Tag Archives: Amtrak


What are the odds?

In 2014 I wrote about a train trip from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Our arrival was delayed by 12 hours because of a series of events seemingly beyond the control of Amtrak and definitely beyond my control. The delay began even before the train arrived because of a tree that had fallen across the tracks somewhere in Kansas. (Do they even have trees in that part of Kansas?) Then a drunk driver ran into the engine at a crossing in Gallup, New Mexico that resulted in a delay of several hours. When we finally got going again, the train cruised along until it came to an abrupt stop somewhere around Winslow, Arizona. Amtrak was faced with an obligatory time limit on the crew so we waited in the desert until a relief crew could be brought in from someplace else. This took a couple of hours, during which time the power went out and the toilets quit working. Finally things were restored and the rest of the trip to LA was uneventful, except for passenger grousing.

Well, it happened again – at least a somewhat better version of the same story. We were on the famous train that hugs the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles all the way to Seattle. Our destination was San Francisco where we planned to enjoy the weekend with family. The day had been enjoyable with spectacular views of the surf pounding against towering cliffs as well as pastoral scenes of mountain valleys made a brilliant green from recent rains. Just outside of Soledad, home of the infamous Soledad Prison, the train came to a sudden stop and then sat there. Finally, there was an announcement that the engine had encountered “debris” on the track, and that the trip would resume after damage had been assessed. My guess was that the “debris” may have been an escaped prisoner. I turned out to be wrong, but only barely. After more long minutes of silence, the conductor  announced that the train had struck a trespasser who had been walking on the track. He had experienced only an injury to his arm and had been transported to the hospital. (How amazing is that?) The story rapidly became embellished amongst the passengers to include details that the victim had been walking his children along the track (??!!) but they were not injured.

There was another delay because as a routine, the engineer had to be replaced after the accident to recover and to investigate the accident. The replacement had to come from a long distance. Finally the wait was over, and the train resumed its journey only to stop again in Salinas. The crew had used up its allowed time, and so a crew change was required. (Sound familiar?) Again, the replacements had to come from some distance. After an hour or so, the train started up again only to stop a short way down the track to put on another car. While we waited, the power went out and lights went out, too. I’m not sure about the toilets, but the outage did not last long and we were once again on our way. Finally, after 2 AM, our train pulled into the station in Oakland where we caught a bus over the Bay Bridge, then to an Über, and finally to our daughter’s house at a little past 3 AM.

Susan had been heard to say on more than one occasion during the trip, “Train travel is so relaxing.”



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It seemed like the natural thing to do. We still hadn’t seen enough scenery, and a leisurely ride in a sleeper between Seattle and Los Angeles with a break in the Bay Area sounded like a lot of fun and a good way to relax. (Do you need to relax when you’re retired?)

We left our hotel before rush hour for a short taxi ride to the carefully restored Amtrak station. Our train from Vancouver, BC, pulled up to the gates, a good-sized crowd loaded up, and at exactly the designated hour we departed downtown Seattle.

There is always the mystique that trains take you to scenic places – and often that is true – but in big cities, you frequently see things that have been carefully hidden: truck terminals, rows of box cars and tank cars, and hobo camps filled with crumpled sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and plastic crates.

At the same time, it is interesting to look out at the panoramas of the city and scenes that you would miss from the freeway. Soon enough, the messiness of the city gives way to the countryside, with lush trees, hillsides of yellow-flowered shrubs, and fields in every imaginable shade of green.

We missed breakfast at the hotel, so we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. The steward came by and gave us a slip of paper with our time to show up in the dining car.  Then, at the appointed time, we heard an announcement that we should make our way to the dining car.

If you have never eaten in a dining car, there is a very fixed ritual, which the server will describe with a certain fatigue and indignation that must come from having done the same thing with thousands of past passengers. You sign your name and fill in the blanks for your car number and room. The server fills in everything else after you have chosen your meal.

Unlike Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, you should not anticipate fine dining. After all, the main reasons you take a train are the scenery and the leisurely pace. In fairness, though, the experience beats the current state of airline food (Is there such a thing any more?)

As is customary, we were seated with two strangers: one was a very pleasant middle-aged man who was on his way to help his niece celebrate her college graduation; the other was a college-aged young man who had absolutely no interest in engaging in conversation with old galoots. He wolfed down his sandwich as soon as it was delivered, mumbled something about how nice it was to meet us, and hastily beat an exit out the door.

We selected the sautéed chicken special. It came with a salad composed of the white ends of iceberg lettuce leaves (How did they manage to buy nothing but white ends?) and two cherry tomatoes that rolled around on the thin plastic plate with every lurch of the car, defying my best efforts to spear them with the little salad fork. The main dish was a breaded chicken breast that looked suspiciously like a chicken tender and had a similar taste. It was accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes decorated with yet another cherry tomato. Dessert was a choice of cheesecake, cheesecake with strawberries, chocolate mousse, or ice cream. They all came in little plastic cups.

The food highlight of the day was a wine tasting in the parlour car mid-afternoon. It was very pleasant and cost only $7.50 per person. The steward gave everyone good pours of actually not-too-bad wine. Our experience was so good that we decided to change our dinner reservations from the dining car to the parlour car. That was a good choice because we got a table by ourselves, and the pepper steak was not too bad. Dessert choices were the same, but this time they were removed from the plastic cups and served on little plastic plates with the Amtrak logo.


Never mind. The scenery, especially in the Cascade Mountains was spectacular, and we stayed up, looking out the window until dark.

Then the car attendant made up our beds, and we settled in for the night. Sleeping was not too bad. We woke up with the train in the station at Sacramento. We dressed, went to breakfast in the parlour car, and sat in the comfortable chairs next to the tables, watching the scenery until it was time to get off th train in Emeryville.

The best food of the trip was a hamburger that our daughter prepared for lunch when we got to her apartment  – mushrooms, Swiss cheese, bacon, arugula, shallots, and dill pickles. Good food at the end of an interesting trip.



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Our older daughter and her family just moved into a “new” house, so we decided to spend some time with them to help unpack. We have driven the Interstate many times, and it has become very boring. We have also flown to LAX many times, and that also has its own stressors. That inspired us to think about riding the Amtrak from our home station in Lamy, New Mexico to Union Station in Los Angeles. The trip was supposed to start at 2 PM, catching the Southwest Chief that had originated in Chicago at 8 AM and arriving in Los Angeles at around 8 AM the next morning. At least that was what was supposed to happen.

The day before our trip we received an e-mail announcement that the train would be 24 minutes (very specific) late because of delayed connections from the East Coast in Chicago. That seemed innocent enough.

The day of our travel, just as we were about to go out the door to go to the train station, we received another e-mail stating that the train would now be 4 hours late. OK. We hung around home a little while longer and then our neighbor took us for the drive to Lamy. When we arrived, we learned that the train would be even more delayed. The report was that it had been through some very heavy wind and rain storms. The engine struck a fallen tree lying across the tracks, so the engine had to be inspected and a second engine was added just in case. That seemed like cautious good judgment.

Finally, the train pulled into the station at 8 PM, a full six hours late, and we abandoned our plans to enjoy the scenery of New Mexico as the darkness enveloped us even before we got to Albuquerque. Still, we thought we might be able to enjoy the scenery on the other end the next morning. (Barstow??)

We had the car attendant make up our births and we went to sleep, expecting to awaken somewhere in California. That was not to be. The train came to a dead stop in Gallup and didn’t move for two hours. It seems that a drunk had driven his car around the flashing guard gates and smashed his car into the ill-fated engine. He survived without injury, but the engine again was subjected to a careful evaluation. As well, only emergency power was available while they checked the engine. That meant that the toilets did not work and there was no water for 2 hours with a train full of people.  Enough said.

Finally, the train started up again and made it to Winslow, Arizona, a highway distance of only about an hour and a half. Then it ground to a halt. By this time, the engineer and the conductor had used up their travel time so that a new crew had to be brought in from someplace else in order to complete the trip. After another 2 hours or so, the new crew arrived, and the train resumed its travel. By now we were over 12 hours late, but we were assured that the crew “would make up time across the desert.” Nothing like that happened, and the dining car and lounge car staffs were beginning to worry about running out of food as additional provisions had not been arranged.

Which might have been not all bad. It is a pleasure to watch the scenery while you have a meal served with silverware and a cloth napkin, but the flimsy plastic “china and glassware” flew off the table when I tried to puncture one of the slippery whole cherry tomatoes in the salad. In fairness, the staff was very accommodating and just as frustrated as the passengers at being 12 hours late, but their solicitousness didn’t make up for the food.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find a worthwhile food image to make or a dish that I wanted to try to replicate when I got home. On the other hand, my daughter outdid herself with cooking in her new kitchen – barbecue and all the trimmings, panzanella, chocolate velvet ice cream, and cherry-peach crumble. On top of that, she took us to a local seafood restaurant where we feasted on cioppino, raw oysters, and linguine with steamed fresh clams and clam broth.

As to the train, we arrived over 12 hours late, but there turned out to be some very special parts of the trip. We got to see some beautiful scenery around Flagstaff, Arizona, and we met some very nice fellow travelers at the dining table as well as outstanding staff members in the station attendant in Lamy, our railcar attendant, and the wait staff in the dining car. In fact, we would even be willing to chance another trip to Los Angeles.  Surely, there can only be one train from (to?) Hell.



Filed under Food, Photography, Travel