Pacific Railroad Society is running an excursion using the new Amtrak Superliners over the SP Sunset Route from Los Angeles to Yuma and return. This section of line is normally covered by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited in darkness, so this trip supplements any travel on that train. Today’s excursion is the “Coachella Valley Daylight”. This train starts at Los Angeles Union Passenger terminal, so our day starts by driving down from Sierra Madre to LAUPT, parking the car and finding the PRS “desk” to check in with the organizers. In this case, that means Mary Lee von Nordeck, PRS excursion director in 1982. Then we acquire some coffee for me and drinks for Chris and Henry. When the train is ready for boarding, we walk out to the platform and find ourselves a set of seats on the upper level of one of the Superliner Coaches. Soon, the train is ready to leave, pretty much on time.
The Sunset Route starts at Shops Yard in Los Angeles (across the Los Angeles River from Mission Tower), and runs east through Alhambra and San Gabriel. In El Monte, the line crosses the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River. (Today’s train runs along the ex-Pacific Electric “State Street” line down the middle of the San Bernardino Freeway, as far as El Monte.) It then passes the City of Industry yard, passes through Pomona and Ontario, along the north side of Ontario Airport, and reaches the vast classification yard at West Colton. East of West Colton, the Palmdale cutoff diverges to the north, followed by a flat crossing with the ATSF San Bernardino subdivision. All of this part of the route remains within the urban fabric of greater Los Angeles.
After crossing the Santa Ana River, the line then climbs the almost 2% grade of San Timoteo Canyon until it reaches the broad 2500 ft. summit of Beaumont Pass. Across the broad valley, located between the 10,000 foot peaks of San Gorgonio to the north and San Jacinto to the south, there are several large fields of electricity-generating windmills. At the east end of the valley, the line begins its descent to the Salton Sink. Although the actual lowest point is below sea level, Indio is the nominal start of the steady 2500 foot, 50 mile long, climb to the summit of Beaumont Pass. There are very few railroad facilities, even very few artifacts left in Indio now, except for a helper track or two, where once was a large freight yard, massive icing facilities for refrigerated cars (reefers), and a large locomotive depot, as well as a passenger station.
As we cross Beaumont Pass, Chris, Henry and I leave our coach to take a look at the Sightseer Lounge and assess what they have to eat and drink. We discover that the upper-level of the lounge is already warm. Down in the lower-level, we encounter Ron and Dorothy Froelich and their son, who is a couple of years older than Henry. Ron and I surmise that whoever designed the air-conditioning for these cars with the large windows for sightseeing had probably never been to the southwestern desert in summer. (The cars were designed and built by Budd, in Philadelphia.)
The line now passes alongside the Salton Sea. Here, the track is almost a hundred feet below sea level, but when it was built it had been almost three hundred feet below sea level, at the bottom of the Salton Sink that was then completely dry. The present body of water was created in the first few years of the twentieth century, when a flooding Colorado River burst through the control gates at the irrigation outlet, and the flood water poured downgrade to the Salton Sink. Over the next several years, numerous attempts to close the breach in the Colorado's flood walls were unsuccessful, and the level of the new Salton Sea continued to rise. As it did so, it began to cover the lines of the Southern Pacific, which was forced to lay a new line higher up. Several years later, when forced to move the line for the third time (to its present location), the SP's management had had enough, and the railroad took on the challenge of sealing the breach. With all of the engineering resources of the railroad at its disposal, it was successful where others had not been, and the breach was closed. In the ninety plus years since then, evaporation has reduced the level of the “sea” so that in most places it no longer washes adjacent to the tracks, and in so doing has raised the salinity of the water well above that of the Pacific ocean, just 200 miles away.
The line passes through Winter Haven, crosses the Colorado River on a large through-truss bridge, and enters Yuma, Arizona. Here we will have a layover for a couple of hours, for sightseeing and lunching, if we are so inclined. A tour of the old Arizona territorial fort is offered, and seems to allow time to eat afterwards, so we take the tour around the fort. There really isn’t a lot of interest to see, other than the layout and ambience of the fort itself. Lunch is at a restaurant of the sort that serves hamburgers, but with table service. After lunch, it’s time to return to the station for the return train.
The return route is the same as before, but of course we’re sitting looking out the other side of the train. We reach LA without incident, reclaim our car, and drive home.
I have agreed to represent the Publishing Systems department at the American newspaper Publishers’ Association’s Technical Conference and Exhibit in Dallas, provided I could travel there over the weekend preceding, by long distance train. This will be my first trip on a Sleeping Car, so I don’t really know what to expect. I book the cheapest possible sleeping space on the Friday evening departure from Los Angeles to Dallas, a through sleeper from the Sunset Limited to the Texas Eagle at San Antonio. After dinner on Friday evening, Chris drives me down to LAUPT and drops me off. When the train is called, I walk out to the platform and find the Dallas (Chicago) sleeper. The car attendant reads my ticket, but mumbles the directions to my room. I first look at the full bedrooms, but they’re obviously not the “cheapest” sleeping space, so I walk the other way and find my economy room. The bed is already down, so I stow my bags on the upper bunk (which I won’t be using) and sit down on the lower one. Once the conductor has taken my ticket (somewhere along the State Street line down the median of the San Bernardino freeway), I walk to the Lounge Car (at the other end of the train L) for a nightcap. I go to be about the time the train crests Beaumont Pass.
From Los Angeles to Yuma, the route is the same as on the excursion, described above. East of Yuma, this part of the Sonoran Desert has many saguaro, as well as cholla and yucca cacti along the line. At Picacho, the Phoenix branch joins from the north, and the line's direction turns from slightly north of east to southeast towards Tucson. I wake as the train approaches Tucson, to the repeated sound of the attendant call button. This is not ringing because passengers want their beds made up, but because the head-end power is repeatedly coming up and going down. This turns out to be a problem affecting the entire train, not just this sleeper (which is on the rear of the train), so not only is the coffee in the sleeping car not staying warm, but there’s none in the diner or lounge car, either. At Tucson, I step out onto the platform to discover how hot the outside air is already. We’re going to need the air conditioning, so we must have the power back on. Apparently, there’s a mechanic with the right knowledge here in Tucson, and he rides the train east as far as Lordsburg, fixing the problem in the locomotives along the way. The attendant makes up my room for daytime use while the train is in Tucson, and I'm outside. For daytime use, the room has two facing adjustable seats, with both upright and reclining positions, as well as the ability to go all the way down for sleeping. There is no toilet in the room, so I have to use the shared toilets on the lower level of the car.
South of the station, at Tucson, are a large yard with on-line fuel rack, beyond which is the junction with the line to Mexico and then the split between the two eastward tracks, the original SP down in the curving valley of the local watercourse, and the former EP&SW up on the level ground. At Cienega Creek, in a nature reserve, the upper track crosses the lower track on a steel trestle. At Mescal, at the top of the climb, where the lines come back together, there are many old time railroad artifacts (semaphores, water tank, coaling station, etc.) left over from the days when the El Paso & Southwestern still ran coal-fired steam locomotives because its owner, Phelps-Dodge Corporation, owned some appropriate coal mines along the line. East of Mescal and through Benson, were once there was only a single track, there is now double track (operated as two main tracks, not as direction of traffic single lines in each direction). The terrain east of Tucson, and especially between Benson and Dragoon, has become quite mountainous in nature, as it climbs up toward the continental divide. However, before the divide is reached, the terrain turns into areas of large salt flats and dry lakes. The continental divide itself is virtually unnoticeable. I eat lunch from the lounge’s snack bar, somewhere along here.
Across the rest of this part of New Mexico, the line runs through open semi-arid country. Nearing El Paso there are once again two separate tracks, one built by the SP and one by the EP&SW. At Anapra, the southernmost track passes within 20 ft. or so of the Mexican border, through an area where freight trains are often robbed (there is a shanty town just across the border). The lines cross the Rio Grande, into Texas, on separate steel girder bridges. At El Paso, there is an on-line fuel rack adjacent to the station, and another adjacent to the roundhouse a mile further east. At this latter location, the former El Paso & Northeastern, later SP, line to Tucumcari and the former Rock Island, now "Cotton Rock" route to Kansas City, splits off to the north. There is no fuel-rack at this location on that line; hence the additional fuel rack adjacent to the station.
Down in the broad river plain in the first fifty miles or so east of El Paso are irrigated fields and orchards that provide strong contrast to the scrub that is still evident in unirrigated areas. El Paso is one of those cities with very slow track approaches; in this case, 20 mph for the first 15 miles east of El Paso Union station. As we climb higher towards Paisano Pass (highest point on the Sunset Route at just over 7000 feet), the vegetation gets ever more sparse. Scrub has given way to rocky ground and spiky clumps of “grass". Darkness falls before we reach the summit. I eat dinner in the dining car, with three elderly ladies, during the ascent. The car attendant is ready to go to bed before I'm ready to have the bed made up, so he shows me how to operate the room.
Immediately west of Paisano Pass, the line runs through flat (but not level) open country, still sparsely vegetated, but east of the Pass are some quite spectacular desert mountains. The line is now in the Chihuahuan desert, descending towards the Rio Grande (again) at Del Rio. The line passes through Sanderson, where I go to bed, and a couple of hundred miles further east crosses the Pecos River High Bridge. The line now passes through the Amistad National Recreation Area, crossing over the reservoir called Lake Amistad. Lake Amistad is 1119 feet above see level, 6000 feet down from Paisano Pass. East of Del Rio, the countryside comprises scrub, and then stands of mesquite, as the aridity eases progressively. Just west of San Antonio, there are corn fields which are very dry, in marked contrast with those up the line towards San Marcos or east towards Flatonia, just a few tens of miles to the east. Arizona and New Mexico, and western Texas, are all arid desert, although full of desert wildlife and the interest of the mountains along much of the way.
The Texas Eagle uses the former SP station in San Antonio (so it can connect with the Sunset Limited). The connection to the MKT line we will use to get to Austin is west of the former SP station. So, the running of the Texas Eagle takes place in reverse, as far as the sleeper from LA is concerned. The MP line to Austin and the Sunset Route cross at grade east of the former SP station, but there is no connection between the two lines there. So, the train uses the MKT at the southern end of its route. I awake as the train departs San Antonio, having slept through the entire process of switching the car from the rear of the Sunset Limited to the front of the Texas Eagle. I discover, as I go for breakfast, that the dining car on this train is at the far end, beyond all of the coaches, just as it had been on the previous train! I don't put the bed away by myself, even though I now know how, because the attendant has made up the room by the time I get back from breakfast.
The countryside north of San Antonio is lush farmland, since it is (just) east of the 100th meridian that represents the general boundary between the arid land to the west and the lusher land to the east. Also along the railroad between San Antonio and San Marcos are a number of rock quarries providing the kind of rock used in railroad construction and maintenance, as well as road building. Approaching San Marcos, up on the hill to the west is San Marcos State University, its new high rises overshadowing the original two-story brick buildings where LBJ went to college and performed chores for the college president in return for lodging and board. In San Marcos, the train swaps from the MKT to the MP for the run through Austin to Taylor. Further north is the urban area of Austin, comprising not only the state capital of Texas, but also a modern high-technology industry center known as 'silicon gulch'.
The urban area of Austin continues for awhile, then the line is back out into the farming countryside. Further north, the topography turns to rolling hills, still covered with lush farms. At Taylor, the line changes from the MP to the MKT, and at Temple, to the Santa Fe. Adjacent to the large Temple depot is some preserved steam-era equipment, including a locomotive. At Cleburne, there is a large Santa Fe locomotive shop that had once repaired steam locomotives, but latterly has been responsible for rebuilding Santa Fe’s F-units to its home-grown CF-7 road switchers. Along this stretch of the Santa Fe, each town has at least one grain elevator. Approaching Fort Worth, there is an MKT Yard to the east and an SP Yard to the west. The Santa Fe line, along with the MKT and SP lines, crosses the Texas & Pacific line at fabled Tower 55, then enters the Santa Fe Forth Worth station.
On a Sunday, no alcoholic beverages are served prior to departure from Fort Worth, so passengers start lining up in the lower-level of the lounge car during the stop in Fort Worth. Leaving Fort Worth, a Texas Eagle passes through Tower 55 twice more before heading east on the Texas & Pacific through Arlington to Dallas. This entire line runs through urban areas, including passing the Texas Rangers’ baseball field at Arlington. As it arrives in Dallas, the line passes Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository, where JFK was assassinated in 1963. Arriving in Dallas, my train journey is over.
After four days attending the American Newspaper Publishers Association's Technical Conference and Exhibit; I fly home on Thursday evening, because there is no convenient return train, and because I’m expected in at work on Friday.
I have agreed to join the team that will spend two weeks in New York City analyzing the operations of Standard & Poor’s publications departments, providing that I can use Amtrak to travel there and back. This has been agreed to, and I have to be in New York City by Sunday evening for a Monday morning start. Thus, I need to leave southern California on Thursday evening’s train to Chicago. On Thursday evening, after dinner, Chris drives me over to the Pasadena station to catch the Southwest Chief. I check my luggage through to New York’s Pennsylvania Station, and wait for the train. One of the other people going to New York for this same activity comes to the station to see me off. We hear the train climbing the grade from Los Angeles, and it appears down the track to the south. Once it stops, I find my sleeping car and board, saying goodbye to my companions on the platform. I find my economy sleeping space and settle in.
The Southwest Chief travels between Los Angeles and San Bernardino via the Pasadena subdivision, which includes a 600 ft. climb in the ten miles between Los Angeles and Pasadena (an average grade of greater than 1%, with a ruling grade of over 2%), through the urban areas of Highland Park and South Pasadena, then a series of gentle dips and climbs over the remaining 45 miles to San Bernardino, 200 ft. Higher than Pasadena, through urban areas gradually decreasing to citrus orchards and farmland, with a steel-making plant thrown in for good measure. Darkness falls before we reach San Bernardino.
North of San Bernardino, the line traverses Cajon Pass, with a summit 2400 ft. higher than San Bernardino, then drops gently to Victorville and Barstow. On the West slope of Cajon Pass, the line crosses the San Andreas Fault at ‘Blue Cut’. From San Bernardino to ‘Frost’, the traditional ‘current of traffic’ directions are reversed, in favor of left-hand running, to take advantage of favorable grades. The steepest grade on the former South Track (now simply Track 2) is 3%, while that on the former North Track (Track 1) is only 2.2%. Both tracks are now signaled for bi-directional running. The ex-Santa Fe mainline is at least double track all the way from Los Angeles to near Albuquerque, where the passenger main separates from the two-main-track freight main.
Barstow has a large freight yard, where trains to/from both Los Angeles and the San Francisco area are, in many cases, re-sorted from/to trains connecting to points East of Belen (near Albuquerque), such as Alliance Yard in Fort Worth, Argentine Yard West of Kansas City, Willow Springs Intermodal Yard or Corwith Yard in Chicago, or direct connections with Eastern railroads in Illinois.
The westward trip across the Mojave starts from the banks of the Colorado River at Needles and climbs the stiff grade (1.4%) northwestward towards Goffs. At Goffs, the line turns southwestward and descends to Essex and Cadiz, where the junction with the Arizona and California is made. Then, the track climbs Ash Hill (with the dual main tracks separated for ease of grades, 1.4% upgrade westbound), reaches Ludlow and heads due West for Barstow. All of this is across rolling terrain, populated only by scrub and desert animals, between numerous ranges of treeless mountains. At Daggett, the Union Pacific line from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, formerly used by the Desert Wind before that train’s cancellation in 1995, joins from the North.
East of Needles (which is at only 250 feet altitude), the line climbs over 7000 ft to the Arizona Divide, West of Flagstaff. In the lower altitudes, the terrain is desert, just like the Mojave, as the line passes through Kingman canyon, and then further canyon running between Kingman and Seligman. Between Seligman and Williams, the line now runs on an alignment newly engineered in the 1950s, known as the 'Crookton line change', to avoid the curving descent to, and climb from, Ash Fork. At Williams, the line crosses the Grand Canyon railway and joins with the old line to/from Ash Fork, which still operates as part of the line to Phoenix. Between Williams and Flagstaff, the terrain changes with the line running through pine trees at an altitude of over 7000 ft. across the Arizona Divide to Flagstaff. Adding to the spectacle of the magnificent scenery are the San Francisco Mountains, the remnants of the rim around an ancient volcanic caldera, to the North of the line, visible from West of Williams to well to the East of Flagstaff. East of Flagstaff, the terrain alongside the track is once again empty and ever more uninviting than to the West of Williams, as the line descends 1500 ft. or so to Winslow. The land is scarred by a number of usually-dry gullies, one of which, Canyon Diablo, is spanned by a spectacular and justly famous bridge.
Under normal circumstances, darkness falls on Train 4, Eastbound, before it reaches Fullerton, and dawn breaks somewhere between Williams and Winslow. A late Train 4 may permit the traveler to see parts of the Crookton line change. Under normal circumstances, darkness falls on Train 3, Westbound, somewhere between western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, and dawn breaks before reaching San Bernardino. A late Train 3 may permit the traveler to see parts of the Mojave Desert as well as all of Cajon Pass.
I awake during the station stop in Winslow. East of Winslow, the line is accompanied by the Little Colorado "river", between various sets of brightly-colored cliffs, as it rises slowly to Gallup, and then to the continental divide. On this route, the latter is not only an anti-climax, it’s almost unnoticeable, being almost level, and at a much lower altitude than summits on either side. Further east, ‘mesas’, some of which have Indian villages atop them (for reasons of defense), replace the cliffs. As the line starts to descend into the Rio Grande valley, the freight and passenger mains separate, and the passenger line head northeastward to Albuquerque. After breakfast, I break out my work materials and start to learn the analytical tools and methodologies that we will be using to analyze the S&P business operations during the next two weeks. I take a break for lunch (from the snack counter in the lounge car, which on this trip is a former Santa Fe high-level lounge car).
From Albuquerque, the line runs first due north along the Rio Grande, and then due East to Lamy, where the branch to Santa Fe itself cuts off. (This is now run by a shortline called the Santa Fe Southern.) East of Lamy, the line passes through Glorieta Pass, including a section of canyon so narrow that the train is only a few feet away from rocky walls on both sides at once, and into the Pecos River Valley. The track continues eastward until the Pecos is crossed, then turns northward through Las Vegas, NM and heads across the high plains of New Mexico to Raton, passing along the way such features as the double horseshoe curves at Ribera and Wagon Mound, the geological feature that the early settlers thought looked like a Conestoga wagon. North of Raton, the line climbs sharply to Raton Pass, the highest point on the former Santa Fe railroad system, then descend equally steeply to Trinidad, Colorado. Trinidad is on the western edge of the Great Plains that climb gradually all the way from the Missouri River.
I have read all the way through the descriptive text, once, and am ready for a break by late afternoon. I eat dinner in the dining car before the train reaches Trinidad. Visiting the snack bar again, to get an after dinner drink, I discover that the Boy Scouts who had boarded at Raton have just about taken over the lower-level of the lounge car, leaving just about enough space for other passengers to get to the snack counter, but not to sit down to eat their food after purchase. Fortunately for me, I’m returning to my room.
The high plains of Colorado are largely arid, useful only for livestock grazing and dry farming. Further east, in western Kansas, farmers can handle both more livestock and less hardy crops, but irrigation is still required for the cropland, at least. Somewhere between the 95th and the 100th meridian, as the plains climb so slowly from the 400 ft. altitude of the Missouri River at Kansas City to the 5000 or 6000 ft. altitude at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, an isoclime is passed at which the land becomes perceptibly drier, less able to handle crops without irrigation (and better able to handle wheat rather than corn), and can handle cattle better than sheep for livestock farming. Today, this isoclime tends to mark the western boundary of widespread settlement of the plains. Major settlements West of here tend to be nestled at the base of the Front Range of the Rockies.
On Train 4, eastbound, darkness falls between Trinidad and La Junta, as it does on this trip, and the light level is high enough to watch the passing landscape again just to the west of Topeka, Kansas (which I don’t notice this time). For the traveler, this means that the break between the mid-Western farming styles seen in Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas, and the high plains farming styles, takes place overnight. The result is a distinctly visible change between the evening and morning scenery.
(A similar substantial break occurs overnight on the trains between Chicago and New York City or Washington DC, between the mid-Western farmland and the "rust belt" of the industrial East and/or the Appalachian mountains, depending on which route is taken and the exact eastern boundary of darkness. The result for the transcontinental rider is a perception of quite distinct segments of countryside for East Coast, mid-West, mountain West, and the land bordering the Pacific Ocean (but the distinction of this last can be blurred by the perception that the mountains near the Pacific coast differ only slightly from those seen on the next day eastward.)
In the mid-West, from eastern Kansas to Indiana and western Ohio, farms tend to be of the picture postcard variety, each possessing a "red" barn and a "red" or aluminum silo or two. (The large agribusiness farms have more, of course, but these tend to be distributed around the farm, so the perception is the same.) From eastern Colorado eastward, every town has at least one large grain silo standing next to the tracks. The appearance of these tends to differ with age (time of building), but not by location. It is the appearance of the countryside itself that shows the difference in the rainfall levels, and thus the crop and livestock types.
In eastern Kansas, stops are made at the Kansas State capital, Topeka, and at Lawrence. Both trains 3 and 4 take fuel at on-line fuel racks adjacent to the large freight yard at Argentine, Kansas. For Train 4, this means that the fuel stop (20 minutes or so) comes before the train's arrival in Kansas City, and could be perceived as inappropriately placed if passengers are thereby unable to make connections to the morning eastbound train from Kansas City to St. Louis. The KC stop is adjacent to, but not in, the stately Kansas City Union Station. The KC area, at least as it is visible from the train, is a typical older mid-Western city, with decaying industries in the areas near downtown, surrounding the gleaming new high-rise building in downtown itself. Both the river bottoms and the downtown are to the north of the train as it passes through the KC station area. On this trip, I awake as the train starts away eastbound from Kansas City Union Station. After breakfast, I get back to work on studying the analysis tools and methodologies.
East of Kansas City, the train traverses the Missouri farming country, including crossing the Missouri River at Sibley, stopping at La Plata, and passing through Walt Disney's boyhood home town of Marceline. One stretch of the line has three shared tracks, two of them belonging to the former Santa Fe main, and the third the former Wabash (then Norfolk & Western, now Norfolk Southern) line to Kansas City. Where the three tracks are adjacent, they are operated as a single railroad dispatched by a single Dispatcher. Between the eastern edge of Missouri and the Mississippi River, the line passes through a corner of Iowa, including a stop at Fort Madison. In Illinois, the look of the countryside is much the same as in Missouri. The next stop to the east of the river is in Galesburg.
East of Galesburg, the Southwest Chief uses the line across Edelstein Hill and through Chillicothe, Streator and Joliet, thence along the North side of the Sanitary Canal past Willow Springs intermodal yard and the turnoff to Corwith Yard, then turning onto the line into Chicago Union Station at the South end of the 16th Street bridge across the Chicago River, where the Santa Fe tracks used to continue straight ahead to Dearborn Station. I pack away my stuff and get ready to leave the train as it stops in Chicago Union Station. In the station, I visit the Amtrak reservations center to change my return tickets from the Southwest Chief to the Desert Wind, so that I will return through Denver and Ogden, rather than the way I came. The, I walk over to the Sears’ Tower and visit the observation deck at the top, getting my bearings in the city. Then, I walk east on Adams, stopping in a McDonald’s for some coffee, then walk further east looking for somewhere for dinner. A couple of block from Michigan Avenue, I find a German restaurant named The Berghoff, which looks interesting. I eat dinner here, then walk back to Union Station in time for the 8:30 pm departure of my train.
On the Broadway Limited, I have an upper-level room on a Slumbercoach, which although somewhat small, is quite enough space for me. It has an en suite toilet, but of course has space only for one person in the room. (The Superliner Economy Room has space for two people.) The train departs right on time. Darkness has already fallen.
The Broadway Limited takes the original Pennsylvania Railroad line across Indiana and Ohio, later the Conrail "Fort Wayne Line", through Fort Wayne and Crestline. There is a large yard at Crestline. Eastbound trains pass though this entire area in darkness.
A substantial break in environment occurs overnight on the trains between Chicago and New York City, between the mid-Western farmland and the "rust belt" of the industrial East and/or the Appalachian mountains, depending on the exact eastern boundary of darkness. By the time it's light enough to see the scenery, the eastbound train is alongside the Ohio River, just West of the large Conway yard, on the former Pennsylvania line that it uses between here and New York City. The rest of the way to Pittsburgh, the line follows the Ohio to the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in downtown Pittsburgh, passing Three Rivers Stadium and crossing the Allegheny River into the station. In Pittsburgh, the train uses the former Pennsylvania railroad station.
Most ConRail freights through Pittsburgh do not run through the former Pennsylvania station, but bypass the city to the south and west by means of the Mon Line. This leaves the main line just east of the steel mills at Braddock, then crosses to the west side of the Monongahela River, runs north past downtown, somewhat uphill from the CSX line along the river, and crosses back to the east side at the Ohio Connecting bridge to reach Conway Yard. Conway Yard, the biggest on the ConRail system, has two double hump yards, receiving yards in each direction, plus locomotive servicing facilities. Located 22 miles west of downtown Pittsburgh, Conway is nonetheless the location referred to as “Pittsburgh” in ConRail freight train symbology.
The train leaves Pittsburgh on the uphill side of the Braddock steelworks, then later passes through Johnstown, climbs the West Slope, and descends through Horseshoe Curve into Altoona. In Altoona, the line passes the former Pennsylvania Railroad's big Juniata shops, where almost all the PRR steam locomotives were made, and which subcontracts from the manufacturers for diesel locomotive construction (assembly) even in the 1990s and 2000. The line follows the Juniata River through Huntington, Mount Union and the other town along the line until it reaches the Susquehanna River, passes by the North End of the Enola freight yard, and crosses the famous stone bridge into Harrisburg.
East of Harrisburg, the line is now electrified as the Keystone line of the former PRR (and its stations have high-level platforms, like the NorthEast Corridor). Locomotives are changed during the stop at Harrisburg. This part of the line passes through the "Pennsylvania Dutch" farming country around Lancaster, then reaches the western Philadelphia suburbs along the so-called "Main Line", including Paoli and Bryn Mawr, passing through the massive and complicated Zoo Interlocking before reaching Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Here, the locomotive is removed from one end of the train, and another one added at the other, since the train has to reverse to proceed to New York.
East of 30th Street Station, the NEC (which separates from the Keystone line at Zoo Junction, site of the famous eponymous interlocking tower) passes through urban Philadelphia and across the Delaware into Trenton. It passes through Princeton Junction, Newark, crosses the New Jersey meadowlands and dives into the Hudson River tunnel to reach Pennsylvania Station, New York City, This line is electrified, four track territory, heavy with commuter trains.
Arriving in the subterranean platform, I leave the train and reclaim my luggage. I walk outside the Eighth Street side of the building and take a taxi to the Millennium Hotel, on West Street on the World Trade Center property. My room has a magnificent view of the Hudson River, with the Statue of Liberty prominent in the middle of the scene. My colleagues arrive later, and we have a planning meeting over dinner. Our two weeks of analysis at S&P starts with overview meetings on Monday morning at the S&P facility in the southernmost block of Broadway, walking distance from the hotel. Apparently, I’ve learned enough about the analysis tools on the train that I now sound like an expert!
On the Saturday, those of us from southern California spend the day taking a tourist bus tour of Manhattan, including a visit to the Statue of Liberty. We use the subway from the basement of the World Trade Center to get to Times Square to start the tour, and return the same way. I’m quite surprise to see that at least one of the subway station is a multi-platform affair, affording vistas across a number of tracks (and subway lines) at once. On the return trip, we have to change trains at this station.
I spend the daytime on Sunday taking a side trip down the Northeast Corridor to Washington DC, so that I can travel through Delaware, the only state in the “lower 48” that I have not yet visited. I take the subway from the basement of the World Trade Center (a different line from the one we took on Saturday) to Penn Station, and buy a round-trip ticket to Washington, DC. My train leaves a few minutes later, so I descend to the platform and board the train. This is a train of Amfleet coaches, hauled by an Amtrak AEM-7 locomotive.
The NorthEast Corridor (NEC) is a heavy-duty passenger railroad running from Washington DC to Boston, via Philadelphia and New York City. Much of the route has four tracks, and all of it is electrified with overhead catenary. Until recently, however, the section from New Haven to Boston was not electrified, and was operated with diesel locomotives. Amtrak owns most of the NEC, with some segments owned by the local commuter operator. From Washington through to New Rochelle, NY, (north of Pennsylvania Station, New York City) the route was build and electrified by the Pennsylvania Railroad..
The NEC and the former B&O line to Cumberland and Pittsburgh diverge immediately North of Washington Union Station. The NEC heads to the northeast (!), through suburban Maryland and past the Baltimore Airport, then dives into the tunnels leading to Baltimore station. East of Baltimore, the line runs along Chesapeake Bay (although not along the shoreline), crossing the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace, the passing through Newark and Wilmington, Delaware before reaching Philadelphia. In the southwest suburban of Philadelphia, the line passes Eddystone, site of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and then the Philadelphia Airport, before reaching 30th Street Station. East of 30th Street, the line is the same one I arrived on, a week earlier..
The train is half-empty, which helps because the coach I’m in loses its air-conditioning, and we have to move elsewhere in the train. In Delaware, I observe the Amtrak repair shops on the east side of the line, north of Wilmington station. Washington Union Station is mostly closed off, so I use up the time until my return train by walking over to the US Capitol Building. The return train is crowded. The man in the seat next to me is trying to travel with his two daughters on a non-existent cheap fare; they have to leave the train at Baltimore. Back in NYC, I return to the hotel.
At dinner that night, there is a Jewish Wedding (high-orthodox) taking place in the patio area next to the restaurant. This is most interesting. The second week is spent doing more of the same at S&P, with the addition of trying to capture database elements as well as process steps.
We wind up at S&P by lunchtime on Friday. I check out of the hotel in the morning, and store my bags. Mid afternoon, I reclaim them and take a taxi to Grand Central Terminal. I’m leaving on the Lakeshore Limited, which leaves from GCT in the midst of the evening rush hour. While I wait, I'm fascinated by the arrangements in which commuters can grab alcoholic refreshments at convenient sale counters on the way to the departure platforms for their trains. Shortly after 6 pm, my train is called, I find my room in the Slumbercoach, and I head to the dining car for dinner. I never do see the head end of this train (before Chicago), but I presume that it has one of Amtrak’s FL-9 electro-diesels handling the requirement for electric haulage in Manhattan. This would have been changed out at Albany, by which I was asleep.
The New York City section (trains 48 and 49) travels down the justly famous high-speed line along the east shore of the Hudson River, below FDR's Hyde Park estate, under the Poughkeepsie railroad bridge (unused since it burned in 1974), past West Point on the other side of the river, under the Bear Mountain highway bridge, to Croton-Harmon. Here, the electrified commuter-territory to GCT begins, and the commuter-train shops reside. The Lakeshore Limited and Empire Service trains use this line all the way into GCT. Today, I take this line in reverse, north to Albany
Albany is the point at which the Boston and New York City sections of the train join (going West). The Boston section comprises the Chicago locomotives and about a third of the train, plus an added cafe car. The New York City section comprises the remaining two-thirds of the train, including lounge and diner, with electro-diesel locomotives that can take the train through the tunnels in Manhattan. I sleep through the process of combining the trains.
On a westbound train, darkness falls along the Hudson River. and the whole upper tier of upstate New York, along the former New York Central's "Water-level Route", is passed in darkness. West of Albany (New York State's capital), where the station is actually in Rensselaer on the other side of the Hudson river, the tracks follow closely the route of the Erie Canal, which at times is right alongside the rails, and the Mohawk river, through the industrial cities of Schenectady (where the General Electric plant is close by on the South side of the line), Utica, and Syracuse (where the line goes around the town to the North).
East of the industrialized area of Chicago, the remainder of Indiana and into western Ohio is farmland that, while very similar to that West of Chicago, in Illinois, is also subtly different in ways that I can't quite put my finger on. On westbound trains, daylight appears in Ohio. East of Cleveland, this line is in darkness. Between Toledo and Buffalo, the line runs along the south edge of Lake Erie, with lake ports at Toledo, Sandusky, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Erie, and Buffalo. Within Indiana are South Bend, where Notre Dame University is located, and Elkhart, home of musical instrument manufacturers and a large freight yard. I wake during the stop in Cleveland, have breakfast in the dining car, and watch the scenery the rest of the way to Chicago.
The last 40-50 miles east of Chicago, covering up to an hour and a half of travel time, pass through heavily industrialized built-up areas, along with old and very poor housing neighborhoods. East of the Indiana state line is devoted largely to large steel mills along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, along with many rail yards devoted to serving these industries. In Illinois, the track East of the Dan Ryan expressway is the site of the former parallel double trackage of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, where their nightly expresses for New York City used to 'race' on leaving Englewood Union Station. The site of that station is now just a debris pile, and the tracks have been reduced, during the Conrail regime, to just a single pair, which weaves back and forth between being on the former Pennsy and former NYC right-of-way. At each waterway, only one of the former pair of lifting bridges remains in service. On the Lakeshore Limited, the industrialized area extends as far as east as Porter Junction, outside Michigan City.
In Chicago, I walk over to The Berghoff for lunch, then while away the time on the terrace alongside the Chicago River on a beautiful sunny, but not too hot, afternoon. In mid afternoon, I board the California Zephyr (which includes through cars to the Desert Wind) for its trip west across the plains to Denver, then across Wyoming to Ogden, where the train is split. I have an economy room on an Oakland-bound car as far as Denver, and another on the Los Angeles sleeper from Denver onward. The line leaves Chicago down the Burlington Northern triple-track commuter line out to Aurora, where we pass and meet and number of the suburban “dinky” trains now run on behalf of Metra, in this intensive commuter service, by the BN (which formerly ran then for itself). The suburbs along this line are some of the nicest looking in the Chicago area, based on what we’ve seen from various Amtrak, CTA, and Metra rides. Along this line are, in turn, Western Avenue Yard, Cicero Yard, Clyde diesel shop, and Eola Yard. At Aurora, the Metra line ends with a station fashioned from the former roundhouse and a servicing yard for the “dinkies”.
West of the Metra facilities, the single-track line to LaCrosse, WI, heads north. Past Aurora, the double-track line to Galesburg runs through decreasing suburbs, then open farm country with a number of relatively small towns along the way. The line crosses the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa. I eat dinner in the diner, then spend some time in the lounge car talking to a man who’s returning to law school at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. When this man hears that I’m on a business trip, he opines that I must be working in the computer business, because no other business would permit people with my standards of hair length and facial hair to make customer visits.
By morning, the train is in northeastern Colorado, in the arid high-plains country. What a contrast from the lush agricultural countryside in western Illinois and eastern Iowa that it was passing through at nightfall. The mountains of the Front Range appear on the horizon, although the train is still at least two hours away from Denver. (These mountains rise anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 feet, directly from the high plains, which are themselves at an altitude between 5,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, in this area.) Approaching Denver Union Station, the train turns on a wye between the BN yard and the former D&RGW (now SP) yard, then backs slowly into the station. In Denver, I use the platform to walk the length of the train to reach the room that I will use the rest of the way to Los Angeles. It still smells of cigarette smoke from its previous occupant, who has just left. My room is now many cars’ walk away from the lounge and dining cars. During the stop, I take the opportunity to walk into the depot building.
From Denver, the train heads north on the UP line to Cheyenne, WY, along the high plains. When we reach the UP transcendental mainline, the train takes the left leg of the wye, and stops at a platform at Borie, where passengers from/to Cheyenne are served by a bus. The train then climbs famed Sherman Hill on track 3, then passes through Laramie, Rock Springs, Green River, and other towns across the rather barren southern Wyoming countryside, including crossing the continental divide, before crossing the Wasatch and descending to Ogden through Echo and Weber Canyons. Unfortunately, darkness has fallen before we get very far down into these scenic canyons. In Ogden, the locomotives and coaches of the Desert Wind and Pioneer are waiting. The through sleepers are removed from the main train and switched to their respective continuing trains. The main train departs for Oakland, and then the Desert Wind, with my sleeping car attached, leaves southbound to Salt Lake City.
Leaving Salt Lake City for Los Angeles, the line makes a big turn to the west, onto the former Los Angeles & Salt Lake line long owned by Union Pacific, then another big turn west of Smelter to head south across the high desert, through Lyndyll and Milford, curving northwest to Caliente, Nevada, then south again through the Meadow Valley Wash, site of numerous washouts during the early days of the line, and then dropping down in sight of Lake Mead to Las Vegas. I awake during the descent to Las Vegas, and take the opportunity to step off the train for a few minutes while we’re in the station there.
South of Las Vegas, the line turns away from Interstate 15 to drop down onto the Mojave Desert floor by way of the long Cima Hill to the former helper station at Kelso. South of Kelso, the line turns west across a sandy plain that serves as the sink for the Mojave River, where once there was a railroad crossing with the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad that had served the Death Valley mining boom. Then the line turns south again, through the spectacular Afton Canyon, which it shares with the Mojave River, reaches the UP division point and yard at Yermo, then joins with the former Santa Fe at Daggett. UP has trackage rights from Daggett to West Riverside Junction, but the Desert Wind uses the same route as the Southwest Chief from Daggett into Los Angeles.
I detrain in Pasadena in mid-afternoon, glad to be back. Even though this is Monday, work can wait until morning (as it will for those who flew home on Friday, who are taking today off). Chris meets me, and we drive home to Sierra Madre.