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Entries in flagstaff (1)

Monday
May312010

Day 3: The Southwest Chief

When I awoke on Friday morning, we were speeding through western Kansas on our way to Los Angeles. The trip on the Southwest Chief (which used to be known as the Super Chief before Amtrak took the service over) was significant to me for a couple of reasons:

  1. I've been on the Chief twice: once from Garden City, KS to Chicago and once from Flagstaff to Los Angeles. I've been trying for years to fill the gap in between Garden City and Flagstaff, and this was my chance.
  2. The Southwest Chief is Amtrak's fastest Long Distance passenger train that runs entirely outside of the Northeast Corridor. It runs on an old Santa Fe (now BNSF) line that is still equipped with a 1930's safety mechanism that meets the Federal Railroad Administration requirements for running faster than 79 MPH (the speed limit for all other long distance trains outside of the NEC); its top speed for portions of its run through Kansas and Arizona is 90 MPH. I always found it ironic that today's fastest passenger train outside of the NEC was able to claim that title because of 1930's technology, and I've always wanted to ride that stretch of track as a result.

Downtown Raton, NMI wasn't sure of what to exactly expect in terms of scenery on the trip; I've spent time in Kansas and western Oklahoma, so I knew that terrain rather well. West of that territory, however, I was completely fresh.
The scenery didn't disappoint. Much of the trip to Colorado and New Mexico was pure mountain scenery; it reminded me of the California Zephyr's run through Utah and western Colorado. Vast, arid acres, spotted with huge boulders perched precariously atop orange-brown cliffsides.
I found the towns just as interesting. Raton, NM is a great example. We had a long stop there where the passengers were allowed to step off of the train for a breath of fresh air. When my feet hit the bleached red brick platform, I instantly felt like I could have been stepping back into the late 19th century. In front of me was a fantastically preserved stucco station, a charming 19th An old Atcheson, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad Mailboxcentury main street, and as I looked to my right, there stood an Railroad Mailbox for the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (yes, Johnny Mercer was singing about an actual railroad). 
As we worked our way west to Albuquerque (a town I've always wanted to visit, partially so I can say that I took a left turn at Albuquerque in a Bugs Bunny voice) our train was speeding along at a good clip; I clocked us pushing 89 MPH for a few long stretches. Suddenly, all of the lights went out and a few minutes later we eased to a stop; through my scanner I heard the engineer come on the radio and tell the engineer that the second of our two diesel engines has shut down and he was going to walk back and see what was up. A few minutes later, the report came in: the second engine was dead in the water. A copper tubing had broken and the liquid coolant for the engine had emptied onto the tracks; the engine had overheated as a result and couldn't be restarted for any significant period of time. The decision was made to continue ahead to Albuquerque with the one good engine providing traction (pulling power) and lights/air conditioning to the entire train with the second dead engine in tow. The plan was that we would add a third engine to our train that was stored in Albuquerque for problems like this, and we'd be on our way. The dead second engine would be fixed in Los Angeles.
Our 89 MPH track speed was suddenly reduced to a leisurely 65 MPH or so as we worked our way toward Albuquerque. A number of times the BNSF dispatcher came on the radio to check on our progress and asked if we'd be able to make it into Albuquerque. I remember our engineer responding, "yeah, we'll be on our hands and knees, but we'll make it."

We pulled into Albuquerque almost an hour late. The third engine was powered up and waiting for us and the crew immediately took to unhooking our two engines and added the (new) third engine next to the baggage car. While the crew worked, I took the chance to take in as much of Albuquerque as I could. Had we been on time, I would have had an hour to walk into town to see the sights, but the crew asked us to keep close to the platform because of our delay.

Vendors selling there wares at AlbuquerqueI had heard that Albuquerque was a stop similar to Grand Junction, CO (on the California Zephyr's route) in that local vendors are on the platform selling a variety of wares during the layover. In Grand Junction, there's an actual store that opens up just for the train to sell fresh fruit, ice cream, and local snacks. There wasn't anything that elaborate in Albuquerque, but there were a number of Native American vendors with tables set up on the platform selling local handmade jewelry.
The Albuquerque Station is also new (though it's made to look old), and plays host to both Amtrak and Greyhound. Albuquerque is also a main stop on the relatively new New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter service between Santa Fe and Belen, NM, and much of the rolling stock was being stored for the weekend in the Albuquerque yard.
Moving right along... at 88 MPH.Not long after dinner we eased into Flagstaff, one of those towns everyone knows of but not enough people visit. I spent some time in Flagstaff a few years ago as part of a Grand Canyon trip and can't speak highly enough of the town. It's a vibrant town, full of nightlife in a beautiful area of the country. You can even hop off the train and rent a car from a Hertz desk within the train station, presumably to spend a few days in the Grand Canyon, which is nearby. As we left Flagstaff I drifted off to sleep listening to the train horn in the distance. 
When I woke up on Saturday morning, the scenery outside my window had changed yet again, from desert to the condos and palm trees of southern California. We had made up most of our delay through the night and were looking at an on-time arrival into Los Angeles' Union Station. The Southwest Chief is one of those trains that does what it does very well. It's fast, it's extremely efficient and popular, and the scenery is easy on the eyes. The best part of the Chief, I think, though, are the towns it goes through. These are small to midsize communities that have a lot of history and a lot of heart--towns like Raton and Flagstaff. The best part of the trip on the Chief, for me, was not riding through the towns, but stepping off and getting a taste of their atmosphere.