FlyerTalk Forums - View Single Post - ON THE ROAD AGAIN: From The Bottom of Africa to The Top of Alaska
Old Jun 2, 11, 12:16 pm
Seat 2A
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
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Posts: 11,332
April 21, 2011
Los Angeles - Chicago
Amtrak First Class
Southwest Chief
600p – 315p

Family obligations required my presence in Chicago, Illinois for the weekend and, with Amtrak offering great low prices on its First Class sleeper compartments, I decided to splurge and take the train from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief takes its name from its predecessor, Santa Fe’s famous Super Chief – arguably the finest streamliner in America and in its day a train that could rightfully be considered amongst the finest in the world. Indeed, the Super Chief was considered "the" train to ride between Chicago and Los Angeles, much as New York Central's 20th Century Limited was the favored travel option for those travelling between Chicago and New York.

Government run Amtrak took over operation of the nation's passenger train service in 1971. The government was new to the railroad passenger business and inherited an aging fleet of passenger cars and a demoralized work staff. The early days of Amtrak’s operation were memorable not for the continuation of the fine service standards of the trains it inherited but rather for shoddy service aboard its aging and poorly maintained fleet. Things got bad enough that in 1974 the Santa Fe forced Amtrak to drop the name “Super Chief” due to the substantial decline in service from the originally named train. For the next few years the train was called the Southwest Limited. The delivery of new Superliner equipment in 1982 combined with improved service standards resulted in the Santa Fe compromising with Amtrak in 1984 and allowing the train to be renamed the Southwest Chief.

I like riding trains. I’ve ridden every Amtrak train in the country serving routes longer than 400 miles and though I’ve ridden this train many times before, I’ve never done so in First Class. On the day of departure I called to check on the departure status. Although Amtrak’s on time record is vastly improved over its early days, I’ve learned from experience that it never hurts to check anyway. Amtrak’s reservation agent assured me that the train was departing on time and encouraged me to get to the station early so that I could enjoy the First Class Lounge prior to departure.

I’d started the day in out on the California-Arizona border in Needles, California and driven 285 miles into LAX where I returned my rental car and caught the $7.00 FlyAway bus service direct from the airport to LA’s Union Station. Arriving at 4:00pm, I had a full hour and a half to enjoy a bit of lounging about before heading out to the tracks. Unfortunately however, it turns out that Amtrak’s First Class Lounge at Los Angeles Union Station is only open for the mid-morning departure of the Coast Starlight up to the Bay Area and on to Portland and Seattle. Why the Southwest Chief, a well patronized train that connects America’s second and third largest cities, doesn’t rate a lounge service is beyond me but so be it. I headed off to the corner Starbucks for a coffee and internet connection.

Boarding was announced at 5:15pm, so I hefted my backpack, daypack and 12-pack of Tecate beer and lumbered on down the long subterranean corridor to Track 11. From there it was up a long ramp to trackside where the Southwest Chief awaited. The train had backed into the station and since sleeping cars are located towards the front of the train, I had quite a walk past two or three coach cars, the lounge car, the dining car and a sleeper before finally reaching my car, an old first generation Superliner sleeper named “Wyoming”. Heading up this collection of shiny silver rolling stock were two 4,250 HP Genesis Model P42DC locomotives.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Awaits Departure at Los Angeles

I was greeted at the door by Jesse, the Car Attendant, who inspected my ticket, checked my name off a manifest and welcomed me aboard. Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner Sleeper cars offer 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and one Handicapped bedroom. Four Roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs.

Roomette on Amtrak Superliner

Although most people are excited about the prospect of a seat or bedroom high on the upper level of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet, I always choose a lower level room for two reasons. First, the downstairs rooms are quieter because there is much less foot traffic passing by your door. All the inter-car traffic is upstairs. As well, the train’s natural rocking motion makes for a difficult time walking and most people tend to ricochet their way down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. One sleeping car passenger complained that her arms were bruised after just one afternoon on the train. Second, being lower in the train car results in much less tilt motion than is experienced on the upper levels. Like a fulcrum point on a seesaw, the ride is smoother the lower you are.

Opposite the stairway to the upstairs level is a shelf for baggage. I stowed my pack there and headed down the hall to my room. Each Roomette measures 3’6” by 6’6” and is accessed via a sliding glass door. During the day they offer two wide opposite facing seats that fold together to become a bed at night. Above them is a fold-down upper berth. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a tall mirror, a fold out table, a small open closet with hangers and even a thermostat which I immediately turned to its lowest level. Best of all, each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 3’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Toilet and shower facilities are located just down the hall. For a single traveler, I think these Roomettes are more than sufficient for space and comfort.

At my seat were two big fluffy pillows and a wooden hanger for my jacket. Behind the center console where a small table is stored were two bottles of water and a variety of pamphlets about the train. There was a route guide, a timetable, a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions.

At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area. A large cooler full of ice is available throughout the day. I immediately unloaded a few beers into my room’s personal trashcan and threw in a few cups of ice. It’s a 43 hour journey across the country to Chicago and at some point I will require cold beer!

At 5:59pm the all aboard call was made, the doors were shut and then we were on our way, gliding smoothly out Union Station and into the Los Angeles suburbs. The LA basin and San Bernardino Valley cover a huge area and are home to about 10 million people. We didn’t actually clear the LA suburbs until about 9:00pm when we passed through Victorville. From there it’s out into the eastern desert, across the Colorado River and on into Arizona. I would love to have seen some of this scenery from the train but due to our evening departure it was traversed in darkness.

Shortly after our departure from LA, the Dining Car Manager stopped by to offer me a choice of dinner reservation times. I chose 7:30pm and then popped a now ice cold Tecate and watched the city roll by. I love this first hour or two of a long journey, when you’re just staring to get settled in and can now recline your seat, relax and take stock of your lot in life. For me, watching the world go by while comfortably reclined in a big wide seat with my feet up drinking cold beer and munching roasted almonds ranks pretty high amongst life’s pleasures.

After a couple of beers, I decided to head up to the lounge car and await the call for dinner from there.

Amtrak’s Superliner Lounge Car (Taken while sitting in LA’s Union Station)

All of Amtrak’s long distance trains provide a lounge car which is available for all passengers, and Amtrak’s Bi-Level Sightseer lounge cars are indeed wonderful creations! As you can see from the picture above, windows are everywhere, starting at knee level and continuing overhead. The car looks to seat about 60 people upstairs. Many of the seats swivel 360 degrees so that if the scenery’s better on the other side of the train, you won’t miss it. A snack bar is located downstairs. The menu offered a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, cheese pizza, rice bowls, soup, candy, peanuts, and all manner of soft and hard drinks. While I thought the prices for the food items were quite reasonable, (Sandwiches cost $2.75-$5.00, soup $1.50) Amtrak’s beer selection is basic and expensive – a simple can of Budweiser will run you $4.00. That’s railway robbery!!

Amtrak’s Superliner Dining Car

Table Setting with Southwest Chief Menus

Click HERE and then click on National Menu to see what’s inside the Chief’s menu.

An announcement was made for those holding 7:30 dinner reservations to please come to the diner.
It’s located right next to the lounge car and when I arrived I was directed to an empty table at the far end of
the car. Given the limited number of tables and high demand for them, dining is communal on
Amtrak. Soon I was joined by a couple and their young daughter who were returning from a visit to
see family in Long Beach that had also included a trip to Disneyland. The little girl was still excited
about her adventures from the day before and barely managed to eat her chicken dinner between tales of her fun day at Disneyland. I quite enjoyed my Flat Iron Steak which was cooked perfectly medium rare. Unfortunately the baked potato was presented a tad rare. Still, I’m a reasonably forgiving guy in these matters and overall I thought it was a decent enough dinner. Dessert was a delicious cheesecake, washed down with a cup of fairly decent decaffeinated coffee.

After dinner I spent another couple of hours in the lounge, though not before heading back to my room and sneaking up a couple cold cans of beer. I had a nice chat with a guy from Milwaukee who’d spent much of the past month and a half in and around Arizona attending various Cactus League spring training baseball games. I’d love to do that myself some day, though only for a week or two at most. What I’d really like to do is take some time off in the summer and go hit a bunch of triple A games around the country. Baseball still feels like a game at that level whereas in the big leagues it seems much more of a business.

It was near 11:00pm by the time I returned to my compartment. My bed had already been made up, the reading lights were turned on and the main light had been dimmed. I read for about an hour before the rhythm of the rails lulled me into a comfortable sleep.

Roomette Made Up For Sleeping

I awoke somewhere between Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona. It was a bright sunny day and we were rolling through the high desert of Northern Arizona at almost 90 mph. As I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, I noticed that a copy of that morning’s Arizona Republic had been placed under my door. What a nice touch! Since the shower was occupied, I took advantage of the coffee and orange juice available at the top of the stairs while perusing the day’s news.

The second day on a long train trip like this can be tough for some passengers. For those travelling all the way through to destinations in Missouri and Illinois, the entire day and one more night will be spent onboard the train. Meals provide welcome breaks but for some the ennui of long distance travel can be a bit tedious. I can sympathize to a point but at the same time, I reckon life is what you make it and when you’re “stuck” on a train for a day, why not take stock of the positives? I mean, cruising along in air-conditioned comfort while watching the beautiful landscape of America pass by is a pretty cool experience. Too many people require man-made entertainment when the natural world provides a wealth of beautiful entertainment.

And let’s not forget the social element. One of the best differences between train and plane travel is the lounge and its ever-changing population of visitors over the course of a long trip. Unlike an airplane which quickly flies you from Los Angeles to Chicago in a mere three and a half hours, the Southwest Chief makes 22 stops along the way, picking up and dropping off all manner of fresh visitors for the lounge. I enjoy hearing other traveler’s tales as well as adding my own to the mix and the ambience in a railroad lounge car is far more conducive to socializing than being stuck in a seat on an airplane. Perhaps it’s because of the openness of the lounge car or the ability to get up and buy a round of drinks if you want. Either way, all of these aspects of train travel not only contribute to making the journey more enjoyable but also making it seem shorter. Time flies when you’re having fun.

A Typical Afternoon on Amtrak’s Superliner Lounge Car

And just like that an announcement suddenly came over the PA system that soon we’d be arriving at Chicago’s Union Station. Forty-two hours had just rolled by in a most agreeable fashion and now here I was arriving in the heart of Chicago well rested and ready for the weekend ahead.

Trains sure are a great way to travel!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jun 8, 11 at 9:45 am
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