Kansas City-San Francisco via Southwest Chief and San Joaquin
For Friends of Amtrak
edited by Craig S. O'Connell
The following is a travelogue of my trip from Kansas City to San Francisco via two great Amtrak long distance trains, the Southwest Chief (westbound) and the California Zephyr (eastbound). I figured it would be a good idea to return via a different route, since I have traveled the Southwest Chief several times already. Plus I had only traveled on the California Zephyr westbound from Galesburg, IL to Los Angeles via the Desert Wind. I wanted to see what the scenery looked like going eastbound, as the sun sets on the westbound California Zephyr west of Grand Junction, Colorado.
The purpose of the trip was business and pleasure. I had to attend a computer publishing conference in San Francisco. Believe it or not, the round trip rail fare was almost half of the air fares we were quoted, although the inquiry came about a week before departure. I preferred to take the train, as it was my idea. I would even use vacation time to travel by train.
The trip was two days out and 2.5 days return, counting purely hours. A return flight would have taken nearly a day, figuring in all the time changes from Pacific to Central time. As it turned out, I only had to take a couple of vacation days, as I was allowed one travel day each way. I departed late on a Friday night, so I used my weekend. I won't go into a lot of detail concerning consist, car numbers, scanners, etc., as a lot of this has been covered adequately in previous travelogues. I will attempt to highlight areas I believe deserve mention.
FRI 12:00 AM CT 08/28/98 Kansas City MO -
The Southwest Chief arrived about a half hour early to Kansas City Union Station. I understand this is very normal. The train arrived early to La Junta as well, and waited a full half hour until its scheduled departure time. It would have been nice to have spent a longer time in Albuquerque, but I can understand Amtrak departing at the scheduled time. Going through the New Mexico mountains, a lot of that good time was used up. The train actually arrived Albuquerque about 10 minutes late.
The Southwest Chief had about 10 mail express cars, along with the usual consist of coaches, sleepers, dining and lounge cars.
I traveled coach for most of the route. It had been a while since I had traveled by coach, so it took some time to get used to sleeping in the seats, even though no other passengers occupied the other seats. Departing Kansas City, one of my fellow passengers was a troubled youth who someone later told me was told to not leave the train. This passenger was on probation or something.
I visited the empty sightseer lounge to watch the night lights of Kansas City. As we began to pull away from the station and leave the side track, halfway onto the main track, the train stopped and remained stopped for about 15 minutes. I poked my head out of a side window and saw the headlight of a parked freight about 100 yards east. The train later moved on.
Kansas City- Topeka
This part of Kansas is perhaps the most scenic part of the state the train traverses. Eastbound passengers can view this scenery in early daylight. The train parallels much of the Kansas or Kaw River. Lots of trees and water. It is nice to enjoy breakfast in the dining car to this scenery. This is scenery most Kansans don' enjoy as few highways hug the river bank as does the railroad tracks.
The train seemed to screech into Lawrence then suddenly stop. I heard a car attendant of another car ask a couple of people who were at the station if they were traveling to Hutchinson. They boarded the train, then the Southwest Chief rolled on. You can see the University of Kansas campus, which is located on top of the hill to the south of the train (to the left westbound, right side eastbound). On a previous trip, I saw what appeared to be a group of college women dressed in some white sweaters or uniforms waving the train. Shortly after the train leaves the Lawrence station, it passes under a bridge which parallels a factory outlet mall. That pedestrian bridge is a good spot to view trains.
At Pauline, just south of Topeka, the Southwest Chief stood still and waited for an oncoming freight. It then picked up speed and I fell asleep. Here at Pauline, at Forbes Field, every Labor Day, the city of Topeka sponsors a big rail festival called Railroad Days, a celebration of the city's railroad heritage. Special excursion trains to Kansas City and Emporia are offered.
I awoke as the train entered Newton. I could see in the darkness the Cargill flour mill as well as feel a rail line crossing. I fell back asleep and awoke as the train departed Hutchinson. For some reason, I kept waking up at station stops. I could not fall back asleep so I headed again for the lounge, where I watched the sun rise on the prairie. I met a couple of elderly women from New England states who were first time train travelers. This would have been about 5:30 a.m. They did not seem to think the passing scenery was "boring."
Rolling through the Heartland
Since this is the first part of Kansas most passengers view on the westbound Southwest Chief, here is a good spot to make comment on the scenery. While people living in Washington DC or California often don't think much of the Heartland (it's all flyover country to them), this area (including northeast Missouri and southern Iowa) is rich in scenery. This area has its own characteristics.
True, there are plenty of farm fields. There are also numerous small towns the Southwest Chief rolls through at a high rate of speed (Stafford, St. John, Macksville, Kinsley, Spearville, Kansas, to name a few). You can watch America waking up from the window of your train. The people who live here are as proud of living here as any other Americans. While one might wonder why someone would live in western New Mexico or Eastern Arizona, far from any sizeable city, these are the people who give this country its character. Though school shootings and crime have escalated in recent years, even in rural areas such as these, you still don't have all the problems you have with the "bigger" cities.
Nearly half of the nation's bread wheat is produced in this part of the high plains (Texas to Nebraska, Colorado to Kansas City). The rolls, french toast, bagels, pastries and sandwich bread you eat in the dining or lounge car likely came from wheat produced in this area. Wheat is planted in the fall, where it remains green throughout the winter and doesn't grow more than a few inches in height. In April, the wheat gains growth and remains green in color until early June, when it changes to gold. A week or so after the color change, combines and harvest crews make their way to the fields. Depending on the time of the year, you can view wheat seeding (late September, early October) or harvesting (mid-June or early July).
Those giant white "skyscrapers" you see alongside the tracks in Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City, Garden City and plenty of small towns in between store this country's rich abundance in grain. Kansas leads the nation in grain storage elevator capacity. The U.S. is the world's largest wheat exporter. Kansas is year after year the biggest producer of wheat.
Garden City, KS
SAT 07:00 AM CT 08/29/98 Dodge City KS -
The scenery between Dodge City and Garden City is interesting, as the Southwest Chief follows the Arkansas River, which is to the south side of the tracks. This is high plains country, with ranges. The panhandle of Texas in the Amarillo area also looks this way. The train is running on time and even early at several stations. Breakfast in the dining car was delicious. I had my standard french toast with sausage, orange juice and hot tea. Have you noticed how wonderful the french toast is? Between Dodge City and Garden City, if you look to the north side of the tracks from the dining car, you may see mean dogs barking up a storm in an adjacent junk yard.
Just a few minutes past Garden City, if you look to the north side of the tracks, you will see a football-size field full of prairie dogs. I was in the lounge car when I heard people point this out and call attention to the small creatures. The prairie dogs stand on their feet and look at the train. Dont miss this sight.
As the train nears Las Animas, Colorado (not a scheduled stop), you can see on the north side of the tracks what looks like an old military hospital. The building is very old and rests on top of a hill.
LaJunta - Lamy
Be sure to print a complete route guide from trainweb.com and bring it with you on your trip. The guide is very helpful concerning scenic spots. I took many pictures. I had almost forgotten how pretty this part of New Mexico is. I believe the westbound Southwest Chief is the best way to view this part of the state, as the eastbound often traverses this area in sunset or darkness.
At Las Vegas, while the train is stopped, a car hurriedly drives to the station and honks its horn. A passenger runs from the car and boards the train.
The train sped through western New Mexico. Again, people might think this area, mostly desert, is boring. I, however, enjoy the contrasting scenery provided by the old Super Chief route.
In the dining car, I chose the ribs, which were so tender they fell off the fork. The apple pie dessert was also good. By the time we arrived Gallup, darkness had fallen.
This trip featured movies and a hospitality hour in the sightseer lounge. On a previous trip, in August 1996 during my honeymoon, we took the SW Chief (economy bedroom) and Coast Starlight (coach) from Kansas City to San Francisco. No hospitality hour nor movies were offered in the SW Chief lounge. Plus the SW Chief lounge, supposedly non-smoking, was full of smoke scent. I kind of felt something was missing on that trip. While on the Coast Starlight, we read how a hospitality hour is offered, as well as movies. I told my wife this kind of thing is supposed to be offered on the SW Chief.
About a half hour east of Winslow, the train stops in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. Looking outside the darkness, you can see a truck stop and Interstate 40 to the north side of the tracks. Thent he smell of fuel permeates. The train loses electrical power for a brief period. Men with flashlights are walking along the engine area.An announcement is made that a shopping cart left in the middle of the track punctured a fuel line of engine number three, an older 1970s era Amtrak diesel. Amtrak will leave this engine at Winslow, where we remain stalled for nearly three hours.
I fell asleep shortly after Flagstaff, where a lot of people board the train. In the middle of the night, I see through the window what looks like a roller coaster on the north side of the train. I realize this probably was a cement factory or mine.
SUN 11:30 AM PT 08/30/98 San Bernardino CA -
Due to the mechanical problem, the Southwest Chief is running about 3 hours behind. This does not bother me terribly, as we get to see the south eastern California Mojave desert in daylight hours. The Southwest Chief normally travels through this area in darkness both directions. Daylight normally arrives westbound in San Bernardino, eastbound west of Flagstaff.
The train arrives Barstow, California, at 7:40 a.m. An announcement informs passengers that connecting buses at San Bernardino will take people either to Bakersfield to connect to the San Joaquin or to Santa Barbara for the Coast Starlight. The conductor assures travelers that the Bakersfield early afternoon train will wait for the bus.
Detour to Bakersfield
After arriving Bakersfield about 15 minutes after the San Joaquin's scheduled departure time, the group of 7 passengers learn that Amtrak DID NOT hold the train. We would have to wait a couple of hours in this sweaty, hot desert town until 4:30 p.m. for the next train.
This group of passengers tries to press Amtrak into providing some connecting service, as many wanted to arrive at the Bay area earlier. All Amtrak Bakersfield personnel would offer is a free lunch at McDonalds. This does not seem to be respectful treatment for train travelers.
After some pressing, Amtrak decided to offer $5 off of dinner at a decent Dennys-type restaurant. I enjoyed a steak. When returning to the station, it was crowded with people and as hot inside as out. The train was also crowded with Sunday night travelers.
An elderly couple traveling from St. Louis to San Francisco were not pleased either. They had a family room on the Southwest Chief, and had expected sleeper arrangements on the Coast Starlight. Unfortunately, they were directed to the wrong bus in San Bernardino and came with the rest of us on the San Joaquin. They were mad enough about being on the wrong bus, then to have the Bakersfield experience. They were also disappointed that they were not allowed to check their baggage from St. Louis. Amtrak, of course, does not offer checked baggage on the Kansas City-St. Louis trains. Such service, however, should be offered for long distance passengers connecting to the Southwest Chief. The other routing they could have taken, via Texas, would have offered checked baggage but then would have been a very long trip.
I arrived Oakland several hours later than planned. I had intended to relax a little after checking into the hotel before my meeting started the next morning. I also missed seeing the mud flats and bay area scenery I would have seen had Amtrak fulfilled its "guaranteed" connection.
Travel tip: don't take the word of a conductor on such a connection. The next time I take this trip, I will travel via the Coast Starlight. I took the inland route only because I had not taken this route before and wanted to see the scenery for this part of California. I had traveled the picturesque Coast Starlight northbound from Los Angeles to Oakland after making a successful connection with the Southwest Chief in August, 1996, on my honeymoon.
The frequent need to bus passengers to Bakersfield or Santa Barbara points to the need for a Barstow-San Francisco section of the Southwest Chief. Think how much time could be saved if a couple of coaches and perhaps a diner/lounge could be added to the end of the current Southwest Chief and routed through Bakersfield and Fresno.
This extension should come, however, only after Amtrak operates a true national system. In my opinion, California has adequate service compared to other populous states. Tri-weekly trains to the countrys third most populous state are unacceptable. Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are among the top 10 metropolitan areas of the country, yet do not receive daily train service. Service must also be restored to Oklahoma. The Lone Star was Amtrak's seventh most popular long haul train when the Energy President decided to gut the speedy daily service and replace it with what was then a tri-weekly turkey that took the long way from Chicago to Texas. Also needed is restoration of the Desert Wind and Pioneer Zephyr, Chicago-Florida, Chicago-Seattle via southern Montana, as well as Denver-Dallas.
The patronage on this San Joaquin train made me think if trains serving relatively small towns of Bakersfield and Fresno are this crowded, Amtrak should consider adding or increasing service to other much larger cities in the Midwest such as Springfield, MO., Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Iowa, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Shreveport, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Cheyenne, etc.
Overall, the SW Chief offers an enjoyable trip and a diverse range of scenery: from the urban Chicago and Kansas City through the fertile midwestern "corn belt" farm land, through the high plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, toward the spectacular northern New Mexico vistas, the Arizona and California deserts. . This is perhaps one of Amtrak's best long-hauls, and is certainly a good one to try for the first-time long distance train traveler.
By Doug Ohlemeier
Edited by Craig S. O'Connell
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