Glad to answer your questions John.
By the way, Fullerton is my local station so I'm super familiar with it.
The Southwest Chief used to be unique in that it always had the sleeping cars on the rear of the train. This practice seemed to change around the time it turned into a run through consist with the Capitol Limited, late 1990s or so? It went back to sleepers on the rear in the 2007 and this can be seen on a video I shot of the train arriving into Albuquerque New Mexico. Here is a link to the video:
Southwest Chief Video Clip
But as of my last trips (July and August 2008), and starting around October 2007, the sleepers were once again up front.
So the typical consist is as follows:
- 2 P42 Locomotives
- 1 Heritage Baggage Car
- 1 Superliner II Transition Dorm
- 2 Superliner Sleeping Cars (could be either Superliner I or II cars)
- 1 Superliner II Dining car (could be a Superliner I, but very often)
- 1 Superliner Lounge (could be either Superliner I or II)
- 3 Superliner I Coaches (never seen a Superliner II Coach in the Chief)
- (often one of the three is a Coach Baggage)
The diner is open shortly after departing Los Angeles. Depending on the number of passengers already onboard, getting on at Fullerton can get you a dining car seat right away, or could be as late as the last call to dinner (typically around 8:30 PM). But you'll get a dinner, it just depends on the time. If you are traveling alone, parties of one typically can get a seat quicker then larger parties.
Lounge seating availability varies a lot during the journey. One thing you'll want to check is what type of lounge is on your train. Some of the newer refurbished cars have half lounge seating and half dinning car style seating. Essentially half of the car has tables to sit at and the other has individual seats that face out toward the large windows. If it's a diner/lounge configuration the tables tend to fill up quickly. But during the long stop over in Albuquerque, when most passengers typically get off to stretch their legs and do some shopping along the platform for Native crafts, the lounge empties. If you're not interested in the native crafts, then it might be a good time to grab a seat as there will be a tour guide during the trip east after ABQ during some of the best scenery along the line. And the car typically fills up for this very fast.
But all in all, you should be able to find a seat most of the time. And there is seating downstairs in the lounge snack bar area too, although they are mostly tables.
However since you do have a roomette, you might just want to stay in there for most of the journey. They have very large windows, and even on the lower level you'll still have a pretty good view. And depending on the nature of travelers, the lounge can fill up with, umm how can I describe this....well let's just say rowdy passengers. But don't worry, this is the exception to the norm. Most often there are very friendly people with interesting stories.
Comments on your last trip (1978)
Amtrak has come a long way since 1978. The biggest improvement on the long distance trains are the Superliners, which were just starting to show up in 1978.
The best part of traveling on the Southwest Chief are the meals. Very good food and a courteous staff make meal time a very enjoyable experience. And by traveling in a sleeping car your meals are included with the fare. One treat that might be available is a turkey dinner. This is typically only offered during the holiday season...Thanksgiving, and Chirstmas.
The scenery is also pretty good, with the best along Raton Pass. Traveling during the Christmas season might even give you some fresh snow that really makes the line extra beautiful. There is something really cozy about traveling on a train through the snow. And although it happened last year, the linenormally does not get blocked due to bad weather.
As far as accommodations go, you might get lucky and your sleeping car may be one of the completely refurbished cars. Photos of what they look like can be found in the links below (photos are at the bottom of the first site):
Amtrak Refurbished Superliner Sleeping Car Link #1
Amtrak Refurbished Superliner Sleeping Car Link #2
A list of all of the known complete refurbished cars can be found here:
Refurbished Sleeping Car Number List
The Southwest Chief doesn't always get these cars, but they do show up from time to time. I've traveled on three during my many trips aboard the Chief. But all of the Superliner sleeping cars have new upholstery and curtains, and most have newer wall panels so thankfully you don't have to worry about getting a super dingy and dirty car anymore.
I hope this information is helpful, and hopefully you'll have a nice trip on the Chief.