! I kept an eye on the battery level in case the plug started cutting out. If that happened, I would see the battery level begin to drop rapidly, only giving me 10 seconds of life before shutdown! My fingers are always poised to hit ALT--oops, Apple/Command + S to save my file before losing everything! I tried to see how long the battery would last and I saw the battery level go from full to empty in a matter of 10 seconds! I had been told that the battery was shot but had to see for myself.
After Galesburg, we switch onto the old ATSF route so the hotbox detectors would be very different! ATSF merged with Burlington Northern to create BNSF, but most of the detectors will still be of the Santa Fe. I heard the voices are somewhat “drunken” sounding! The scanner was set and the recorder at VOX stand-by.
We were moving along at about 90 MPH over rails which, I believe, are not designed for that speed! The train was really being thrown about so much that I had to re-secure all my stuff before going to sleep. These tracks were in worse shape than the old SP Coast Line! At least it felt worse due to the high rate of speed. If they slowed to 60 MPH, I’m sure the ride would be fine. As expected, the detectors are different and exclusively Santa Fe. Each one different, too. Some have the CSX voice, others have the BN voice and there are the “drunken” very machine-sounding voices barely understandable! Only by playing them over a few times can I get the milepost number. There were so many things in this room that rattled about! I’ve gotten used to it from the other trains and trips I’ve taken, so it didn’t bother me. What upsets me is that the car directly in front of mine is a brand new Superliner II Sleeping Car! Arrgh! That’s just life. You get a car assignment from Amtrak and whether you get a new Superliner II car or not depends on the available equipment at the time of departure. I’ll say it anyway: IT’S NOT FAIR!!! On the Coast Starlight, trains 11/14, there are dedicated Superliner II cars that they only use. At least that’s the case with the sleepers, for I’ve always gotten a Superliner II car. I must admit that I love those AUTO-FLUSH TOILETS when you close the lids!
I was amazed at the heavy traffic on the BNSF mainline between Chicago and KC! We seemed to meet an oncoming freight every 5 minutes! Standing still, that would translate to a train every 15-20 minutes wait in each direction. Since we moved at a fast pace, we met oncoming traffic constantly. These freights were moving at 70 MPH, and with our speed of around 90, that’s a combined speed of 160 MPH!! the distance between our train and oncoming trains is only about 4 feet! WOW! Of course, it’s double track CTC operated all the way. I also enjoyed looking out the back window of the train since it was only 25 feet from my room. The window was not as dirty as the one on the Empire Builder but dirty nonetheless.
After a restful night, I went to breakfast and had a what they called the “Sunrise Special.” It came with two pancakes, sausage patties and one egg. Along with it I had coffee (very strong pot) and orange juice. The elderly woman I sat with had been riding trains since World War II and knows this route very well. She lived in Phoenix but had to get off at Flagstaff to an awaiting bus to take her the rest of the way.
Last night we got into Kansas City at 00:11, 20 minutes early so we would be there until 01:00. I was already in bed so I didn’t feel like dressing and going down on the platform. Now I regret I hadn’t, for the station looked like a neat place.
This was a great stop! We arrived 30 minutes early and it was a crew change point, (more time = more photos!) so I was able to dash up to the head end and take many photos of the train. While up by the locomotives I got a man, who had brought his three grandchildren to railfan, to take my picture by the locomotives. The lighting was PERFECT but the man COULDN’T GET MY CAMERA TO WORK!!! the kids didn’t want to try it so I thanked him anyway. I think he may have gotten one exposure off but I can’t remember what number the camera was on before I handed it to him. I was in a big hurry to get as many photos as I could because my car was VERY far away. If necessary, I could have jumped on at the Transition Sleeper car should the train be ready to leave before I get back to my car. I think I had a minor film jam which caused the camera not to work, but it seemed to fix itself. When I got back to my car, there were people mingling about so I got someone who had a camera of his own take my picture. After developing my film, I found that there was no picture of me there! He had no trouble (so I thought) getting my camera to work. It has to do with the focus lock feature. A light press is required until a green LED appears in the viewfinder. Then the shutter can be released. I think the old man just tried to press it in one motion. It won’t work that way. I told him about the green LED, but he just didn’t get it. He tried three times and said “Well, I think I heard something but my hearin’ ain’t good anymore so I can’t be sure if it went off.” It was hard to hear because of the P42 and P40 making their air noises, etc.
While running back to my car (running off last night’s apple pie a la mode), I had my micro cassette recorder out so I could dictate the car numbers and types into the recorder as I sprinted by! This was a long train with seven MHC cars. I haven’t listened to the tape yet as I’m still trying to catch up on this report. On the Empire Builder, I was so mad that my plug wouldn’t fit that I was tempted to break off the heating control knob so I could plug the laptop in. Of course I didn’t do that because that room was in great shape for a Superliner I room. The heating element responded quickly through that cold part of the country, too!
I am enjoying my copy of Railfan Magazine that I bought in Chicago. I looked at the subscription price and decided not to subscribe. They can charge so much for a subscription because some people will pay to support their hobby. I subscribe to PC Magazine for around $24 for 26 issues and each issue averages 400 pages. Railfan is only about 50 pages and they want $29 for 12 issues. If Captain Spock were here, he would say that "this is not logical."
About twenty minutes ago I returned from a delicious lunch with beautiful Raton Pass as the main attraction! The scenery was very incredible for the desert but I thought the soil would be red like I’ve seen in photos. I guess photo filters have something to do with the red soil being redder. I sat with a very nice family of three who boarded at Galesberg, IL and were traveling to Flagstaff to see the Grand Canyon. I broke from my burger tradition and had the fajita burrito which had beef, onions, peppers and cheese rolled inside a tortilla. The burrito came with beans and rice but the beans and rice were only fair. When I became accustomed to the Rose Cafe’s (Mexican restaurant near my house) code to excellent beans and rice, nothing else even comes close. The salsa I poured on them didn’t make them taste any better. Cheesecake with strawberry topping followed the meal.
At Raton, NM I struck up a conversation with the conductor. He was a very nice fellow. He wanted to learn more about ham radio and how to get licensed. He informed me that conductors are being hired out of Los Angeles and San Jose and that I should get my resume in ASAP. He didn’t say if I should send it to Amtrak or Union Pacific Railroad. I guess both places wouldn’t hurt. I’ll see if I can find out anything out at the Santa Barbara depot when I return. The rail bed seems to be improving somewhat but not that much.
We arrived Albuquerque at 17:07, 14 minutes down. Due to lots of construction up the track, we were given many slow orders which ruined our on time performance. Since this was a service stop and crew change point for the train, we would be here for awhile. I got off and took a few photos but I was not able to walk all the way to head end where the power was. That was fine with me because I had seen the power and MHC cars already in La Junta.
What happened to the Albuquerque train depot? It looks like there used to be a big building there but only a foundation remains! On the platform, locals set up tables to sell their trinkets (mostly junk). Walking down a ramp into the parking lot, I saw ice cream trucks, hot dog stands and even a man selling woven Mexican ponchos and rugs right out of his bus! There was a local woman who owned her own art gallery that was around the corner from the station. She had some of her work on display. Darn, no train oil paintings. Boarding our train was a Native American guide who would do some narrating along the way as long as there was daylight. I listened to him for about 20 minutes until my dinner reservation at 18:30 was called.
At that time, I finally had to change out the batteries in my micro cassette recorder and ham radio that I use as a railroad scanner. Incredible life I had with those last battery sets. The last time I put new batteries in my tape recorder was last August! I’ve used it quite a bit since then too.
This is where we will begin to see some serious freight action! The Raton Subdivision which goes through Albuquerque is not that busy. This section is double track CTC all the way into Southern California. On this line, we are flying along at 90 MPH.
My last full meal on the Southwest Chief had been consumed! In it was the prime rib with a baked potato, vegetables, ice tea and pie a la mode. The women next to me was on her way to San Bernardino where a friend of hers would take her to Pomona. Once a resident of Chino, CA, she retired and moved to Raton, NM where “nothing happens.” She is an Internet surfer so I exchanged email addresses with her. The two clowns across from me did nothing but giggle and paw each other over dinner. The man didn’t know a word of English and the woman was Hispanic with bleached frizzy hair! I must say that couple did not have any class or manors.
I turned in for the evening as the train is flying across the desert at a steady 90 MPH. This was a very busy Santa Fe line with very heavy freight traffic. We were running about 20 minutes behind schedule so I wasn’t too concerned with my connection in Los Angeles with the Coast Starlight.
I was awakened by a sharp jolt! A new crew got on and the engineer was quick on the throttle but slow to release the brakes. This crew would be the last crew change of the trip. I finally figured out (was given false information before by train attendant) what those small lights (yellow/green) by the door on the Superliner cars mean. The light represents the status of the brakes. When the brakes are engaged, the light aspect is yellow. The light aspect is green when the brakes are fully released. When we departed Kingman, the engineer reported that the last car (my car) light was still glowing yellow. The engineer did another “running air test” and since we were rounding a bend, I could see all the lights on the cars ahead of me turn to yellow when the brakes were engaged! They didn’t all turn yellow at the same time either (all did change within a couple of seconds). When the “release” was made, all lights that I was able to see turned green again. After we reached our cruising speed of 90 MPH, the engineer told the conductor that the light on the last car was still yellow. The conductor replied: “Well, I don’t smell any smoke yet!” Rats, I didn’t have my recorder set up to tape that conversation.
I awoke to a crystal clear desert morning! Too bad I was not on the North side of the train so that I could see the Hale-Bopp Comet. Santa Barbara was fogged in the week when the comet was at its perigee, so there was no chance to view it. Still running nearly an hour late, the views of Cajon pass were absolutely breathtaking! Also the freight traffic adds to the beauty. When I came through Cajon last year on the Desert Wind, it was very overcast and smoggy. Not today. Not a cloud in the sky, which was a very deep blue. The reports I heard about the tracks along Cajon Pass being fenced off were correct. Railfans wanting to photograph trains must climb up on the hills above the fence line and use powerful telephoto lenses to get any good pictures. I looked for train watchers but didn’t see any. Breakfast in the dining car was continental which included a Danish, coffee and a plate of assorted fruits which were very fresh. There was only one person working the diner and he seemed a bit tired from the trip.
I love this station! It is perfect for train watching and there are plenty of them. Both the BNSF San Bernardino Subdivision and San Diego Subdivision trains pass through Fullerton and then split directly to the south. Trains (passenger and freight) can be seen every 20 to 40 minutes. More freight trains run at night when Metrolink and Amtrak are through with service for the evening. Last year when I went down to Fullerton just to railfan, I was treated to an abundance of long freight trains with brand new Santa Fe power. While there, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was there watching the railfans watch trains and I was interviewed!
My friend Mike and his friend, Les, were waiting for me at the station. We had arranged to meet at Los Angeles to ride the Coast Starlight, #14, to Santa Barbara. Once underway again out of Fullerton, we cane to an abrupt halt due to a signal that had changed from a “flashing yellow” to “flashing red” when we were about to pass the signal. After receiving permission from the dispatcher to proceed, we took off westbound.
Due to some track construction ahead, we are required to back in to Los Angeles Union Station. Waiting for Metrolink and Amtrak traffic to clear has delayed us another 20 minutes. I got a front row seat since I was in the last car and I was able to look out the open back door as we backed up. There was a conductor and a yardman in blue coveralls and hard hat standing in front of the door, so I couldn’t see out as well. As we backed in, a yard foreman jokingly shouted: “Hey, you’re going backwards!” The conductor waved to him and tooted a little single-note train whistle in the typical “long, long, short long” pattern like engineers do before approaching a grade crossing! The track gang burst out laughing! Another reason the Southwest Chief backed in would be so that the Material Handling Cars could be taken off with the power and moved to the mail track for unloading. Also, the MHC cars were on the front of the train and passengers would not have to walk as far to the terminal ramps. I just heard an announcement about us backing in due to track construction so I really am not sure if this train has always backed in or not.
By the time I got my things together and had gotten off the train, Amtrak San Diegan #571 was already in the station. I spotted Mike and Les, so together we watched the intense switching action of three coach cars being pulled off the incoming San Diegan to be placed on the rear of the Coast Starlight which was facing forward in the station. At the same time, there was a Metrolink and another Amtrak train pulling out. Mike caught all the action on his video camera. Now that’s what I should get for my next trip! Too much to carry though, but for a train trip, I could carry anything!
Once the switching was done, we all climbed aboard our car and were able to sit together. Mike and Les sat behind me and I was next to a man who was sound asleep across both seats. I woke him up and he very reluctantly moved over just enough so I could sit. He let out a big sigh as he moved. I hate people like that! That’s why I hate riding in coach, but I can’t justify a sleeper for only a three hour trip! The conductor came by and collected my ticket and the three of us were off to the sightseer/lounge car for the remainder of the ride to Santa Barbara. What a sight, all of us armed with the necessities of every railfan (scanner on waist, cameras and camcorders, earphones connected to the scanner, etc.) walking down the coach cars to the lounge.
It was the end of my long rail trip but I spent the day with Mike and Les showing them around Santa Barbara. Also, we went to my friend’s hobby shop, The Hobby Depot and later to a Japanese restaurant which was owned by a friend of Les’s whom he hadn’t seen for eight years! They were scheduled to return on the southbound Coast Starlight, #11, but the ticket agent reported that the train to be nearly FIVE HOURS late! That meant that they wouldn’t get home until after 3:00 a.m. It was a work day for both of them as they elected to ride the specially chartered buses that took the place of the regularly scheduled 18:15 departure of the Coast Starlight. While back at my place, I checked on the Internet the train status of their train to confirm the agent’s information and the agent was accurate indeed. One of the chief reasons Mike and Les had come up on the Coast Starlight was so that they could eat in the dining car on the way down! What a drag, but there are chances to be taken when riding Amtrak or any mode of public transportation. Last year, I had to finish my long rail journey by bus from Los Angeles due to a late running Desert Wind (4.5 hours late).
Next year I’m planning another rail trip that will take me to Boston. Boston has a lot of history; therefore, it would be nice to book a tour of the city. I don’t know yet which trains I will take. That will depend on Congress, as Boston is scheduled to be cut from Amtrak Service.
Perhaps if funding for the Texas Eagle were to commence and the train continues to run, I might consider flying to Chicago and riding it back to Los Angeles this summer when I have a week off.