The Southwest Chief, New Mexico Railrunner Express and Albuquerque

This is trip report for a journey I took in August 2012.

After a day out in Los Angeles, I checked in for the Southwest Chief at Los Angeles Union Station and made my way to the platform. The Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago via Albuquerque daily in each direction, using double deck Superliner stock on the 43 hour, 2265 mi (3645 km) journey.

A cosy Superliner roomette

A cosy Superliner roomette

I boarded my carriage, and climbed the stairs to find my compartment on the upper level. I was travelling in a roomette (the smallest compartment type), and my cosy compartment consisted of two comfortable chairs facing each other, with a fold out table in between. The side wall of the compartment was taken up by a large window, the other side had a sliding door leading to the corridor. The windows to the corridor could be covered over with curtains for privacy. There was a thermostat control and two 110v power outlets. More information is available here, on Amtrak’s website A communal toilet was available upstairs and additional toilets and a shower were downstairs. Complimentary self serve tea, coffee and fruit juice was available at the top of the stairs, just outside the carriage attendant’s compartment. I had the twin compartment to myself; when a compartment is booked with Amtrak, a fixed room surcharge is paid on top of the seat fare, regardless of the number of occupants. The compartment may then be occupied by up to the maximum number specified for that compartment type.

Complimentary tea, coffee and Juice for sleeping car passengers

Complimentary tea, coffee and Juice for sleeping car passengers

The eastbound Southwest Chief departed Los Angeles right on time at 18:15, and shortly after departure, the carriage attendant came by to explain the features of  my room and asking what time I wanted my bed made up. As I was the sole occupant, I decided to have just the upper bunk made up, so I could use the chair until I wanted to sleep. The attendant took my dinner reservation for 20:00 and I settled into my roomette as I watched the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles slide past. After stopping at the suburban stations of Fullerton, Riverside and San Bernardino, the 20:00 dinner sitting was called, and I headed off to the dining car. All meals are included in the price of a sleeping berth, so I enjoyed a delicious two course dinner (I can’t remember what I had) as darkness fell outside the train. I was seated with strangers, and we chatted for a while after dinner about where we were headed and the virtues of long distance rail travel.

After dinner, I headed back to my roomette, where the upper bunk had been made up. The car attendant asked what time I wanted to head down to breakfast the next morning. After securing a 9am sitting, I retired for the night. I had intended to read for a few hours before turning in, but the gentle rocking of the train made me drowsy, and I was soon struggling to keep my eyes open. I climbed up to the top bunk, fitted the safety netting to the ceiling (to prevent me from falling out) and was soon asleep.

I slept well in my small bunk, and awoke around 8am. During the night, we had left California, passed through the centre of Arizona and were now in western New Mexico. We had made half a dozen stops overnight, including Williams AZ, where a connection could be made to the Grand Canyon Railway. I had a shower in the generously sized bathroom downstairs, and made my way back to my roomette, just in time to be called for breakfast. I had a delicious cooked breakfast (although I’m not a fan of the way Americans cook bacon), watching the New Mexico desert pass by outside the dining car window. My travelling companions were mostly older Americans, mixed in with some younger couples and solo travellers.

Refuelling the Southwest Chief at Albuquerque

Refuelling the Southwest Chief at Albuquerque

After breakfast, I headed back to my roomette and read a book for a few hours. In the late morning, we arrived in Albuquerque (I would return here later in the day). We stopped for about half an hour here, and were invited to step out onto the platform and stretch our legs while the locomotives took on fuel and our carriages took on water. Just after midday, we were under way again and I packed up my room as I would be leaving at the next stop (Lamy) in just under an hour’s time. I just had time to catch an early lunch in the dining car before preparing to leave the train.

The railway station at Lamy, NM.

The railway station at Lamy, NM.

I stepped down onto the ground level platform and looked around. Lamy NM consists of a railway station, a bar, a couple of other buildings and a railway siding; that’s about it. There no reason for the train to stop for any length of time, so Southwest Chief was soon pulling out of the station, leaving me and a handful of other passengers standing on the hot, dusty platform. I had a reservation on the bus to Santa Fe, and I looked around to find the bus stop. My “bus” turned out to be a 10 seater van with a luggage trailer attached. I was the only passenger off the eastbound train, and the driver of the van said that we would be waiting for passengers off the westbound train, due in about 40 minutes.

The eastbound Southwest Chief departs Lamy, NM

The eastbound Southwest Chief departs Lamy, NM

While I waited for the van to depart, I walked around the “town” exploring the surrounding rail yard. There were some derelict Santa Fe Southern locomotives and goods cars, but not much else of interest. Goods trains no longer use this section of track, the only trains which run through Lamy now are the Southwest Chief and the occasional tourist service on the Santa Fe Southern Railway.

Derelict Santa Fe Southern equipment at Lamy, NM

Derelict Santa Fe Southern equipment at Lamy, NM

The westbound Southwest Chief finally rumbled into view; flashing headlights and significant horn blowing announcing its arrival. The long train slowly pulled into the platform; an impressive sight with 2 GE P42DC locmotives hauling 1 baggage car and 8 huge Superliner coaches (I have a Yotube video of this here). The train slowly ground to a halt, and half a dozen people left the train. again, the train paused only briefly at this little halt, before it was on its way to Los Angeles.

The westbound Southwest Chief arrives at Lamy NM, en-route from Chicago to Los Angeles

The westbound Southwest Chief arrives at Lamy NM, en-route from Chicago to Los Angeles

Of the 6 people who left the train, 5 were taking the Santa Fe Shuttle, and we were soon on our way to Santa Fe. I sat in the front seat of the van and chatted with the Driver, it was weird driving on the right hand side of the road! the journey took just under 30 minutes, and we were soon driving through the historical town of Santa Fe, the streets lined with original and replica pueblo style buildings. Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico state and was first inhabited around 1150. The city in it’s current form was founded in 1610, and was part of Mexico. In 1848, it became part of the USA, but is still heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican architecture and history.

The van dropped the other passengers off at various hotels, before taking me to the railway station near the centre of the town. In the rail yard were 2 stabled New Mexico Railrunner Express trains. Each had an MPI MP36PH locomotive at the western (Albuquerque) end, with 2 double deck Bombardier cars; the east end car on both trains being a cab control car. The trains were painted up in striking livery of grey with a bright red roadrunner bird on the locomotive, the tail continuing along the side of each car. There was also an assortment of heritage cars operated by Santa Fe Southern Railway.

A New Mexico Railrunner Express train in the yard at Santa Fe

A New Mexico Railrunner Express train in the yard at Santa Fe

The station was closed (being a Sunday afternoon), so I consulted the timetable on the wall. It was just before 16:00, and the timetable showed a 15:28 departure, followed by a 20:09 service! Looking on the bright side, it meant that I had 4 hours to explore Santa Fe. There was a large market on in the town centre, featuring Native American Indian art. I wandered around the market, looking at pieces ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I bought some inexpensive jewellery as presents and souvenirs (the irony that I was buying beads and trinkets FROM the natives was not lost on me), before heading back to the station precinct as the market closed up.

A Santa Fe Southern train, with a caboose converted into a cab control car.

A Santa Fe Southern train, with a caboose converted into a cab control car.

I arrived back at the station just in time to see a Santa Fe Southern Railway tourist special arriving back from its excursion. The train was being driven from the caboose, which had been modified as a cab control car. The train was being pushed with a bright green EMD GP7, the Driver sitting high in the cupola of the caboose. I watched the train arrive in the platform, then shunt to the rail yard.

A Santa Fe Southern GP-7 locomotive shunts a train into the Santa Fe Rail Yard after returning from an excursion

A Santa Fe Southern GP7 locomotive shunts a train into the Santa Fe Rail Yard after returning from an excursion

It was around dinner time, so I looked around for somewhere to eat. I found a cafe called the Flying Star (I later found that this is a chain of cafes in Albuquerque and Santa Fe). I ordered the “Christmas Chilli”, red and green vegetarian chilli. The chilli was made on the premises and was delicious (and spicy)!

By the time I had finished dinner, it was almost time for my train to arrive, so I walked back to the station. The train pulled in just before 19:00 and was the same configuration as the other trains in the yard; a double deck Bombardier cab control car leading the train into Santa Fe, an intermediate double deck and an MPI MP36PH locomotive at the western (Albuquerque) end. I climbed on board with a handful of other passengers and found a seat upstairs. The little train featured free Wi-Fi, which worked surprisingly well. Darkness fell as we departed Santa Fe, and we headed off into the New Mexico desert.

Inside the top level of a New Nexico Railrunner Express car

Inside the top level of a New Nexico Railrunner Express car

The approximate 65 mile (105 km) journey took just under 90 minutes, making stops a 7 intermediate stations. The intermediate stations were little more than lineside waiting rooms in the desert, located near Indian reservations and Pueblos. The train was lightly loaded, and we picked up and dropped off  a couple of passengers at each stop. We arrived in Albuquerque a few minutes early, just after 21:30.

I exited the dark station, which I had passed through on the Southwest Chief about 9 hours before, and walked towards my motel. My motel was located about 1km east of the station, and I had to walk around the front of the station and under the rail tracks to access the hotel. There were shady looking characters loitering around the station area, mercifully ignoring me as I went past towing my suitcase. I tried not to eavesdrop, but I overheard talk of “…I’m going back to prison on Tuesday…” and “…if I catch him, I’m gonna cut him…”. I walked on as quickly as I could, half expecting to be relieved of my phone and wallet, but I reached the underpass intact, cars whizzing past on Central Avenue.

The rest of my walk was deserted, I found myself jumping at shadows in this unfamiliar and deserted city, but I made it to my hotel without encountering anyone. My motel was low budget, but comfortable enough. The night clerk had the key ready for me, and I was soon in bed and sleeping.

I had set my alarm early the next morning, and set out before breakfast to the railway station. I wanted to catch an early morning Railrunner service to Belen, the western terminus of the New Mexico Railrunner Express line. Central Albuquerque was deserted as I walked along the street to the station; the street that had me jumping at shadows the night before was now bleached in the early morning sunlight.

An early morning service to Belen arrives at Albuquerque

An early morning service to Belen arrives at Albuquerque

I arrived at the station just before 7am, the intimidating crowd gone from the front of the station, replaced by commuters. A kiosk was open, and I bought a cup of mediocre coffee before heading to the platform. My 3 car train arrived from Santa Fe at the same as an eastbound service from Belen, and a large volume of office workers spilled out onto the platforms. I boarded the westbound train, along with a handful of other passengers and we departed the for Belen. The approximate 35 mi (56 km) journey took 40 minutes, with 3 intermediate stops. We followed the Rio Grande (Grande River) through Isleta Pueblo and Los Lunas to the town of Belen. The station at Belen, little more than a waiting shelter on a low level platform next to a bus stop and car park, was right next to the BNSF transcontinental rail line, and shortly we arriving, a very long goods train passed by the station. My train remained at the terminus for 15 minutes, and after taking a few pictures, I re-boarded and headed back to Albuquerque, enjoying the train’s free Wi-Fi.

The cab control car leads as a New Mexico Railrunner Express train approaches Albuquerque station

The cab control car leads as a New Mexico Railrunner Express train approaches Albuquerque station

Back at Albuquerque, I walked back to the motel and partook in the free “breakfast”. The breakfast was similar to what I’d had in Los Angeles (toast and cereal in the motel lobby). Aside from me, there was only one other customer in the lobby, a middle aged woman talking morosely on her mobile phone about going to visit someone in the hospital. After breakfast, I checked out and walked back to the centre of town, where I dropped my bags at the station.

Downtown Albuquerque at 10:30 on a Monday morning.

Downtown Albuquerque at 10:30 on a Monday morning.

I had just over an hour until my train arrived, so I walked around downtown Albuquerque. Although it was 10:30 on a Monday morning, the streets were almost deserted. The downtown area is an immense concrete jungle, with skyscrapers coming right out to the footpath, very few plazas or courtyards. The only open space I found was Civic Plaza, a barren square with an inoperative fountain in the middle. There were few people using the square, only a few homeless people loitering and a sole cleaner sweeping. The whole downtown area felt unwelcoming and cold, despite the temperature being in the low 30s.

The eastbound Southwest Chief arrives at Albuquerque

The eastbound Southwest Chief arrives at Albuquerque

I headed back to the station, and was very glad to climb aboard the Southwest Chief and head east towards Chicago and away from this place. Again, I was in a Superliner roomette, and after departing Albuquerque, it was deja-vu as I had lunch in the dining car on the way to Lamy. We traveled on through the afternoon, stopping at Las Vegas (the one in New Mexico, not Nevada) and Raton before slipping across the border into Colorado. At Raton, about 80 Boy Scouts boarded the train in coach class. Thanks to Amtrak’s inefficient policy of not allocating coach class seats in advance, there was a hasty reshuffle of the seating arrangements of the entire 3 coach class cars. I looked on in amusement, thankful (for more reason than one) that I was in the sleeping cars.
We pushed eastwards throughout the afternoon, stopping every so often at towns across Colorado. After dinner, we passed into Kansas. The rocking of the train was making me sleepy and I was soon ready to retire to my bunk.

I woke as we were crossing from Kansas into Missouri and shortly after, we arrived in Kansas City. We were slightly ahead of time, and had 20 minutes at Kansas City, so I stepped out onto the platform in the early morning sunshine to stretch my legs. The platform was in a cutting, and was bare and utilitarian, with exposed steel and few amenities. On the adjacent platform stood the Missouri River Runner, also bound for Chicago but taking a different route. The Missouri River runner had a single GE P42DC locomotive, with a short consist of 4 “heritage” coach cars. The heritage cars are older stock, which has been inherited by Amtrak from some of the railways it absorbed. The cars were boxy, with painted steel in the Amtrak silver, red and blue. While we were waiting, the Missouri River Runner slid out of the station with little fanfare.

The single level heritage cars of the Missouri River Runner look squat and out dated compared with the tall Superliner stock on the Southwest Chief

The single level heritage cars of the Missouri River Runner look squat and out dated compared with the tall Superliner stock on the Southwest Chief

Shortly after the smaller train departed, it was time for the Southwest Chief to resume its journey. Whistles were blown, bells were rung and everyone made their way back to the train. Once the train was under way, I visited the dining car and ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausages before as we made our way through cornfields and small towns in the Missouri countryside. I headed to the lounge car to read, and fell into conversation with another solo traveller, discussing various adventures and the virtues of rail travel. We travelled through Missouri throughout the morning, and around midday, we passed into Iowa. After a short journey through the south-east corner of the state, we crossed we crossed the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, into Illinois. The Mississippi was wide and fast moving, with lush green foliage either side, a paddle steamer sat on one bank. We crossed the river on a long steel truss bridge, rattling and clanking as we made our way over the mighty river. We passed through some nondescript countryside, pausing in the larger towns to allow passengers on and off, before the countryside gave way to suburbs, and the suburbs finally gave way to Chicago.

The Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa, complete with paddle steamer. After passing the paddle steamer, the train turned 90 degrees and crossed the bridge in the background.

The Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa, complete with paddle steamer. After passing the paddle steamer, the train turned 90 degrees and crossed the bridge in the background.

Our train ran under freeways, past rivers and through railyards before arriving at Chicago Union Station. Union station in Chicago resembles a massive underground car park, with trains parked at platforms in a massive concrete cavern. After crossing 7 states and 4 time zones, I had arrived in Chicago and as I walked along the platform towards the station exit, I wondered what would be in store for me during my short stay.

Advertisements

2 responses to “The Southwest Chief, New Mexico Railrunner Express and Albuquerque

  1. Thanks for the trip report. Albuquerque can be interesting, but I can well understand your concern late at night with sketchy characters around.

    For your information, the cars you saw in Kansas City are what are known as Horizon Cars — they are not the same as the Heritage Cars (which are cars that pre-dated Amtrak). The Horizon cars are derived from commuter cars (hence the smaller windows) and were built in the late 1980s.

    • Thanks for the info! I wasn’t aware of the Horizon cars. I hope to get back to the US in the near future and travel on some more of your long distance trains (Empire Builder and Silver Meteor are on my list)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s