Amtrak 4, 3, and Me: I’m Impressed! October 15th, 2006
A Trip Report for October 7-11, 2006. Commentary and Photos by Russ Jackson, RailPAC Secretary.
After the successful RailPAC meeting in Fullerton, CA, on October 7 it was time for me to return to Los Angeles Union Station (parking in the MTA Building garage was suggested by James Smith) and prepare to board Train 4, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Albuquerque and Lamy, New Mexico. Because I now live in Northern California I don’t get to go to Phillippe’s restaurant near LAUS very often, so I went there for dinner. Soon Surfliner train 583 arrived at LAUS and RailPAC VP Smith and Associate Director Ken Ruben were there, having traveled back after the meeting.
Train 4 to Lamy.
The trainset was at the platform on time, and I boarded Coach 412 where Attendant Carolyn was greeting passengers. She was friendly, efficient, and very helpful to all her passengers throughout the trip. I was ticketed for a lower level coach seat, as it’s quieter down there and is available to older passengers like me. There were three other passengers down there, so we each had a full seat to ourselves for the overnight trip. There was time to inspect the condition of the car and it appeared to be one recently out of the shop, as was the Lounge Car on this train. They looked to be in very good condition, and the renovated Lounges with tables at one end are in great shape. I understand that a new upper-level galley and dumbwaiter are being installed in the first of the 13 Superliner I dining cars being converted to new diner-lounge configuration by Amtrak at its Beech Grove shops. It’s just a shame (it should be a crime) the project to renovate all the Superliner I cars is taking so long. Andrea, the Lounge Car attendant had a cold, but cheerily stayed on the job working her assigned hours all the way.
We were out ON TIME, with no delays anymore for freight cars to be attached, and were speedily enroute to Fullerton. A large crowd boarded there, as did a small group at Riverside. Most of these passengers were going to Albuquerque! I later found out the annual Balloon Festival was underway in that city, but for many it was a personal destination. Before we got to Barstow sleep took over and I awoke going across the Northern Arizona desert. At Williams Jct. we were down about a half hour, and several passengers detrained to be greeted by the Grand Canyon Railway van. At Flagstaff we were a half hour late. Many ons and offs there, too. One thing even a casual observer should notice is the importance of the intermediate stations along the route of these long distance trains. EACH ONE was a destination for passengers on this train and on #3 returning! How else could people “get there”? Car? Yes, but what if that was not an option? Take the train, and they do.
Winslow is a very busy BNSF yard these days and #4 had slow moving through it. There were passengers waiting to board our train at the station, which is part of the former Fred Harvey Hotel “La Posada,”open for tourists again and doing well. Breakfast was served in the Dining Car shortly thereafter, and I went in at about 7:00 as we passed through the historic Route 66 town of Holbrook, to at long last sample the “Simplified” cuisine. The breakfast menu had 5 items to choose from, and I picked the “Bob Evans” Breakfast Scramble, partly because it came with a half order of a favorite, “Railroad French Toast.” While it was obvious that the meals were prepackaged mine turned out to be quite tasty. I must say, however, that if more cutbacks are made to food service in the future the borderline for quality will be quickly crossed. The three companions at the table were interesting; one, a young fellow from Australia, was traveling to Toronto and New York visiting museums. The gents across the table had the oatmeal, which was “watery and flavorless” in their words. No big complaints were heard, however, and the service was excellent as there were two waiters and a Lead Attendant working every efficiently.
Gallup, New Mexico, with its Navajo Indian culture and restored station/museum was the beginning of very rough riding track, and the BNSF has a massive maintenance project on that section of their “Transcon” double track route that will eliminate the problem. While we had some speed reductions, BNSF Dispatch weaved our train through the waiting freight traffic quite expeditiously with no waiting. This track project goes from Gallup to the Dailies Junction, where Amtrak diverges onto the Albuquerque line. We arrived in Albuquerque at 11:35 AM, 45 minutes EARLY! Waiting on the platform was RailPAC Associate Director and New Mexico Rail Passenger Association President, Jon Messier. It’s always great to visit with Jon and he had much to show. Being Sunday, the new Railrunner commuter trains were not running, but a trainset was available for picture taking, and a photo appears later in this report. A full report of what’s happening in the “Land of Enchantment” will be posted on this website next month.
Departure from Albuquerque was ON TIME at 12:45, and we were on to Lamy, the AT&SF and Amtrak station for New Mexico’s capital city Santa Fe. The photo above shows what’s new at the Lamy station: a restored Atlantic Coast Line diner is open for lunch, operated by the same caterers that service the Santa Fe Southern tourist train. In the background is the reopened “Legal Tender” bar and restaurant, which is also a rail museum. A signal failure north of Bernalillo had caused us to arrive 30 minutes late, however, my sister Suzanne Snow and her husband Bob were on hand for the greeting and we were off for Sunday dinner at the historic Harvey House Hotel and restaurant, “La Fonda” in downtown Santa Fe before going to their place in Abiquiu. During the visit I was asked by many of their friends about when the Railrunner was coming to Santa Fe, and based on what Jon Messier had said, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is determined it will be in 2008. Interest is very high. .
Train 3 Back To Los Angeles.
While the great visit was a short one, including participating for the first time in a yoga class taught by Suzanne, we were back at Lamy on October 10 for me to catch Train 3 which was arriving from the east ON TIME! I was welcomed aboard Coach 311 by Attendant Steve, and was seated in the same seat location on the lower level. Arrival in Albuquerque was at 3:35, a half hour early, and Jon was there on the platform again for more train talk and see the 4:10 departure of the Railrunner on that Tuesday afternoon. The picture of that departure is below. Notice a nice crowd is waiting for early boarding including one passenger who arrived on a bicycle. They’re beginning to “get it” in Albuquerque.
Our Albuquerque departure was ON TIME at 4:35, with a large group of people boarding, a large group was reserved at Gallup, and another at Flagstaff; all heading for Los Angeles. There were more people downstairs this time, with a lady going to Winslow, a couple that boarded at Albuquerque going to Fullerton, a man going to Kingman to board the Las Vegas bus, and a couple getting off at Needles. I did have the seat to myself for the overnight trip. I would estimate that this train, and train #4 eastbound, hit over 80% Coach occupancy at Albuquerque. That station is a definite destination for Amtrak, and now that the State of New Mexico will own the track up as far as the Colorado border (more next month) there is no excuse for Amtrak to take the Southwest Chief off this line.
Unfortunately, this was Coach 34047, a Superliner I that had not been renovated yet. And it showed. Boy, did it: All 5 toilets on the lower level were not functioning due to a mechanical condition, not because of passenger plugging. A mechanic had boarded at Albuquerque but was unable to correct the problem, so all passengers in our Coach had to use the other Coaches, all of which had fully functioning toilets. A nuisance, particularly for some of the others traveling downstairs, but fortunately the other cars remained functional into Los Angeles. The rough riding track was uncomfortable again, and several folks were bounced around a bit but everyone kept their humor that I saw. The BNSF continued to weave us through their heavy traffic as we slammed into crossovers nearly at speed, saw several freight trains stacked up waiting for us, and I couldn’t help thinking about how different that was from the Union Pacific’s reputation on other Amtrak long distance trains.
Dinner On #3
Dinner reservations were taken quite efficiently, and I chose 6:00. At 5:45 I was waiting in the Lounge car and was called to dinner early. A couple returning to Phoenix (they had parked in Flagstaff), and a man who had boarded at Lamy at the same time I did who was enroute only to Gallup were at the table. That fellow was a regular rider on that segment, saying he preferred to relax and have dinner to driving that distance!
Dinner service was quite efficient, and I chose the “Evening Special” which was Chicken Fried Steak. It was recommended by the frequent traveler, and it turned out to be tasty, although bordering on dry. The salad was excellent, the mashed potatoes were great (who can screw them up?). The couple, who ate the Salmon and Pork entrees, had traveled to/from New York, and had enjoyed their meals on board but were “tired” of cheesecake. We all passed on dessert, and I returned to my seat to have one of my sister’s homemade cookies instead. When I got to the Lounge car I found the evening movie was “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keilor, so I watched it but gave up early as every few minutes the Diner was calling out names to come to dinner which overrode the sound of the movie.
Sleep was from Kingman, (after watching the gent from my car board the bus to Las Vegas), to Victorville, where several passengers detrained. Even though the Diner opened for breakfast from 4:30 to 6 I passed on it, and went to the Lounge to watch the sunrise going down Cajon Pass, mostly in the dark, but arriving at San Bernardino and its big fleet of Metrolink cars waiting for morning departures. We were down about a half hour at that point. A few passengers got off there, even though it is no longer a staffed station, and we went on into Riverside toward Fullerton. We were held at Fullerton Junction for 10 minutes for traffic. We’d been told we could arrive at Los Angeles as early as 7:35, an hour and ten timetable minutes early, but because of delays we didn’t get there until 8:05; EARLY, but quite acceptable! Ken Ruben was the welcoming committee and we went across to Phillippe’s for a very tasty breakfast before I hit the road back North.
Summary And Comments
Rather than make only my own comments I’ll pass along some I overheard from fellow passengers. NO ONE was upset to the point of anger about anything, and I certainly had no big complaints except the same one everyone else had about the toilets on #3. Dining car comments were noted above.
On #4, a lady sitting in the Lounge was overheard saying, “Amtrak needs to fix their tracks here,” as we rocked and rolled across New Mexico east of Gallup. Her round trip was taking her from LA to Buffalo, New York, to New York City, Charlotte, New Orleans, Chicago and back to Los Angeles. Her comment shows again how the freight railroad ownership and maintenance responsibility for the tracks hasn’t been communicated to everyone.
On #3, the man going to Kingman and Las Vegas had several late night cell phone conversations making sure his ride in Vegas knew when he would be arriving. He spoke at the usual cell phone loud voice experienced everywhere. He then told all of us that next time he would get a Sleeper. I said they cost a lot more, and a lady said she had called to get a sleeper for this train and found it would be $500 more, so rode Coach just as I had when I found out the same thing. She said she wouldn’t pay an extra $1,000 to ride Amtrak, and the man agreed. Price resistance? Yes, but Amtrak still sold out all the bedrooms on our train.
Before we arrived in Fullerton a lady was heard complaining about the train being EARLY, believe it or not, as her ride was not expected to pick her up that early. When did you ever hear that before? The rest of us were quite happy that this trip was ending so well, the crew had been so efficient and cheerful, the food quality had been above what we expected, and despite the toilet trouble it had been an IMPRESSIVE ride. My compliments to all, and many thanks!