Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Steaming our way to the 1992 Republican Convention

The 2016 Republican Convention has just gotten underway so it seems to be an appropriate time to post this article about traveling behind steam to the 1992 Republican Convention. 1992 was a great year for steam excursions behind Union Pacific Challenger 3985. I was lucky enough to participate in three of them. The first article about these trips described a run from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The third, about a run from Little Rock back to Kansas City after the convention will be the subject of a future article.

In the previous article, I wrote a somewhat negative report of my trip between San Jose and Denver in July 1992. The negativeness was mostly the result of a disastrous Amtrak segment (a 7 hour late #26), and over assertive people in some of the sponsoring organizations. On the balance, though, I enjoyed the trip and was mostly looking forward to the next leg of my three part visit with the UP 3985 train.

Late afternoon on Monday, August 10th, 1992, I boarded a United Airlines 727 for Chicago where I connected to an identical aircraft for Kansas City. Due to bad weather in the East we were late leaving, and arrived in Kansas City around 9pm. The air and heat outside was oppressive -- about what I expected for Missouri in August. My friend Rick was waiting for me at the gate and we drove over to the Budgetel in North Kansas City.

On August 11, after a restful, but short, night we piled into the car for the trip to the boarding site. This was the Parc Place hotel and shuttle buses took us from there to the train. Although it was at least an hour before departure time, the train was ready for us to board and we quickly found our seats in the Union Pacific coach Texas Eagle. The weather outside was terrific -- a front had gone through during the night and we would be blessed with temperatures 10 to 20 degrees less than normal for the whole trip -- and little rain.

The train left a little late and snaked its way out of Kansas City onto the Missouri Pacific. This first segment was being hosted by the U.P. Historical Society, but staffed by members of Camerail. They did an excellent job of keeping things going smoothly. We soon settled into what would become our daily routine of mostly high speed (60ish) running, with two photo runbys in the morning and two in the afternoon, a public relations stop in a town in the morning, a service stop at mid-day, and another public relations stop in the afternoon, before arriving at our destination for the evening. This first day we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the morning donuts were "on the house". They had brought enough to feed an army of railfans and didn't run out until late in the day. The box lunches were also complimentary and quite good. The only thing we needed to purchase in the food department were soft drinks and good UP popcorn. The location of the photo runbys were almost uniformly poor on all four days of the trip. This probably couldn't be helped given:
  • the terrain
  • Steve Lee's desire to avoid doing runbys where chasers could get to us (e.g. not along side a highway)
  • Someones decision to avoid doing them near towns or grain elevators or... no doubt for safety reasons.
We eventually learned why Steve didn't back up enough and therefore didn't completely runby the crowd. He didn't want to have to bother with the dispatcher in Omaha and call attention to what we were doing. He didn't have to as long as the train didn't exit the block we were in.

The train pulled in more or less on time to Coffeyville, Kansas, where we spent the first night. The shuttles were small, but they efficiently got us to the ex-Best Western Fountain Plaza, easily the worst lodging of the trip. Checkin took forever, but I soon found my room and turned on the TV. I was hoping to watch the Pirates - Mets game on ESPN. Unfortunately, my set wouldn't tune to ESPN (other friends had sets that did). Before settling down in a friend's room to watch the game we went to dinner at a family restaurant across the parking lot. Nothing spectacular, but an ok meal.

The next morning, I volunteered to be the early ariser to pin down seats for our group of 6 in the Texas Eagle. I took the first bus over to the train, and managed to get some of the crew to place my bags on the appropriate seats -- boarding wasn't to be for an hour. While we waited, a UP directors special passed through with some more of the passenger fleet, also enroute to Houston and the Republican Convention. We figure that they made Houston before we left McAllister the next morning. The Wednesday and Thursday segments were sponsored by a coalition of Oklahoma railfan organizations. They did a good job, but weren't as well organized as the other group. On the other hand, their lunches were the best of the lot. Again, a very pleasant day of travel through the Oklahoma countryside. Again, a number of runbys and a service stop.

About a year ago I wrote about my 1990 visit to the St. Louis NRHS convention, where I got throughly eaten by chiggers. This time, thanks partially to some spray that the late Pete Bretz had the foresight to bring along, I was able to avoid being bitten even once! The train arrived early into McAlester, Oklahoma (on the Katy) and we boarded perhaps the most interesting (stupid) shuttle bus scheme I've ever encountered. You've heard of hub and spoke in the airline business? We'll this was a hub and spoke shuttle system. We got on buses which took us to the fairgrounds outside of town. This is where the locals had all parked. The motel vans were to meet us there, but since we were early they weren't ready for us. The upshot is that we wasted an hour standing around the fairgrounds before someone finally found a bus to take us to the motels.

That evening's lodging was at a Comfort Inn, a very nice property. We had dinner next door at the Day's Inn and enjoyed a real good chicken fried steak. The only downer was the smell of chlorine from the indoor pool adjacent. The rest of the evening was spent playing about half a game of Rail Baron before retiring early. Getting to the train the next morning was a lot easier than getting to the motel the night before. Boarding, again, was about 30 minutes before train time, and we left a few minutes late heading for Ft. Worth. An uneventful day (the best kind), highlighted by the intricate maneuver that got us into the T&P station in Ft. Worth. We had Tower 55 tied up for over half an hour and actually heard a Santa Fe freight make a reservation to get through the interlocking! A friend met us at train side and shuttled us to the Worthington Hotel, a nice place with oversized rooms. After a cocktail in the bar, we went across the street to a BBQ place and then back to the hotel to finish the Rail Baron game (which I won for the first time in recent memory). The only downer of the evening was that the hotel was also inhabited by teenage bible students with predictable results. A call to the front desk finally quieted them down at 1:30am, but it made the stay unpleasant.

Not only were we tired from the bible students the night before, but the train was leaving an hour earlier (at 7am) necessitating a 5am wakeup. Our friend was kind enough to shuttle us back to the train at 6am, and we boarded and were underway on time. After additional maneuvering through Tower 55 we were on our way to Houston on the MKT. This day's segment was sponsored by the Gulf Coast NRHS, and they were extremely competent even though they had little experience running such a trip. Things went very smoothly without any of the over assertiveness that characterized the Feather River folks. You could tell the GC people had their act together by the fact that they were extremely disciplined in their use of the radio. Most groups overuse the radio. These guys would say what needed to be said and then shut up! On this day we had three runbys, two of which were excellent (though I only got off for one of them). The last runby was the fastest one of the entire trip (starting in San Jose). I think Steve got her up to 60 during that runby. We had an extended service/PR stop at College Station right between the massive football and baseball stadiums of Texas A&M (on SP tracks). This was the only service stop that they let us off the train during the whole trip. We walked over to see the Amtrak shack (literally) and to get some ice cream at the Circle K. Then we reboarded because it was HOT.

We arrived at Spring Yard, north of Houston, more or less on time, and encountered the only foul up of the day (and it was minor). The shuttle buses were unlabelled as to where they were going (one of three different places) and, worse, the drivers didn't know either. This soon got settled and an hour or so later I was dropped off at Hobby Airport where I caught a shuttle to my hotel. Early the next morning I flew home on a Delta flight thorough CVG.

I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and came home feeling relaxed and rested (in spite of early morning departures).

Part three of this travelogue, will cover the return to Kansas City from Little Rock, AR.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

San Jose to Salt Lake City behind steam

Note: 1992 was a great year for steam excursions behind Union Pacific Challenger 3985. I was lucky enough to participate in three of them. The one described here is a run from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The next one was a run from Kansas City to Houston for the 1992 Republican National Convention. The third was a run from Little Rock back to Kansas City after the convention. This particular article is about the first of these journeys.

The 1992 convention of the National Railroad Historical Society was held in San Jose, CA in July of that year. Due to work issues, I only participated in the tail end of the convention and then rode the so-called "outbound convention train", a Union Pacific steam excursion to Salt Lake City where I caught Amtrak for Denver and then flew home. This is the story of that trip.

In Altamont Pass
On Sunday, July 26, 1992 we left San Jose on the train which was pulled by UP 3985 (the Challenger), and  which consisted of flat top coaches, a dining car, a lounge, a museum car, a concession car (former RPO), 3 domes, a power car, and a business car. The trip got off to a bad start at the Union Pacific's San Jose yard, with the train backing in very late.  We went to board near the front of the train and learned that the first two cars were reserved for a group...so we walked down the train and got seats behind the second dome (I forget the car name).  Then they ended up using part of our car for yet another group.  The second group was from Mountain Outin tours and Let's Travel (combined).  As for other trips I've written about, they were a pain in the ass the whole trip.  Anyway we finally made it to Milpitas and sat for a while while the yard master got his act together.  We left late, which didn't much matter except that we got to Sacramento after the Milepost One bookstore had closed. There were two or three good runbys in Altamont pass, and according to some folks, while we were stopped somewhere around Milpitas people in one of the domes were able to see a woman on the second floor of her house cleaning in the buff.  Arrival at the hotel in Sacramento was about 5pm, we had dinner at Denny's and crashed for the evening.

Monday: we were in the dome and it was hot.  But the view was worth it.  I don't recall a lot of details about this particular day except that we were running early and there was a question of whether the busses would be at Portola.  So we had an extra runby and still got in early.  Speaking of runbys, Steve Lee apparently doesn't know how to do one.  He never did a high speed runby, never backed completely out of sight, and never pulled all the way past the runby site.  He also seemed to feel that two mediocre runbys were better than one good one at a particular site.  Oh well.  In Reno we went to the Italian restaurant, La Strada (at one point one of my favorite Italian restaurants), at the Eldorado. We enjoyed it quite a bit.  Then some gambling (I won $125 at blackjack...I subsequently lost most of it in Elko.)

Tuesday: longish trip to Winnemucca run by the Feather River folks.  We arrived at Portola and the train was sitting there, but we weren't allowed to board. When we did,  all of a sudden the cars we were in were for the "group". Since the passenger load this day was low they decided to cram us into a few hot cars instead of spreading us out and giving the A/C a chance to work.  On the plus side, their runby locations were fantastic.  We arrived in Winnemucca at a reasonable hour and had a nice dinner at the hotel.  Gambled a little and went to bed.

Wednesday: a short trip to Elko, with the usual Feather River circus just to keep us happy.  Two or three good runbys, fast running, and arrival at about 1:30.  Swam in a very hot pool, and gambled the stay away (and my winnings unfortunately). During the various runbys people had been warning us to look out for rattlesnakes. So during this long afternoon in Elko, my friend Rick and I went out in search of a baby rattle. We found one and used it during a runby the next day...but no one seemed to notice. Dinner was a $4.95 prime rib special at the casino. Excellent.

Thursday: a long trip to Salt Lake City.  The Promontory Chapter was quite refreshingly laid back, especially after the Feather River folks.  Quite a nice change.  But the runbys were mediocre.  A nice day though.  We arrived in Salt Lake City about 6:45 and had dinner at Denny's and walked to the Amtrak station (kid's don't try this at home...there were homeless everywhere).  The California Zephyr and The Pioneer were both late for various reasons so we decided to call before getting out of bed in the morning.

Friday: the train from hell to Denver.  Instead of taking the direct California Zephyr which went via the old Rio Grande route, we elected to take the Pioneer that ran from Ogden to Denver via Cheyenne.  This necessitated taking a connecting bus from Salt Lake City to Ogden.

We called at 4am to find out that the bus to Ogden wouldn't be leaving until 7am instead of 5:15, so we slept in a little and got to the station about 6:50am.  The bus was there, but it now wasn't scheduled to leave until 8. So we walked to Mickey D's for breakfast.  The bus eventually left at 8:30 and after the Zephyr arrived (also late).  We got to Ogden and our train was nowhere to be seen.  I think we left there about 10:30 over 4 hours late.  Reason: engine problems, an air hose leak in the dining car, and heat related slow orders.  I claimed a seat in a coach, and then joined Rick in his sleeper (he went to Chicago, I only went to Denver) to get a meal voucher.  The Wyoming scenery was prettier than I remember it. We lost more time at Green River when the cab signals in our single F40 died and we had to get a UP unit to lead us (this cut our maximum speed to 70, and made it impossible to make up any time).  We also hit some slow orders, and ended up arriving in Denver after midnight, almost 7 hours late.  I hightailed it outside the station to get a cab...and there were none in sight, even though the Zephyr had already arrived. I got to my motel near Stapleton airport and to bed around 1:15. About 2:15 the A/C failed  I slept fitfully until about 6:15, got up, got dressed and caught my plane to Pittsburgh. It left on time, was comfortable, and I could sleep!  As I told my friend at the time, "this may be my last Amtrak trip (unless I need the mileage)" (it wasn't). But this trip made me really down on them as I attributed most of the delay to poor maintenance, and just plain not caring for the customer.  Example: we finally arrived in Denver and people started to get off the train. All of a sudden the lights went off because they had taken the engine (which powers them) off the train without delay. I guess the engine crew wanted to get to bed. Great customer orientation.

I checked that night before dinner and the Zephyr (which took Rick's car onto Chicago) was 5 and a half hours late at Galesburg.

Amtrak has gone through high points and low points since it was founded in May of 1971. To me this was one of the low points. Thankfully things are much better today and I would not hesitate to recommend an Amtrak trip.