The Cascade Range of southern Oregon is not bashful about rejecting the railroad carved into its flanks as it dares men, women and machinery to conduct business as usual. Looking out from Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight in August 2019, the right-of-way reveals fallen trees sawn to logs and shunted aside, boulders kicked away, shiny new utility boxes and dented old ones, and freshly scraped two-tracks squirming into the forest. Propane tanks lazing here and there await the remote call to ignite railside jets when sodden snow fouls connections between the main line and passing tracks.
If Mother Nature feels petulant, she turns these mountains into a formidable adversary. Most days the railroad — once Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific – negotiates for at least a draw and minimal drama beyond the effort needed by cab crews, distant dispatchers and maintenance teams to keep freight trains and Amtrak moving. On other days one of the 20 or so tunnels may collapse as halted traffic for weeks in 2018. Snow falling as white glue last year downed timber isolating the Coast Starlight and refusing to release nearly 200 passengers and crew for a day and a half. Travelers described their experience a nightmare, hell and surreal while also relating kindness toward each other and heroes among the Amtrak service staff.
To say this high forest inland from the coastal mountains is unforgiving is a truism given the limit on mistakes can be zero. There is a friendly side as well although complicated by human imprints farther down the line.
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.
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 →
If you’ve been out West for enough years or enjoy Western novels, you know being snakebit may not mean a snake actually sank its fangs into you. Just ask Amtrak, snakebit from the get-go this travel season.
Train No. 4, the Southwest Chief, usually runs close to on time from Los Angeles to Chicago. And Amtrak tries hard to mimic the travel experience from the days when the Santa Fe Railway sped the Super Chief across the desert and plains on blazing schedules at speeds occasionally topping 100 mph.
When fire turned Albuquerque’s railroad station into smoking rubble on a January night, the blame variously fell to homeless folk lighting a fire to stay warm or trouble in the electrical system of the 91-year-old building. Call it another hard-luck episode in the history of Amtrak in New Mexico.