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By Jack M. Turner

    Following our Panama Canal cruise aboard the “Island Princess” and a day of sightseeing between San Pedro and Malibu, we headed to Los Angeles Union Station to board the eastbound Sunset Limited.  We spent a couple of hours exploring the magnificent station and relaxing in the Metropolitan Lounge located upstairs in the back corner of the station. 


The main waiting room in Los Angeles Union Station

    Sleeper passengers were transported in motorized carts to the train by redcaps and we were settled into our roomettes well before the 10:10pm departure.  As has been our practice in recent years, we booked rooms across the hall from one another to prevent either of us from having to sleep in the cramped top bunk.  For this trip we had rooms 3 and 4 in sleeping car 32093 “Missouri”.  After passing the site of the former Mission Tower, it was time to turn in as the Sunset rolled eastward through Pomona, Ontario, and the outskirts of Palm Springs. 


The eastbound Sunset Limited prepares to depart Los Angeles

    Morning’s first light found train # 2 stopped in Maricopa, AZ where the short platform necessitated four stops to detrain and board passengers.  East of Tucson we passed below a tall railroad bridge that carries the second main line track of the Sunset route.  That track roughly paralleled our line though often separated by a large distance. Shortly before 10:00am the two lines rejoined after having separated at distances up to approximately one-half mile.   


Desert scenery in Arizona


Railroad trestle carrying the second main line track

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Saguaro cactus are plentiful east of Tucson, a few miles south of Saguaro National Park

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The rear of the Sunset Limited with private car "Dearing" carrying the markers


The second main track is approximately 1/2 mile to our north

    Heavy freight traffic was noted all the way from Los Angeles though we navigated the route close to schedule.  At 11:45am a large peach orchard came into view amidst the desert undoubtedly requiring a great deal of irrigation.  An hour later we noted cattle grazing in fields that stood out among the desert landscape.  The stop in Deming, NM revealed boarding passengers waiting in their automobiles as station facilities are lacking.  Just over an hour later the rail line became twisting as valley communities came into view on the left side.  Border fences separating the US from Mexico soon paralleled the railway on the right and moments later we crossed the Rio Grande River and entered Texas.  On the east bank of the river we passed above the BNSF line from El Paso to Albuquerque and spotted a BNSF business car train parked in a small rail yard.  Soon after crossing the Rio Grande we stopped and waited for the westbound Sunset Limited which rolled by at 3:48pm.  After a 20 minute delay we eased forward to El Paso where there was time for a short walk on the platform.


A peach orchard interrupts the desert scenery east of Wilcox, AZ


Rock formations provide contrast to the desert views


Desert sands give a foreboding look beyond the rails


Freight cars parked in the desert north of the Sunset route outside Lordsburg, NM


Desert scenery makes the Sunset route interesting


Mountains west of El Paso


A BNSF business car train parked along the El Paso-Albuquerque line


El Paso train station


"Dearing" brings up the rear of Amtrak train # 2 at El Paso


Superliner lounge 33006 at El Paso


Superliner II dining car 38058


Sleeping car 32093 "Missouri"

    Dinnertime came at 5:30, about 45 minutes after departing El Paso, and we enjoyed a delicious meal highlighted by great service from “John” the friendliest waiter we have encountered in our many Amtrak travels.  Throughout the trip John provided service with a smile and a kind voice that made us feel like welcomed guests.  While we dined, we overtook a pair of eastbound Union Pacific freights whose crewmembers stood in the desert sand inspecting our train during its roll by.  The pace of our dinner was relaxed as the train was not overly crowded and we enjoyed taking our time and savoring the fresh cooked food.


Amtrak's national menu


An Amtrak poster featuring the Sunset Limited


Veteran dining car waiter "John" is among Amtrak's best


This chicken dish was an excellent choice for dinner

    Back in our rooms we enjoyed a brilliant desert sunset primarily from Chris’ south-facing window.  This pointed out another advantage of booking two roomettes as we could move back and forth to view interesting sights on either side of the train.  During the evening the Sunset Limited passed through Marfa and stopped at Alpine, gateway to Big Bend National Park.  The desert scenery took on a different appearance at night with various features silhouetted against the dark sky.  The constellations were clearly visible with the desert sky providing perfect conditions for star gazing.  We slept soundly as train # 2 barreled eastward over the smooth rails and didn’t notice our stops in Sanderson and Del Rio.


Unusual rock formations in west Texas


Magnificent desolation in western Texas

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A west Texas sunset


Sunset west of Marfa, TX


The sun appeared to rise and set as it was blocked by rock formations at times


Twilight near Marfa

    I awoke as we eased to a stop in San Antonio at 6:05am, 75 minutes late.  The San Antonio station and the HemisFair tower from the 1968 World’s Fair filled my roomette window.  A great deal of switching ensued as the Chicago bound coach and sleeper were dropped from our train and added to the Texas Eagle that waited on the adjacent track.  The Eagle actually originates in San Antonio but three days a week includes the two through cars from Los Angeles.  Complicating the switching activities was the presence of private car “Dearing” on the rear of the train making an additional switching move necessary to return that car to the end of our train to New Orleans.

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The HemisFair tower behind the San Antonio station

    We headed to the dining car for breakfast at 7:20 and dined while our train sat in San Antonio.  We finally departed at 8:02am but stopped just east of the station to refuel the engines.  After being conditioned to relax during the cruise, we returned to our roomettes and napped a bit more while being lulled to sleep by the melodious rhythm of the rails.  We awoke in time to see the suburbs of Houston including several railroad junctions as lines from around the state converged.  Arrival in Houston at 12:28pm was just over 75 minutes late but generous schedule padding cut that down to 45 minutes tardy upon departure.


Pancakes and grits for breakfast


San Antonio station


Protect sleeper 32099 "New Mexico: and coach 34031 at San Antonio

    The Sunset Limited backed out of Houston until reaching South Belt Jct., where we switched over the former Missouri Pacific line that runs north of the ex-Southern Pacific line historically used by the Sunset and still used by Amtrak on the westbound run.  This was my first known ride over the old MoPac line though I may have missed it previously when the train covered the route at night.  The most notable feature on this line was massive Lake Houston which we crossed during lunch in the dining car.  Once more we had the pleasure of being served by John who, we learned, has worked for Amtrak for over 40 years.  Originally from Birmingham, John today is based in Los Angeles.


Lake Houston along the former Missouri Pacific line

    We rejoined the former SP line at 2:48pm and met the westbound Sunset Limited as we arrived in Beaumont 4 minutes later.  Beaumont is a crew change stop and the new station/shelter is a vast improvement over previous facilities awaiting passengers.  Train # 2 departed Beaumont just over one hour late which projected to an early arrival into New Orleans if the afternoon went smoothly.  But things unraveled a bit as we were over 90 minutes late at Lake Charles.  Dinnertime brought a delicious steak dinner accompanied by a baked potato, mixed vegetables, and vanilla pudding served by the affable John.  His colleague Debbie made pleasant and concise announcements concerning dining times that epitomized a smooth-running dining car.  The view from our dining car window revealed miles of flooded rice fields lining the railway.


New station at Beaumont


Crossing a river into Lake Charles, LA


Flooded rice fields


Grain elevators evoke memories of Canadian train trips


A trackmobile used for switching cars

    Another 30 minutes was lost by our next stop, Lafayette, which left us expecting to be at least one hour late at our destination, and we held steady at two hours late at New Iberia.  An hour later we crossed the Atchalafaya River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, at Morgan City with the impressive US 90 highway bridge visible to the north.  We fell back another 25 minutes by Schriever then endured several stop and go stretches as we dropped even more time.  The towering Huey Long Bridge carried us high above the Mississippi a few minutes after 11;00pm and we finally reached New Orleans at a rather uncivilized 11:39pm, just shy of two hours late.

A BNSF freight rests for the evening

    Fortunately, our lodging for the night was a very short taxi ride from the train station.  The Hampton Inn and Suites Convention Center was excellent with a clean and comfortable oversized room.  This hotel was repurposed from an old warehouse located close to the Mississippi River yet its interior possesses all the modern amenities one could want.  Along with being close to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, this hotel is just a short walk from trolley stops connecting to the French Quarter in one direction and the Garden District along St. Charles Avenue in the other.  A nearby Enterprise car rental agency picked us up at the hotel and soon we were motoring eastward toward home.

    Overall our Sunset Limited trip was the perfect post cruise means of travel as there was no hurry, enough scenery to avoid being totally bored, yet not enough scenic highlights to make it difficult to take a nap.  The dining car service was outstanding and we had enough time to reflect upon our wonderful Panama Canal cruise from the prior two weeks.

The first part of this Rail Adventure was

By Jack M. Turner


Hampton Inn New Orleans Convention Center

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