Senate Confirms John Snow as Treasury Secretary
The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of John Snow as Secretary of the Treasury on January 30. Formerly, he was chairman and chief executive officer of CSX Corporation.
Michael Ward Replaces John Snow as CSX Chairman, CEO
Michael J. Ward, 52, president of CSX Corporation, was named its chairman and chief executive officer on January 31. Before being named president in July 2002, he was president of CSX Transportation. He also had served as executive vice president of operations, headed CSXT's Coal Business Unit, managed Conrail merger planning, and was the railroad's chief financial officer. A native of Baltimore, he has spent his 25-year business career with the railroad.
CSX Reports Fourth-Quarter Results
CSX Corporation reported a fourth-quarter net income of $137-million or 64 cents per share, up from $65-million or 31 cents a year ago. (Fourth-quarter 2001 earnings included a litigation provision, which reduced earnings by $37-million or 17 cents per share.) Stronger operating results from surface transportation, which includes CSX Transportation and Intermodal, account for much of the year-over-year quarterly improvement. For the full year 2002, CSX net income was $424-million or $1.99 per share, compared to $293-million or $1.38 per share in the prior year.
Chicago's Metra to Expand With New Route
Chicago's Metra commuter service has announced plans to introduce a new route that will connect Joliet, Illinois, with O'Hare International Airport. Between Joliet and Prairie Stone, the line will utilize the existing Elgin, Joliet & Eastern; between Prairie Stone and Des Plaines a new connection will be built along Interstate 90; and between Des Plaines and the airport the line will utilize the CP Rail's freight corridor. To be called the STAR Line, the 55-mile route is slated to introduce a new fleet of state-of-the-art diesel multiple unit trains, according to an Association of American Railroads news report.
BNSF, Ferromex Improve Transborder Intermodal Service
Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Ferromex have announced they have improved their transborder intermodal service by significantly reducing transit times between major U.S./Canadian markets and Mexico. The service builds a "seamless North American transportation network" initially targeted for freight moving between Guadalajara or Mexico City, and major North American markets - including California, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Canada - through BNSF's El Paso, Texas, gateway, according to a BNSF news report.
Baltimore's Camden Station to House Offices, Museum
Baltimore's historic Camden Station is slated to be renovated to house commercial offices and a regional sports museum. The $8.5-million project will be financed by an $8-million sale of bonds and a $500,000 federal grant for adaptive reuse of a former railroad station. Work could be complete by 2005, according to news reports. The building was cosmetically restored in 1992, but has remained vacant pending a decision on its reuse.
Rail Intermodal Traffic Sets Record
Intermodal traffic on U.S. railroads set an annual record during 2002, the sixth record in the last seven years, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Railway Age Names Richard Davidson Railroader of the Year
Richard Davidson, chairman and chief executive officer of Union Pacific Railroad, has been named Railroader of the Year by Railway Age Magazine.
By Amtrak to Los Angeles
[By Allen Brougham] . . .
It now seems that January has gravitated into my ideal time for long distance Amtraking. Never mind that the summer months (I used to like to go in June) offer longer days and more opportunities at destination. And never mind that I once said that I would like to take four long distance trips a year now that I am retired. With so much going on during the more pleasant months of the year (biking, etc.), I've found that my best quality time for exploring the country is when it's least likely to interfere with these other priorities. Moreover, January (except just after New Year's Day) is when the trains are generally the least crowded.
So I carefully plotted my preferred itinerary to encompass some routes I have never taken and to visit some places along the way I have never seen. My route comprehended the Silver Star from Baltimore to Orlando, the Sunset Limited from there to Los Angeles (with one night in L.A.), the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, and the Capitol Limited to Washington. All of this would be first-class; all meals (17) included.
First I tried using the on-line reservation system. I had two different 9-day periods in mind; I wanted to know if either had space available and their respective price. But the computer could not (or would not) respond to my request to be routed via Orlando instead of Jacksonville. So I placed a call to Julie, the always friendly and informative voice-responsive talking computer to see what she could do for me. But the conversation didn't get very far... The friendly gal asked me what pricing category I wanted to use. I answered, "Senior citizen." (This was my first opportunity to use Amtrak's senior discount since I turned 62 the month before.) Julie did not understand the term. She asked me to repeat my pricing category. Once again, I replied, "Senior citizen." Still, she did not understand. Then I hollered, "I'm a senior citizen," adding a few additional words in frustration I won't print here. Still, Julie could not comprehend... Well, so much for technology.
I then pressed zero to talk to a real person. The lady with whom I spoke, bless her heart, could give Julie some good pointers. I explained everything (for which she commiserated with me over the automated system's shortcomings), and how I wanted to transfer at Orlando rather than Jacksonville to get the benefit of the Sunset Limited's full route. Also, she knew exactly what I meant when I explained to her that I was a senior citizen. I gave her my routing and the selection of two different 9-day periods (for which I would choose one), and the one I selected began on January 13 and ended on January 21. The reservation was made.
"Since I did all the work and all I need are the tickets, I do not want to pay a service charge," I said to the travel agent. It should be noted that travel agents have been hit rather hard by stingy commissions from airlines and cruise companies, and service charges have become the norm over the past couple of years. Amtrak, he told me, pays from three to five percent, and while even this is scant compensation when complicated itineraries are involved, he did agree to waive the service charge for me since all I needed were the tickets. Later, I checked with a reader in California, also a travel agent, who told me that Amtrak pays a higher commission for long distance trains than it does for corridor trains, and considerably more than do the airlines. While he could not verify the commissions (he was leaving for vacation and was quoting from memory), he believed the commission for long distance trains was eight percent. But as to the airlines - the mainstay for travel agency business - he noted that many of them pay no commissions at all. Southwest is an exception, offering five percent - yet "Southwest is the consistent money-making airline. The others move more towards its no-frills model, except when it comes to commissions. The airlines rushed to dump travel agent commissions - and their sales and service support. But not all of the drop in air traffic is due to the economy. After they embraced the internet as their new low-cost sales force, guess what! Their revenues went down faster than their costs!"
With tickets in hand, I then called Amtrak to give them a "dietary request" for my meals in the dining car. This is a service Amtrak offers in the timetable, and I decided to give it a first-time try. Specifically: fat-free salad dressing, margarine, and egg-substitute. Indeed, these are staples that ought to be stocked as standard items, but I wanted to go on record nevertheless as requesting them and then see what happened.
Meanwhile, a vital logistical matter was resolved when my friends Vic and Becky Stone of Charlottesville, Virginia, offered to house sit for me while I was gone. Vic, now a doctor in chemical engineering, needed to be in the Baltimore area to do some consulting work (a transportation study) for a friend of his, and he and Becky actually wanted the change of pace and use the opportunity to visit local sites while I was gone. Moreover, they knew that my dog Rex (of Miller Tower fame) would really rather be home than in a kennel. For this, both Rex and I were quite grateful.
Excitement mounted as the time for departure approached, and Vic drove me to the station. Right on time, the Silver Star slithered into view. My car - Beach View - was the second of three sleepers in the consist. The train also had a crew car, lounge, diner, and three coaches. Settling into my left-side room, with an on-time departure, this was the best part of the trip - the rest was yet to come.
The Silver Star makes no other stops between Baltimore and Washington, and it was neat watching as we zoomed right past the stations at BWI Airport and New Carrollton. Then, in Washington, still entrenched in my room, I counted 88 passengers as they meandered past my window to board the train. (Later, I counted 148 passengers traveling coach.)
Following our departure from Washington, and then emerging from the Virginia Avenue tunnel, a CSX freight - with Tropicana cars toward the rear - was moving in the same direction as we on the opposite track. Slowly we overtook the freight, but not until after we had passed RO on the other side of the Potomac River did we finally pass its engines.
Between Washington and Richmond there is but one stop, at Alexandria. Then, with the waning rays of sunlight, our train made a spirited run alongside the Potomac River. As twilight gave way to darkness, a nearly-full moon shone overhead through my upper window. By this point, I had closed my aisle-side drapes and darkened my room to gain full benefit of outside light to purview the passing landscape. It was great.
My dinner reservation was 6:45 P.M., the occasion I took upon that call to thunder my way to the dining car post haste, there being seated with a gent from Long Island en route to Columbia, South Carolina. He almost always takes the train, said he, preferring the sleeper, and he did not mind that his destination would be reached at quarter to three in the morning. And never mind that I had taken the precaution of asking in advance for certain dietary items (which were provided), for this my first meal in a dining car in ten months I did not hesitate to order Steak (actually Filet Mignon) to celebrate the occasion, along with a small bottle (called a split) of wine. The Filet Mignon was quite small, but very, very tasty. Right on!
Afterward it was early to bed - something that would become my regimen for the remainder of the trip. As is my custom whenever riding in a Viewliner sleeper, I decided to use the upper berth. My room was what is called a standard bedroom. It has both an upper and lower berth. With this accommodation, the upper berth in the Viewliner car has an eye level upper window, and with the curtain open I watched the flattened landscape of the Carolinas whiz past with the brightened moon as its backdrop. A rendition of country music (volume set low) from the car's in-room speaker set the mood of the occasion, and soon I was fast asleep.
Some folks say that the rocking of the train is not conducive to sleep. I do not find this as a problem. If rocking works for babies, the same principle should work for anyone. At least it does for me.
The diner opened for breakfast at 6:30 A.M., and I was there promptly, its very first customer, as it opened. And, yes, substitute eggs were available.
As noted earlier, I could have made my connection to the Sunset Limited at Jacksonville. But in order to enjoy the greatest extent of that train's route, I chose to continue on to Orlando, its origin. This added 147 miles to the journey in each direction. Still, my backup plan could have involved getting off at Jacksonville, or any of four intervening stops, in the event the Silver Star were late. However, we were on time, so I continued on.
It was mild in Orlando with two hours to wait for the Sunset Limited. So I checked my bags with the baggage agent, and walked around the immediate area of the station. Orlando has a mission-style depot with a high ceiling, high windows, high-back waiting room benches, and old-style enclosed payphone booths. Much of the picturesque neighborhood is replete with hospitals and medical centers. In a siding a couple of blocks north of the station were cars of the Ringling Brothers Circus being readied for the exchange of animals.
The northbound Silver Meteor came through, a virtual carbon copy of the Silver Star, and departed shortly before the Sunset Limited arrived. The Sunset Limited is made up at Sanford, where the Auto Train equipment is kept, and deadheads south to a point below Orlando where the engines run around the train and then proceeds north once again to the station. It had a crew car, two sleepers, diner, lounge, and two coaches. We left promptly at 1:45 P.M. This would be my home for the next three nights.
Loading was light, perhaps no more than 50 passengers from Orlando, and it was announced that dinner would be served beginning upon our departure from Jacksonville at 5:15 P.M. with no reservations required.
To be headed in the proper direction, the Sunset Limited backs into the Jacksonville station.
I joined the diner as we left Jacksonville, my menu selection being the Blackened Catfish. In fact, the printed menu was exactly the same as the one on the Silver Star; no longer does each train have a separate menu of its own. Other dinner offerings, in addition to the Filet Mignon and fish, are Roast Chicken, Pork Roast, and Vegetable Lasagna. My dining partners were a lady en route to Houston, a gent who worked for an irrigation company en route to San Antonio, and another fellow who was a music writer, also going to Houston.
We left from Jacksonville on time, but we had gone no more than a mile when we stopped. An announcement was then made that we would be backing once again into the station to wait because of a request by the local police department due to a "crime scene" ahead. We were told that we would be delayed for about one hour. In fact, that was exactly our delay - one hour! We departed with no further announcement of what had been involved, but I later overheard that it was a suicide.
My sleeper - Idaho - was just three cars from the engine, and through the night I was serenaded by the melodious chimes of the horn. Golly, what a wonderful way to travel!
The following morning (Wednesday) brought with it a calamitous event... At first I thought I had lost my glasses - something I do all the time at home but never before had I done so on a train - then I found them stuck between the room's retractable table and its bulkhead slot. Well, it was my own fault; I had left the things on the table the night before, and then retracted the table without noticing that the glasses were still there. Anyway, try as I might, I could not retrieve them readily, and I was fearful that (1) they may have been damaged, or (2) they may not be damaged but would become so if any further effort were made to extract them. So I went and told the attendant. He came and got them free, without damage, for which I was grateful, and to me I learned a lesson on how to better care for such items henceforth. This, then, reports the happy ending of this calamitous event (there would be others), thereupon being referred to calamitous event number 1.
For breakfast I was joined by the same lady as had been one of my dinner partners the night before. She was returning home from Florida where she had been working for a community association; her husband, meanwhile, had gotten work in Texas, and they took turns commuting. From the train we were treated to a view of the marshes, birds, bayous, and frequent glimpses of (for my first time ever) the Gulf of Mexico.
We backed into the station at New Orleans. The facility has five long tracks and four short tracks, is shared by Greyhound, faces a park, and is convenient to downtown. The depot has a spacious waiting room with a cafeteria, gift shop, and first-class lounge. Whether the three-hour layover is intended to allow padding in the schedule or to permit a respite from travel, the time is well spent to explore the downtown area and its many historical features. It was a mild day, but a jacket was needed, and I took the occasion (my first visit to New Orleans) to stroll over to the French Quarter for a self-guided walking tour. In fact, I had looked forward to this interval when planning my trip. The westbound schedule neatly positions the New Orleans stop during the break between breakfast and lunch (while eastbound, the stop occurs in the evening, after dinner).
Back on the train for a 12:15 P.M. departure, lunch was announced. It was during lunch that the train made its majestic crossing of the Mississippi River on the massive Huey P. Long Bridge just minutes from downtown. Surely this was one of the supreme high points of the trip. Such experiences await those who ride Amtrak, and to enjoy such a thrill while eating in the dining car ranks among the absolute ultimate pleasures in travel. Right on!
The crossing was fortuitously made just before an eastbound stack train reached the main span on the opposite track, which would have blocked the southern view as seen from the diner's window, but the experience would have been worthwhile in any event.
Later, at New Iberia, Louisiana, another treat: the train runs down the middle of a street! Following this, our stop was made at the town's vintage brick station.
By this point our passenger loading had increased somewhat, but not by enough to require reservations for dinner. The decision to go to a reservation system is governed almost exclusively by the number of folks in the sleepers, all of whom would be expected to dine since meals are included in the cost of their ticket. I understood that there were then about 24 people in the sleepers.
In the meantime, while enjoying the scenery from the Sightseer Lounge, I met a Mennonite couple from Dover, Delaware, who had connected to the Sunset Limited at Jacksonville from the Silver Meteor and were en route to Phoenix, Arizona. They had coach tickets, but they had stepped up to a sleeper accommodation after they boarded the train. They were pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive the stepup fare was. Later I spoke to others who had done the same thing - boarded with coach tickets and then stepped up to sleeper - and I understand that bargain fares are generally offered in most such instances. Those who want space in the sleeper cannot always be certain that space will be available on a stepup basis, but often it is, especially during the light-travel periods such as January.
We arrived in Lafayette, Louisiana, at 3:37 P.M., to a vintage depot which was undergoing restoration by the city, complete with a new platform. At this point we were on time, but then the train sat for an extended period. The conductor told us that he did not know why the train was being held, but was trying to find out. Finally, we left, after having consumed 31 minutes of unexplained delay. There were further delays that followed, also unexplained. For dinner, my selection was the Roast Chicken.
That evening I experienced my second calamitous event of the trip, indeed the second in the same day.. I was taking a shower (conserving water, as requested), and upon its conclusion I was unable to shut the water off. In fact, the water continued to flow at the same volume as it had without any letup in pressure. Nothing I did would stop it. I turned the shower handle in both directions; the water continued. I even tried squeezing the nozzle, hoping that I could at least minimize the waste. At this point I was quite concerned that the errant shower would completely exhaust the car's water supply, and I hurriedly made myself presentable and went to get help. The conductor was the first employee I saw, and he went into the shower room (getting himself a little wet in the process) and succeeded in shutting the water off. It seems the handle had gotten a little stuck; a great deal of additional grip upon the handle was needed to stop the flow. Problem solved; thus ending calamitous event number 2.
Thursday dawned to the wide open spaces of Texas, clear and sunny. At breakfast I asked, "Can I have anything on the menu?" I was told that I could. "Anything?" Again, "Yes." So I proceeded to order several items from different entrees. Oops! That's not exactly what the server meant. I had to confine my order to just one entree selection. (I knew that; I just wanted to see what would happen!) My table partners were a couple of fellows, one en route to Seattle and the other to Los Angeles. The latter, a computer technician, told me that he had run away from home when he was 14, taking the train from Chicago to New Orleans. His adventure ended when he ran out of money and he returned home, but the experience left him with the pleasures of travel by train, something that has stayed with him ever since.
By this point our train had grown longer and there were many more passengers than before. During the night a coach and a sleeper had been added to the train from the Texas Eagle at San Antonio. While I was one of the first two customers in the diner at breakfast, the car eventually reached its capacity and a waiting list was begun in order to serve everyone.
My custom, of course, was to take up station in the lounge car to wile away the time between meals. Later that morning, while there, I met Michael, an actor and screen writer returning from Orlando to his home in Studio City, California. He began the conversation by inquiring if I were a lobbyist for Amtrak. Evidently he had gotten word of my interest in Amtrak and my concern over its political situation, a topic I had been discussing with others from the time I boarded. I explained that I was a retired railroader (and of my particular interest), and that I was planning to write a story about my trip for a newsletter I authored. But I had never worked for Amtrak. Anyway, Michael told me that he was planning to write a fictional screen play using an Amtrak train as part of the story. I then shared with him some suggestions, not the least of which was to make the part about Amtrak accurate (perhaps the studio could rent an Amtrak train to serve this purpose). I recounted, for example, a movie I once saw depicting a scene at the Metro Park station in New Jersey - with footage of a Superliner train making a stop there. Oops! Superliners just don't go through Metro Park, I explained (but only a purist might notice such an error).
For lunch I was joined by a couple en route from Sanderson, Texas, to their home in Sacramento. The husband was the owner of an Outback Steakhouse; his wife much preferred the train because of a fear of flying.
At 2:30 P.M., on the outskirts of El Paso (which we were scheduled to arrive at 3:10 P.M.), we were stopped and told of freight train congestion ahead. This began a series of stop and go movement, not in especially the best part of town (backs of warehouses, razor wire fences, etc.), consuming all of 55 minutes to go just three miles. When we finally arrived in El Paso - a service stop - we could leave the train but were told to remain on the platform. We left there at 3:45 P.M., 20 minutes late.
While climbing the hill west of El Paso, and after running for a short distance next to the border with Mexico, we stopped once again, this time in a rather scenic spot overlooking the town, and waited and waited. An eastbound intermodal train was similarly stopped just ahead of this point on the other track. Meanwhile, teenagers frolicked outside in all terrain vehicles upon the numerous mounds of earth next to the track. After a delay of 29 minutes (I'm guessing that we were stopped because of trouble with the intermodal train), we moved up, and the intermodal train began to move as well.
As shadows began to lengthen in advance of the coming darkness, a movie began in the lounge car. The train had four flicks, and it had been the custom to show all four of them as a quadruple feature each evening (but in a different order each time).
Several minutes later, we passed the eastbound Sunset Limited (about two hours late), which had been behind the stopped intermodal train.
I was joined at the dinner table by a gent and his two young daughters who were en route to Sacramento. My dinner selection - the final meal for me on the Sunset Limited - was the Filet Mignon. It was, I believe, a larger cut (but not quite as good) than the one I had tried three evenings before on the Silver Star.
The following morning (Friday), I awoke to a bright moon at Palm Springs. It looked as though snow was on the ground (actually it was sand, I was told later). There would be no breakfast in the diner, owing to our early arrival in Los Angeles, but sleeper patrons would be offered a Danish pastry.
We were all of one hour and 14 minutes late leaving Pomona, California, the last stop before reaching Los Angeles. Yet as late as we were, we were still able to get into Los Angeles at 6:52 A.M., more than an hour early. The secret to this lies in an abundance of schedule padding. Indeed, the 32 miles between Pomona and Los Angeles can be covered in 45 minutes (per the running time of the eastbound section), but the westbound train allows three hours and six minutes to cover the same distance. Neat, eh!
I suppose, then, that it was fortuitous that we were as late as we were leaving Pomona... had we been on time, we could have arrived in L.A. as early as 5:30 in the morning! (Ouch!)
Disembarking passengers soon joined the thundering herd of humanity in the tunnel that connects the east and west ends of Los Angeles Union Station. Folks were everywhere making their way to the many local and corridor trains that arrive and depart on the various tracks reached by the tunnel, plus the Metro system that has entrances at either end. There is no doubt about it - Union Station is indeed alive and well! With directions gleaned from two different employees (and it being a pleasant day), I was determined to find my hotel - about nine blocks from the station - without having to take a taxi. There were no taxis in front of the station anyway (but the taxi stand is elsewhere, I later learned), and I succeeded in finding my hotel without getting lost.
My hotel room was small, sparsely furnished, with no bedside lamp, no remote control, not even a bathtub (just a shower), but at $75 a night I might have expected better. (To be fair, the room did have an FM radio, and the hotel's soft drink machine had Squirt!)
In short order I made my way to the city's Metro system, and off I went on the light-rail line to Long Beach. The light-rail line is fast and efficient, and follows the right of way of the old Pacific Electric. I had a nostalgic purpose in mind to visit Long Beach. I had lived there for a year as a kid, and I sort of wanted to revisit some old haunts. Indeed, I found the house I had lived in, and the school I had attended in the eighth grade, all within a pleasant walk of the light-rail. It was rewarding, too, that I could rekindle the pleasant memories of the Pacific Electric trains I had so much admired 50 years earlier.
As if I needed no reminder that Los Angeles is in an area prone to earthquakes, it was good to see that folks have a sense of humor on the topic. For supper I dined in a place called the Epicentre Restaurant. It features such items as San Andreas Soup (which I did not have) and Curry on the Richter Scale (which I did). Later that evening I got a call from Vic. He told me that the temperature was expected to dip to 11 degrees that night back at home. Ha! I told him that it was 72 degrees in Los Angeles. Fine biking weather (I had no bike), but at least I figure that I had walked five miles that day.
The following morning (Saturday), while relaxing in my room, the phone rang. "Is this information?" the caller asked. I told him it was a hotel room. Oops! He had forgotten to dial 9 first. (My room number was 411). This may have been a less subtle mistake if my room had been on the ninth floor (get it?), but the hotel only had four floors.
Amtraking, for me, is the thrill of getting away; the destination is nominally incidental to the trip. Of course, I could have justified spending longer in Los Angeles, but my itinerary only allowed one night. So Saturday was my day of departure. With the train not scheduled to leave until 6:45 in the evening, I did make it a point that afternoon to explore the sights in and around the Union Station area. Golly, the folks in Los Angeles certainly have a wonderful station. Not only is it resplendent in its original finery, it is an especially delightful place to relax with its artistic courtyards. It took me a couple of hours just to explore all of the terminal's public spaces. And what a treat it was to visit its east front with its massive mural depicting the human legacy of the area.
I then ventured over to Olvera Street - across the west plaza from the station - where Mexican traditions abound with dances in the park and a block-long promenade of shops and native eateries.
Boarding was announced and most of the sleeping car passengers were in their spaces 30 minutes before the time of departure. But then we had a 25-minute delay - the explanation being that the crew's paperwork was late in being printed. We then pulled and made a 17-minute stop to add the mail and express.
A "limited" menu (per the timetable) was offered for dinner, but the term simply applied to the number of entrees being offered. My table partner was a young fellow from Hawaii (who very much enjoyed train travel, something not available where he lived) en route to Washington.
I made it a special point to arise early on Sunday as I had been promised a visit by a friend in Flagstaff, Arizona. Don Stewart, formerly of College Park, Maryland (a "rail admirer," not a railfan), had said he would meet me there and chat on the platform. Earlier I had suggested that he ride with us to Albuquerque and then return on the westbound train that evening - which he likely would have done had he not had an early appointment the next day - but we did get a chance to see each other for about five minutes. Coincidentally, Don's home is just a short distance away, tucked in a scenic spot right next to the BNSF main line with an abundance of traffic both day and night. Heaven on earth!
We were about 20 minutes late leaving Flagstaff - not uncommon for this train - and I ventured to the diner for breakfast. I was joined by Nika and Bob, both computer folks from California, who were en route to Detroit.
Following breakfast, it was to the Sightseer Lounge, my first visit to it on this particular train and my first visit to a lounge since the previous Thursday evening. A young fellow sitting alone near the front was strumming a guitar. By now we were at our closest point to the Petrified Forest, the occasion for which I was then wearing the Petrified Forest sweatshirt I had bought on my visit there back in 2001 when I took the train to Winslow. Rock formations so indigenous to the area came into view, appearing on hillsides. So, too, did some of the trading posts along a nearby road - one with a sign inviting tourists to see a live bison.
We were 13 minutes behind schedule departing Gallup, but due to considerable schedule padding (again) we were over an hour ahead of time arriving in Albuquerque. It was here that passengers could disembark (for nearly two hours) and explore the sights and/or make purchases from Native Americans who regularly set up tables, tents, and even a small bus next to the station. I wanted to buy some pinion nuts - a local delicacy - but I was told that (1) they were out of season, and (2) it had been a bad year for them anyway. Consequently, no pinion nuts. (Neither were there any the last time I came through.)
I was especially interested in seeing the progress of Albuquerque's Alvarado Transportation Center project to complete a structure replicating the original Alvarado Hotel. It was my earliest understanding that the building would house the Amtrak station in keeping with its historical legacy. Not so. The folks of Albuquerque (with help from the Federal Transit Administration) did do a wonderful job in building the facility, but its current function is to serve local transit buses, not Amtrak. Amtrak still uses the building it has occupied for the past several years, cordoned off from the pristine new facility, and passengers alighting from the train must funnel themselves down narrow steps alongside a closed, decrepit ramp to exit the platform. (There is another ramp at the far west end of the platform.) I was hoping, at the very least, that the project might yet bring some semblance of charm and dignity to the Amtrak function at Albuquerque, such as a facelift to the depot and landscaping, and I noted the phone number shown on a sign to seek further information. After I returned home I called that number (which was supposed to have been disconnected, I was told), and I was referred to another person who would return my call. He never did. I tried again the following day and was referred to the fellow's e-mail address. I wrote him a message, but he did not reply. I then checked some websites and learned that a second phase of the project will supposedly include construction of a joint-use depot for use by rail and intercity bus services. Time will tell if these plans will reach fruition and be in keeping with the heritage of the original Santa Fe line through Albuquerque. I hope so.
Lunch began before the train left the station, and I enjoyed the Chicken Pot Pie in company with the same fellow from Hawaii who had joined me the previous evening, plus a farmer and his wife from Illinois who were returning home following a cruise on the QE-II through the Panama Canal.
Much of the remaining afternoon was consumed in a project for Vic Stone - taking inventory of semaphore signals along the line from Albuquerque to Raton. I took up station in the last coach looking back through the window of the rear door overtop the string of mail and express cars. When I saw a signal (I missed a few), I carefully noted its number or control point name, as best I could, and its status as either a semaphore or one with color-lights. At one time, of course, all were semaphores, but the railroad has been methodically replacing them in recent years. I found at least 26 places still having semaphores. From the list I developed, Vic later checked it against his own inventory, and it appears that a 16-mile portion between Shoemaker and Wagon Mound encompasses the most recent signals to be converted to those with color-lights. (Another tradition bites the dust!)
But herein poses a mystery. While the railroad has seemingly continued with its program of signal upgrades, now comes word from various sources that BNSF plans to either sell or downgrade the line. Aside from Amtrak, the line through Raton sees very little traffic. A coal mine in the area is about to close, if it has not already, and only a couple or so auto trains, a regularly scheduled freight from La Junta, and a handful of grain extras reportedly use the route. (But it is a handy detour route when needed.) I have heard a report, too, that BNSF and Amtrak have discussed the construction of a loop track in Albuquerque that would permit the Southwest Chief (westbound) to operate through Amarillo, Texas, and then access Albuquerque via nearby Belen. By looping, it could continue its current route toward Gallup, etc. (vice-versa eastbound), and thus eliminate using the line through Dodge City, La Junta, Raton and Lamy. If this happens, this may very well have been my last ride over that route segment!
At Las Vegas, New Mexico, I noted that the area surrounding the old roundhouse has been cleared. Meanwhile, the derelict Castaneda Hotel adjacent to the platform is in need of some (big time) TLC.
I had intentionally chosen last call for dinner in order to allow time for my inventory survey, being joined by a gal named Kristy, and a gent who decided not to remain (so I ate his salad and roll in addition to my own), and my entree selection was the Blackened Catfish. The track remained smooth until about 20 minutes east of La Junta when, abruptly, it ("jointed rail") got very rough!
The following morning found me experiencing my third calamitous event of the trip. For this was the day, which I shall never forget, that I got TRAPPED IN THE LAVATORY. I arose before 6 A.M. The lavatory, one of four on the lower level, is about as small as one could imagine and still serve its intended purpose. The room is so small that the door opens to the outside, as space is so tiny that a person could never maneuver enough to close it if the door opened inward. Anyway, when I closed the door, the handle broke off on the inside. I hurriedly finished my chores, and I then tried to reaffix the handle to the stem from which it had initially broken. But the stem had recessed itself backward into the slot, flush with the door, and I could not pull it forward. Thoughts went through my mind over what might happen to get me free, but I chose to be patient. So I pulled the call button to signal the attendant. I did this several times in succession with the hope that it would let him know how urgent the situation was. No response. I continued to pull the call button. Still no response. Possibly I could have kicked the door out, but I rejected this thought (for the time being) as to do so would likely have caused damage to the frame. Anyway, my life was in no danger. Still, as necessary as the lavatories are, it is not the sort of place most people would want to spend any more time in than they have to. So I then tried being creative. I checked my ditty bag (which carried my bathroom essentials), and took out a BIC razor. I discovered that the handle on the razor had a similar configuration to the broken door handle, but with a considerably longer reach, and I inserted it into the space where the recessed stem was. Very carefully, I maneuvered both the razor handle and the stem, but could not put enough pressure on the stem to turn the handle. Then I gently tugged on the razor handle enough to pull the stem far enough toward me to reaffix to broken handle, just enough to unlatch the door. It worked! I was FREE!
I left the lavatory (leaving the door open, intending to quickly return and stand guard lest somebody else might get trapped). Meanwhile, the attendant (who had heard the call bell but was still in bed at the time) did respond a couple of minutes or so after I got free. He was unable to fix the broken handle, so he removed the entire handle assembly and secured the door to prevent any further entry.
In hindsight, the ordeal in the lavatory probably took no longer than six minutes - yet it seemed much longer at the time. Later, in describing my plight to others, many have said they would have tried, without hesitation, to kick the door out. But I'm glad I didn't. Likely this would have caused sufficient damage to have the sleeper shopped. As it was, only the handle needed to be replaced. (It pays to stay calm). Anyway, this ended calamitous event number 3; happily there were no others for the balance of the trip.
Still recovering from that experience (and more than willing to tell everyone about it), I ventured to the diner, being its first (and for quite awhile its only) customer. The train had stopped (with the explanation that we were being 'held for time'), and I was eventually joined by a gent from New Jersey who takes the train every two years to and from California to visit his family.
There was a further stop in order to exchange mail and express cars, but we pulled into Kansas City about 15 minutes early. This was my very first chance to visit its Union Station since Amtrak passengers began using it late last year.
To access the station from the platform, passengers have to climb a couple of flights of outside stairs (or take an elevator) to the concourse level. But entry into the station is not yet. A long walkway then takes passengers alongside the length of the long concourse, between it and the adjacent parking lot (again, this is all outside), until an entry into the station is reached. Once into the building, there is no immediate scene of grandeur. The ticket office is on one side of an aisle, and the passenger waiting room is in a small room on the other side. It is only when passengers emerge further from the immediate train ticketing and assembly area that the full effect of the station's magnificence is felt.
WOW! At this point I can only think of such generic superlatives as Awesome, Breathtaking, Mesmerizing (you think of some) - none of which can capture the true feeling upon entering this supreme work of art. Indeed, both its huge concourse room and headhouse could compare with the finest cathedral. It's amazing what was constructed to accommodate train passengers when the building first opened in 1914. Regrettably, I only had about 25 minutes to roam about; a visit of four hours (or longer) would have been needed to do the facility proper justice. While the four-year effort to reopen the station was for the purpose of a science museum, shopping, restaurants, etc., it is at least comforting that it is once again a bona fide train station. Hopefully the day may come that its function as a train station will be more than a superficial adjunct, and that detraining passengers may once again enter it in the grand style for which the building was originally intended.
We left Kansas City on time, and I reposed for about an hour in the lounge before returning to my room to read the paper. (But there was no paper!) Evidently there has been some downsizing with this amenity. Formerly, sleeping car passengers could count on getting a complimentary newspaper each morning, but now not always. I would say that papers are now only made available about half the time. Through areas of intense scenery, when papers may be set aside in favor of the preferred order of the day, this amenity is not that much missed. But in the flatlands of the area east of Kansas City, there are times folks might simply prefer to catch up on the news.
Later, back in the lounge, sans a paper to read, I watched the world go by, and with it clear skies making way to clouds. (Was snow in the offing?) But further conjecture over the weather got interrupted by lunch - my last on the trip (or so I thought) - and to the diner I went at 11:30 A.M. for which I selected the Black Angus Steak Burger.
Leaving Galesburg 15 minutes late, we had acquired a rather large number of customers, some of whom were given seats in the lounge due to crowding in the two coaches. As we left, a BNSF freight moving in the same direction on the opposite track began to pass. As we gained speed it was neck and neck while we raced to overcome it - an exciting episode lasting three minutes. We remained behind schedule for the remaining stops, but (again, due to padding) we arrived in Chicago 58 minutes advance. As we were backing in, I could see the from train the westbound Lake Shore Limited, obviously having gone through some serious snow earlier that day. Snow was so thick that it was caked solid within some of the step wells.
I made my customary visit to the Great Hall to pay it proper homage, noting that scaffolding was in place near the Adams Street entrance, evidently for cleaning and shining of the brightwork. Curiously, the Amtrak train status monitors in the Great Hall were dark. The Metropolitan Lounge, meanwhile, was moderately busy, but not crowded to capacity, with all connections from the west either having already arrived or reported to be on time - except for the Illinois Zephyr whose passengers would arrive by bus due to a BNSF freight train derailment.
After six of the last seven nights on a train, I had still not lost enthusiasm for the upcoming adventure of boarding the Capitol Limited for the final night of the trip, and the excitement was as though I had never done the same thing many times before.
Somehow the process of loading passengers in Chicago is far more chaotic than it is at other terminals, and this occasion was no exception. The sleeping car passengers were not loaded first, and confusion reigned as our thundering herd made its way along the narrow platforms to our respective assignments.
The consist was the same as it had been on the Southwest Chief (the same cars), but I was in the sleeper directly behind the one I had ridden from Los Angeles. At my first opportunity, I ventured forth to that sleeper just to see if anyone had fixed the handles on the erstwhile Allen-trap toilet room. I would never have wanted to wager my next retirement check that the thing had been fixed (Ha!), but to my great surprise, it HAD been. Amazing!
Meanwhile, I overheard that the westbound Capitol Limited that morning had made a detour from Pittsburgh to Toledo (bypassing Cleveland) because of a freight train derailment. Golly, would that happen to us too? (No, it wouldn't.)
We left from Chicago right on the advertised (7:00 P.M.), pulling once again following attachment of the mail and express 17 minutes later. One might assume that our call for dinner would be made shortly after departure, but this did not happen for an hour and a half. The diner filled up when the announcement was made, and I was seated with three folks on separate itineraries, all Amtrak admirers who attend long trips frequently. In such company I feel right at home. If I explain my interest to friends and coworkers back home who do not know the pleasures of train travel, they imply that my passion is somewhat obscure. Often they remark, "Why don't you fly?" They just don't understand.. But on the train itself, I am always in the company of my peers!
Since I had taken the precaution of alerting Amtrak to my dietary request ahead of time (and finding that the diner had heretofore stocked what I had asked), it was a tad disappointing to find that the Capitol Limited had no margarine. All they had was butter. (I'm not so sure that margarine is that much better for me than butter anyway, so I enjoyed it instead, but in fact my dietary request did not get fulfilled, and it's not unlikely that the items I had requested would have been stocked on the trains that had them whether I had made that request or not.)
We were one hour and 12 minutes late arriving in Pittsburgh, losing two more minutes before departure. Snow began falling east of Pittsburgh, but soon abated. Cold weather, meanwhile, had taken its toll on the Youghiogheny River, with numerous ice jams.
In the lounge car I made the acquaintance of Danilo. He kept sharing magazines with me after I had looked at one he had set aside. A native of Honduras, he was en route to Washington. He spoke no English; I speak no Spanish. Somehow, though, we were able to communicate. "How old are you?" I asked. "Eleven," he answered (he appeared older). "What grade are you in school?" I asked, after he had said he was in high school. "Third grade," he replied. Well, perhaps third grade in Honduras is equivalent to a higher grade in the U.S., or he simply didn't understand the question, but I truly doubt that he was in the third grade.
I was not so concerned over the lateness of the train except that Vic wanted to return to Charlottesville for a teaching assignment that evening. So I went to the lounge car to call him on the payphone. I would have suggested that he meet me in Harpers Ferry, to save time, rather than wait for me to arrive in Baltimore. But the payphone was out of service. Moreover, a note on the phone said that it had been out of service for more than a month.
The last time I rode east on the Capitol Limited, lunch was not offered. So I expected the same this time - no lunch. But surprise, surprise, lunch was announced as we left Cumberland. (So instead of 17 meals on this trip, I actually got 18.) Now THAT was a real treat! (Way to go, Amtrak!)
Later, during our run through Martinsburg and Brunswick, I met a fellow who is associated with the Griffith Historical Society in Indiana. He recounted their project involving removal and restoration of the former EJ&E tower in Griffith. Together we found a lot in common, and I showed him Miller Tower (still in pieces) in Martinsburg, as well as the active towers in Martinsburg and Brunswick. I even showed him my workplace - the van assembly area at the Brunswick yard office - and later the former site of Boyd Tower. And when I gave him the URL address for the Bull Sheet website, he was happy to reply that he had already been there. (And now you know the pleasures of riding on a train - there are so many folks of like interest doing the very same thing.)
We arrived in Washington one hour and 19 minutes late. I missed my connection to Baltimore (in fact, it passed us while we were heading into the station), but I caught the next train leaving just an hour later. My final leg from Washington to Baltimore would have been too incidental to mention except for one detail: Just before we left, the southbound Silver Star arrived on the track just across the platform. That was the train that had started my adventure eight days earlier. And wouldn't it be great if that same sleeper - Beach View - were in the consist? Then just as we pulled and passed that portion of the consist, I saw it. That same sleeper. Things had truly gone full circle. . .
- David Gunn, Amtrak's new chief, is highly regarded by the employees with whom I spoke. Many have met him; he has personally visited many of their trains and facilities. He is considered a knowledgeable person who has the interest of Amtrak, its employees and patrons at heart. Moreover, he tells it the way it is! He is the man for the job, I heard them say.
- Meals in the diner continue to be a hallmark of long-distance Amtrak trains. Tablecloths are still used, with real dinnerware and utensils, with a variety of entrees including steak, pork, chicken, fish and lasagna. Amtrak recently switched to a uniform menu for all long-distance trains, but there is still enough variety that a traveler might not have to repeat any entree more than once in a week-long trip riding in more than one train.
- Communal seating in the dining car is not simply a ploy to get passengers acquainted; it facilitates the serving process. All orders from a single table are taken at one time, and then delivered at one time. By positioning the order tickets in the same manner as patrons are seated, each (usually) gets exactly what they ordered. This permits the server to concentrate on the task at hand since it is just as expedient to attend a table of four as it is to attend a table of one or two. Dinner reservations are often made to promote staggered seating: four tables on the first call, four tables on the second call, etc. This permits prompter service and less waiting time. If a wait develops, most long-distance patrons take it in stride. After all, they have no place else to go, and they can spend the time talking with their table partners. Once again, many share interests in common.
- My Amtrak ticket, Baltimore to Los Angeles via Orlando, returning via Chicago, with seven nights on the train, all meals included, cost me $1,553.50. By deducting the menu cost of my 18 meals, transportation amounted to $1,289.75, or an average of $184.25 per night. Not bad, considering that many upscale hotels charge that much or more for a night's stay, and they don't offer passing scenery. By comparison, in 1952, a Baltimore to Los Angeles and return rail ticket in a roomette (meals not included) averaged $43.69 per night. Sure, there's been inflation, but the increase over 51 years pales in comparison to the 12-fold increase in the cost of mailing a first-class letter (three cents then, 37 cents now). Think about it!
- With such vast distances between stops on many long-distance routes and schedule padding being the norm, it seems peculiar that oddball times should anoint the timetable. Why, for example, should the eastbound Southwest Chief be due to arrive in Albuquerque at 12:29 P.M.? Why not make it 12:30 P.M.?.. And then the train is due into Chicago at 4:36 P.M. Why couldn't it be 4:35 P.M.?.. Or 4:30 P.M.?.. For that matter, why not show ALL station times in five or ten minute intervals? Surely this would not disrupt the status quo (since timing is not so critical as it is in high density corridors), and the schedule would be easier for folks to remember.
A "REAL" FORWARD-FACING DOME CAR FOR SUPERLINERS?
It's been 13 years since I first suggested my dome car idea for Superliners, and I've never wavered from my belief that it would be an ideal addition to the Amtrak experience. Yes, I know that Amtrak has more important concerns at the present time. But the fact remains that it will have to face the role long-distance trains will play in the future, if they are to survive at all.. Moreover, new equipment will eventually be needed if the service is to continue. In talking with fellow travelers, many have marveled at the amenity offered by the Pacific Parlour Cars assigned to the Coast Starlight. But if they like those cars, think of how they would enjoy one of these! One shortcoming of the Superliner Sightseer lounge cars - as well as the Pacific Parlour version - is that they do not afford their passengers with FORWARD-FACING visibility. While they do provide panoramic viewing to the top and to the sides, they provide nothing for viewing toward the front. There is one option, however, whereby forward-facing visibility COULD be made available in Superliner equipment. Known as a "transitional" car, the front of the car has interior steps that descend from the upper-level to the "standard" level by which the crew can move between the Superliner car and the standard level car in front of it. The roof of the transitional car is about two feet higher than the roof of the standard-level car (typically a baggage car), and it is this space that could be used to effect forward-viewing for passengers......
My idea is to equip the front portion of a transitional car with a dome-like configuration, preferably with raised seating to permit optimum visibility (but not having to increase the height of the car itself). This would avail a forward view similar to what was traditionally available in the standard-level dome cars that became so popular in trains back in the 1950's. In support of this idea, I would propose that it be an amenity available exclusively to sleeping car passengers. The car could still have revenue space (deluxe bedrooms upstairs; standard bedrooms, family room and handicap bedroom downstairs), with lounge space being applied to the forward portion of the car on the upper level, with downward steps at the extreme front end. It is here, in the dome configuration, that patrons could be pampered in the same manner as they are now in the Pacific Parlour cars, or simply be allowed to sit and wile away their time in the company of their peers. The idea WOULD work. Currently, all of Amtrak's transitional cars are crew cars (with steps in the front, but no dome). These cars would NOT have to be replaced or retrofitted. (Sounds simple, the crew car could run on the REAR of the passenger consist.) Yes, I know my idea would cost money - but, once again, new equipment will have to be considered sometime down the road anyway. Not to act on this idea - since Superliners are higher than standard-level cars in any event - is akin to building a warehouse upon costly beach front property.