Passengers on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Experience a Community Away From Home
“To anyone outside, a speeding train is a thunderbolt of driving rods, a hot hiss of steam, a blurred flash of coaches, a wall of movement and of noise, a shriek, a wail, and then just emptiness and absence, with a feeling of ‘There goes everybody!’ without knowing who anybody is… And all of a sudden the watcher feels the vastness and loneliness of America, and the nothingness of all those little lives hurled past upon the immensity of the continent. But if one is inside the train, everything is different.”
– Thomas Wolfe
Inside the train, the silver and blue Southwest Chief hurtling 90 mph across the grasslands of southeastern Colorado, a society forms.
Within the confines of a dining car, a quartet feasts on garlicky rack of lamb and a bottle of decent merlot at a table covered in sparkling white linen.
In an adjacent coach car, a baby cries. A man with crooked glasses and sleep-creased hair paces the aisle, talking loudly to himself. An elderly man slumps sideways in his seat, mouth open, snoring loudly. An unseen conductor makes announcements on the loudspeaker: “The club car is open.”"Last seating for dinner is announced.” A boy patiently explains the intricacies of his Game Boy to his younger sister.
There’s constant rearranging. Families make their way to the dining car. Two young couples return from the cafe car, cans of Coke in their hands. Passengers, put off balance as the train rounds a curve, lurch past on their way to the bathrooms, down a narrow stairway on the lower level. Others look for the perfect seat — away from children, next to a window, close to the dining car.
They are a diverse group — old and young, well-dressed and shabby, alone and in large, boisterous groups. Some don’t speak English; some don’t speak at all.
For several hours or several days, they’ve been thrown together on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief superliner on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles. They are unified by their desire to travel by rail in a car- and time-obsessed society.
The roots of America’s passenger trains reach back 165 years, but in recent decades railroads that carry people have rolled uncomfortably close to extinction.
If you’re traveling by train across America, you’re traveling Amtrak. It’s an independent corporation controlled by the federal government, like the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Amtrak — for AMerican, TRAvel and tracK — was established in 1971 by President Richard Nixon. Today, it operates trains throughout the country, including the Zephyr and the Southwest Chief, which roll across the West.
On a recent trip from Denver to Chicago on the California Zephyr, few seats were available. On a June journey on the Southwest Chief heading to Albuquerque and points beyond, there was a crowd as well.
Who’s riding the trains?
Marc Magliari, the Chicagobased spokesman for Amtrak, says passengers fit into several categories.
“There are people who can’t or won’t fly. There are people with disabilities. Frankly, if you are in a wheelchair or have mobility impairments, airports and airplanes are difficult,” he says. “There are people who can’t afford plane tickets — people who might have taken the bus in the past but whose routes were eliminated. There are people who can’t drive. And there are those for whom the travel experience is a part of their vacation.”
Betsy Cheshire fits several of those categories. On a hot, sunny afternoon as the Southwest Chief cut through the arid Comanche National Grassland on its way to New Mexico, Cheshire relaxed in the airditioned dining car with her daughter, also named Betsy. The elder Cheshire lives in Hillsboro, N.C.; her daughter teaches Latin in Oakton, Va. They were in the middle of a 51-hour trip from the East Coast to the West.
“We’ve flown before,” the elder Cheshire said. “But we’ve never seen this kind of country before. This has given us more time to look at the landscape and more time to talk.”
The best thing about the trip, her daughter says, “is the slow pace.”
The worst thing? She laughs. “Sometimes, it’s the slow pace.”
Cheshire says the train ride often feels slower than it is. After all, driving from Oakton to Los Angeles would take almost 40 hours and probably require at least two nights’ lodging.
The Cheshires spent their first night in a coach car, but splurged on a sleeper car for the second, paying $510 for a night of first-class accommodations that included meals, beds, turndown service and other amenities. This fee was added to their $428 round- trip tickets.
Many cross-country travelers remain in coach, however, because the seats are spacious, with enough leg room for a 5-foot-10-inch- tall passenger to stretch out without kicking the seat in front.
Dianne Reiff and her 13-year-old niece, Cobey Taylor, rode the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to La Junta. The trip took 8 1/2 hours. Reiff thought it passed quickly; her niece said it felt slower than driving.
“But it’s fun to see the sights,” said Taylor, who was on her first train trip.
Reiff has ridden this train several times and says her enjoyment level depends on her fellow passengers.
“Sometimes, you can get seated by the wrong people, and then it’s not very pleasant.”
Overall, Reiff says, she appreciates the convenience of a train that can get her within a half-hour of her sister’s remote ranch.
TIME IS RELATIVE
Convenience was a hallmark of passenger trains in their heyday, says Mark Reutter, a former journalist who has written several books about the industry and edits Railroad History magazine, a national publication based in Urbana, Ill.
A certain sense of loyalty keeps people coming back, he thinks.
“Railroads and the country really grew up together,” he says. “The railroad business started in the 1830s and swept the country. It was the key to our westward expansion. It took care of the major problem of the 19th century, which was how to move west and connect this country together.”
The differences between modern train and airplane travel are startling. At the La Junta depot, passengers parked their cars for free in a lot just yards from the tracks, walked into the depot, confirmed their tickets and stepped onto the train: 15 minutes from car to train seat.
The Southwest Chief’s arrival in Albuquerque was just as noteworthy: Passengers walked off the train into the heart of downtown while airline passengers walked into a terminal miles away.
Baggage can be checked, but it can also be stored in lower baggage holds or in large overhead compartments.
As the Southwest Chief flew past tiny, arid towns in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, most passengers didn’t appear sentimental about their mode of transportation. For some, it’s simply a practical matter.
But for those like the Cheshire family, it holds a certain cachet and an opportunity to glimpse an unseen America.
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TRAINS, PLANES & AUTOMOBILES
LEG ROOM IN A COACH SEAT
Amtrak — Positively spacious, often as much as 42 inches
Airlines — Usually about 31-33 inches; knees often touch seat ahead when passenger reclines
Car — Depends on car model, Jeep Cherokee is listed as 41.5 inches
SUGGESTED TIME OF ARRIVAL AT THE DEPOT
Amtrak — 30 minutes before departure
Airlines — Two to three hours before departure
Car — You can leave whenever you want
Amtrak — Full meals in a dining car appointed with linens; passengers can bring coolers with their own food or eat cafe offerings — sandwiches, salads, pizza, candy bars
Airlines — Depends on flight, usually a bag of peanuts or pretzels; passengers allowed one carry-on; coolers not allowed
Car — Fast food
Amtrak — Pillows and blankets available; full bedrooms available
Airlines — Many carriers aren’t offering pillows anymore; first class offers more comfortable seats
Car — Bring your own pillows
Amtrak — La Junta to Albuquerque, 8 hours including two hours each way in a car from Colorado Springs
Airlines — Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, about 1 1/2 hours on direct flight
Car — Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, about 5 1/2 hours
Amtrak — La Junta to Albuquerque, $141 round trip
Airlines — From Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, $324 round trip
Car — From Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, about $84 in gas based on 758 miles, $2.20 a gallon, 20 miles per gallon
DEPOT VS. AIRPORT
Amtrak — Depots are in the center of cities and small towns
Airlines — Airports are miles from the center of most cities and rarely are found in small towns Car — Don’t have to check in
Amtrak — Tickets are valid for refund until one year after date of issue Airlines — Most tickets are nonrefundable; can be exchanged (for a fee) for tickets on another date Car — none required, except for parking once you get to your location
Amtrak — No pets allowed
Airlines — Allowed in carriers
Car — Up to you
For information about Amtrak, visit www.amtrak.com
IF YOU GO
Trip: Riding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from La Junta to Albuquerque and back
Cost: $156 round-trip — before discounts including AAA, senior and student fares — and half-price fares for children ages 2-15 traveling with an adult