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Trip Report

Amtrak: Louisville, KY to Lamy, NM

November 2002


November 16, I rode Amtrak 851, the Kentucky Cardinal, overnight to Chicago and No. 3, the Southwest Chief, from Chicago to Lamy, NM the next day.

The Kentucky Cardinal (851) left the old L & N station near downtown Louisville about 9:30PM with 4 passengers in a clean, comfortable Horizon coach behind a Genesis locomotive. Our friendly lady conductor provided soft drinks, bottled water, candy and crackers as food service free of charge. The train ambled across the Ohio River and within 20 minutes halted in Jeffersonville, IN. at a small building with a Pennsylvania RR logo. No-one boarded the train while we 4 passengers, the conductor, engineer, and brakeman held a 10 minute conversation on the platform. The crew attributed the lack of business to cancellation of a sleeping car formally assigned to 851.

We shortly headed for Indianapolis at a maximum speed of 40 mph due to poor track conditions. After a snack, I dozed spread out on 2 seats with 3 pillows thoughtfully provided by the conductor. At 2:10AM we pulled into venerable Union Station in Indianapolis where the schedule calls for a 2 hour layover while 851 waits to join tri-weekly Amtrak 51, the Chicago-bound Cardinal from Washington, DC. Tonight's Cardinal is Number 50 going to Washington but we wait nevertheless. Our conductor departs and suddenly we are dark and un-heated as the locomotive uncouples leaving us without head end power (HEP). A fellow passenger says "they" usually plug our coach into a power source on the platform. I de-train to walk back and forth on the platform and am treated to 2 long CSX freights rumbling through on an adjacent track. Then Washington-bound 50 pulls in with a complement of 2 Viewliner sleepers, a dining car, coach lounge, and 3 coaches including a Horizon car destined to become our counterpart for Louisville, Number 850.

Switching moves then begin as one of 2 locomotives on 50 is uncoupled and the train leaves for Washington minus 850's car. Our uncoupled Genesis engine moves around and stops a few feet from 850's Horizon car--but doesn't attach leaving that car also dark and cold. The engine off of 50 moves around in back of our car--heading out the way we came--but does not couple. About 3:00AM our former engine finally couples with the Louisville car and 850 heads South. Shortly afterwards a big Amtrak F59PHI moves parallel to us on a passing track with a Horizon car, 2 baggage cars and 2 Superliner transition type sleeping cars. These are coupled to our car. They are powered, lighted and presumably heated but our car inexplicably remains without power. I presume these are repaired cars being deadheaded to Chicago from Amtrak's Beech Grove shops.

I find the Union Station waiting room downstairs is lighted and warm thanks to its dual use by Greyhound and Amtrak. An all-night lunch counter is busy with Greyhound passengers as a policeman glowers at us from a special "precinct" desk. People sit on 5 rows of benches--heavy, high-back wooden types that look to be 70 or 80 years old. The Amtrak ticket counter is still open at 3:15AM in case someone wants to ride 851. Several well-dressed people come in and buy tickets but they never board our train. Amtrak hours of service posted are 7AM to 2:30PM and 11PM to 6:30AM.

At 4:00AM our new crew arrives, bringing us light and heat. We leave shortly afterwards. Once away from the station 851 moves relatively fast, maybe 65 or 70 mph. I fall asleep to wake briefly at Lafayette, IN, where 3 new passengers board. I next awake at Rensselaer, IN, 60 miles from Chicago, where 7 passengers board. Its snowing heavily now and as we enter the Chicago commuter zone in Northwest Indiana. Housing tracts are interspersed with shopping complexes and industry. Our new conductor is a young man who reminisces with another passenger about locomotive failures and long delays on this route. Not today--we arrive at Union Station in Chicago a half hour early at 8:30AM.

My grumbling to the conductor about the 2 hour layover elicits "How would you like to arrive here at 6:30 in this weather"? One of my Louisville companions snorts "Eleven hours for a trip that takes six on the Interstate. No wonder you don't have passengers". Conductor--"How would you like to have driven into this snow last night"?

The Southwest Chief leaves at 3:15PM so I have time to sight-see. Mercifully it has stopped snowing and a bright sun is out. Its Sunday and Union Station's info booth is closed but I find a brochure with short-term sight-seeing options for layovers like me. I elect an elevated train ride around the Loop and along a Northwesterly route for about 12 miles to a "multi-ethnic neighborhood". From the train I see Christmas decorations on the back porches of 3 and 4 story apartment buildings interspersed with distant views of high rise buildings along Lake Michigan. After lunch I take a jam-packed train back getting off downtown near Marshall Field's Department store, an urban monument that looks 100 years old. The store is open, brightly decorated, and busy. Outside, crowds look at the animated Christmas figures in the big picture windows.

Since I am 63 and a "senior" I join fellow geezers for early boarding of train 3. We are graciously escorted to the first Superliner coach where I manage to occupy 2 seats all the way to Lamy. This day the train consists of a baggage-dorm, 2 coaches, a diner, sightseer lounge, 3 Superliner sleepers and an undetermined number of freight cars. We leave Union Station behind 4 Genesis locomotives. The coaches are about 80% occupied until Kansas City where half the passengers get off and a smaller number board. The ride to KC is very pleasant and relaxing. The friendly lounge attendant recommends a microwave Jambalaya dinner and a special half bottle of red wine. Both are satisfying as I half-watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the first of 2 movies shown in the upper-lounge. The second movie is interesting but I am distracted by night-time switching at BNSF's massive Argentine yard just west of Kansas City where we add more freight cars.

I sleep off and on managing to see Dodge City and Garden City pass in the night. At first light I get coffee in the lounge and eat an early breakfast in the diner with 2 amiable companions, one of whom is dressed in full VFW regalia with World War II combat ribbons and medals. He is indeed a WW II vet from near Richmond, VA, heading west to see a war-time buddy in Reno on a circle tour that will return him to Chicago on the California Zephyr. At the long stop in La Junta CO, we get off to inspect the train. On the rear are 17 freight cars--12 truck-trailers, 4 in Amtrak colors and 8 painted white with Amtrak markings and 5 boxcars with high speed trucks--2 in Amtrak colors and 3 in stark white.

After La Junta the train makes a spectacular approach to the snow-covered Rockies and soon we begin ascending toward Raton Pass. I observe this great scenery from the Sightseer lounge with my VFW breakfast companion who recalls amusing wartime incidents--but no battle stories to go with the medals--and talks about his life as a golf course grounds keeper. By his account, this late-life job provides travel money and younger employees with the good example of his work ethic. Arrival at Lamy is on time at 2:50PM and within 45 minutes I am in Santa Fe.

The return trip to Louisville and my Birmingham home was prevented by a relative's medical emergency necessitating a last-minute flight from Albuquerque to Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The medical problem is resolved and I find that I can use my return ticket for another trip on Amtrak without penalty if I present a physician's note. I plan an April visit to Santa Fe and look forward to going round trip on the Southwest Chief, my favorite Amtrak train.

David W. Coombs
Birmingham, AL

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