I've traveled on Amtrak many times but nothing like a long odyssey like this! I was in for a treat to say the least. I had to work the day I was to depart so I was kind of tired when I clocked out from work at the end of the day. That fatigue grew to excitement quickly as I raced home and checked my bag to see if I needed to do any last-minute packing. I had packed the previous night so I wouldn't have to rush after getting home from work. My brother-in-law picked me up at 5:35 to take me to the depot and we arrived in plenty of time as #786 was backing into the depot. (see photo below--click to enlarge)
We said our good-byes and I was off on my journey! As I rested back into my seat, the Santa Barbara scenery was rushing by me and I knew shortly I would be entering unfamiliar territory once boarding the Sunset Limited. I have traveled the San Diegan route many times so I knew the terrain very well and there were no surprises scenery wise. Oh yes, my scanner, never leave home without it. I turned it on when I boarded the train so I could listen in to the crews talking to keep up on things and avoid being lied to by the train staff. There have been many times the train crew has told the public one reason of a delay when I knew the REAL reason, which was completely different that what was addressed over the PA system. Not more than ten miles out of the depot, the engineer said "Uh-oh, we got a torpedo" and the train slowed to a crawl. Torpedo? The conductor came by and I asked her to explain what a torpedo meant, other than the ones submarines fire that sinks ships. She knew I had been listening on my scanner so she explained it to me. It is left by railroad crews if they have to abandon their railroad cars and it is used as a marker for engineers of a potential hazard up the track. We went the prescribed 20mph for two miles and found nothing, so we picked up to normal speed again. A couple of "meets" with other trains held us up for an additional 15 minutes. We arrived in Los Angeles around 9:10pm, 30 minutes late and I was to meet a friend, Mike, for dinner whom I had met on the Internet railroad newsgroups. We walked down to a sandwich shop a couple of blocks away and ate dinner and talked trains until it was time for boarding of the Sunset Limited. Delicious hot turkey and patty melt sandwiches there.
I had never seen a sleeping car on the Superliner fleet before because I had always ridden coach. My sleeping car attendant, Glen, was very friendly and welcomed me aboard as he directed me to my room, #7 on the upper level. The On-board Services Chief was Bill Harrison. I found the economy bedroom quite small at first glimpse, but adequate just for me. I am over six feet tall and I thought I would be too cramped in that bed for sure. Thanks to the Amtrak brochures I had read before booking the trip, the room and bed dimensions were given to me so I knew what to expect beforehand. The room also looked smaller because both upper and lower beds were made up before departure which took up nearly the entire room. Since the train left at 10:30pm, I'm sure most people would be going directly to bed. On my pillow was the so-called "bedtime sweet," just a couple of mints. Yeah, there's nothing like a sweet gooy mint just at bedtime to rot your teeth during the night. There sure isn't much standing room with both beds down and getting ready for bed t hat night was a challenge to say the least! Departure time was approaching and Mike and I said good-bye. 10:30pm came and went, we were still in Los Angeles Union Station. Hmmm, time to get out the scanner again and get some answers. This time, I took out a long wire antenna known to Amateur Radio operators as a "J-Pole." I am an amateur radio operator so I had a VHF transceiver to talk to other hams along the way as well as a scanner. The J-Pole brought the signals in much better than the traditional "stubby-duck" antenna that comes with most scanners and hand held radios. There were some mechanical problems in the dining car that were being taken care of as well as some last-minute coupling of cars, delaying us some 28 minutes. We were under way at 10:58 pm rolling through East Los Angeles towards the Mojave Desert and I stayed awake until probably 1:30am listening to train chatter. I'm actually lying in a bed on a train! How satisfying it feels as I'm lying here whil e outside the scenery zooms by. This train was pretty long, 16 cars plus two locomotives. I will list the consists of each train at the end of each section traveled.
A new day was here rather quickly after a good night's sleep! The rolling and side-to-side motions must have rocked me to sleep. It was so satisfying to wake up in a rolling hotel with new, unfamiliar scenery passing by me without the stiff neck I get when trying to sleep in coach. I kept the curtains open so I could sit up and see what was happening, or just stare up at the stars. I also didn't want to oversleep and miss anything exciting such as a train roll-by, etc. Got up at 7:15am and went to breakfast in the diner and sat with a nice couple, Pat and Stan from Redwood City, CA. My first meal consisted of pancakes, sausage, toast, hash browns, coffee and orange Juice. I must admit the pancakes were not as warm as they could be and they were kind of rubbery! Ultimate frisbee, anybody? I ate them anyway as there was nothing wrong with the flavor. Before leaving on my trip, I bought a microcassette recorder to jot down notes on my trip rather than trying to decipher chicken-scratch notes after I got home to write THIS report. It's so much more efficient that way. When I returned from breakfast, my bed was made up and recorder gone! I immediately called the attendant and he helped me search my compartment, even with his flashlight to look behind, around and under the seats. He even made a PA announcement but no luck. Strange, My scanner and my Ham Radio were out, and it seems like if someone were to steal my valuables, the radios would be the first to go. It must have fallen between the arm rest and the wall by the door or got made up in the bed somehow. That is such a tiny space and while searching around there, I found old flyers for the Southwest Chief stuffed behind the seat! I guess this sleeping car had been on that route at one time. With the missing recorder, I was forced to revert to old-fashioned note taking which I desparately tried to avoid in the first place! The most frustrating thing was that I knew the recorder HAD to be somewhere in that compartment! Searched it again with no luck, even emptied my bag and it was not there. I tried to let it go but when something mysteriously vanishes like that, it eats at me terribly. I was upset for most of the day but the passing scenery made me feel somewhat better...forget about it. The desert sure is beautiful in the morning with the towering cacti and distant mountains. We passed through Tucson where I have some family there. I wish I could have run down the street and said "hi" to them as they live a block or two away from the depot. We got into Tucson 1 hour 20 minutes late due to freight traffic. The engineer boarding at Tucson was getting his engineer "checkride" to Lordsberg, NM! Wow, hope he passes for ALL our sakes! Had lunch at 12:30, a bacon burger, potato chips and the trimmings with apple pie a la mode for desert. I sat with a nice couple from Atascadero, CA who were o n their way to Miami to catch a cruise to the Caribbean. Actually, there was a large group that got on in Oakland bound for that same cruise, a senior citizen organization. It's nice to see people active and enjoying life well into their eighties and nineties. The lounge car was monopolized by the group for Bingo for a better part of that evening. On this train there were two diner cars. One was used as the standard diner and the other was being used as the first class "Club Car." 5:00 PM rolled around and since we were in eastern New Mexico, they were serving chips and guacamole dip in the Club Car. I sat in the Club Car for awhile stuffing myself with chips and dip and a couple of drinks and later went to dinner at 7:00. Dinner consisted of Prime Rib with baked potato, rice, carrots and a salad. Once again, apple pie a la mode for desert. The meal was perfect and the couple I sat with were from Sacramento, CA and they belonged to the same senior citizen organization b ound for the cruise out of Miami. This couple was in their early 70s and celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with this trip. We arrived in El Paso nearly two hours late, more freight traffic. I had no idea that El Paso had so many hills around! I thought it was flat all the way across Texas. In East El Paso, I noticed a lot of automobiles that had been stripped and dumped by the tracks after the fact. A lot of auto theft in that city I would assume? A few of them had been burned out as well. For the remainder of the evening, I listened to train chatter and did some reading. The movie for the evening was The Lion King. I had never seen it (really, I haven't seen it!) but I was immersed in my book: All Aboard! by Jim Loomis. It has some great information on rail travel! Besides, what better place and time to read such a book, right?
Another good night's sleep and I awoke in the outskirts of San Antonio, TX. It was hard to believe that it would take more than 24 hours to cross that great state. Some interesting events during the night occurred near Del Rio. I woke up when we had just departed Del Rio and the dispatcher called us to stop up ahead for the yardmaster at Del Rio thought he saw some illegal aliens attempting to climb aboard the rear car! We stopped again to have the border patrol scope the train and found nobody clinging to it, under it or inside the compartments on the outside of the locomotives. They really searched the locomotives! I would assume it's a big problem in a border town with illegals jumping aboard freights, etc. I got up at 6:30am and had my first shower on a train. It wasn't as bad as people have told me. The water pressure is not great but since there is so little water that can be stored in the car at one time, conservation is mandatory. I would guess the wa ter pressure is about equal to or slightly greater than water being poured out of a watering can on you. Being rather tall didn't make it easier but any shower is better than none. Breakfast at 7:30am consisted of two eggs over easy, hash browns, sausage, coffee and orange juice.. My breakfast companion was on her way to Jacksonville for her sister's funeral who had died of cancer. She was afraid of planes so the train was a good alternative for her. We departed San Antonio 2 hours 8 minutes late as we lost more time due to "slow orders," freight congestion and the search for illegal aliens during the night. I had no idea that certain rail divisions were so busy as there were freight roll-bys every 5-10 minutes going the opposite direction! Good thing that most of the trackage is double track. Sat in the lounge car for awhile until lunch around 12:30pm in which I had another burger, a darn good one. My lunch companions were from Sydney, Australia and were on their way to Miami to fly to London to spend a year working. I didn't ask them their business and they didn't volunteer that information either. Nevertheless, it sounds like a good adventure. Houston looked very dirty with real bad air pollution and vast junkyards and loose trash scattered about along the tracks. It looked almost as bad as Los Angeles on a hot smoggy summer day. More listening to the scanner and reading until Hospitality hour in the Club Car where they served complimentary Champagne, cheese, meats and crackers. I met a woman who was on a similar cross country trip me and she was going to stay in New Orleans for a few days before continuing to New York. The scenery had changed pretty quickly from desert plains to swampland and bayous of Louisiana. Lots of people were sitting on their porches of their mobile homes and having drinks while waving at the train. At Lake Charles, LA, when the train came to a stop, about 10 youths ran up to the train and the chef in the club car gave them some treats. I was told the chefs usually give the kids food at this particular stop that would spoil or be thrown out at New Orleans. Those kids were trained! Dinner at 7:30 was only average, as the food in the dining car was al most gone (given away at Lake Charles!). The only choice was Prime Rib, kind of a tough cut I got, but it was still acceptable. Sat with a retired couple returning home to Miami from Los Angeles where they were visiting their kids and grandchildren. The wife was as sweet as could be but the husband disagreed with everything I said. We were nearly 3 hours late and I stated we would arrive in New Orleans at a few minutes after 10pm. He just said "hogwash, you don't know anything. We'll be there at 8:30pm." With that attitude, I remained silent for the rest of the meal and would get the last laugh. We arrived in New Orleans within 5 minutes of the time I predicted. I looked around for the couple to rub the old man's nose in it but I didn't want to sink myself to his juvenile level. The movie shown tonight was "It Takes Two." Never seen it but my All Aboard! book was begging me to read more. It takes a long time to get into New Orleans due to a 10 mph restriction arose the Mississippi River bridge, four miles long with a spectacu lar view of the New Orleans skyline. In New Orleans, it was a complete crew change for the train crew as well as the engineer and conductor. The train is scheduled to be in New Orleans for 3 hours 20 minutes but since we were nearly three hours late, they did a rush job in order to get us "to schedule" again. Our locomotives were refueled and a couple of cars removed to be attached to the Texas Eagle, departing early the next morning. I enjoyed watching them uncouple and re-coupable cars with such ease, knowing how much mass and weight was involved. We departed New Orleans now only 20 minutes behind schedule due to more problems in the dining car. We lost one sleeping car and our club car! I guess it was going to be the Texas Eagle's dining car. Also, we got different locomotives as well. I will list each train consist at the end of each section traveled.
I Slept in today...until about 7:30am. The new car attendant is John and Betty Hall is the on-board services chief. I did get a newspaper from the previous two nights, local papers from Phoenix and San Antonio. Today it was USA Today. I awoke to dense fog outside and I couldn't believe how thick the vegetation was! Couldn't see ten feet to each side of the train with the exception of an occasional cottage or trailer. Lots of trailers and mobile homes among the vegetation with several cars parked usually on a common lawn with lots of trash scattered about. From a horticultural standpoint, there are so many pink Azaleas, all of the same color and I would guess some of them had to be at least five feet high.. We had just departed Chipley, FL running 1:15 late when I went to breakfast. Hmm, something different here. Everything is Plastic! Cups, forks, knives, spoons and plates!. I was so spoiled from the real silverware that I had used the previous two days. It reminded me of trips on Amtrak in the early eighties. I wonder why they go plastic just between New Orleans and Miami? Service in the diner was real slow, like it was a rookie crew or something. The food was very good, my usual two eggs over easy, sausage, hash browns and lots of coffee. The three gentlemen I sat with weren't in a talking mood so I didn't push it. I try to take the initiative but when the room is THAT tough, I eat in silence. The man across from me made some small talk about the plasticity of the utensils as well. Back at my room I was listening in on the scanner and we had lost an hour during the night because the trailing locomotive kept shutting down and was slow to load up. I heard the engineer say at one point to a CSX dispatcher that "Guess it fixed itself, I reckon." I enjoyed the CSX dispatchers and engineers as they had thick southern accents. The CSX hotbox detectors had a man's voice rather than SP's female automated voices. Lunch at 1:15pm with Mr. and Mrs. Nelson who boarded in Tallahassee. They were from Venezuela and were visiting the husband's brother and were heading for Miami to fly home. We arrived in Jacksonville at 3:15pm, 1:10 late and it was time for me to leave the train that I called home for the past three days. I did feel Kind of sad to have to pack up and leave. I STILL couldn't let it go; my microcassette recorder I had lost three days ago. I checked my bag again, not there. Checked behind and under the seats, not there. Folded the top bed down to see if it was in the bedclothes, not there. Not in the narrow gap between the door and arm rests either. I stuck my hand between the metal springs of the seat and this metal plate covering the springs and wouldn't you know, I FOUND IT! The recorder was made up in the bed by mistake and it had slipped down between the bottom seat plate and springs when the seat was folded. I found the recorder only about 10 minutes before I was to de-train! Talk about luck. Lots of chicken scratch notes to transcribe to tape now.
The Jacksonville train station was quite large and it did have luggage lockers. I was able to stash my luggage so I could catch a bus into town. The station is located about 10 miles north of downtown Jacksonville and I had until 10:30 to catch train #92 northbound. I took the first bus into town and hung out at the Jacksonville Landing and walked up and down the shoreline. It was 84 degrees and 90% humidity at the time of arrival. Later, a band played and while enjoying the music, I lost track of time as I had to catch a bus back to the station. The bus ride is about 40 minutes each way. I stuffed myself with a huge Cajun sampler plate in the mall and couldn't even eat half of it. Good thing I ate as much as I did because I wouldn't eat again until Washington DC the following night!