SPRING BREAK ON AMTRAK (PART 2): 5 DAYS ON THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF
SPRING BREAK ON AMTRAK (PART 2): 5 DAYS ON THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF
By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner
After our day in Los Angeles we were ready to board
the Southwest Chief and the easiest way to board quickly is to let a
red cap drive you to the train. Given the station's steep ramps
from a subterranean tunnel beneath the tracks to the platform, this is
a great way to begin one's trip. Car 32000, Amtrak's original
Superliner sleeper, welcomed us aboard and we were pleased to see that
the car had been refurbished with wood paneling, a new restroom design,
and other upgrades to the 31 year old sleeper. This would be our
first trip in the 32000, allowing us to strike another sleeper from our
"never ridden" list.
The Southwest Chief departed from Track 12 a few
minutes late at 6:37pm and 35 minutes later made its scheduled stop in
Fullerton. While the conductor lifted tickets, John and I
detrained for a brief visit with TrainWeb's Carl Morrison whom we had
met with earlier in the day. We made our way to the diner as the
Chief branched off the San Diego line just south of the Fullerton
station and the meal did not disappoint. Near the end of dinner
the train made its station stop at Riverside, home of one of Amtrak's
reservation call centers. San Bernandino followed a few minutes
later then we made the winding climb to Cajon Pass though evening
darkness diminished the view.
Planned overnight stays in Flagstaff, Arizona and
LaPlata, Missouri would stretch the Southwest Chief experience to five
days and would allow the sampling of three consecutive sets of
Southwest Chief equipment. Having risen early this
morning and with another early morning ahead, we turned in for the
night as the train left Victorville at 9:34pm. The night passed
quickly and we detrained in Flagstaff at 5:49am on Day 2 of our
Southwest Chief adventure.
A couple of hours later we picked up a rental car
from the Avis office a block from the train station. We enjoyed
driving around Flagstaff whose downtown streets are lined with
interesting shops, restaurants, and night spots then we turned
northward bound for the Grand Canyon. The drive to the canyon
climbs as it passes near the Snow Bowl ski resort and a heavy snowfall
made the drive interesting for this pair of Floridians. Grand
Canyon National Park was reached after about 90 minutes and we spent
several hours visiting the various overlooks; having lunch at the
dining room inside the El Tovar hotel; and browsing inside the Hopi
House, a shop designed by famed naturalist Mary Coulter in 1905 to
resemble an indian puebo building. The Grand Canyon Railway
station stands a few steps from El Tovar and the Hopi House and the
tourist line's train from Williams was resting after its arrival with a
load of canyon visitors. An article by TrainWeb's Carl Morrison
details his recent ride on this line. (A link to his report can be found in the LINKS Section at the end of this report.)
(Click any photo below to see a double-sized copy; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)
A steam engine displayed along US 180 north of Flagstaff.
John enjoys a heavy snowfall along US 180 near the Arizona Snowbowl.
Clouds cast a variety of hues to the walls of the Grand Canyon.
March snow dusts the cliffs lining the Grand Canyon.
The multiple layers of the canyon are visible from this vantage point.
Tovar was a resort hotel constructed to attract rail travelers arriving
on Santa Fe trains. Today this popular lodge continues to serve
visitors wishing to stay within a few steps of the canyon rim.
This view was made popular in the movie "Family Vacation" starring
The magnificent dining room at El Tovar.
The Hopi House, opened in 1905, was designed by famed naturalist Mary Coulter.
Grand Canyon Railway continues the tradition of bringing visitors to the Grand Canyon. Shown here is vista dome Coconino.
Former Amtrak F40 # 237 heads the Grand Canyon Railway train on this day.
A rainbow brightens the scene over the Painted Desert east of Grand Canyon National Park.
Sunset Crater, a national monument located northeast of Flagstaff, is a popular sight.
We found this to be an excellent time of year to
visit the Grand Canyon as we didn't encounter the huge crowds with
which we contended during past summer visits nor the oppressive heat
that is typical of the desert southwest at that time of year. A
chilly breeze and periodic snowfall made the visit interesting and the
alternating clouds and sun cast a variety of colors and shadows on the
canyon walls. Back in Flagstaff we planned to visit famous Lowell
Observatory for some nighttime stargazing, however, the overcast skies
and light snowfall nixed that plan. We spent the night at the
cozy Hilton Garden Inn which is located on the western side of town
adjacent to several restaurants. The hotel offers transportation
to and from the Amtrak station and nearby sights which is convenient
for train travelers. This hotel is a perfect base for day trips
to the Grand Canyon, Sunset Crater National Monument, Waputki National
Monument, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Montezuma Castle National Monument,
Meteor Crater, and the Verde River Railroad.
Garden Inn is a leading hotel in Flagstaff. This hotel offers
courtesy transportation to and from the Flagstaff Amtrak station.
CONTINUING EAST ON THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF
Day 3 of our Southwest Chief travels dawned early as
we drove our rental car from the Hilton Garden Inn to the Amtrak
station. After leaving our Avis car in a parking lot across the
tracks from the depot, we boarded the tardy Southwest Chief at 6:19am
along with about 30 other passengers. After settling into room 4
in sleeper 32076 "Delaware", we headed to the diner for breakfast as we
stopped in Winslow at dawn. A long stop ensued at Gallup as high
winds and heavy snow necessitated delay to ensure conditions were safe
to proceed. The schedule permitted train # 4 to make up most of
its lost time and we rolled into Albuquerque just before noon.
There we made the planned switch to the adjacent sleeper, car 32015,
which allowed us to travel in a bedroom the remainder of the
trip. After a quick visit to Bedroom C we walked the platform to
look at engine # 145 which was decked out in one of Amtrak's throwback
heritage paint jobs. The long service stop allowed time to also visit
the jewelry tables manned by members of the Navajo indian tribe at one
end of the platform. Before departure we made our way to the
dining car for lunch and we enjoyed sitting with Ken, a former NHL
hockey player and his little girl.
Fresh fallen snow covers freight cars along the former Santa Fe transcontinental line.
A westbound BNSF freight on a converging line in the desert.
Santa Fe's old repair shops in Albuquerque.
P42 # 145 wears a retro paint scheme in honor of Amtrak's 40th birthday.
New Mexico Rail Runner equipment lays over for the weekend near the Albuquerque station.
As the Southwest Chief passed behind the Albuquerque
Convention Center, our thoughts were taken back to May 2007 when we
spent a week in the city for the International Science and Engineering
Fair (ISEF) which was held in that facility. For details about
our rail travels to and from Albuquerque and John's participation in
that year's ISEF, see our story "Point Me In The Direction of
Albuquerque". (A link to that report can be found in the LINKS Section at the end of this report.)
Just outside Albuquerque we met a New Mexico Rail
Runner commuter train then made our way toward Lamy, the closest Amtrak
stop to Santa Fe, NM. With very careful planning one can make a
triangle trip using Amtrak between Albuquerque and Lamy, the Santa Fe
Southern excursion train between Lamy and Santa Fe, and the Rail Runner
commuter train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Just east of
Lamy we passed through narrow Canyoncito then made the climb to
Glorietta Pass where lots of snow covered tree tops, hills, and red
rocks. At 2:37pm the westbound Southwest Chief rolled past on the
main line at Fox while our train held the siding. About one-half
hour later we navigated the double horseshoe near Blanchard and passed
distinctive Starvation Peak. The next stop, Las Vegas, NM,
provided a glimpse of La Castinada, one of the famed Harvey House
lodges built along the Santa Fe Railway in a bygone era.
Shoemaker Canyon was the next notable sight passing
our window then the Chief entered massive rangelands where antelope and
a few heads of cattle roamed. Another landmark, Wagon Mound, came
into view and a few miles beyond we spotted the second semaphore signal
of the day. As recently as our 2007 trip we had seen many of the
venerable signals along this stretch, however, most have since been
replaced by newer trackside signals. The steep climb to Raton
Pass began just beyond the station stop for Raton, NM and the setting
was surreal with thick fog enveloping snow covered mountains. Our
passage through Raton Tunnel and exit into Colorado was viewed from the
diner as we waited for another delicious meal to be served. The
sharp descent from Raton Pass reminded me of my first ride over this
line, a westbound trip in 1976. Back then the sound of three
SDP40F engines straining to climb Raton resembled a jet taking off as I
watched from an open vestibule window in a former Santa Fe hi-level
coach. On the current trip the sound effects were insulated from
the dining car interior but the view was just as outstanding despite
the fog. The old Santa Fe sign identifying the historic Dick
Wooten Ranch still stood beside the railway and the area looked much
the way it did 35 years ago.
The trailing engine on our eastbound Southwest Chief displays an Amtrak throwback paint job.
One of many distinctive mountains along the route of the Southwest Chief.
Eagle-eyed travelers will likely spot a variety of wildlife from the Southwest Chief.
Rain falls in the high country east of Raton, NM.
The Raton station.
After the stop in Trinidad, Colorado, the Southwest
Chief sailed through the darkness to its next stop in LaJunta which
stretched past 8:00pm. The extended break gave time to grab a
handful of snow from an automobile parked nearby and throw a snowball
at our bedroom window where John was perched. Soon it was time to
turn in as we had to arise in the middle of the night so John could
greet a friend who was boarding one of the coaches at Newton,
Kansas. This allowed us to see the westbound Southwest Chief
flash by at 3:11am about 20 minutes before our train called at
Newton. After sleeping three more hours we arose for good at
6:30am at Lawrence then headed for breakfast in the diner during the
stop in Kansas City an hour later. A couple hours later it was
time for me to detrain at La Plata, Missouri for a day of railfanning
and touring the area. Meanwhile, John continued to Chicago for a
day of sightseeing with his friend.
A friendly employee of the Depot Inn and Suites
greeted me at the station platform in La Plata and assisted in placing
my luggage in the Depot Inn's van. This attractive lodge is
located about 1/2 mile from the Amtrak station and, as the name
implies, it caters to railfans. Railroad motor cars stand on a
short piece of track in front of the Depot Inn and Suites and, upon
entering the lobby, one is immediately surrounded by railroading.
A large bookshelf beside the fireplace houses a well stocked library of
railroad books while an adjacent magazine rack offers a variety of
train magazines. All of these are available for guests to use
during their stay. A large screen television is tuned to a rail
cam overlooking the BNSF main line near the Amtrak station while
another channel offers the dispatcher's view of the railroad
subdivisions showing where trains are at a given moment. Visitors
to the indoor swimming pool will notice metal railroad heralds hanging
from the pool room's walls and a variety of railroad photos and
artifacts line the hallway outside many of the guest rooms. The
Pullman Suite offered a plush experience with a king sized sleigh bed,
leather sofa, fireplace, hot tub, and large screen television complete
with the railroad channels along with many cable stations.
La Plata, MO Amtrak station.
Depot Inn and Suites, La Plata, MO.
In addition to transportation to the La Plata depot,
the Depot Inn and Suites advertises courtesy transportation to other
Amtrak stations in the region making it possible to arrive on the
Southwest Chief but depart on one of the other routes passing within
about an hour of La Plata. While the town of La Plata is home to
under 2,000 residents, nearby Kirksville is significantly larger and
rental cars are available for those wishing access to outlying
Behind the Depot Inn a pair of former Amtrak material
handling cars contain impressive displays with one of them recognized
as the Amtrak historical museum. Stepping inside one of these
cars is like going back in time as displays dedicated to just about any
long distance train ever run by Amtrak bring back distant
memories. From Southwest Chief dining car menus to conductors'
jackets to commemorative glass mugs from the Capitol Limited and wine
glasses from the Empire Builder, this former mail car transports
visitors through Amtrak's colorful history.
Material handling cars displayed outside the Depot Inn and Suites are recognized as the official Amtrak historical museum.
This display in the Amtrak historical museum honors the Lake Shore Limited.
California Zephyr memorabilia is housed in the historical museum.
The Southwest Chief and its predecessor the Southwest Limited are spotlighted in the museum.
Following my personal tour of the museum displays it
was time to explore the area and my first stop was the railfan overlook
pavilion where one can watch passing trains from the comfort of seats
inside a climate controlled cabin or outside on its front deck.
From this elevated perch, trains can be seen racing past the Amtrak
depot to the west or rounding a curve and rushing below a highway
overpass to the east. With dozens of BNSF freights and Amtrak's
Southwest Chief passing each day, this is one of the prime train
watching spots in the nation. The headquarters of TrainParty.com
stand across the tracks from the railfan pavilion and the Amtrak depot;
a visit gave me insight into this business which caters to train-themed
birthday party supplies and miscellaneous other train goodies.
There I met Ray Burns who explained that the business originally was
housed in the Fullerton, CA station but quickly outgrew that
space. The mid-America location of La Plata was selected for its
convenient shipping to customers and its location on the Southwest
Chief route. Visit www.trainparty.com to look at an impressive
list of items sure to make any kid's birthday party a hit.
The train watching pavillion in La Plata is a comfortable place to view BNSF and Amtrak action.
A westbound stack train passes the Amtrak depot as seen from the pavillion.
An eastbound Norfolk Southern stack train polishes the rails.
Another westbound sails by the La Plata depot with the TrainParty.com headquarters visible at right.
TrainWeb's Ray Burns provides a tour of the TrainParty.com warehouse.
The TrainParty.com headquarters is opposite the Amtrak station.
Ray then took me on a guided tour of Amish country
which surrounds La Plata. Here we saw numerous farms whose lack
of electric wires is a telltale sign that Amish folks live there.
A couple of Amish owned businesses that welcome outside customers were
visited and one couldn't help but gain a healthy respect for these
folks' dedication to a demanding way of life. Along the way the
rural highway crossed the BNSF line and streaking double stack trains
provided wonderful photo opportunities. After dinner it was time
to visit the Amtrak station to greet the westbound Southwest Chief
while a crowd of about 10 passengers waited to board. The waiting
room of the old Santa Fe station retains many art deco appointments
from another era and the former ticket office today is where one will
find station caretaker Bob Cox. Visiting with Bob and a pair of
railfans visiting during spring break was a pleasant way to spend the
evening while watching Amtrak and four freight trains rumble through.
Drivers on rural roads outside La Plata are likely to encounter horse drawn carriages owned by local Amish residents.
A rural highway crossing west of La Plata is an excellent spot to watch BNSF trains pass at speed.
The westbound Southwest Chief arrives in La Plata on a snowy March 9, 2011.
TOURING THE WINDY CITY
(During the author's stay in La Plata, John
continued to Chicago aboard the Southwest Chief which allowed an extra
day for sightseeing. The following is his account of a stay in
the Windy City.)
As most major airlines nowadays have a central hub
from which the vast majority of their flights terminate and originate,
so does Amtrak with its long distance passenger trains. But unlike New
York, Atlanta, or Dallas international airports; Chicago Union Station
is located in the heart of the city, making any layover or visit a
prime opportunity to take advantage of the city's world class
entertainment and sightseeing, as I did during my two night stopover at
the Homewood Suites just off Michigan Avenue. Throughout my stay, the
hotel staff there were extremely accommodating: answering my questions,
giving directions, and all in all going the extra mile to make sure
that my time there was a pleasant one. Despite getting in early on the
Chief, I opted to take my first night in the Windy City a little low
key after several consecutive days of riding, and rather than go out
and about, just went across the street and got a Chicago deep dish
Homewood Suites in downtown Chicago provides comfortable lodging a short cab ride from all Chicago rail stations.
Our suite at Chicago's Homewood Suites offered a separate living room, bedroom, and full kitchen.
The next day was a chilly one, and I had an early
start with a full schedule of sights to see and things to do. After
eating my complimentary breakfast at the Homewood, and getting some
directions from the bellman, I headed out the door into the morning
flurries and made the short trek of a couple of blocks to the trolley
stop. Without any transportation of my own, I decided to get a day pass
with the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Company, and let me say
that there is no better way to see the city. On top of being extremely
convenient with stops all around the city that patrons can just hop on
and off at their leisure; the onboard guides make the time in between
an educational and entertaining one.
Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company tours are a perfect way to see the Windy City.
My first stop of the day was the Chicago Art
Institute, really a pilgrimage that every visitor to Chicago must make
at least once. The museum's collections of Impressionist and
Contemporary Art is surpassed by none. Being a big fan of artists like
Monet and Renoir myself, the sheer number of paintings that they have
by these artists just blows my mind and makes visiting the Art
Institute akin to visiting a candy store. But even for the most casual
of art fans, there are a multitude of paintings and pieces that you
will recognize and appreciate. Time spent at the Chicago Art Institute
is time that returns dividends of memories and memorable experiences.
After a couple of hours roaming the labyrinth of
halls and galleries, I headed back out to street-side and caught
another trolley to, what I would call, 'museum row', to visit the Field
Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. Honestly, I didn't know much of what to
expect at the Field Museum. Time after time, I was told by my Chicagoan
friends that I had to go there, but really I didn't know much about
what it housed other than that it had 'Sue', the largest, most complete
T-Rex skeleton in the world. Let me say that I was astounded. The Field
Museum was probably the biggest surprise, in a good way, that I've ever
had in the Windy City. Inside its stately columns are housed thousands
and thousands of exhibits ranging from Native American and Egyptian
artifacts to countless gems. What was most impressive to me though, was
its collection of animal specimens from around the world. Words do not
justify just how extensive that collection really is, and so I will not
even attempt it. Let me just say that there are things in there that I
had never seen before, never knew existed, and truly were so bizarre
that they almost appeared to me to be fake, but amazingly weren't.
Perhaps my only regret of the trip is that I didn't have even more time
to spend there, but I know that I'll certainly get back the next time I
find myself along the shores of Lake Michigan.
The Field Museum is one of Chicago's greatest treasures.
One of the central displays in the Field Museum.
"Sue" is the Field Museum's most recognizable display.
Following my astonishment at the Field Museum, came
another surprise at the Shedd Aquarium. Being from the Southeast, land
of aquariums, I had been to a countless number whether in Georgia,
Tennessee, or my home state of Florida. Therefore, my expectations of
an aquarium in metropolitan Chicago were rather low. I could not have
been further off. Firstly, it was vastly larger than I had envisioned.
In addition to the standard fish exhibits radiating out in all
directions from the main concourse, there was a massive 'oceanarium'
with all sorts of sea mammals ranging from sea lions and otters to
beluga whales and dolphins. The diversity of the species and regions
covered also was a bit of a surprise. I had figured that there would be
sharks, but penguins too? Along with the Art Institute and the Field
Museum, I would certainly rank the Shedd Aquarium as a must-experience
when visiting the Windy City. I should also note that from the grounds
of the little peninsula that the museums are located on, there's an
absolutely breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. Lucky for me, my
trolley driver was nice enough to make a special stop and allow the
passengers onboard to capture it with their cameras.
Shedd Aquarium is a fantastic facility just south of Chicago's Loop.
A variety of sea life can be viewed at the Shedd Aquarium.
Playful sea lions are a tourist favorite at the aquarium.
The Chicago skyline as seen at a special tour stop.
After a bit of relaxing and taking advantage of the
complimentary dinner buffet provided by the Homewood, I took to the
Chicago streets after dusk to get some great night shots of the city. I
ended up making my way to the John Hancock Building where a speeding
elevator whirled me 94 floors to the observation deck which many
Chicagoans secretly attest has some of the best views of the city. My
visit did not prove them wrong. I imagine that the view during the day
is lovely, but at night it's mesmerizing. Looking out at all the city
lights stretching for miles and miles, the waves rolling up on the
shores of Lake Michigan illuminated by the moon, and the river of red
and white car lights flowing throughout like the lifeblood of
Chicago... it really is an amazing sight to see. To make comparison,
the feeling you get looking out from the Hancock Observatory at night
is similar to the feeling you have watching the coast from a ship at
night or the flickering city lights from a train as you pull away into
the country. It's a special moment of awe. Of course, another
awe-inspiring moment is when you're standing 1,353 feet above the
ground with nothing but a glass floor separating you from certain
death, such as I did the following day at Skydeck Chicago at the iconic
Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. Notably popular (and crowded), there is
nowhere else in the country that you can ascend 103 floors straight up
into the atmosphere and then find yourself staring straight back down
again. It makes me feel sorry for the folks who have to clean the
Water Tower is a historical structure on Michigan Avenue.
The nighttime skyline of Chicago seen from the John Hancock Building's observation deck.
Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) is located a couple blocks from Chicago Union Station.
The Amtrak yards can be seen from Willis Tower.
The skyline of Chicago seen from Willis Tower includes a view of the John Hancock Building.
A northbound Metra train seen from the Willis Tower skydeck.
This view straight down from Willis Tower is not for the faint of heart.
DAY FIVE ON THE CHIEF
While John toured Chicago, I made my way back to the
La Plata depot on a chilly Thursday morning in the Depot Inn courtesy
van. Another good crowd awaited for the Southwest Chief to arrive
at 10:00am. Interestingly the train stopped on the far track
meaning one had to cross the near track on a wooden crosswalk that
required precise spotting of the train. Despite the relatively
short trip to Chicago, I opted for a roomette and was soon relaxing
with my feet up in room 5 in car 32026. As had been the case for
much of the trip, this was a car I had never ridden; once again the
statistical odds had been beaten. Thanks to stopovers in
Flagstaff and La Plata, this was the fifth straight day I had been
aboard the Southwest Chief for at least a few hours.
The art deco interior of La Plata's train station.
The eastbound Southwest Chief arrives in La Plata on March 10, 2011.
Just beyond Fort Madison, Iowa the train crossed the
Mississippi River and entered Illinois at 11:20am. At noon it was
time for lunch in the dining car and I shared a table with a gentleman
from Iowa and a railfan from Charlottesville, VA. He recounted
his trip aboard the California Zephyr on February 18 when the train
stalled at Emigrant Gap in California and was rear-ended at low speed
by a freight train. Indeed winter railroading has its trials as
told by a fellow diner on the Sunset Limited and this man. Our
decision to travel on more southerly routes certainly seemed justified.
The Mississippi River rail/highway bridge at Fort Madison, IA.
A former Burlington caboose is displayed next to the Galesburg, IL depot.
Chicago's western suburbs passed during
mid-afternoon and right on the dot at 3:00pm we pulled into Chicago
Union Station. A short taxi ride deposited me at the Homewood
Suites hotel on Wabash Avenue which is within walking distance of
upscale Michigan Avenue shops, the John Hancock Building, Water Tower
Place, and many attractions along the north side of The Loop.
This hotel features separate bedrooms and living rooms with two
televisions, a full kitchen, and ample room to unwind. A pleasant
light meal at the manager's reception in the evening and a hearty
breakfast the next morning were included in the price of the
suite. The next day would begin the final legs of our journey.