March 25, 1998, Thruway Bus from Phoenix Airport to Flagstaff
March 26, 1998, Train 4 (SW Chief) eastbound, coach, Flagstaff to Lamy (connecting van to Santa Fe)
March 28, 1998, Train 4 eastbound, standard sleeper, Lamy (connecting van from Santa Fe) to Chicago (arrival on March 29).
Despite being regular riders of Amtrak's long-distance trains, our recent trip was something of an experiment for us. With our primary destination being Phoenix, a non-Amtrak city, we would be trying, for the first time, an Amtrak bus connection.
Traveling on the air-rail plan, so that we could be in the Arizona sun the morning after leaving Chicago, we had flown to Phoenix. The air-rail plan is priced on a flat-rate basis, determined (and published in the Vacation Planner) based on the time zones of your origin and destination, regardless of the actual itinerary between those two points. Our original itinerary had us taking a one-way car rental from the Phoenix airport and returning it in Flagstaff, AZ, the night before our train departure. Upon review of the Amtrak timetable, however, I noticed that the Amtrak Thruway bus made a stop at the Phoenix airport on its way to Flagstaff. So, for zero extra charge, we added the Phoenix-to-Flagstaff bus to our itinerary. On paper, at least, this allowed us to 1) get a better car rental rate, since we could return the car to the point of rental; 2) not have to drive to Flagstaff; and 3) not have to deal with getting rid of a rental car in Flagstaff and with wondering how to be transported, with our considerable luggage, to our hotel.
Yet we still viewed with trepidation the prospect of riding a bus. On our departure day, March 25, we were pleasantly surprised. The bus stop at the airport was literally just a few steps outside the rental car return lot. We had left a Cactus League baseball game, retrieved and loaded our luggage at the hotel, driven to the airport, sat in traffic, unloaded our luggage, returned our rental car and checked in for the bus and yet had only consumed one hour from leaving our seat at the game to being ready to board the bus. Of course, since we had allowed a considerable amount of extra time, the bus wasn't ready for us yet, but no matter. We rented a Smart Cart and wheeled our luggage to the bar in the terminal, having been advised by the terminal attendant that we had to be present only 5 minutes before departure.
Departure was exactly on schedule. The bus was perhaps a third full, lots of room to spread out. We made one more stop in the Phoenix area, and one stop half-way between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Despite brutal traffic, the bus arrived in Flagstaff on time, and dropped us off right at the door to the train station. We had a ton of luggage, and were very surprised and appreciative of how easy the trip had been, from giving up our rental car perhaps 50 feet from the bus stop to being dropped off at the train station door.
From here, the process continued to be easy. The bus arrives in Flagstaff in the evening, in time for the westbound Southwest Chief to pass through at around 10pm. We, however, were on the eastbound Chief that was due at 8am the next day. Since there is no morning bus from Phoenix to Flagstaff, this meant that there had to be an overnight connection. Yet two things made it very easy. First, the station allowed us to check our baggage in the evening for the morning train. This meant that we needed to keep only our carry-ons, with an overnight change of clothes, and did not have to haul all our luggage to the hotel. Second, we found ourselves a room at a hotel that offered shuttle service to and from the train station. A tip: we did this by using the Amtrak Vacation Planner. Although you can normally get a better rate by calling the hotel directly than by going through Amtrak Vacations, the hotels listed in the planner, at least in smaller cities, typically all offer shuttle service.
We awoke the next morning to heavy snow. Today's travel, March 26, was to be by coach from Flagstaff to Lamy, NM (where we would be shuttled by van to Santa Fe). The train ride is approximately 7 hours, 8am to 3pm, so even though we've never ridden coach on the train, we saw no reason for a sleeper on this segment.
A very large crowd had gathered that morning to board the Chief and, having never ridden coach, we did not know whether or how we would be assigned seats together. The station agents took care of that. We were assembled in two lines, one for each of the two coach cars, in order of destination, with singles seated last. One car was for destinations west of Kansas City, the other car was for KC to Chicago. We were warned that AZ has a law prohibiting more than a 10 minute station stop, and that if it was violated, we risked losing our conductor and engineer. Accordingly, the lineup.
A word to the wise: The Flagstaff baggage counter closed a half-hour before train arrival, to allow the staff to stage the passengers, run a snowplow over the platform and load the baggage cart. If you showed up less than 30 minutes before the train was due, you could not check baggage or buy tickets.
The train arrived very close to schedule. 3 engines, a baggage car, transition sleeper, 2 Superliner coaches, Sightseer Lounge, Dining Car and 2 sleepers, followed by approx. 6 express cars. All revenue cars seemed to be brand new equipment. The lower level of one coach was for handicapped seating; the lower level of the other is the smoking lounge. When we asked about moving our seats further back in the car (we were assigned seats next to the space between two windows), the attendant curtly snapped "NO!!", while the conductor later revealed that there was not enough seating for everyone boarding at Flagstaff. No mention made of where everyone would be put.
The ride itself was comfortable and uneventful. I walked to the dining car, and observed that full service was still in effect; no cutbacks here, with linen, silver and ceramic dishes in use, with the full-selection menu. The same was true at lunchtime. One of the lunchtime options looked like it could have been prepurchased in the frozen food section (chicken pot pie), but the other menu choices were clearly prepared on board.
As usual, the air "quality" in the upstairs portion of the coach car that contained the smoking lounge reflected the heavy smoking going on downstairs. Amtrak probably can't afford to run it as a smokers-only car, but surely there is some solution.
The Indian guide was provided from Albuquerque to Gallup, NM, but her narration was broadcast only in the lounge car. We wondered why that was not available in the rest of the train. When we left the lounge for lunch, we missed half the tour. There were also no route guides anywhere to be found on the train, even though the narrator frequently referred us to information in the route guides.
The train arrived in Lamy on time, where we were promptly met by the Lamy-Santa Fe shuttle van. Today, it was actually a van and a car, since he had more passengers than usual. We were dropped off at the front door of our hotel and told to call on our departure day to schedule the pickup (depending on whether the train was on time).
The final leg of our trip was March 28, departing Lamy on the eastbound Chief for Chicago. The east and west bound Chiefs pass through Lamy within an hour of each other, with the eastbound train coming first. The Lamy shuttle only wanted to make one trip to the station, so we had both east- and west-bound passengers in the van. Actually, we were the only east bound passengers in the van and were afraid (the driver spent more time, it seemed, socializing than driving) that the driver had forgotten about us and that we would arrive in Lamy too late to check our 5 large pieces of baggage. We still remembered the admonition that the station agents gave in Flagstaff about late passengers.
Not to fear. We arrived in Lamy 10 minutes ahead of the train, but the station agent was more than happy to add our bags to his cart. In fact, he didn't seem to have a whole lot else to do before the train arrived. Granted, it wasn't snowing, either. This agent had plenty of people boarding, but it seemed much more casual and unstructured than in Flagstaff.
We had a sleeper this time, room 8 in car 0430, with the consist being the same as on the previous segment. This is a 24 hour ride, leaving Lamy at about 3pm Mountain time and arriving Chicago at 4pm Central time.
Our first meal is dinner; the announcement of dinner reservations carried the first portent of things being amiss on the train. The dining car steward warned that due to the crowd, dinners would be served fast and that after dinner dallying was to be discouraged. While in the smoking lounge, Karen learns that one of the two coach cars on the train is entirely occupied by a high school band traveling to Topeka and that, according to the band director, there were supposed to have been three coach cars on the train. The coach section, which had only two cars, was consequently severely overbooked. We observed numerous passengers being "assigned" seats in the Sightseer Lounge, in the absence of seats available in the coach cars. The Lounge car become littered with the sleeping gear and luggage of these displaced passengers. At least two other passengers, who complained, were given space in the crew car.
The dining car operated at the normal level of service, complete with linen, silver, porcelain, etc. and full choice on the menu, including multiple dessert choices, with ice cream, at lunch and dinner. The number of waiters in the dining car is less than in the past; there seemed to be only two waiters and the steward taking care of everything. We had the same waiter for all three meals; he was cold but efficient (given our experience, that is high praise for an Amtrak waiter). Meanwhile, our sleeping car attendant informed us that he understood that Amtrak intended to "upgrade" the California Zephyr this summer "to be more like the Coast Starlight". He said that it would at least mean the introduction of a first-class lounge similar to the Pacific Parlor Car. Wonder if it also means restoration of the prior level of service in the Zephyr's Dining Car? The attendant did not know.
Otherwise, the ride itself, like the earlier segment to Lamy, was on time, comfortable and, at least as to us, uneventful. Our attendant was very helpful, including bringing us our breakfast to our room. Of course, we had tipped amply the night before and then added another $5 for the "room service". We asked whether there was any gift pack or other souveniers available on the train, as most other trains have had; he said no. Maybe that's because the Chief still has a full service dining car?
From a personnel standpoint, the only blemish that we encountered on this trip was, predictably, in Chicago Union Station's baggage claim room (where we've previously encountered malcontented employees). The attendant was checking baggage claim checks as the bags were being removed from the room. She was also removing the Amtrak baggage slip from each piece of luggage. Unfortunately, she felt the need to do this one-handed, causing my luggage cart to tip over and dumping the cart and my 5 pieces of large, heavy luggage, as well as my 4 small, heavy carry-ons (hey, it was a three week trip) hard onto another passenger's smaller luggage and all over the floor. The attendant said "sorry, I had to remove the tags", and walked away.
We got into a Chicago taxi with a driver who had severe body odor, and went home. So ended our vacation.
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