AMTRAK SOUTHWEST TRIP/SPRING 1984

This article originally appeared in the August 1984 issue of THE FAST MAIL, publication of the 20th Century Railroad Club. Some information in the article has since changed.


Question: If the one-way Amtrak coach fare between Chicago and San Francisco is $229, what is the round trip fare? The answer is $225, four dollars less, and that includes stopovers in Houston and Los Angeles. This spring I took such a trip which, by planning it around the conditions of Amtrak's All Aboard America fare, enabled great savings. In the April issue of THE FAST MAIL I described another trip for which I used the fare, which for $225 permits up to three stopovers in two regions within thirty days, subject to availability of limited reserved seating.

The first leg of the trip was from Chicago to San Antonio via #21, the Eagle, leaving Chicago Friday, March 30. I was last in Texas in 1977, going there on the old Lone Star and returning on what was then the Inter American. Because the Inter American was the worst train I ever rode, I was disappointed when in 1979 Amtrak instead gave the Lone Star the axe. Because Missouri Pacific no longer holds Amtrak to freight speed limits, I figured that the train deserved another chance. If there was no improvement, at least the worst train would be out of the way first.

The Eagle starts out on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which I had last ridden in 1978. I was amazed at how much the Illinois Central Gulf track has deteriorated. The track is still good for 79 mph, but with no welded rail the ride is rough. The ride reminded me of ICG's 90 mph line south of Champaign, where the ride is fast but not necessarily smooth.

South of Springfield #21 entered an emergency brake application, and the smell of oil entered the car. The train hit some debris on the track, breaking an air hose and puncturing a fuel tank. We dripped fuel into St. Louis where MP eventually provided a freight locomotive. We left St. Louis over three hours late, and because of the slower freight locomotive arrived at San Antonio more than five hours late on April Fool's Day. Despite the delays, the Eagle was a slight improvement over the 1977 Inter American.

I was in the through coach to Los Angeles, which normally has its seats turned in San Antonio. Because of the lateness, the seats were turned before arriving. The reason for turning the seats has to do with the route the Eagle uses to reach the Southern Pacific station, just east of downtown San Antonio. The MP line passes west of downtown, with the Inter American formerly stopping there with a bus connection to the SP station. Now with service to Laredo discontinued, the Eagle diverts to a SP branch line which passes south of downtown towards the SP station.

I stayed with relatives in San Antonio for the next few days. The bus system there has recently changed its name to VIA,'' with a logo similar to that of the Canadian passenger system. Hopefully this new "VIA" image can attract more passengers in a typically overautomobilized Sun Belt city.

On Wednesday, April 4, I took a Trailways bus east to Houston, another overautomobilized city. What had been perhaps the most neglected transit system in the county is just now starting to expand. For example, a bus lane now is under construction for the west side's Katy Freeway, which is named for the paralleling railroad.

I was glad to get out of Houston that night on #1, the Sunset Limited. The consist was surprisingly short at six cars powered by two P30CH's. The diner also served as the lounge until San Antonio, where the four Eagle cars were added. Among the cars from Chicago was an ex-Santa Fe high level lounge.

Somewhere east of El Paso

I woke up in western Texas, which has interesting if not spectacular scenery. Hardly anyone lives there which is why Amtrak wants to switch to the Texas and Pacific line through Dallas. The area west of El Paso is even more barren, but New Mexico leaves Amtrak with little choice for routes.

The heavy freight volume on the single track CTC line west of El Paso resulted in some delays for #1. Additionally, a freight locomotive was added somewhere for some reason, but still we made up time and arrived Los Angeles five minutes early. With Alhambra no longer a stop, the train used an alternate line via the San Bernardino Freeway median strip between El Monte and Los Angeles. Also utilizing part of the median strip is a busway, enabling the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) to live up to its name somewhat.

The RTD provides extensive bus service in Los Angeles County, but the area is huge, and it takes too long to get anywhere. Fortunately, rail transit may become a reality by the end of the decade with a line from downtown to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. A sign outside of Union Station marks one proposed station site.

On Sunday, April 8, I made a round trip to San Diego. I bought a separate ticket for this trip because of the All Aboard fare restrictions. As Amtrak #574 sped past Hobart Yard in Los Angeles on well maintained track, I began thinking that there is no railroad like the Santa Fe. I could look forward to riding #4 back to Chicago in a week. At Fullerton, the freight route to San Bernardino diverges from the San Diego route. The train soon stops at the new station next to Anaheim Stadium. South of Santa Ana, the Automatic Train Stop system and a straight route permit 90 mph operation over the next 20 miles. The jointed rail was well maintained for a smooth run.

The route joins the ocean at San Juan Capistrano, and at San Clemente #574 makes a stop for the people spending the day at the beach. Oceanside has a new station, and at Del Mar the route leaves the ocean before ending at San Diego.

From the station in San Diego, I rode the San Diego Trolley. DuWag of West Germany built the red articulated LRVs which travel 16 miles to the Mexican border. Except for street running in downtown San Diego, this new light rail line utilizes a right of way acquired from SP. The ex-SP portion has a European style catenary system, with the contact wire in a zig-zag between catenary poles to avoid wearing a nick in one spot on a pantograph. Also in the European tradition, an honor fare system is used.

I spent about a half hour in Tijuana, Mexico. Tijuana was worth a short visit, but its shabbiness made me glad to return to our country, where I rode the trolley back to the Santa Fe station. There I boarded #581 to return to Los Angeles. Near Oceanside the brakes went into emergency, except this time there was no smell of oil as on #21. An air hose was busted courtesy of someone who placed a surf board on the track, and after a short delay we were moving again.

With its seven trains a day, the San Diego corridor is unquestionably the most promising corridor outside the Northeast. The Santa Fe runs the corridor well, with single track CTC meets well timed. Still, the proposed Japanese style line would be an improvement.

On Wednesday, April 11, I left Los Angeles for the Bay area on #14. After passing by the industries of the San Fernando Valley, the train suddenly passed through three tunnels in the Santa Susana Mountains before entering the Simi Valley.

In the Santa Susana Mountains

North of Oxnard, #14 hit a tree stump in the track, and we were delayed a half hour while repairs were made. This would be the third and last time that I would be on a train which hit something. Soon after we got going again, the route joined the ocean which we ran next to, almost to San Luis Obispo.

Along the Pacific Ocean, north of Santa Barbara

North of San Luis Obispo are 2% grades which take us over mountains to Santa Margarita. There the train enters the valley of the Salinas River, which it follows for some distance. Soon it got dark, and I had dinner before arriving in San Jose 100 minutes late. I then caught an SP commuter train to Palo Alto, where I stayed overnight.

The mountains near San Luis Obispo

I made it to San Francisco the next day, staying in Berkeley the next two nights. The San Francisco Muni is a great transit system just to ride around on, with LRVs, trolleybuses, and, of course, the cable cars. The cars were scheduled to return in June following a 21-month renovation. I rode the cars in September, 1982, just before the renovation began.

I left the Bay area on Saturday, April 14, riding the BART train to Richmond where I boarded a four-car #708, the San Joaquin. At Port Chicago, East of Martinez, the train switches to the Santa Fe. After passing the industries of Pittsburg and Antioch, #708 stopped at Stockton, where the train became standing room only. South of Stockton is the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most boring parts of California. The flat farming areas with no visible hills looked more like the Midwest.

Hills become visible again near Bakersfield. The most direct path between Bakersfield and Los Angeles is over the 4000-foot Tejon Pass. Because no railroad goes over Tejon's 5% grades, Caltrans, sponsor of the Section 403B service, opted instead to subsidize a bus connection south of Bakersfield. Most of the through passengers rode in three chartered buses, while I was assigned to one of two ten-passenger vans also making the run. A strange way to ride Amtrak, but Tejon is the most scenic part of the San Joaquin route if one ignores the eight lanes of I-5.

The vans at Los Angeles Union Station

At Los Angeles I had a few hours before boarding #4, the Southwest Limited, which constituted a direct connection according to the All Board fare restrictions. Although not the Super Chief of the past, at least #4 still had the Santa Fe. Thus, I was looking forward to concluding the trip with this train. Except #4's departure was contingent on the arrival of #11 from Seattle via SP, Santa Fe's merger partner. Southern Pacific's attitude towards passenger trains makes the merger seem lik a mixture of oil and water. Departure of #4 was nearly an hour late because of #11's tardiness.

After dinner on the train I went into the sightseer lounge for the ride over Cajon Pass before San Bernardino and Barstow. Santa Fe has made improvements in the pass in recent years. The speed at which we handled the pass reminded me of railroading through the Swiss Alps. It was dark outside, but still I was able to appreciate Cajon by train more than I did Tejon by van. Soon it was time to sleep.

The next morning was speeding through the rolling area in Arizona and New Mexico, near the Continental Divide. We were only five minutes late at Albuquerque, where in the Santa Fe tradition the windows were cleaned by a washer truck driving along the platform.

Somewhere near Gallup, New Mexico

The route was somewhat more rugged east of Albuquerque, with a canyon between Lamy and Las Vegas. Then a plateau before Raton, south of the Raton Pass. This pass is the most rugged portion of the route, with 20 mph operation over the 3% grades. There were still patches of snow on the ground as we ascended to the summit, which is at the state line with Colorado. Santa Fe has left big signs along the right of way at various locations, calling to the attention of train passengers various points of interest. Such signs outside the tunnel at the Raton summit mention that at 7588 Feet, this is the highest point on the Santa Fe. Imagine SP erecting such a sign for California Zephyr passengers at the Donner summit.

#4 rounds a curve near Lamy, New Mexico

It was getting dark as #4 descended the pass into Trinidad. East of Trinidad the route was flatter, which is typical of eastern Colorado. After a final New York strip steak dinner, I headed for the lounge car and its long line for booze. Twenty minutes east of Lamar is the Kansas state line, which means the end of alcohol sales. I stocked up for the run to Garden City, which has a start-to-stop scheduled speed of 82 mph, making it Amtrak's fastest diesel run. Because of proposed switch of Amtrak to the former San Francisco Chief route through Amarillo, it was nice to ride this route while it was still the fastest.

The rest of the trip was routine. Because the train now serves Topeka over a route formerly covered by the Lone Star, the trip now takes a little longer. Still we arrived in Chicago at 2:35 pm, 25 minutes early, which was a good way to end a long trip. After two weeks and over 6000 miles, it was nice to be back in Chicago.

Looking back, the Eagle was again the worst performer and a good train to get out of the way first. But it was on the ICG where #21 hit the debris, and I witnessed similar incidents on two other railroads. As I had hoped, I saved the best for the last with the Southwest Limited. Overall, it was an economical trip with Amtrak fares of $259, including $34 for the round trip to San Diego. In the November 1983 issue of Passenger Train Journal, Den Adler describes a 16,000 mile trip which he took using the All Aboard fare. While I am not that ambitious, it just goes to show that if one plans an Amtrak trip around the conditions of the All Aboard fare, he can do a lot of train riding at a low price.