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Choo-Choo Special : Romancing the Rails : A U.S. tradition: the Sunset Limited relived

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Although more than half a century had passed since I rode this train, I realized--even before it pulled out of the station--that rail travel had lost none of its mystique.

On its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles, the train rushes across sagebrush-covered plains and strange deserts, easing its way through whistle-stop towns with names like Sanderson and Alpine, Tex., Deming, N. M., and Benson, Ariz.

As a young passenger in the early 1930s, I was awed by it all--from the conductor’s commanding “All aboard!” in New Orleans to the impeccable dining car with its spotless linen tablecloths. It was an adventure then, traveling halfway across the country in 2 1/2 days at speeds up to 60 m.p.h.

A lifetime later, the trip was pure nostalgia--the fulfillment of a romantic notion to retrace the earlier journey. Romantic? For starters, take the train’sname. This is the famed Sunset Limited, for nearly a century the premiere train in Southern Pacific’s vast system serving the wide-open spaces and growing cities west of the Mississippi River.

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Southern Pacific abandoned passenger service in 1971 when Amtrak came into being, but the Sunset Limited is alive and well, operating as part of the nationwide Amtrak system.

While the route itself has changed little over the years, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited--with its sleek bi-level Superliner cars and massive 3,6OO-horsepower diesel electric locomotives--is a far cry from the workhorse steam-engine-and-Pullman-car trains of the early ‘30s.

As a youngster, I couldn’t wait to board the train at SP’s old New Orleans station. Yet my most vivid memory of the departure is not the busy station or the big locomotive hissing steam.

Instead, I remember stepping onto a little foot-or-so-high stool to board the train. A broadly smiling porter had placed it on the station platform. Then he courteously gripped each passenger’s arm, helping them, one by one, to mount the steep steps into the car.

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This time, though, boarding Amtrak’s Superliner in New Orleans was a breeze. We stepped directly from the station platform into the car’s lower level, then climbed a narrow stairway to the upper deck lined with private compartments.

Amtrak calls the Sunset Limited “the utmost in train travel.” But certain elegant trappings--such as polished natural wood, paneled walls, pleated curtains and beveled mirrors in the ladies’ and mens’ washrooms--have been sacrificed for convenience and serviceability.

My wife, Joan, and I had a deluxe room, the train’s best. It had two wide windows, seating for four (including a settee that converted to a lower berth), an airliner-style wash basin, mirrors, cabinets stacked with towels and an enclosed toilet that doubled--with some tricky twisting and turning by the bather--as a shower. The room had air conditioning, a table that folded out of the way at night and overhead reading lights similar to those on an airplane. Amtrak’s off-season price for our room was $485 for the run from New Orleans to Los Angeles, meals included. However, that didn’t include the actual one-way fare, another $196 per person. (Paying only that one-trip fare entitles one to a reserved seat in the coach section, not including meals.) Other private accommodations in the sleeping cars, including family and economy bedrooms, ranged downward from $485 to as low as $223.

Of course, all these prices and fares are higher in the busier summer months, May through September. During that time, our deluxe room would cost $591, however the one-way coach fare between New Orleans and Los Angeles would still be $196, as of this writing.

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While these costs may seem high compared to air travel, there is a growing demand for space on the Sunset Limited. Sleeping accommodations, Amtrak says, are booked year-round.

On my first trip, fares were an entirely different story. Those were the Great Depression years, and a standard berth from New Orleans to Los Angeles, ticket included, went for $21 for adults. I was under 11 so I rode for half fare.

This time we settled down in our private room as the 11-car train cleared the New Orleans station and snaked its way under the city’s freeway interchanges. (The trip takes just under two days now, at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.) Minutes later, Richard Walczak, chief of on-board services, welcomed passengers over the loudspeaker system.

“When walking about the train, please wear shoes,” he cheerfully admonished.

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As we crossed the Mississippi River on the 4.4-mile-long Huey P. Long Bridge, the car attendant brought white wine and sparkling water. The wine was mellow; the view from the top of the high span heady.

Spread out around us was a spectacular panorama--the great slow-moving river below and the lush-green Bayou Country stretching out beyond with the imposing New Orleans skyline silhouetted in the afternoon haze.

Seeing New Orleans that way was a new experience. When I left on the Sunset Limited years ago, the bridge was only a dream and the old city’s skyline--well, it wasn’t anything to brag about.

We finished sipping our wine as our Amtrak train rolled across another of southern Louisiana’s visual treats, the Trembling Prairies, so named because the original line was built on pilings--which gave slightly with the weight of the train--across an expansive, velvety-green swamp.

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Later, the setting sun painted the Louisiana sky with a glittering array of reds, yellows and finally deep blues. Walczak reminded us that the Sunset Limited always tried to live up to its name by treating passengers to two sunsets. We were denied the second, though, victim of a rainstorm over New Mexico.

Later that first night, long after the Amtrak attendant finished making up berths in the sleeping car’s 20 rooms, our Sunset Limited pulled into Houston’s Washington Street station.

Like inquisitive kids, Joan and I peered out from our darkened room. The city’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers, only a few blocks away, were shrouded in a heavy overcast. When our train finally pulled out, I dozed off, remembering that most of the 940 miles we would travel through Texas lay ahead.

After all these years, I have an especially fond recollection of nighttime on Southern Pacific’s Sunset limited.

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As a youngster, I remember watching the porter magically transform the seats in our Pullman car into upper and lower berths. In my own upper berth, which I imagined a secret hiding place, I slipped into pajamas and parted the curtains just enough to peek out at the narrow passageway between the double wall of curtains running the length of the car. I tried desperately to stay awake, but the train’s gentle swaying rocked me to sleep.

The next day I thought the train would never get across the plains and rugged rangelands of southern Texas. For a while, I found it exciting standing on the open observation platform on the last car, a trademark of Southern Pacific trains in those days. But swirling dust kicked up by the speeding train finally drove me back inside.

On Amtrak’s sleek Sunset Limited, we awakened our first morning just in time to look down at the pea-green Pecos River, the magnificent gorge and the rocky canyon walls glistening from a heavy rain. The gorge wasn’t as deep as I remembered as a youngster, but it was still an impressive sight.

Later that day, Walczak invited the passengers to play a game of trivia. When, he asked over the train’s loudspeaker system, did the Sunset Limited start operations? The answer was 1894.

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It was about that same time, we learned from other trivia questions, that Southern Pacific began publishing a magazine, Sunset, to promote the new train service. Southern Pacific later sold the magazine and it became one of the West’s most successful and longest-running publications.

As Amtrak’s Sunset Limited raced across southwestern Texas, some passengers gravitated to the lounge car to play cards and for the bar’s $1.75 beer, $1.25 hot dogs and other snacks.

It was a dreary day, which put a damper on the route’s renowned scenery, and the bartender did a land-office business. Rain was coming down in big steady drops that streaked the train’s windows and turned the rough rangeland into muddy ponds.

As we sped by, we saw little bands of cattle huddled in the draws and occasionally a lonely ranch house. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Walczak had come on the public address system again, apologizing for the weather.

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This was the part of Texas, I remembered, where I got my first look at a real Western town. It was on a dazzlingly sunny day that the old Sunset Limited slowed down going through Sierra Blanca and I, my face pressed against the train window, yelled “Yippee!” at two cowboys standing in front of the town’s old adobe courthouse. I was sure they were about to lead a posse on a hunt for rustlers in the foothills beyond town.

At El Paso, the modern-day Sunset Limited stopped long enough for us to take a brisk walk. The rain had stopped and there, beyond the concourse, was the old brick-red station tower just as I remembered it years ago.

As the train slowly pulled out of the station, the international boundary with Mexico--marked by a chain-link fence--was so close we could almost touch it.

Suddenly, only a few yards from our moving train, we saw men running toward the fence and others, in uniform, shouting.

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There was a scramble as the two groups came together, arms thrashing. Abruptly, like a kaleidoscopic scene, they were behind us, out of our line of sight, but we knew, from frequent headlines, that the scene had involved U.S. agents and Mexican nationals in a daylight attempt to cross the border.

On Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited, you knew it was dinnertime when a waiter walked through the train, sounding a tune on a set of chimes. When I heard those notes, I made a beeline for the dining car and was always the first to be seated.

It was a treat sitting at a table with a lily-white tablecloth, shiny silverware and glasses filled with water and ice. And it was a special treat for a youngster, ordering from a printed menu such delicacies as prime rib and everything that went with it, for $1.50.

On today’s Limited, we found, there is nothing fancy about the dining car, with its picnic-style tablecloths and paper napkins. But Walczak, the optimist, told us that Amtrak planned to restore some of the old atmosphere--visually at least--with plastic dinnerware, glassware and silk flowers.

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He also conceded that the quality of meals on the Sunset Limited, as on other Amtrak trains, depends on the chef.

On our train, James Doyle, a 16-year Amtrak veteran from Victorville, Calif., ran the kitchen on the dining car’s lower level. Doyle prepares nearly 600 meals a day for diners on the level above, sending the food up by dumbwaiter.

Long gone were the dinner chimes I remembered so well. They had been replaced by a waiter, his voice as cheery as Walczak’s, announcing over the train’s loudspeaker system:

“Tonight we have that great oven-baked chicken with potatoes du jour and garden vegetables. Only on the Sunset Limited do you get this great feast.”

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Our chicken was delicious--crisp, juicy and nicely seasoned. The menu price was $9.50. Diners who selected the grilled New York strip steak at $13 said they’d never had better. Other entrees included excellent catfish at $10.75 and what Amtrak called a “regional special,” in this case prime rib for $12.50. As a youngster, I had doubts we were finally in California when the Sunset Limited sped across miles of sand dunes after leaving Yuma. To me, this seemed more like the Sahara Desert than the green Southern California paradise I expected.

But then palm trees, so unlike the magnolias and oaks of Louisiana, appeared. Beyond them were the highest mountains I’d ever seen, their peaks splashed with snow. Palm Springs, the conductor said, lay at the base of that escarpment, but no one in our car had ever heard of it.

Later the train rolled through miles of orange groves spreading up to the foothills of another mountain range. Los Angeles was less than two hours away now. The train passed within a car’s length of the old San Gabriel Mission and stopped for a minute at the little Spanish-style Alhambra Station.

Thirty minutes to go!

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Now the train moved slowly, edging its way into the city. A slender, gleaming white building, dwarfing everything around it, caught my eye. The Los Angeles City Hall, someone said.

Minutes later it pulled into Central Station. Relatives swarmed around. I hurried outside, eager for my first look at this big city. But there wasn’t much traffic, or hordes of people or massive buildings.

I was disappointed, I suppose. But then, standing in front of the monumental facade of the old Southern Pacific terminal, I saw off in the distance the mountains turning gold and purple in the setting sun. I’d never seen anything like it.

When we awoke at daybreak on our second morning aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, the train was racing along the east side of the Salton Sea. The car attendant served breakfast in our room: scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage patty, toast with preserves, orange juice and coffee. By the time we finished, the train was whizzing past row after row of wind machines pockmarking the desert below the sheer San Jacinto Mountains.

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We could feel the train straining as it climbed San Gorgonio Pass. After that we passed a montage of automobiles, trucks, freeways, factories, warehouses, shopping centers, subdivisions, slums and, in the distance, hazy mountains. Gone were the orange groves.

Less than 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited slipped into the median of the San Bernardino Freeway, bypassing the old rail route into the city. We outraced freeway traffic until the train, switching across a maze of tracks, and pulled into one of the rusting boarding bays behind Union Station, successor to Southern Pacific’s old Central Station.

We got off, lugging our baggage, and walked through the long tunnel from the boarding platforms to the station’s cavernous waiting room. During the terminal’s heyday, it was in a constant state of turmoil. Now it was almost deserted.

Outside we looked around at a downtown unrecognizable from the one that greeted me as a youngster.

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While much had changed, I thought, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited had proven to be a hospitable vehicle for my nostalgic train ride. The train was fun and, despite some jarring differences and the long time lapse, retracing that earlier Sunset Limited journey had lived up to my fondest expectations.


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