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February 24, 2020

The Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago

LA Union Station has a relaxed feel in the late afternoon, sunshine beams through the high windows and passengers seem in no particular hurry here. Check-in for the Southwest Chief, or ‘The Chief’, is simple but made slightly harder by an Amtrak employee who isn’t very happy about life today. We get there in the end, but I’m pleased I spotted she had mistagged my bag. I always do a physical check, and today it paid off. With this done I headed upstairs to the lounge, which was small but still just had enough seats. The manager told me I could have checked in my bag in the lounge, so I know for next time.

We were called before the train had been reversed onto the platform, I think mainly as the red cap attendants needed several journeys to get passengers who needed assistance to the train. It arrived 30 minutes before departure, and I quickly settled into my roomette, upstairs in carriage 0430, one of two sleepers on the train. You might think of long-distance trains as enormous, but this one consists of just two sleepers, two coach cars, a baggage car, a dining car, and a sightseeing lounge car. On some routes, extra carriages get taken on and off, but this is the core of every Amtrak long-distance train set.

Once I had a dinner reservation made I unpacked my small bag and set the room up how I’m used to doing, in a way that I know where things are in the dark and the more confined space once the bed is made up from the two seats. I actually hang my bags up, leaving more floor space and I also have a way of stacking devices between the table and the window. This is another one of the slightly older sleepers, so it has an ‘open’ closet cupboard making it feel slightly more spacious inside the roomette. Elsewhere you only really notice its age in the toilets, which are a bit worn out.

The observation car, or ‘sightseeing lounge’ has two different configurations downstairs, but is pretty much the same up top. One version LA to ABQ has a bar-style service counter, the other from ABQ to CHI is a self-service one, with a cashier area.

The food and drink offering is the same. The attendants down here have to ‘sell’ their wares to the coach customers, whereas food is included in the dining car to those in the sleeper coaches. This means a bit too much activity on the intercom with discounted deals and frequent opening and closing announcements.

Coach customers are welcome to come into the dining car, and can pay the prices on the menu.

Overnight California gives way to Arizona, and the cowboy country I wake up to is strangely familiar from all those western movies. But nothing prepares me for the big sky and little fluffy clouds. I surprise myself and get up for an early breakfast, even though we have changed a time zone overnight, back to mountain time. Time zones on Amtrak trains can be tricky if you have a dining car reservation around the time of the change – clarification is needed. Before long we are in New Mexico. It’s cold at night here, and snow lies in shaded areas.

In the late morning, I get off the train in Albuquerque for a planned side trip and get back on the same carriage 3 days later. My off the rails experience were to do with research for my next book, which I’m really getting immersed in at the moment. You will have to wait to see what I got up to!

Back on board in time for lunch, the train gets refueled before setting off east. I meet a man in a white biohazard suit on the lower deck, and he’s clearly trying to fix a plumbing problem in the limited time we have left at the stop. He runs out of time and leaves us with just one of the thee toilets in working order. The shower is fine though, and there are more toilets than needed for the number of people in the adjacent sleeper.

I munch on a Ceasar salad for lunch and discuss all things Amtrak with my fellow passengers. I love the afternoons on a long-distance Amtrak route, I often take a nap after lunch and then spend the rest of the afternoon watching the sun get lower which can make for some good photographs. We reach Colorado in the early evening and its time to freshen up for dinner. I book a community seat at a table for 7.30 pm, about the time we reach La Junta for a crew change. But there is something else going on here. The Engineer says there will be an ‘equipment change’ and the power will go out. What he doesn’t tell us is how long this will take, so I sit alone at a table in the dining car sipping a couple of glasses of wine in the darkness for two hours, when new locos are finally added back on. My steak is a late-night feast, and well worth the wait.

Over breakfast, the really nice lady who serves in the dining car introduces me to the man who fixed the train last night. Its something to do with pumps and flooding, but I avoid technical questions. I eat my usual three-egg omelet with cheddar cheese and mushrooms and enjoy the views of the Kansas prairie.

On the platform at Kansas City I chat with one of the Amish travelers who points out that we have acquired a couple more locos, now four in total as well as some other carriages, the mighty Chief must be quite a sight, but I can’t get far enough to photograph it and the attendant warns me to stay close as we are shortening stops to make up time.

I have lunch with a couple of high school girls on a class trip to Washington. I good chance to ask questions about the latest mobile phones – mine is eight years old. I also get to try out the new Amtrak BBQ pork wings, which are great. More on this in an Amtrak menu post.

We catch up nearly an hour crossing Missouri and into Ilinois. The rail towns are pretty and they all seem to have museums with steam engines trackside. Tempting, but no time to do anything more than a cursory photograph. Eventually, we pull into Chicago Union Station at 4.20 pm. The Chief has covered 2265 miles in around 44 hours. All in all a great run, even though the toilets didn’t work and a two-hour wait for my steak on the run from Albuquerque. It’s all about the staff on a train like this, and the crew on the Chief have been totally first class.

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