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By Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner

    After our day in Los Angeles we were ready to board the Southwest Chief and the easiest way to board quickly is to let a red cap drive you to the train.  Given the station's steep ramps from a subterranean tunnel beneath the tracks to the platform, this is a great way to begin one's trip.  Car 32000, Amtrak's original Superliner sleeper, welcomed us aboard and we were pleased to see that the car had been refurbished with wood paneling, a new restroom design, and other upgrades to the 31 year old sleeper.  This would be our first trip in the 32000, allowing us to strike another sleeper from our "never ridden" list.

    The Southwest Chief departed from Track 12 a few minutes late at 6:37pm and 35 minutes later made its scheduled stop in Fullerton.  While the conductor lifted tickets, John and I detrained for a brief visit with TrainWeb's Carl Morrison whom we had met with earlier in the day.  We made our way to the diner as the Chief branched off the San Diego line just south of the Fullerton station and the meal did not disappoint.  Near the end of dinner the train made its station stop at Riverside, home of one of Amtrak's reservation call centers.  San Bernandino followed a few minutes later then we made the winding climb to Cajon Pass though evening darkness diminished the view.

    Planned overnight stays in Flagstaff, Arizona and LaPlata, Missouri would stretch the Southwest Chief experience to five days and would allow the sampling of three consecutive sets of  Southwest Chief equipment.    Having risen early this morning and with another early morning ahead, we turned in for the night as the train left Victorville at 9:34pm.  The night passed quickly and we detrained in Flagstaff at 5:49am on Day 2 of our Southwest Chief adventure.

    A couple of hours later we picked up a rental car from the Avis office a block from the train station.  We enjoyed driving around Flagstaff whose downtown streets are lined with interesting shops, restaurants, and night spots then we turned northward bound for the Grand Canyon.  The drive to the canyon climbs as it passes near the Snow Bowl ski resort and a heavy snowfall made the drive interesting for this pair of Floridians.  Grand Canyon National Park was reached after about 90 minutes and we spent several hours visiting the various overlooks; having lunch at the dining room inside the El Tovar hotel; and browsing inside the Hopi House, a shop designed by famed naturalist Mary Coulter in 1905 to resemble an indian puebo building.  The Grand Canyon Railway station stands a few steps from El Tovar and the Hopi House and the tourist line's train from Williams was resting after its arrival with a load of canyon visitors.  An article by TrainWeb's Carl Morrison details his recent ride on this line.  (A link to his report can be found in the LINKS Section at the end of this report.)

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A steam engine displayed along US 180 north of Flagstaff.

John enjoys a heavy snowfall along US 180 near the Arizona Snowbowl.

Clouds cast a variety of hues to the walls of the Grand Canyon.

March snow dusts the cliffs lining the Grand Canyon.

The multiple layers of the canyon are visible from this vantage point.

El Tovar was a resort hotel constructed to attract rail travelers arriving on Santa Fe trains.  Today this popular lodge continues to serve visitors wishing to stay within a few steps of the canyon rim.  This view was made popular in the movie "Family Vacation" starring Chevy Chase.

The magnificent dining room at El Tovar.

The Hopi House, opened in 1905, was designed by famed naturalist Mary Coulter.

Grand Canyon Railway continues the tradition of bringing visitors to the Grand Canyon.  Shown here is vista dome Coconino.

Former Amtrak F40 # 237 heads the Grand Canyon Railway train on this day.

A rainbow brightens the scene over the Painted Desert east of Grand Canyon National Park.

Sunset Crater, a national monument located northeast of Flagstaff, is a popular sight.

    We found this to be an excellent time of year to visit the Grand Canyon as we didn't encounter the huge crowds with which we contended during past summer visits nor the oppressive heat that is typical of the desert southwest at that time of year.  A chilly breeze and periodic snowfall made the visit interesting and the alternating clouds and sun cast a variety of colors and shadows on the canyon walls.  Back in Flagstaff we planned to visit famous Lowell Observatory for some nighttime stargazing, however, the overcast skies and light snowfall nixed that plan.  We spent the night at the cozy Hilton Garden Inn which is located on the western side of town adjacent to several restaurants.  The hotel offers transportation to and from the Amtrak station and nearby sights which is convenient for train travelers.  This hotel is a perfect base for day trips to the Grand Canyon, Sunset Crater National Monument, Waputki National Monument, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Meteor Crater, and the Verde River Railroad.

Hilton Garden Inn is a leading hotel in Flagstaff.  This hotel offers courtesy transportation to and from the Flagstaff Amtrak station.


    Day 3 of our Southwest Chief travels dawned early as we drove our rental car from the Hilton Garden Inn to the Amtrak station.  After leaving our Avis car in a parking lot across the tracks from the depot, we boarded the tardy Southwest Chief at 6:19am along with about 30 other passengers.  After settling into room 4 in sleeper 32076 "Delaware", we headed to the diner for breakfast as we stopped in Winslow at dawn.  A long stop ensued at Gallup as high winds and heavy snow necessitated delay to ensure conditions were safe to proceed.  The schedule permitted train # 4 to make up most of its lost time and we rolled into Albuquerque just before noon.  There we made the planned switch to the adjacent sleeper, car 32015, which allowed us to travel in a bedroom the remainder of the trip.  After a quick visit to Bedroom C we walked the platform to look at engine # 145 which was decked out in one of Amtrak's throwback heritage paint jobs. The long service stop allowed time to also visit the jewelry tables manned by members of the Navajo indian tribe at one end of the platform.  Before departure we made our way to the dining car for lunch and we enjoyed sitting with Ken, a former NHL hockey player and his little girl. 

Fresh fallen snow covers freight cars along the former Santa Fe transcontinental line.

A westbound BNSF freight on a converging line in the desert.

Santa Fe's old repair shops in Albuquerque.

P42 # 145 wears a retro paint scheme in honor of Amtrak's 40th birthday.

New Mexico Rail Runner equipment lays over for the weekend near the Albuquerque station.

    As the Southwest Chief passed behind the Albuquerque Convention Center, our thoughts were taken back to May 2007 when we spent a week in the city for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) which was held in that facility.  For details about our rail travels to and from Albuquerque and John's participation in that year's ISEF, see our story "Point Me In The Direction of Albuquerque". (A link to that report can be found in the LINKS Section at the end of this report.)

    Just outside Albuquerque we met a New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train then made our way toward Lamy, the closest Amtrak stop to Santa Fe, NM.  With very careful planning one can make a triangle trip using Amtrak between Albuquerque and Lamy, the Santa Fe Southern excursion train between Lamy and Santa Fe, and the Rail Runner commuter train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  Just east of Lamy we passed through narrow Canyoncito then made the climb to Glorietta Pass where lots of snow covered tree tops, hills, and red rocks.  At 2:37pm the westbound Southwest Chief rolled past on the main line at Fox while our train held the siding.  About one-half hour later we navigated the double horseshoe near Blanchard and passed distinctive Starvation Peak.  The next stop, Las Vegas, NM, provided a glimpse of La Castinada, one of the famed Harvey House lodges built along the Santa Fe Railway in a bygone era.

    Shoemaker Canyon was the next notable sight passing our window then the Chief entered massive rangelands where antelope and a few heads of cattle roamed.  Another landmark, Wagon Mound, came into view and a few miles beyond we spotted the second semaphore signal of the day.  As recently as our 2007 trip we had seen many of the venerable signals along this stretch, however, most have since been replaced by newer trackside signals.  The steep climb to Raton Pass began just beyond the station stop for Raton, NM and the setting was surreal with thick fog enveloping snow covered mountains.  Our passage through Raton Tunnel and exit into Colorado was viewed from the diner as we waited for another delicious meal to be served.  The sharp descent from Raton Pass reminded me of my first ride over this line, a westbound trip in 1976.  Back then the sound of three SDP40F engines straining to climb Raton resembled a jet taking off as I watched from an open vestibule window in a former Santa Fe hi-level coach.  On the current trip the sound effects were insulated from the dining car interior but the view was just as outstanding despite the fog.  The old Santa Fe sign identifying the historic Dick Wooten Ranch still stood beside the railway and the area looked much the way it did 35 years ago.

The trailing engine on our eastbound Southwest Chief displays an Amtrak throwback paint job.

One of many distinctive mountains along the route of the Southwest Chief.

Eagle-eyed travelers will likely spot a variety of wildlife from the Southwest Chief.

Rain falls in the high country east of Raton, NM.

The Raton station.

    After the stop in Trinidad, Colorado, the Southwest Chief sailed through the darkness to its next stop in LaJunta which stretched past 8:00pm.  The extended break gave time to grab a handful of snow from an automobile parked nearby and throw a snowball at our bedroom window where John was perched.  Soon it was time to turn in as we had to arise in the middle of the night so John could greet a friend who was boarding one of the coaches at Newton, Kansas.  This allowed us to see the westbound Southwest Chief flash by at 3:11am about 20 minutes before our train called at Newton.  After sleeping three more hours we arose for good at 6:30am at Lawrence then headed for breakfast in the diner during the stop in Kansas City an hour later.  A couple hours later it was time for me to detrain at La Plata, Missouri for a day of railfanning and touring the area.  Meanwhile, John continued to Chicago for a day of sightseeing with his friend.

    A friendly employee of the Depot Inn and Suites greeted me at the station platform in La Plata and assisted in placing my luggage in the Depot Inn's van.  This attractive lodge is located about 1/2 mile from the Amtrak station and, as the name implies, it caters to railfans.  Railroad motor cars stand on a short piece of track in front of the Depot Inn and Suites and, upon entering the lobby, one is immediately surrounded by railroading.  A large bookshelf beside the fireplace houses a well stocked library of railroad books while an adjacent magazine rack offers a variety of train magazines.  All of these are available for guests to use during their stay.  A large screen television is tuned to a rail cam overlooking the BNSF main line near the Amtrak station while another channel offers the dispatcher's view of the railroad subdivisions showing where trains are at a given moment.  Visitors to the indoor swimming pool will notice metal railroad heralds hanging from the pool room's walls and a variety of railroad photos and artifacts line the hallway outside many of the guest rooms.  The Pullman Suite offered a plush experience with a king sized sleigh bed, leather sofa, fireplace, hot tub, and large screen television complete with the railroad channels along with many cable stations. 

La Plata, MO Amtrak station.

Depot Inn and Suites, La Plata, MO.

    In addition to transportation to the La Plata depot, the Depot Inn and Suites advertises courtesy transportation to other Amtrak stations in the region making it possible to arrive on the Southwest Chief but depart on one of the other routes passing within about an hour of La Plata.  While the town of La Plata is home to under 2,000 residents, nearby Kirksville is significantly larger and rental cars are available for those wishing access to outlying areas. 
   Behind the Depot Inn a pair of former Amtrak material handling cars contain impressive displays with one of them recognized as the Amtrak historical museum.  Stepping inside one of these cars is like going back in time as displays dedicated to just about any long distance train ever run by Amtrak bring back distant memories.  From Southwest Chief dining car menus to conductors' jackets to commemorative glass mugs from the Capitol Limited and wine glasses from the Empire Builder, this former mail car transports visitors through Amtrak's colorful history.

Material handling cars displayed outside the Depot Inn and Suites are recognized as the official Amtrak historical museum.

This display in the Amtrak historical museum honors the Lake Shore Limited.

California Zephyr memorabilia is housed in the historical museum.

The Southwest Chief and its predecessor the Southwest Limited are spotlighted in the museum.

    Following my personal tour of the museum displays it was time to explore the area and my first stop was the railfan overlook pavilion where one can watch passing trains from the comfort of seats inside a climate controlled cabin or outside on its front deck.  From this elevated perch, trains can be seen racing past the Amtrak depot to the west or rounding a curve and rushing below a highway overpass to the east.  With dozens of BNSF freights and Amtrak's Southwest Chief passing each day, this is one of the prime train watching spots in the nation.  The headquarters of stand across the tracks from the railfan pavilion and the Amtrak depot; a visit gave me insight into this business which caters to train-themed birthday party supplies and miscellaneous other train goodies.  There I met Ray Burns who explained that the business originally was housed in the Fullerton, CA station but quickly outgrew that space.  The mid-America location of La Plata was selected for its convenient shipping to customers and its location on the Southwest Chief route.  Visit to look at an impressive list of items sure to make any kid's birthday party a hit.

The train watching pavillion in La Plata is a comfortable place to view BNSF and Amtrak action.

A westbound stack train passes the Amtrak depot as seen from the pavillion.

An eastbound Norfolk Southern stack train polishes the rails.

Another westbound sails by the La Plata depot with the headquarters visible at right.

TrainWeb's Ray Burns provides a tour of the warehouse.

The headquarters is opposite the Amtrak station.

    Ray then took me on a guided tour of Amish country which surrounds La Plata.  Here we saw numerous farms whose lack of electric wires is a telltale sign that Amish folks live there.  A couple of Amish owned businesses that welcome outside customers were visited and one couldn't help but gain a healthy respect for these folks' dedication to a demanding way of life.  Along the way the rural highway crossed the BNSF line and streaking double stack trains provided wonderful photo opportunities.  After dinner it was time to visit the Amtrak station to greet the westbound Southwest Chief while a crowd of about 10 passengers waited to board.  The waiting room of the old Santa Fe station retains many art deco appointments from another era and the former ticket office today is where one will find station caretaker Bob Cox.  Visiting with Bob and a pair of railfans visiting during spring break was a pleasant way to spend the evening while watching Amtrak and four freight trains rumble through.

Drivers on rural roads outside La Plata are likely to encounter horse drawn carriages owned by local Amish residents.

A rural highway crossing west of La Plata is an excellent spot to watch BNSF trains pass at speed.

The westbound Southwest Chief arrives in La Plata on a snowy March 9, 2011.


    (During the author's stay in La Plata, John continued to Chicago aboard the Southwest Chief which allowed an extra day for sightseeing.  The following is his account of a stay in the Windy City.)

    As most major airlines nowadays have a central hub from which the vast majority of their flights terminate and originate, so does Amtrak with its long distance passenger trains. But unlike New York, Atlanta, or Dallas international airports; Chicago Union Station is located in the heart of the city, making any layover or visit a prime opportunity to take advantage of the city's world class entertainment and sightseeing, as I did during my two night stopover at the Homewood Suites just off Michigan Avenue. Throughout my stay, the hotel staff there were extremely accommodating: answering my questions, giving directions, and all in all going the extra mile to make sure that my time there was a pleasant one. Despite getting in early on the Chief, I opted to take my first night in the Windy City a little low key after several consecutive days of riding, and rather than go out and about, just went across the street and got a Chicago deep dish pizza instead.

Homewood Suites in downtown Chicago provides comfortable lodging a short cab ride from all Chicago rail stations.

Our suite at Chicago's Homewood Suites offered a separate living room, bedroom, and full kitchen.

    The next day was a chilly one, and I had an early start with a full schedule of sights to see and things to do. After eating my complimentary breakfast at the Homewood, and getting some directions from the bellman, I headed out the door into the morning flurries and made the short trek of a couple of blocks to the trolley stop. Without any transportation of my own, I decided to get a day pass with the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Company, and let me say that there is no better way to see the city. On top of being extremely convenient with stops all around the city that patrons can just hop on and off at their leisure; the onboard guides make the time in between an educational and entertaining one.

Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company tours are a perfect way to see the Windy City.

    My first stop of the day was the Chicago Art Institute, really a pilgrimage that every visitor to Chicago must make at least once. The museum's collections of Impressionist and Contemporary Art is surpassed by none. Being a big fan of artists like Monet and Renoir myself, the sheer number of paintings that they have by these artists just blows my mind and makes visiting the Art Institute akin to visiting a candy store. But even for the most casual of art fans, there are a multitude of paintings and pieces that you will recognize and appreciate. Time spent at the Chicago Art Institute is time that returns dividends of memories and memorable experiences.

    After a couple of hours roaming the labyrinth of halls and galleries, I headed back out to street-side and caught another trolley to, what I would call, 'museum row', to visit the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. Honestly, I didn't know much of what to expect at the Field Museum. Time after time, I was told by my Chicagoan friends that I had to go there, but really I didn't know much about what it housed other than that it had 'Sue', the largest, most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world. Let me say that I was astounded. The Field Museum was probably the biggest surprise, in a good way, that I've ever had in the Windy City. Inside its stately columns are housed thousands and thousands of exhibits ranging from Native American and Egyptian artifacts to countless gems. What was most impressive to me though, was its collection of animal specimens from around the world. Words do not justify just how extensive that collection really is, and so I will not even attempt it. Let me just say that there are things in there that I had never seen before, never knew existed, and truly were so bizarre that they almost appeared to me to be fake, but amazingly weren't. Perhaps my only regret of the trip is that I didn't have even more time to spend there, but I know that I'll certainly get back the next time I find myself along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Field Museum is one of Chicago's greatest treasures.

One of the central displays in the Field Museum.

"Sue" is the Field Museum's most recognizable display.

    Following my astonishment at the Field Museum, came another surprise at the Shedd Aquarium. Being from the Southeast, land of aquariums, I had been to a countless number whether in Georgia, Tennessee, or my home state of Florida. Therefore, my expectations of an aquarium in metropolitan Chicago were rather low. I could not have been further off. Firstly, it was vastly larger than I had envisioned. In addition to the standard fish exhibits radiating out in all directions from the main concourse, there was a massive 'oceanarium' with all sorts of sea mammals ranging from sea lions and otters to beluga whales and dolphins. The diversity of the species and regions covered also was a bit of a surprise. I had figured that there would be sharks, but penguins too? Along with the Art Institute and the Field Museum, I would certainly rank the Shedd Aquarium as a must-experience when visiting the Windy City. I should also note that from the grounds of the little peninsula that the museums are located on, there's an absolutely breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. Lucky for me, my trolley driver was nice enough to make a special stop and allow the passengers onboard to capture it with their cameras.

Shedd Aquarium is a fantastic facility just south of Chicago's Loop.

A variety of sea life can be viewed at the Shedd Aquarium.

Playful sea lions are a tourist favorite at the aquarium.

The Chicago skyline as seen at a special tour stop.

    After a bit of relaxing and taking advantage of the complimentary dinner buffet provided by the Homewood, I took to the Chicago streets after dusk to get some great night shots of the city. I ended up making my way to the John Hancock Building where a speeding elevator whirled me 94 floors to the observation deck which many Chicagoans secretly attest has some of the best views of the city. My visit did not prove them wrong. I imagine that the view during the day is lovely, but at night it's mesmerizing. Looking out at all the city lights stretching for miles and miles, the waves rolling up on the shores of Lake Michigan illuminated by the moon, and the river of red and white car lights flowing throughout like the lifeblood of Chicago... it really is an amazing sight to see. To make comparison, the feeling you get looking out from the Hancock Observatory at night is similar to the feeling you have watching the coast from a ship at night or the flickering city lights from a train as you pull away into the country. It's a special moment of awe. Of course, another awe-inspiring moment is when you're standing 1,353 feet above the ground with nothing but a glass floor separating you from certain death, such as I did the following day at Skydeck Chicago at the iconic Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. Notably popular (and crowded), there is nowhere else in the country that you can ascend 103 floors straight up into the atmosphere and then find yourself staring straight back down again. It makes me feel sorry for the folks who have to clean the windows.

Water Tower is a historical structure on Michigan Avenue.

The nighttime skyline of Chicago seen from the John Hancock Building's observation deck.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) is located a couple blocks from Chicago Union Station.

The Amtrak yards can be seen from Willis Tower.

The skyline of Chicago seen from Willis Tower includes a view of the John Hancock Building.

A northbound Metra train seen from the Willis Tower skydeck.

This view straight down from Willis Tower is not for the faint of heart.


    While John toured Chicago, I made my way back to the La Plata depot on a chilly Thursday morning in the Depot Inn courtesy van.  Another good crowd awaited for the Southwest Chief to arrive at 10:00am.  Interestingly the train stopped on the far track meaning one had to cross the near track on a wooden crosswalk that required precise spotting of the train.  Despite the relatively short trip to Chicago, I opted for a roomette and was soon relaxing with my feet up in room 5 in car 32026.  As had been the case for much of the trip, this was a car I had never ridden; once again the statistical odds had been beaten.  Thanks to stopovers in Flagstaff and La Plata, this was the fifth straight day I had been aboard the Southwest Chief for at least a few hours.

The art deco interior of La Plata's train station.

The eastbound Southwest Chief arrives in La Plata on March 10, 2011.

    Just beyond Fort Madison, Iowa the train crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois at 11:20am.  At noon it was time for lunch in the dining car and I shared a table with a gentleman from Iowa and a railfan from Charlottesville, VA.  He recounted his trip aboard the California Zephyr on February 18 when the train stalled at Emigrant Gap in California and was rear-ended at low speed by a freight train.  Indeed winter railroading has its trials as told by a fellow diner on the Sunset Limited and this man.  Our decision to travel on more southerly routes certainly seemed justified.

The Mississippi River rail/highway bridge at Fort Madison, IA.

A former Burlington caboose is displayed next to the Galesburg, IL depot.

    Chicago's western suburbs passed during mid-afternoon and right on the dot at 3:00pm we pulled into Chicago Union Station.  A short taxi ride deposited me at the Homewood Suites hotel on Wabash Avenue which is within walking distance of upscale Michigan Avenue shops, the John Hancock Building, Water Tower Place, and many attractions along the north side of The Loop.  This hotel features separate bedrooms and living rooms with two televisions, a full kitchen, and ample room to unwind.  A pleasant light meal at the manager's reception in the evening and a hearty breakfast the next morning were included in the price of the suite.  The next day would begin the final legs of our journey.


An article by TrainWeb's Carl Morrison details his recent ride on the Grand Canyon Railway.

Details about our rail travels to and from Albuquerque and John's participation in that year's ISEF, see our story "Point Me In The Direction of Albuquerque" at:

Train Party Toll Free: 1.800.761.4294   OR 714.882.4130

Depot Inn & Suites, 1245 N. Brown St., La Plata, MO 63549, Phone/Fax: 660-332-4669, Toll-Free: 888-814-3669

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