Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Southwest Explorer (2012)

On January 12, 2012 I received an email from Clark Johnson who runs a company called High Iron Travel with the subject "Keep These Dates: Rare Mileage Trips" saying that he would be running a special train over eight days from St. Louis to Kansas City via Fort Worth, El Paso, and Tucumcari. 

The schedule, as approved on February 5 by the railroads was to leave St. Louis the morning of April 28 for Tulsa via Springfield, MO. Then onto to Fort Worth via Madill on the 29th. On the 30th we'd go from Fort Forth to Hobbs, NM. After a layover day in Hobbs on May 1 we'd head to Carrizozo, NM via El Paso on the 2nd, then onto Pratt, KS via Liberal on the 3rd, and onto Kansas City via Topkea on May 4 where the trip would end. The equipment would be the (from the rear) Caritas (open platform business car); a 48 set dining car; the Scenic View (Ex-Santa Fe "Big dome"); the Colorado Pine (sleeper); the Cimarron River (roomette/bedroom sleeper); and the Pacific Sands (bedroom sleeper). Each car with sleeping accommodations had one or more showers. Most rooms had private toilet facilities.The train would be pulled by Amtrak locomotives except on the branch into Hobbs.

The Southwest Explorer at sundown in Pratt, KS near the end of our trip

Friend Neil Lang and I arranged to share a bedroom in the Cimarron River and sent Clark our payment. At the time it was the most I'd ever spent for a train trip.

In Springfield, MO

On April 27, 2012 I flew from Pittsburgh to St. Louis on USAirways arriving at 2:30pm. Upon arrival I made the mistake of checking my email and discovered that a website I ran had been hacked and data on it had been significantly compromised. I won't go into details here, but 1) I decided that I could handle things while on the train, and 2) it did have some impact on my enjoyment of the trip...but not so much that I ever regretted my decision to continue.

The map I made for a golf shirt

I headed off to catch a Metrolink train to the Amtrak station downtown. Official boarding was to be at 8pm, but we were allowed to stow our luggage aboard the train prior to that. However, the train, designated The Southwest Explorers, was being serviced west of the station so a bunch of us waited in the station.

Friend Rich Copeland and I had arranged to go to Busch Stadium (a stop away on Metrolink) to see the Cardinals play the Brewers. As I recall it was a threatening night but we made it back to the train after the game without too much trouble and got settled in our respective rooms. Then there was time to head to the Scenic View for a beer and conversation before bed.

April 28

Bright and early the train departed from the St. Louis Amtrak station. I did not take copious notes at the time, but according to the published schedule we were due to leave St. Louis at 6:30am. Our general routine was to get up, dress, perhaps go to the dome lounge or the Caritas rear lounge for pre-breakfast sightseeing and then head to the diner for breakfast. The breakfast menu changed every day, but was always freshly made and usually delicious. After eating it was back to one of the lounges until either the next meal (lunch and dinner were usually served on the train) or there was an opportunity to get off the train and stretch our legs and take photos. On this day the first such opportunity was at Springfield, MO where we arrived prior to 1pm. The schedule had us due out at 2pm, and nothing in my memory says we didn't leave on time.

Springfield, MO

I had ridden the railroad from St. Louis to Springfield before (during a Frisco 1522 steam trip from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1994) but the rest of the day would be totally new to me (as would much of the mileage for the whole rest of the trip from this point) so it was fun to spend the rest of the day in one of the lounges nursing a beer or a Diet Coke and watching the railroad and the scenery. (Yes, even central Missouri and Oklahoma has scenery worth viewing.) We were due into Tulsa at 7:30pm. Again I have no reason to doubt the schedule. Because we were parked in the middle of an active freight yard for the night we were not allowed off the train (though one fellow passenger managed to get off to go to a Tulsa Drillers minor league baseball game.)

Friends enjoying the ride in the Scenic View

April 29

The schedule shows us leaving at 6:30am and stopping in Madill, OK at 11:30am and Irving, TX at 3:30pm (having gotten on the Trinity Rail Express line at Carrollton) before arriving in Fort Worth at 4:30pm. I recall a significant delay before we got onto TRE so I imagine we arrived in Fort Worth late. My main memory after arrival in Fort Worth was that an Amtrak inspector wanted to have a wheelset changed out of the Scenic Dome. The main supervisor agreed that we were ok to go until the car was on "home" rails (see below) the next day and let us continue. Making the rest of the trip with out the use of the dome would have made the trip a lot less fun. So it's a good thing he allowed this.

Neil Lang and John Arbuckle in Forth Worth

Dinner was off the train. Neil and I and John Arbuckle dined at a gourmet Mexican restaurant while others went to hamburger joints or steakhouses, etc. It was a beautiful evening and we enjoyed walking around the area near the station.

The Southwest Explorer in Fort Worth

April 30

Today we left Fort Worth at 7:00am with the Scenic Dome still in the consist. We were due into Monahans at 3:00pm but I'm guessing we were late. At Monahans we left the tracks of the Texas Pacific for those of the Texas & New Mexico Railway and their engines were substituted for our Amtrak engines (they would wait for us to return to Monahans two days later). This railroad was owned by Iowa Pacific who also owned most of the cars on our train. From Monahans we traveled maybe 20 miles to the town of Kermit where we stopped at around 5:00pm for an opportunity to take photos (not possible on the main lines we'd been on before.) From there we went to Eunice which is the site of the Texas New Mexico's shops and again we got off the train for photos even though it was around 8:15pm. We arrived at our destination of Hobbs, NM well after our 9:00pm due time, but no one seemed to mind.

The photo line near Kermit, TX

May 1

Today we scheduled to be a layover day in Hobbs to service the train and to allow passengers to do sightseeing. Many of the passengers took a bus to Lubbock, TX to ride the West Texas & Lubbock. John Arbuckle, Neil Lang, Rick Moser, and I had already ridden that line so we rented a car and went off to Carlsbad, NM to tour the Carlsbad Caverns and do some railfanning enroute. While we were enjoying the caverns the railroad took the Scenic View the train and fixed the bad wheelset. By the time we returned from the tour it was already back on the train ready to go. That evening there was an off-train banquet at a local restaurant. 

Various photos taken on our trip to Carlsbad, NM

May 2

While we were sleeping we left Hobbs for Monahans. (Scheduled at 5:00am but I think we actually left earlier.) The schedule showed us into Monahans at 11:00am and back onto the Texas & Pacific at 11:30am and due into El Paso at 4:00pm (Mountain Time). I show that we arrived about an hour ahead of schedule. I believe we were delayed (a lot) leaving El Paso and I know that we were stopped on a siding north of El Paso so that Customs and Border Protection could come aboard to verify that we were all legal. We had some real worries because friend Dave Arthur was aboard so a repeat of our experience at the Canadian border a number of years ago was possible. At any rate we did not arrive at our overnight stop of Carrizozo until well after dark.

In El Paso

May 3

We left Carrizozo at 8:00am (according to the schedule) and made our way through Vaughn, and Dalhart before stopping at Liberal, KS at 4:40pm for a crew change (but we arrived early so there was time for photos) and onto our overnight stop at Pratt, KS where some of us walked into town to visit a local ice cream stand. (Because they weren't feeding us enough on the train!)

Our train in a city named after my own heart

May 4

This last day of our epic train ride left Pratt at 8:00am, went through Hutchison, KS (home of John Arbuckle) at 10:30am and then onto Topeka and into Kansas City where the train arrived in the early evening. A bunch of us went across the pedestrian bridge for a dinner at Jack's Stack Restaurant before some of us picked up our bags and caught a taxi to a Courtyard hotel near the airport so we'd be in position for morning flights.

The Southwest Explorer parked in Kansas City at the end of the epic trip

May 5

I could sleep in a bit and get a better shower than I had on the train before catching my 10:51am United flight from Kansas City to Pittsburgh via Chicago, arriving at (scheduled) 3:44pm. I was probably home for dinner.

People on board (not complete):

Jerry Angier, John Arbuckle, David Arthur, John Atherton, David Boone, Phil Bush, Al Butler, Don Clayton, Rich Copeland, Steve Cordwell, Bill Crawford, Judy Decker, Donna DeGroot, Steve DeGroot, Tom DeJoseph, Otto Dobnick, Bob Douglas, John Downing, Lance Erikson, Willie Fennel, Jim Fetchero, John Friedmann, Mary Gadbois, HIT Guest, HIT Guest, John Harmon, Brian Higgins, Nona Hill, Sharon Hill, Roger Hooson, Hubert Horan, Dave Ingles, Clark Johnson, Phil Kondziela, Neil Lang, Robert Lawrence, Bob Lenz, Joey Maidie, Rob Mandeville, Tony Marchiando, Mia Mather, Richard Maund, Ed Metz, Paul Miller, Reg Mitchell, Steve Morse, Phil Moser, Rick Moser, Brad Phillips, Sy Reich, Mike Rose, Sharon Sharratt, Tom Sharratt, Dave Stare, Chuck Weinstock, Keith White

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