Category Archives: Amtrak

Can’t stop thinking about the train

Bar and I agree, we can’t stop thinking about our train trip and want to do it again this year. In October, probably, when it’s cooled off a little in West Texas, which is the route we’ll take.

South to San Antonio and thence to El Paso. At that point, it’s a toss-up. Back to Trinidad or continue west to her birthplace of Phoenix? We’ll see.

FEMA on rails?

Mostly no. As Bar told her bosses the other day in complaining about a lack of coordination in her job, from her vacation experience, “people on trains cooperate with each other.”

The passengers, yes, for the most part on our heartland excursion. There were the inevitable rude few. The staff, sometimes, if they weren’t too busy. Then there’s the woman conductor who complained after a long day of working with women attendants. The men, she said, were only slowed in following her directives by the need for details of what to do. The women stopped altogether, complained about this or that and otherwise expected special attention before they’d get to it.

Our woman attendant on one run made up our bed well enough, remembering to leave the upper berth up so Bar didn’t get claustrophobia, but neglected to mention that we could turn down the volume on our Big Brother public address speaker in the ceiling. “Why didn’t you ask ?” she said. Why did I need to? We were paying for first-class service (about a dollar a mile) and not getting it. Principally because the train was short-staffed and she was overworked

I spent an uncomfortable time thinking about how we would get out of a sleeper car derailed and turned on its side. It could be as simple as following directions on the windows about how to remove them. If they weren’t broken, too far above you or lying on the ground under you. Not that derailments here in flyover country are as common as those on the Northeast corridor.

The between-cars connections frightened Bar (never having seen it before) she said later, but she didn’t show it at the time only negotiated the moving part at her feet just fine. Skip over it. Just don’t step on it. I was frightened of it as a toddler in the 1940s but am now just cautious.

The seats in the private bedroom were comfy with room to stretch out and the windows big but the bed was too short for my six-foot frame. A better experience was the dining car and the chance to make new friends. Which we did, several times, with a Railfan and his brother from Kansas City, and a retired Wisconsin health insurance salesman pushing 82 with his fiftyish Fort Worth fiance. Hurtling along in the dark in the brightly-lit diner was exciting, especially when a spot of rough rails threatened to make you stab yourself with a fork or throw your hot coffee in your face. For the most part they didn’t.

Adventure calls and Amtrak delivers. (I should write ad copy)

Smoke stops

Amtrak is government railroad, so it gets the full nanny state treatment. Red and white warning signs abound, even on the spendy private bedroom windows to mar the view. But the No Smoking rule has taken some hits from the staff as well as the passengers.

Such that there are “smoke stops” of about five minutes between major stations. I mingled with two conductors smoking in black-dark rural Kansas on the Southwest Chief’s route to Trinidad and a sleeping car attendant on the Sunset Limited run to San Antonio. San Antone being a two-hour layover while cars and engines are rearranged. Some go to Austin, some to El Paso, New Orleans, and Chicago.

Some passengers don’t wait but light up in their private rooms and the cooling/heating system spreads the smoke throughout the sleeping car. If they can catch you, as we were all reminded every so often on the public address system, they’ve threatened to put you off at the next stop wherever it may be. But when they’re already understaffed…

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.