When I bumped into Amtrak President Joe Boardman outside Albuquerque’s faux-adobe station, his wife scanned the trackside vendor tables stocked with jewelry, souvenirs and burritos.
Amtrak President Joe Boardman in Albuquerque, Aug. 5, 2016. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)
Business is good for those New Mexico entrepreneurs when Trains No. 3 and 4, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, are on time leaving Lamy, the rural stop for Santa Fe, and Gallup in the red-cliffed Indian Country almost to Arizona. With timetables padded to help maintain the schedule, on time at Lamy and Gallup usually means early into Albuquerque in late morning going east and late afternoon chasing the sunset.
That gives passengers from Chicago, Los Angeles and 31 big and small places in between an hour or so to walk around as the trains take on fuel and change crews. At the moment the only customers are a few would-be Amtrak passengers and a handful of people off Boardman’s special train, and he’s wondering where both of his Southwest Chiefs are. They should have been here by now with one of them already long gone.
Railroaders operate by a minutely detailed rulebook with one unwritten rule strictly enforced: Late trains get later.
That describes Amtrak on a 2015 roundtrip from Albuquerque to Oregon by way of Los Angeles. But not in this summer of 2016.
Instead two trains covering 2,201 miles on one-way tickets reached both destinations early with only a little fuss along the way. It’s how America’s private passenger rail system operated into the mid 20th century and still does when everything clicks. No ailing equipment, decrepit track, disruptive passengers, dangerous weather or lame dispatching by a host railroad blew up the schedule with hours-late arrivals and missed connections.
Breakfast on the northbound Starlight in 2015 came with a view of Mount Shasta. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)
The worst to be said of travels this July is the Coast Starlight café-lounge ran out of Scots whisky before we reached Los Angeles. That’s what I told Amtrak President Joe Boardman when we met trackside in Albuquerque a few weeks later. I also said I owed him a positive story and now had the material to post one. Continue reading