The proximate cause of this trip was the 1998 AAPRCO Convention in Albuquerque. AAPRCO put on a complete train of private cars from Los Angeles to that convention and a number of placed of railroad and non-railroad interest. Pacific Railroad Society ran a trio of cars in that train, and we traveled with that group.
This evening, we started our journey by driving from home to Los Angeles Union Station. We’re only going to be gone for ten days, so the parking charges will be less than shuttle fees for the two of us would have been. We get to LAUS in plenty of time for our anticipated departure, and make our presence known to Barbara Sibert who is leading the PRS group on this special train. There’s Russ Davies, there’s Russell Hogue, there are Ted and Frances Creveling, there are Ted and Marian Campbell, and many of the frequent PRS-excursion travelers. Our train is expected to appear in the station platforms after the station work is done on the late Amtrak long-distance trains, today. Well, ten pm comes and goes, and there’s still no train. However, there’s also no arriving Coast Starlight, Amtrak train 11. It transpires that three of the private cars that will be leaving with us are coming down from the Bay Area on train 11, and we will have to wait for that train. Sometime after 11 pm, that train arrives, and once its passengers are in the station, we are allowed out onto the platform from which our special will depart.
Across the way, two platforms over, we can see the three private cars, Virginia City, Silver Iris and Silver Lariat, on the rear of train 11’s stock. Then a backing-up train of private cars appears past Terminal Tower, starts to enter our platform, and stops. It seems we are going to get to watch them switch the three cars from train 11 into our train. But first, those cars need to be turned! While the Amtrak switcher is turning those three cars, the main train is split at the point they will go in, and the forward part of the train pulled back out of the platform.
By this time, both of the crew members for Cimarron River, the car we will be traveling in, have arrived: mechanic Brian Higgins, from the St. Louis area (he always travels with this car) and attendant Katie Shultz from somewhere in Greater LA. Also present at the end of the platform is the Amtrak Manager for this train, who states in a loud voice that if he had been planning this train, there is no way he would have allowed a same-day transfer of those three cars!
Eventually, the three cars are switched into the train, and the whole train is pushed back to the bumping post. Our three cars (10-6 sleeper Pacific Sunset, dome-diner Columbia River, and 10-6 sleeper Cimarron River) are still off the end of the platform! Rather than taking more time to switch them into the adjacent platform, we walk out and board the cars from the ballast. We get started from LA after midnight! We’re soon asleep in our bedroom in Cimarron River, after discovering that the only operable toilets in the car are the MicroPhors in two of the roomettes that will not be used for passenger accommodations. They are at the other end of the car from our bedroom.
I awake during the climb from Essex to Goffs. This is the first time I’ve seen the Mojave Desert from a train during daylight, and I had hoped to see more of it in daylight. Oh, well! I’m dressed by the time we reach Needles, and we have breakfast in the dome while climbing the desert canyons on the east side of the Colorado River. We pass Amtrak 3 just west of Kingman at 9:09 am, and stop at Kingman to change crews. Katie has brought a box full of tiny kittens with her, since otherwise they would die while she is gone. Chris spends a lot of time with those kittens over the next few days!
We stop at Winslow to get paperwork. The train was due to stop at Gallup for an Indian Dancing demonstration. However, this was canceled due to rain, and we go through Gallup without stopping. From 5:35 pm to 6:33 pm, we take siding at Isleta for Amtrak train 3, which passes us at 6:16 pm. From 6:55 to 7:04 pm, we stop on the fuel rack, south of Albuquerque. When we arrive in Albuquerque, the so-called “Eastern Train” (in Jim Bistline’s terms) is there, departing at 7:35 pm for Santa Fe. This set of cars came west on Amtrak 3 a few days ago, and became a separate train at Albuquerque. It has since been to the Grand Canyon and back. We eat dinner on the train, while stopped at Albuquerque, then go to bed with the train still in town.
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.) Our train uses the latter to reach Santa Fe itself.
We awake during the stop in Lamy to turn onto the Santa Fe Southern, and have breakfast before reaching Santa Fe. At Santa Fe, buses are waiting to take the passengers to Chama, for a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The bus ride north through the scenic mountain north of Santa Fe is enjoyable, if a bit too long. At Chama, we find that snow has fallen in the mountains, and we will thus be treated to a “wintertime” ride to Osier and back, today. First, however, there is time to walk around the yard and see as much of the narrow-gauge equipment and rolling stock as possible, including the steam-powered rotary snowplow ‘OY’ (still operable), as well as the (inoperable) coaling tower in the yard.
At Cumbres, we stop to water the locomotive, then pull forward and load the lunches. East of Cumbres, the now-descending line makes a sharp curve to the right, then curves around a very tight almost circular loop and comes back alongside itself but at a much lower level. This is known as Tanglefoot Curve. The line then turns right to run along the north edge of a valley, turning up a side valley to the horseshoe curve adjacent to Los Piños tank, then returning to the main valley where it crosses Cascade Trestle, turns up another side valley, and then makes a big curve to the right to reach Osier.
At Osier, the locomotive turns on the wye and runs around the train, and the train reverses direction. The buses meet us at Cumbres, and most of the passengers transfer to the buses. A set of hardy souls, not including us, elects to ride the train back to Chama, and will be in Santa Fe hour later than we are.
On the bus back to Santa Fe, we are sitting right behind Jim Bistline. The woman he is sitting with, part owner of Pine Bluff, clearly has no idea who Jim is (or was in his working life). It is amusing listening to him trying to explain who he is/was to someone who has clearly never even head of the erstwhile Norfolk Southern Steam program, much less its predecessor the Southern Railway Steam program that Jim once ran. Jim does, however, remember us from the ride on the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad in June 1996, and engage us in more fruitful conversation.
Back in Santa Fe, we’re left to find our own way to the hotel at which PRS has booked us. There are only a few taxis available, and it is almost an hour from the arrival of the buses before we get to our hotel. For dinner, we walk over to the Indian (subcontinent) we had found in 1994, for a good Indian meal. Then we go to bed.
We choose to sleep in, today. On arising, we checkout and give the luggage to PRS to handle, then take a walk around Santa Fe. Chris buys some native jewelry in the Plaza, we visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Art Museum, and we walk over to the station where our train is waiting. We take the opportunity to photograph all of the cars, as many as possible from both sides. In late afternoon, the train leaves for Albuquerque, with the locomotives attached to the other end of the train, with the train (not having turned) now in reverse order. As we proceed slowly down the Santa Fe Southern, Russ Davies observes the red clouds of the sunset and suggests they might be reflecting the brush fires in California. I point out that those are 900 miles away! It takes us 90 minutes from the first stop outside of Albuquerque station at 7:15 pm to reach the point of having parked the train in the third and fourth tracks over (along with the cars from the “Eastern Train” as well. We spend this time hand throwing switches, and returning them to normal once we’ve passed, fueling the locomotives, watering both locomotives and train, cutting the train and arranging the cars.
On arriving in Albuquerque, we transfer to the hotel where we will stay for the next three nights. The first room we are given has twin beds that can’t be moved together, and is very small with nor room to move around. We go back and ask for a room with a double bed, citing Barbara’s specific instructions, and get a big room at the end of the hallway with good views over the station and parked train, providing ample photo opportunities over the next cou0le of days. Jeff Wells is only with us for the first part of the trip, and is returning to Los Angeles on Friday’s Southwest Chief.
We do a little exploring of the area around the hotel, finding a Mexican restaurant at which we eat several meals. Otherwise, we spend the day reading, and listening to the railroad traffic on the scanner. This enables me to photograph both Southwest Chiefs (one at a time) in the station with the private cars, with the Sandia Mountains in the background, at least in the wider shots. All of this requires use of the long telephoto lens.
Saturday is pretty much a repeat of Friday, with the difference that there are college football games on television. On Friday and Saturday, AAPRCO holds its annual convention and meetings, but none of these appeals to us. Early evening, both days, is the time for the traditional “car parties” at which the owners or hosts of the various cars welcome passengers from the other cars for drinks and hors d’oeuvres (although one can usually eat enough to suffice for a meal), permitting all of the conventioneers to see the inside of all (or almost all) the cars. We find this a most interesting couple of hours, seeing all of the ornate (not to say gaudy) interiors of those cars that have been modified to suit their owners’ tastes, rather than restored to their original interior condition.
In Caritas, we say hello to Clark Johnson and Nona Hill. Nona seems to recognize us, but Clark is deep in conversation with someone else. In Palm Leaf, which had been part of our group for the 1995 AAPRCO trip, we say hello to owner Jerry Weintraub, who once organized concert tours for Elvis Presley. At the banquet on Saturday night, Rollin Bredenburg, a BNSF VP, regales us with stories of late 20th-century railroading from his career on SP, ATSG and now BNSF.
This morning, the conventioneers take a fleet of buses west along Interstate 40 until it intersects the railroad west to Gallup, then southwest, away from the interstate, to Acoma Pueblo. This ancient settlement is at the top of a rocky mesa, high above the surrounding plain, approached by a single steep road and an even steeper trail. The natives graciously permit visitors to walk around their pueblo, getting up and down by means of old school buses. The adobe church, dating from the Spanish colonial period (like the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe), is especially interesting. The dirt for the graveyard was carried up in baskets from the desert floor, below, and placed in the space defined by a wall built on the side of the mesa. This process took many years to complete Chris buys a loaf of native bread while we we’re up on the mesa, and later shares it with the group in the dome.
Returning to the hotel, we check out and again put the bags in PRS’s hands. We have lunch and then walk over to the station to join the walking tour of the former ATSF Albuquerque Shops. Here, the largest steam locomotives were once repaired or even completely rebuilt. Now empty, the shops are the subject of a preservation effort that will include the ex-ATSF 2900-series 4-8-4 now displayed at the north end of town, but soon to be removed and relocated. Over the course of about 90 minutes, we visit the empty erecting shop, the empty boiler shop, the still-extant traverser (transfer table), and other interesting locations.
Returning to the station, we board our cars and go to sit in the dome of Columbia River. The two waitresses are preparing the car for the next few days, and are discussing the headwaiter, Ron Torres, in less than complimentary terms. A few minutes later, the conversation turns to the dumb waiter connecting the dome with the kitchen, below, but I ask ‘innocently’ if we’re still talking about Ron, to general laughter. PRS has sold space for the second half of the trip to some ‘rare mileage collectors” who haven’t been to Carlsbad or, in some cases, from Belen to Clovis. Most of them arrive after the rest of us have had dinner on the train. I see or hear Rich Copeland, Reg Mitchell, and Dave Arthur.
Just after midnight, the train starts away south from Albuquerque. After an emergency stop somewhere along the way, at 2:22 am when a hose came apart between Pacific Grove and Glacier Park, it stops in Socorro, on the line south from Belen towards El Paso.
At 4 am, many of us arise and get ready to go to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, to be there before dawn. We’re going there to watch the awakening and flyoff of the great flock of birds that spend the night asleep on the lakes and river in this area. We head south on Interstate 25, in several specially chartered school buses, to reach the refuge, then deploy along the side of the water where the birds are sleeping. As the sky starts to lighten, first one group, then another, stirs and starts to move around, then takes off in a great flurry of feathers and splashing of water. Once all of the flocks have taken off, we drive further around, and watch some of the larger birds eating. Then we visit the Visitors Center. Finally, we return north to the waiting train.
Back aboard, we have breakfast as the train heads north back to Belen, taking care to stake out our space in the dome for the trip up Abo Canyon later in the day. Arriving in Belen, we pass the junction with the line to Clovis that we’ll be taking later, and pull up to the north end of the yard to fuel and service the locomotives and water the cars. Once fueled and serviced, the locomotives run around the train between 11:43 am and 12:20 pm, ready to head east.
The line is double and triple track as far as Sais, some if it still under construction. We discover rapidly how little priority our excursion train has on this heavily used freight line. We stop from 12:59 to 1:47 pm at El Paso Junction, before even taking the Clovis line. We stop again from 1:51 to 2:00 pm, east of the junction. From 2:15 to 2:40, we have a 10 mph slow order on newly ballasted track. We average barely above 10 mph (including the stops) from Belen to Sais! At Scholl, five and a half miles from Sais, the line exits the canyon and double track starts again. BNSF has been adding track and extending sidings to make much of this route two main tracks, signaled bi-directionally for optimal CTC usage. Since we’re turning down the Carlsbad Branch, we never do reach Clovis.
The Carlsbad branch heads southwest as far as Roswell, and then turns south to Carlsbad, almost to the Texas state line. The environment along this line differs little from that along the main line, and we’re traveling in darkness. We see no UFOs at Roswell. At 8:51 pm, we have another emergency stop, restarting at 9:26 pm. Again, a hose separated between Pacific Grove and Glacier Park. Either this stop, or perhaps the one at 2:22 am, creates flat spots on the wheels of Jane Marie and Columbia River. The whole Carlsbad branch is dark (unsignalled) territory. We reach Carlsbad after bedtime.
After breakfast, a fleet of buses takes us the twenty miles or so south to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where we tour the famous undergrounds caverns with their magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. There are almost impossible to photograph without a special lighting setup, so few of my pictures show much. We opt to take the elevator down, as well as up, but do walk around the complete trail around the big cavern at the bottom, taking the time to look at everything there is to see. Once back at the surface, we have lunch at the café and then spend some time observing the landscape that we can see from up here on the escarpment, before the buses take us back to the train. In Carlsbad, we walk over to a bank to use the ATM before it’s time for the train to depart.
Mileage collector Bill Crawford shows up only for the leg from Carlsbad to the main line at Clovis! Today, we can see that the countryside this far south more strongly resembles the desert of West Texas (just a few miles beyond the caverns) than it does the high plains of the Belen-Clovis line. At Espuela, we stop on the main track from 4:32 to 5:00, then reverse into a partially-occupied siding to wait for BN 9218 to drag 73 potash cars west. It’s dark by the time we reach Roswell, so we don’t get to see the transition between the two, or between the desert and the farming country near Clovis. However, we do get to see a full moon that looks like that famous Ansel Adams photo of a full moon over a village in New Mexico. After Bill Crawford gets off, we head west on the main line, to reach Arizona, by morning.
I awake as the train stops in Winslow. We eat breakfast in the dome between Winslow and Flagstaff. After we pass Flagstaff, we pass Amtrak train 4 at 8:54 am. From 9:06 to 9:11 am, we stop at Challender and from 9:20 to 9:34 am at East Williams Junction because of the activity of a work train between East and West Williams Junctions. At 9:47 am, we stop in Williams, on the BNSF line, then reverse onto the Grand Canyon Railway line. At 10:00 am, fully on the GCR, the train pulls forward through the GCR station. We have to remove three of the cars before going to the Grand Canyon, due to limitations of the track arrangements there. By 10:30 am, the cars are cutoff and placed in the tail track of the wye. We then reverse the remainder of the train using the wye so that we can head for the Grand Canyon proceeding in the same direction in which we had approached Williams. Then we reverse into the GCR station again, to let the passengers off the train for 45 minutes or so. At 11:45 am, the train again enters the station to pickup the passengers again, and at 11:54 am departs for the canyon.
At 2:00 pm, the train enters the wye at the canyon, reverse at 2:06 pm, and stops at the log cabin depot adjacent to the El Tovar hotel, at 2:11 pm. The AAPRCO Convention folks have arranged a number of activities during the six hours we spend at the Grand Canyon, including talks and walks led by a historian of both National Park and (mainly) Railway. There is also a bus tour of the west rim, timed for us to be there at sunset. Chris and I line up for reservations at the El Tovar for dinner, but the reservation we get is for a time that conflicts with the sunset bus tour, so we give it to Russ Davies, who, in turn, gives it to Stan Ames and Stu Spencer. The ‘sacrifice’ is well worth it, as the sunset views from the locations along the west rim drive are fantastic. We have no difficulty finding somewhere else to eat, and have an acceptable, if not great, dinner.
By 7:30 pm, the train is back in the station and ready for boarding. Our cars, at the front of the train, are well off the end of anything resembling a paved platform, but we manage to stumble out to them and board successfully. While we’re here, John Anderson, one of Rolland Graham’s stalwart helpers, joins the group for the trip back over the rare mileage to be covered on Thursday. Chris and I are asleep long before we get back to Williams.
We awake today during switching moves at Williams. We had already put the three displaced cars back onto the rear of the train, and we’re now getting ready to leave. From 6:55 am to 7:06 am, we shuffle the train from the GCR line out onto the BNSF line and prepare to depart. At 7:17 am, we head west on the line towards Ash Fork.
We eat breakfast before Ash Fork, but stay in the dome until much later in the morning, after the spectacular scenic points are all past. At Grand View, the train stops to put one of the engines back on line. At Date, there are repeated stops to hand throw the switch to enter the siding, and return it to normal, and then a long wait for BNSF 9590 East, a TOFC/COFC “pig” train from Phoenix to points east on the mainline. After that train has passed, we again have to hand throw the switch to leave the siding and stop again to return it to normal.
We stop before entering the wye at Matthie to change crews to an A&C pilot crew, then stop again to throw the switch on the west leg of the wye. From 1:42 to 1:58 pm, we stop to tie up an HEP cable. At Parker, we stop east of the yard limits waiting for a freight from Cadiz to tie up. In Parker, we stop to change crews on the locomotives (not the pilot crew) with a temporary crew that had been traveling on the train. The “dead” crew in turn boards the train. From 5:24 to 5:33 we stop to pick up a “dogpatch” crew, those being relieved boarding the train in a second stop from 5:35 to 5:38 pm. At Cadiz, we stop before entering the main, and eight times after entering the main, before we finally get going again. This occurs during dinner, and none of us with scanners can determine the reasons for the many stops! Since we’re so late, Katie makes up the beds and we get several hours sleep.
After 1 am, I go up to the darkened dome for a last round of conversation before arrival in Los Angeles. At 2:16 am, the train reverses into track 12 at LAUS. At 2:20 am, the train is split and our portion is parked in track 11. We say our goodbyes and drive home, then get several more hours sleep before it’s time to get up and go to work at the normal time (8:15 am alarm).