By Russ and Susan Jackson, Guest Commentators; April 28, 2021
Editor’s Note: Russ and Susan Jackson chose this year to make their anniversary journey coincide with Amtrak’s 50th anniversary celebration. Russ Jackson said “Well, Susan and I have traveled together on trains since 1967, a year after we were married, when we rode the Santa Fe’s El Capitan from Los Angeles to Chicago. She had ridden the Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles before that. We became “Advocates” when our neighbor, an Amtrak station agent in Oceanside, California introduced us to Byron Nordberg.” Mr. Nordberg, a principal with Nordberg-Herzog Associates was the business partner of Dr. Adrian Herzog. They represented UTDC at the time, the Canadian passenger car manufacturer that later became part of Bombardier. UTDC cars were the original Metrolink passenger cars at the beginning of today’s Metrolink Southern California service thanks for Mr. Nordberg and Dr. Herzog.
For all 50 years of its existence we have packed up and boarded an Amtrak long distance train from time to time because we want to travel by train! We’ve been on all of the western trains; first in the low-level coaches and starting in 1980 on the then new Superliner sleeping cars and coaches. For the latter it’s been 40 hard running years, and while many of them have been rebuilt some look and act their ages. We found that to be true on our April, 2021 round trip, coming 15 months since our pre-pandemic trip. Much was the same as previous trips of course, but there’s always something new somewhere when traveling on Amtrak, like the new platform and parking area at the Sanderson, Texas flag stop! And, while everyone is anticipating the return of daily service, it’s the vital return of traditional dining that has everyone’s attention. The Texas Eagle will return with daily service from Chicago to San Antonio, but alas the Sunset Limited will not, despite our 40 years of clamoring for it to do so.
Ft. Worth to Los Angeles on train 421. Departure was on time; we were in a clean, newly refurbished car, room D. The Texas Eagle trainset is equipped with a Superliner Sleeping car and a Coach that transfer to/from the Sunset Limited at San Antonio in the middle of the night, where we arrived an hour early. The Sunset arrived from New Orleans an hour early, making that “bang-bang” car move between trains accomplished efficiently, and our departure to the West Coast on train 1/421 was on time. Arrival at Los Angeles Union Station was an hour late, which is better than getting there at 4:30 AM, but with the Metropolitan Lounge open it’s a good place to wait for Hertz to open at 8, then drive off to Philippe’s for a breakfast sandwich before traveling through California’s beautiful April weather, albeit somewhat discouraging to learn of the drought there.
Los Angeles back to Ft. Worth on train 422. Wouldn’t you know we would pick the Friday weekend that the Academy Awards would be held at Los Angeles Union Station. ABC-TV had quite a setup, and we enjoyed seeing what was going on and of course tuned in on Sunday night after arriving home to watch it. Union Station is always great to see. This time Hertz cars were relegated to Parking Level 3 below ground, but they provided us old folks with cart service. The usual Red Cap service was available from the Metropolitan Lounge, but we chose to walk down the famous tunnel to get to Track 9 where we visited with RailPAC’s Noel Braymer and James Smith. Everyone was wearing masks. It was business as usual at LAUS.
Arrival back in Ft. Worth was only 30 minutes late, despite a rough ride. Our bedroom in car 2230 was in a Superliner I car that had not been fully restored. And, we were in bedroom A, right above the wheels. Everything that’s been said about A is true. At least we didn’t have the same 6 hour delay problem encountered by the train 2 that departed Los Angeles two days earlier and derailed a sleeping car at the Palm Springs station due to blowing sand piling up. And, the train that departed on Sunday after we were home had a Union Pacific locomotive added at Tucson, taking 95 minutes to add it, due to “mechanical problems.” We were lucky.
Is that all there is to this trip report? No, hold on for specifics. You didn’t think I was going to stop with the above, did you?
Passengers. They are coming back. When we reserved this trip back in January we were unsure what “conditions” for travel were going to be in April. Bedroom D in car 2130 was available on 421/1, and we were the only occupants going the whole distance to Los Angeles from Ft. Worth. Passengers left our car at other stops, and others boarded, which is what is supposed to be the purpose of train travel. To our surprise the return trip on 422 was filling up, and we booked the last available bedroom: All four of the other bedrooms were booked from Los Angeles to Dallas and two beyond. Ours, A, was resold at Dallas to Little Rock. Coach cars were “social distanced,” so it was hard to determine their load factor, but they were busy. The cars were clean and prepared for travel upon our arrival at the stations.
Most of our fellow passengers in both directions were retired. That’s ok, isn’t it? One exception was a young man who boarded 421 at Cleburne, Texas, rode in bedroom A to Los Angeles to attend his brother’s birthday, but was flying home. Our car attendant said he was the first sleeping car passenger to board at Cleburne in his career. It was the first trip on Amtrak for this passenger, and he enjoyed it. A young lady asked the conductor if she could get off at Benson, Arizona, instead of going on into Tucson; he said yes. A Leader and four Scouts with backpacks got off at Lordsburg, New Mexico. At the Alpine, Texas station a car with trailer were blocked from crossing because the train was there, so I went over to tell the driver, a military retiree, that he might want to do a U turn. He said, “I’m in no rush,” and then he and his wife began asking questions about train travel. They said they would “try it,” some time. Amtrak…you hadn’t reached them yet. I did.
On board personnel. On recent trips the car attendants and other onboard personnel have been very helpful and personable, and this trip was no exception. “Andrea” was with us on both trains between San Antonio and Los Angeles. She told us she has two years until retirement, and is grateful that she’s had a job during the past year. With a nearly full car both ways the work load was heavy, but she was there for all of us, particularly with “Room service” being a necessity for some. Cafe car attendant Patricia told us she has been with Amtrak eight years, usually riding the Surfliners, but took this trip because it was available for her to bid on to keep working. On this trip there were new passengers boarding at most of the stations. Conductors were informative about delays enroute, but there were few station pre-arrival announcements! All of the crews are anxious about what will happen starting in May. They know daily service will return to the western trains, except for 1 and 2 (Sunset Limited), but no bidding had yet been offered. They only knew that chefs had been recalled, and that the first trains to return will be the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Coast Starlight. The Eagle will be last.
Freight Interference. That’s always a problem for Amtrak trains anywhere in the system. On our trip the BNSF and UP were according to the book from Ft. Worth to San Antonio, and the freight trains encountered were waiting for us to pass. Not so on the return trip in the short segment from Taylor to Temple, Texas, where on Sunday morning the Union Pacific put us in the hole while they ran two long BNSF trains of empty open top cars past us when we were on time. The Union Pacific, however, lived up to its reputation on the Sunset Route on the eastern trip, after flawlessly running us west particularly on the double track west of El Paso. Eastbound, after departing the El Paso station on time we were halted for 30 minutes a mile away for two double stack trains “to clear.” Then the infamous segment from Del Rio to San Antonio in the middle of Saturday night: we were delayed 60 minutes more with various freight trains gliding past us. If Amtrak can “fix” this problem with the host railroads it should be done…or, rather, it should have been done 50 years ago.
Food and Beverage service. Ah, you’ve all been waiting to read what we thought of the much criticized “Flexible” Dining. “Not much” is our answer. The menus have several choices available, which could all go away when “real” Dining cars return this summer and would not be missed. We tried most of them. The “Red Wine Braised Beef” was dinner first night out of Ft. Worth, and was edible, but served with polenta? The Pasta & Meatballs were pretty good. My wife and I liked the Enchiladas, although they weren’t “Tex-Mex.” We both disliked the Asian Noodle Bowl. The small side salads were fresh and the dinner rolls very good. Beverages were always available. She tried the Breakfast Omelet two mornings. On the Sunset Diner it was tasty, but on the Eagle it was dry. I had the tasty breakfast McMuffin (oops, Jimmy Dean Breakfast Sandwich). One big difference between the trains was there were no breakfast muffins or desserts on the Sunset as specified on the menu, but were available on the Eagle. For lunch westbound I went to the Cafe car for a hot dog, which always tastes good, and took a chit that allowed me to get that lunch on my dining car account rather than pay separately. You do know the Cafe cars are cashless, only credit or debit cards. Strange to put $2.50 for a Diet Coke on my card.
To sum it up: travel and trains are back. However: Don’t ride in bedroom A in an old sleeping car. When the train reaches full speed be prepared to hold on to your hat because it gets rough out there. Don’t expect gourmet dining on the train, even though you can go to the Dining car without a reservation. (The eastbound folks in the other bedrooms all went to the diner for each meal and I heard no complaints. It was First come First served for all meals.) Don’t look for morning coffee in your car, as it isn’t there. Yet. Don’t forget to wear your mask when you are on board or even on the platform because someone will yell at you. Don’t travel without having your vaccination shots, because you will feel better about traveling if you have them. Travel and enjoy it! Now, after 50 years let’s get Amtrak growing again for the next 50, or find a better way…and in the meantime get the Sunset Limited daily!