Back on the rails this evening. The first challenge is finding the Amtrak station in Houston. Lots of local residents don’t even know that Houston actually has an Amtrak station, or that its possible to reach LA or New Orleans from here by rail. For a wealthy city, the station is tiny. Fortunately, my cab driver has sat-nav. When I tell him its 37 hours to LA, he looks at me like I’m a mad man.
I’ve got used to watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ on the television in the Amtrak lounge before catching trains at this time of the day. I’m getting good at it. The Sunset Limited is running half an hour late, so time to watch the whole show. It’s a friendly place, and everything is straightforward here.
I’m greeted by Melinda on the platform outside carriage 0130, which turns out to be an older design than I have seen before. It looks similar to the more common Superliner, but the toilets, switches and roomette design is slightly different. However, it’s biggest shortcoming is that although there are controls, the aircon system is either on jungle or iceberg setting, and no one in the carriage can agree which is better. The most obvious way to tell its an older coach is that it does not have an enclosed cupboard with coathangers in the roomette.
I make the last sitting in the dining car, which is run by the dream team, Eggi on announcements, seating and jokes, and John serving the food and wisecracks. Lovely people and it made the journey great fun. Next door in the sightseeing lounge, another John runs the cafe car.
I hopped off at a late-night stop in San Antonio, which I discovered to be full of dodgy people. Law and order here is down to armed guards on the platform. I had to answer a string of questions to get anywhere back near our train and wasn’t allowed to move freely to take my usual nightly photo of the engine.
When I wake early the next morning to Eggi whispering ‘waffles, coffee, pancakes’ on the intercom. I’m greeted by the sight of great plains, and glimpses of the Rio Grande over breakfast. Each meal on this train involves meeting three new people at the table, and you never know who you might sit next to. All but one of my fellow diners were really interesting, but you will have to read the book to find out what I did!
I hoped off in Alpine, Texas for some fresh air and almost had a heart attack when the train double-stopped. This is a procedure when on shorter platforms the train stops twice, moving forward a 100m or so. But the feeling of seeing the train slowly roll away from you isn’t for the faint-hearted!
We reached El Paso in the afternoon, and the infamous wall and the lawless Mexican town of Juarez over the border were right by the side of the line. As we set off, something was wrong back in the sightseeing lounge – we had left one passenger behind, but his partner and luggage were still on board. The sentiment amongst passengers here was mixed. The golden words are ‘always stay close to the train’, but you had to feel for him. Apparently he didn’t like flying, but now he would have to take a flight to Phoenix as the next train wasn’t for another three days.
We rumbled out of Texas after 20 hours crossing one state, and into Arizona to a train wide communal ‘yeee-haaa’. I have to say at this point I was in rail nirvana, and happily spent the afternoon taking photos of the amazing landscape and doing some writing.
A beer to watch the sunset, another fine meal in the dining car and bed after a stop in Tucson. Sleep came very easy, and I woke to the announcement we would be in LA in less than 10 minutes at 05.18 Pacific time ‘on the bumper’. See how I’m learning to speak Amtrak!
Union Station is quiet and well ordered, the only problem is there are no taxis at this time of the morning. But the team in the Amtrak lounge somehow got me one and sneaked it round the station to a secret lounge door. I have a long weekend in LA before getting back on the rails. Next stop hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.