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Trip Report

A Ticket To Ride

Cardinal, Southwest Chief, Capitol Limited, Metrolink, Pacific Surfliner

January 3-23, 2007

by Dale Jacobson

Part 1 - The Way West via the Cardinal and Southwest Chief

On Wednesday, January 3, I boarded the Cardinal for Chicago. Having not ridden that line in either direction in some years I wanted to reacquaint myself to the scenery along that route. While Amfleet cars don't allow for watching scenery as well as Superliners do, the cafe car windows did seem to offer a pretty good view of the passing scenery. So that is where I spent some time. Fortunately, the last car on the train was the coach in which I was riding so I also spent quite a bit of time looking out the rear of the train. Daylight gave way to the moon rising over the former home of Martha Stuart near Alderson, WV.

There is a 90 minute stop in Indianapolis, IN, but even so we left there slightly behind time. When we reached Crawfordsville, it was light enough to see things outside. It's been so many years since I last rode this train it didn't surprise me not to see any semaphore signals on the way to Lafayette. Nor did it surprise me to find the Lafayette station stop no longer done in the middle of a downtown street. Friends of mine have gone railfanning there since the tracks were rearranged. Their photos show that railfans can do well here.

The schedule of the Cardinal is so padded that Amtrak (ATK) and CSX have to try REALLY hard to make that train late into Chicago. Thus, it was on time into the Second City. I stayed inside between trains. Renting a locker to store bags costs $3/hour with a $9 daily minimum. It wasn't worth the cost to go outside given the weather of typical Midwest gray overcast and rain. Instead, I had lunch at the Cajun place in the food court on the second floor. There is also a nice little restaurant with traditional American cooking right next to the Great Hall.

The Southwest Chief left on time, but before reaching Galesburg it was dark thanks to the clouds. We started to hit snowy/icy weather as we neared Kansas City. There was talk about rerouting our train south via Amarillo, TX and Belen, NM given the amount of snow still in the Albuquerque area. Alas, it didn't happen. What did happen was I saw 10 trains, mostly parked, from somewhere near the Kansas/Colorado border to La Junta's yard. Two were a loaded and empty set of coal trains probably serving the power plant west of Lawrence, KS. Four more were loaded coal trains waiting to get onto the Boise City sub on their way to Amarillo, TX and points south. One was a grain train. The others were locals or manifest freights.

The weather help delay us long enough so that it was already dark when we reached Albuquerque. A couple "Rail Runner" commuter trains passed us before we pulled into the station there. So far, 3 stations on the "Rail Runner" commuter line are built with more under construction. Even so, the commuter operation runs 8-9 trains each way each weekday. The MP36's and bi-levels look real snazzy in their Indian inspired decor.

After we left Gallup, NM I went to the rear of the train (the last car was again a coach) and noticed we had just passed a westbound freight. Then, we passed another....and another. Then, we started meeting eastbounds. By the time we arrived in Winslow, some 80 minutes later, we had passed 4 westbound BNSF freights and met 19 eastbounds. While I didn't keep as close a track on what happened between Winslow and Flagstaff, I do recall hearing or seeing at least 5 more eastbounds pass during that next hour. Between Dalias, NM and Barstow, CA is the old ATSF's funnel where all trains between LA and Richmond (Oakland), CA and points east and south (except Phoenix) run. And no more than a train or two run between Dalias and Albuquerque, so the real east end of the funnel is at Texico on the Texas/New Mexico border where the line to Texas points junctions with the mainline to Argentine Yard (Kansas City) and other points east.

The observation car on the SW Chief was of a different design than I had previously seen. Instead of chairs throughout the entire car, half the car had tables that seat 4. Those tables came in handy for me as I typically eat food I buy in the lounge section of the car rather than eat in the dining car. Food prices in the diner appear to have risen some more. Meanwhile, those in the cafe/lounge were about the same as last year. For example, in the lounge you can buy a gardenburger for $3.75 whereas in the diner the same burger with perhaps a side costs over $7.

Some prices that fortunately have not changed are those for soft drinks, beer, and liquor. Twelve ounce cans of soda pop are still $1.75. Beer is either $4 or $5 depending upon the brand, and liquor by the small bottle is still $5 per bottle. Mixed drinks are the best bargain as then you get a soft drink mixer and liquor for $5 as long as you don't ask for them separately.

One disappointing aspect of the trip out was there were no movies shown. ATK stopped doing this last November. One passenger related a story that some Hollywood actor had been on the train and saw a movie he starred in being shown. Reportedly, he called his agent asking if he had received any royalty for this showing. When told "no", he or others sued ATK over non-payment of royalties. The story concludes with ATK having to pay a stiff fine for not having paid royalties. Supposedly this fine was millions of dollars. Now, I've not heard this before, so if anyone knows the real story, assuming this isn't it, I'd be interested in knowing it.

It was still dark when we descended Cajon Pass even though we were still running a bit late. By the time we reached San Bernardino, however, it was light. Despite having been as late as 90 minutes while en route, by the time we reached LA, we were only 15 minutes behind the advertised arrival time. I detrained to figure out how I was going to spend most of the day before I headed to Oceanside to meet my wife.

Part 2 - Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner

Once I reached Los Angeles I had most of the day free to do as I pleased as my wife wouldn't arrive in San Diego until after 5 PM. My choices were to ride either some Metrolink line or else the LRV "Gold Line." I looked around the station for some Metrolink timetables, but found none. However, there was a phone that connects you with a Metrolink person who can tell you when trains leave and arrive. So, I picked up that phone and waited until I heard someone.

The voice was soft; I guess that meant the line wasn't too good. I learned that had I wanted to ride out to Lancaster, I had just missed the only train that would get me out there in time to take the next train back and still make the 4:05 PM departure for San Diego. Had time-tables been available, I might have figured this out in time, but after three days of coach travel I did need a bit of time to put myself back together, so to speak.

However, the voice told me I had plenty of time to ride out the San Bernardino and back before the 4:05 PM train departed. So, using the automated ticket seller I bought a round trip ticket and proceeded trackside. Once you buy a ticket on Metrolink you have 3 hours in which to commence travel. Otherwise, the ticket turns into a pumpkin. When you buy a roundtrip ticket, you can use the return portion any time during that same day. I'd later learn that Metrolink has pretty darn good weekend service (this was Saturday). There are 4 round trips to Lancaster and 10 to San Bernardino.

The trip to San Bernardino begins by using xSP trackage, but then uses a ramp that was probably built for Metrolink to connect it to yet another RR line, which was another UP line. With some more convolutions we eventually ended up on BNSF's xATSF remnant of its San Bernardino - Pasadena line. That was the way passenger trains used to run before ATSF sold the Pasadena - LA portion for building the Gold Line. Even so, we passed a couple BNSF freights working around Fontana.

When I first boarded there were two LA County Sheriff's deputies on the train to check passengers for tickets. Once I showed them mine I said I was going to take some pictures out of the window. They told me that Metrolink policy prohibited photography on train, although they told a young lady with a cell phone camera SHE could take photos. Well, I didn't care what Metrolink policy was, as far as I know, there's no law prohibiting photography, and if they weren't going to treat all photographers equally, I figured to hell with them. Not wanting any unnecessary confrontation, however, I waited until they went forward to the next car, and then I started taking interior shots and later took photos of BNSF trains seen in the Fontana area. No one else jumped up screaming "terrorist" or any such thing so the journey went pleasantly enough. Later I saw the cops detrain at Pomona. Good riddance. That seems to be where they get off and on.

I felt happy that the control car coach was open because in many instances; like on ATK and "Coaster" trains, my experience has been that if the crew is in the engine the control cab car is often closed.

To get into San Bernardino station Metrolink has built a ramp that goes up and over the BNSF/UP mainline. So, it was easy to tell when we were at our destination. Upon talking to a crew member I learned that I didn't have to take the next train back, but could wait about an hour and take another train that would be coming from Riverside. At the San Bernardino station platform I finally found some Metrolink timetables. Why not in LA?

Just west of the station is a highway bridge over the tracks. There are sidewalks on both sides of the bridge which makes photography easy. However, there are 4 lanes of traffic, and the road is quite busy. Getting from one side of the bridge to the other was not always easy. Still, at first it didn't matter. I got up onto the bridge and waited for a train to run. And waited. And waited. It was getting near train time when two BNSF CW44-9's started pulling into the yard across from the station with a westbound TOFC (trailer on flat car) train. Ever so s-l-o-w-l-y it creeped through the yard. Then I turned around and noticed one of the trains I had seen near Fontana coming east on the ramp over the mainline. Thought I would miss him, but he stopped on the ramp and waited for my Metrolink train from Riverside to pass. Fortunately, there was still plenty of time until it departed for LA as then an eastbound BNSF manifest with 7 units, including some SD70MAC's (alas not leading) that are seldom seen out that way (they are coal train power). By this time the TOFC train had now passed under the highway bridge. I THINK I got all three freights in one shot, but I'll have to wait until I get my slides back to see for sure. That's a digital camera advantage.

The trip back to LA was uneventful. The sun angle was not conducive to taking photos out of what was now the front end of the train (the control car). Nobody paid me any attention even though I was still sporting two cameras around my neck. Likewise, no one has ever bothered me in LA's station even though I have been told "security there is tight." On the trip back a crewman told me that my Metrolink ticket was good for a trip on the Light Rail. Had there been time I could have immediately hopped aboard a Gold Line train for Pasadena. However, wanting to get a bite to eat and retrieving my bag from short term storage (only $1.50 per bag for the day) meant what little free time I had would be used up. Without waiting for a boarding call, I walked back down the tunnel to the track indicated for my train.

My train left promptly at 4:05 PM. I was hoping there would still be some light left by the time we reached the Pacific Ocean. While the line is called the "Surf Line," it's a misnomer probably devised by some advertising agency. The truth is that very little time is spent riding along the surf. From LA the line heads east to Fullerton, a nice place for railfanning in its own right (despite the fence separating one track from the other two). After leaving Fullerton the line swings south through Anaheim, Irving, and Santa Ana before reaching the station at San Juan Capistrano. All this time you get to view the magnificent scenery of light industries, people's houses, an exercise trail, and a hanger for dirigibles.

It's only about 5 minutes after you leave San Juan Capistrano, about an hour into your journey, that you finally reach the Pacific Ocean north of San Clemente. From there through San Clemente until you get near the nuclear power plant at San Onofre (just south of San Clemente) that you again swing inland a bit and cross the Marine base Camp Pendleton next to Interstate 5. The ocean can still be seen off to your right. Fortunately for me, there was still a bit of last sunset light when we reached the ocean, but it was virtually gone during the trip across the Marine base. By the time we reached the "Coaster"/Metrolink maintenance facility/terminal north of Oceanside, it was dark.

I detrained at Oceanside as that is the closest station to the home of my wife's friend with whom we were going to stay. However, were it daylight and were I continuing on to San Diego, here's what I would have seen. Upon departing Oceanside, you get glimpses of the ocean as you pass over a salt marsh into the next town of Carlsbad. There the line swings into the downtown area some blocks away from the ocean. Thanks to residential development the ocean remains mostly out of sight except at those places where you cross wooden trestles over salt marshes. Otherwise, you pass through a series of towns while paralleling what's now called "Historic Route US #101." You know you are close to the Solana Beach station when you enter a big ditch which was built some years back to hide the trains below street level.

Upon leaving Solana Beach you go over another salt marsh from which you can see the ocean and into the town of Del Mar. For a short distance you are once again by the ocean, but then swing to left and go under US #101 (or whatever county highway it is now), and pass over another salt marsh on a fill. Shortly after passing the Sorrento Valley "Coaster" station, you enter Rose Canyon (I think it's called) and remain in canyon land (below a cluster of light industries and warehouses) until you reach the north side of San Diego. Once again you find yourself next to Interstate 5 for the remainder of the trip through Old Town and down into San Diego's joint LRV, "Coaster", ATK station. You may have gotten an occasional glimpse of the ocean once out of the canyon area, but perhaps not.

Thus, for a trip that takes about 3 hours from end to end, you get to spend roughly 35-40 minutes in view of the ocean and most of that in one stretch. So much for a ride over the "Surf Line."

Oceanside is a major stop on the Surf Line, and will soon become even a more major stop with the commencement of "Sprinter" service between there and Escondido. DMU (diesel multiple unit) trains will run between the two towns using a BNSF (xATSF) branch running between those points. The branch is being significantly upgraded to handle passenger service, and the DMU's are on the property at their new facility in Escondido. The DMU's wear the same paint scheme as the "Coaster" commuter trains and "Breeze" buses. Stations are still being built and double track or passing sidings still be installed, but they say service will start later this year. While I didn't see any, testing the line with DMU trains began in August 2006.

My wife reached the station around 7 PM, and we departed for our friend's house. Thus ends Part #2. As I did little railfanning while on this wine hunting trip, I'll resume this story with my trip back to DC later in the month.

Part 3 - Going home via the Southwest Chief and Capitol Limited

On Saturday, Jan. 20 I boarded the 3:52 PM Surfliner from Oceanside for the trip back to LA. I had been thinking about taking an earlier train until I noticed that my ticket was for "Business Class." Now, I wouldn't BUY a "Business Class" seat for such a routine trip as this, but then again I didn't BUY this ticket. Rather, I had redeemed "Guest Reward Points" for a free ride back home. I hadn't even noticed that ATK had booked me First Class for this portion of the trip.

I boarded the "Business Class" car, which was right behind the locomotive (on the south end of train this year). The car wasn't really much different from a regular Surfliner coach. Perhaps there were more outlets for computers, but that didn't affect me. The coach seats seemed the same as in a regular coach although I did notice each seat had a TV type screen facing it that was in the back of the coach seat ahead. I didn't see anyone using this device. For myself, the view of the Pacific Ocean was what I wanted for within 30 minutes or so we would go inland, and that would be my last view of that ocean on this trip.

Amenities aboard "Business Class" included free newspapers, snacks, and beverages, including wine. I had a glass of a Chilean chardonnay (sic?) which wasn't bad, but not one I would likely buy (for those of you who know chardonnay, you know that the taste of this wine varies greatly depending upon whether it's aged in oak or metallic barrels or how long in each kind). I put one packaged variety of snacks in my camera bag to eat aboard the eastbound Southwest Chief. I could have and probably should have taken more, well, at least one more, as the package contained a variety of items including bread and cheese and nachos with dip that for me served as a meal.

Upon arriving in LA, I hopped off the Surfliner and walked over two tracks and boarded the SW Chief. Alas, I noticed there was a deadhead sleeper on the rear, so there would be no looking out the back of the last car on this trip. In LA trains are boarded much earlier than in most other major Amtrak (ATK) stations so I had about 45 minutes to get my things organized or wander around the station platform before departure time. Despite reports of increased security in LA station, I've not seen any signs of it in the last couple years. Indeed, there is a public sidewalk at the south end of the platforms so people can easily get from trackside to points outside the station area without going into the station itself.

We left on time at 6:45 PM. I went to the observation/lounge car which I noted was set up somewhat differently than any other I had seen. At one end of the car there were tables rather than seats. The other end still had seats set up in the usual fashion. The lounge attendant was still located downstairs along with more tables.

At Riverside, a fellow named "Jim" boarded. This was his first train trip since childhood. He had purchased his ticket for a sleeper accommodation on the internet looking at the pictures he saw on what I assume was the ATK website. When he boarded, he came face to face with reality. The so-called "roomette" or "economy sleeper" is small. One person of no more than ordinary height and weight hardly can fit into it yet there are beds for two. Perhaps two smaller women could fit into such a space, but two men is another story.

Anyhow, over the next two days on the way to Chicago his adventure would remind me of all the reasons I stick to traveling via coach - the small room, narrow bed, and too many meals (part of the package deal that comes with sleeper space). He would eventually come to appreciate the privacy of his room as well as the ability to turn out the lights and look out and actually SEE something at night. Due to ATK's insistence of leaving the observation car too well lighted to see out at night, I make sure I bring a book with me whenever I use ATK for longer trips.

As I've mentioned before, each trip is unique. Whereas the trip out on #3 was pretty quiet, on #4 there was a group of partiers/talkers. It turned out we would all ride together as far east as Pittsburgh. So, I didn't get much reading done on the way home and not a lot of sleep either (but enough).

When I redeemed my "Guest Reward Points" I had thought about routing myself via Oakland to ride the Cal. Zephyr back to Chicago, but "Guest Rewards" wasn't set up to deal with such a routing. As I hadn't ridden #4 in some years, using it made sense as #4's schedule gives you some hours along the old ATSF mainline through Arizona and New Mexico in daylight. Alas, I didn't see anywhere near as many trains during daylight as I had seen at night on the way west.

When we arrived in Albuquerque around noon I saw that the "Rail Runner" commuter trains were parked right across from the ATK station inside a fenced enclosure. Despite the fencing I took a few shots of the MP36's and bi-levels. The bilevels are similar to those found on Metrolink, the "Coaster", and GO commuter operations. The "Rail Runner" colors of gray with tan and yellow/orange (a true southwestern flare) are among the best I've seen on a commuter train.

Unfortunately, the "Burrito Lady" wasn't there. A few Native Americans were selling jewelry (as usual), but passengers interested in eating something other than ATK food had to go forage. At noon a couple places within a couple blocks of the station opened up, but the food places near the ATK station are rather pricey, too. Being that it was Sunday, the microbrewery/restaurant a block from the station wasn't open.

As we were nearing Las Vegas, NM, we heard a grinding noise beneath the observation car. We then came to a stop. We were told some air hoses had frozen and then broken. It took only a few minutes to repair them, despite the cold and snow. I was amazed that the ATK crew got us going so quickly again.

The rest of the trip to Chicago was routine and uneventful. Upon leaving Kansas City on Monday morning it was delightful to watch the Missouri countryside go by. When ATSF built its line from KC east to Chicago, it tried to build it as straight as possible. This included going over or under any other RR track rather than crossing at grade (there are exceptions, especially Joliet, IL). Originally, it did cross other lines at grade in KC, but even these have now been bridged. For awhile the former Wabash (now Norfolk Southern) line parallels the xATSF mainline, and the RR's can even use each others tracks if necessary. At least one NSC TOFC train typically uses the BNSF line to go to BNSF's Argentine Yard. The NSC line was quiet while we were next to it, and on the BNSF the only train seen was one overtaken that had passed our train in KC before we departed. The highlights of the trip to Galesburg, IL are crossing the Missouri River on a high bridge at Sibley (by a power plant) and crossing the Mississippi River on a much lower bridge after departing Ft. Madison, IA.

West of Galesburg the SW Chief switches from the old ATSF over to the former BN (xCB&Q) at a junction west of town to connect the two RR's after BNSF was formed. On the westbound trip you might not even notice it at this time of the year as it's dark by the time you reach it. Eastbound, you get to watch the train go through this giant "X" that's been put through what had been cornfields. On the eastbound trip you first go over the old BN/CB&Q at Cameron, IL. Then it's a couple miles or so east of there that you swing through the "X" and onto the same line you recently went over. Right after getting onto the old BN/CB&Q line, the freight line from the BNSF yard junctions at Graham. From Graham directly into downtown Galesburg used to be the passenger line, but starting in the late 60's hotshot freights by-passing the yard also used it. Now, coal trains are most often found using this line.

After departing Galesburg the ride into Chicago is mostly across flat Illinois prairie land. From Aurora into downtown Chicago, you fly along the triple track with only a stop in Naperville to slow you down. The dispatcher dodged us around numerous commuter trains (it wasn't yet rush hour as we were on time or there would have been more) and freights in this section.

The layover in Chicago was slightly over 3 hours, time to have a couple beers and a meal in the food court. About 6:30 PM they started boarding the eastbound Capital Limited. Upon having my ticket lifted, I headed to the observation/lounge car in hopes of meeting Jim to see how he was doing. By this time I had taught him about as much as I could about riding a train. He was now on his own.

When I reached the car I was astounded at what I found. It'll teach me not to ignore any write-up about train consists. ATK was trying what the crew claimed was an "experiment" with what it called a "prototype" car, a combination diner/lounge. The kitchen took up all the downstairs so the cafe/lounge attendant was upstairs, taking up much of the upper level. At the coach end of this car there were 4 tables of a semi-circle design that could accommodate about 16 people. On the other side of the cafe area was the dining section, which had seats for about 30 people or so, again with these semi-circle tables and curved seats that theoretically could hold 4 people. The windows in this car were no bigger than those found in any other coach. There was no "observation" area.

Given the nice scenery one goes through in daylight east of Pittsburgh, this was a travesty. Likewise, the lack of lounge space and its design was completely upsetting to most passengers who normally used the lounge/observation car. Much of the time the dining portion of the car was empty, so much of the car went unused while passengers grumbled about no space in the lounge section, as well as no decent view of the scenery.

The crew was very apologetic about this "experiment" and stated that ATK wasn't going to repeat it. An ATK employee was taking a survey of how passengers thought about this new car. Needless to say I gave it very low marks, especially after having breakfast in the dining portion. I had enough breakfast bars and apples with me for breakfast, but I had to experience a meal aboard this car. Fortunately, I was seated with only one other person, a woman who frequently traveled via ATK. She didn't mind the car as much as I did, but she was in a sleeper. It may be that people in the sleepers didn't find it as objectionable. My "student" Jim didn't like this car either, and he was in a sleeper. She may have sung a different tune had one or two more people been seated with us. The curved seat was fine for two, but any more may have made things quite uncomfortable and cramped.

One thing that upset me about the breakfast menu was that on this train the menu was tweaked a bit so that milk, coffee, or tea was NOT included in the base price. On the other trains only soda pop, bottled water, or liquor was extra. I had the RR French Toast, but ATK apparently no longer offers fruit topping with it, only butter and syrup.

We lallygagged along at CSX's typical 50-60 mph passenger speed limit. We eventually were about 1 hour behind time, but thanks to the padding in the schedule, we pulled into DC only about 15 minutes late, around 1:45 PM. Because this train is often so much later, passengers booked through to points south are ticketed onto the 7:30 PM departure of the Silver Meteor. I advised some coach passengers to try getting onto an earlier train, depending upon their final destination. There were three fellows who had been riding in coach since San Diego who were headed to Richmond. I told them there would be 2 or 3 trains that would depart before 7:30 PM. Hopefully, they were able to get onto one of those earlier departures. And so ended my trip on ATK.

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