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Spring Break On Amtrak: The Westbound Sunset Limited by Jack M. Turner


SPRING BREAK ON AMTRAK: THE WESTBOUND SUNSET LIMITED

By Jack M. Turner 

Photos by John C. Turner

    A visit to the railfan mecca of La Plata, MO was at the top of my "to do" list in 2011 and the perfect opportunity presented itself during my son John's college spring break week.  As we drove to Biloxi, MS where we would spend the night, the thought occurred that we should have been bunked down aboard the Sunset Limited rolling across the Florida panhandle.  Unfortunately, Amtrak used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to cut back service east of New Orleans five long years ago.  The Amtrak national timetable still displays uncertainty over that route's fate though it is obvious there is no plan for restoration.  A westbound CSX freight was spotted crossing the towering Escambia Bay bridge adjacent to I-10 at Pensacola as if it to thumb its nose at us for having to make the seven hour drive to New Orleans where we would board the next day's Sunset Limited.  The trip to La Plata would take the scenic route via Los Angeles and Flagstaff, AZ.

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A westbound CSX freight crosses the towering Escambia Bay bridge as seen from I-10.

    After a night at a hotel in Biloxi we made the two hour drive on Friday, March 4 to New Orleans where rainy skies greeted us.  After stopping by New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal to pick up our tickets, we navigated the narrow streets of the French Quarter to pick up some tasty beignets from the famous Cafe du Monde.  The city was busy with Mardi Gras activity as we returned our rental car to the convenient Avis office on Canal Street.  We have always appreciated this location's courtesy shuttle service to the train station as it makes catching the train very easy.


New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

A Canal Street trolley trundles through the rain.

    As usual, the small first class Magnolia Room waiting room was packed with sleeping car passengers.  The station still serves Greyhound passengers yet the atmosphere was less seedy than we had noticed in the past.  Even the public restrooms were tidy and  not intimidating, something I can't say was true in the past.  Well before departure time sleeper passengers were summoned for boarding and we were pleased to find we were assigned sleeper 32115 "Washington", a Superliner II sleeper I had never ridden before.  One favorite part of train trips for me is hoping to have a sleeping car I have never ridden before.  Having logged a couple hundred thousand miles aboard passenger trains in my lifetime, this has become about a 50-50 proposition as I have traveled aboard about half of Amtrak's fleet of sleeping cars at one time or another. 

The westbound Sunset Limited prepares for departure from New Orleans on March 4, 2011.

    The Sunset Limited eased out of the Crescent City on-time at 11:55am, passed the Amtrak engine shops and yard then branched west near the site of the old Carrollton Avenue station that once served most passenger trains departing New Orleans in pre-Amtrak days.  About 15 minutes into our journey we stopped near the East Bridge Jct. interlocking tower and waited for several eastbound freight trains to clear.  The delay stretched to about an hour as we made our way to the dining car for a leisurely lunch.  One of our tablemates was a woman from Seattle who experienced a disrupted Empire Builder trip the prior week as the train encountered a blizzard and had to back down from Essex, Montana to Whitefish where the train tied down for 32 hours with passengers on board.  As a frequent rail traveler, she accepted this as a hazard of winter and made it clear her rail travels would not be deterred.


East Bridge Jct. tower outside New Orleans.

    As a tasty lunch was served, the Sunset Limited made the long climb onto the towering Huey Long Bridge high above the Mississippi River.  After a brief stop at Schriever, our train backed out and crossed over to the adjacent track then resumed forward.  A lady sitting on a bench at the station waved as we passed her location for the third time.  The Sunset again cooled its heels at the end of the siding until the eastbound Sunset Limited, led by recently reactivated P40 engine # 823, rolled past at 2:48pm.  West of Lafayette the skies cleared and streaks of rain evaporated from our sleeper's windows.  The weather band on my railroad scanner stated that severe weather watches had been cancelled but that the outlook for Saturday required storm spotters to be on alert.  Flooded rice fields provided a glimpse at one of the region's chief products and multiple grain elevators and rice processing plants in the town of Crowley underscored that observation.  The next day (Saturday) we would learn that Crowley and the adjacent town of Rayne along the Sunset route were badly damaged by a tornado.  The weather forecast had been correct.


A eastbound freight climbs Huey Long Bridge.  In a few minutes the Sunset Limited will overtake this train high above the Mississippi River.

Looking back at the Huey Long Bridge.

The intermodal station at Lafayette, LA.

A westbound BNSF freight seen coming off a diverging line west of Lafayette.


One of many grain elevators at Crowley, LA. The town was decimated the next day by a tornado.

Rice fields west of Crowley.

    Dinner in the diner brought a perfectly cooked steak and delicious oreo cheesecake dessert as we shared a table with Mike and Gina from Portland, Oregon.  The view from the dining car window was of oil refineries and little league baseball games at Lake Charles, Louisiana as evening set in with our train running 100 minutes late.  Later we passed a high school football spring game in Beaumont, Texas and the packed stands and crowded parking lot signaled the significance of Friday Night Lights in the Lone Star State.  About 90 minutes later the Houston skyline came into view and we enjoyed watching people scurry about the platform beside the small, unimpressive train station.  Just before arrival we noted Minute Maid Field, home of the Houston Astros; the conductor told us the facade of the stadium used to be the front of old Union Station which once served passenger trains run by the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Kansas City Southern, and Missouri Pacific.  Thanks to a padded schedule we were just two minutes late.


A typical midwestern scene that actually is in Louisiana.

Crossing the Mermetau River.

    We drifted off to sleep somewhere west of Houston and woke briefly around 2:00am as our train made a few switching moves to couple up to a pair of through cars off the Texas Eagle at San Antonio. The Sunset Limited was over an hour early and the schedule called for departure at 5:40am.  Fortunately, the lack of motion didn't impede sleep at all as we slept until 8:00am then made our way one car to the rear for breakfast in the diner.  The dining car steward, Gregory, seated guests efficiently, keeping track of group sizes on a notepad as the morning meal used open seating.  Our waiter this morning was Javier who works the busier San Antonio to LA segment of the trip since the addition of a coach and sleeper at San Antonio adds more hungry passengers.  Indeed, passenger train dining cars offer the best views of any restaurant around as the scene constantly changes.  This morning's breakfast was no exception as we passed numerous antelope roaming the range then caught a glimpse of Laughlin Air Force Base then followed the narrow Rio Grande River through and past Del Rio as we skirted the Mexican border.

    A few minutes later we noted the Amistad Dam, constructed and dedicated by the US and Mexican governments in 1969, and a spectacular lake formed by the dam.  One half hour later the Sunset Limited eased across the Pecos River on a 273 foot tall trestle constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad.  The green waters of the Pecos carved a path several feet below solid rock banks in an otherwise arid land.  The barren west Texas land cast a hypnotic spell that invited us to doze off intermittently.  Herein lies the beauty of travel in a railroad sleeping car as one can lie upon the bedroom's sofa and drift off at will while highway motorists must fight the urge to sleep lest they find themselves in a ditch. 


Amistad Dam was dedicated by the US and Mexico in 1969.

Crossing the Pecos River.

    Late in the morning our dining car steward made the rounds to offer lunch reservations and we were welcomed to the diner promptly for the appointed noon seating.  For this meal we would share our table with James and Jenny, a young couple from London who were in the midst of a one year job assignment in Houston.  They had decided to take the Sunset Limited to Alpine, Texas then drive a rental car to Big Bend National Park.  It struck us that in 24 hours we had met a variety of people from all over at our lunch table and each was headed for a unique destination.  After finishing our cheeseburgers we sampled tiramisu for dessert and found it to rate right at the top of Amtrak's dessert offerings of recent years along with turtle pie, key lime pie, and the oreo cheesecake from the prior night. 


West Texas hills.

Mountains near Marathon, TX.



A jagged peak east of Alpine.

    A ten minute stop at Alpine allowed time for a train side stroll and we found the temperature to be surprisingly chilly.  A talking defect detector later announced the temperature to be 51. Just west of dusty Alpine we overtook a long Union Pacific intermodal train led by UP, Ferromex, and Norfolk Southern engines with a rear helper engine.  Five minutes later at Paisano Jct. we stopped diner to diner beside the eastbound Sunset Limited so our dining car crew could pick up a few more sets of table linens.  Over the next couple of hours our attention was drawn to hundreds of dust devils seen swirling over the plains and prairies of West Texas.  These ranged from small, barely distinguishable to tall well developed vortices.  Finally the open land gave way to a more urban setting as we rolled into El Paso at 4:25pm.  A walk along the platform revealed that the coach added at San Antonio was car # 34040 which had returned to active status recently after years of storage at Amtrak's Beech Grove shops.  This coach was damaged during the tragic Sunset Limited accident at Bayou Canot in Alabama in 1993 in which the train's first few cars landed in the water after a barge damaged a railroad trestle.  Coach 34040 was left hanging over the edge of the bridge after uncoupling from the coach in front which fell into the bayou.  Several passengers in that car drowned in the murky waters.  Eventually 34040 made its way to Beech Grove, repaired, and returned to service before being damaged in a mishap near Boise, Idaho in 1995. Now, 16 years later, this coach has been refurbished with new features such as spacious restrooms and other passenger friendly changes.  Only a couple of exterior scratches remain from scrapping along the bridge girders in its desperate but successful attempt to remain on the bridge.


A mountain west of Alpine.

The eastbound Sunset Limited passes at Paisano Jct.

Dozens of dust devils like this one were spotted in west Texas.

The crew change at El Paso was an excellent opportunity to stretch our legs.


Sleeper 32115 Washington was our home for two nights.

The classic El Paso train station.

Coach 34040, which was transported from Chicago to San Antonio on the Texas Eagle, shows few signs of its 1993 accident on the Sunset Limited.

Inside the popular sightseer lounge.

    Departing El Paso, the Sunset Limited followed the Mexican border then crossed the narrow Rio Grande River on a tall trestle taking us into New Mexico.  One half hour out of El Paso the train stopped near a remote industrial area, losing 15 minutes while some wayward passengers (who detrained at El Paso and didn't get back on) were driven to rejoin the train.  They were indeed very fortunate not to have been left to fend for themselves.  The thought occurred to me during dinner that the tardy passengers could be among us in the dining car as we resumed our westbound progress about the time we proceeded to the diner.  As usually happens aboard train # 1, an eye-catching sunset illuminated the desert silhouetted against the mountains.  A railroad executive must have noticed the same thing over 100 years ago when this train was first named.


Mexico as seen from the train west of El Paso.

Another view of Mexico.


A New Mexico sunset seen during dinner in the dining car.


    We turned in for the night as the train pulled into Tucson 28 minutes early at 10:12pm.  Sleep was briefly interrupted by the resumption of our journey as we departed Tucson at 11:30pm.  Our alarm clock woke us at 4:55am as the Sunset Limited exited Palm Springs, California.  The expansive windmill farm adjacent to the railway station and the nearby mountains were mere shadows in the pre-dawn darkness.  We had risen early as the train would be early into Los Angeles and we had been advised that breakfast would be served until 5:30.  This trip easily set the record for our earliest visit to a dining car and the experience of eating at 5:00am as our train rolled through the darkness was definitely unique.  After stops in Ontario and Pomona, the Sunset Limited eased into Los Angeles at 7:04am, 1 hour, 26 minutes ahead of schedule.

    With rental car agencies in LA Union Station not opened that early we had a chance to sit in the distinctive high backed waiting room chairs and take a stroll around the station courtyard.  This station has been among my favorites since the first time I set eyes on it in 1976.  Since then I have spotted it in countless television shows and movies as it is one of LA's most notable settings. 


Inside Los Angeles Union Station.

The front of LA Union Station.


A courtyard outside Los Angeles Union Station.

    Our rental car provided mobility and we headed out to Pasadena to see the Rose Bowl stadium, famous Colorado Boulevard, and the former Santa Fe bridge at Arroyo Seco.  Turning southward, we journeyed to Fullerton where we met TrainWeb founder Steve Grande and fellow TrainWeb author Carl Morrison.  After watching a couple of Pacific Surfliners meet near the station, we took an interesting walking tour of the downtown Fullerton area a block or two from the Amtrak station.  The highlight had to be seeing former passenger stations belonging to Southern Pacific and the Red Line interurban railway that today stand in close proximity to Amtrak's former Santa Fe depot.  The Amtrak station used to be the home base for TrainWeb and for its affiliate TrainParty.com.  After bidding farewell to Steve and Carl, we made our way back to LA where we attended a University of Southern California baseball game against Cal State Fullerton and visited with our friend Austin Wood, a pitcher for USC.  With our day's touring complete, we returned our rental to Los Angeles Union Station and prepared to board the eastbound Southwest Chief.


The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA.

Fullerton Union Pacific Station built in 1923, now a Spaghetti Factory Restaurant within steps of the Fullerton Amtrak Station.

The track side of the station in Fullerton.

A northbound Pacific Surfliner from San Diego cruises into Fullerton.


TrainWeb's Carl Morrison (left) and Steve Grande (center) with the author.

The northbound Pacific Surfliner pushes out of the Fullerton station.

Southbound (left) and northbound (right) Pacific Surfliners meet at Fullerton.

USC hosts Cal State Fullerton at Dedeaux Field.


Cal State Fullerton bats against USC.


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Click Here for SPRING BREAK ON AMTRAK (PART 2): 5 DAYS ON THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF


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