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Amtrak’s Southwest Chief lives to ride the rails another day

SW Chief
Passengers on the Southwest Chief take in the view from the Sightseer Lounge as the train descends from Raton Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border.
(Karl Zimmermann)

“I stay positive,” said Mary Lou, the sleeper attendant on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief bound for Chicago from Los Angeles on a two-night journey.

As we chatted on the station platform in Gallup, N.M., after the first night, I asked how she had weathered recent uncertainty about the train’s future. Like other crew members I asked, she skirted the question.

The winds of politics have buffeted Amtrak for most of its 48 years. Like most rail passenger services worldwide, it requires government support to survive, let alone flourish.

But for those who ride Amtrak and those who work for the company, 2018 was especially worrisome because of rumblings about changes that seemed unwise to me, a train buff.

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I put aside those worries. It was a bright, sunny morning, and I couldn’t have been happier. My day had begun at 5:45 when the train’s stillness woke me. We were in Flagstaff, Ariz.; the moon was low in the sky, and I could smell bacon in the adjacent dining car.

Chiefly superior

Amtrak #4 at North Guam, NM
The eastbound Southwest Chief heads through New Mexico.
(John Benner)

The Southwest Chief, successor to Santa Fe’s Super Chief, the “train of the stars,” has both distinguished heritage and present utility. It provides service to 30 communities between Chicago and Los Angeles, many with no other public transportation options. For those in expensive sleepers, it is a travel experience, rich in scenery, history and camaraderie, unknown to most Americans.

The previous evening’s dinner had been satisfactory and more than ample: a land-and-sea combo of flatiron steak and crab cake: $39 for coach passengers but included in my roomette fare.

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The company at the table was as memorable as the food. “We practice communal seating,” the lead service attendant in charge of the diner said over the public address system.

Bruce, a frequent Amtrak rider, was headed for his vacation home in Santa Fe, N.M. His wife was flying (mine too). Two women, Amtrak newbies, were across the table. “We’ve never taken a train,” Katie said. Rhonda, sporting a black, bold “Notorious RBG” T-shirt, nodded. They were going to Orlando, Fla., round trip, a four-night, three-train journey each way.

They were happy and remained so after two nights in their train bedroom (twice the size of my roomette) when I chatted with them again. “It’s meditative watching the countryside roll by,” Rhonda said. “Almost cleansing.”

Two things brought me to Canada: a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer, known for its jaw-dropping rail tours, and Canadian beer, which some say is better than what’s made in the U.S. And then there is Sasquatch.

Ahead was a fine day of rail riding. We’d already begun to flirt with the remnants of Route 66, the Mother Road, and Bobby Troup’s song was my earworm soundtrack, as I got my kicks.

As we rolled into Gallup, N.M., I spotted along the old road some wonderfully kitschy souvenir stands, tepee included, selling Route 66 and Native American trinkets. In town, the sign for a street paralleling the tracks read “Historic Route 66.”

A long midday stop in Albuquerque allowed smokers to indulge (there are periodic smoke stops along the route because smoking is not allowed aboard), a pair of washers to clean the train’s windows, and passengers to peruse Native American wares on tables on the platform.

This tradition extends back more than a century, when the railroad belonged to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Fred Harvey Co. operated the Indian Room in Albuquerque, where Native Americans could demonstrate and sell their crafts.

“I’m Veronica Yellowhorse. I’m Navajo,” one vendor said, scrambling to set up her table because the train had arrived 25 minutes early. “I make some of the jewelry myself and get some from others. All authentic.” I bought a pair of earrings.

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Belt-tightening

The Sightseer Lounge on the Southwest Chief is not only for watching the sights go by.
The Sightseer Lounge on the Southwest Chief is not only for watching the sights go by.
(Karl Zimmerman)

Among the diminutions of Amtrak service last year the most alarming was the elimination of full meals on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, the East’s prestige trains.

On Oct. 1 this retrograde move will spread to the New York-Miami Silver Meteor and the New York-New Orleans Crescent.

Sleeper passengers will get packaged meals, which Amtrak touts as “contemporary and fresh dining choices,” to be eaten in the dining car or in sleeping compartments. Among other things, this eliminates the dining-car fellowship central to the Amtrak experience.

Did the new menu I’d received mean that packaged meals were unlikely to come to the Southwest Chief? The service attendant confirmed that real meals were still in the cards on the Chief.

I was still in the diner when we stopped in Lamy, N.M., at its Mission Revival depot, built in 1909. Last year Amtrak pulled agents from 15 stations, including Lamy, but volunteers have taken over, making the depot in some ways better than ever, with new decor, cheerful attendants, a microbrew branch in the former baggage room, a newsletter and special events. However, they can’t sell tickets or check baggage.

We were in Las Vegas, N.M., in less than two hours. I was in the broad-windowed Sightseer Lounge, watching for the Castañeda, a trackside hotel opened in 1898 by Fred Harvey.

Fellow traveler Todd and I recognized each other as Harvey devotees. He brought me up to date on the restoration of the Castañeda, which reopened in April. That morning, in the predawn darkness, we had paused at La Posada, the beautifully restored Fred Harvey hotel and restaurant that serves as the Winslow, Ariz., depot.

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We had begun to hit scenic highlights before Las Vegas, snaking through the red rocks of Apache Canyon and then cresting Glorieta Pass. I was lunching with Paul, director of public education for the American Bar Assn., who happened to have an altimeter.

Veronica Yellowhorse shows her jewelry in Albuquerque during a Southwest Chief stop.
Veronica Yellowhorse shows her jewelry in Albuquerque during a Southwest Chief stop.
(Karl Zimmermann)

“About 7,000 feet,” he reported. About this time I noticed an old-fashioned clickety-clack; we were jouncing over “jointed” rail, track assembled of 39-foot segments. This was a rarity, because since the latter years of the last century American railroads typically have had smoother welded rail, and the clickety-clack was emblematic of the Southwest Chief’s problems.

In recent years BNSF, Amtrak’s “host” freight railroad, has rerouted its trains, leaving Amtrak responsible for the line’s upkeep. (Amtrak owns the tracks it runs on only in the Northeast.)

Amtrak proposed using a bus instead of a train on the 550-mile Albuquerque-Dodge City, Kan., segment of the route. This “bustitution” has been deferred at least for this year. Senators from Colorado and New Mexico, citing a $180-million loss in revenue for the affected communities, blocked it.

As a result, I could watch from the lounge as the train climbed to Ratón Pass, a National Historic Landmark on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I didn’t need an altimeter because I had a historic track-side billboard: “Ratón Tunnel. Highest point on the Santa Fe, 7588 feet elevation.”

At breakfast the next morning I sat with Juan and Yolanda, who had boarded the train in Lawrence, Kan., and were traveling to Chicago.

“First time I’ve been on a train since I was a kid,” he said, happy with the rediscovery. “I’m glad not to be up in the sky, but instead seeing the country roll by and having a real meal.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

If you go

Southwest Chief ([800] 872-7245, amtrak.com/southwest-chief-train). Fares are based on predicted demand. A representative Los Angeles-Chicago coach fare for a September departure is $143; a roomette is $677, including meals.

travel@latimes.com

@latimestravel


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