[Part 1 of this story covered joining the Southwest Chief in Chicago, a bit of an adventure in itself, and settling in for a two night and three day journey. In part 2 we travelled through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico top Albuquerque and spent our first night on the train. In Part 3 we have a disastrous meal, cross Arizona in the dark and arrive at LA Union Station (a fine example of the Art Deco style of architecture) and say goodbye to Robert.]
It’s now dead on 4.45pm and we’re off, on schedule, from Albuquerque westwards to Arizona. But now for a setback, the tannoy announces that due to a fault in the air-conditioning system in the dining room there will be no dinner service in the dining room tonight. As an alternative, meals are being brought onto the train at a station further down the track and they will be served in our rooms. This sounds like we will be served airline food with little or no choice. A real letdown after the food service we have had so far on the journey. It also means that we won’t get to meet any more ‘strangers on a train’. That’s maybe the bigger disappointment.
An update on the catering crisis, the meals are to be delivered to the train at Gallup NM around 7pm courtesy of KFC!!! What a land of contrasts. From beautifully cooked and served New York steak one night to mass produced fried chicken bits the next.
On a more positive note the rock formations are verging on the spectacular and the evening light enhances the views.
As promised, shortly after Gallup NM (1514 miles) the dining car crew came round with bags of KFC. In anticipation, a quick trip was made to the bar to get some red wine only to find they had run out. White wine had to do. We are not fans of Col Sanders and this meal did not change our opinions rather it reinforced them. In the box there were two pieces of chicken, mostly tough skin, a container of mashed potatoes and gravy, not too bad, a container of coleslaw, warm and slimy, and a biscuit (scone) which was edible. We gave the meal a fair chance to prove itself but it failed dismally and was consigned to the trash can. We resorted to a piece of cheese we had in our bag and a couple of bananas. A short while later the staff came round with a bag of ice creams which were good quality and acceptable. Throughout the whole debacle the staff were as helpful as they could be – they were not impressed with the KFC offering either. Definitely not Amtrak’s finest hour.
It’s now 8pm and pitch black but the sunset was a joy to watch. The train is just pulling in to Winslow AZ (1641 miles) so we’re now in the penultimate state of Arizona. The next stop will be Flagstaff AZ (1699) the stop for the Grand Canyon but our beds are made up and we can get some shuteye. We are both getting a bit weary of the hours on the train and will be glad for the change of scenery, albeit briefly, in LA before we join the train northwards up the Pacific coast to San Francisco.
Thursday morning and we’re in the suburbs of Los Angeles and it’s a cloudless day just as you imagine California – perfect. Both slept very well for about 8 hours – excellent. We must be used to the train environment. Robert, our very efficient and friendly sleeping car attendant showed us how to set up the beds in our room so we were able to do it ourselves last night and get them away this morning. One of those operations that when you know the trick, it’s dead easy.
We’ve been surviving on stand-up washes in the restroom but it was definitely time to examine the mysteries of the shower-room. On the lower deck there are a few bedrooms, some luggage storage and extra restrooms. The shower turned out to be very functional. Given the cramped nature of most things on the train this was positively spacious. Soap is provided and a reasonably good supply of small towels. The water was just the right side of cool and extremely refreshing. We’re now kicking ourselves for not exploring this facility earlier.
Breakfast was served at 5am so we missed that and the coffee machine had just two half cups left but that was fine as there was plenty of water and fruit juice. There should be enough time between trains to seek out a breakfast diner. The last station before the terminus is Fullerton CA (2239 miles) only 26 miles to go. The train is bumbling along at a steady pace as though it doesn’t want to get to the end – we do. They train conductor keeps telling us we are being held up by commuter trains but that it won’t affect our arrival time. I notice that the official timetable allows 1hr 46 mins for the last 26 miles – it looks like all that time will be used up. It’s interesting to note that these long-distance Amtrak trains are very low in the priority pecking order which seems to be freight trains first, commuter trains second and poor Amtrak last. The only thing we seem to have priority over is road vehicles. As we get further in towards the city centre, or downtown, it’s amazing how many main roads cross the railway tracks. It’s quite common to cross a 4-lane highway with dozens of vehicles waiting for our train to pass.
They must get a tremendous amount of rain water here. We are constantly crossing storm channels some more than 100 ft wide and 20 ft deep. That’s a lot of water.
On the platform of Fullerton station there is a sign that says “Welcome to Fullerton a Preserve America Community”. Not quite sure what that means but it is clearly a well-groomed suburb. The commuters waiting on the platform look reasonably prosperous – presumably the really prosperous travel by car.
Gradually the train gets slower and slower until we come to a dead stop. The tannoy announces that there are signalling problems – a very familiar situation – and that we will be held up for a few minutes. So at last, 20 mins behind schedule, we arrive at mile 2265, Union Station, Los Angeles, California. It’s been a long, long journey through many states, over miles and miles of prairie and past some superb scenery. We say our farewells to Robert who has looked after us so well. Tipping is a major issue for us Brits in the US and on a train it’s a totally new ballgame. We think $20 is probably about right but then decide he has done such a good job that we’ll make it $30. You never know if you’ve got it right. Anyway, in this case, we met him later in the station concourse and by his extra friendliness we reckon we did the right thing.
Union Station was a complete surprise and a very pleasant one at that. It is the most magnificent art deco building kept to a very high standard of maintenance. It is spacious with high ceilings, beautiful tiled floors and lots of dark wood. The seating in the main lobby area is made up of pairs of leather armchairs with deep cushions and spotless. What a contrast to any British station, even St Pancras. There are even pleasant gardens outside the two main doors for passengers to relax in.
[In Part 4 we sample the delights of the Traxx Lounge – not exactly the breakfast we had been hoping for – and board the Coast Starlight to travel north up the Pacific Coast to Oakland for San Francisco.]