Winter Trip Report: On the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited March 19th, 2011
On January 26 we boarded Texas Eagle train #21 at Ft. Worth and set out for a ten day winter round trip vacation back in California. This report is divided into specific train items, rather than day-to-day train operating reports.
Amtrak. A trip report always considers the food service, facilities, and on board service. On this trip the food was quite good. The Diner-Lounge on the Texas Eagle has been improved by having the car open for meal service all the way to San Antonio rather than having the crew turn around at Austin, allowing dinner to be served at normal hours. That was the big improvement over our trip from last year. We did note, and the crew agreed, that the “lounge” area of that car is no longer used for its purpose, and is a waste of space since a Sightseer Lounge is always in the consist. Our first sleeping car was a rebuilt Superliner II, originally having the name “Vermont.” It was very comfortable in bedroom D. In West Texas, however, that car developed a “vacuum loss” which afflicts some sleepers but not all, and shuts down the toilet system in the higher elevations between Del Rio and El Paso. Amtrak management has tried to find the solution to that problem, but so far without luck.
On our return trip in a non-rebuilt Superliner II originally named “Pennsylvania,” no such problem arose, but there was clean water in the floor carpet in bedroom A which did not dry up until past San Antonio despite the work of our attendant and a mechanic. We were fortunate to have the same attendant, Anthony, on the Sunset Limited from San Antonio to Los Angeles and on the return trip, who was excellent. There’s just something about Los Angeles crews that stand out, and he is one.
Weather. We couldn’t have picked a better week weather-wise, as California was its usual beautiful self. However, on the return trip we began to encounter the freezing weather that had caused problems across the country while we were gone.
When train #2 reached Alpine, Texas, which is a crew change point, we noticed a pickup truck loaded with boxes waiting for the train. Crew members quickly loaded the boxes into the dining car. According to the crew, the train had been unable to replenish the water supply in the diner at either Tucson or El Paso as the hoses there had frozen during the night and the next location was San Antonio. They feared there would not be enough water to keep the diner going, so they had called ahead and the boxes were full of Subway Sandwiches to serve “in case.” Well, they were handed out free to all coach passengers along with a free drink and bag of chips, while sleeping car passengers were able to be served from the regular menu.
That reminded us of the times similar problems arose with the Coast Starlight years ago, and station agent Ken Miller had to order meals from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken store in San Luis Obispo. There isn’t a KFC in Alpine. On #2 the diner was TIGER fund re-built car 38068, and we met TIGER fund re-built P-40 locomotive 823 leading stopped #1 at the siding south of Alpine allowing dining car crews to exchange needed items.
Union Pacific. The UP treated Amtrak quite well on this trip, and the timekeeping was almost perfect. From westbound train #1 we observed almost every siding between Del Rio and El Paso to have a waiting freight train or stored cars in it as we went by. Train #2 was a slightly different story, as it is obvious that if Amtrak gets out of its slot even slightly the UP gives its freights preference, so we were “in the hole” several times in the same area. The biggest delay came on #21 at Taylor, Texas, the point where the train leaves the BNSF for the UP tracks. We were on time when we arrived at the junction, but the UP held us there until a slow moving northbound double-stack lumbered across in front of us. That junction point is within sight of the Taylor Amtrak station, so a conductor walked over and talked to the passengers who were waiting there until the UP released us, one hour and 14 minutes later. Very frustrating.
By the time we reached the busy Tucson station the next night we were quite early and the train had to sit on the main line for an hour and a half; on the return trip we arrived there over an hour late. We were on time or early at each endpoint.
San Antonio. A look at the timetable shows Amtrak still treats Texas Eagle passengers going to/from Los Angeles to an overnight stay in their car, and while that 8 hours in a “stationary” train in each direction usually guarantees an on time situation, it is really unnecessary and is expected to be changed when or if the Sunset Limited goes daily. What isn’t a treat, however, is Amtrak’s movement of the cars during the night to align them for departure the next morning. On the return trip the usual bang-slam was accomplished, including two shudder-bang-slams, then supplemented by a 5-mile trip to a wye as the UP had decided the Texas Eagle should depart San Antonio by going around the town on the west side, rather than go straight out and up the east side as we had been aligned. Sleep is hard to come by there. RailPAC contributor, Ralph James, remembers when the west side movement was done every day and the “750 foot Tower of the Americas down by the Riverwalk stayed in view for a full 45 minutes as we stopped and started through manual switches and interlockings making the circuitous loop around town to finally access the ex-MoPac line.” Thankfully those hand-thrown switches have been replaced by automatic switching on both sides of the route.
Traveling on the long distance national network trains always means meeting interesting people, particularly in the dining car. For us the highlight was the dinner meal on #2 out of Palm Springs. We were seated across from Jeff Morey from Escondido, a researcher specializing in the life and times of Wyatt Earp and the infamous “Battle of the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona back in 1881. Jeff was the historic advisor on the 1993 Kurt Russell movie, “Tombstone,” and for the BBC’s OK Corral TV show in which he appears on camera explaining what was going on while actors portray the events. Jeff was kind enough to give us a copy of that outstanding program, which has added much to our understanding of what went on in those wild days. Appropriately enough, Mr. Morey was enroute to Tucson. The Tucson train station is the place where Wyatt Earp found one of the murderers of his brother Morgan, Frank Stillwell, and enacted severe revenge. Statues of Earp and his companion Doc Holiday along with information about the Stillwell event are displayed in the garden area of the Tucson station today. There were many other passengers on the Sunset Limited bound for Tucson to attend the “world’s largest gem and mineral show” that was on-going throughout the city. They told us when they returned home they would be carrying large sacks of rocks. Now that’s a real rock show.