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.
eastbound freight climbs Huey Long Bridge. In a few minutes the
Sunset Limited will overtake this train high above the Mississippi
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 51ƒ. 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.
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
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
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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