Understanding the 'Southwest Chief' with a ride

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, August 22, 2018

ON BOARD THE 'SOUTHWEST CHIEF' – “When I hear them talk about doing away with this train, it just breaks my heart.” The source of that statement was a middle-aged woman slowly pecking at a burger and chips in the dining car of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. She had just returned from Ireland and was on her way to southern California for family business. The train, she said, has always been a part of her life. She’d rather ride than drive.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, my wife, Cate, and I rode the Chief from Chicago to Albuquerque, N.M. It had been six years since my last trek on this the grandkid of Santa Fe’s Super Chief, a Los Angeles-Chicago run, and I was overdue for a look at the train that some in Amtrak believe might not need to run across fabled Raton Pass (you read more about the train and its route in the October 2018 issue of Trains). A bus bridge might be a better, so the theory goes, than to spend millions to upgrade the track and signals and install Positive Train Control on a route that only sees the Chiefs in both directions each day. That’s a topic for serious consideration. It’s not the subject of this post. What I wanted to learn is about the train and what it feels like to be on board. I wanted to get a better feel for the Chief and its mission in 2018.

I came away with was an appreciation for a tired but still useful train, from its well-worn P42 locomotives to the 40-something-year-old Superliners that are still plugging along day in and day out. As I’ve said before, I think Amtrak needs to decide whether the Chief is transportation or a cruise train. What I learned is that it is both, and it may be hard to separate them.

The customer mix is just about as diverse as can be. There were retirees returning home to the southwest after visiting relatives in the Midwest. There was an Australian out researching music. There were those who don’t have cars, and those who don’t like to fly.

They all appreciate that the train takes you into the real America: The cornfields of Illinois. The Mississippi River crossing at Fort Madison, Iowa. The Western Auto sign and the colorful skyline in downtown Kansas City. The tall mountains and deep canyons and chasms of New Mexico. You can drink it in from the train in a way that no other means of transportation can provide.

Bedroom B in sleeping car 330 functioned pretty much the way it has always worked: It’s a room with a sofa couch and chair by day, two bunk beds at night, and a private toilet / shower. So, did the diner, and so did the Sightseer lounge. There are places were grime and grit can’t be dislodged from the highest exterior windows. There are obsolete instructions in the shower. There is rusting chrome in the lounge. But overall, the train doesn’t look or feel as old as it truly is. The Chief hides its age well.

The crew is a big part of that. From Pinky the sleeping car attendant to Nick the conductor and the friendly ground crew in Kansas City, they all worked hard to make it an experience to remember. The jointed rail, semaphore and searchlight signals, and reminders of the Santa Fe Railway all contributed to the feeling of vitality.

If you need to decide for yourself whether the Chief on Raton Pass is essential to the U.S. transportation network, I suggest buying a ticket and riding as far as you can go. See what you can see that moves. Meet the passengers and the crew and learn their stories. Feel the clip of the jointed rail under your car. It’s a lot to take in. I agree with our lunch companion. It would break my heart, too, if the Chief were not allowed to remain on Raton Pass.

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