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By Jack M. Turner

With the future of the former Santa Fe Raton Pass line very much in doubt in early 2015, I resolved to make a journey over that route in case it turned out to be my last ride over the former “Route of the Stars”.  Thus I found myself in the midst of a massive rainstorm as I drove to Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday, September 12 to catch the northbound Silver Meteor.

After lunch with my friend and former work colleague Katie, I made my way to the Jacksonville Amtrak station to board the on-time train # 98.  Viewliner sleeper 62006, still displaying the name “College View” on its end doors, was my home for this trip.  The sleepers were turned backwards meaning my roomette 4 would unexpectedly be on the east side.  Minutes after our 5:09pm departure I was seated in the dining car enjoying the views as we crossed the St. Mary’s River and passed the crowded rail fan pavilion at nearby Folkston, GA. 

Twilight views of the marshes and rivers of eastern Georgia made for a fine sight as day gave way to night.  Savannah came and went then we spent a few minutes on a siding north of Ridgeland, SC waiting for the southbound Palmetto to sail by.  The headlights of passing vehicles on nearby I-95 made a nice sight as the Silver Meteor cooled its heels.  I turned in after Florence but awakened at Fayetteville and observed the passage of the southbound Silver Meteor just north of that city.  I slept through the next several stops until we stopped in Washington, DC at 6:45am.  An efficient 24 minute stop was all that was required to switch out our diesel engines for a new electric engine then we were on our way, gliding along the Northeast Corridor.  Sleeping car attendant “Larry” greeted me with a friendly smile as he no doubt had done for hundreds of passengers during his 43 years of service for the Seaboard Coast Line and Amtrak.  This would be his next to last trip before retirement.


New ACS-64 Sprinter engine # 602 prepares to lead the Silver Meteor at Washington, DC


Brand new Viewliner II baggage car 61011 on the Silver Meteor at Washington


One of the impressive river crossings on the Northeast Corridor

The dining car was not at all busy when I made my way to the Heritage fleet diner for breakfast as we left the nation’s capitol.  Our Sunday morning stops were brief and we arrived in New York 27 minutes early at 10:33am.  With over 5 hours to kill, I divided my time between the first class Club Acela in Penn Station and a walk around Manhattan.  It was easy to stroll to the Empire State Building area passing the Affinia Hotel, Macy’s, and a bunch of interesting establishments along the way.


The Empire State Building as seen during my walk between trains at New York


Amtrak’s first class Club Acela in Penn Station

A friendly red cap took me to the westbound Lake Shore Limited well in advance of its 3:40pm departure.  When I booked the trip I was happy to have roomette 1 as it is my favorite Viewliner room location.  I resolved to enjoy the trip along the Hudson River from the diner or lounge car since odd numbered rooms have always been on the right hand side.  But in a stroke of good luck, the sleepers were again running backwards from their intended orientation so my room was on the river side.  Dinner in the diner actually surpassed the meal I had the prior night as the steak on the Lake Shore seemed to be a better cut of meat than the prior night.  The placid Hudson River provided outstanding views from my dining car table then I enjoyed the sunset from my room.


Passing beneath the I-87/I-287 bridge over the Hudson River north of Dobbs Ferry, NY


Dinnertime in Heritage dining car 8502


The stylish Lake Shore Limited dining car menu


Twin Interstate 84 bridges north of Beacon, NY seen during dinner in the dining car

The stop at Albany-Rennsalaer was uncomplicated as there were no Boston cars to cut in since a stub train had protected that route.  Station platform construction at this stop negated switching so until this is completed passengers from Boston have to transfer.  I settled in for the night by Syracuse and sleeping car “Tranquil View” lived up to its name by providing a good night’s sleep.


Rear of the Lake Shore Limited at Albany-Renssalaer


The southbound Maple Leaf arrives in Albany-Renssalaer

Morning kicked off with breakfast in the diner as the train traversed the former New York Central line across northern Indiana.  A kids’ baseball field built in the middle of a cornfield west of Waterloo reminded me of my favorite baseball movie, “Field of Dreams”. Shortly we passed three deer in an open field before eventually making stops in Elkhart and South Bend.  The old steel mills around Gary and the skyline of Chicago soon appeared and 40 minutes later we arrived at Chicago Union Station at 9:46am, 1 minute late.


A farm west of Waterloo, IN

Once again a five hour wait for my connecting train awaited and I contemplated the many options for passing the time.  On past trips I have taken commuter trains to the suburbs, visited some of Chicago’s fantastic museums, taken a city bus tour, or enjoyed a boat tour down the Chicago River.  This time I decided to walk a few blocks to a favorite restaurant then ride the Elevated around The Loop, something I always wanted to do but never had.  This was an inexpensive way to get an aerial view of the downtown area and some northern suburbs. 


The Chicago River adjacent to Union Station


An elevated train approaches a station in The Loop


Trump International Hotel & Tower seen from “The L”

Back at Amtrak’s first class Metropolitan Lounge I enjoyed conversation with fellow passengers until boarding for the Southwest Chief began at 2:20pm.  As I reached sleeper 0331 I couldn’t believe my eyes as my car was number 32111 “Texas” which years ago was the final Superliner sleeper that I had never seen.  It finally came my way on the Sunset Limited which was running hours late giving me a chance to only get a dark photo of the car for my collection of Superliner II sleeper photos.  To actually ride that car in roomette 2 was an unexpected bonus. 


Chicago Union Station’s Great Hall

Our 3:00pm departure from the Windy City was followed by passage through several villages that comprise the Chicagoland area.  Dinner came as train # 3 stopped at Galesburg and lasted until after we crossed the Mississippi River as the sun began to set.  In the dark of the night we crossed the Missouri River, the route of Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery, at 9:20pm and 30 minutes later stopped at Kansas City for 55 minutes.  My room’s location on the right hand side allowed excellent views of a half dozen passing freights on the nearby main line traversed by Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.


Mississippi River sunset as the Southwest Chief crosses from Illinois to Iowa


Crossing the Des Moines River and entering Missouri west of Ft. Madison


Sunset in the farmlands of northern Missouri


The last glow of daylight silhouettes a Missouri farm

Overnight the Southwest Chief traversed Kansas and entered southern Colorado in the morning.  As the train departed Trindad I fired up an I phone app that gave me speed and elevation information.  The slow climb approaching Raton Pass took us from 6103 feet to 6607 ft in just 7 minutes and 15 minutes later we passed 7077 feet as we traveled 17 mph.  The old ATSF sign marking the site of the Dick Wooten Ranch appeared a couple minutes later and we reached the entrance to Raton Tunnel 3 minutes after that.  Here an ATSF sign noted that at 7588 ft this was the highest point on the (former) Santa Fe Railway.  Exiting Raton Tunnel a herd of elk were spotted in a gully below and passengers in the lounge car excitedly pointed out other elk seen during the next couple of miles.  Meanwhile, a conductor advised me that indications are that the Raton Pass line has gotten a reprieve that should ensure its survival for a few more years.


Sleeper 32111 “Texas” at LaJunta, CO


The head end of the Southwest Chief at LaJunta


Heritage fleet baggage car 1751 is making one of its last runs before retirement


This mountain overlooking Trinidad, CO displays the town name on top


A preserved Santa Fe sign close to the tunnel at Raton Pass


A large herd of elk spotted just beyond the Raton Tunnel

After lunch we passed Wagon Mound, Shoemaker Canyon, and Starvation Peak, each a notable landmark along this beautiful route.  Minutes past Starvation Peak we navigated a pair of S curves that always are a highlight and made our way over Glorietta Pass and through Canyoncito before pausing at Lamy, NM.  Eastbound train # 4, running almost 3 hours late, passed at 3:40pm and 40 minutes later we arrived at Albuquerque 25 minutes tardy. 


Raton, NM station


Las Vegas, NM station


Starvation Peak is a notable landmark west of Las Vegas, NM along the old Santa Fe Trail

Albuquerque would be my first stopover and my lodging at the Hyatt Regency Hotel was perfectly located about 3 blocks from the train station.  This hotel was my family’s home for a week back in 2007 when son John was a finalist at the International Science and Engineering Fair (see my article “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque”). I was pleased to find the hotel even better than ever with a perfect view of Sandia Mountain from my spacious room and a great surrounding area for walking, something badly needed after 3 nights on trains.  Before I could totally relax, I had more train riding to do aboard a commuter train to Santa Fe, NM as detailed in my next story.


The Hyatt Regency Albuquerque is an excellent hotel located within walking distance of the Amtrak station

TrainWeb article "Point Me in The Direction of Albuquerque":

Hyatt Regency Albuquerque