By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; March 28, 2022
It was a great trip . . . The future of Amtrak train 21/22 (and 421/422, the section of the Texas Eagle which is switched to the back end of the Sunset Limited in San Antonio for through-service to Los Angeles) the Texas Eagle has been a concern in recent years, which is justified until you board the train for an overnight trip from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona in March 2022. We did just that.
As in past trips, what we found on board the train as far as atmosphere, service, employee morale, etc., supersedes any concern. We all know that it is a four (4) car train from Chicago to San Antonio daily where the sleeping car and a coach join the Sunset Limited tri-weekly for the trip west. A writer on the TrainOrders social media platform recently described the Eagle as “Short trains, Short staffed, Short service, and Short-sighted management.” Agreed, particularly the management part. As a crew member said, “How can they run only four cars: one Sleeping car, no Sightseer Lounge, no baggage car, and only one person working the Diner-Lounge when the train is full and could fill more cars? The Texas Eagle is Amtrak’s step-child and we’re tired of it.”
On March 28 Amtrak will challenge the Eagle again by running the Capitol Limited’s Washington, DC originated four-car trainsets through Chicago to San Antonio and Los Angeles with minimum maintenance enroute, a procedure they learned was wrong years ago because of late trains, bad order cars, etc. Wrong then, and now wrong, again. Now to us:
Ft. Worth to San Antonio on 421 in Sleeping car 32001, a Pullman-Standard original Superliner I now over 40 years old . . . The interior has been rebuilt and in the words of someone close to me, “Very comfortable.” . . . Depart FTW at 3:00, one hour late . . . All five bedrooms occupied, all but two roomettes occupied . . . A trip to the Diner-Lounge to see who was riding found a Diet Coke and snack cost $4.75 in the Cafe . . . and then I saw this:
Am I suspicious or does this look like a vending machine? Right now, it’s a display of the items that can be purchased from the lone Diner-Lounge attendant, but what would it take for Amtrak management to automate some items sometime?
We require room service at our ages to avoid having to walk between moving cars, but dinner reservations for only 5:00 and 5:45 were efficiently taken by the crew for other passengers in the lone Sleeping Car . . . We ordered the Braised Beef Shortribs “TV dinners” which arrived promptly and turned out to be tasty with a Chardonnay, but not too eye appealing . . . The train left the efficient BNSF onto the Union Pacific at Taylor, Texas and the slow orders and meets situation changed, our first of many . . . Large turnover of Coach riders at Austin, most going on past San Antonio to Arizona or California stations . . . Arrival at San Antonio at 10:45 PM and then the bang-bang-slam as the through cars were transferred . . . Departure ON TIME at 2:45 AM.
San Antonio to Tucson on 421 We’re on the Sunset Limited now! . . . The coffee was hot, and ready at 6 AM . . . Now it’s “Traditional Dining!” and our scrambled egg and bacon breakfasts were excellent . . . The new Attendant says both Sleeping Cars are full for the rest of the trip and the Coaches remain 60-70% occupied, most going to Los Angeles! . . . Of course, it also meant the famous Union Pacific On-Time problems to Del Rio and El Paso, plus with the construction of a new extra-long passing track at Dryden just east of Sanderson, two freight train meets that got preference, and another one that delayed us entering the Alpine, Texas, station for a half hour AND another near Marfa . . . however, the UP has committed itself to welcome improvements that are underway on this line!
Oh, we had one interesting meet, not unusual out there in West Texas, when we heard long horn blows that finally got a cow to get off the right-of-way . . . Our cheerful Cafe attendant informed the riders that someone had stolen 200 mayonnaise packets overnight, but Ha, he had some more . . . Lunch was this writer’s favorite: the Angus Cheeseburger with all the trimmings, and as usual it was great . . . Our arrival at El Paso was at 3:10, but not into the station until 3:40 as we waited just feet from the switch for it to change to let us into the station track . . . Several Public Address notices that the “burrito lady” IS THERE, and she did a big business . . . A rider couldn’t be found who was supposed to get off at Lordsburg after boarding at El Paso . . . A triple stop at Benson, Arizona required a backup move so passengers could detrain at the tiny platform instead of in the rocks . . . Arrival finally in Tucson was at 10:00 PM instead of 7:45 . . . Ah, there’s “nothing” like waiting outside for a taxi on a cold Tucson night . . . Then a great week of reunions and family visits. How great it is to have a trip to your “hometown” for inspiration!
Return trip: Tucson to Ft. Worth on 422 was like day and night different from the westbound trip (mainly due to the Union Pacific) . . . Isn’t it interesting that taxi drivers all miss Rush Limbaugh . . . When we arrived at the Tucson station, we found the train had arrived 30 minutes EARLY . . . Sleeping car 32088, a Superliner II (Maryland), not rebuilt . . . AC under control but not as comfortable, with all the new amenities, but a broken latch on the cabinet door . . . Different crew but a good one, another cheerful helpful attendant . . . Masks, Masks, Masks until April now . . . Again, every bedroom was occupied and would be until Chicago AND New Orleans (our room would be occupied again at Dallas) . . . A great breakfast leaving Tucson (on time), Cheeseburger lunch into Lordsburg, New Mexico (no one on or off there or at Deming) . . . A beautiful day in the Southwest . . . UP operations were flawless, including crawling through a massive wood tie replacement program ongoing between Benson and Willcox . . . We were either on time or early on that time-change Saturday night/Sunday morning including when we saw this:
All these people were waiting to board the northbound Texas Eagle at Austin, Texas, many going to Ft. Worth/Dallas, but more going on as far as Chicago on this Sunday morning during Spring Break. The cowboy is well prepared for his trip. The very efficient crew had everyone loaded and the train departed ON TIME.
I can happily say that for a change on our many travels the Texas Eagle arrived at the Ft. Worth Transportation Center 20 minutes EARLY . . . Amtrak’s on time map showed this trainset arrived ON TIME into Chicago the next day . . . They can do it when the UP allows it to happen! . . . OOPS, if we had traveled the same trip a week later that trainset departed Chicago ON TIME, but got only to Joliet, Illinois, where it sat for 6 HOURS waiting for a replacement locomotive to arrive from Chicago; that wasn’t the UP’s fault, it was Amtrak’s. . . . According to Amtrak’s On- Time Performance list, the Texas Eagle was OT only 57% in 2021, and the Sunset Limited was worst at 28%. CONSISTENCY, thy name isn’t Amtrak or Union Pacific.