Category Archives: Amtrak

There and back again

Sort of a Hobbit adventure, our just over two thousand mile Amtrak trek through five states in seven days: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. At a cost of about a dollar a mile for a private room with meals.

No dragons encountered, however. Just occasional problems, some more annoying than others, like the empty soda bottle that rolled out from under our bench seat, and worse the delay in trying to get the lowered upper berth put back because Bar was feeling claustrophobic and breathless in the lower double one.

Or the broken WiFi and broken electrical outlets on the Amtrak-subsidized Greyhound bus (which advertises leg room but doesn’t provide it for six-footers) from Albuquerque to El Paso (nevertheless with an excellant 50ish black male driver) to spend the night and catch the Sunset Limited the next day back to Austin. No WiFi on our trains but convenient working electrical outlets. And Bar said Albuquerque’s spectacular Andaluz Hotel had a soothing vibe.

Basically, the trip was a lot of fun, though we might next time stretch out the 566-mile Austin to Newton, KS, portion. Spending the night in Oklahoma City, for instance, but with the problem of where to go/what to do (a good public library perchance?) after checkout at noon—with fourteen hours to go four hours to Newton for a 2 a.m. departure west.

As it was we were exhausted by the time we got to Newton but enjoyed the 424-mile Newton to Trinidad stretch in our bedroom (a four-hour nap) and  breakfast in the dining car. Scrambled eggs and orange juice (and fellow Amish passengers with blond triplet boys) approaching destination Trinidad, Colorado, with snow-capped twin peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Trinidad was a surprise as there was no station to admire, no covered shelter at all, just dumped on the paved siding. The city’s negotiations with Amtrak for a station not going well they say. Fortunately, it wasn’t precipitating. We drew a blank on a call for a taxi, to the number on the Amtrak sign, and finally decided to walk the two blocks to McDonalds where the manager knew who to call: Monica!

The lovely Monica became our taxi, in between taking care of her three children and husband, in her family’s white mini-SUV. Otherwise there are no taxis in Trinidad. None. It’s a tiny, antique tourist town built in the 1850s. There are however numerous motels to choose from (a few welcoming potheads but most not) and more than twenty “dispensaries” of marijuana. So I guess it evens out for those with what the heads call “couch-lock” (where “you actually become the couch” and don’t feel like moving). We enjoyed some of that, chewing watermelon-flavored gummies from Freedom Road.

Take an ounce of good bud home with you, someone suggested. Oh no, I don’t want to go to prison. Locals said the cops of New Mexico watch for cars with out-of-state plates leaving Trinidad, and find reasons to stop them. And the DEA has been known to search bedrooms on trains not leaving Colorado. So we just enjoyed it while we were there and took peace-of-mind home with us.

Trinidad gets lots of pot tourists, the locals told us, mostly from Texas. But its monopoly will be gone when the New Mexico legislature gets around to also legalizing weed. Texas may take a lot longer, I think.

For now the Austin to Trinidad trek is worth it. The stations are clean (some, like El Paso’s Union Depot (circa 1904) and Oklahoma City’s old Santa Fe station are spectacular marbled monuments to rail) and all have conspicuous security guards to keep the peace.

The Texas Eagle, Southwest Chief, and Sunset Limited trains were clean but a bit shabby from all the deferred maintenance imposed by Congress. And the freight-dinged tracks are very bumpy in spots. The federal pols spend money on the Northeast coast trains and rails for themselves while imposing cuts, and otherwise neglecting passengers in flyover country. The bedroom attendants (mostly black women for us) and dining car waiters (mostly black men for us) were overworked.

Could be, however, we’re on the cusp of a passenger train renaissance, judging from all the passengers who packed the Sunset Limited’s cheaper coach seats from L.A. to New Orleans. Our private room segment (that dollar-a-miler) was 576 miles of Texas, mostly in the dark—seeing the sunset over the Davis Mountains (old Apache country) but missing the views on the 300-foot trestle over the Pecos River.

But we’ll do it all again.  Of course we will. It was fun.

Home again

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea…” sure feels like a sailor long at sea, after our thousand mile (at least) and seven-day trek by Amtrak. The room is swaying. That last stretch was eighteen hours from El Paso. I’m unsteady on my feet. Only wish the chair would stop moving.

(to be continued)

UPDATE:  Day two. The room has stopped moving and my legs pretty much.

The Pullman Roomette

Not unlike Amtrak’s Superliner bedroom. Which Barbara Ellen and I have booked for our week-long trip to Colorado in February. Except the bedroom has a shower. Amtrak’s roomette is smaller and has no toilet or shower.

Via Streamliner Memories

Train nostalgia

Train nostalgia from O’Toole. The Great Northern’s Empire Builder‘s lounge and observation car:

“In addition to beverages, cigars, and cigarettes, the menu offers a few toiletries such as a comb or toothpaste. It also has valet-service prices for pressing clothes: $1 for a two-piece suit; $1.25 for a three-piece; etc. (multiply by 10 to approximate today’s dollars)…”

Cigars and cigarettes are verboten today on Government (Amtrak) Railroad.

Via Streamliner Memories

UPDATE:  You had to wear a suit, notice, and you had to have the coin. Passenger trains were for the upperclass, even the elite. Lower classes couldn’t afford the fare of a long-distance train like the Empire Builder. A first class sleeper, a private room, cost hundreds of dollars a day and night.

Why US passenger trains suck

Primarily, according to James McCommons’ Waiting on a Train, because the highways aren’t clogged enough yet to make politicians realize they can’t build their way out of the traffic jams and put real money into trains the way they do highways and short-hop jet travel.

At least that’s my interpretation of what he reported in his good 2009 examination of the politics of America’s passenger trains—which mainly are run late and haphazardly by Amtrak. Although there are a few regional commuters like the Heartland Flyer from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Neither a fan nor a foamer, I have taken the train when it pleased me to do so (or when it pleased my parents, as when my mother who had no car took infant me home on trains full of soldiers in 1945, and my father did when I was fifteen and he didn’t want to drive) and I have fundamentally enjoyed the experience.

Even when the coaches and sleepers were old and/or dirty and the vistas less than scenic. I would just like having the option to take the train. A train that’s pretty much on time and comfortable. It’s one thing the Europeans do right.

Studying the rails

Barbara Ellen and I are studying this Amtrak route map to decide what to tell the travel agent about how we want to get to Trinidad, Colorado, in February. Objective: See snow. Romp in snow. Snap pictures of snow. Also get stoned.

Looks like we get there fastest by going north to Oklahoma City, taking an Amtrak-provided Greyhound bus to Newton, Kansas, and thence by train to Trinidad. But the times must be calculated, since only one or two trains leave an Amtrak station daily. Probably only one from little 19,000 pop. Newton.

UPDATE:  We’ve bought tickets do it all: go north, west, south, and east. From Austin to Austin. Over seven days. With overnights in Trinidad, Albuquerque and El Paso. Most of the way in private sleeper compartments called “bedrooms” with an enclosed toilet, sink and shower. And a big picture window. Starting Feb. 9. Have to book early to get the compartments which are in high demand and low supply on any given train. More as we get closer.