Riding the Rails Washington DC to California and Return
January 5-February 24, 2006
Since January 5, 2006, I've been escaping whatever winter weather the DC area has had. I'm glad I wasn't around when the 10" of s-*-*-* fell (snow is the original 4-letter "S" word to me). To me winter time railfanning is photographing UP, BNSF, ATK, FEC, etc. trains passing palm trees.
Capitol Limited and Chicago - January 5-6
I took my usual route from DC to Oceanside, CA - ATK #29 to Chicago, ATK #3 to Fullerton, and the next available "Surfliner" to Oceanside. The ride on #29 was most uneventful with an on-time arrival in Chicago Union Station (CUS). One nice feature was that without the material handling cars, a coach was the last car on the train. This allowed me to look out the rear of the train when I so desired.
After getting refreshed, and with time to kill, I checked out commuter train schedules on the former MILW RD lines as well as the METRA service to Antioch, IL on CN's WI Central. Alas, the midday train that used to run to Antioch has been dropped. By the time I was ready to catch a train, the only viable option was to ride a METRA train up the Fox Lake line as far as Grayslake. To ride to the end of the line would give me no backup plans in case something went wrong. The last thing you want to have happen is be trapped somewhere out on some commuter line while you're ATK train departs without you. Going just to Grayslake gave me two other commuter trains to catch should something happen to the one I planned taking back into town.
My train was pulled by one of METRA's fairly new MP36 type engines. These units and F40PH's are the typical power on the Fox Lake trains now that all the F40C's have been retired. It was my first ride behind one of the new units. As an aside, I also noticed that more of the MP36's are now being used on the former BN triple track line to Aurora. Last year I saw one of the new units in the "Zephyr House" along Canal Rd. This year, there were a number of these units there or on trains waiting for the evening rush hour.
Carrying all my luggage aboard a bi-level commuter coach wasn't the easiest thing to do, but I felt compelled to take everything with me. The storage cost for luggage in CUS is $3/hour for a smaller locker; $4/hour for a larger one. There's no guarantee your luggage will all fit into one locker. Given that my train ride would last at least 2 1/2 hours, my minimum cost would have been $9. Thus, my two bags came with (the one would have anyhow as it had my camera gear in it).
This commuter line uses the CP (xMILW RD) mainline as far north as Rondout before breaking off on the former MILW RD line to Janesville, WI, now operated by the WI & Southern north of Fox Lake. The commuter stations along the mainline are quite large and user friendly. Even the smaller ones, like at Golf, are photogenic if not replete with the banking, restaurants, etc. found in or near the large commuter stations like Lake Forest and Deerfield. However, once you get onto the Janesville line, the stations become simple buildings with nothing inside them but a few chairs or benches and no services either in them or even near them. So, when I got off at Grayslake, there was nothing to do but wait to board the train for the return trip to CUS. That the weather was cold and cloudy didn't help matters either.
Shortly after arriving at Grayslake another commuter train soon arrived from Fox Lake and departed for Chicago. I probably should have ridden it back, but being a glutton for punishment I stayed to photo the arrival of the next train to Fox Lake as it passed my train. The station seemed to be only minimally heated, if at all, which made the wait for the expected "meet" that much more uncomfortable. In the distance I could see CN/WI Central freights cross the diamond with the Fox Lake line. I later noticed that the sand train serving Grayslake now was powered by an Alstrom rebuilt SD40 rather than one of the WCL's SD45's. However, some WCL SD45's are still in service. I noticed one was the rear unit of a southbound freight.
The trip back to CUS went smoothly, as did the trip out, and about 90 minutes later I was back in CUS in time for lunch before boarding the SW CHIEF. The food court on the second floor of CUS again came through in fine style. There are a number of eateries that have reasonably priced meals. This would help me avoid eating much ATK food that first evening. From the time I left DC I had also brought with me breakfast bars and my own cans of soda so that I wouldn't have to purchase any, or at least not many, cans of soda in the lounge car at the current price of $1.75 per 12 ounce can. Also, I noted that the lounge does not stock any caffeine free colas.
Southwest Chief - January 6-8
Boarding the coach on train #3 proved to be a zoo. There was a group of seniors taking the train to Flagstaff, AZ, and their leader had most of one coach reserved for her group. It turned out that the group required fewer seats than reserved, and by the time everything was said and done, I found myself sitting in the last coach seat on the last car of the train. So, this time, any time I saw something of interest, I could then watch it from the rear of the train. This came in quite handy the next morning as another passenger and I photoed the sunrise over Kansas/Colorado as we sped along toward LaJunta, CO.
I think it was the 65th anniversary issue of Trains that had an article about Raton Pass in it. In that article it stated that BNSF is currently not removing any more of the semaphore signals from the line. Even if true, it appears that this moratorium was too late for any blades in Kansas and Colorado. Admittedly, I may have missed some during the night, but the first semaphore signals I noticed were west of MP 700 south or west of Raton, NM. There was a concentration of them between MP 700 and 713 or so. Then there were some more intermingled with searchlight signals around Wagon Wheel with a larger concentration of semaphores south or west of Las Vegas, NM. Many are easily accessible by public paved roads. However, there were no more by the time we reached the Riberra Loops, and I didn't see any more until we were west of the Lamy stop. Then, from there until we were close to Albuquerque there were individual semaphore signals scattered about, but most seemed distant from any road.
I didn't read this article until my wife brought me two issues of Trains that a friend of mine had mailed to me. Thus, at the time of my trip over Raton Pass I was somewhat surprised when we met two eastbound freights - a TOFC/COFC and a grain empty coming downhill by us. They were close together with the TOFC train leading. Both had pure BNSF CW44-9 power sets.
I had replenished my soft drink supply at the KC, MO station stop. At Albuquerque it was time to have a couple brewskis during the service stop. Across the street and just north of the station is one pub/restaurant that serves some beers produced by some microbreweries. At $4 per pint this is still 25 cents to $1.25 cheaper than a bottle of beer aboard the train. Later I discovered that around the block from this first place is another microbrewery. Oh well, next time. And of course I could not leave Albuquerque before purchasing some burritos from the vendor at the station platform. At $2 or $2.50 per burrito, depending upon the type, you can get a decent meal for about half the cost of a meal aboard ATK., less than half compared to the price of most entrees in the diner.
The night passed pleasantly with the movie "Cinderella Man" playing in the observation/lounge car. While no fan of boxing, the movie was still pretty darn good. Upon awaking the next morning I discovered we were an hour or so late. So, when we reached Fullerton I detrained and waited the 35 or so minutes for the next southbound "Surfliner." Amtrak used to ticket you via Fullerton if you are going to a destination on the Surf Line, but no more. Now, ATK routes you via LA station and then back out. What is not mentioned is that you still have the option of getting off at Fullerton to make the connection. Of course, if you've checked baggage, this might not be much of an option unless you're willing to wait and pick up your luggage later in the day when a train with baggage compartment (in a coach) reaches your destination. In this case you get to walk down the long corridor into LA Station and later walk back down that corridor to your connecting train. For many folks even without any hand carry luggage this can be quite a chore.
For these reasons I never check luggage on #3. That way I can get off at Fullerton without worrying about being separated from my bag(s). What if you have more than 2 bags? ATK says it's policy is not to allow a passenger to bring on board more than two bags. However, since it doesn't have checked baggage at many station stops, it cannot really enforce this policy, and hasn't on any train which I've been riding.
Pacific Surfliner - January 8
A stairway or elevator gets you up and over the tracks at Fullerton to the other side where the southbound "Surfliner" stops. From atop this walkway, you can get decent images of the various BNSF, ATK, and Metrolink trains that serve or run through the station area. As no trains were lined up (you can see interlocking signals in both directions), I quickly got to the other side and waited for my train. Was I surprised when it pulled in engine first (on the south end of the train). This was the first year in many that ATK had its trains configured this way. For the past several years both ATK and Coaster trains were set up with the engine normally on the north end (facing LA). This made it easier to get some different angles with ATK trains. The downside was that it was not possible to watch the track(s) from the control car as we headed south. That would have to wait for the northbound ride out of San Diego a month later. The ride to Oceanside was uneventful, a far cry from what was to confront me once I met up with my wife. But that's another story, and not railroad related.
During two weeks of railfanning in California in January 2006, I rode trains, LRV's or trolleys on 5 different occasions. What follows is a description of those rides.
Red Car Line - January 24
Our first ride was on the "red cars" that ply a bit over a mile of Pacific Harbor Line (PHL) track in the port of LA just west of the port of Long Beach in San Pedro. This trackage was once part of the Pacific Electric San Pedro line. Currently, the line has 3 cars - an original "red car" that is used normally only on special occasions, and two replicas based on the original blueprints which use as many of the same materials as used in the original cars. The cars run from 10 AM until 6 PM Friday through Monday. An all day unlimited ride ticket cost $1.00; that's right, a mere sawbuck. This ticket can also be used on the San Pedro rubber tired trolley buses and the Cruise Center shuttle.
There are currently 4 stations on the line, the northern most being located near where cruise ships dock (Cruise Center Station). Various attractions can be accessed from the Downtown and Ports O' Call stations. The south end of the line at the Marina Station is where you can transfer to a trolley bus to visit other sites. Near the Ports O' Call station you can find outfits offering tours of the Port of LA. We took one port cruise that lasted about 45 minutes. Alas, it didn't take us close to any rail lines that serve the various container ship companies. We did, however, get close to the Evergreen Line (based in Taiwan) container ship company, but from the water couldn't see any rail action. Still, photos of container ships help tell the story regarding all the stack trains now seen all around the country (with the exception of in the greater DC/Baltimore area).
The ride itself was fairly smooth, probably due to the slow speed. If I recall right, the speed limit is 15 or 20 mph. The two replica cars can handle the schedule of 58 or so runs per day. Typically, they meet at one of two sidings along the way. One the Monday we were there (Jan. 23), one car was removed from service while the crew went to lunch. Not surprisingly, the volunteer crews were friendly and answered or tried answering all sorts of questions.
There are plans to get 6 more replica cars and extend the trackage to a beach, probably Cabrillo Beach, adding over another 3 miles of track and additional stations. This project is supposed to be completed by some time in 2008. However, I didn't notice any work being done near the Marina station.
At the south end of the line there are places where you can get above the track and get photos of the red cars with the harbor in the background. In some of the photos I took, a portion of the QE II can be seen as it was in port while we were there. I looked for another railfan friend of mine who spends much of her retired life floating around the world on that ship. I was later told she was trying out a different vessel. While the area can be subject to much smog, on the day we were there, there was no noticeable smog or haze. I guess we were lucky.
San Jose Light Rail - January 26
Neither one of us had previously ridden or photoed the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail system that operates 42 miles of trackage in the San Jose area. We stumbled upon the light rail at its Mountain View terminal while we were photographing Cal Train trains. This line runs between Mountain View (home of Google, I think it is) north of San Jose and Winchester, which I think is south of San Jose. We rode this line to downtown San Jose to that point where the LRV trains of the Alum Rock - Santa Teresa line also runs. Single cars handled the Mountain View - Winchester trains while two car trains were the norm on the Alum Rock - Santa Teresa line. There is a nub of a third line, but we got nowhere near it.
On the Mountain View - Winchester line station stops are mere blocks apart. This made for a slow run, and it took over an hour to get downtown. As a ticket costs $1.50 and is good for 2 hours, riding the entire line on one ticket is problematic, especially if you detrain to take photos en route. During off peak hours and on weekends, if you are 65 or over, or else disabled, you can ride for free. Like some other transit systems an "honor system" is in place. It is assumed that if you are riding you have a ticket. No one ever asked us to show a ticket.
The cars are double-ended, built I believe by Urban Development Transit Corp (UDTC). I could be wrong as I seldom remember, nor little care, who built what LRV cars. What I did care about greatly is that these VTA cars do not allow you to look out the front of the car. The operator's area is completely cut off from the passenger area. So, all you can do is look out the sides. This makes it much harder to get a handle on where you are and to determine if it's worth getting off to get some photos. As a result, we only got off downtown on the inbound trip and at the final stop where the Alum Rock and Mountain View lines parted company when on our way back to Mountain View.
One final note of caution. Some, but not all, of the VTA and Cal Train parking lots are paid parking. It was hard to tell as the machines used to dispense a parking permit (only $1 as I recall for all day parking) didn't look like anything with which I was familiar. Fortunately, on the first day we used the lot, our rental car was not towed away. We only figured out how the system worked after I had parked in a free lot some distance away from the Cal Train/VTA stations. Oh well, perhaps next time.
Cal Train - January 27
I didn't want to drive into San Francisco if our primary purpose for going there was to ride trolley cars/LRV's. So, once again we started from the Mountain View station, this time taking a Cal Train "local train" to downtown San Francisco. Our local consisted of 5 bi-level cars pushed by an F40PH. All cars were open so we went to the control cab car to look out what turned out to be a pretty clean window. This allowed for taking photos of other Cal Train trains that we met on our way into town as the trains we met were running engine first (southbound).
There wasn't any competition for the seats we wanted in large part because most of the seats on the lower level had been removed to accommodate bikes. The car had tie-downs for at least two dozen bikes, perhaps more. As Cal Train serves Stanford University among other schools, and as there are numerous bike trails in the area, the bike/train combination to get from point A to point B is quite popular.
As we were on an all-stops local, the trip into town took a bit more than an hour. The almost constant clanging of the bell bothered Norm quite a bit. He was quite happy when we detrained. Later that afternoon we decided to return to Mountain View on the "baby bullet" train that stopped there. By this time the clouds had rolled in and we were no longer interested in standing up or taking pictures. So, we sat in our seats on the upper level and watched the world go by as we enjoyed a cold one purchased at a beer stand near the station platforms.
Between San Francisco and San Jose Cal Train runs LOTS of trains with every half hour service each way during non-rush hour periods and more frequently during rush hours. A couple years ago service was extended south to Gilroy (the Garlic Capital), but this service is limited to some morning and evening rush hour trains.
Most trains stop at all or almost all stations. Some, called "baby bullets," stop at only a few selected stations. The stops vary from "baby bullet" to "baby bullet." The idea is to give passengers going all or most of the way quicker trips. After taking the local into town, we more truly appreciated what "baby bullet" service offers.
Cal Train started up in the mid 1980's with F40PH's hauling bi-level coaches similar to those found on METRA. Recently, it's received some new bi-levels similar in design to those found on GO Transit and LA's Metrolink. New motive power has arrived in the form of some MP36 types, which also look similar to those used by METRA. We understood that the original idea was to use this new equipment on the "baby bullet" trains. However, such is not the case. We found the MP36's pulling the old bi-levels and F40PH's pulling the new bi-levels among other configurations. Likewise, new equipment was used on local trains as well as on some "baby bullets", and older equipment was also used on "baby bullets." Our "baby bullet" was an F40PH and 5 of the older bi-level cars. For all I know, it was the same train we rode into town that morning.
SF Muni - January 27
Next to the Cal Train station at 4th & Townsend, or some such address, is the terminal of the "N" line to Ocean Beach although there is nothing to indicate it's the end of the line. There was a notice that a person could purchase an all-day pass to ride SF Muni for $6, but failed to indicate WHERE this pass could be purchased. As I later learned, it's at the Market & Powell St. station. It later became clear that often this is not necessary because once again a $1.50 ticket was good for at least 2 hours (usually longer) as it also allowed you to get a transfer to another line.
As it turned out, this "N" line station was the only one to have a ticket machine. During the rest of the day, we paid fares aboard the cars. Even change is a requirement, and we watched one guy frantically try to get change for a $5 bill. He eventually did get some ones, but that still meant he ended up paying $2 for his ticket as the operator doesn't give change.
It also turned out that I would have wasted $$$ buying a pass as in a couple cases we were given extra transfers that kept us valid for the additional time we needed to return to the Cal Train station. I guess the operators liked giving tourists a break In my friend Norm Schultze's case a pass would have been a real waste as those 65 or over pay only 50 cents for a ticket.
We rode the N line out to what I think is called the "Sunrise Tunnel." We photoed 2 car trains coming out of and going into the east portal. The west portal is around a curve from the trolley stop and not easy to photo without getting onto the right-of-way. Eventually, we reached the end of the line at the Pacific Ocean, almost two hours after we first boarded. We then purchased tickets from the operator and took the line back to its connection with the "F" line along Market St.
The F line runs from Castroville to along the waterfront up to Fisherman's Wharf and that whole tourist area. It makes a large loop before returning to the outbound right-of-way and returning to Castroville. It's on the F line that SF Muni runs its fleet of historic trolleys. Many of them are cars from Lisbon. Others are PCC's from Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto. Then there are the others of various types about which I know nothing. No matter. Inside each car is some information about that car.
With photo stops and a lunch stop it took about 6 hours to cover both lines - the complete N line and most of the F line. With frequent passenger stops, stop lights, and just dealing with traffic, the rides go slowly. It was quite pleasant sitting in the back of a PCC and looking out the rear of the car as there was a seat like found in most buses that covered the entire rear of the car. The LRV's are double ended and mu-ed in pairs. So, you can either choose to sit in the front car and look forward or the rear car and look back over the unused control stand area.
The LRV's we rode in San Jose were well patronized, but typically had seats available. On the SF Muni trains, standing room only was often the case. On the N line, it was only when we were getting near the end of the line that the car started to empty. On the ride back into downtown, the LRV's quickly filled. Likewise, the historic cars we rode filled quickly as well. While the F line looks like it's there mainly for tourists, the locals use it extensively, including public school students and shoppers.
By 3:30 PM we were back at the Cal Train station. Frankly, I was tired of riding and photographing LRV's and trolleys. Towards the end it had almost become an ordeal rather than a pleasure. I was definitely "trolleyed-out." We then caught a Cal Train "baby bullet" back to Mountain View.
San Diego Trolley (MTS) - February 5
I rode this line for only two stops - to get from the Alamo rental car company to the Amtrak/Coaster station. Right next to Alamo the MTS has a stop on the line between Old Town and downtown. The cost of a one-way ticket was $1.50. I suspect that taking a cab from the rental car place to the Amtrak station would have been much more. Getting my luggage aboard the LRV was not easy. The train was composed of original equipment that have steps up to the seating area that seem to assume a person is unencumbered.
Trolley service on Sundays on the MTS is every half hour starting some time before 6 AM. Two MTS lines - the Orange and Blue Lines - serve the Amtrak station. The newest MTS cars, however, are currently exclusively being used on the new Green Line. Had I gotten a train with this new equipment I think toting a couple bags would not have been a problem. So far, the MTS has only 11 of these new cars, so unless riding the Green Line, don't expect to get a new one, at least not yet.
I got off the MTS LRV at the Amtrak/Coaster station in San Diego. I checked one bag and then wandered around outside on the station platforms and took some photos of other MTS LRV's as they arrived at or passed by the station. I eventually sat down on a bench next to the car of the "Surfliner" train I was going to ride to LA. I was talking to my wife on my cell phone when a female security person told me that I had to stay inside the station until my train was called. Huh? I told her that she had a difficult assignment if she was to keep people off the station platforms because:
the platforms are open to street access both on the north and south sides, and numerous people used the station as a short cut to and from other places; and
the MTS stop has to be accessible to its users regardless of what ATK and Coaster staffs think. [I am NOT assuming these two staffs share a similar outlook about this issue.]
After telling her these things, she said, "Well, go sit at the MTS stop if you wish; I can't stop you from doing that. Just wish I could control people as easily as they do up in LA." And so I did. A few minutes later the boarding of the train to LA began, and it left on time at 0930.
Pacific Surfliner - February 5
I had hoped to sit quite close to the control cab section of the lead car as the F59PHI would be pushing on the south end of the train. I got fairly close, but this being a Sunday, the engineer had brought his son with him. He occupied the other seat in the control cab section of the car. I could still see out the front end and was able to watch and photo any meet that I found interesting.
The ATK California cars are configured differently than regular Superliners. The bottom section contains toilet faculties for handicapped persons as well as spacious (by my standards) seating. The lower level is also where the cafe section of the cafe car is located. The upper level has all seats (2 seats on either side of the aisle) and a smaller restroom. This is where most passengers are expected to sit. There are tables in some cars with plugs for computers.
As I understand it, the San Diego Northern (Coaster) owns and dispatches the track between San Diego and San Clemente while Metrolink owns and dispatches the track between San Clemente and Fullerton. I think BNSF owns the line from there into LA station. So the engineer must follow different operating procedures on each stretch of trackage.
No matter who owns and operates which section of track, the "Surfliners" are quite popular. Perhaps because neither the Coaster or Metrolink offer Sunday service, the train was fairly full, although not SRO. On weekdays most riders will use either the Coaster or Metrolink trains when possible as the ticket price between points also served by ATK are a fraction of what ATK charges between the same two points.
The Surf Line soon leaves the coast and turns inland through Rose and Soledad Canyons before passing below and by Torre Pines State Park and regaining sight of the Pacific Ocean and running either along or close to the beach starting at Del Mar. From there to north of San Clemente you are either next to the ocean or within view of it unless going through a town (view blocked by buildings) or are in the trench at Solana Beach, the first ATK station stop north of San Diego. Fifteen minutes later is the stop at the transportation center in Oceanside, where Coaster service currently ends and Metrolink service begins. North of Oceanside Metrolink and the Coaster have a terminal and maintenance facility next to a small BNSF yard. It is accessible only by going through Camp Pendleton. Which means, under ordinary circumstances, you're not going to get in there. Fortunately, on weekdays both commuter operations run enough trains to make this unnecessary (besides, on weekdays, there is little equipment to be found there).
North of San Clemente the line turns to the NE into the San Juan Capistrano station. You've seen the last of the ocean and now leave the photogenic portion of the route. From here to Fullerton the line passes by housing developments, a dirigible hanger (that's neat!) and lots of line-side light industries, some served by either BNSF or UP. The Santa Ana station complex is quite huge and can be used as a decent backdrop for photos. There is little else of interest on this portion of the route unless you like baseball parks. The Anaheim Angels play at the ballpark next to the Anaheim station stop.
The trip from Fullerton into LA station takes about 35 minutes during which time you pass BNSF's Hobart Yard, Redondo Jct. and the ATK facility south aways of Mission Tower. As you approach Mission Tower you'll likely see the LA police helioport pad atop its building. Now running along the "LA River", the UP line to Long Beach is on the opposite side.
Arrival at LA station was just about on-time. I got off the train and noticed that people were walking by the trains at the south end of the terminal tracks. Hmmm. I had been told station security was tight. Perhaps by California standards it is, but I had no trouble walking around with my bag taking any photos I chose to take. There weren't many trains that I found interesting outside of the Gold Line LRV's for which the sun angle was then right. One other topic of interest was the xATSF 4-8-4 #3751 which was being worked upon by volunteers on the eastern most track.
Sunset Limited - February 5-7
I finally made the long walk into the station and had lunch at the only place open that Sunday afternoon (a bagel place). I no sooner finished lunch than ATK announced the boarding of train #2, the Sunset Ltd. This was an hour before departure time. Thus, I had no chance to enjoy sitting in the leather chairs that adorn the waiting room. Instead I walked back out onto the platform, got my seat, and then took some pictures of the train in the station. By the time I finished doing this there were still about 30 minutes to go before departure.
I should have realized it was a bad omen when the Sunset Ltd stopped 20 minutes outside LA station to wait for a westbound freight to get into a yard. We continued east by track gangs and passed an interesting work train (not UP's) as we made the Pomona and Ontario station stops. Near Ontario I noticed another former Arizona & California RR GP30 still in the creme and green color scheme at a grain elevator. Prior to Palm Springs we passed an eastbound freight. While making our station stop it passed us. What was this all about?
It was all about our getting later and later. We were now more than one hour behind schedule, and we hadn't even really got started. I thought that with the revised schedule that UP was committed to keeping this train on time. I was being quickly disabused of my notion, naive child that I was.
For some reason still yet unfathomed, the lounge car attendant was intent on playing movies before dark. He did so both evenings. While the movies were, in my humble opinion, pretty good, they do nothing but distract from watching the sunset when started so early. The first evening the attendant said it was a mistake and started the movie over again after dark. The next afternoon he deliberately started it before sunset. I was counting on watching a movie as we "sped" through the night in west Texas. I mean, what else would you do other than read a book or sleep? I guess you could get drunk, although with Amtrak's prices for beer, wine, and liquor; you had better be ready to lay down some significant cash. Beers cost $4.25 for "regular" types like Budweiser and Coors and $5.25 for Heineken's, Corona, and Sam Adams. Wine goes for $5 for a small bottle and $10, or maybe it's $12, for a larger bottle. Liquor is $6 for a small bottle. Amtrak used to have a happy hour special, but this disappeared years ago.
Sunday is one of the three days of the week that there are extra cars on the train for the Texas Eagle. This meant that the last car on the train was a sleeper. Wasn't going to look out the rear on this train. So, I spent most of the daytime in the observation/lounge. One thing hadn't changed from last year - almost every siding west of El Paso had a train in it. We either met or passed at least one freight in most sidings. Rare was the empty siding.
Upon awaking Monday morning I soon learned we were now almost 3 hours late. Things didn't improve any as we kept slowing down to make meets with freights on the mostly still single track line. UP is working hard to double-track the Sunset Route, but it takes both time and money. At the rate UP is going, it'll be some years before the entire route is double-tracked. In addition UP is putting down a third track. I assume the third track is to allow overtakes.
But I knew something was really wrong when we first passed a westbound freight in a siding and then stopped beyond the east end of that siding. Then we backed into the siding. Why? The operating crew had run up against the 12 hours on duty law. A new crew was being taxied out from El Paso. We had just passed the Lordsburg, NM station stop without stopping only a short time earlier. I know we didn't stop there because there was no one scheduled to either board or detrain there. This is the first Amtrak train I've ridden that didn't make all scheduled station stops. Other Amtrak trains I've ridden have slowed down to 1 mph or so before picking up speed, but this train just barreled right on through any station stop where no passengers were expected. However, I assume we didn't stop there to get the new crew because Amtrak is afraid that passengers who got off the train might miss the boarding call once the new crew arrived. After all, Lordsburg is a jumping joint, you know (not really).
Not that this affected all that many people. The train was lightly patronized on this trip. I had my choice of coach seats and selected the first one behind the stairs to the lower level. I had the two seats to myself as there were only about 30 coach passengers in all the coaches. I don't know how many riders were using the sleeping cars. The crew expected business to pick up, especially as Mardi Gras approached.
As is my custom, I ate lightly. I had some cans of diet caffeine free cola with me as well as some breakfast bars and apples left over from my wife's and my wine hunting trip (I had forgotten about them during the two weeks of railfanning). Along with a couple cups of noodles for $1.75 per cup (still a good deal), this sufficed to get me through the day. At night I'd have a pepperoni pizza ($3.50) for supper. Don't get me wrong..........I like dinner, or any meal for that matter, in the diner. I just don't want to eat that much when I'm not very active. And then there is the issue of cost versus quality. While I've found the food in Amtrak's diners to be acceptable, it's not a good value for the prices being charged. With everything now ala carte, an evening meal can easily cost you over $30 and often over $40 (especially if you have one of the more expensive entrees along with wine and dessert). About the least you'll pay for a dinner is $15 (the special entree or the vegetarian dish plus one can of soda). Don't ask for water and expect it to be free. That costs $2. Milk might be a bit less expensive; I don't remember its price as I never buy it aboard a train.
By the time we reached El Paso we were roughly 6 hours late. At least we weren't kept waiting outside of town for 90 minutes, but the trip down the hill into town was still quite slow with occasional brief stops before we creped across the Rio Grande River bridge. The schedule allows for 45 minutes in El Paso to service the train. The crew completed its chores in just over 10 minutes. However, we had no sooner departed that we were once again halted by a UP local blocking the track ahead. Much of the time saved was soon lost as we waited for it to clear.
Once east of El Paso the congestion eases. Trains using the former SP/Rock Island route are routed via Tucumcari. At Sierra Blanca the former Texas & Pacific/MOPAC line breaks off. UP is running more and more trains via this route. Indeed, the old Sunset Route east of Sierra Blanca is one of the few mainlines on the new UP system that has not seen any significant traffic increase. It may even be seeing fewer trains although not yet that many fewer, at least not yet. The line is still the quickest route for stack trains running between LA/Long Beach and east coast ports like Jacksonville, FL.
So I was not surprised that we met only two westbound trains before the sun set near Alpine. I was glad we were starting to make up some time as I had wanted to see Paisano Pass in daylight. It was after sunset, but before it was dark when we reached the top of the grade where the old Kansa City, Mexico & Orient line (later ATSF and now some sort of shortline) junctions with the UP and uses UP trackage between there and Alpine. The line reportedly sees a train a week now and looked like it saw little traffic. One can only hope that the Presidio/Ojinagua gateway becomes viable once again and that soon Ferromex trains will routinely be a part of the scene in that part of Texas.
On the other hand, I was hoping we'd lose even more time. If we remained 6 hours late, we'd get into San Antonio at 4:30 AM, about the same time as due into that town under the previous schedule. Yuck! Losing an additional 2-3 hours would make our arrival be at an almost reasonable hour. Alas, such was not to be. We'd make up an hour and a half and arrive in San Antonio at 3 AM, the time the train is supposed to leave according to the new schedule. Which means, that by the time #2 left San Antonio it was less than one hour late. Padding a schedule can work wonders.
Fortunately for me Norm was willing to get up at that ungodly hour and drive the 20 minutes from his house to retrieve me. In another week I will continue this torturous trip by riding the Texas Eagle, a passenger train that one can easily chase between San Antonio and Temple, TX. Can UP delay a passenger train that is scheduled to run no more than 30 mph between San Antonio and Taylor? You bet. Stay tuned to see if and how UP screws around with my train this next time.
Texas Eagle - February 22-23
On Feb 22 (Goerge Washington's actual birth date) - yet another cloudy, foggy day - I boarded ATK's train #22, the TX EAGLE. I had hoped that without the cars off the SUNSET LTD that a coach might be the rear car. Not so, one of the two sleepers was on the rear. The other, the transition sleeper, was the first car after the baggage car. This disappointment was partially offset by the fact that as a coach passenger I had virtually the entire train to myself. There were only two of us in the one coach, both going to Chicago. There were only two people in the other coach, both going to Temple, TX. When the train departed San Antonio, there were more people occupying the two sleepers. For awhile I had the observation/lounge car to myself.
As has been the case most often, the train was facing east in the station, which meant we'd back down a couple miles on the former SP mainline to reach the former MKT line and then depart out the east side of San Antonio. But first, we'd have to go forward a few hundred yards because the train couldn't back up. Fouling the switch needed for a basic reverse move was the American Orient Express (AOE) train one track over. Its 2 ATK P42's and approximately 14 cars (including observation car) blocked the way.
We went forward and then backed down the ex-SP main to the junction with the MKT. Then, instead of sitting there for an hour or so, we began to move forward almost without having come to a complete stop beforehand. We rode xMKT rail north to Conrads (north of New Braunfels). This time I noticed that we went over a good sized bridge on the NW side of New Braunfels that appears reachable on its north side by parking at the end of a street in an upscale neighborhood and then walking near the tracks for a couple blocks [check this out, Norm].
At Conrads we switched over to the xMP track. I finally noticed that north of Jude (the crossover for trains on the xMP to get over to the xMKT) the xMKT track went underneath the xMP line. It doesn't look like an easy over/under to photo as the xMKT line is on a curve as it goes under the xMP. Then, north of there is a small yard which both lines can access. So, there's another place trains can switch from one main track to the other.
What really surprised me was that our train was arriving at stations ahead of time. We dawdled at Austin and Taylor before arriving early in Temple. For once UP had tucked all its freights away before we met them. I had time at Temple to finally check out the station area as there is now a RR museum located there. About the only activity inside was in the museum's gift shop which was open, even on a Wednesday.
Being on time I'm not sure the BNSF knew what to do with us. We dawdled along at a speed that ensured our on-time arrival into Ft. Worth, but was never breakneck. It was sort of disappointing not to whiz along on this well maintained right-of-way. We met many trains along the way, including a number with CW44-9's. At Temple there were still many xATSF blue & yellow SD45-2's as well as an SD45B, in the engine terminal.
While heading into the Ft. Worth station I looked west and caught sight of the UP's MP and MKT heritage units on a train likely heading for Houston. Didn't see the George H.W. Bush engine. Norm has since told me it's been separated from these two. Alas, there wasn't time to try walking anywhere to get a picture of these engines. I had to settle for photos of ATK #21, the southbound TX CHIEF and a Trinity Rail Express (TRE) commuter train. TRE trains use platforms next to the ATK platforms in Ft. Worth. Electric signs indicated when the next TRE train was due, much like those found at Washington DC's Metrorail stations.
As #22 backed out of the Ft. Worth station, I was hoping that these heritage units might either be close to Tower 55 waiting for us to pass or otherwise already underway toward Dallas (assuming they were headed that way). No such luck. Never saw them. The ride to Dallas was faster than I recall, and we arrived there again on time. Two TRE commuter trains were lined up on another station track with the lead train easily photographable by just stepping off the train. The DART LRV's also share this station on tracks just east of those used by TRE and ATK. On the west side of the station tracks are a couple tracks used by freights, both through and locals. Was hoping to catch a Dallas, Garland & Northern freight coming by the station, but not this trip.
We headed east, and by the Mineola stop it was dark. As the dining car menu had no entrees that appealed to me, I supped on beer and pizzas from the lounge car. I read one of the two books I had with my during this trip as the movies for the night were repeats of ones previously seen or ignored on my ATK trip west or on the way to San Antonio.
I nodded off soon after leaving the Little Rock station. When I awoke the next morning, there was a strange yellow ball in the sky, something I'd not seen during the previous week. It was the sun!!!!! More importantly, however, I had no idea where we were. Usually by sunrise, the train is somewhere south of St. Louis along the Mississippi River. We appeared to be nowhere near it. And we weren't. Somehow or the other, during the night we had become 2 1/2 hours late. The crew said it was to that ever present problem of "freight congestion." Perhaps, but others who had been awake during at least some of that night stated we sat out in the middle of nowhere for an awfully long time. That, too, could be due to freight train congestion, but I rather doubt it. However, I have no other explanation for our delay.
We gained some time and arrived in St. Louis about 9:45 AM. After a quicker than normal stop to pick up lots of passengers, we started up and immediately stopped. This time UP had stabbed us due to freight trains blocking our exit. All the time made up by the brief station stop was lost waiting for UP freights. Once again UP showed ATK that trying to make up lost time with shorter station stops was futile. Every time during this two month trip that I was on an ATK train being dispatched by UP, time made up at a station stop was lost immediately while UP "tried" to clear freight traffic. One has to wonder why UP never told ATK, "Stay in the station and let your passengers smoke or stay outside for another (fill in the blank) minutes." In the case of St. Louis it may have made the boarding of the train that much more sane.
While we did pick up passengers as we went along, the real passenger load in the coaches was from St. Louis north. The train had 3 coaches, one of which is unused until reaching St. Louis. Then, it routinely gets filled, with the remaining coach passengers boarding there spilling over into the other two coaches already in use. Thus, the rule on this train is - use the restroom, have breakfast, and do whatever else you need to do BEFORE reaching St. Louis.
Since I hadn't eaten in the diner previously on this trip, I took the opportunity to have breakfast there on this morning since we were running so late. I had the RR French toast. While it didn't say so on the menu, there was an option of strawberry topping rather than, or in addition to, syrup and butter. I chose the strawberries. Good thing, too, as it would help cover up the otherwise rubbery texture of the French toast. The French toast didn't have too much taste of its own outside of what the strawberries provided. Too bad for at $7.00 including juice and coffee, milk, or tea, this wasn't too much more than you'd pay at any restaurant.
Once across the Mississippi River (now via the UP bridge rather than the TRRA bridge farther north), scenery pretty much disappears. Flat farm country is the rule all the way to Joliet after which industrial scenery takes over. At least the sunshine ensured it wouldn't be a dreary trip. The highlight of the ride is passing by the Illinois state capitol building in Springfield.
We made up lost time and reached Chicago around 3:30 PM, only 1 hour and 15 minutes late. This gave me just about a two hour layover before the scheduled departure of ATK #30, the CAPITAL LTD. I took the opportunity to get a substantial meal at one of the eateries in the food court and to drink some draft beers along with it. Drafts in Chicago Union Station cost $2.50 for a 16 or so ounce cup whereas on the train a 12 ounce can of similar beer costs $4.25. I purchased an order of Cajun chicken for less than $6. On ATK the least expensive dinner entree is $11.00, and that is whatever passes for the vegetarian dish. The special, whatever that is, goes for $12.50.
Capitol Limited - February 23-24
By the time I finished eating and having yet another draft beer while one again admiring the Great Hall, it was time to board the CAPITAL LTD........except, its boarding was delayed. Fortunately, the delay was only about 25 minutes. Unfortunately, boarding didn't go quickly as the train was sold out in coach. ATK #29 and #30 are the only trains I've been on recently where each passenger is assigned a seat rather than just boarding and finding whatever is still available. I ended up sitting in an aisle seat next to a young woman going to Pittsburgh.
We sped out of Chicago Union Station as expeditiously as I can recall a train leaving that station. Despite this, we continued to lose time throughout the night due to freight traffic on Norfolk Southern. This was not of much concern to me as I was hoping we'd be late leaving Pittsburgh. I read my book as once again the movie was a repeat seen previously both on the TX EAGLE and the SW CHIEF. By the time we reached Pittsburgh we were about 2 hours late. I got my wish!!!!!
This was late enough for ATK to tell passengers connecting to train #91, the southbound SILVER STAR that ATK would bus them to DC to ensure they made their connection. I don't know how many people opted for this, but I did run into 3 fellows in a sleeper that decided to stick with the train and then rent a car in DC if they actually missed their train. They and I calculated that if our train lost no more time, we'd make that connection. Those taking the bus would have a longer layover in DC, even longer than if the train had arrived on-time. I told them I thought they made the right decision as the ride on the CAPITAL south of Pittsburgh is quite scenic whereas the bus ride on I76 and I70 is less so (not bad, but nowhere near as nice as on the train).
Departing a bit after 6 AM meant that we were going to see virtually all off this good scenery in daylight rather than only that portion starting at Connellsville. Admittedly, the really good scenery starts at Connellsville, but I find the ride between Pittsburgh and Connellsville to be interesting as you wend through small towns and villages as you follow the Youghahienny (sic) River.
I watched some of the scenery from the dining car as I wanted to see if the RR French toast on #30 was better than that on #22. Again, there was no mention on the menu of fruit topping, and again, strawberry topping was available, which I again ordered. Alas, the French toast was once again rubbery in consistency, with little flavor of its own. The strawberries had to save the day again. One thing I did do differently this time. I asked the waiter if I could have two glasses of milk rather than a juice and milk. Given how much refined sugar there is in most fruit juices I try to avoid them. The waiter said that was okay, so I had two glasses of milk. I regret not having asked for that substitution the previous day as I hardly touched the juice.
After running into a flurry of westbound freights between Pittsburgh and Connellsville, we didn't meet another westbound freight until we pulled into Cumberland. After we left Cumberland, we overtook and eastbound coal train. Fortunately, the last car on the CAPITAL LTD was a coach so I went to the rear of the train and photoed this coal train as we passed it near Patterson Creek. We soon left it in our dust as it was already slowing down to go over the scale at Green Spring, WV (eastbound coal trains are weighed there).
For awhile we had picked up some lost time on CSX, but never fear. We lost it all again with a couple stops for unexplained reasons. I began to worry we wouldn't get into the station before #91 left, but we finally pulled into a stop at 2:35 PM, with #91 on the track next to us. I guess those fellows who opted for the train ride made their connection. I don't know about their checked luggage, if they had any, but suspect it made the connection as well. ATK usually does pretty well in this regard, given the amount of practice it's had making close connections thanks to delays caused by freight congestion.
All in all, it was a pleasant and relaxing trip home and one of the better ATK rides I've had recently, despite the French toast. Suggestion: in the lounge car you can get either a bagel with creme cheese or a bagel with egg breakfast sandwich for much less than the cost of breakfast in the diner. I tried both at different times while riding ATK and found both fairly tasty.