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PHOENIX 2005 ISEF By Jack Turner


By Jack M. Turner


            A few months  after the trip described in this article, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Louisiana.  Amtrak service between New Orleans and Florida was knocked out as several railroad bridges along the Mississippi Gulf coast were destroyed.  CSX Railroad rebuilt the line and restored freight service within months after Katrina, however, Amtrak continues to list Sunset Limited service as "suspended" east of New Orleans 2 1/2 years later as of February 2008.  The St. Charles streetcar line in New Orleans which is described here also was ravaged by the hurricane but was not abandoned.  Today the Sunset Limited operates between New Orleans and Los Angeles on a tri-weekly basis.


            The last leg of my family's summer 2004 rail trip around the west ended on a bad note when our eastbound Sunset Limited deposited us at home 14 hours late last July.  An attempt to ride the westbound Sunset from Orlando home to Tallahassee in January 2005 failed as that run was annulled due to excessive lateness on its eastbound run.  With great regret, I declared the Sunset to be too unreliable to count on unless there was a solution to its extreme tardiness and 50% annulment rate east of New Orleans.  This was a sad reality for me as 12 years earlier I had been an invited guest aboard the festive inaugural run of the Sunset's extension from New Orleans to Miami.

The March 31-April 2 inaugural special etched many memories for me including the sight of my four year old son John hiding in the narrow coat closet inside a deluxe bedroom in Superliner sleeper George M. Pullman. 
Today my burly 16 year old still loves trains as much as I do but can barely fit his size 11 Reeboks in that same diminutive closet.  Thus to shun the Sunset was not something I took lightly.  Then an amazing thing happened as John was selected to be a finalist at the 56th annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix in May 2005.  Plans were made for John and my wife to fly to Phoenix while I tended the homefront.  But thoughts of not experiencing this honor with my son turned my thoughts to how to get to Phoenix without flying since I am a white-knuckler.  Just a month earlier the Sunset schedule had been padded by several hours and recent trends had seen relatively timely arrivals into Tallahassee.  I was sold.

Thursday departures from Florida were cancelled during the period in which I needed to depart so I booked a rental car to New Orleans.  Train # 1 awaited me on Friday May 6 and I climbed aboard sleeper Vermont
with excitement that I was indeed en route to ISEF and was getting an unplanned train trip out of the deal.  Having booked only two weeks before departure, I was relegated to room # 10 which I expected to be rough riding due to its being above the wheels.  Surprisingly, there was only one noticeably rough stretch the entire trip.  The lengthened schedule requires four sets of equipment rather than three so the Sunset has been reduced from two full sleepers to one though some passengers are accommodated in the transition sleeper-dormitory car.  Likewise, the baggage car has been eliminated and checked baggage is placed in the baggage compartment in the lower level of a coach-baggage car.


The westbound Sunset Limited originating in New Orleans on May 6, 2005
Sleeping car Vermont at New Orleans

            Our on-time 11:55am departure from the Crescent City was followed by the call to lunch in the diner 15 minutes later.  The diner crew, led by the steward, Ellery,  was certainly on the ball and my server Alice was efficient and humorous.  The massive Huey Long Bridge over the Mississippi River provided a wonderful view as the noon meal arrived.  The western Louisiana bayous and numerous water crossings filled my window as I relaxed away the afternoon in the Vermont.  The eastbound Sunset Limited stormed past at 3:38pm near Broussard, LA, running much better than in previous months. 

The Huey Long Bridge
West Bridge Jct.

One of many river crossings in western Louisiana

            After an hour nap, I headed to the diner with my 5:30 dinner reservation in hand.  The dining crew was efficient and ready to serve at the appointed time.  A fine New York Strip Steak and all the trimmings made for a good meal while I listened to a tablemate's monologue about Louisiana and Texas history.  The notorious Houston bottleneck halted us for two hours as we waited for traffic around Englewood Yard to clear up.  During the standstill I turned in for the night but noted a 3 hour, 23 minute late arrival into Houston at 12:36am.  I slept through our departure and next awoke as we began coupling up to two through cars from the Texas Eagle in San Antonio at 5:18am.  Our departure at 6:55am was only 75 minutes late thanks to excess dwell time at San Antonio built into the timetable.

After breakfast the south Texas topography changed from vast rangelands to the stunning Amistad Reservoir, to broad valleys, rolling hills, and deserts dotted with blooming prickly pear cactus.  The Pecos River was crossed at 10:56am on what the crew described as the highest railroad bridge in the United States.  The deep river gorge was a stunning sight with its sheer rock walls leading down from the desolate landscape to the beautiful river waters.  My tablemates for lunch were three sisters from Texas en route to Oregon to see their brother's new grandchild.  This was their first overnight train trip after years of driving the western highways. It is interesting how many first time train travelers one finds on the rails.

The Pecos River seen from the Sunset Limited

            Beyond Sanderson the former Southern Pacific line took us between the Glass Mountains and the Santiago Mountains.  A westbound intermodal freight with a string of Tropicana orange juice cars was overtaken as we continued our well-dispatched trek over today's Union Pacific Sunset Route.  Alpine (elevation 4485 ft.) was reached an hour late at 2:24pm and I noticed several people sitting in lawn chairs along the town's main street.  On the western edge of town a few small parade floats could be seen and the logical conclusion was that this was a Cinco de Mayo parade albeit two days late.  We paused on the outskirts of Alpine to allow the eastbound Sunset Limited to pass; it was running just 20 minutes late.

Mountains in western Texas
The former Southern Pacific route passes mountain ranges in western Texas

Roomette 10 in sleeper Vermont

After a wonderful two hour nap I enjoyed the changing scenes as we entered El Paso, arriving only 5 minutes late at 5:15pm.  After a quick stroll in the beautifully restored station, it was time for dinner as I usually prefer the early seating.  Dinner was delicious as usual but I noticed that the Cycle 5 menu that we had repeatedly on our Summer 2004 trip was again in use.  My server "Kirk" was efficient and I was well into my meal during our on-time departure at 5:55pm.  Mexico was a stone's throw outside my window and many families could be seen enjoying Cinco de Mayo cookouts while kids played soccer while nearby a woman was spotted carrying a basket of clothes on her head. 

The westbound Sunset Limited in El Paso
Loading the baggage coach in El Paso
The El Paso station

Sleeper Iowa at the rear of the Sunset Limited was carried from Chicago via the Texas Eagle

Mexico as seen from the Sunset Limited

Between Deming and Lordsburg, NM a magnificent desert sunset was made memorable as the sun appeared to rise and set numerous times as it was eclipsed by distant mountains then briefly appeared above jagged crevices between the peaks as curves in the rail line provided changing perspectives.  After the actual sunset, the sky was ablaze with lingering hues of purple, orange, and red before giving way to darkness.  Tucson was left on-time at 11:59pm and we rolled to a stop at my destination, Maricopa, AZ, at 1:12am on Sunday May 8, 20 minutes early.   Fortunately I had spotted my checked suitcase being stowed inside the baggage coach back at New Orleans as the conductor at first could not locate it in Maricopa.  I was invited to look for it and discovered it stored on a shelf in the corner of the tiny baggage room, hidden by piles of luggage.  I could only imagine the problems that must confront crews on truly crowded trains during the summer if a full baggage car is not restored to the consist.

A New Mexico sunset seen from train # 1
The sunset a few miles farther west

            My wife and son were a pleasant sight waiting on the platform.  They had flown into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport earlier in the day, rented a car, and settled into our hotel.  The Maricopa station is located approximately 35 minutes from downtown Phoenix and the only other means of transport into the city is an on-call private shuttle service that may be rather costly.  Given Phoenix's status as the nation's 5th most populous city, it is disappointing not to find an Amtrak shuttle bus available.  The former Amtrak station in downtown Phoenix remains in good condition but has not hosted passenger service for several years.  A new light rail system that will pass through the nearby downtown area is now in the early stages of development.

Phoenix is a most interesting city to visit and it far exceeded our expectations.  During our stay we enjoyed a visit to the Phoenix Art Museum where several Monet paintings are housed along with an impressive collection of works by other famous artists;  strolled through Desert Botanical Garden, a 145 acre gem located on the city's east side that features dozens of varieties of cacti and other plants that are native to the desert; attended an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game vs. the Washington Nationals; and drove through the Arizona State University campus.  Outside the city we drove our rental car to the red rock country around Sedona, visited Montezuma Castle National Monument, gazed at impressive Meteor Crater near Winslow, and stopped by Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.  Our hotel, the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix was a wonderfully located 4 star hotel within 3 blocks of the convention center and the Bank One Ballpark.


Cactus at an I-17 rest area
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Red rock country surrounding Sedona, AZ
Interesting formations along the highway near Sedona

The Sedona area is among the most scenic in Arizona

Meteor Crater
Twin Arrows, a relic of the Mother Road (US 66)
The Arizona Diamondbacks host the Washington Nationals at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix

The former Amtrak station in Phoenix (above)

Desert Botanical Gardens is one of the most interesting sights in metropolitan Phoenix


            The bulk of our visit found us involved with John's activities at the International Science and Engineering Fair which can only be described as awe inspiring as over 1,450 high school students from 45 nations competed for thousands of dollars, college scholarships, and various other awards.  The opening ceremony featured talks by the governor of Arizona, the CEOs of sponsoring corporations such as Intel, and the keynote speaker Astronaut Sally Ride.  The sight of over 1,450 high school students dressed in their Sunday finest and displaying mature behavior would impress even the most cynical witness.  We were certainly proud of John and recommend this event to any student who is willing to work hard and is blessed to be selected to attend.

The student pin exchange is a popular ISEF tradition as hundreds of finalists from around the world trade collector pins
The author's son John Turner outside the exhibit hall where he will present his science project
John Turner displays his project at the International Science & Engineering Fair in Phoenix

The Phoenix Hyatt Regency Hotel, headquarters for the 2005 ISEF

    Following the closing ceremony on Friday May 13, we packed up John's display board for shipping then prepared for my late night train # 2, the eastbound Sunset Limited. 
My family dropped me off so they could return to the Hyatt and get some sleep before flying home on Saturday.  The Maricopa station was busy with approximately 30 passengers waiting to board.  A small new station building had just opened two weeks earlier replacing former CB&Q dome observation sleeper Silver Horizon which now stands as an unusual display beside the parking lot.  The Sunset eased to the first of its triple stops at the short Maricopa platform at 11:56pm.  By the time we departed at 12:15am, # 2 was almost 2 hours late.  My room was supposed to be room # 22 in the transition crew sleeper, however, this set of equipment had recently run with a regular Superliner sleeper in its place.  I was pleased to find this still true and that I had the appropriately named Arizona.  Car attendant Henry Ford directed me to room 6 and I was quickly lulled to sleep by the humming of the two engines located directly ahead of my sleeper.  Fittingly, engine number 2 led train number 2.

Former California Zephyr dome observation sleeper Silver Horizon stands behind the new Maricopa, AZ station.

Morning brought an on-time arrival at into El Paso at 8:16am which allowed time to inspect the inside of the station closely before heading to the dining car for breakfast.  My tablemates were Dennis and Lisa from Gilbert, AZ who were en route to Orlando.  Finding much in common, we shared lengthy meals throughout the trip.  

The Rio Grande River at El Paso, TX

The stately El Paso station
Sleeper Arizona during the servicing stop in El Paso
Unusual occurance: Engine # 2 on train # 2 in El Paso

We met the westbound Sunset
at Paisano at 2:01pm then slid into Alpine close to schedule at 2:25pm.  Occasionally I stepped to the front of the Arizona, just a few feet from my room, for a unique forward view above the engines.  The lack of a transition car meant the window in the forward end door was available for watching signals, approaching trains, and other sights of interest.  The crew was housed mostly in the deluxe bedrooms at the rear of the car and in standard bedrooms downstairs.

Car attendant Henry Ford was kept busy as he doubled as attendant for one of the coaches a few cars back yet he seemed to always be available to press the reset button to flush the toilet vacuum system which was acting up due to the high altitude.  Additionally, he frequently cleaned the bathroom facilities and was available to make up passengers' beds.  I later realized that, thanks to his hard work, I never heard the incessant ringing of attendant call buttons which often annoys on other train trips.

Late afternoon found us sailing through Langtry, home of the famous Judge Roy Bean at 5:49pm, crossing deep Eagle Nest Canyon a minute later, and making the exciting crossing of the Pecos River at 6:10 as my dinner salad was served.  An hour later the Sunset
made its stop at Del Rio where an attractive new looking intermodal station welcomed visitors to that community.

We were within 15 minutes of schedule at San Antonio at 10:38pm and after awhile the rear two cars were switched out and coupled onto the Chicago-bound Texas Eagle. 
I fell asleep to the sound of our engines just ahead of my sleeper and the Texas Eagle's engine, a few feet from my window as it idled on the next track.  Those sounds must have put me in a deep sleep as I awoke 7 1/2 hours later when my alarm clock alerted me that I should roll out and have breakfast.  Once more I dined with Dennis and Lisa and enjoyed sharing our common interest in rail travel.  We were still within 15 minutes of schedule at Beaumont, a far better performance than # 2 had provided on my family trip in July 2004.

Views of the bayous and sugar cane fields of southern Louisiana passed by my window as the Sunset Limited
continued to keep its schedule.  I tried spending time in the lounge car but my sleeper room was more appealing since this wasn't inspiring scenery necessitating views out both sides of the train and meals in the dining car provided enough chances to socialize.  We began the long climb up the approach to the Huey Long Bridge as I finished lunch and it was interesting to hear comments from first time travelers on this route who never had seen the massive bridge which resembles a wooden roller-coaster in appearance.

A shortline freight engine at Shriever, LA
The long approach to the Huey Long Bridge seen from the eastbound Sunset Limited

The Huey Long Bridge carries both US 90 and the Union Pacific Railroad high above the Mississippi River

            We backed into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at 3:11pm, 49 minutes early and would not depart until the scheduled 10:30pm.  With this schedule even a five hour late train could make an on-time departure, however, an on-time or early train is thus left with a long layover.  Since the southbound City of New Orleans was still parked a couple tracks over, I took time to record its consist as well as that of the visiting American Orient Express which was on the far station track.  I then walked a few blocks straight ahead from the station door and boarded a westbound St. Charles Avenue Streetcar for the scenic ride through the Garden District, past Tulane University, to the end of the line at Claiborne Avenue then caught another streetcar back to where I started at Lee Circle.  Many of my fellow Sunset passengers opted to visit the French Quarter but after about an hour and a half of riding the historic streetcars, I was in the mood to cool off by walking around the shopping mall near the station and the adjacent Hyatt Hotel lobby.

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal serves the Sunset Limited, Crescent, and City of New Orleans.

The St.Charles Avenue streetcar at Lee Circle a few months bfore Hurricane Katrina
St. Charles Avenue streetcars follow one another as seen from an opposing streetcar
An eastbound streetcar in the stately Garden District

Looking over the streetcar operator's head as we pass through the Garden District
A beautiful home in the Garden District

The eastbound Sunset Limited during a long layover in New Orleans

            I returned to the Sunset Limited at about 6:00pm, took a shower, and headed to the dining car for dinner.  Regular serving hours are observed while the train sits in New Orleans, however, with many passengers off sightseeing, there was a choice of tables and no hurry to finish.  I lingered over dinner and watched the AOE depart on one of its transcontinental trips to Los Angeles.  The Crescent arrived from New York a couple of hours later at 9:22pm as the various sightseers began to return from their evening in the Crescent City.  We departed 5 minutes late at 10:35pm as I turned in for my third night in the Arizona.

Morning found us 95 minutes late as we departed Pensacola at 8:05am.  Escambia Bay shimmered in the morning light as the CSX tracks traced a route along the bay's western shore, however, there were many disfigured trees spotted along the way, a direct result of last year's Hurricane Ivan.  As we crossed the bay on the impressive CSX bridge, the temporary sections of the eastbound span of the parallel Interstate 10 bridge were visible.  Wind driven waves and storm surge from Ivan washed out several sections of the eastbound I-10 span, in the process depositing an unfortunate truck driver to his death in the churning waters.  The washed out sections have been replaced by temporary metal sections but eastbound traffic is limited to one lane which backs up traffic.  A new bridge is to be constructed in the near future.

The CSX dispatcher and several slow orders conspired to make us lose a bit more time as we crossed the Florida Panhandle.  We were 2 hours and 20 minutes late at Chipley and dropped back a bit more due to a couple of freight meets, eventually arriving in Tallahassee at 3:05pm.  The 2 hour, 33 minute late arrival was a vast improvement over last summer's 14 hour late debacle and it also allowed one final lunch in the diner before reaching my destination.  In all, it had been an excellent trip and thanks to the new schedule, my confidence in the Sunset Limited
was restored.


            The author's son was again selected to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair the following two years.  Reports on these events and the accompanying rail trips to Indianapolis and Albuquerque may be found online at:

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