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Southwest Chief 2015

Unfinished Business: Completing the Amtrak Southwest Chief

My account of riding from Chicago to Fullerton, CA on September 27th and 28th 2015

All text and photos by Tim Helmuth

Read my other trip reports at

The Amtrak Southwest Chief at a station stop in Albuquerque, NM on September 28th, 2015


A lot of planning, reading and research went into the creation of this cross country rail trip. If you want to skip the monologue and get right to it, click here. The following summarize the steps that I took to have a solid plan for a trip with as few surprises as possible and maximizing my AGR (Amtrak Guest Rewards) points (as a surprise bonus, Amtrak turned on Double Days during the time I was traveling).



July 2015

The itinerary that I booked begins at Bloomington-Normal Illinois (BNL), riding the 302 Lincoln Service to Chicago on September 27, 2015 to connect with the 3:00 PM departure of the Southwest Chief.  I reserved a roomette for the duration of the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. Upon arrival in L.A. on September 29th, I had intended on catching the Coast Starlight north to Portland, but after reading many, many pages of travelogues on (thank you Geno Dailey and other writers) I looked for other options.  After receiving some sound advice from veteran Carl Morrison, I decided not to risk missing the connection and getting Ambused farther up the line and planned an overnight along the way.  I price-stalked the Amtrak website daily, watching fares until I found Amsnag (links at the end of this report) and could run up to 30 days of pricing scenarios.  I eventually found the lowest price bucket for both the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight and tickets were purchased.  My planning showed that buying early is always the best strategy; at the time of departure, my tickets just to Los Angeles was selling for over $1000, sleeper car inclusive.  I also used Google flights to get the best airfare, utilizing its ability to search multiple departure and arrival airports and utilized the rate calendar to find the best value.


A one-night hiatus was built into the schedule, allowing me to book a hotel in Anaheim and experience the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to San Clemente to enjoy the pier and beach (report here).  The morning of September 30th begins with another Surfliner from Anaheim to L.A. to then board the much anticipated Coast Starlight for Portland.  Another roomette was secured in order to fully enjoy the charms and trappings of the Pacific Parlour Car.  Arrival in PDX was planned with a built in overnight as well.  This overnight had an unexpected side effect of shifting the airfare in my favor - advanced purchase from PDX to ORD was $107 before baggage charges and peanuts are purchased. This is compared to $167 flying out the day of arrival if had I tried to make a flight directly from the train. 

Upon Return:

Had I tried to make a flight out of PDX Thursday night, I would never have made it.  Read my Coast Starlight report for details.

Packing & Research:

August 2015

From what I have read, there are many nuances to modern-day rail trips - age of the cars, expectations being set and managed, ability to respond to change and then plain old patience.  From scouring countless trip reports and travelogues, I have arrived at the following list of necessities for the upcoming trip.


Before Trip:
(Roomettes have only 1 power receptactle and it is recessed - a surface mount chraging plug (wall wart) would be difficult to plug in)
After Thoughts: Did I need it all?

The Romance of the Rails:

September 2015

As a teen, I had ridden part of the Southwest Chief in differing legs from Chicago to Newton, KS and then from Newton to Phoenix, AZ via Flagstaff. I remember then that being on a train was a forced departure from reality - there was no internet or even cell phones for that matter.  Riding passenger rail was and still is its own microcosm.  While on a freeway, you may see the same car once or never again.  On airplanes, current protocol seems to dictate that little contact with other passengers is desirable.  On long distance Amtrak trains, you not only see the same people, but you eat with them.  You sit with them in the Sightseer lounge.  You talk with them and form mini relationships for the duration of the trip. In my teens, the scenery unfolded mile after mile from the Sightseer  lounge car (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).  If we were lucky there was a movie in the evening.  I remember stopping in Albuquerque and watching the train windows get washed as we had a break.  One of the memories still lingering was the color of the seats back then - the coach seating looked like this (photo courtesy of Robert Tabern - President of "Outside the Rails" and reporter for


My trip from Chicago to Los Angeles will complete the 2265 miles from Chicago that began over 25 years ago.  I will also log some 106 miles on the Pacific Surfliner and 1190 on the Coast Starlight to Portland. 

Arrival in Chicago

I arrived at Union Station around 12:20 PM with some time to kill, so I headed straight to the Metropolitan Lounge and checked in to drop off my bags. I was given a ticket to the lounge, showing the time to return to the lounge for boarding along with the train car and room assignment.  I left the lounge to explore Union Station and grab some lunch.

Our Lincoln Service arrival at Union station and a picture of the Great Hall.

My Metropolitan Lounge pass.

Waiting to board in the Metropolitan Lounge.


3:03 PM September 27, 2015

All Aboard!

We left Chicago just three minutes late.  Leaving from the Metropolitan Lounge gave us a head start on the boarding process, but they don't tell you that you are getting a 4 city block walk to the train. As we approached the sleeper car 330, there was confusion and almost panic on the part of some of my co-passengers.  Apparently when the car was delivered, not all of the rooms were ready.  Lisa, our SCA (Sleeper Car Attendant), was doing her level best to communicate the issue and a temporary solution of waiting in the Sightseer Lounge until she could finish.  It was frustrating to have to watch and listen as she explained many times what was going on while the masses simply ignored her and shoved ahead with all of their bags - only to then realize that their rooms were NOT ready.  Thankfully mine was and I did not have to suffer through the moaning and gnashing of teeth that ensued in the Sightseer car.  We got underway and Lisa set out snacks of popcorn, juice and pretzels for our patience.


Today's SWC #3 train to Los Angeles consisted of the following:

Locomotives P42 #67 & P42 #118

Baggage #1230

Transition Dorm #39045

Sleeper #32071

Sleeper #32013

Diner #38031

Sightseer Lounge # 33038

Coach #34091

Coach #31036

Coach #34032


In the direction of travel, my Superliner (numbered 330) is the 4th from the locomotives after a baggage car, transition dorm and 1st sleeper.  I am assigned to Roomette 3 (upstairs), which is the second room away from the center stairway on the north side of the train.  The sleeper cars are configured such that the full bedrooms are in the front of the car while the Roomettes are in the rear 1/2 of each car.  Room 3 places me two doors from the restroom, which may have its conveniences, but I can hear each and every toilet flush with my door open.  My Sleeper Car Attendant was always close by and had the room prepared at the proper times without me having to request the change.

My roomette #3, facing forward in the direction of travel.  2 water bottles, 2 pillows and a clean, sealed blanket awaited me.

We made it to Naperville smoothly when our first delay occurred.  A passenger had a medical emergency caused us to pause at the station while paramedics assisted the passenger. We were now down one hour.


Ambulance waits at Naperville as the paramedics treat a passenger.

Leaving the suburbs behind, we rolled through the Illinois plains.
It doesn't feel like 80 mpg until you try to remove your contacts.

Dinner was called as the sun set over Illinois and the Mississippi River.  I was seated with a couple from Wichita, KS, who would be detraining in Newton.  I enjoyed the Signature Steak with garlic mashed as did one of my table mates and the other having the vegetarian pasta dish of ricotta stuffed shells with marina and parmesan sauce.  The steak was seared to perfection, with nice marbling throughout.  Would I pay $24.75 for it in other situations? Probably not, but given that it was included in the fare for sleeper accommodations, it was a nice treat.  My tablemates had been eyeing the menu with shocked looks on their faces, not realizing that the menu was gratis for them.  We chatted for a while about my summers in Kansas and laughing that no matter which train you are arriving on, it is dark in Newton. I finished with the tiramisu.

Left:  Amtrak Signature Steak with garlic mashed and sauteed veggies. Right:  Western Auto sign visible at the Kansas City Amtrak station.

We arrived at Kansas City around 11:15 PM; 30 or so minutes late where we picked up 2 private cars with a double stop at the platform and a backup maneuver.  I retired at this point and slept until the KS/CO border.  I was content to just lay in my bed for a while looking out the window after waking at 5 AM and then dozed until 6 AM.

Somewhere near the KS/CO border September 28th

Left:  station stop at Lamar, CO during breakfast.  Right:  Your author at La Junta, CO station stop.


September 28th, 2015

Monday morning dawned with sunshine.  I got up and headed to breakfast.  I had 2 scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, sausage and a croissant.  The chicken sausage that was delivered (and not ordered) is maple flavored, so not my favorite, but I got to cross it off my list.  My table mates were a couple from Toledo, heading to Albuquerque and then Phoenix and on to the Grand Canyon.  After a fresh air break at La Junta, the morning continued with scenic vistas from the Raton pass, traveling between Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico. I was seated in the Sightseer lounge on the right side of the car in the direction of travel, providing views of the Dick Wooten Ranch and other landmarks.

Above, views from Sightseer lounge approaching and through Trinidad, CO

Cresting the Raton Pass

Raton, NM

Station stop at Raton, NM

Lunch in the Dining Car was the Angus Burger and was very good with bacon and Cheddar to crown its short existence.  My table mate was a British fellow who works for the Cirque du Soleil as a sound technician.  He was moving to Orange County from Chicago. We talked quite a bit about travel, with this being his first long haul train trip.  Having grown up in Liverpool, England trains were the norm, but did not compare mileage wise to our current trip.

Vegas, Baby! Las Vegas!  New Mexico.

New Mexico scenery between Las Vegas and Lamy

Lamy, NM station stop

We later arrived in Albuquerque on time, having made up some time from the overnight delays.  We had 45 minutes to stretch and observe the wares of the Native Americans who were selling their items on the platform.  A bank sign downtown indicated that it was 94 degrees at 4:45 PM when the SWC departed on time. 

Views of the station stop at Albuquerque, NM

Private cars attached to the Chief in Kansas City the night before

It's difficult to capture all 11 locomotives and cars plus 2 private cars in one shot.  This panorama makes an attempt.

Dinner was the vegetarian pasta and side salad, both were very good.  I was seated with a couple from Australia who were headed home via Los Angeles after visiting family in the US.  We were able to view large mesas and red rock structures as we wound west towards Gallup and darkness.  We left Gallup just a few minutes late and I spent some time taking down notes for this report.  I was exhausted from the early morning in addition to a time change.  I showered and headed to bed around 10 PM and tried to read a little but fell asleep.  The shower room on a Superliner gives you just about enough room to change your mind along with your clothes.  I quickly figured out that timing a shower while at a station stop or service point was much easier.  And don't even think about shaving with a blade on some of those tracks.

Desert views between Albuquerque, NM and Gallup

September 29, 2015

Due to detraining in Fullerton to avoid a 30 mile loop through Los Angeles Union Station and then back south to Anaheim, I had an alarm set for 6 AM.  Realizing that was really 5 AM MDT after another time change overnight, I was seated for breakfast way earlier than anyone should be awake. My tablemates were the Aussie couple again and were a treat to visit with. I enjoyed the Railroad French Toast with (pork) sausage and thoroughly enjoyed it.  We had lost some time somewhere overnight - I was unsure where as I slept soundly from before Flagstaff clear through Arizona waking up in San Bernardino.  I gathered my belongings after we stopped at Riverside and waited for the Fullerton station stop.  Fullerton was achieved near 7:15 AM, only 40 minutes down after 2239 miles.  I waited until 8:00 AM when the Surfliner #564 to Anaheim appeared.  Anaheim opened its new ARTIC facility last year and it is a beautiful, modern multimodal transit center. Pictures of this building and others appear here in my Daytrip to San Clemente report.

Riverside California

A Metrolink ready to depart Fullerton station for Los Angeles

Fullerton Amtrak station while I wait for the Pacific Surfliner to Anaheim

After arriving at Anaheim, I purchased a ticket for the ART (Anaheim Resort Transportation) and caught the shuttle to my hotel at La Quinta Inn & Suites.  $5.00 purchased a day pass, as I would try and ride the ART back and forth to the ARTIC from the hotel after my day trip to San Clemente. In planning this trip, I chose to only stay at hotels that will offer AGR points, and La Quinta is offering a triple award of 750 points per stay at the time of this writing (through December 31st).

Corner of Katella and Clementine in Anaheim

After dropping off my bags, I took the ART shuttle back to the ARTIC.  Details of the day are filed under this report:  Day tripping on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.

Summary and reflections:

The entire trip was nothing short of enjoyable - from the food being better than airplane chow to meeting and talking with so many different people.

There were nuances and uncomfortable moments also - someone had dirtied the upstairs restroom in my sleeper car so badly that it caused it to be locked out of service for some time until Lisa could properly prepare it. 

On better notes, there was always coffee and ice could be had for the asking, even if it wasn't out for general consumption.  And that is OK with me.

Another thing that was nice was the implementation of Amtrak's fresh blanket trial.  Each new segment caused a clean, laundered blanket in a sealed plastic bag to be left in my roomette, allowing me to configure my bed as I needed.

Staff:  All staff encountered were efficient, pleasant and willing to help.  I experienced no issues with the level of service.

Grade for my journey on the Southwest Chief:  A

Budget for BNL-CHI-ANA

Railfare and expenses

Retail cost of incuded meals:

BNL-CHI $12.60 Sunday: Steak, Tiramisu & iced tea $33
CHI-ANA $151.10 AAA Coach+$342.00 roomette supplement Monday: Eggs, Sausage & Juice $13 Burger+Cheese+Bacon and iced tea $17
Vegetarian Pasta, salad and coffee $24
LQ Anaheim $114.79 Tuesday: Railroad French Toast & Sausage $15
McCormick & Schmicks $30.05 Total value of included food:  $103
ART Day pass $5.00 Sleeper car fare net of food:  $239 for 2 nights in a bed.  Not terrible compared to hotel stays.
Tip for SCA $20.00 Coach plus dining:  $254.10
Sodas and snacks on train $23.00 including tips  
Total for this segment $698.54  

Amtrak Guest Rewards earned this segment:

Bloomington-Normal to Chicago:  100+100 Double Days=200
Chicago to Fullerton:  988+988 Double Days=1976
Anaheim to San Clemente 100+100 Double Days=200
San Clemente to Anaheim 100+100 Double Days=200
La Quinta Anaheim 250+500 Bonus=750
Total points to Anaheim=3326

Thanks for reading, and click here to continue to San Clemente and the Coast Starlight!


Updated 10/26/2015


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