Big Bend by train in mid-December

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, January 10, 2019

As President Trump’s partial federal government shutdown drags on and saddening stories of damage being done to National Parks in the absence of the civil servants who normally protect them and keep them clean blanket the news, I think back on a train-to-park trip I took in mid-December just before the shutdown began. It is not one of the Amtrak-accessible National Parks that is typically marketed with tour packages, such as Glacier or the Grand Canyon, but it is one that a few fellow train travel aficionados recommended to me. 

Sunrise near Uvalde, Tex. from the rear of Amtrak's westbound Sunset Limited on Dec. 16. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Appropriately enough, the park I visited — Big Bend — is the only National Park that hugs the U.S.-Mexico border, and a border wall would have major impacts on its scenery and ecosystem. And the train I used to get as close as possible to it — Amtrak’s Sunset Limited — is about to (supposedly temporarily) have its frequency cut to just two days a week, a move that would have made my rather condensed itinerary impossible. I am glad that the Rail Passengers Association (on whose Council of Representatives I serve as a volunteer) is calling out Union Pacific for springing this disruption on passengers with very little advance notice, even though the track work stated as the reason for the service change may prove beneficial to passengers in the long run.

I consider the train to be an ideal way to travel to a National Park, even though the best it can do is get you to the park’s entrance — you still need a motor vehicle or perhaps a bicycle to explore the park, unless you’re a long-distance hiker or trekker. In addition to delivering people to parks with a lower carbon footprint than driving or flying over long distances, trains also let you observe how the landscape changes as you get closer to or farther form the park, putting the park’s features in a broader geographic, geological and biospherical context.

I started my rail journey in Oklahoma City, where I took part in the grand opening festivities for the city’s modern streetcar line. (Full disclosure: One of my consulting clients is the company that operates & maintains the OKC Streetcar under contract and I contributed to the project.) A pleasant, though crowded, Saturday morning Heartland Flyer took me to Fort Worth, where I had lunch downtown before boarding the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited through sleeper bound for Los Angeles, ticketed for Alpine, Tex. — a 20-hour journey within the same state. 

The Texas Eagle's diner with the crew's self-funded Christmas decorations and coloring sheets colored by children on the train. Seen Dec. 15.
The highlight of this trip was the dining car crew and sleeper attendant who went above and beyond to make the dining and sleeping cars a festive atmosphere for the holidays, purchasing decorations and sweet treats for passengers — and even conducting a children’s coloring contest for a prize — all with their own funds. It offered a taste of what train travel could be if more employees, and Amtrak as a company, put more consistent effort and thoughtfulness into the customer experience.

Even though the Amtrak-served community of Alpine is the “Gateway to Big Bend,” it is still just over 100 miles away from the closest entrance to the National Park. To be able to reasonably cover the vast expanses of West Texas’s Chihuahuan Desert and get the most of the park visit, I needed a car. Luckily, Alpine boasts one car rental shop — a locally-owned outfit named Alpine Auto Rental, not affiliated with any of the big-name rental car companies. A check of their website showed their hours to be limited and the shop to be closed on Sundays (the day I was planning to arrive), which made me worried that the trip wouldn’t be possible. 

But I called the company anyway, and it turns out that they rent to people who arrive/depart by train all the time; they deliver cars to the train station and meet those arriving (even on Sundays); and they let renters leave cars in the station’s parking lot with keys locked inside before departing. This makes a lot of sense given that Amtrak is the only intercity common carrier of passengers by any mode that serves Alpine or any nearby communities. The closest commercial airports and major rental car outlets are over 200 miles away in El Paso or Midland/Odessa, and Greyhound does not serve the US Highway 90 corridor. Without Amtrak’s presence, even just three days a week, Alpine Auto Rental would have much less business as the only way to reach the Alpine area would be by car or by private or chartered plane.

When I stepped off the westbound Sunset at Alpine about 90 minutes late on a Sunday morning, I found (after a bit of looking) the Alpine Auto Rental representative with two cars in the parking lot. He was having a fellow passenger who had also just arrived fill out paperwork, then I did the same. After brunch across the street at the historic Holland Hotel’s The Century Bar & Grill, I was on my way south on Texas Highway 118. I spent that night at a motel in Study Butte/Terlingua and enjoyed live folk music and dinner in the artsy Terlingua Ghost Town, which felt like a million miles from anywhere.

A vista from the Lost Mine Trail near Chisos Valley in the center of Big Bend National Park. The trail was built by Civilian Conservation Corps recruits in the 1930s.
I spent all of Monday morning taking a speedy, though not rushed, tour of the National Park, including the Chisos Basin and Santa Elena Canyon. After lunch in the minuscule border-hugging resort hamlet of Lajitas, I drove along the Rio Grande valley through Big Bend Ranch State Park, paused in Presidio (where the rail line that branches southwest from the Sunset Route once crossed the border to become the Chihuahua Pacific Railroad across Mexico to the Sea of Cortez, part of which I rode through the Copper Canyon two years ago), then headed north to Marfa, a mid-desert town on the ex-SP line that has been an artists’ haven since the 1970s, where I had an upscale dinner. 

Then it was a short 30 minutes east back to Alpine, hugging the Sunset Route, with a stop at the 24-hour Marfa Lights viewing platform, where I saw no strange lights, but a sky full of stars. After a walk around Alpine on Tuesday morning, I left the car with keys locked inside in the Amtrak station parking lot and hopped on the westbound Sunset for a visit to El Paso to ride its new streetcar line — a four-hour ride that I believe covers the longest distance between stations in the Amtrak system.

My experience on this leg of the ride was a few steps down from the what I had with the stellar Texas Eagle crew. Leaving Alpine at 11:30 AM Central time (an hour late) and getting to El Paso four hours later at 2:30 PM Mountain time, I thought I’d have plenty of time for lunch in the diner, even though I traveled this leg in coach. I walked up to the diner as soon as the coach attendant gave me a seat check to try to secure a reservation. The Lead Service Attendant said all reservation times were completely sold out (leaving no wiggle room for those who didn’t have the opportunity to make reservations earlier because they boarded the train at an intervening stop), but said to listen for the “winding down” call, at which point seats might be available. Luckily, the call was made about an hour before our El Paso arrival and seats were available. 

Train 1, the westbound Sunset Limited, approaches Alpine station on Dec. 18.
I joined two other coach passengers at a table, one who had also boarded at Alpine and the other who was bound for El Paso. This, plus a couple of recent experiences on the Crescent, give me the impression that, at least with some crews, Amtrak could be trying to discourage coach passengers from eating in the diner. If this is so, it makes no sense given that coach passengers provide added revenue for the diner, while a portion of each sleeping car fare is credited to the diner regardless of whether the sleeper passenger eats in the diner. (I later called Amtrak Customer Relations to complain about this, and the unavailability of my favorite lunch menu item at that lunch, and to praise the Eagle crew. I was offered a $50 Transportation Voucher.)

That aside, I highly recommend taking the Sunset Limited for a visit to the Big Bend region. Journeys like this are only possible because of local economies that cater to visitors arriving by train, and because the train is there to bring visitors to town.

Disclaimer: Malcolm Kenton is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients include Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He is also an avid and frequent train traveler. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients.

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