Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Week on Amtrak and the Grand Canyon Railway in 1990

On Saturday, March 31, 1990, two friends, Rick and Phil Moser, and I began a week long Amtrak trip. For me there were three main interests in making this trip:
  • It would fill in a number of routes that I had never ridden.
  • It was a chance to spend time with some friends who live elsewhere.
  • It was a chance to ride the new Grand Canyon Railway.
The Southwest Chief pulled out of Chicago's Union Station at 5pm sharp. I settled into my economy room across the hall from one of my friends in the rearmost sleeper and watched as we rolled past the Amtrak Chicago maintenance facility. After the conductor took our tickets and the On Board Services Chief gave us our meal vouchers we headed for the lounge car for a cocktail before dinner. Dinner in the diner followed, with an expanded menu from my last Amtrak trip. The choices included a chicken dish, a seafood dish, a chef's special (often shortribs or lamb/pork kabobs), a vegetarian dish (usually lasagna), and a steak, or roast beef. Every meal I had was tasty and properly cooked with the exception of the steak which they never can get rare for some reason.

Not our menu (check out the prices!)
After dinner it was back to our rooms to watch the moonlit Illinois scenery. Then an evening drink in the lounge...which we quickly took back to our rooms...the movie that they were showing in the lounge made it impossible to talk. Then to bed. I slept like a rock. As I did, I recorded the first of my "new" mileage...the Santa Fe line through Topeka. Every time I had taken that train before it had bypassed Topeka. When I woke up we were around Garden City, Kansas and an hour late because of the change to daylight savings time.

Breakfast was an interesting experience. A companion and I both ordered corn flakes for breakfast and when they came we were amazed that the portions were so small. I had earlier noticed that they were using portion controlled servings. While I ate I noticed the waiter making up another order for another table and lo-and-behold he was splitting one of these portions between two bowls. Later on I complained about this to the On Board Service's Chief who talked to the steward who came back and told us we mistaken. (Subsequently another On Board Service's Chief told us that the steward and waiter were probably stealing...they'd pocket the cash from someone else's cash order).

The Southwest Chief
Going through Raton pass, one of the units died, so we crept along quite slowly, but made the hill...but not without turning off HEP to avoid a power drain. The second unit was eventually restarted and we were only a few minutes late out of Albuquerque, and virtually on-time into Winslow, Arizona. This was the high point of the trip (for stupidity). The Amtrak computer's had not dealt very well with the time change when it came to Arizona (the time does not change there). As a result, tickets issued for departure on April 1 within Arizona, had the wrong time printed on them, and our conductor decided that we could not leave the station until that time. So we sat in Winslow for nearly an hour (while other members of the crew tried to convince the conductor that he was wrong to wait). Anyway, we finally reached Flagstaff, rented a car, checked into a motel and went to sleep.

The Grand Canyon Railway
Early the next morning we drove the 30 or so miles to Williams where we went to the station of the Grand Canyon Railway. There we picked up our tickets (ordered well in advance) for the 10:00 trip to the Grand Canyon. The train consisted of a steam locomotive (I don't care enough about steam to have noticed what kind), and three Harriman coaches that I probably commuted in when I lived in the Bay Area. The coaches had been refurbished quite nicely and the whole operation was quite professional. This train, too, left right on time with 250 or so passengers, and headed through some interesting scenery. During the trip, car attendants (two per car) gave us bottles of Coke (in 6.5 oz bottles!) and cheese and cracker snacks. For part of the trip we were serenaded by a "cowboy" with a guitar. (Even though I am indifferent to steam, I would have preferred to hear the steam locomotive!) Arrival at the Grand Canyon, was about 2.5 hours later, and a quick walk up some stairs brought us to the El Tovar Hotel (where we had lunch overlooking the Canyon) and the south rim of the Canyon itself. If you've never been there, go. The Grand Canyon is indescribable. Four hours later we boarded for the return trip, and about 7pm pulled into the Williams station. Of course, this was more new mileage for me.

Part of our route including the Grand Canyon Railway
Then it was back to Flagstaff, a quick shower, and a MacDonald's salad, before getting on the Southwest Chief for the trip to LA. The car attendant made up our rooms while we had a drink in the lounge, and by the time he came to get us, we were ready to go to sleep. After a rough night (the only night I had trouble sleeping) I awoke just before we pulled into the Pasadena station (the train still took the old route then. Now much of the right of way from LA to Pasadena and beyond is the MetroLink gold line), and was ready to get off by the time we reached LAUPT. After breakfast at the station (alas, we did not know about Philippes at that point), and a quick walk around part of downtown LA, we boarded the Coast Starlight for the trip to Seattle. We were to be met by a friend who works for the SP at San Jose, so he could have dinner with us to Oakland where he would get off. Unfortunately he didn't show up so we dined alone. The Starlight also provided me with new mileage including the East Valley line from Roseville to Tehama, and Vancouver to Seattle. We were two hours late into Seattle, because of slow running up the coast and a medical emergency. Just south of Tacoma someone fell down the stairs in the lounge car and knocked himself out. An ambulance was summoned and he was removed from the train. We have no idea what happened to him.

In Seattle we checked into another motel and had a short night's sleep. The Pioneer left at 6am. This is a short little train to Salt Lake where it joins the California Zephyr and the Desert Wind to become a huge train. The train out of Seattle consisted of a diner, two coaches and a sleeper (all Superliner of course). The trip to Salt Lake was a wonderful trip, complete with new mileage for me (Portland to Salt Lake), and great scenery. It was only marred by an idiotic UP dispatcher who (according to our crew) deliberately repeatedly stabbed us for freights. In spite of being almost an hour late by the time I went to bed, we were nearly on time into Ogden, only to be put behind a coal train making us an hour late into Salt Lake.

The combined train left Salt Lake roughly an hour late with 16 cars! 4 baggage cars, a hi-level coach dorm, three sleepers, 6 coaches, a diner and a Superliner lounge. We immediately stopped because of a signal problem on the Rio Grande and all at once were an hour and 40 late. Extensive track work on the Grande caused us to be three hours late by the time we reached Glenwood Springs. On the radio we learned that the train would be picking up 400 skiers at Fraser (Winter Park). Sure enough, the train pulled into Fraser and there was a mob waiting. An hour later (it takes a while to put that many people and skis on a train) our nice quiet train had been turned into a madhouse. The skiers were mostly high school kids on spring break, and they behaved as such. Luckily, we were in the last sleeper and could barricade the doors against their incursions.

The next morning it was the dining car crew that suffered. We had decided to have breakfast and lunch at the last call since the train was likely to be at least three hours late into Chicago, and wouldn't be serving dinner. Around 8am the PA system announced that they were on reservation number 12 for breakfast. Around 9am it announced that reservations for breakfast would be taken for the next 5 minutes, so one of us when to get one and came back with number 98, just as they were calling number 33. About 10am we decided it was stupid to wait any longer and sent our porter for breakfast which we enjoyed in the privacy of our rooms. They eventually stopped serving breakfast at 12:30pm! Then they announced that they wouldn't start serving lunch until 2:30pm (I wonder why?) About 1pm, the On Board Services' Chief announced that Amtrak would be providing free Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners when the train arrived at Galesburg (actually, they put on 300 at Burlington, Iowa, and 280 at Galesburg). This significantly cut the crowd for lunch (which for non-sleeping car passengers cost real money). So we were able to enjoy a final meal in the diner without much trouble. (The crew did not look as happy as it had the previous day!) Anyway, the train backed into Chicago Union Station at 8:45pm on the Saturday following my departure, less than 4 and one half hours late.

Some observations about the trip:
  • The crews (with the exception of the potentially thieving dining car crew on the Southwest Chief) were consistently first rate. It is easy to rank them, but the differences are marginal. (From best to "worst": the Pioneer from Seattle to Salt Lake, the Coast Starlight, the Pioneer/Desert Wind/Zephyr from Salt Lake to Chicago, and the Southwest Chief). This is a big difference from my last major trip of a few years ago where the crew performance was really spotty (Chicago to Sparks on the Zephyr, Stockton to LA on the San Joaquin, LA to Chicago on the Eagle).
  • The scenic highlight of the trip is the D&RGW east of Grand Junction. Other first rate scenic portions included: the Southwest Chief between Trinidad and Lamy, the Grand Canyon Railway as it got near the Canyon, the Coast Starlight along the Pacific ocean, the Coast Starlight through the Cascades, the Coast Starlight and Pioneer along Puget Sound (with a great view of Mount Rainer), the Pioneer along the Columbia River, and the Pioneer/Wind/Zephyr climbing Soldier's Summit on the D&RGW.
  • The Superliner equipment is showing its age, perhaps due to not enough opportunity for maintenance. Amtrak really needs to get more Superliners so it can rotate them out of service for good overhauls more frequently. In one of my rooms a bolt was missing on the seat so it had to be proped up by a stack of Amtrak Express magazines. On the otherhand, another had been recently outshopped, had the latest retrofits, and was tight as a drum (hardly any rattles). (By the way, the latest retrofits include: an upstairs washroom, a public shower downstairs, and oversized upper berths in Deluxe Bedrooms.)
All and all a great trip.

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