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Trip Report

Los Angeles to Lamy NM (Santa Fe)
The Southwest Chief and the Lamy Shuttle

June 30-July 1, 2006


Click small photos to see larger

Because the trip reports on this site and others were very helpful to me in planning my first Amtrak overnight trip, I am posting my experiences, not that they are observations of an expert (which they certainly are not), but in the hope that they might encourage other "newbies" to try Amtrak, and suggest that travel on the National Railroad Passenger Corporation is a totally viable option for peoples' transportation needs. (I'm also a newbie at writing a log, so I apologize in advance for any sins against the genre committed below.)

Deciding in April I wanted to go by train to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Los Angeles over the 4th of July holiday, I went online and consulted the schedules at the Amtrak web site. I found I had one choice: the daily Southwest Chief. The #4 Chief leaves Union Station at 6:45 pm PDT and arrives at Lamy, New Mexico (the stop for Santa Fe) at 1:50 pm MDT the next day.

The office where I work in Los Angeles had decided that Monday, July 3, would be treated as a day off, making a train trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico possible given the time constraints of a four-day weekend. (Originally I was told that the train on the 30th was sold out, and that I'd have to take the train on July 1, but I was persistent with 1-800-USA-RAIL and eventually was rewarded when someone cancelled the week before my trip, so I was able to leave the 30th after all.) Thus, I would spend two nights on the train, and two nights in old Santa Fe with a return Tuesday morning.

I bought my tickets on the Amtrak web site. You buy the basic fare first, and then make your decision about upgrading into a room with a bed, and possibly a toilet or even a shower, depending on how much you want to spend. The premium over the coach fare for the sleeping accommodations is steep. But I knew I didn't want to be exposed for 18 hours next to squalling babies and Avian Flu victims in the coach car. I figured sleep was the better part of valor, and reserved a roomette, which is the most basic Amtrak sleeper accommodation. The roomette has two facing seats with a fold-out table between them. My only luggage was a roll-aboard which fits in airplane overhead compartments, but didn't fit underneath the roomette seat; for most of the trip I just left it on the seat across from me and at night I put it in the luggage storage area after getting what I was going to need for the night out of it. I brought some books, but also brought two items to help pass the journey. First was my laptop that has the Delorme TopoUSA 6.0 program with a GPS receiver. With this, I could track our progress on the journey, as well as see how fast our engineer was driving our train. Second was a police scanner programmed with the most common rail frequencies that I would encounter on my way to New Mexico, and this provided some interesting information during the journey.

Leaving from my mid-Wilshire office about 4 pm on a hot, humid Friday, I fought the weekend getaway traffic downtown to the Gateway Transportation Plaza (GTP), right next to Union Station. Long-haul Amtrak passengers departing Union Station have to park at GTP ($6/day, cheaper than the long-term airport lots). After finding the right elevator to get out of the parking area (confusing), you are deposited at the train boarding areas. But where you actually want to be is back on the other side of the long tunnel that leads to the Amtrak ticket agents. So I walked down there towards the front of the station.

Los Angeles Union Station Because Union Station is an amazingly beautiful building, built 1940 as the last of the great passenger halls, I didn't mind a bit walking around and soaking up the ambiance:

North Wing of Los Angeles Union Station This north wing was closed off, and seemed to be filled only with ghost passengers from many, many years ago. The rest of the station was pretty crowded, however, as it is the nexis of a variety of local commuter railroads, and even subways, spreading out in all directions from Downtown LA. There is an elegant but expensive restaurant called Traxx in the terminal (they also have an outside patio, and an inside bar). The bar was packed. So after getting my ID confirmed, and receiving a time for dinner (7:45 pm), I stood in the line for people who have sleepers, next to the much longer line for holders of coach seats.

Arrivals-Departures display, L.A. Union Station The train seemed like it was going to be pretty full judging from the people in line, and the schedule board suggested we'd leave on time (see the last train under "departures"):

Tracks 9 and 10, L.A. Union Station At about 6:15, they allowed us to walk to the ramp (#10) and we boarded. Each sleeper has two sets of numbers on it, a permanent one with 5 digits painted on the side, and a four digit number called a "train specific number" which corresponded to the number on your ticket. The first two digits refers to your train's number (ours was 4, the eastbound Southwest Chief, and the second set of digits referred to the individual car itself. So I found my car ("0430") and was ushered on to the car by our car attendant, a pleasant gentlemen who was born in the Philippines. Because my pen was buried in my suitcase, I asked to borrow the attendant's, but he needed his, and sent me to the (unopened as yet) dining car where he thought there would be "plenty of pens." I did get one there, and the attendant saw me walking up to the head of the train to record the consist, as I had gathered that this is a mandatory part of an Amtrak trip log.

Here is the Southwest Chief as it was on Friday evening, June 30, 2006:

Genesis P42 engines 55, 85, 129
Mail Car 1709
Transition - crew sleeper 39038
Superliner II sleeper 32110 (ex "Tennessee")
Superliner I sleeper 32055 (refurbished bathrooms) (my roomette #11 downstairs)
Dining car 38035
Lounge Car 33033
Coach 34028
Coach Baggage Car 31036
Coach 34066 with poster "To Albuquerque"
Express Trak (freight) 74029, 74052, 74080
15 cars total.

When I arrived back at my sleeping car, I did some exploring and saw that there were four roomettes downstairs, along with three toilets and one shower, and two larger family accommodations at either end of the corridor, while upstairs, there were 10 roomettes, 5 larger bedrooms, and one bathroom. All the roomettes have upper berths suspended from the ceilings. Since I was traveling by myself, the uppers weren't a factor for me. The lower bed is made around supper time, when you pull an attendant-call button and ask your car attendant to prepare your room for the evening. The bed is parallel to the direction of travel, but on my eastbound trip the pillow was in the rear, and for the other, it was in front. I liked the eastbound arrangement better.

(This is as good place as any to complain that the pillows were tiny, just like you'd get in first class on domestic airplanes. Travelers are advised to bring their own pillow slip covers and stuff both Amtrak pillows into one normal-sized one, or better yet, bring their own extra pillow. In all, I found the roomettes to be OK with reasonable privacy -- once you figure out the various permutations of curtain and sliding door.)

You can lock yourself in but there is no way to lock the roomettes from the outside, so if I had there anything of super value, I'd either carry it with me or just not bring it along in the first place. My laptop, my digital camera, and my radio scanner did just fine being left alone in my roomette while I was eating, etc., although I didn't let them sit in open space. There is a very narrow closet which just accommodated a bathrobe and flip flops - two vital pieces of clothing if you dare take an AmShower, or, for that matter, if you have to go to use the bathrooms at night.

By far the majority of the passengers were getting on in the coach cars. When I stepped back into my car, the attendant had just completed his spiel explaining the features of each room to the occupants of the roomette behind me. He passed by my room, and went to the next one without orienting me. I called him on it, and he said, "oh, I thought you were veteran train traveler because you were writing the consist." I told him to assume ignorance on my part (generally not difficult for most people to do!). He explained the lighting system and the environmental controls, the operation of the table, the presence of bottled water and so forth. The roomette has one recessed electrical outlet, grounded, but arranged so that the average surge suppressor can't fit. I used a three-to-two-prong adapter from Radio Shack, placed between the outlet and the suppressor, and that seemed to work well.

At 6:52 pm PDT (7 minutes late), the train started moving so gently that I didn't notice, and we were off. Well, off as far as a sort of Amtrak maintenance yard at East 8th Street and the Los Angeles River, where we stopped. A half-dozen worried looking guys seem to pay special attention to my sleeper; the radio chatter indicated our car was "listing" pretty heavily to one side. Finally we were given permission to continue, and the car attendant made an overhead announcement explaining the car had been tilting to one side, but that it had been inspected and all was OK ("you can highball" - radio). (This somehow was not particularly reassuring). From the radio a voice said "Look at the river!" "Cool!" "Wow!" I had difficulty imagining what provoked such enthusiasm, but finally heard that a film crew was driving a Buick down the Los Angeles River. I couldn't watch because I was on the wrong side of the train.

For those who don't know it, the Los Angeles River is essentially a 30 mile long concrete drain that runs south from the San Fernando Valley past the site of the original pueblo (now roughly downtown). It empties into the ocean at San Pedro, some 15 miles south of downtown. It was created by the Army Corps of Engineers over the past 100 years to lessen the risk of catastrophic floods along its course. Almost all traces of what was once a natural (if intermittent) stream have been eliminated. At Union Station, the river is about a quarter-mile across, and has steeply-sloped concrete banks. These are covered by what must be the world's largest outdoor mural, consisting entirely of colorful exuberant graffiti which goes on for miles. Leaving Union Station, both the UP and the BNSF have trackage that hugs each river bank, giving views such as:

Graffiti on the walls of the L.A. River

We hit 80 mph going through this bleak industrial underside of Los Angeles, roughly paralleling first the river, then I-5:

Road bridge over the L.A. River

We crossed the LA river here from the west bank to the east bank:

Crossing the L.A. River, west to east

The first stop (to allow embarking passengers only) was at Fullerton, in the heart of Orange County. During the glory days of the AT&SF, the Super Chief left Los Angeles via what today is the Metro Gold Line, headed northeast to Pasadena. The station at Fullerton is clean and modern, and there was a mix of people hanging around - older people (railfans?) and teens with skateboards wearing saggy jeans. We departed Fullerton 33 minutes late. The train runs through more industrial terrain at 50 mph, but we are treated to a lavender and gold view of Saddleback Peak as the sun sets.

An announcement is made that "King Kong" will be shown in the lounge car. I decided to get up and walk through the diner to the lounge car to get a beer, and to see what kind of screens they'll show that movie on. The diner is more spacious than I thought it would be, and the two-level lounge car has very airy views of a long sequence of oil derricks. It's all double track so far. In the downstairs "cafe," a man dressed in civilian clothes tends the microwave and the refrigerator. I pass by a young tattooed woman who looks seasick, who says to no one in particular "this is my first train trip." The bartender says, apropos of not much, "I'm a 17-year Amtrak employee and I'm getting off the train at Riverside [next stop]." I make my way back to my roomette, and see from the map we're entering the Santa Ana canyon. We are gaining altitude and going through a section of curves at 60 mph. We pass by the Corona Airport, which was under water during the amazing wet winter of '04-05. The tracks go right through downtown Corona.

It's 8:21 pm and "Wolfe party of one" is called to the diner. I hope that my computer, scanner, and GPS receiver are all there when I come back. I am seated with a young couple and their 20 month old son, who is very well behaved (except for throwing his metal spoon at me once). The husband is a physicist at Los Alamos, and a veteran of 15 trips back and forth between Los Angeles and Los Alamos; his wife is French, and we have fun speaking in a mix of both French and English. The husband and I both had the slow-cooked pork chop. He tells me that anytime "something `slow cooked' is on the menu, it's usually pretty good." Both our entrees could have stood an extra 30 seconds in the Simplified Meals Services microwave, but we didn't make a federal case of it. We had soggy beans and soggy rice. And for dessert I had a chocolate cake that was kind of dry. As for wine, your choice is limited to a half-carafe; I chose the Meridian vineyards Chardonnay was $12. It was OK but I asked for some extra ice cubes for it.

As for tipping, my Amtrak/Los Alamos physicist friend advised leaving what you would in a regular restaurant. At the end of the meal, our waitress came by and presented us with our drink bills, which we paid on the spot. And I plopped down an additional tip - 15% in cash - (meals for people with sleeping accommodations are of course, free), which, given the prices of our entrees, turned out to be around $5.

During dinner, we stopped at Riverside and San Bernardino, and unfortunately darkness had fallen before we could get a look at the Cajon Pass.

I made it back to my roomette at 9:31 pm from dinner, and to my relief all my stuff was still there. I saw that in the space of about 20 miles between San Bernardino and the summit, the train climbs over two thousand feet, about a 3% grade. We were gaining about a foot a second, but had slowed down to 28 mph going up the pass.

Around 9:30 pm I went to the lounge car for a diet soda and saw that the movie was in full swing, but that it was being shown on monitors like they have on Boeing 757 airliners, not on actual screens. Coming back from the lounge car, I was ready for bed and pressed the call button. The car attendant instantly showed up, saying "I was wondering when you were going to go to bed." He changed the room in about 3 minutes flat, and I discover now that I have a bed parallel to the window, with the head "pillows' to the front; there was about 1 foot of space between the side of the bed and the door to the roomette, for standing up and changing. This is rather tight, so I just left the door opened and the curtains closed. That way, I could take some hall space and be able to change into bedclothes without too much trouble. My take on the roomettes is that you'd have to be a pretty good friend of the person in the upper berth to tolerate the presence of a snoring human up there. A stop at Victorville for one minute was 44 minutes late. At 10:30 pm we passed through Oro Grande and its large cement plants, lit up like oil refineries.

Next was Barstow at 11:09 pm with its big train yards and we were already about three-quarters of an hour behind schedule. The stop there was brief and at 11:20 I shut the computer down and did some reading before turning out the light. It's too bad we went through the Mojave desert at night because there's lots to see, even the train sidings have interesting names: Amboy, Siberia, Bagdad. At 1:34 am the train stopped at Needles and I was vaguely aware of a lot of people standing on the platform staring at me. (I closed the curtain) I guess that the arrival of the Southwest Chief is a fairly big event there, and it has the advantage of not being so deathly hot at that time of day. The next stop was Kingman, at 2:34 am MST (Arizona does not observe daylight savings time); I was just awake enough to note the time.

Station at Flagstaff The next stop was at about 5:00 am at Williams Junction where people get to wait while trying to make the not-very-convenient connections to the Grand Canyon on the GCRR. Next was Flagstaff, just as it was getting light.

As we pulled out of the station, our car attendant passed out the Arizona Daily Sun, a thin newspaper whose front-page news included the following front-page stories:

  1. Churches use U2 as Sacred Music
  2. Forest to re-open Sunday, and
  3. Flagstaff police chief retires after 40 years of service.

I didn't bother to read any of it.

At Flagstaff, we've climbed to 7000 feet or so, and the predominant trees are now pines. At 6:09 am MST, we cross Canyon Diablo, which is a huge erosional gash into the flatlands of the Painted Desert, via a very high bridge. I wish I had been prepared to take a picture of it. I felt pretty tired so I decided to skip breakfast and snooze some more which I did despite a very rough ride and a long stop "for freight congestion" somewhere west of Winslow. After a couple of hours of sleep, I was awakened by a PA announcement: "Welcome to the Land of Enchantment." The next stop was Gallup, at 10:01 am MDT. Visible from the left side of the train was the business strip, with motels disguised as giant teepees, huge billboards advertising Indian jewelry for sale, etc. Fortunately that soon ended and we drove along the striking Red Cliffs:

Red cliffs in scenic New Mexico

Just when they announced that breakfast service had ended, I decided to try the shower. It was awkward, but doable. There were plenty of towels, and I wore flip flops. The operation of the faucet was perplexing, as it seemed to pulse water which was cold at first, but then warmed up to quite hot; it is not possible to make quick temperature adjustments. But it was worth it, and I felt a lot cleaner. Water in that shower room tends to go all over the place, so I did my best to dry things up with my used towels.

I got dressed and went to the lounge car after asking the car attendant to make up my room. The lounge was filled by a church group of teenagers who, judging from their powder blue tee shirts, had just come from seeking converts at the Zuni pueblo. They were rehearsing religious songs in the downstairs part of the lounge car, so I went back to my roomette, which the car attendant had changed back to the daytime configuration.

Between Gallup and Albuquerque the train follows the interstate for the most part and we were moving faster than the car and truck traffic. The countryside opened up as we entered the Rio Grande valley. Going 80 mph past a spot called "Dirty Point" by TopoUSA, we had a sharp lateral jolt, which caused some radio comment: "Did you feel that in coach?" (They did.) "That's what we reported before." At about noon, the train turns to the north and we have a good view of the Sandia ("Watermelon") Mountains:

Sandia Mountains

On the PA, Karen announces that there will be an announcement about lunch when we get to Albuquerque. We cross the Rio Grande:

Crossing the might Rio Grande

...which didn't look very grand. But to travelers crossing the "Jornada del Muerte" in the 17th century, it must have looked like paradise.

The train slowed down as we passed through some Indian reservations, and then the suburbs of Albuquerque. Lunch is announced, and I am seated with a family of three from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina who had been in California visiting relatives. They had taken the train instead of flying because the 10 year old son was afraid of airplanes; he had been at day care when the Arab terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, and had come home thinking that hundreds of planes had flown into hundreds of buildings that day, what with seeing all the replays. Kids have interesting perceptions.

For lunch I had the Angus burger which was good, but again could have been warmer. I didn't have time to get off the train at Albuquerque, but I later heard some grumbling that the famous burrito stand had run out of burritos.

Due to schedule padding, we made up a lot of lost time, and on my cell phone, I heard Amtrak's Julie say #4 will leave Lamy, the next and for me final stop, only 14 minutes late. At 1:40 pm, the radio comes to life: "BNSF Talking detector Mile 874.5 No Defects, repeat No Defects, number of axles six-zero, out" I guess that makes 4 axles to a car, provided we didn't gain or lose any cars at Albuquerque

We pass through beautiful country next to the river, then turn inland at the Santo Domingo reservation. A little further, and I got an answer to the perennial question, "Where's Waldo?":

Here is Waldo!

We arrived at Lamy at 2:20 pm, actually about 30 minutes late, and a few people get off the train with me. I tipped the car attendant $10, which seemed about right. Amtrak has a shuttle van which takes passengers 20 miles north to Santa Fe and will drop you off at your hotel, but you should expect to wait for the westbound Chief, whose arrival at Lamy is about 40 minutes later than the eastbound Chief. The shuttle driver doesn't like making two trips. The main line of the Santa Fe railroad never quite made it to Santa Fe, although a tourist railroad ("Santa Fe Southern") makes the run these days. Lamy, named for Fr. Jean Lamy (Willa Cather's short story "Death Comes for the Archbishop" is loosely based on his life), consists of little more than the train station (all done up for the Fourth of July)...

Station at Lamy, NM

...and the Legal Tender Saloon, now closed for 10 years or so. It is to be reopened as a railroad museum.

Here is the Southwest Chief looking back towards Los Angeles from Lamy:

Southwest Chief, #4, at Lamy

All in all, the Southwest Chief exceeded my expectations. I would absolutely do it again, the only problem being the obvious one of time. Los Angeles to Lamy (991 rail miles, 18 hours) was for me just right as far as distance and duration, long enough to make it really feel like you're doing something different, and not so long that you feel trapped. If you view the train as part of the vacation, rather than just a means to an end, it is a great way to go.

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