New Orleans to El Paso and Back on the Sunset Limited
June 21-30, 2004
Journey to El Paso.
On Monday, June 21, my wife Jody, sons David and Robert and I left New Orleans (NO) on a vacation trip to Santa Fe, NM. via El Paso and Amtrak train # 1, the Sunset Limited. We drove to NO from Birmingham and left the car with in-laws.
Train 1's Superliner consist included 2 Genesis locomotives, a silver-side baggage car, transition sleeper, 3 sleeping cars, dining car, Sightseer lounge, and 4 coaches, the last of which was empty and locked. We traveled coach on very reasonable fares; my strategy in such cases is to obtain seating to the rear of the last coach. This is to avoid being kept awake by the opening of exit doors and the track noise occasioned by passengers headed to and from the lounge into the wee hours. However, the train was full such that Jody and I were seated in the second coach 5 rows behind the front exit. Our sons were in the first coach directly behind the exit to the lounge. This is the worst possible location since that door would be used by all coach passengers going to the lounge or diner. The lone car attendant for all 3 occupied coaches promised to move us back at Houston.
Our train departed New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (NOUPT) at 12:45 PM, 50 minutes late, and snaked around the city to the Huey Long Bridge over the Mississippi river. This impressive structure was built between 1932 and 1935. It carries rail and auto traffic on a high arching span that allows ocean freighters to pass underneath. Prior to it's construction rail and car traffic crossed the river on ferries.
The bridge was proposed by the Southern Pacific (SP) in 1892. Engineering, political and financial obstacles delayed things until 1924 when famed bridge engineer Ralph Modjeski was put in charge. Tentative agreements were reached between the SP, the Public Belt Railway of NO, Federal officials, including the Army Corps of Engineers, and state and local agencies. However, wrangling continued over whether it should be a low bridge with vertical lift or draw spans or a high bridge. A high bridge reaching 135 feet above the mean river level was selected. One blessing from the delays is that the cost declined from $17 million to under $10 million, presumably because of the depression. A history of the project can be found at the The Louisiana Rail Site.
After NO, the Sunset moved across rivers, swampy bayous, and broad fields of sugar cane, rice, soybeans and crawfish on the ex-SP main line now shared by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP) to Houston where the UP takes over. We passed small fishing and farming towns such as Crowley, Jennings and Rayne while a national park ranger made informative comments in the lounge car. Brief stops occurred in New Iberia and Lafayette. The latter featured the old SP station attractively refurbished for Amtrak and local bus service. The Sunset moved at a moderate speed passing freight trains with locomotives in BNSF orange and black and the older BN forest green and white.
After Lake Charles, LA., where huge oil refineries were framed by three lake-boat casinos, the Sunset crossed into East Texas. The lounge car attendant, a very friendly and competent fellow, then began the first of 3 movies--Agent Cody Banks, Along Came Polly and Welcome to Mooseport.
In Texas, the train began to slow down, then speed up, then stop in an erratic fashion. At 7 PM we stopped dead for an hour between Orange and Beaumont. Then we moved for 30 seconds, stopped for 25 minutes, moved for about 3 minutes then stopped again for 20 minutes. No explanation was provided. At 8:25 PM we reached our Beaumont stop, a slab of concrete just west of the downtown, 2 hours late. A handful of passengers de-trained and boarded and we moved toward Houston at a slow but steady pace. In the meantime we enjoyed fair-to-good soup, sandwiches, and beverages in the lounge. I sporadically watched the first 2 movies between views of chemical plants and mile after mile of greater Houston but then got hooked on Welcome to Mooseport with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman.
We reached the Houston station at 10:30 PM an hour and a half late. About 30 passengers left but more boarded and the attendant forgot to move us. However, my sons managed to claim seats in the 3rd coach from the lounge--a big improvement. When I timidly inquired about a move to the 3rd coach the attendant replied maybe in San Antonio. That would be 2:30 AM, if on time, or more likely 3:30 to 4. We decided to stay put.
We left Houston at 11, stopped in the suburb of Sugarland for 60 minutes, moved 4 minutes then stopped again until 12:45AM when movement became continuous. After Welcome to Mooseport ended I eavesdropped on an elderly passenger talking about his career as a taxi driver and limo operator in Grand Rapids, MI. After young people began renting his limos for wild parties he sold out and returned to taxis he drives weekends with less anxiety. Meanwhile fun-loving young adults and teens had set up camp in the lower lounge on and around the tables where games, laughter and loud talk ensued. These activities were in full swing after midnight when I retreated to my seat. Wife Jody was asleep and I tried to position myself comfortably with ear plugs. As feared, the lounge car became a magnet for teenagers and a constant procession through our car was in progress. Most interesting was one boy seated across the aisle and ahead of us. He moved from his seat to the lounge and back 18 times between 1:15 and 2:10 AM. On each return he reported to a young man seated behind him as in "Now they're doing.." or "She said..". Finally, just before collapsing into his seat, I heard him say, "Man, I'm so drunk". Interesting since he appeared to be 13 or 14. I'm glad they had fun; everyone else appeared to sleep though all this.
At 4 AM I awoke to the rustle of departing passengers at San Antonio. As I drifted back to sleep a loud, angry female voice said "Lola, I can't see the seat numbers". Then, "Our seats are already occupied". Collective shushing made her exclaim "I've been waiting in that damned station all night and I'm not about to stand to LA". At 4:30 calm prevailed and I drifted back to sleep as the train shuffled west.
Day 2 began at 8 AM with nice views of West Texas shrubs, bush-like trees, cacti and rolling hills. My favorite dining car meal is breakfast so we trooped to the diner for immediate seating by the cheerful stewardess. I had a good Western omelette with stone-cold hash browns and a biscuit. The wife and sons ate French toast and scrambled eggs which they pronounced "OK" or "good". Best was the endless supply of coffee served by our friendly waiter which activated my sleepy brain. On the curves I noticed we had at least one more sleeper and a coach from the Texas Eagle connection in San Antonio.
Gradually the countryside became more rugged with narrow, shallow canyons and less vegetation. To the south were far-off, brooding mountains shrouded in dark clouds. At 10:50 AM we passed an eastbound Sunset near the Pecos high bridge. The landscape was virtually empty except for an occasional horse, cluster of cattle, oil wells, and a small house with windmill and cattle drinking troughs. After re-joining US Highway 90, we saw ranch entrances, more houses and a few stores. We passed Sanderson, where I spied a very old SP water tank car, at 12:30 PM over 3 hours late. We reached Alpine, TX., "Elevation 4485 Ft.-Gateway to Big Bend National Park" at 2:15 and paused at a stucco station to load ice.
Post-Alpine, the terrain flattened out with jagged mountains closer on the horizon. As the train climbed clouds gathered and the mountains drew nearer and became more ridge-like. We saw a small blimp moored to the left-actually a weather balloon I was told. Nearby was an Indian-like figure with a donkey or burro. As the Sunset approached El Paso, irrigated farmland appeared and soon we were in the suburbs. In town I saw a locomotive facility that, in addition to UP's armour yellow, featured Cotton Belt/Southern Pacific red and black and several engines in dark gray with UP red lettering on the front.
Three hours late, at 6:05 PM Mountain Time we pulled in front of the venerable El Paso Union Station. The station was built in 1904 with a church-like appearance because of a steeple on the northeast corner. The exterior is dark red brick. The station has been refurbished and houses the El Paso Transit Administration on the second floor. The interior features an open court with a balcony all around the second floor with offices behind. Attractive half-moon windows rise above the second floor. The waiting room floor seems to be of very old tile. Wooden benches cluster near the ticket window. A restored annex off the waiting room has tables, chairs and vending machines.
After our rental car was delivered to the station we located a motel and a recommended Mexican restaurant. The night ended with a quick visit to Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande. The next day we headed north to Alamogordo, NM and nearby White Sands National Monument. The area is also home to Ft. Bliss and a large US Army missile testing facility. The first atomic bomb was detonated in the White Sands area in 1945. The white sands themselves are snow-white, powdery, and gypsum-based, surrounded by mountains on three sides. The sand remains amazingly cool irrespective of the air temperature so that visitors can and do run barefoot up and down the dunes. We spent a great part of the day in this delightful place before moving west to Interstate 25 at Las Cruces, NM for the drive north to Santa Fe.
The Incredible Return
We spent 4 days in Santa Fe visiting a dear friend and enjoying the great cuisine and cool weather-highs in the 70s, lows 55 to 60. A prolonged drought closed most area hiking trails because of fire hazards but we found one open near the city limits up 11,000 feet on Mount Tesuque. The climb provided hard exercise and beautiful views of the valley, Aspens and Canadian-like fir trees.
Late Sunday, June 27th we drove back to El Paso. Train 2, eastbound was due out the next day at 3:41 PM. At our motel that night we witnessed a spectacular weather display over mountains to the West-lightning bolts flashed continuously across the entire western sky in vertical and horizontal directions. The next morning we shopped for cowboy boots on behalf of son Robert. El Paso is a major maker and vendor of leather boots. One emporium visited seemed to sell every conceivable kind and color of cowboy boot.
A visit to the station at Noon informed us that Train 2 was expected at 5:54. Driving on I-10 west of downtown we saw eastbound UP stack trains backed up on one of 2 high trestles that cross the BNSF rail line from Albuquerque-an ominous sign.
At 5 the Sunset's estimated time of arrival (ETA) was 6:50. At 6 a handwritten sign on the arrival board said that, due to the collision of 2 UP freight trains, all passengers--those on Train 2 and those of us in El Paso--would be bused to San Antonio to board Train 1 to be turned back east as Train 2. Our Train 2 was now due into El Paso around 7 PM. About fifteen passengers were waiting stoically in the station. An elderly couple soon bailed and left in a taxi with their luggage. A middle-aged pair and their young son had booked a deluxe bedroom to Orlando and wondered out-loud about compensation.
I wandered out to the 4 station tracks to observe a team of 6 axle UP and NS locomotives drag a westbound freight halfway through the station area and stop. To the left I could see a fuel and water facility servicing the engines. Ten minutes later a westbound UP locomotive poked its nose into a curve leading to the station. Then 3 UP SD-70Ms and a Transporte Ferroviaria Mexicana GE, pulled the stack train in front of us. Seconds later a third westbound freight came through led by UP and BN pre-Santa Fe merger locomotives in forest green. Three of the station tracks were now simultaneously occupied by westbound trains. The UP controls the former Texas Pacific main from El Paso to New Orleans by way of Dallas/Ft. Worth so some eastbound trains may have taken that route.
At 7:20 Train 2 arrived from Los Angeles. Two Genesis engines were pulling 2 empty Superliner coaches, a silver-side baggage car, a transition sleeper, Superliner sleepers Colorado and Idaho, a sightseer lounge, diner and 2 or 3 additional coaches--I couldn't be sure because the train stopped short of the station on a curve. El Paso passengers had been told we would board a bus first. However, as 7 Southwest Lines Charter buses backed down to the train, we were told to wait in the station.
Train 2 passengers slowly transferred to the buses as the baggage car was unloaded. At 7:50 we were asked to take our bags, hike to the buses and wait for instructions. No effort was made to help two elderly couples so we transported their baggage the 300 feet or so. Instructions were simple: find any available seats on any bus. After scurrying around, passengers on the 2nd bus in line made 4 nearby seats available to me and my family. The buses remained stationary without explanation until 9:15 PM when we moved onto Interstate 10 for the 558 mile trip to San Antonio. During the wait I overheard frustrated passengers on cell phones complaining and swearing off train travel. The bus driver defused the anger by announcing that drinks and snacks were available up front with a dinner stop scheduled soon after 10 PM. Passengers clapped and one shouted "you're an improvement over Amtrak". Another passenger rose and played a movie waiter role with a rapper's monologue as he served us drinks and bags of Doritos. This humorous ice-breaker animated both conversation and bonding.
At 10:45 we had dinner at a Wendy's in a Van Horn, TX. truck stop. Just before stopping I spotted an eastbound stack train dead and dark on the track parallel to I-10. Sleep in the narrow, barely reclining bus seat was fitful. Around 3 AM, the buses pulled into a truck stop at Sonora, Tx. I staggered off to walk around and heard a "Look at this!". We gathered round to read of the train collision in a San Angelo, TX. paper. The report indicated a UP freight westbound from Houston to Tucson with 74 cars had collided around 5:00 AM with an eastbound BNSF freight pulling 123 cars into a siding west of San Antonio. The BNSF train was en-route to Tulsa from Eagle Pass, TX. on the Mexican border, using trackage rights on the UP to Ft. Worth. The paper reported "at least" 3 deaths including a train engineer and conductor.
At a 6:30 breakfast stop in Kerrville, TX., the San Antonio paper provided details on page 1. Four deaths were reported, one a train conductor. The three others had been sleeping in their homes a mile from the collision when a cloud of chlorine gas from a damaged tank car enveloped them. A man living nearby reported that, after his dogs awakened him at 5:30, he spotted the chlorine cloud, bundled his family into an SUV, crashed through his front gate and outran the gas. Six employees opening an amusement park 10 miles from the crash were injured. Forty three other persons were treated for gas-related injuries. This news diminished our complaints about Amtrak and the bus ride. A passenger familiar with the area said that if the crash had occurred closer to San Antonio several hundred persons would have died. The paper featured a sidebar with instructions on what to do following exposure to chlorine gas. A UP spokesperson had no comment. The BNSF spokesperson refused to assign blame but noted that their train was pulling into the siding during a "normal switching operation".
At 10:15 AM Central Time our bus convoy pulled into the pink Spanish-style ex-SP station in San Antonio. Train 1 had not arrived and we were told to stay on the buses because the waiting room was full. We nonetheless gratefully de-bused and walked around the station area part of which is an entertainment complex with restaurants and bars. Another set of 5 buses was parked nearby to take Train 1 passengers to El Paso. A 6th boarded some of our passengers headed for the Texas Eagle connection and left for Ft. Worth.
At 10:30 AM Train 1 arrived led by 2 Genesis locomotives pulling a silver-side baggage car, transition sleeper, Superliner sleepers Rhode Island and California, a dining car, sightseer lounge and 3 coaches. As the train unloaded passengers many in our group moved down the platform toward the coaches. A trainman politely advised us to go back to the waiting room or re-board our buses since Train 1 would need to be turned and cleaned. The small waiting room was jammed so we stood at the head of the platform with our bags as dark clouds rolled in. Bonding effects were still active so we conversed cheerfully while a driving rain forced us to huddle under the canopy. Meanwhile we watched Amtrak employees sort out Train 1 luggage in the rain for transfer to El Paso buses now full of irritable-looking passengers. At 12:15 the El Paso caravan departed.
Former Train 1--now Train 2--came back at 12:35. At 12:45 the doors on the last coach opened and we found 4 ideal seats at the rear. The train cars were spic and span and looked great after the bus. Amtrak employees were very solicitous, providing extra pillows, making everyone comfortable, sympathizing with our various problems. One outstanding car attendant helped an Atlanta-bound passenger cancel her hotel reservation for that night in New Orleans, re-booked her for the following night and made sure she had a seat on the Crescent the morning after.
At 1:30 PM June 29th, only seven and a half hours late, Train 2 moved out with an ETA in New Orleans "sometime tomorrow morning". An on-time arrival would have put us there at 8:30 that evening. One wag suggested we weren't running later because the buses made better, unimpeded time on I-10. Leaving San Antonio we passed sprawling Randolph Air Force base dating back to World War I.
During the ride to Houston, I joined small children in looking out the rear window at the receding track and variety of old SP track signals and markers. Forty-five minutes from Houston station the air was dumped for an emergency stop to avoid hitting a car stuck on the tracks between the gates. We waited almost an hour until the car could be moved. Another stop 15 minutes out delayed our arrival until 9:15 PM frustrating eager to get-off Houston passengers.
To my dismay the lounge car ran out of all alcohol except Bud Lite and $10 bottles of wine. No time to re-stock at San Antonio said the cheerful attendant. "Will do so at NO"--no good for me. In El Paso we had bought Ramen noodles, tuna fish, cheese, salami, French bread and other goodies to consume on the train. After purchasing 3 bottles of wine for $30 our happy attendant even allowed use of his hot water to heat the noodles. Later he confided his cheerful demeanor was becoming difficult and he would drink 3 bottles of any remaining wine when this "unbelievable trip, even for the Sunset, ends in Orlando". In the meantime I listened to a passenger sipping a cocktail and commenting loudly on a cell phone that she had ridden all night on "the bus from hell with seats midgets couldn't fit into and no water to wash after using the john".
As greater Houston slipped away a young woman asked about our homemade sandwiches. Accepting our last one she said she was on disability and traveling from Oxnard, CA, to Tampa to see her father. She talked about the politics of disability welfare and the boy friend she had recently gifted with a $10 engagement ring. He made a living house sitting except when binge drinking. At these times he rented sleeping space in friend's cars for $5 or 10 per night. A young man sitting nearby videotaped us for a "documentary" and asked her for an interview.
At midnight I returned to our quiet coach and slept well waking once at Lake Charles. After peering out the back window at the receding night-time track I managed to sleep until 7:30 AM. The train was stopped outside Schreiver, LA. "The dead law caught up and we're waiting for a new engineer" a passenger said. At 8 we started moving and passed a westbound freight led by an unusual combination of Conrail and Meridian and Bigbee Diesels. In the dining car we were served French toast and lots of coffee by another friendly crew. At 9:40 we stopped again and waited until 10:20 alongside an eastbound freight with Conrail engines up front. At 10:30 we passed a yard with locomotives in BNSF orange and black, Santa Fe blue and yellow, BN forest green, UP yellow, CSX blue and yellow and 2 painted white with no visible markings. Ten minutes later we started up the Huey Long bridge. In the lounge most passengers were glued to the view while 2 couples on circle trips discussed their itinerary--one pair started in Atlanta going west to California and Vancouver and were returning. The other started in Toledo went west and were coming back after a break in Tucson. The wife of one couple said "This last segment we can talk about for years but I still love trains". After crossing the bridge and winding back through the city the incredible return ended at NOUPT at 11:20 AM almost 15 hours late. Glad to get off, part of me wanted to go on to Orlando to see what else might happen and in case a record for lateness was set.
As is well known, Amtrak's on-time record outside the Northeast and other corridors is highly variable due to it's guest status on freight railroads. My experience with the Southwest Chief on the BNSF is good. The UP's sunset route is apparently a worst case.
Only once, on our westbound trip, did the conductor explain an unscheduled stop. He cited Amtrak's problems with freight railroads and mollified passengers around me. In my opinion an employee should explain any lengthy unscheduled delay during or after the stop. If the delay is due to freight railroad dispatching a few passengers may contact elected representatives or the railroads. Our representatives probably know this happens but they need to hear how often it makes for unhappy constituents.