For Friends of Amtrak
edited by Craig S. O'Connell
On the evening of January 15, we caught No. 92, the "Silver Star" at the Jacksonville station. Departure was on time as it usually is on this train. The consist was one or two baggage cars, 2 Viewliner sleepers, a lounge car, diner, and 2 or 3 coaches. In addition there were 5 road-railers carrying mail. Power was two "Genesis" units of the later variety with the solid stripes. (I always thought that disappearing polka-dot scheme was neat, but it must have been expensive to maintain).
The names of the participants in this adventure were my wife, Karen, her brother, Buddy, and his wife Donna, and me, Jerry. Donna and Karen are not exactly seasoned rail travelers.
After 13 years on the Southern RR, averaging a round-trip a week, Washington to Atlanta, not to mention thousands of "other" miles, I have almost seen it all, and I am very familiar with the line from Jacksonville to Savannah, and Raleigh to Selma to Washington, but I had never ridden over the old SAL between Savannah and Raleigh.
We stopped at a restrictive signal before we had covered 2 miles, and I assumed correctly that a "pig" train was heading into the intermodal facility northwest of town. Shortly we moved again, this time about 10' late. We retired to the dining car for our supper, during which we slammed over the diamond, actually a 90 degree crossing with the Brunswick Sub. at Nahunta, Ga. and my wife asked "what happened" (nothing). We were traveling close to the 79 mph limit, and soon were on-time into Savannah.
After leaving Savannah, I stayed awake until after we crossed the Savannah R. into South Carolina and then fell asleep. The next thing I knew, we were stopped, for a long time in Southern Pines, NC. After that, the train stopped every 20 miles or so, out in the boonies, and I realized that most of the stops coincided with passing Defect Detectors.
At breakfast, passing Selma, we were about 30' late, and this pattern continued. The train director, knowing that I was a CSX engineering dept. employee told me that the 2nd unit had a leaking end-cap on one journal bearing and it was thought that the hot grease was causing the defect detectors to sound off.
At Richmond the 2nd unit was set off, and we left there about 90' late. Although it is somewhat hilly between Richmond and Washington, we still made up about 10 minutes. I saw a lot of evidence of the new signal construction that I knew was in progress. (My position with CSX concerns managing the electronic flow of plans and documents for these projects) We arrived in Washington at approximately 1pm, made our way to our hotel, and thence to the Holocaust Museum.
During my tenure with Southern (1965-78), I lived in Alexandria and saw a lot of Washington. Our hotel was across the street from the site of the former Southern HQ building, and I told Karen, that I still had some nice feelings about that, as in a real way, my railroad career started there in April 1965, when I took the tests that led to me being offered a position a few weeks later.
After a night in Washington, and visiting the Holocaust museum, they had to check out of their hotel by noon. At that time, they went to the rebuilt Washington Depot, and checked in to the Amtrak lounge, one of the "perks" of first class. A nice lunch was had at the "Pizzeria Uno" said by some to have the best Chicago pizza in or out of Chicago.
We boarded the train, (economy room 3, car 2900) at about 3:45, and the Capitol pulled out right on time at 4:05. As the conductor was taking tickets, he commented that we might be a "little" late getting to Chicago as there had been a wreck with fatalities on CONRAIL in the early hours of 1/17. He said we would probably have to detour. Now my employer, CSX has the former B&O line that roughly parallels the CONRAIL line, perhaps 20 miles to the south, most of the across Ohio, and so I expected we would detour Toledo-Fostoria-Chicago.
The route of the Capitol up the Potomac is beautifully scenic, even in the gathering dusk of January, and it was essentially dark by Pt. of Rocks, MD., although I took note of the numerous tunnels on this line, and noted that we took the "low grade" line further up. It was totally dark by supper time, as we departed Harpers Ferry, and I duly noted our passage through Martinsburg, WV, hometown of my colleague at the office. Until promotion to the management ranks, he was a signal maintainer in the area.
During dinner, we passed through a few other towns, noting especially the area around Paw Paw, where the tracks cut across several bends of the Potomac River, passing through a succession of tunnel-bridge-tunnel situations.
Shortly after dinner, we paused in Cumberland, and I went back to the SightSeer lounge car to note the climb up to Sand Patch. Eastbound this area is covered mostly in daylight.
After Sand Patch, I retired, but awoke again as we were passing Sinns, PA. where the B&O crosses over the Yough---- river with unpronounceable name and connects with the P&LE. For many years, this situation existed with the P&LE being a separate road, but now it is mostly owned by CSX. However, the portion south of Sinns is still P&LE ownership and extends to Connelsville, although it is not much used.
I remained awake until we departed Pittsburgh because I was responsible for producing maps of this area and wanted to cross-check what I could in the dark. Then I more or less collapsed. Actually, the top deck of a SuperLiner sleeps very well. It is quiet, and even on fairly rough track, which we saw very little of, it is smooth. Technologically these are great cars, but they suffer from a lack of space for one's carryon luggage, much worse than older designs.
I awoke briefly while we were stopped in Cleveland, and noted Berea as we passed the junction where CSX and NS will come together and exchange some traffic after June 1. The next thing I knew, we were stopped, for a very long time, in the middle of a bridge over what I was reasonably sure was the Maumee R. Yep, and we waited over an hour for an eastbound to leave the station, so we could get into Toledo.
After exchanging passengers, we backed east from the station at least two miles and my best guess is that we got on the Toledo Terminal, a CSX line now, because when we pulled ahead, I recognized some landmarks from the maps I had produced of the area for STB filings and hearings. Soon we arrived at Walbridge Yard, where we waited about 20 minutes for the eastbound Capitol Ltd. (running 6 hours late) to arrive and give us their "pilot".
Amtrak crews are not qualified from Toledo to Fostoria (freight only), but the crew may have been qualified from Fostoria to Chicago since that is the route of the "Three Rivers". After Fostoria, we made good time for about 50 miles and then we came up to the rear of a line of "traffic". CSX is considered to be "Amtrak Friendly", but a late train, arriving in the midst of the intermodal fleet is not especially desirable.The result was that we arrived in Chicago 7 hours late, missing the Empire Builder by a good 2 hours.
Chicago's Union Station was a madhouse what with many trains delayed due to weather and other factors. We had just arrived about 4:30 on the Capitol Ltd., delayed due to the Conrail wreck of the 17th which required us to detour over CSX. While Jerry was glad to see the new trackwork and signals that he had helped to design and document, it was a little disconcerting to know that when the train arrived in Fostoria, OH and got on the CSX line, it was right in the middle of the westbound Intermodal parade.
When our number was called, about 5:45, to meet with a passenger representative, they told us that they had made arrangements to put us on Northwest Airlines to St. Paul, where we "disconnects" would catch up with the Empire Builder. All is well, except that my sister-in-law, Donna is mortally afraid of flying. Amtrak provided us with cab fares, and food money and off we went to Midway. Now a little figuring on my part indicated that we might well miss the EB in St. Paul given the schedule of the flight, and allowing say 30' to get out checked bags, and another 30' to the railroad station. Fortunately we got on an earlier, slightly delayed NW flight and we got to the St. Paul, Midway station about 10:15pm.
The Empire Builder was a few minutes late because it had held 30' or so in Chicago until it was decided to send it on. The temperature was near zero with a wind-chill well below that. Our car attendant had our beds made up, knew our names when we got to his car, etc. and we were in bed before the train pulled out of St. Paul.
Early the next morning, I awoke, (I always wake up about 6 am regardless of where I am) and the first thing I saw was a depot sign indicating "Devils Lake". So I got up, and went to the Lounge car and enjoyed the next 2 hours or so of rather bumpy ride on to Minot, ND. As many of you know, BNSF does not run many through trains by way of Fargo, and the Empire Builder is the main attraction on this line. It is still a lot of jointed rail, and there is really no reason for it to be otherwise. However, just east of Minot, the mainline comes in from the southeast, and after that, all the way to Seattle, it is the finest CWR I have ever ridden on.
Gavin yard at Minot was a sad sight, having been dismantled in large part soon after the BN merger in 1970. Also the major shops that were once the main overhaul point for GN power are largely gone as well, but the foot bridge over the track still exists apparently. When the stopped at the depot, there was a lot of blowing snow, but no new snow, temperature right at zero, and wind-chill around 20 below. It was exhilirating to me, but not to my wife. I have attached to this E-mail a pix of the Empire Builder while paused at Minot, but an incident occurred there, that I wish I had on film, although no-one seemed to notice it.
When the baggage car door was opened, an small avalanche of snow cascaded forth, and then the baggage men got out snow shovels and dug out the checked baggage. The same thing occurred a few hours later in Lewiston, and then again at Glasgow, MT, so this must be a routine thing. The snow, at these temperatures, is like talcum powder and will penetrate even the tiniest pinhole.
Throughout the day, there was really nothing to see except snow everywhere and a parade of double stacks heading east. BNSF handles the Empire Builder very well, and we made either running meets, or else the freight was already in the hole for us each time. Around 3pm or so we arrived in Havre, MT and took pix of the Great Northern 4-8-4 that has been displayed there since the early 60s.
From that point on, and for the next 3 hours we were beating up the steady 1% grade that tops out at Summit in Marias pass. Unfortunately it was dark by then, but enough of a moon that I pulled the curtains on our bedroom and was able to see the snow sheds and other things, often in the headlight of the locomotive.
After the service stop in WhiteFish, MT, I stayed awake until we went through the Flathead Tunnel. This tunnel was completed at taxpayer expense due to dam construction in the early 70s, and it shortened the BN mainline by several miles.
Next morning, I awoke as we were nearing the Columbia River crossing and when we stopped in Wenatchee, I arose and dressed so that I could see what I could see going over Steven's Pass. Fortunately, the train was 1 hour late, and so it was getting dark by the time we passed the tunnels just east of Berne, and good daylight when we exited the west portal of Cascade Tunnel. It was exciting to see the snow sheds up on the mountain to the north, still protecting the R/W from slides after 70 years. There was obvious evidence of slides as recent as this winter.
Another spectacular spot on this line is the Foss River bridge, a bridge on a 10 degree horseshoe curve, with most of the curve on the bridge. It is not a high trestle, perhaps 75'-100', but it is high enough to impress. After that, it is a leisurely run down to Everitt where the station is right alongside Puget Sound. We made good progress down to Seattle, where we stopped for a day and a night.
We arrived in Seattle, on the EB, about an hour late on Wednesday, January 20th, 1999. The purpose of this trip, besides the ride around the country was to be in Seattle on this day and celebrate Karen's brother & his wife's 26th wedding anniversary. They had celebrated their 20th in Seattle while Buddy was stationed in Bremerton.
It is about a mile from King Street Station to the Mayflower Park Hotel, and this hotel is interesting in that it is the oldest hotel in Seattle still in business. It is also connected to the East Lake shopping mall, a multi-story indoor mall essentially in the middle of town. Lastly, the monorail, originally built for the World's Fair in 1963 or so connects this shopping mall with the entertainment area surrounding the Space Needle. While the food in the restaurant is costly and no better than anywhere else, the view is spectacular, and I recommend it even if it is typical Seattle weather, which it was. Temperature about 50, rainy, but not raining, low clouds.
I asked the waitress where Mt. Rainier was, and she pointed off to the Southeast and she said about 35 miles that way, but you can only see it in the "good season" which I found was generally from July to September.
Then we toured the fisherman's market which has been converted into another tourist trap shopping center. Having had a fairly late lunch (I made our reservations for 2pm on the assumption that the train might be late), we just had snacks for supper, watched the tube and retired about 9pm PST.
Since our internal clocks were still on EST, we awoke early, and since the restaurant at the hotel was very expensive, we went to one of those famous Seattle coffee shops (which are on almost every corner), and had some coffee and bagels.
Starvation is not a problem when riding first class on Amtrak. Staying on whatever diet you are trying may be impossible, so we knew that a light breakfast could be followed by any kind of lunch.
The Coast Starlight (CS) is a standard of excellence unto itself. If you have not read the article in, I believe, the January TRAINS magazine, then I must say it is entirely accurate. There is on-board entertainment, provided on our trip by "Donovan, the Italian Leprechaun". He played games with children and adults, cracked jokes etc., but there is a serious side to his work also. I talked to him about this, and when necessary, as in an emergency, he has the same responsibilities and training as any other member of the on-board crew.
I have attached, or will send separately a pix of the boarding of this train at Seattle, and the smoker stop at Portland. This is a TOTALLY NON-SMOKING train, so a smoker stop (and service stop) is scheduled at Portland, a smoker stop at Eugene, and another at Klamath Falls. Also at Oakland, Salinas, and San Luis Obispo on the south end. The weather did not improve until we were south of San Francisco, and so I looked forward to seeing "some" snow on Willamette Pass, the location of Trains Video "Cascade Crossing".
Passing through Tacoma, we went under "Galloping Girty", the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge which disintegrated in a high wind not long after it's completion in 1938 or 39. This failure made engineers realize that a solid sided girder in a suspension bridge could have undesirable aerodynamic effects in wind. Consequently the new bridge has lattice work trusses under the roadway and has lasted nearly 60 years.
Although the weather precluded seeing such famous sites as Mt. ST. Helens, which can be seen from the train on clear days, we did see some of the devastation from the mud of that eruption, nearly 20 years ago, especially in the area of the Tuttle River, and those on the train that had seen it back then had a lot to tell about it.
The station in Portland is a classic one, and when arrived, a few minutes early, the eastbound EB Portland connection was on the adjacent track ready to depart around 4pm I think for Spokane. The weather was warm, perhaps 60 degrees and everyone on the train got off to walk around, and were very friendly with each other and the crew.
Departure was right on time at 2:35pm. The run up the Willamette R. valley is very pretty, even in winter, and someone of a historical bent had joined the crew for the run between Portland and Klamath Falls, and kept up a running commentary on history. For example, the first pioneers created Oregon City, which had great ambitions to be THE city in Oregon. Small problem though. At the time, the Willamette R. was not navigable easily to that point, and not at all above, and so Portland, at the confluence with the Columbia River became THE city, although Salem is the capital.
The Columbia is truly the "Great River of the West" as indicated in the Coast Starlight guidebook, beautiful to see.
We proceeded on to Eugene where we were again a little early (in fact we were a little early at every stop, and 1/2 hour early at Los Angeles). Then it was dark, but there was enough outside light, that I again drew the curtains on our economy room and could see outside fairly well. I had along with me a rough sketch of the R/W from the first tunnel, just railroad east (geographically west) of Oakridge, to the top of the pass and by counting the tunnels, I knew pretty well where we were, and the altitude. There are 27 tunnels in this roughly 40 mile stretch of steady 2.5% grade, but it is set up with TCS, long passing tracks, and you soon realize that this is the main corridor of the UP (I-5 corridor). There was only a little snow at Oakridge, but about 3' at the top, with evidence of recent plowing by the Jordan Spreaders that are kept in this area during the winter.
After we got to the top, I went to the diner for supper. My wife and in-laws had already gone, and held me a seat for they knew well what I was doing. We then watched some of the Movie (Video) that is presented nightly on the roughly 36" screen in the lower level of the Pacific Parlour car.
There are 6 of these cars, all former Santa Fe El Capitan cars. They have been refurbished, ride like a carpet, and are furnished in mahogany and other beautiful woods inside. There is free wine-tasting in the afternoon, movie at night, etc. Everything is free except alcoholic beverages in this car which is exclusively for sleeping car passengers.
We retired shortly after leaving Klamath Falls, OR, and being an early riser, with an internal clock set to daylight, I awoke about 5:30 the next morning.
After making myself presentable in public, I went to the Pacific Parlour car, which while not "open for business" at this hour, is still available for sightseeing. The lights were turned off except for the minimal safety lights and so the view outside was nice. About the time I seated myself, we stopped at Marysville, CA. We were about 1/2 hour late, thanks to some mishandling of meets with UP freight during the night, but the schedule has considerable slop in it, and we arrived in Oakland on time. The run in darkness down the Sacramento R. valley to Sacramento was fast and smooth, and although I could not see anything much, I did notice that we passed a lot of freights, waiting in sidings for us. The CS does not stop in Roseville, but we passed right by the Engine Servicing facilities at the yard there and it was easy to spot the large numbers of "Tunnel Motors" which are used as helpers and road units on the "big hill" through the Sierra Nevada, the grade for which starts right at the edge of town.
Had it been daylight, I expect I could have seen these mountains quite close at hand. Its a short run on to Sacramento where we were a little early. (The normal running time from Marysville to Sacramento is probably around 1 hour as it's only 52 miles and the schedule allows 2 hours for it, but traffic is congested around these parts and delays are probably common.
Although we passed quite close to the California RR Museum, I could not see it in the darkness, but I could reflect on the history that was made in this city. Imagine, a group of ordinary store keepers with the vision to build a railroad through seemingly trackless mountains that endures to this day. Well one day I want to ride the CZ all the way through from Chicago to California. I have already ridden it between Chicago and Salt Lake city in 1984.
By the time we headed on down the delta of the Sacramento R toward Oakland, it was getting light, and we had breakfast around 8 am, while reflecting that this would be our only breakfast on this most magnificent of trains (in the US anyway). I would compare the service quite favorably with my experiences with office car staff on the Southern Rwy., and the Frisco back in the 70s. The food was as good or better than anything I was served on Stanley Crain's office car (no. 6) or Graham Claytor's car when I worked for the Southern.
We crossed the great bridge over the Carquinez Strait and it was foggy over the bay. At this point, you can see the Golden Gate bridge on a clear day, I was told. I recognized the Bay Bridge when we passed under it, and I also noticed the freeway that so tragically collapsed in the earthquake some years back.
Most Amtrak trains terminate further out at Emeryville station, but the CS stops at Jack London Square station since it goes on through. It also stops at Emeryville and the announcer indicated that if you were connecting to a Bakersfield train, or to the CZ you should get off there. Another peculiarity here is that it is only 5 miles from Emeryville to Jack London Station --- but the schedule allows 1 hour for this. However, there is not really a main track through here, the CS is simply routed down a convenient yard track, which may even involve some switching, and then it works its way out of the south end of the UP yard and on to Jack London Station.
We arrived there quite early, and so we were at the station nearly an hour. The train is serviced here, and I have included (or will send) a picture taken at this depot. It is in a run down part of town that is being refurbished and renewed and is really a pretty station. Several of the commuter trains of the area use it too.
We departed Oakland right on time, and continued down the west side of the bay to San Jose which we reached on-time. Several announcements were made about local scenery enroute and we passed one large steel mill that appeared to be shut down.
After we departed San Jose, which is 40 miles from Oakland, the announcer indicated that as we passed over a certain bridge, between San Jose and Watsonville Jct. we would also pass over the San Andreas Fault. At the indicated area, I could not detect a fault per se', but the hillside was very irregular along a north-south line, with sharp variances in elevation and what appeared to be areas of ground that once were together, but had slipped apart laterally north and south, so I expect that was the fault or what geologists call a "fault zone".
It is 66 miles from San Jose to Salinas and as we approached Salina, you could see why they call this the "United States Salad Bowl". Never saw so much green stuff. After Salinas it is 106 miles and about 2 hours to Paso Robles, and then 27 miles from there to San Luis Obispo with about an hour allowed for this portion -- it takes it. As we approached Paso Robles, the terrain changed abruptly from low hills and meadows to high hills, sharp curves, and a steeply rising grade.
After Paso Robles, we proceeded upgrade very steep (it is about 2.5%) for 3 or 4 miles and then entered the summit tunnel at Cuesta Pass. The next 20 miles down to San Luis Obispo, along with the 104 mile run along the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara is the scenic highlight of the 2nd day out of Seattle.
I taped the run up to the summit and down to "Bispo" as the locals call it, on video, so I will give the highlights here. There are video tapes available of this area, and if you are interested in mountain railroading, this is the one to see.
Our locomotive consist out of Seattle, all the way, consisted of a "Genesis" on the head, followed by one of those strange, weird looking "California" units, by EMD. Model is F59PHI, I believe. Important thing is that it has typical EMD dynamic brakes which produce a low pitch siren like wail when they cut in and "wind up" as we railroaders say.
About 1/2 way through the tunnel, I felt the car pitch from "up" to "down" and then I began to hear this wail which is clearly audible on my video, so I knew we were going into hard dynamic braking. Quite a bit of air was used too.
The view down Cuesta Grade is, well stunningly magnificent and a little scary. The first thing you see on exiting the summit tunnel (3400' long), is that it's a long way down, and the highway which crossed just before the tunnel is now about 1/2 a mile away on the opposite hillside. Several more tunnels, numerous horseshoe curves of 10 degrees and we rounded the final horseshoe next to the California Men's Colony (Prison), crossed an impressive viaduct over a creek and entered "bispo".
A word about those curves. What railfans think of as horseshoe curves (we rr folks call em that too) are more correctly called "envelopment curves". They are used to gain elevation and allow the railroad (or highway) to bend back and forth on itself, so that a lot of elevation (in this case 1,100') is gained in a short distance (13 miles or so). Most of the grade is 2% or steeper.
We arrived in "bispo" which is a smoking stop early at 3pm and so had a 1/2 hour wait for our departure. We met the northbound CS just after "bispo", as he was on time also. While in the depot, there were two freights waiting to follow the CS up the hill, so while this is a secondary route, it carries quite a lot of freight traffic.
After a 30 minute pause at San Luis Obispo, CA, we continued our journey along the California coast. It is about 15 miles below "Bispo" that the CS comes along the true coast line, and for the next 105 miles, i.e. until just past Santa Barbara, you are always in sight of the Pacific. Weather was quite good, and you could easily see the several Oil Well Platforms which were sunk in the Santa Barbara Channel several years ago. Most of them are currently shut down.
On this part of the run, we pass through pristine closed beaches, site of Vandenburg A.F.B. for many miles, passing within several hundred feet of a number of launch pads. At one time, the manned space shots were to have been from Vandenburg, and considering that most of the Hardware is manufactured on the west coast, we have to wonder if it would have been more cost effective to do it that way. But as usual politics prevailed, and most of the military and other unmanned missions have been from Vandenburg.
At time, the trail is running just barely above the high tide line, perhaps 100 yards from the surf. At other time, usually when there is a public beach, the track rises 30' or so, crosses a trestle or bridge, and then drops back down to near sea level. This gives rise to the need for "105 miles of Stretch Braking" as Amtrak engineers like to call it. I.E., with the train brakes applied lightly, power is kept on the engine in order to keep the slack stretched, otherwise there would be flying soup bowls in the diner.
We arrived in Santa Barbara on the advertised and immediately departed for the run over the pass to Chatsworth. This area through Santa Marguerita pass into Simi Valley is famous because of all the westerns that were filmed in the area. Unfortunately darkness had now fallen, and we took our last meal on this fine train.
Glendale, the last stop is a conditional stop and we did not have to make it. If no message is received to let off passengers at this stop, the engineer can pass it ahead of schedule if he wants, and we did. Arrival in Los Angeles was 30 minutes early, and we were told that we could just take the subway ramp down to the bottom and walk over to the next gate and get on the Sunset if it was in the station, which it was as we arrived. In fact the yard switcher was waiting to haul our train over to the coach yard.
As indicated in "Trains", a lot of fancy things have to be done to service this train and get it ready for another round trip the next morning. One of the cars had been sideswiped by something, probably a large tree, because there was no structural damage, but the outer skin was damaged, and this might incur changing out that car for a trip or two.
When we got the bottom of the ramp, there was a very rude Amtrak employee herding everyone into the station and we were told to get in there. However, after he was out of site, and observing some others going ahead out to the Sunset, we just walked out there like he owned the place and were boarded. The Sunset crew could not understand why we were not allowed to in the first place and indicated that it was standard practice to allow CS sleeper passengers to go immediately to the Sunset.
The Sunset departed right on time, and after a brief relaxation and drink of ginger ale in the "Sightseer Lounge", I retired with my wife, about 10:45pm.
Next morning, when I awoke, it was broad daylight, and we were stopped more or less under a highway overpass. After preparing myself for the day, and letting my wife sleep, I made my way to the lower level, and found the door open, so I looked out, and the operating crew, i.e. Conductor and Ast. Conductor were out on the ballast discussing something. When they saw me, they asked if I was the passenger that worked for CSX and I said that I was. Whereupon, they volunteered that we were waiting for a track crew to come out and repair a broken rail. Then I noticed that we were stopped at a signal, and I asked them where we were, and they said, 20 miles east of Yuma, AZ.
Now the train is due out of Yuma at 3 am, and it was now nearly 7 am, so I asked what else happened during the night -- I thought it was awful smooth during the night??. Seems that at Pomona, CA, some idiot had thrown a grocery cart on the track in front of our train. Now a grocery cart ordinarily would have little effect on a "Genesis" unit, but this cart tangled up on, and tore off, the only vulnerable item under a locomotive --- the automatic blow down valve on the main air reservoir -- shooting the brakes, and leaving us literally dead in the tracks.
Now, Amtrak had to negotiate with UP at the Pomona Roundhouse and you must realize that while the west coast states twist UP's arm somewhat over the CS, the poor Sunset is an unwelcome guest on UP property, especially given the high traffic density of the Sunset Rt. After some haggling, UP provided a manual blowdown, indicating they did not have an automatic. What this meant, then, is that every hour or so, the train would stop, hopefully coinciding with a station stop, and the crew would crack the valve to blow out any accumulated water in the air tank.
Whenever you are near a modern diesel, that occasional hiss of air, sometimes rather piercing in intensity, is usually the blowdown letting off some moisture. After the broken rail was repaired (2 hour delay), we proceeded, now about 5 hours late. The operating crew considered it pretty routine, and one asked me if I knew what a sidewinder was. (a small rattle snake that moves by a looping or winding motion of its body, found in profusion in the southwest deserts) He said, I think one is wrapped around an axle and taking a bite at us now and then.
We proceeded, running a nearly constant 79 mph on this most excellent of track. There is so little rain in these parts that wood ties are said to last more than 50 years. Unfortunately the lower quadrant semaphores, for which this route was famous, have now been replaced by modern color light signals, and there is alternate single and double track, with a lot of long sidings all the way across Arizona and New Mexico.
We arrived in Tucson about noon, and had I known more about this area, I would have had my camera at the ready leaving Tucson, for the most interesting part of the run across this trackless (except for Parallel I-10 all the way) desert lies in the 1 hour run between those points. The original line of the SP, took a winding route up several arroyos, on a steady 1% grade to climb a southern foothill of the Rockies, and then descend gently to Benson which lies at a slightly higher elevation than Tucson.
There are a number of envelopment curves on this route, which winds back and forth across the desert floor, and at least two real "horseshoe curves", probably in the area of 10 degrees. Half way up, "another" railroad passes overhead.
After I got home, and looked back at some old "Trains", I realized that this bridge has been often photographed, but never has it been shown that there is a track under it as well. The 2nd track, which was built many years ago, takes an almost straight shot down the hill, with a grade of probably 2% and only a few broad curves, two of which cause a zigzag with the mentioned bridge in the middle. Refer to a Delorme highway CD/ROM program and look for this area, 15 miles or so east of Tucson, you will find it interesting.
As we approached Benson, I was impressed with how desolate it looks, and yet it is a thriving town on a main Interstate route, and there was, running through it a large DRY river bed. There were low mountains to the East, and North.
The area where these two tracks merge and diverge, must be popular with railfans (Hear this guys, I would like some pix of this area, E-mail to me, or post on the alt.binaries.pictures.rail news group) because there were many 4 WD vehicles chasing the train, using mostly dirt roads, but which appeared to be in good repair. At least twice, there was a fellow, correctly position right at, but outside of, the right of way fence, with his camera on a tripod.
Just after we left Tucson, and before passing over the area of interest just mentioned, we encountered another delay of about 20' when our own train set off a Defect Detector. Nothing was found, and I should mention that our crew "dogged" about 20 miles west of Tucson, necessitating a relief crew meeting us out in the desert. However, we only lost about 10' on that problem, evidently Amtrak had a crew ready to go, possibly the crew that would have taken over in Tucson anyway.
We were also delayed about 20' by a UP train having some problem, this occurring near Lordsburg, NM. I hope our desert dwellers in the hobby are not offended, when I say that in my opinion, if you have seen 100 miles of the desert, the other 1500 or so look the same, at least to me. I was interested in the history of the area however, and knew that when we passed Benson, AZ, we were quite close to "Tombstone" which is located southeast of Benson. I don't know if it ever was on a rail line. The Sunset is due in El Paso at 2:50pm with a scheduled 20' servicing stop, but we did not arrive there until nearly 9pm.
After retiring for the night, I was briefly awake at one point and noticed that we were stopped at Alpine, TX. Somewhere between there and San Antonio, we lost more time, so that we arrived in San Antonio about 10 am, roughly 6 hours late. It should be noted that we passed into Central time at El Paso. The cars for the Texas Eagle were pulled off at San Antonio, but we acquired additional Material cars on the rear, so that leaving San Antonio, the Sunset had filled out to about 15 cars in all.
My youngest son is an attorney in Houston, and he had planned to bring his wife and my grandson down to the station. They could not get a lineup from Amtrak, so they made their way to the depot in Houston about 9:15, and were told that the train had just arrived in San Antonio, and was expected in Houston around 3pm. Because of the press of his business, the plan had to be abandoned, and we actually arrived in Houston about 3:45PM, roughly 6 hours late.
I found the industrial areas of Houston to be interesting, and the train certainly contorts itself in getting through the Amtrak depot and back onto the UP line, which then passes Englewood yard. Every track seemed to be filled, and there were not many trains moving in the area.
We did not pass any between Houston and Lake Charles, LA where bedtime came again. I slept very well, this 3rd and last night out on the Sunset, and I will emphasize at this point, that the on-board crew does a super job on this train handling the passengers, and they find it just as frustrating as the paying customers, when the UP (or the vandals) mess things up. I am sad to note that ridership has fallen off on this run over the last couple of years, and wonder if it will survive the budget cuts that will soon have to be made. This particular edition of the Sunset (Jan. 22 out of LA) seemed to be full, however.
Next morning, I awoke, and noticed that we were in the outskirts of Mobile, AL. How nice to be back in the "arms of CSX" again, especially on this part of my favorite RR. Although the L&N has been a "fallen flag" for nearly 30 years now, there is still a legion of employees at CSX that remember it well, though most of us are old-timers (or short-timers) now. As an HO modeler, I have focused my efforts on the L&N, and am now working on the "Florida Division". Seems that a freight had fallen down with air trouble ahead of us and so we got another delay. Even so, we made up time all the way across the P&A Sub., as well as the Tallahassee Sub. arriving in Jacksonville at 6pm, about 6.5 hours late. I later learned that UP had handed off the Sunset to CSX about 7 hours late in New Orleans.
There is not a lot to be said of the Florida Pan Handle. If the Eastbound Sunset is on-time however, daylight comes just before Tallahassee, so we did get to see towns and facilities that are otherwise not seen on this train. The Westbound train finds daylight just before Mobile, so that the run across all of those Gulf Coast bridges is in daylight, except for the Collinson Bridge, east of Pensacola.
For many years, the L&N, and later CSX had a low pile trestle across Escambia bay, northeast of Pensacola on the P&A Sub. (Pensacola & Atlantic). Some years ago, a new high bridge, eliminating an aging drawspan was placed at this point and named the John T. Collinson bridge. John C. was president of the company at the time, and a former Chief Engineer of the B&O.
Well, we arrived back in Jacksonville, just 2.25 hours short of being gone 10 full days. Of the trip, we probably won't repeat the Sunset, except perhaps as a way to connect to the City of New Orleans. We are planning another "rail safari" in the year 2000, probably in the late summer. Karen wants to see Yellowstone Park, and I have to figure out how to handle that on a rail trip. I think it is not a difficult drive from Salt Lake City, UT or Havre, MT, so I am thinking about making a stopover in Salt Lake City, from the Zephyr, probably on a Westbound run. Spend the night, and a day or two, then pick up a rental car and take 4 or 5 days to Yellowstone, and then continue on to the coast.
Well, that is food for thought.
J. H. Sullivan, A Friend of Amtrak
Playing with trains at CSX: A note about myself.
Although I qualified years ago to handle yard engines etc. during work stoppages, I am no longer qualified as such. The change to requiring a federal license pretty much stopped the times when officer employees could be pressed into service. I am manager of the Computer Aided Design equipment, and training in the CSX Transportation Engineering Dept. Though, I have worked for Southern Railway in the past, and have many friends there and on other roads as well, I find CSX a particularly satisfying place to work. However, for those of you who think you would like a job on the RR, consider this. Even the officer jobs are not cushy now, if they ever were. My average workweek is 70 hours, and many recent weeks approaching the split date have passed 80 hours. If you are willing to work a regular 40 hour, 5 day week, and then whatever other hours or days are required, then go for it. Doug Riddel puts it well in his book when he says you can love your wife and children, but you are married to the railroad. I have 32 years "between the rails now" and just passed 60, so I am on my own time now. However, God willing, I expect to work till I'm 65.
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