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Trip Report

Round Trip to San Diego 2010

January 6-22, 2010

by Dale Jacobson

Riding the "Cardinal"

On January 6 I boarded the westbound Cardinal for Chicago. Being 62 I am a ""senior citizen"" according to Amtrak and was among the first to board. When the crew doesn't assign seats this is an advantage.

Memories dim with time, and being 62 doesn't help with remembering what happened weeks earlier.  Here is my attempt to recall that trip.

I prefer taking this train to Chicago rather than use the faster Capital Ltd. so that my layover at Chicago Union Station is not quite as long.  Thus, I try leaving on a day when the Cardinal is running west.

The ride through Virginia horse country and over the Blue Ridge is pleasant, especially on a sunny day.  With its 11:10 AM departure time the Cardinal gives you plenty of time for viewing the scenery during the afternoon.  Last light occurs somewhere around Alderson, WV, if the train is on time.  On this trip we were a bit behind schedule so the last daylight was gone by the time we were there.

I am still perplexed why Amtrak doesn't run this train via the Norfolk Southern (NSC) all the way to Charlottesville and then use the interchange track between the NSC yard and the Buckingham Branch RR (BBRR) even if it involves a backup move.  Amtrak routinely backs up trains so this would be nothing new.  Upgrading this connection would seem to be less costly over time than having to use the slow BBRR trackage between Orange and Charlottesville.  It would also cut some time off the schedule, which would be especially helpful on the eastbound trip.  The trip between Orange and Gordonsville is especially slow.  Given that there seem to be no on-line customers along this segment of track one has to wonder how long the BBRR will try to maintain it just so Amtrak can use it.  If use by Amtrak requires the installation of positive train control (PTC), I suspect BBRR will petition to abandon the line.  There was a BBRR GP40 on a small freight on the east leg of the wye at Gordonsville.  Perhaps this train had preceded us down that line.  Does anyone knows just how often the BBRR runs a train to Orange?

I probably shouldn't ponder this too much because I ride this train hoping it will be late into Chicago.  As it was, we were a bit early arriving in Charlottesville.  I had time to get off and take some photos of the train at the station.  The train has to be significantly late - more than two hours - into Indianapolis, IN to even stand a chance of being late into Chicago.  Unless, that is, the delay(s) occur(s) after leaving Indianapolis.

In Staunton I always look to see what power is around the BBRR engine terminal down below the south side of the BBRR mainline shortly after departing the station.  Just like last year I noted there was a beat up KCS GP40 there along with a couple of BBRR GP40's.  Before we reached the station stop I noticed a GP on the north side of the BBRR mainline which was on the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (SVRR). It belongs to the Durbin & Greenbriar Valley Railroad which is the contract operator of the line for SVRR. The locomotive is a GP9 and was at one time C&O #5940. 

With Amfleet cars for equipment, viewing the scenery isn't the easiest thing possible.  The Cafe Car offers the best place for viewing.  Fortunately, on this trip, like those of the past few years, this car was not overly crowded.  A place at a table was always available although sometimes you would be sitting with strangers.  Communal seating has it positives, however, as among other things you may meet some interesting people.

Another drawback with this train is there is no checked baggage.  So, passengers bring anything and everything aboard with them.  This fills up any free space in the coaches with luggage.  The train was fairly full until Charleston, and then it remained fairly empty until we reached Indianapolis where it became packed.  Fortunately for me, by then I was awake and no longer needed two seats while trying to get some sleep.  Even had I wanted to get a sleeper, by the time I booked my reservation all sleeping spaces were sold.  I don't sleep well in Amtrak's sleeping accommodations and don't want all those meals so I seldom even consider booking a sleeper.

We departed from Indianapolis a few minutes after 6 AM.  The Amtrak schedule shows a 6:30 AM departure time.  I talked with one passenger who boarded there.  He told me that Amtrak had called him a few days earlier telling him to be there in time to depart at 6 AM.  This earlier departure time was due to construction at the station.  So, a few minutes after 6 AM we backed some distance before heading forward.  Even so, we were still about 15 minutes ahead of the regular schedule.

By the time daylight came we were nearing Lafayette.  I didn't see any semaphore signals along the way.  By the time you reach Lafayette all the signals are searchlight types.  Daylight showed that it was a typical winter day in Indiana - a gray sky with snow on the ground.  We stayed on schedule until we got close to downtown Chicago.  We then encountered snow clogged switches and conflicting freight train traffic.  Even so, we arrived in Chicago Union Station only about 25 minutes late.  I would have liked to have been about 2 hours late as my next train wasn't due to leave until 3:15 PM.  I had plenty of time to get something to eat and sip a couple beers at the two bars inside the station.  One bar is upstairs in the food court; the other next to the Great Hall.

There was a blood drive going on in the Great Hall.  Two local actors were portraying the Blues Brothers - Elwood and Jake - singing songs and encouraging people to give blood.  I wasn't expecting such entertainment during my layover.  They helped make the time pass.  Before I knew it, it was time to prepare to board my next train.

Chicago to San Diego

I had hoped that by January 7, the crush of holiday passenger traffic would have subsided. It may indeed have done so, but thanks to a snowstorm in Nebraska Amtrak had to cancel the California Zephyr that day. So, many of its passengers were put onto the SW Chief to be delivered to various stations where Amtrak would have bus service waiting to carry them to their final destinations. Thus, the train was crowded.

Having grown up in northern Illinois it's pleasant to sit back in the observation lounge car and watch very familiar scenery pass. Especially fun is racing down the BNSF's three track mainline between Cicero and Aurora watching how we dodge among the METRA commuter and BNSF freight trains. Blocks are quite short on this part of the RR. Standing trackside there are places where you can see as many as three sets of signals. Given that METRA runs commuter trains on 4 minute intervals (express followed by a local) during rush hours, these short blocks seem to help keep trains flowing.

It's too bad that in January the sun sets before 5 PM, long before the train is due to arrive in Galesburg, IL. I attended Knox College there. Knox was the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The location was on the steps of the building that is called "Old Main." This building has a white cupola/tower atop it that can be seen from the right side of the train shortly after leaving the Galesburg station. I can also see the dorm room in which I resided during my sophomore year.

Once west of town the train uses the giant "X" track arrangement that BNSF built east of Cameron, IL to connect the former BN at Graham Jct. with the former ATSF. Graham Jct. is where freights to or from Omaha enter or leave the freight main to the classification yard just outside Galesburg. This "X" trackage connection allows BNSF to route freights almost any way desired.

The SW Chief swings west off this "X" trackage onto the former ATSF mainline and heads towards Kansas City. First it goes over the top of the former BN mainline which we just left. Then, about 40 or so minutes later it crosses the Mississippi River into Ft. Madison, IA on a low bridge that is also used by automobiles. This year the river was at least partly ice covered, something I don't recall seeing before.

After leaving Ft. Madison the train plunges into the darkness from which it does not emerge except for the brief station stop at La Plata, MO, until it reaches the electric power plant on the south side of the Missouri River crossing at Sibley. This signals that Kansas City is nearby and you'll once again be able to see something. That Amtrak insists on keeping so many lights on at night in the observation section of the obsy/lounge car has always aggrevated me. Once the coach lights are dimmed it is easier to see out at night in your coach seat than in the obsy car. The same is even more true if you have a sleeper where you can turn off all the lights in your room to get as good a view as possible. Of course, you can only look out your window so you have no idea about what's happening on the other side of the train.

Soon after passing Sibley you are in the Kansas City metro area with lots of lights to show the way. You first jump over UP tracks at Rock Creek Jct., and then later jump over more UP tracks and the KCS main at Sheffield. For a few minutes darkness returns as you pass through a manmade cut. Then, before you lies the "Bottoms" District of Kansas City, the former meat packing area, and the KC Station. There is enough time to get off and even go into the station IF you are on time. On this trip it was cold enough to keep me on the train even though we were about on time.

Shortly after departing from the station you pass under what is the newest of RR 3-level over/unders. Unlike the one in Richmond, this one is not hemmed in by interstates. So it can be easily photographed from off RR property.

Then the train soon passes the diesel shop at the east end of Argentine Yard and then stops to refuel the locomotives at the fueling pad located on the east side of Argentine Yard farther southwest. After departing the fueling pad it is soon back into the darkness although until you reach Holiday Jct., you are along a 4-track mainline, with one of the tracks (guess you would call it the east track) on a fill. At Holiday Jct., the SW Chief leaves the mainline and swings west using a secondary main to serve Lawrence and Topeka, KS before briefly rejoining the mainline near Emporia. After departing Emporia the train heads west to Newton, KS, leaving the freight mainline at a junction called Ellinor, a few miles west of Emporia. Until the SW Chief rejoins the BNSF mainline at Dalias, NM it will be traversing mostly lightly used trackage.

On this trip we were delayed one hour in Lawrence, KS due to a frozen switch. The crew needed to throw this switch to get onto the track nearest the Lawrence depot. Pity the poor passengers waiting to detrain or board. We were only blocks away from the station. The Lawrence station is not a place where one should want to spend much time at night. The station is not staffed, and is located in a poorly lit dubious part of town. Why Amtrak doesn't use the UP mainline between KC and Topeka is another thing that I question. The UP station in Lawrence is located in a much nicer part of town. The reason likely has to do with the available connections between the RR's in Topeka. Still, it seems to me that this is something to think about changing.

Thanks to this delay and other weather related incidents that occurred during the night we were about two hours late getting into Dodge City. We made up some time by shortening the time for the station stop in La Junta. Between Las Animas Jct., a few miles east of La Junta and La Junta is one's best chance at seeing freight traffic on this route as BNSF loaded coal trains use this former ATSF line between Pueblo, CO and Amarillo, TX.

Upon leaving La Junta the SW Chief enters trackage over which it is now the only train routinely running. In past Januarys I've noticed that most of the sidings between La Junta and Trinidad, the next station stop, were filled with store spine cars. Not this year. Nowhere along the route until we reached the Santa Fe Southern RR connection at Lamy was there a single piece of RR equipment to be seen. That the RR had removed all its equipment from this line has been reported on some railfan websites. I just confirmed for myself that it was true.

I also confirmed that this time the reports on various internet sites that all the semaphore signals on the new New Mexico Railrunner commuter train route were also now gone. Last year when I traveled this way there were still two semaphore blades in use on the commuter line even though reports on some railfan websites like had stated they were all gone. Now they are.

There semaphores on the route in New Mexico are still there. As far as I could tell there have been no additional semaphores taken out of service since I last rode over the track in January 2009. The question now is which will disappear first - the SW Chief or the semaphores. The answer is likely to be the SW Chief. New Mexico now owns some portion of the trackage east of Lamy, perhaps as far east as Trinidad, CO. With no on-line freight business does anyone really expect the state to maintain that stretch of railroad to the standards Amtrak desires, unless Amtrak does it itself? And who will pay for the Positive Train Control (PTC)?

BNSF has given Amtrak a year to decide to reroute the SW Chief. That doesn't mean it will be rerouted by January 2011, but I expect that by January 2012 it will be. If nothing else I expect BNSF to petition the Surface Transpotation Board (STB) to abandon the line between La Junta and Trinidad as local freight traffic in Trinidad can be handled off the BN's former Colorado & Southern line. New Mexico may well "railbank" whatever portion of the route between Trinidad and Lamy that it owns, if not as well the portion between Lamy and the Railrunner route. The handwriting is on the wall. This train will be rerouted.

I thought we would make up some more time in Albuquerque. We were told to be back on the train at 5:15 PM. Alas, while we were all on the train at that time, due to some unknown problem(s) the train didn't leave until about 6 PM. We didn't regain a minute.

We were still running late by the time we reached Victorville, CA the next morning. Yeah! This meant I got to see at least the lower portion of Cajon Pass in a smidgeon of daylight. This was the first time I had a chance to SEE the new triple track RR through there. If on time in January, the first hints of dawn don't occur until you've already left San Bernardino.

The rest of the trip into LA was uneventful, and we arrived only 15 or so minutes late thanks to padding in the schedule between Fullerton and LA. As I was heading to San Diego, I could have detrained at Fullerton, but decided to ride the SW Chief into LA. That way I could see if there was anything I might want to photo from the Surfliner I would ride between LA and San Diego. I was looking for decent photo ops of UP gensets.

At LA Union Station I got my first look at the new silver gray light rail cars used on the Gold Liine, which runs between East LA and Pasadena. While I keep reading or hearing about Amtrak hassling photographers at various locations, I've never been hassled about taking photos at LA Union Station. Perhaps this is due to there being public walkways both in the station area as well as on the south side of the concourse. Time didn't allow me to ride the Gold Line (another thing I keep meaning to do) as my train to San Diego was soon ready for boarding.

Once on board the Surfliner train I took some photos out of the train of UP gensets I had seen sitting across the LA River (a concrete ditch) on the way into the station.

I have described the Surf Line route to San Diego many times before so I won't do so again. I will note that I thought I might get a soda aboard the Surfliner as I was almost done with the last bottle I had either brought with me or bought at various station stops along the way. I changed my mind when I saw the price for a soda in California was the same as it had been on the SW Chief. Previously, they had been a quarter less for a 12 ounce can. Both were $2 per can. So I finished my last 16 or 20 ounce bottle and let it go at that.

The train ride to San Diego was incident free, as most such rides are. I sat near a family where the parents were taking their kids on their first train ride. It's always fun to see how kids react to this new adventure.

I took a couple photos of WATCO's Pacific Sun RR engines and a new Metrolink MP36 at the Coaster/Metrolink maintenace facility on Fort Pendleton north of Oceanside. The Pacific Sun RR has the contract to handle all the freight traffic on what is now the Sprinter line between Oceanside and Escondido, This was once an ATSF branch. Its freight train runs weekday nights after the Sprinters are finished for the day.

Otherwise, once at the San Diego Amtrak/Coaster/MTS station, I caught the shuttle bus to the airport and met my wife to begin our two week sampling of California wines.

Riding the San Diego MTS

San Diego's Mass Transit System (MTS) now has three different lines served by light rail vehicles (LRV's). It also has three different styles of LRV's, The Blue Line is the oldest of the light rail lines and now runs between San Diego's Old Town Transit Center and San Ysidro on the Mexican border. This is the line that runs by the Amtrak depot on the train side. It also runs by the naval base. Right now one can see the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan undergoing overhaul. Siemans Duwag U2 LRV's (the #1000 series) were bought for this line.

The second line to be put into service is called the Orange Line. It runs from 12th St. and the Civic Center to Gilespie Fields. This line originally ended at the El Cajon Transit Center, but was later extended. The funny thing is that the 12th St & Civic Center station is served twice by the Orange Line with the trains stopping on both sides of the building. Between these stops the Orange Line makes a loop downtown through the Gaslight District and on the east side of the Amtrak station, but not at the station proper. It shares trackage with the Blue Line from that stop to the 12th & Civic Center stop. It shares trackage with the Green Line for 4 or 5 station stops prior to reaching Gilespie Fields. A second set of Siemans Duwag cars (#2000 series) were bought for this line. They look about the same as the original U2's except they don't have a split front window.

The line most recently opened is called the Green Line and runs between Old Town Transit Center and the shopping mall at Santee, one stop farther north of Gilespie Fields. It connects with the Blue Line at the Old Town Transit Center where you can also catch some Amtrak Surfliners and Coaster commuter trains. Another set of LRV's, the #3000 series, was bought to use on this line. These LRV's look a bit more streamlined and are easily recongized as being different from either series of Siemens Duwag LRV's. I don't know who built these cars as the builder's name is not found on the cars. The second series of Siemans Duwag cars (#2000 series) are also used on the Green Line. A common sight is a #2000 series car mu-ed with a #3000 series car.

One reason I thought it best to return to the Motel 6 in El Cajon is because it is close to the end of the Green Line at Santee; well, about 3 miles away. The shopping mall has plenty of parking near the LRV station. Given what happened later we should have stayed in Chula Vista where we could have walked to the Blue Line. The Motel 6 there was pricier than the one in El Cajon, which is why we chose to go to El Cajon.

We started at Santee in sunlight. We bought a day pass for $5.00. As far as we could tell, there is no discount for seniors (62+) buying a day pass. We then rode the Green Line to Old Town where we transferred to the Blue Line. Much of the Green Line is built on cement trestles above the ground which can photographed either from some of the station stops or from nearby roads. We didn't have time to photo this line this time as Norm wanted to photo trains at the Amtrak station. So we got off our Blue Line train there and photoed a Coaster just before it departed. Unlke Amtrak's Surfliners, the engine on the Coaster is on the north end. A Surfliner was also in the station. By now it was cloudy. We took advantage of the lack of sunlight to shoot that train against the tall buildings near the station without having to worry about shadows. The sun was gone for the rest of the day, but that was expected. We had more sunshine that day than forecasted.

We then rode the Blue Line down to San Ysidro and back. The line passes by the San Diego & Imperial Valley (SDIV) yard and MTS carbarn. Then it passes by the naval base. A BNSF line that runs from its small yard across the road from the SD&IV yard south along the naval base parallels the Blue Line. We didn't see any BNSF action. After a train arrives in San Ysidro from San Diego another leaves a few minutes later. This gives the photographer time to photo the end of the line station with both tracks occupied by trains. Three cars are now typical of trains on this line. Two cars are typical on the other two lines.

We rode the Blue Line back to the 12th & Civic Center stop where we picked up an Orange Line train for a trip around the loop through the Gaslight District. When we reached the other side of the 12th & Civic Center station we didn't know if our train would continue onto Gilespie Fields or return via the loop. It returned via the loop. Had we simply walked around to the other side of the building to the other Orange Line stop we would have saved ourselves time and grief. Instead, we rode the same train back around to the other side of the 12th & Civic Center stop before comtinuing on towards Gilespie Fields.

We didn't go all the way to the end of the Orange Line, opting instead to catch a Green Line train at the first station stop after the two lines merged just north of where they go over I-8 on different bridges. I cannot remember the name of that station, but we waited for a Green Line train as it started to rain. Fortunately, we could get under a road bridge that went overhead and stay dry. Another Orange Line train passed before a Green Line train with #3000 series LRV's arrived.

Somewhere after the El Cajon Transit Center stop the motorwoman announced that since the train was running so late it would end its run at Gilespie Fields. She said another Green Line train was 5 minutes behind. So we all got off at Gilespie Fields [there weren't all that many of us] and took cover from the light rain in the small shelters. Fortunately, she was right. About 5 minutes after she departed the other way another Green Line train arrived. We finally got back to our starting point, returned to the motel and went to beans, As Norm stated, riding the MTS stopped being fun about an hour before we got back to Santee.

Another reason we should have stayed in Chula Vista is we would have gotten an earlier start riding trolleys. By the time we finished we were knee deep into rush hour. Riding any form of public transportation during rush hour is usually nothing more than a chore, something to be endured until it's over. This was no exception. Still, riding LRV lines or other forms of public transportation can allow a traveler to visit a city without having to rent a car. In some cities a car is more of a handicap than a help. That isn't true of San Diego, but even so you can still see a pretty good part of the town just using the LRV lines. They just don't run near any of the beaches. Perhaps the city will someday build an LRV line that goes to the beaches of San Diego and La Jolla.

The next morning I drove Norm to the San Diego airport and turned in the Budget rental car I had been using for the past 28 days. I then took a Blue Line train to the Amtrak station to catch the Saturday morning Coaster to Oceanside where I would stay until Sunday morning. The Budget rental car agency is located right close to the Middletown Blue Line station which made using it to get to the Amtrak station logical. Unlike most people I am willing to tote a fair amount of luggage (3 bags including my camera bag and a walking stick). I suspect most people would either take a taxi from the rental car site or else take the free shuttle to the airport and get a taxi back downtown from there. A few might even use the #932 shuttle bus that runs between downtown locations (including across the street on the SE side from the Amtrak station) and the airport and costs $2.50, the same as a one-way MTS fare (except that seniors pay only $1.25 for a one way fare on the LRV lines).

And so ended our California railfan adventure of 2010.

Getting from San Diego to San Antonio

I arrived at the Amtrak station in downtown San Diego in plenty of time to get a ticket for the northbound Coaster due to depart at 9:45 AM. I was no hurry to get to Oceanside even though I had already confirmed that my room at the Beachwood Motel (next to the train track and 4 blocks from the Oceanside Transit Center) was ready for me. The Coaster takes roughly an hour to get to Oceanside making 6 intermediate stops. An Amtrak Surfliner takes 48 minutes to cover the same distance, usually with only a stop at Solana Beach (some Surfliners stop at Old Town). So, there isn't that much difference in terms of transit time.

Where there is a difference is the ticket price. Even with a senior citizen discount, it would cost over $11 to ride a Surfliner from San Diego to Oceanside. On a Coaster the senior discount ticket price is $3.25. It was a no brainer. I didn't check on the price of a ticket on Metrolink between Oceanside and LA Union Station (LAUS). However, I suspect that riding commuter trains between San Diego and LAUS would be much less expensive than taking a Surfliner. However, it appears that the two commuter services have, for whatever reason(s), not tried to coordinate their schedules so that they could give Amtrak any significant competition for through passengers.

The ride to Oceanside was uneventful. The control car was open for passengers, but the curtain was drawn so you couldn't look out the front end. After leaving the Old Town station stop the train takes over 20 minutes to reach its next stop - Sorrento Valley. This is because max speed through the canyon area on the north side of San Diego is no more than 35 mph. Once the train reaches the Sorrento Valley stop the max speed becomes 90 mph.

Upon reaching Oceanside it was raining. I dodged as many raindrops as possible walking to the Beachwood Motel. Why not take a taxi? The first 1/9th of a mile costs $2.70 with each additional 1/9th a mile costing some additional amount more. It was warm enough so that the raindrops were not likely to hurt me. Also, I needed the exercise. When home I try to average about 2 hours of exercise each weekday. When traveling exercising is more difficult so I do what I can. Lugging bags for a few blocks is a nice substitute workout. Of course, when I reached the motel the rain stopped and the sun came out.

I wasn't planning on railfanning, but Metrolink forced my hand. I was quite surprised to catch 5 Metrolink trainsets coming into or departing from Oceanside Saturday afternoon. The final one of the 5 was powered by an MP36. Of course, by then the light was duller as clouds had returned.

The next morning at 10:18 AM I was aboard the Surfliner that handled baggage that Amtrak uses as its connecting train to the Sunset Ltd, which departs at 2:30 PM Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If one is not checking any luggage, there is a Surfliner that runs an hour later that gets you into LAUS at 1:15 PM rather than at 12:15 PM. I took the earlier train both because I checked a bag and also to give me more time to perhaps catch and photo even more Metrolink MP36's. As it turned out, none of the few Metrolink trains running on Sunday had one. However, an old and new version of F59's were in the new paint. That made things a bit better.

I didn't bother going into LAUS, opting instead to stay on the platforms and photo whatever trains were running that struck my fancy. My liking to photograph trains was greater than my liking to sit in the large leather chairs that are found in LAUS. To me LAUS is one of the better stations at which to have a lengthy stopover. Olivera Street, across from the station, is the center of "old LA" and has plenty of restaurants and shops in which to spend time while waiting for your next train. There are also places to eat in the station.

Despite being out at the north end of the platform no one bothered me. I certainly wasn't trying to hide and had my two cameras prominently displayed. Eventually, I saw the Sunset Ltd. back into the station some time after 2 PM, unusally late compared to my previous experiences. Soon after the first boarding announcement was made, and I walked over to the train. That's when I discovered that passengers in the station had been given assigned seats; again something new to me on this train. I told the car attendent that I had not received a seat number. That didn't bother him as he had more tags for still unassigned seats. I got a window seat. At least LAUS was as laid back and nonchalant as before.

I was headed to Norm Schultze's place in San Antonio. Although we had just finished 11 days of railfanning in California, we planned doing some more in Texas, weather permitting. The train departed a couple minutes after 2:30 PM, but that didn't matter. Although we were often crawling through the LA suburbs, we soon were ahead of schedule, pulling into the Palm Springs station minutes early. The smokers on this train were quite delighted. They would end up getting way more smoke stops than scheduled. There was enough light to watch the Salton Sea pass by us. This is the first time I've rode that train where this has happened. We arrived in Yuma about 20 minutes early. Another smoke stop.

Now for this year's comments about Amtrak's pricing of food. First, a surprise. The cost of a 12 ounce can of soda pop was $1.75, a quarter cheaper than it had been on my trip west. Having been in California a month I now looked at Amtrak's prices as being similar, albeit somewhat higher, than a similar meal in a California restaurant. Not that the portions were as big or perhaps the food even as good as in a restaurant, but the pricing was somewhat similar. Admittedly, California restaurant prices are higher than most folks in the Midwest and South are likely to find in their local restaurants.

This realization didn't enticed me into the diner. I still am not interested in eating much while riding a train. Some snacks I brought on board with me, bottles of diet Coke, and something from the Lounge car at night sufficed. If I felt I needed something else during the day a cup of noodles did just fine. At $2.25 it's still a relatively good deal. Likewise, cereal and milk for breakfast at $2.15 is also a relatively good value as you get two small cartons of milk with the cereal. On this ride I dined on breakfast bars I had with me.

At this time of the year it is dark way before reaching Yuma. So what makes or breaks this trip in January is the people you meet. There were many interesting people aboard this train, including a cousin of Oprah Winfrey. She has a 13 year old son who is learning various magic tricks. He showed us his prowress with some card tricks as well as by levitating himself off the floor. There was a fellow who detrained at Yuma who acted as a tour guide about what we were passing in the dark as we approached that town. He certainly made the darkness more interesting.

Amtrak wasn't going to help in this regard. Its policy of leaving on so many lights in the observation portion of the obsy/louunge car precludes seeing much of anything from it at night. On this train the lounge attendant closed down the lounge portion of the car when he retired for the night, at least an hour sooner than the lounge closes on most other long distance Amtrak trains. By this time there was a lively discussion going on about topics so important that I now have no idea what they were. We resumed our diatribe in the obsy portion of the car. If nothing else, this banter made the night pass quickly.

Dawn found us approaching El Paso. We arrived there about 40 minutes early, which gave us an hour to kill before we headed east at 9:15 AM. Just across the street from the Amtrak station is the BNSF yard. The RR still has a turntable there, but no unit was on it or even near it. Two units were switching in the yard, but there was no easy way to wallk into a position to photo them. I returned to the station, bought a bottle of soda, and got back onto the train. We left on schedule.

You pass two yards as you head east out of town. First, there is the old Southern Pacific (SP) yard. A few minutes later you pass the former Missouri Pacific (MP) yard. I was looking for gray painted former B23-7's that have been turned into remote control units. I didn't see any in a position to photograph.

Then it's into the expansiveness of West Texas. I'm not sure which area looks more windswept - the area around the BNSF line between La Junta and Trinidad or the area along the former SP in West Texas. My usual impression is that any town still standing in West Texas is about ready to blow away. Not surprisingly there is only one stop that the Sunset Ltd. makes in West Texas - Alpine. You reach Alpine after going over Paisanno Pass, where the former Kansas City, Mexico & Orient RR, later a Santa Fe line, also shared the track. I'm not sure if any RR operates it now, but the line going towards Mexico can easily be seen from the right side of the eastbound Sunset Ltd. as the train approaches the summit of the pass.

Alpine is a quaint town and perhaps potentially could provide Amtrak with some business, IF Amtrak did something more than stop at an unstaffed building that I am not even sure has anything inside. There are a series of preserved buildings with a western motif that reportedly were used as props in numerous western movies. These could be a tourist attraction and might even deserve 15 minutes of attention. Amtrak advertises Alpine as "the gateway to Big Bend National Park." Never mind that Texans view Marathon, at which Amtrak doesn't stop, as that gateway. I don't know if you can rent a car in Alpine, but perhaps you can as Texas State University is located there. If not, how can Amtrak say it's a gateway to anywhere? We were once again ahead of time when we arrived.

The next station stop is Del Rio, right across the river from Mexico and about 3 hours west of San Antonio. About 40 minutes or so prior to arrivng in Del Rio you cross the Pecos River high bridge. Most of the time there will be an announcement about crossing this bridge as it's quite a spectacular view looking down at the river. Closer to Del Rio you pass by another large body of water, but you're much closer to the water. Thanks to stopping for awhile out in the middle of nowhere we arrived in Del Rio 15 minutes or so late.

We left Del Rio with the sun still shining, but it was getting towards sunset. East of Del Rio the countryside eventually gets pretty flat. If you could see it, you would find that the scenery has become really ho-hum. So it is no loss to have darkness overtake the train. I tried to determine what town we were passing based on what I remembered either from previous trips on this train or from the times Norm and I had railfanned in the area. I did need to recognize when we passed through Hondo as then I would call Norm to tell him we were about an hour from the San Antonio station stop. We passed Hondo at 8 PM. At that rate we'd pull into San Antonio 20-25 minutes early.

Except that just a few short blocks from the station we stopped and sat for some minutes. I know that a switch has to be manually thrown to allow the train into the station track, but why did it take so long? Of course, we didn't get an answer. When we did finally get to detrain it was almost the regularly scheduled arrival time of 9:25 PM.

The San Antonio Amtrak station is one of the most user-hostile on the system.. There is no long term parking. Parking for people picking up or dropping off passengers is at a premium. Recent changes have made parking even worse. Norm was there to pick me up, but he soon had two cars behind him. Once I got my checked bag (this, too, took more time to get than it should have) he had to drive along the station platform and pass on the trackside of the old SP station (now a museum, I think) to escape. So ended this train trip. I still didn't know how I was going to get home.

The next day we would begin railfanning in Texas.

Riding the "Texas Eagle"

Saturday morning Feb 20, I boarded Amtrak #22, the Texas Eagle, at San Antonio for the trip to Chicago. Like on the Sunset Ltd., there was assigned seating, the first time I had experienced this on this train. Not having gotten a seat assignment inside the station I once again got an assigned seat from the crewman assigned to the coach in which I would be riding.

The train's 7 AM departure time doesn't thrill me, but I don't ride the train often enough for it to be bothersome. Besides, it's always interesting to see how the train will be routed. As you may know, UP uses the former Missouri Kansas Texas RR's (MKT or "Katy") San Antonio mainline as track #2 and uses the former Missouri Pacific (MP) mainline as track #1. The Amtrak station in San Antonio is located along the former Southern Pacific (SP) mainline. This makes getting the Texas Eagle to and from this station slow and time consuming. On the inbound trip #21 normally uses the xMP line into town. The train heads south and then turns left at a junction that last I knew had a 10 mph speed limit on it. Then it goes east on the xSP mainline. After a couple switches are properly aligned it goes into the Amtrak station (at that point the track actually is oriented north-south so the train faces north). If #22 uses its usual route it must first back out of the station and then back down a couple miles to the xSP connection with the former Katy. Then it heads north onto #2 main.

The station stop at San Marcos is on the xMP track. There are 3 points regularly used by UP to cross trains from one main track to the other. They are at Ogden, Conrads/Jude, and South San Marcos (UP Jct.). I've not seen #22 use this last option. Every time I've been on the train we either switched over at Ogden or Conrads (Jude is where a train can go from the xMP to the xMKT). On this trip we switched over to the xMP at Ogden. This was advantageous as I got to see how many locomotives the Cemex cement plant south of New Braunfels still has besides its new GEVO. I saw 3 rebuilt geeps and at least 2 EMD switchers.

The Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Ft. Worth/Dallas is a case of the slows. It is roughly 270-275 miles between San Antonio and both Ft. Worth and Dallas via I-35 (the road breaks into I-35W and I-35E south of those cities in what looks like a "Y" on a map. With a speed limit on that road of 65-75 mph, a trip between San Antonio and either of those towns can take under 4 hours. Of course, time of day and weather can cause this time to vary, especially if you hit Austin during a rush hour period. Stopping for gas, food, or whatever will also add time, but most likely the trip will be made in no more than 5 hours.

Now, for the train. The distance between San Antonio and San Marcos is 52 miles. It takes the northbound Texas Eagle 92 minutes until the train should depart San Marcos. About the first 15 minutes of this scheduled time is consumed by the backup maneuver out of the San Antonio station. San Marcos to Austin is 30 miles and takes the train 59 minutes until it's due to depart. Austin is a smoking stop and where the dining car crew gets on so a few extra minutes get consumed while these things are going on. So, it moves along at a speed greater than the roughly 30 mph the schedule implies.

Austin to Taylor is another 35 miles. Amtrak allows #22 51 minutes before it's scheduled to depart from there. That's roughly 42 mph. The run from Taylor to Temple is a bit slower, around 36 mph. It's 38 miles for which 63 minutes are alloted before departure there. Again, Temple is a smoke stop so about 5 minutes is spent on the ground in addition to the time needed to get passengers on and off the train. I think this portion of the run has a track speed of 50 mph.

So far #22 has been on UP track. At Temple it gains the BNSF mainline to Ft. Worth. Speed picks up. Between Temple and McGregor the train covers the 25 miles in 26 minutes, about 58 mph. From McGregor to Cleburne is 75 miles which is scheduled to be done in 69 minutes. That's roughly 64 mph. However, from Cleburne to Ft. Worth #22 is slated to cover those additional 28 miles in 58 minutes, not quite 30 mph. Admittedly, getting through Tower 55's control zone is slow.

Then it's back onto the UP for the "romp" to Dallas. The distance is 31 miles, and it is covered in an hour by the schedule. Again, part of this time is consumed by backing out of the Ft. Worth Transportation Center [Amtrak, Trinity Rail Express (TRE) commuter trains, and buses]. Thus, on #22 the scheduled elapse time between San Antonio and Ft. Worth is just about 7 hours ( 6 hours, 58 minutes). Add another hour and 22 minutes to get to Dallas for a total scheduled elapse time of 8 hours and 20 minutes.

Finally, east of Dallas the Texas Eagle gets onto faster track on its way to St. Louis. The point I'm trying to make is that the Texas Eagle shouldn't even be running between San Antonio and Dallas/Ft. Worth. This should be the work of buses which can cut off elapsed time and serve Waco as well. What RR stations wouldn't be served by the bus(es)? Taylor and McGregor, the two smallest and least busy stops on the route. Currently, McGregor serves as the Waco stop, but doesn't serve it well.

Even with this slow schedule the day I rode #22 we pulled into Taylor 25 minutes late thanks to extensive UP track work and slow orders around San Marcos. Usually, time can be made up on BNSF, but not this time. It, too, was doing track work and had its own set of slow orders. I assume the slow orders were due to all the rain the state has had. There was standing water almost everywhere.

We arrived at Ft. Worth 45 minutes late. The station stops at both Ft. Worth and Dallas were done in a bit less time than allocated in the schedule, but I still had time to photo #21 in Ft. Worth with a P42/B32-8W combo for power along with the Heartland Flyer with its P42 and a BNSF freight with one of its CW44-9's and a Ferromex GEVO for power. In Dallas, I had enough time to photo a TREcommuter train with an old style F59 pulling into the station. We left Dallas only 10 minutes late.

We were on time into Mineola and were ahead of schedule heading to Longview when all of a sudden the train quickly decelerated. I was walking towards the obsy/lounge car at the time and never have I walked so fast as when that train was slowing down. The conductor told us that they had to stop to inspect the train. At first I thought we tripped a hotbox detector, but when we got going again after 7 minutes I knew something else was the problem. Turned out some kids had put debris on the track, and when our train hit it knocked some sort of detector out of kilter on the locomotive (only one P42 on our train). We still pulled into Longview on time.

We arrived way ahead of schedule at Marshall, TX. It's a engine crew change point, but for whatever reason is not a smoke stop. This did involve backing up the train a bit, but after all the work was done there was still over 30 minutes to wait before the scheduled departure time of 7:31 PM. Perhaps Amtak and UP don't want passengers getting off and wandering around the beautifully preserved old station building. It looks like one room of it is used by Amtrak. Otherwise, the building was dark. So, we sat there.

The Amtrak national time table shows that Hope, AR is being added as a stop, but as of now it isn't. The train went speeding through town until it reached its next stop at Arkedelphia. We were still a few minutes early upon arrival and stayed ahead of schedule all the way to St. Louis.

We arrived in a rainy St. Louis at 6:30 AM, about 50 minutes early. That gave me plenty of time to check out the new transportation center. This was the first time I had been there since the place opened. It takes a few minutes to get into the station proper from trackside as you have to go up and over any other tracks and then down into the station itself. There is a deli there ("Arch Deli" I think is the name) as well as a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Express. However, only the deli was open. Its prices were similar to those found in the lounge car on the train. No savings there. The other two places are open only between 11 AM and 8 PM, so they don't compete with #22 for food choices.

It didn't matter, Arriving in St. Louis allowed me to do something I usually don't do on this train - have breakfast in the dining car. To reiterate, the cost of a breakfast meal in the diner is similar to what a similar meal could cost in a California restaurant. The difference is that in a restaurant the portions are much larger. To me, this makes having breakfast in the dining car more appealing as I find most meals in restaurants are way too large and therefore too caloric. For $6 I had scrambled eggs, potatoes, a biscuit, and milk (refill or refills available). I would have had the French Toast for $7.50, but there was no fruit topping available. I find this is usually the case. I assume Amtrak considers it too expensive to redo its menus to remove this option. Or, maybe now and then fruit topping is available.

Usually I get off the train in St. Louis to try taking train photos. With it raining I didn't bother. Also, I watch for train traffic after we depart from St. Louis and go over the MacArthur bridge into East St. Louis, IL and on to Alton. Since I finished breakfast before we departed I was still able to do this. Usually, by the time we reach Alton, IL, the diner has stopped serving breakfast so I normally go to the lounge for something to eat. I didn't have to do that this time.

The weather was so dingy that I didn't even think about trying to take any photos from the train. Things of interest I saw were a TRRA freight with 3 of its xUP GP38's, a former Chicago, Madison & Northern (I think) EMD switcher at the Redondak (short line operator) facility near Wood River, and at that same point near Wood River lines of stored HLCX SD40's.

The trip through Illinois after leaving Alton was as usual uneventful. The state is paying to turn this route into a 90 mph RR before it improves the line to handle even higher speeds. I assume that's one reason UP is putting in a new TOFC facility just south of Joliet along this line. The place is just starting to be constructed. RIght now UP uses the line for just a few freight trains. We passed a couple UP locals along the way as well as a couple other Amtrak trains running with Illinois sponsorship. We arrived at Joliet about 12:30 PM, close to 25 minutes early.

From Joliet into Chicago Amtrak uses the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio RR (GM&O) mainline, now owned by Canadian National(CN). This is kind of an odd stretch of CN trackage as it ends just south of Joliet at the Commonwealth Edison power plant. There is enough on-line traffic between Chicago and the Joliet area that the Illinois Central Gulf [later renamed once more to Illinois Central(IC)] decided to retain this stretch of the track when it was selling off so much of the rest of the GM&O as well as lots of the former IC. METRA also uses it for some commuter trains to Joliet, making Joliet the only METRA end point with two commuter lines [the other is the old Rock Island RR line].

So, this trackage is still fast and part of the route upgrade currently going on. As a result we were in Union Station in Chicago about 1:30 PM, still 25 minutes or so ahead of schedule. This just meant I had even more time to wait before the departure of Amtrak #30, the Captial Ltd. I'll finish things up in the next chapter with a description of the ride on the Capital Ltd.

Back to DC on the "Capital Ltd."

Having over 4 hours to kill in Chicago Union Station (CUS) gave me more than enough time to go to the food court to get some "bourbon chicken" before boarding the train. Even on Sunday most places serving food and both bars in CUS were open, although the bar upstairs by the food court was using only the top level rather than all 3 levels as is typical on a weekday.

I had checked a bag from San Antonio to Chicago. I didn't check it all the way through to DC because I didn't want to wait for a bag to be brought into that station in case we were late. I asked the baggage attendent how long I could leave my bag before reclaiming it. I had hoped I wouldn't have to drag it around with me while I got something to eat. He said, "Not long." They view any bag not immediately claimed as possibly containing a bomb. So, I picked it up shortly after it arrived and dragged it around. It took at least 20 minutes to get from the train into the baggage claim area.

I also found a soda dispensing machine that had 20 ounce bottles of diet cola for $1.75 rather than the usual rate of $2.00 at other places in CUS. It's located between the south side train platforms and the Great Hall. I wonder how long this will last? I needed to supplement the sodas I had brought with me on the Texas Eagle. I still had three left, but I figured I'd likely need a 4th. I was hoping to find a caffeine free diet cola, but just like on the train, this wasn't possible. I will drink the caffeine laced stuff as I've been told that if I am having a mild asthma attack the caffeine helps diminish its effects. I've also been that told most asthma medicines contain caffeine. I've also been admonished by a nurse not to drink that much soda that has caffeine in it.

So, generally before I board an Amtrak train I try to have some diet caffeine free colas with me. The only caffeine free soda I've seen on the train is sugar ladened Sprite. The last thing most people need is more sugar. Alas, most snacks sold in an Amtrak lounge car are loaded with refined sugar. That's another reason to bring some of your own food choices on board with you.

It was finally time to board Amtrak #30. This time being a senior worked against me as it was a case of the "early passenger gets the cram." As is usual on this train there was assigned seating. Well, the crew gave seniors consecutive seats in the front of the coach closest to the obsy/lounge car. First they doled out the window seats and then the aisle seats. The car ended up being packed. A 240 pound (or more) fellow was in the aisle seat next to me. I hardly had room to move. Sleeping there turned out to be impossibe so I spent the night in the observation car. Meanwhile, the rear coach was seldom more than half full at any time during the trip.

It was snowing as we departed CUS. After the relatively slow trip on the Texas Eagle, it was fun to feel the Capital Ltd. speed along at roughly 80 mph. I had hoped to see most of the city area night lights in the obsy. Alas, once again my position close to the front of the coach worked against me as the conductor started at the rear of the last coach and worked forward. By the time she collected my ticket we were already nearing Gary, IN.

For a trip on #30 it was on the quiet side. Very few people were in the obsy/lounge car. You never know from trip to trip what's going to happen. After last year's ride in which one passenger was kicked off for being drunk and obnoxious this ride was a pleasant change. It made staying in the obsy car that night doable. There were only two other passengers who elected to stay there rather than return to what was a stuffy coach seat. Often the obsy area is full of overnight sleepers unless they are rousted by Amtrak personnel.

Next morning I was awake before reaching Pittsburgh. A train attendant had nudged me to make sure I wasn't getting off there. As stated, sometimes Amtrak personnel roust you from the obsy car. Perhaps they understood that the Washington coach was so crowded that they didn't bother. If nothing else it let the guy sitting next to me in the coach get a better night's sleep. I got a little sleep, which was all, as it turned out, that I needed.

As I was once again up early I had breakfast in the diner. Again I asked about fruit topping for the French toast, and again the answer was that there was none. So, once again, the scrambled eggs, potatoes, biscuit, and milk. However, when my food arrived there was a croissant rather than a biscuit. The woman in charge got me a biscuit and let me also have the croissant. As I really like both, it was a treat. She really made the dining experience pleasant, and not just for me, but it seemed like for everyone who was in the diner. For example, a woman across from me saw that I got a "free croissant" and asked for one herself. The woman in charge gave her one. Later we were told the lady who asked for the free croissant had also ordered a child's meal. They served it to her. Again the head waitress told us they don't question a passenger's menu choice.

We passed a number of freight trains as we went over Sandpatch. The only train with helpers that I noticed was an eastbound coal train. At Glencoe we passed workers still busy cleaning up that coal train derailment from at least a week earlier. I took some photos of it from the rear of the train. I was surprised by how much work remained to be done. We arrived in Cumberland about 25 minutes late.

As we went through Green Spring, WV we passed two freights. An eastbound autorack train was on the scale track. Is CSX weighing autorack trains now? I assume it was over there to let us around as there was a westbound on the other main track.

We remained about 25 minutes behind schedule through the stop at Harpers Ferry. I noted where the overhang had been ripped off the Point of Rocks station. Personally, I think it looks better without it. We picked up a little time before reaching Rockville and eventually arrived into DC Union Station earlier than the scheduled arrival time. I quickly walked to Metro, and within a half hour I was at the Greenbelt Metrorail station where my wife picked me up.

One final note. I was shocked by how many trees had been either totally or partially destroyed by the snowstorms of earlier February. The main road into Old Greenbelt looked like a war zone with downed trees and tree limbs still everywhere but on the road itself. This was a couple weeks after the storms. Cleanup began a few days later. Cleanup around here is still going on. Tree limbs were being picked up today on the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center north of where I live. I'm glad I missed the storms, but I now better understand why my wife was glad to see me get home.

And so ends my trip report about this year's winter migration.

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