OTOL Southern California RailFest 2009
July 13-25, 2009
Photos by Piotr Dzwonek, Patrick Galligan, Lynn Hammond, Eric Minton,
Jishnu Mukerji, Chris Stephens, and Jack Suslak.
Chapter 4: Wednesday, July 15, 2009
On our third day, our westward journey continued as we set out on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans. The day would see us begin the long process of crossing Texas.
Chapter 4.1: In New Orleans
One thing we knew ahead of our trip was that the Canal Streetcar was closed for the summer for a trackwork project related to slight damage from Hurricane Katrina flooding. Because of that, the only other streetcar line, the Riverfront line, was isolated from the St. Charles line. Getting to the Riverfront would have meant a long walk, or a bus or taxi ride. It was agreed that everyone would just do things on their own, and we would meet at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (NOUPT) in advance of our train departures.
Jack went to Cafe Du Monde to get his beignets, and then joined Steve, Lynn, and Mike for breakfast at Brennan's I took care of a prescription and replenished some travel items and snacks at a Walgreens near our hotel. Grace and Alan did get over to the Mississippi River, and rode the streetcar line there.
Everyone eventually made their way to the train station, either by taxicab, RTA bus, or on foot. As everyone arrived, they went to the door of the Magnolia Room (NOUPT's first class lounge). A sign outside the door told us to check-in at the ticket counter, and we would be given a secret combination number to access the room.
For many, it was our first time using the Magnolia Room. When compared to the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago and the Club Acelas in the Northeast, this is a poor excuse for a lounge. There's no climate control (it was very hot and humid), no carpeting, and not enough seating. There is no place to put luggage, so that occupied the limited space in the room as well. There are no exclusive bathrooms for those in the lounge, and with the station's regular rest rooms out of service, everyone had to go outside and use a trailer. With a facility the size of NOUPT, they could do a lot better at least for first class passengers.
While there were ten from our group in that small room (along with a number of other passengers), only nine of us would be continuing west to Los Angeles. Jack was leaving us to go back home to Massachusetts. He would be taking the City of New Orleans to Chicago, and then the Lake Shore Limited to Boston. He would be following the reverse route that the Hammonds' luggage had taken, until he passed through Cleveland two days out from New Orleans.
Chapter 4.2: Amtrak SUNSET LIMITED, Train #1, New Orleans, LA to Los Angeles, CA
As we left, the LSA from the diner, Michelle, came by to take reservations for lunch. We chose 1 PM, which would give us time to appreciate the initial scenery from the Sightseer Lounge. We informed her that our travelling group was nine people. About fifteen minutes into the trip, we saw our first highlight as we crossed over the Mississippi River on the Huey P. Long Bridge. From the bridge we looked back at the skyline of New Orleans and saw that there were thunderstorms around the city. We had gotten out just in time!
The Huey P. Long Bridge also carries U.S. 90, a road we would see a lot of in Louisiana and Texas. After the bridge, the scenery quickly changed to mostly woods as we crossed the rest of Louisiana. There were some smaller bridges and marinas as we crossed over some much narrower bodies of water than the Mississippi River.
At 1 PM we headed to the dining car. We were greeted by Michelle, and also met our waiter, Ignacio. Our first impression of this crew was favorable. They handled our group of nine people very well. Knowing that our group would be aboard right through to Los Angeles, Michelle told me to come and see her before each meal, before she would be walking the train to take reservations, to ensure we would get the desired mealtimes together.
We made our stop at Schriever, LA on time at 1:25 PM during our lunchtime. Woods gave way to sugar cane fields as we passed through the towns of Patterson at 2:15 and Baldwin at 2:37. Our next station stop was at New Iberia, LA. We had lost a little bit of time en route, as we left there at 3:05 PM, 14 minutes off the advertised.
Next we came to Lafayette, LA. This was the first place for nicotine addicts to partake of their vice. They were however told not to venture too far from the train, as the stop would be short. A few of us stepped off for a short while just to stretch our legs, and then we reboarded. The Sunset left Lafayette 23 minutes late at 3:42 PM. We then passed through the town of Crowley, LA at 4:12 PM. Around here I went and notified Michelle that we would be having dinner at the 7:00 PM seating.
Lake Charles, LA was the next stop, and our last in Louisiana. Here they did a double spot since the platform was too short to accommodate the entire train. We were there about ten minutes from 5:08 until 5:18 PM. After this, I kept my eyes peeled for any signs that we were crossing the border into Texas. I knew that the run across this state takes about 24 hours, from the town of Orange to the city of El Paso. Sure enough, I saw a water tower indicating we were in Orange, TX at 5:55 PM.
The first "station" stop in Texas was Beaumont. We got there at 6:30 PM, much earlier than the schedule shows, probably a normal occurence since this is a crew change point. We were invited to detrain and stretch our legs. Using the term "station" is actually a misnomer, since there is no station here, just a platform. There's a concrete slab indicating where the building once was, but it is long gone with no replacement. Some good photos of the site now, and when it did have a functioning station are here. Most of us stood on the slab for a while before returning to the air conditioned train. Some in our group had experienced Texas in July during our visit to Dallas four years prior, but it was just as uncomfortable.
A van was there at trackside to pickup the conductor and engineer who had come from New Orleans, and presumably it had brought our new crew in as well. Our new conductor upon taking over the train promptly made an announcement during which he joked about safety, saying that passengers didn't have to read the safety brochures at each seat and room. Our attendant Alisa then made an announcement within our car saying that Amtrak and she both take safety very seriously, and that we should in fact become familiar with the safety information. This told us a lot about her, that she was serious about her job and not afraid to take on somebody who wasn't serious about theirs. We departed from Beaumont at 6:45 PM, just two minutes late.
At 7:00 we went to dinner, and once again we were handled very well. The kitchen on this train produced our dinners much quicker than the one that handled our two dinners on the Crescent. We passed through Liberty, TX at 7:28 PM as we continued to run alongside U.S. 90 towards Houston.
Before we knew it, we were already coming into the suburbs of Houston. We were suddenly well ahead of schedule. Soon we were going slowly through the city. The upside to the early arrival was that we got to see some of the area in the fading daylight. As we went underneath Main Street, as if on cue a northbound Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) light rail car passed overhead. Too bad it was too far from the Amtrak station, because I would have had time to take a short ride as I had done in Denver two years ago. Although due at 9:13 PM, we arrived at 8:25. That gave us one hour 25 minutes before our scheduled 9:50 PM departure.
In Houston, we walked around the station area, both inside and outside the small building. We met Chris Wyatt in the station. He was headed ultimately to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so he would take our train to San Antonio, and then the northbound Texas Eagle. Knowing he would be joining us for a short while, it was arranged beforehand that Chris would use the upper bed in Steve's roomette so that he could get a few hours sleep before his overnight layover in San Antonio.
The ten of us continued to mill about on and off the train during most of our Houston dwell time. By 9:30 PM, with nothing further to do outside on the platform, everyone was back aboard the train in our accommodations. A few minutes before departure time, Piotr heard a loud knock on his window. Looking out, he saw Alisa. Piotr went and unlocked the door and let her in. The conductor had closed and locked the doors, but Alisa hadn't been on the train. It was a good thing that we were on the lower level, and that one of us knew how to open the door. We wondered to ourselves if the conductor's action in locking her out was in retaliation for her earlier comments about the seriousness of knowing safety procedures.
With all passengers and attendants now safely on board, we departed Houston on time at 9:50 PM. We were about ten hours into our trip but eager to end this day that began back in New Orleans. Alisa eventually put everyone's beds down for the night, and we went to sleep.
Chapter 5: Thursday, July 16, 2009
Thursday was our fourth travel day together. Our travels continued across Texas and through New Mexico.
Chapter 5.0: Amtrak SUNSET LIMITED, Train #1, New Orleans, LA to Los Angeles, CA (continued)
There are no intermediate stops between Houston and San Antonio. It was therefore a smooth trip of just under five hours between the two cities. Most of us missed it of course, but a few happened to be awake either upon arrival in San Antonio at 2:48 AM (12 minutes early) or during our long scheduled layover. Chris, I was told, was allowed to sleep a little longer, detraining closer to our departure time. He still would have a couple of hours before the northbound Texas Eagle was to depart. During this dwell we also got a new operation crew. We also picked up 2 more cars representing Train 421, the Los Angeles through section of the Texas Eagle, which came from Chicago.
Again although most of our group was oblivious to it, we departed from San Antonio on time at 5:40 AM. Our group was once again back to nine people, and we'd stay that way for the remainder of this trip. It would be another three hours until our next stop, during which time many of us awoke and had breakfast on our own. I did notice we passed through the Texas towns of Hondo at 6:42 AM, Sabinal at 7:02, and Knippa at 7:13. So we were still running parallel to U.S. 90.
In Del Rio, we were in town for seven minutes as we did a double spot between 8:36 and 8:43 PM. We left eight minutes behind schedule. Around 9:30 AM we came to the next highlight of the trip, crossing over the Pecos River on the Pecos High Bridge. Our crew announced when we were about to go over this historic bridge. Then at 9:56 AM we passed through Langtry, TX.
Our next station was Sanderson, a flag stop. Like all of them, we did actually stop and do business here. We left at 11:16 AM, six minutes down. Soon after, I went to the diner to make our reservation for nine for lunch, and came away with a 12:30 seating. Not long after we passed the town of Marathon, TX at 12:18 PM, we prepared to go to lunch.
The flat, wooded areas we experienced in eastern Texas had given way to a much hillier terrain in the western part of the state. As we approached the city of Alpine, we climbed to an elevation of 4475 feet above sea level. We arrived in Alpine at 12:52 PM, which was 32 minutes early. Our stay there was a bit disruptive, as we blocked a few grade crossings. During our dwell there, although it had not been announced as a smoking stop some did detrain and indulge anyhow. We finished our lunch in the comfort of a still train, and then returned to our rooms.
We left Alpine right on time at 1:24 PM. It was not hard to figure out from the timetables that we would soon have a meet with the eastbound Sunset Limited. Just outside of town, on a mountainside, the eastbound Sunset was sure enough sitting on a siding as we passed by at a slow speed. Its consist was exactly like ours, minus the deadheading dining car we were carrying near the front. Next town we passed through was Marla, TX at 2:13 PM. We continued parallel to U.S. 90 again, but it soon would unceremoniously end at Van Horn, TX due to the curvature of the international border. For the next few hours towards El Paso, we ran parallel to I-10, only glimpsing it on occasion.
At this point, Michael and I decided to take our mid-trip showers. We found that the shower's changing room in our car had neither soap nor linens. We had to summon Alisa to have them replenished. At Sierra Blanca, TX, our tracks merged with another line. This is the ex-Texas & Pacific (later Missouri Pacific) line that comes in directly from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and has been proposed as an alternate routing for the Sunset Limited. Sierra Blanca also marked our entrance into the Mountain Time zone. Around this time I walked to the dining car and found Michelle in order to snag a 7:00 dinner seating for our group of nine.
Before we knew it, we were entering what was obviously a metropolitan area. We were six minutes early into El Paso, getting there at 4:34 PM. Announcements were made that this was a major stop, and that we were free to take a look at the historic station. A reminder was given that the train would be leaving as scheduled at 5:25. As always our group walked around and saw the station. Of particular interest to many passengers was that from the other side of the station building, one could look across the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The temperature outside was around 100 degrees, so we did not spend the entire layover outside. Since this was a major stop for the Sunset Limited, there was a crew change, the train was watered, and trash was put out for later pickup.
At precisely 5:25 PM, the Sunset Limited departed from El Paso. After a few minutes passing through more of El Paso, we crossed a bridge over the Rio Grande. At this point of the river, it forms the boundary between Texas and New Mexico. On our left we could see where the Mexican border turns west, becoming a land border rather than one in the middle of a river. It had indeed taken a full day to cross the state of Texas, but we had done it. However, we still had New Mexico, Arizona, and California ahead of us.
Just after the bridge, our train came to a stop. The crew explained that some passengers had been left behind in El Paso, and they were being driven to the train. We sat about 20 minutes here as we waited for the van to bring the wayward passengers. Very nice move with respect to those who missed the train, but they really should have left El Paso aboard the train given they'd had 51 minutes to walk around. Instead, everyone was inconvenienced on account of their inattention.
On our way once more, the tracks curved to the south and ran right alongside the international border fence for a couple of miles, giving us our best glimpse into Mexico. Not far from the El Paso metropolitan area, we had entered a barren region where there appeared to be no civilization for miles. Twice we had to stop again in this area due to false alerts coming from defect detectors. At 7:00 we went for our last major meal aboard this train. While in the diner our train made a flag stop at 7:14 PM at Deming, NM. Thanks to our El Paso stragglers and the other unplanned stops, we were 18 minutes late.
Lordsburg, NM came next at 8:18 PM, by which time we were 27 minutes down. Most of us called it a night in our own accommodations after this. Later in the evening, we crossed from New Mexico into Arizona, also crossing our second time zone boundary in a day. Since Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, they are in Mountain Standard Time year round, which in the summer is the same as Pacific Daylight Time. So this would be the last time we had to turn our watches back an hour on the westbound journey. We got into Benson, AZ at 9:09 PM MST and departed from there at 9:19, now 23 minutes off.
Overnight, there is a scheduled 45 minute stop in Tucson, AZ. Our train actually got there early at 10:07 PM and departed right on time at 11:35 PM, so we sat for almost an hour and a half, though most of us were oblivious to the long stopover.
Chapter 6: Friday, July 17, 2009
Friday was the fifth day of the thirteen day event. The day featured rare downtime away from the group between our morning arrival in Los Angeles and our afternoon and evening activities.
Chapter 6.0: Amtrak SUNSET LIMITED, Train #1, New Orleans, LA to Los Angeles, CA (continued)
After Tucson came Maricopa, AZ. Ten minutes is the scheduled dwell here. We got in a minute early at 12:52 AM and departed 1:10, eight minutes late. Our train also stopped at Yuma, its last Arizona station stop, at 3:49 AM. We were awakened by announcements for our stop in Palm Springs, CA. We found out we were right on time when we left there at 6:07 AM PST. Some of us then met for our final meal on this train when the diner opened at 6:30.
We had some further delays at approximately 7:30 around Colton Junction, as we had to wait for BNSF Railway traffic to pass over the diamond. Soon after we got moving, we had to stop again to let a crewmember off at Colton Yard. Now running within the Los Angeles basin, the rest of our trip was in discharge-only mode and padded, so we knew we still had a chance to be on time or early into Los Angeles Union Station. Ontario, CA came at 7:54 (19 minutes late), followed by Pomona at 8:05 (20 minutes down). Although we were in commuter territory, much of the Sunset Limited's trip is not shared with any Metrolink lines, except for a short segment around El Monte.
Our trip was finally coming to an end as the arrival announcements were being made. We soon crossed the almost dry Los Angeles River and came upon Mission Tower, a landmark that we would pass quite frequently over the next six days as it governs all movements into and out of Los Angeles Union Station. Amtrak says we arrived at 8:45 AM, however I had us arriving at 8:54. Either way, we were well ahead of the scheduled 9:40 AM arrival.
And so another long distance trip was over. Looking back on this trip, our sleeper attendant Alisa turned out to be great, and she was well rewarded for her hospitality. Our dining car crew did very well also. LSA Michelle made sure that our large group was seated together through each of our reserved meals, and she made sure we sat at tables handled by Ignacio in order to get the best service. Like on the previous train, the crew also consisted of another server who appeared to be less experienced, so while he did handle some tables, Michelle worked with him to pick up the slack. During the trip the nine of us contributed to a gratuity for Michelle for being so accommodating to us. Our host for the majority of the trip, Union Pacific Railroad, had dispatched us very well. Overall, we took only positive memories away from our Sunset Limited trip.
Chapter 6.1: Down time in Los Angeles
One lesson learned from earlier Fests is that a late Amtrak arrival can ruin our planned activities. For this reason, nothing was planned for Friday until the late afternoon. The downtime allowed us to check-in at our various hotels, or at very least deposit our luggage there so we would not have to carry it around all day.
Patrick Galligan, who lives in Ventura, met the arrival of our Sunset Limited. He was set to fly out to Colorado for the weekend to ride behind a vintage Union Pacific steam engine, and then he would rejoin us on Sunday evening after his return. Since he was on his way to the airport, Patrick accompanied Piotr, Michael, and me on the long transit trip to our hotel. Getting to and from the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/El Segundo (HGI) required three seats and two transfers. Luckily the hotel is adjacent to the Metro Green Line Mariposa station. Patrick got off one stop before ours to take the shuttle bus to the airport.
Rick would be staying at the Super 8 Pasadena so his travels back and forth would include the Metro Gold Line. Lynn, Mike, and Steve were staying at Marriott's Renaissance Hollywood, so they would be seeing a lot of the Metro Red Line. Grace and Alan were staying a shorter Metro Red Line ride away in downtown Los Angeles at the Hilton Checkers.
Most of us rested during our free time. Piotr remained at the hotel to catch up on some online work he had to do, and then he went downtown and eventually rode the entire Metro Orange Line, a busway that runs within the San Fernando Valley and whose eastern end is across the street from the North Hollywood station of the Metro Red Line. Michael and I went to downtown Los Angeles and previewed some of the walks the group might have to make later on that week. Lynn, Mike, and Steve played ultimate tourist and took a tour of star's homes in Hollywood.
Our gang reassembled at Union Station at a pre-determined location that became our set meeting place for each of our days in Los Angeles. We were on one side of the waiting room, not far from the mouth of the pedestrian tunnel leading to the tracks. At 2:40 PM we met the arrival of Pacific Surfliner 775, which was carrying Eric Minton (normally of Hawaii but visiting his family in Fullerton) and his granddaughter Evangeline (Evan for short) Ibarra.
In the station we also met Ken Ruben of Culver City, and Dave Snowden of Redondo Beach, and Chris Stephens of Glendale. Ken would not be joining us on this particular excursion, but we would see him again on a few trip segments over the next several days.
Rick, Lynn, Mike, and Steve decided to do other things in the area, so they did not join us on the afternoon excursion. The nine people who went to Moorpark therefore included Chris, Dave, Eric, Evan, Piotr, Grace, Alan, Michael, and me. Only five of the nine had arrived in town on the Sunset Limited that morning and the rest were new faces but they would all become very familiar before we left California. Eric of course was doing his third consecutive summer Fest with us.
Chapter 6.2: Metrolink Ventura County Line, Train #111, Los Angeles Union Station to Moorpark
Our first official intra-California conveyance, Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) from Los Angeles to Moorpark, left on time at 3:35 PM. Train 111 was the one involved in the disastrous head-on crash just 10 months prior to our trip. Surely there were people on board who had survived that horrific experience. We later learned from Dave that one of the conductors on our train had been involved in the crash and had only recently returned to work.
Our train remained on time throughout our trip. The tragedy in Chatsworth was certainly on our minds as we left that station and moved past the site of the disaster. Padding got us to Moorpark at 4:40 PM, five minutes early. Like most Ventura County Line trains, this one turned at Moorpark. Three in each direction continue further to the Montalvo station in Ventura; they run during the rush hours only and a means of return is not provided until the next weekday morning. This was the only segment of Metrolink we were unable to cover on this trip, either by Metrolink or aboard Amtrak trains. The early arrival gave us a 17 minute layover at Moorpark, during which we walked around on the platform and then waited inside the train.
Chapter 6.3: Metrolink Ventura County Line, Train #118, Moorpark to Los Angeles Union Station
The return trip to Los Angeles was uneventful. Our train left Moorpark on time, and once again our arrival at Union Station was five minutes early, at 6:15 PM. Once we arrived, some went for a quick restroom break. We also met Eric's daughter and Evan's mom, Christine Ibarra. She would be joining us for dinner. Chris and Dave left us to go home, leaving eight headed to Hollywood.
Chapter 6.4: Metro Red Line, Union Station to Hollywood & Highland
We rode the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority's Red Line from Union Station to Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood. After we walked up to the street level at the latter station, our group expanded from eight to fourteen. We were rejoined by Lynn, Mike, and Steve. Also we met my brother Jeff, my sister-in-law Sharon, and my niece Anna.
Chapter 6.5: Dinner at uWink in Hollywood
The place we chose to have dinner was uWink, located at the Hollywood & Highland Center complex. We thought it might be interesting since one orders food via a touch screen monitor on their table. Although it took everyone a while to figure out how to use the technology and order their meals, we were impressed how quickly the staff delivered food and beverages to the 14 of us once we did order it.
During dinner I got a message from Jishnu Mukerji, who had flown from Newark to Los Angeles, and was now in El Segundo at the HGI. I also heard from HaRRy Sutton, who had come up from San Diego and was at his hotel, the Marriott Downtown. After the rest of us were done at uWink, we walked together out to Hollywood Blvd. and then went our separate ways.
Chapter 6.6: End of Friday's activities
As we disbanded for the day, my brother and his family went home to Van Nuys. Piotr, Michael, and I had the longest trip as we returned to the HGI in El Segundo. Our contingent at the Renaissance Hollywood was luckiest as their hotel is part of the Hollywood & Highland Center complex. With everyone situated back at their hotels, we rested up for two very busy weekend days on the rails in the Los Angeles area.Continued in next section