(The Grand US Tour 2008 - with extras)
Let’s get a few things straight. I really can’t be bothered with the UK rail scene any more. The idea of spending every other weekend aboard a linear prison for the socially inadequate (marketed as “a railtour”) no longer appeals. I have had a grand total of four GM locos - all 59’s - on mainland UK. Unless it’s Keighley, because I can drive there in fifteen minutes, gala weekends don’t interest me; they’re like a care in the community version of railtours.
A good old blast across the desert on the impeccably civilised Amtrak is a whole different kettle of fish, however. Since I last went to the US, in 2004, I’ve taken a big drop in salary, endured no end of domestic upheaval and got four years older so it was high time for a holiday. Simon’s itinerary for this trip gave me chance to do an add on to get a bit of required Amtrak route and promised interesting days too. Coupled to an unprecedented period of personal financial stability, this had to be done really.
A note about my rules. If it’s got wheels and a propelling motor it counts. These conditions allowed a few of us to spend a happy afternoon bashing the Ghost Train ride on Blackpool Pleasure Beach when we realised that the cars were individually motored. If it won, it’s underlined below. Planes don’t count because they’re tedious and a bit scary.
Thursday April 24th
Maybe the journey started with a walk in the woods. Out with the dogs for a farewell walk through Calverley Wood the unappealing sound of a 66 struggling away from a signal check at Apperley Junction with a bijou rake of hoppers made me realise that I’d be in the land of noisy engines and big trains in 24 hours.
I’ll gloss over all the domestic stuff. Suffice it to say that the very worst part of the whole trip was the wait on the platform at Bradford Interchange, knowing I could be back home in 20 minutes. But instead…
158845 Bradford Interchange - Manchester Victoria
1012 Victoria - Piccadilly
185143 Manchester Piccadilly - Manchester Airport
Bed was Bewley’s Hotel, in the airport complex and reached, as usual, by running across a busy dual carriageway and through some bushes.
Today’s links:- http://www.bewleyshotels.com/manchester_airport_hotel.asp
Friday April 25th
Airports are dull and planes are dull, in my opinion. The only highlights worth relating were:-
For those anxious to learn the specific details of the plane it was operated by BMI and it met my approval by not bringing my life to an abrupt end.
Processing through US immigration was also painless, my bag rolled off the bag-rolling thing quickly and before you could say Sam’s your Uncle I was outside having a smoke.
Chicago O’Hare Skytrain Car 14 - Terminal 5 - Terminal 3
CTA Car 2330 (Blue Line) - O’Hare - Jackson
The sun was shining as we headed into Downtown Chicago, and one of the big roadside thermometers suggested it was 82 degrees. Smashing.
Hotel Essex on Michigan tonight. Always recommended, even if it’s not always easy to find on Expedia.
The next challenge was to pick up all of my tickets from Union Station. Those who have experienced Amtrak ticket agents will know that they get alarmed if you ask them for anything even slightly out of the ordinary, and here I was asking for seven separate tickets. I’d expected the worst and, to my surprise, got an agent for whom nothing was too much trouble. No need to consult a supervisor or the manual, and friendly and cheerful too.
Slightly reeling from that pleasant shock I spent the rest of my day strolling about Chicago. I couldn’t be bothered with Metra in my tired and grubby state so I stocked up on reading material and had an early night, only slightly interrupted by a thunderstorm so violent that it had the hotel windows vibrating in their frames.
Today’s Links:- http://www.essexinn.com/hotel_near_grant_park.html
Saturday April 26th
Up early and back to Union to check my bag. From yesterday’s heat the weather had changed to very cold and windy. However, the $5 weekend Metra ticket was too big a draw.422 (Train 2701) Union - Western Avenue
Baling at Itasca I bumped into Bob Hannaford, who had flown in from Canada the previous night and, like me, was nedding prior to meeting Ian Edwards, Andy Powis and Steve Ashby off the plane that afternoon.
425 (Train 2710) Itasca - Union
I said goodbye to Bob again at Union, stocked up on water and snacks and went to gate E for:-
Amtk 9 (Train 21) Union - Dallas
Things didn’t start too well. For one thing the “departure lounge”, as Amtrak styles it, was full of passengers for The Zephyr, The Chief and The Eagle, many of whom seemed unsure of which train they were actually catching. Then came the announcement (shouted loudly) that The Eagle had a “mechanical problem” and would be “delayed.” Great. I was in no rush but this wasn’t the most convivial place to sit out an Amtrak delay. Fortunately, the correct sized Amtrak hammer must have been to hand as we were frogmarched - sorry, boarded (Chicago Union still isn’t quite as bad as early ’80’s Blackpool North) onto the stock shortly after 14.00 and left, 40 minutes late, at 14.25 behind a dud Genocide. Great again.
The train wasn’t full which was a relief to me as I was travelling Coach on this leg. We were still 40 down at Joliet but then the stagger began. Lots and lots of slow orders, the site of a recent derailment with several hoppers lying in a field (I’m sure they’ll not miss a few) and the relentlessness of Illinois. Six miles of fields, roughly, then a small town with a grain elevator at one end, then another six miles of fields, then another small town exactly like the last one, then six miles of fields…the effect is like a patterned carpet.
By Bloomington we were 90 adrift although some of that was due to a “dead end meet” with the very late running Eastbound Eagle. We went into a siding, the Eastbound came past behind 187 and we reversed back out to continue on our merry way.
Springfield was 2 hours late in appearing outside the train. I stepped out for a tab and immediately recognised the depot area from my various Wabash books. One of these days, when I’m bored of riding about on Amtrak and I’ve cleared my Genocides (!) I’m going to go out and have a good look at what’s left of some of the old Wabash.
My dinner reservation was called just after Springfield. I love travelling on my own, or in a smaller group, on Amtrak because of the dining car experience. You can find yourself sitting next to anybody, talking about anything. This, sadly, was my single worst Amtrak dining experience. With two other gentlemen I found myself sitting with a lady travelling from Chicago to St. Louis who had an opinion about everything. Ever. In the world. And for the hour or so we sat there she unleashed a lot of these upon us. Now, I can talk a bit, and Lynne can talk a lot so I’m not unused to being in what we might call an intensive conversational experience. This, however, was like being subjected to a Howitzer bombardment of parochialism and bigotry. One by one the others in her captive audience left without a word. What a horrible, HORRIBLE lady. Three weeks later, as I write this, I can still see her twisted spiteful face pontificating venomously and it makes me feel uneasy.
I don’t suppose it should have come as any great surprise that on returning to my seat I discovered that my camera, which had been firmly wedged in my jacket pocket, was no longer there. If I’d been able to, I think I’d have gladly got off the train at that point and buggered off home. Not having that option I went and found the car attendant. Until that point he’d been better than average anyway, but he almost seemed to be expecting me, which was a comfort. He asked me for a full written description of the camera, and asked me to go back to my seat and “sit tight.” So I did.
Sunday April 27th
Considering that I’d just been subjected to a neo-Christian fascist brainwashing, then robbed, I slept remarkably well. I woke up at Walnut Ridge (it was dark so I couldn’t see any walnuts) to note that we were now 4 hours late, woke up again in the midst of a full anchors brake application and came to what I laughingly call my senses in Little Rock for a brew and a tab.
At breakfast I overheard a very large lady inexplicably dressed in a green velour sofa cover tell her friend that someone had been seen rummaging through suitcases stored on the lower level of her car during the night. There was also some consternation amongst the train crew which seemed to revolve around the café lounge. Heeding my car attendant’s words, however, I sat and read William Faulkner short stories and watched a lot of UP freight pass by.
As we stopped at Marshall, Texas, and I noticed that the schedule on the preceding section is so padded that we were now only 2 hours late the car attendant asked me to step off the train. The police were in attendance, as was a rather sulky looking girl whom I’d noticed a few times wandering about the train. Several other passengers were also outside and the girl’s bag was emptied of all sorts of goodies including my camera and quite a few bottles of beer that had apparently been nicked from the café lounge. I was asked if I wanted to press charges but as this would have entailed me coming back to Marshall for the trial I declined.
Full marks to the car attendant, a Chicago based guy named Robert Hunter. He was obviously aware that something was afoot and, rather than panicking an entire train, quietly watched his suspect and waited until he had enough evidence. I’ve sent Amtrak an e-mail thanking him and commending him to his bosses. Oddly, the baddy was travelling with an equally dodgy looking geezer who managed to get away with it and remained on the train.
After that it was just wet East Texas, with lots more UP coming the other way. It’s a long time since I last rode The Eagle, and I don’t have an SPV Texas map but I’m fairly convinced that we entered Dallas via a rather BLS-esque route. We certainly caused a stir amongst the miscellaneous trespassers we disturbed.
This lurch through the back-lots cost another 50 minutes and meant that we arrived in Dallas Union at 14.50, 170 minutes late. Checking today (May 30th) the average delay over the last 4 weeks has been 108 minutes which is an improvement on what it has been; I was reasonably satisfied with 170 minutes.
No problems with the hotel here - the Hotel Lawrence is almost opposite Union Station and is very excellent. Cranks should try to get a room on the higher floors at the front of the hotel which have a great view of the station, through which quite a lot of UP freight passes. Those with a more morbid turn of mind should try for a room on the North side, which overlooks the Texas School Book Depository and the grassy knoll.
I couldn’t be bothered doing much this evening so wandered a few blocks to the West End, which has lots of bars and restaurants and things although it’s a bit touristy.
Monday April 28th
Being a bit on the slack side I had neglected to check out the diagrams for Trinity Rail Express before setting off from the UK. There’s an astonishing lack of publicity for this operation at Dallas Union - all I found was a schedule sellotaped to a window in a corner. Last time I was in Dallas it was all RDC’s but they now have 4 ex-Go F59’s and 2 bought new, although the RDC’s still work as well.
The Hotel Lawrence provides breakfast, which I availed myself of before heading over the road.
568 (Train 2905) Dallas - Centerport
There were plenty of schedules available aboard the train but frankly I entirely failed to make sense of them, resulting in me biffing up in fine style although to be fair I was also bowled out later on. What threw me was that several trains run into Dallas, then deadhead back to Centerport to come back again.
566 (Train 2910) Centerport - South Irving 565 (Train 2907) South Irving - Centerport
So far so good. I’d worked out 5 hauled diagrams, and 570 was on shed (the shed being just East of Centerport). I’d passed 567 on its way in so I was in line for 569 to return with 567.
2009 (Train 2914) Centerport - South Irving
Bowled! This should have been a hauled working although at least I got a winning RDC off it. Passing the depot, however, 567 was settling down for a nice little rest. Biffed!
566 (Train 2709) South Irving - Centerport 568 (Train 2916) Centerport - Dallas
Whether this is booked or not I don’t know but 566 had stepped up a diagram, losing me 567. I don’t know where 569 was.
Anyway, it was an enjoyable morning’s spinning. Despite the lack of publicity in Dallas the services were busy, with South Irving in particular seeming to be a well planned bus/rail interchange. Also notable are the female engineers. Had I been wearing the mythical hat, I’d have taken it off for the lass on 568! She wasn’t scared of the loud handle either.
The next moves were a bit more planned.
DART 202 Dallas Union - City Place
DART is the Dallas area LRT. I should add at this point that all of the above cost me a $5 piece, which is valid on weekdays on TRE, DART and the Fort Worth LRT. Good value.
City Place, once you actually get out of it, seems to be in the middle of nowhere but is actually at the far end of the McKinney Avenue Trolley. This is a San Francisco/Memphis inspired regeneration idea. It’s preserved trams, street running, through a once run down area into central Dallas, and it’s totally free although donations are actively requested and, from what I saw, readily given.
Melbourne 369 City Place - St. Paul
Needless to say I got cracking with the driver who turned out to be one of the Brookings family, of Ohio Trolley Museum fame. He’d driven at Blackpool and Crich and was very whipped up to learn that I live about 90 minutes from each. He’s going to Belgium for his summer holidays to cover, amongst other things, De Lign.
A bit of American Political history here. Dallas was very much regarded as a civic failure for many years. JFK’s unpleasant end was the icing on the cake and effectively wrote the city off. After several years of living in the doldrums the City Fathers pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and reinvented the place. The eponymous TV series, whilst gaudy, was to an extent funded by the City to inject a degree of glamour and industry into its reputation.
Dallas in 2008 is a vibrant, defined city and the McKinney Avenue Trolley is a part of this rehabilitation. It runs through Uptown, which is like the best bits of some of the East Coast cities but without the snobbery, to St. Paul which is the financial district. In case you hadn’t guessed, Dallas is one of my favourite American Cities. Well worth a visit.
Dallas 186 St Paul - City Place
DART 131 City Place - Union
A genuine Dallas car back (and you have to ride both ways as there’s some one way street running), once again with an affable driver. What a superb system. Not only do I love Dallas, I love trams and I really wish I’d had more time to play about on this.
Back to Union Station again, more in hope than expectation. A board behind the ticket agent’s desk says how late the Eastbound and Westbound trains are and that day’s Westbound was shown as 90 late. Not a bad estimate; it arrived at 13.45, 105 down.
Amtk 74 (Train 421) Dallas - San Antonio
Originally I’d planned to do this leg in Coach too but I’d got cold feet before setting out and upgraded in Chicago; the previous night’s experience made me quite glad I did so. I settled down in my hutch and we set off at 14.00. And stopped 5 minutes later on the trestle over the Trinity River for 2 hours 20 minutes until 3 Gensets trundled past in the opposite direction with a long train.
UP seem to be very busy upgrading the section between Dallas and Fort Worth which unfortunately seems to mean that the Eastbound Eagle can’t leave Fort Worth until the Westbound has reversed at Tower 55. As expected, Genesis 9 was heading back, now very late, and 207 was on the Heartland Flyer.
The good news at Fort Worth was that some guys on a skyjack truck washed the exterior windows of the train while the loco refuelled. The bad news was the announcement that the dining car had failed and that dinner would be brought on board at Temple.
Dallas-San Antonio was new mileage for me so I spent a lot of this leg gazing out of the window. Highlights were the Santa Fe shops at Cleburne, the place at which the hideous CF7’s were misconceived, and the odd rolling hills South of McGregor which are geologically unlike anything in Europe and give the optical illusion that the train is descending a steep slope. Or perhaps I just had my head cocked to one side. Dinner at Temple looked suspiciously like KFC (apparently it was horrible) so I passed and went to bed.
Tuesday April 29th
I have a friend who says that you can judge a person with a single question - what’s your perfect day? Anybody who takes longer than 30 seconds to answer probably isn’t worth knowing. If anyone were to ask me what my perfect Amtrak day was this one would take some beating.
It started with a late arrival into San Antonio (01.53). I got off to watch the shunting operation, which was complicated by the addition of a private observation car to go on the back of the Sunset Limited. There’s time for even the biggest complications in San Antonio though, and we left precisely on time.
Amtk 133 and 199 (Train 1) San Antonio - Los Angeles
Really there’s not much to say about this day. I dozed, and read, and looked out of the window. I had some great conversations over my meals with people who had genuinely interesting things to say. Throughout the day we ran on time, or fairly close to it. From San Antonio to El Paso we hardly met anything coming the other way, and after El Paso the shape of the rehabilitated Sunset route, double tracked and superbly laid, was a sight to behold. I went to bed just after Lordsburg, thinking that if I could have a day like this once a month or so I’d be a very happy man.
Wednesday April 30th
I woke up briefly at Yuma and noticed that we were still on time, although there was no sign of the 3.10 to Yuma in the station.
When I woke up again we were resolutely stopped in the middle of the desert. Union Pacific, as I observed first hand last night, are really putting some effort into rebuilding the route from El Paso to Colton and now we were in the construction zone. I’d estimate that this extends at least 50 miles East of Palm Springs and seems to be very active. There were several work trains to be seen, surprisingly with fairly recent motive power on them. Predominant were SD70M’s. In view of the relative remoteness of the location and the extremes of desert temperature this may be to do with reliability and crew comfort.
A stagger to Palm Springs saw us 75 late there. A further stagger down Beaumont Hill culminated in a very long stop just outside Colton Yard and put us 2 hours late into Ontario. The schedule, however, allows 2 hours 5 minutes for 38 miles from Ontario to LA Union, which makes me wonder how late a VERY late Westbound would get to Ontario. As it was we got to the blocks just 40 minutes late which is incredibly good for the Sunset Limited.
This ironically caused me a minor pain in the backside as check in at the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens was not until 14.00. My room wasn’t ready but they took my bag off me and I went for a stroll around Downtown LA., establishing in the process that Angels Flight funicular was only a few blocks from the hotel and was so closed that even the cars weren’t on the tracks. So I went back to the hotel and relaxed on the rooftop garden with a fine, albeit exorbitantly priced, glass of wine.
I had no particular plans for this day but several people on The Sunset had recommended that I go to Pasadena, so I did. I’d established that you got there on the Gold Line but could only find a single rather useless map.
239 - LA Union - Lake.
Never was there a less appropriately named station. It’s in the central reservation of a freeway. Let’s try again.
301 - Lake - Fillmore.
No - not much here. Let’s try AGAIN.
240 - Fillmore - Del Mar
That’s more like it. I liked Pasadena a lot although Gold Line could maybe do with explaining where it is in relation to their stations.
244 - Memorial Park - LA Union.
Enough for today.
Thursday May 1st
Amtk 453 (Train 564) - LA Union - Fullerton
Amtk 463 (Train 763) - Fullerton - LA Union
Prior to today I’d had 2 Amtrak California F59’s. And in 2 deft moves I had them both again! This had been a scratching move, with the intention of making a plus 13 onto a Metrolink service to San Bernardino. Not only was I on a dud for a dud, but Train 763 was 35 late. Then to really pour salt into the wood, whilst I was fulminating in Fullerton, in came the Westbound Chief behind Genesis 90, 161 and Pacific Sounder F59 902, all working! Greater minds than mine have been greatly taxed in considering the meaning of this apparition, so far to no avail. Oh how I should have blagged myself aboard that one.
With the San Bernadino move gone I went for:-
Metrolink 858 (Train 107) - Union - Chatsworth
Interestingly this was the only train I rode that crossed the LA River at Mission Tower and went up the East bank to Valley East.
Amtk 461 (Train 774) Chatsworth - Union
Another train, another fiasco. I had no Amtrak piece but expected to pick one up at Chatsworth. The Amtrak agent at Chatsworth is actually a travel agent with an office in the depot who refused to issue a piece against my pass, claiming she’d never seen such a thing before and wasn’t going to look up the details. Well done. The Conductor on Train 774 was a bit confused too but rang someone who confirmed that the pass was legit.
Amtk 455 (Train 769) Union - Glendale
Where Steve Bates and Richard Morrison also got off. I hadn’t realised but they’d flown in the previous day and, like me, had spent the morning nedding.
Metrolink 870 (Train 214) Glendale - Union
Now we were three we adjourned for lunch at this point. My move to Pasadena the previous night had been largely informed by people telling me that Downtown LA closed in the evening. It turned out, however, that there was a brew pub 2 blocks from my hotel, where Steve and Richard had been the previous night. They’d stayed in a different hotel.
After being berated by the sulky waitress for not leaving a big enough tip Steve and Richard went back out on the bash, while I returned to the hotel to wait for the next set of arrivals. Derek Milby, Tim Howlett, Paul Rodriguez and Simon Bennett appeared ahead of schedule and off we went again.
872 (Train 215) Union - Glendale
876 (Train 115) Glendale - Burbank
853 (Train 220) Burbank - Glendale
884 (Train 118) Glendale - Union
Here we saw a surprise, as Metrolinks’ “stretched” F40, 800, was out doing business on a train to Riverside. This oddity is meant to be restricted to MOW duties and it’s appearance generated something of a flap. We had bigger fish to fry, however.
881 (Train 119) Union - Bob Hope Airport
Amtrak’s trains 798 and 799 have been an enigma for a while, as they aren’t booked for a Surfliner set. To be honest I’d forgotten about this until this morning, when, on leaving Union, I noticed a set of Horizon cars with P32 503 on the front, clearly in position for 799.
A P32 these days can’t be let go so seven of us assembled at Bob Hope Airport and festered for a while, with the setting sun behind us and the hills in front until the late running 798 lumbered over the hill with a cabbage on the front and, sho’nuff, 503 on the back.
Amtk 503 (Train 798) Bob Hope Airport - Union.
I chose not to sour the general exaltation at this scalp by grumbling that it was dud. For all but me it was their first P32. The lady gripper seemed quite taken by the general euphoria too.
Simon then suffered the inevitable Amtrak fiasco when trying to pick up the group’s tickets back at LA Union, courtesy of a faulty ticket machine and the compulsorily gormless agent, to the extent that some of us were still in the station when the Coast Starlight arrived, conveying Bob Hannaford, Steve Ashby, Andy Powis and Ian Edwards.
At full group strength of 11, enough for a hopeless football team, we enjoyed a rather noisy and chaotic meal in a tent behind the brew pub. Hello America, it’s us again!
Friday May 2nd
Unless you ARE actually a hopeless football team the likelihood of 11 people all having the same objectives is remote. Simon, Tim and Derek had set off at a silly hour this morning for extreme bashing, whilst the rest of us felt compelled to inspect 799 again. 509 and 510 had been on the Amtrak servicing point yesterday and today 510 was on the train in lieu of the cabbage, with 503 at the other end and both working. Another dud P32!
Amtk 503 and 510 (Train 799) LA Union - Glendale
855 (Train 206) Glendale - LA Union
Here Richard and Steve B diverged. Our beer correspondents (Bob, Ian, Andy and Steve A) had decided to go to San Diego for the day. Once again, however, the shocking Amtrak ticket agent scenario came into play with Andy not being given a ticket on the grounds that the agent “didn’t have time.” Luckily the other agent on duty had been to customer service school.
Amtk 454 (Train 566) Union - Irvine
Amtk 455 (Train 567) Irvine - Union
The point of this move was to join the UK Extreme Bashing team, who had got to Irvine via obtuse means following a middle of the night departure. The beer correspondents continued to San Diego whilst Paul set up shop with his camera in Fullerton.
Tim joined the Amtrak F59 losers support group at this stage, by falling onto 455, the only one he’d previously had. We tried to stop each other from becoming too despondent but that only descended into abuse.
856 (Train 304) Union - El Monte
869 (Train 319) El Monte - Union
Visit El Monte and look at the carved metal motifs on the top of the platform shelters. They are lions, throwing rather camp mincing shapes and apparently cavorting on skateboards. I don’t think this was the effect that the doubtless earnest artist worked hard to create but I suspect that we got more enjoyment out of them than the denizens of El Monte generally do.
871 (Train 704) Union - Riverside via Fullerton
An enjoyable trundle along Line 91 put Simon, Derek, Tim and I into Riverside with just enough time to locate the local Arbees, where a beer and some ice cream fitted the bill quite nicely on this hot day.
865 (Train 411) Riverside - Union
857 (Train 215) Union - Glendale
859 (Train 910) Glendale - Union
Once again 800 was seen in action, going the wrong way and putting itself totally out of position.
The beer correspondents met us at Union, as did an exceptionally colourful Paul who’d overdone the sun a little and I piloted this little grouping back to Pasadena, where we found an excellent brewpub, which will have closed by the time you read this. A shame because it was busy, friendly and looked like an American brewpub ought to. Then we went to another brewpub which was utterly sterile, looked like a branch of Habitat and was clearly not interested in groups of people - us - who didn’t want to eat. If I could remember what it was called I’d recommend people not to go there.
236 Union - Del Mar
232 Memorial Park - Union
Hardier souls than me went to another brew pub in Downtown LA. I went to bed.
Saturday May 3rd
With required P32 509 still on the Amtrak servicing point 799 had to be covered again although this time it was just myself and Ian. The cabbage had been resurrected and 510 was on the point.
Amtk 510 (Train 799) Union - Glendale
One of the Amtrak engineers criticisms I’ve read of the Genocides is that their gearing is such that you have to tiptoe away with them to avoid redlining. Not so with this beast. The engineer knew he had an audience and a lightweight train and we were treated to such a wide open departure from Glendale that several car alarms in the adjoining car park went off. Absolutely monstrous, and a moment that will stay with me for a long time.
852 (Train 260) Glendale - Union
Today’s plan for Ian, Andy, Steve A, Paul and myself was a tourist spin to Hollywood. Felipes, a diner in the classic US style, had been recommended to us for breakfast so we convened there. It’s well worth a visit, not least for all the Santa Fe piffle in the back room.
Hollywood is on the Red Line subway so:-
544 Union - Hollywood/Vine
It wasn’t just our alarm bells that were ringing as we stepped out of this station; the building opposite had rather terminally burned down the previous night and the fire brigade were still putting it out. Everything appeared rather low rent and the best we could see of the legendary hillside “Hollywood” sign on the hill was a few letters, despite a fruitless expedition through a housing estate and alongside a freeway.
Yes, would-be tourists. Hollywood and Vine is THE WRONG STATION, unless you’re on a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins pilgrimage. Nonetheless, here we were and we were all happy to stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, which is endearingly tacky and is home to a quite phenomenal number of wig shops. The gold stars in the sidewalk with the star’s names in were good too, even though we’d only heard of about one in every ten.
The correct station is Hollywood and Highland, where Graumanns Chinese Theater, and a lot of very expensive souvenirs can be found, together with the seminal view of the Hollywood sign. Four highlights:-
1. A Bible Basher damning Steve A to hell (little realising that he already lives in Swindon)
2. Various Hollywood characters in costume and Chewbacca having a fag round the corner.
3. Two unidentified Bristol VR’s.
4. Paul falling on his arse coming down a flight of stairs and being mistaken for a performance artist by some passing Japs.
562 Hollywood/Highland - Universal
We went to Universal Studios for a beer! There’s a brewpub there. Despite it being the ultimate tourist trap the staff were extremely sociable and gave the beer correspondents lots of piffle. They also set us a quiz to win a T-shirt, which I won with the consummate ease and flair which might be expected from someone of my towering intellect, although to prove that I can be humble as well I donated it to Paul. To prove that I’m an utter ned as well the road train thing from the station to the studio, and return, was 902.
573 Universal - Union
Much hilarity when a Rusty Lee-alike shoehorned herself into the seat next to Andy, who is no lightweight himself.
860 (Train 265) Union - Burbank
For another brewpub, where my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I’d been drinking beer all day, and I’m not really a beer drinker at all so the medium pizza I ordered defeated me.
884 (Train 268) Burbank - Union
Here we met the rest of the troupe. Derek had a mighty grin on. They’d stopped at Fullerton where Santa Fe 4-8-4 3751 had been in steam, and he’d got to blast the whistle courtesy of an acquaintance of his.
Amtk 5 and 164 (Train 4) LA Union - Williams Junction
A pair of winners for me but a general sulk from virtually everyone else about 164. We were going Coach for this leg and, as soon as we got underway, adjourned to the lounge car when an even bigger sulk occurred - there were only 5 bottles of Sam Adams available. Not a problem for me - there was plenty of Vodka and plenty of Orange. It was too dark to see much of Cajon Pass but the number writers filled their books at Needles, where we retired gracefully.
Sunday May 4th
I’d had a look at Williams Junction on Google Earth prior to flying out, and thought I’d got the wrong image but I hadn’t. It is literally a dirt platform in the middle of a forest. Crianlarich is like Clapham Junction compared to this place, and at 04.35 in the morning the effect of isolation is accentuated.
The Grand Canyon Railway’s minivan (1034) was there to meet us and the driver turned off the station lights as he left. The dirt track through the woods eventually leads to a road and the road leads to the Grand Canyon Hotel, Williams. They’re obviously used to people staggering off the train at stupid ’o clock here as we enjoyed a very easy and friendly check-in. Because it wasn’t busy season our rooms were ready.
We mooched across the tracks for breakfast in another very traditional diner, then basically hung about aimlessly until train time which is 10.00. Here we have a prime example of the divergence of the European/American psyche. Americans need more, so prior to the departure of the train several of us were “treated” to a Wild West Show, which was essentially some guys dressed as cowboys dishing out corny lines.
This doesn’t tend to happen at Embsay, or the Moors.
Although we’d been hoping for ALCO’s on the train an F40 produced instead:-
239 Williams - Grand Canyon and return.
Actually this is probably the rarer loco. It’s certainly their only working F40 at the moment.
We’d booked first class on this train which entitled us to sit in a car decorated as an Indian restaurant. There was a commentary of sorts but luckily for me it wasn’t too intrusive as I spent most of the journey asleep, waking only when some bloke wandered in and started singing songs, which has never happened to me at the Great Central.
First class also gave us a meal and a bus tour. The meal was in a big canteen-style place but was adequate, the bus was a Grand Canyon Railway owned GMC “Fishbowl” 347 and the bus driver/guide was a genial and informative chap who…BLOODY HELL, that’s a BIG hole in the ground!
Hard to describe the Grand Canyon. You’ve got to see it for yourself. Even then it’s hard to comprehend just how big it is because there’s nothing else around to provide a sense of perspective. I ended up translating the distances and dimensions given by our guide into journies familiar to me in the UK just to get a handle on what “18 miles across” really means. As Tim reflectively pointed out, it’s not a bit like Norfolk…
I was awake for the journey back, features of which included another singing geezer (never seen THAT on the Bluebell), a “champagne” toast (I don’t know what we were toasting but they don’t do this on the West Somerset) and the hold-up of the train by this morning’s gang of cowboy desperados - which I was able to smile and nod through because I once suffered the very same fate on the Derwent Valley!
Williams is a small and quite remote town on route 66 and it’s managed to capitalise on that quite well. We ate tonight in a very 1950’s style diner which conveyed very well the mood and feel of a pre-interstate stopping off point.
Monday May 5th
Just 24 hours later we returned to the spooky ol’ station in the wood, this time courtesy of Grand Canyon Railway’s MC9, 469.
Amtk 130 and 132 (Train 4) Williams Junction-Albuquerque
Before this pair could be evaluated for dudness someone noticed that the formation was a superliner short. As a result the train was pretty full and, because it was the middle of the night, lots of people were dossed out over two seats. Several of us ended up sitting in the downstairs bit until the diner opened.
After despatching the Am-breakfast, served by a hatchet faced woman originally from Harrogate, several of us set up camp in the lounge. Nothing in the world is boring if you take a good enough look at it. The semi-arid lands of Arizona and New Mexico may not be immediately striking but a second glance reveals some spectacular rock formations. The agriculture and its history are thought provoking too.
In other words this was another enjoyable morning for me but not for a Gallup bound passenger. Amtrak on board announcements are always made clearly and in good time for impending stations. At Gallup we had sufficient time for me to step out for a fairly leisurely tab so how, 15 minutes later, a lady passenger suddenly realised that we were speeding down the high iron away from Gallup is beyond me. She gave the poor crew a very hard time of it though.
Speeding down the high iron we certainly were. The Southwest Chief benefits hugely from spending much of its time on BNSF’s main East-West artery and it’s on time statistics reflect that. Even with a slower run from the junction with the Belen cut-off, and a few minutes waiting for a local to clear outside Albuquerque we were still 30 minutes early arriving. What to do? Get another train.
New Mexico Railrunner is a relatively recent development which is rapidly growing in both ridership and trackage. The State Governance of New Mexico is unashamedly pro-public transport and this is certainly reflected in Albuquerque where there seemed to be a comprehensive and cohesive bus network too, interchanging seamlessly with Railrunner. Unlike other start-up commuter systems, there has not been any significant groundswell of “don’t waste MY taxes” protestation. From what we observed new passengers are daily embracing the concept of railrunner.
Possibly one of the factors behind this success is that Albuquerque seems to have developed as a linear community rather than a concentric one, meaning that commuting is not necessarily corridor defined and employment centres are nodal. Certainly another factor is the striking branding and presentation of the equipment.
NMRX 101 (Train 509) Albuquerque - Belen and return as Train 510
Was our unexpected bonus - we shouldn’t really have had time to make this.
The Hotel Blue is in the classic Southern States style, with external walkways giving the appearance of a high rise motel. It looked remotely familiar and, on checking when I got home, turned out to be dud.
NMRX 103 (Train 512) Albuquerque - Sandoval and return to Los Ranchos as 513
NMRX 101 (Train 516) Los Ranchos - Sandoval and return as 515
NMRX 102 (Train 520) Los Ranchos - Sandoval and return to Albuquerque as 517
No sign of 104 and 105. However, all the crews were very whipped up about having us aboard and served to underline our very positive impressions of this system. They’re trumpeting their planned extension to Santa Fe and I’m pretty sure we’ll be back to have a go on it.
For the UK Extreme Bashing Team and me, a fantastic all you can eat for not much money Brazilian restaurant tonight. For me, all you can eat means all you actually need to eat. Looking around us it seemed that some of the other patrons regarded the concept as “All you can eat, ever, all at once.”
Tuesday May 6th
The UK Extreme Bashing Team’s punishing schedule had originally called for an early start to cover the morning’s Railrunner diagrams but a combination of inevitability and fatigue brought about an unprecedented sleep-in. Some insomniacs established that 104 and 105 weren’t out anyway. An added bonus was that this hotel had a breakfast thrown in.
This civilised morning was rounded off with a few beers in the bar we ate in last night, where everyone Paul (youngest at 36) to Derek (oldest at 68) had to show their ID to get served.
Amtk 66 and 81 (Train 4) Albuquerque - Chicago
A pair of winners for everyone and a surprise for me, as it’s compulsory that I have either 13 or 62 whenever I’m in America.
There’s a long and embarrassing back story here, but we all had a sleeping hutch on this leg of the trip which, of course, means free food. Somehow we managed to all get seated for lunch at the same time. Unfortunately our contented behaviour was misconstrued as yobbery by other patrons of the diner. Americans are, in my experience, rather fascinated and appalled by the concept of “soccer hooliganism”. Somewhere in Oregon, once upon a time, I got embroiled in a conversation with two chaps who thought that EVERYONE in Britain fights at soccer matches as a sort of secondary occupation. I think we managed to get tarred with that brush.
Glorieta Pass was, apparently, stunning although I spent the afternoon dossed out in our particularly majestic hutch and emerged at the top of Raton, 7606 feet above Sea Level. Because of our earlier exuberance we were made to take separate dinner reservation times. Tim, Derek and I therefore met Darlene, a charming and erudite dinner companion who took a political and religious battering in her stride and is probably now regretting the day she chose to take this trip.
I may have drunk a little too much. I certainly became embroiled in a very deep political conversation with a guy called Bill back in the lounge. My hazy recollection is of me explaining my Socialistic principles and him trying to tell me about his ex-wives. I must have gone to bed, because I woke up in it.
Wednesday May 7th
After my soundest-ever sleep in an Amtrak sleeping hutch I came round in Argentine Yard, Kansas, to the arresting sight of passenger aeroplane fuselages aboard flatcars on an adjacent track. Derek hadn’t slept as soundly as me and Tim had been disturbed by me getting into his bed feet first during the night. Family rooms are fun!
Our breakfast companion was Sue, another engaging character with a very interesting stance on the Western “engagement” in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In case you’d not noticed, I love Politics, I love political history and I especially love talking to people who share my love, from whatever perspective. I could have talked with Sue for ages but we rolled into Kansas City Union, where KCS F7 34 was alongside us and I could get out for a tab.
After that…well, we crossed the Missouri, Bill came back to the lounge car and, to Derek’s delight, turned out to be a historian of American Model Railways and helped him identify some models in his collection.
At Fort Madison we met, then crossed the Mississippi, and it was pretty swollen due to snowmelt from a harsher than average winter in the Northern States. In fact some of it had got into Fort Madison yard. On a previous trip Tim had come within an ace of being tail-lighted here. He’d have spent a fairly dull 24 hours by the looks of things.
Our charge to Chicago was interrupted by what appeared to be hefty congestion at Galesburg, where the contingent who’d gone West on the Zephyr completed their big loop and where the dining car staff relented, made friends with us, and let us all sit together to scoff whatever they had left in the Am-fridge. We were over 90 minutes late out of Galesburg but the man at the front clearly regarded that as a challenge rather than an occupational inconvenience. Bob’s GPS showed speeds rather in excess of what is allowed, although to be fair the ride was good and BNSF were making life easy. The legendary Amtrak schedule padding was in evidence too, and we got to the blocks in Chicago Union about 30 down.
Our nest for the next three nights was the Downtown Travel-lodge on East Harrison. Basic but adequate and, looking at the room rates, well worth the money compared to other Downtown Chicago hotels.
Everyone else went straight back out nedding. I assumed a superior air, showered, dossed, rang home and casually strolled to Union for the main event.
Here I must explain that I’ve never done much bashing on Metra. I’ve been to the end of every branch (except Manhattan, University Park and 93rd) then come back with the same motor. The UK Extreme Bashing Team, however, have nailed an awful lot of stuff with the exception, in terms of the early F40’s, of 100, which they’d been denied previously due to pressing legal matters. Bob had dealt with all of the early F40’s except 113. Therefore:-
Metra 100 and 113 (Train 833) Union-179th and return as train 840
was a routine pair of winners, on a winning route, for me but an immense scalp for others.
Our beer correspondents joined us at some shack on the return, having been to write beer names down somewhere else, as did Paul who’d been trotting about toting his camera.
I conducted everyone except the beer correspondents back to the Plymouth, where it became obvious why I love the Plymouth Bar and Grill so much. It’s an incredibly laid back place, overlooking the El, with good (albeit basic) food, fantastic service and the most jaw-dropping waitresses you’ll ever see. Hats very definitely off.
Thursday May 8th
Another fragmented day. I elected to spend it with the UK Extreme Bashing Team, although I planned to join them at the civilised hour of 09.30 at Ogilvie Transportation Center. Here are the moves, all Metra:-
167 (Train 613) OTC - Clybourn
171 (Train 321) Clybourn - Main Street Evanston
170 (Train 336) Main Street Evanston - OTC
150 (Train 323) OTC - Clybourn
145 (Train 642) Clybourn - OTC
146 (Train 617) OTC - Clybourn
164 (Train 325) Clybourn - Rogers Park
(I desperately wanted this station to be prefixed Ted, or Roy, or even Kenny but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, Roger is a lucky boy to have a park named after him.)
168 (Train 338) Rogers Park - OTC
149 (Train 327) OTC - Clybourn
171 (Train 340) Clybourn - OTC
That dud represented the end of any more “new” on the Kenosha or Harvard services so we moved to the Elburns, partially for more winners and partially to get a feel for what was waiting to come out of California Avenue servicing facility.
151 (Train 37) OTC - Berkeley
135 (Train 52) Berkeley - OTC
This set us up for the rush hour trains, and in this we were aided and abetted by Steve Bates, who span between OTC and Clybourn and sent regular reports of what was coming our way.
126 (Train 627) OTC - Clybourn
158 (Train 335) Clybourn - Evanston Davis Street
125 (Train 337) Evanston Davis Street - Highland Park
149 (Train 352) Highland Park - Winnetka
139 (Train 354) Winnetka - Central Street Evanston
175 (Train 355) Central Street Evanston - Wilmette
By this time Tim and I were getting a little fractious. Unusually for me I had a killing thirst and hit the door of a very sociable bar at a gallop. The gen on incoming stuff stopped being favourable so Simon, Tim and I assumed our alter-egos of Des Parrot, Ned Scratcher and Ivan Winner and settled down to drinking. Derek was along for the ride and enjoyed every minute of it, and the barman was pretending to be Superman.
141 (Train 358) Wilmette - OTC
A hugely enjoyable day - reminiscent of early ’80’s Victoria - Preston fun. Considering I’d not done the stupid ’o clock desperation shuffle to cover the morning rush too I still walked away with 17 winners, and the Extreme Bashing Team were very pleased with their bag.
The hopeless football team convened again at the Rock Bottom Brewery for a final night together, at which Simon was heartily applauded for his efforts. He, Derek, Tim and Paul were flying home the following evening which was a very good excuse for Paul and I to stay in the bar until a late hour and fail to chat up women.
Friday May 9th
Today was my easy day. In fact it was so easy I’m just going to edit in a review I’ve done of it for someone else:-
“A very different day for me today. I have a huge fascination with the uniquely American phenomenon of the Interurban. I was delighted in LA to spot some old Pacific Electric fragments, and identify the former location of Valley Interlocking. Yesterdays riding paralled, in places, the North Shore and passing Aurora on the Chief I paid silent homage to the site of the CA&E depot.
Despite my fascination I'd never ridden the Granddaddy of them all, the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend. I think I'd been saving it for the right occasion and that was today.
I wonder what Sam Insull would think of today's Chicago? Or what Charles Tyson Yerkes would think of today's London? History thinks of them both as corrupt racketeers and to an extent that assessment is valid but Londoner Insull made Chicago his own, and solidified the concept of Suburban development with his 3 Chicago land interurbans, while Chicagoan Yerkes effectively created the London Underground system. An intriguing pair, perhaps in more than one sense of the word. Despite their financial "inventiveness" the socio-economic development of both cities would have been far more protracted without their vision, industry and enterprise.
I'm sure that Sam Insull wouldn’t approve of the fact that Randolph Street - or Millennium Station as we're now encouraged to call it - is a facade-less subterranean concrete box with a distinctly unfinished appearance. The demise of the North Shore and the CA&E must have him spinning in his grave, especially as Metra's subsequent success along their corridors makes it quite clear that these closures were ridiculously short sighted.
Nevertheless, and almost miraculously, the South Shore has survived and I thanked fate for that as we set off to South Bend Airport under the wires. Van Buren still has a degree of originality about it and the sprawling South Chicago suburbs perhaps give a clue to the vibrancy that the South Shore exudes, despite a strictly enforced policy of diverting local passengers onto Metra Electric as far as Kensington 115th.
Much of the right-of-way from the 115th interlocking towards Gary is interwoven with industrial leads from NS, CSX and EJ&E which adds to the attraction. Despite this being a mid-day train ridership was healthy. I don't know if the term "rust belt" is still in currency but there was no doubt that we were travelling through it. Gary was the setting for the initial scenes of "The Deer hunter" and my impression (admittedly from a train window) was very much of a hardworking, hard living industrial town. I felt at home!
Clanking across the diamonds at the west end of Michigan City brought an abrupt end to my reflections. Not only is this an interurban but it features street-running. Whilst this isn’t an unknown to me (aficionados of street-running should try "De Lijn", a long coastal trolley system between De Panne and Knokke in Belgium) it is sufficiently rare now to be a very enjoyable and spectacular experience. Regrettably, however, the original depot at Michigan City is for sale and looks to be in a state of disrepair. The area doesn’t appear too affluent which perhaps explains the condition of the depot.
Carroll Avenue represents the end of street-running and is also the site of the maintenance shops for the system. After that the route passes through very pleasant rural scenery. Yet another highlight for me was a meet with a pair of South Shore GP38-2's on a freight. Sadly not the "Little Joe's" which used to work the route, but good enough. South Bend airport, the current terminal, is reached by some roadside running and, by the time the train arrives there, it has curved through 180 degrees and is facing Chicago again, which surprised me. The place seemed vibrant enough but as usual I'd come for the ride so took the same train back.”
Back to the UK edit. For the record I went out on 206 and came back in on 4. And it was great. Then I went to The Plymouth again and got a bit drunk having a political argument with a man dressed as Herr Flick from ’Allo ’Allo.
Saturday 10th May
That left the beer correspondents and me. And because it was Saturday it had to be another $5 spinner. As we were laden with bags we took a bus:-
CTA1459 State/Jackson - Union
Then found the luggage lockers. This brought about a Krypton Factor-esque exercise in getting five bags inside the locker, and understanding how the blighter worked.
105 (Train 2703) Union - Western Avenue
425 (Train 2109) Western Avenue - Northbrook
423 (Train 2128) Northbrook - Western Avenue
420 (Train 2707) Western Avenue - Franklin Park
(Here I managed to buy a truly appalling sandwich, but boy was I grateful later.)
424 (Train 2710) Franklin Park - Union
With a hop, skip and a jump we made our way to OTC
142 (Train 503) OTC - Berkeley
To view an immense amount of UP motive power stabled in the yard
151 (Train 48) Berkeley - OTC
When I first arrived two weeks ago there were huge banners in Union proclaiming May 10th to be National Train Day. These banners were all around LA Union too, and I heard a radio advert for it in the bar at Wilmette on Thursday.
Well they certainly had the venue for it, as the Great Hall at Chicago Union is a stunning bit of architecture. Sadly the much vaunted event comprised a few stands in the Great Hall, a band (whom we didn’t see) formed of some soft-rock has-beens and a couple of Amtrak cars in the dingiest, murkiest bit of the station. I don’t know where the bar was set in terms of expectations but it appeared that the marketing budget exceeded the operational budget.
Still, people were there. Ranting about Amtrak here is preaching to the converted but with an election in America imminent it still needs all the friends it can get. There is no reason to suppose that either Obama or McCain will take it upon themselves to address two decades of Congressional neglect of Amtrak as a matter of policy. However, America is waking up to higher fuel prices, and is belatedly beginning to appreciate the environmental impact of aviation. These factors might mark a turning of the tide for Amtrak, and setting it’s stall out at events such as this can only be a step towards encouraging more people to hold it to their hearts as a National asset.
I don’t know what the future holds. State funding is proving a success for specific corridors but is no good on long distance routes where contiguous states may take opposing stances. And what would a resident of, say, Amarillo think of their Texas taxes funding the Eagle? I think it’s quite telling that 99% of people I’ve ever spoken to on Amtrak have fundamentally Democratic sympathies, yet the Clinton Presidency was, at best, benign towards the system.
Enough - we’d got through to the Left Luggage Krypton Factor semi-finals but failed there as we couldn’t make the machine accept cash.
Back - loaded - to OTC for
177 (Train 713) OTC - Jefferson Park
CTA2221 (Blue Line) Jefferson Park - Harlem
And a bustitution! A very painless one, with adequate staff, unambivalent instructions and plenty of buses waiting. Ours was an articulated Prevost, 7628, which stopped at Cumberland to drop Bob off (he was staying an extra night), drove past some people getting married on the inside lane of a Freeway (seriously! All coned off with police in attendance) and dropped us at Rosemont for
CTA3083 (Blue Line) Rosemont - O’Hare
Chicago O’Hare Skytrain Car 5 Terminal 3 - Terminal 5
Ian and I enjoyed another easy check-in, I enjoyed a final Stateside tab, we were herded through the security checks and got to the airside of Terminal 5 to find - bugger all. Yes, folks, Terminal 5 is an utter desert. There are a handful of small shops and nothing substantial to eat, making me feel very grateful for the dismal butty of Franklin Park.
Our plane was on time, as was Andy and Steve’s to Heathrow. Once again it succeeded in not plummeting to Earth before it ought to have done, incinerating me in a fiery ball or otherwise abruptly curtailing my life of abysmal horseplay. Also, the food was edible and tasty although I don’t know what it was supposed to be.
Sunday 11th May
Something I’ve not previously mentioned due to a combination of assumed bravado and editorial focus is that I managed to find myself incredibly homesick at certain points of this journey. I think I’ve conveyed how much I enjoyed myself but it would take a lot to convey the euphoria I felt on stepping out of Manchester Airport - not just because I could spark up a tab either. I’d had big problems with my mobile in the States and how wonderful it was to send a message to the person who makes everything alright and get a message back from her.
Another bustitution here, not carried out with anything like the flair that CTA managed yesterday. I was too knackered to note the registration but it took us from the Airport to Piccadilly, where I said goodbye to Ian (he’s one of my oldest friends so I shouldn’t make it sound that casual -sorry mate!) and took:-
185135 Piccadilly - Leeds
333??? Leeds - Frizinghall.
And then we went home.
Firstly, my sincere and absolute gratitude to Simon Bennett for setting up the whole job - brilliant. The logistics of getting eleven people into one place alone is no mean feat, and keeping a disparate group moving in roughly the same direction is equally a challenge that I certainly wouldn’t wish to take on. Thanks again.
I think it’s fair to say that there never was a dull moment either on my own or with the group. Travelling for pleasure is it’s own reward and I hope I‘ve conveyed how rewarding this trip was for me. What I’ve not been able to relate was the pleasure of meeting people again that I’ve not seen for ages, the enjoyment of our conversations and observations and the utter idiocy that comes upon certain people when incarcerated on a train drinking alcohol.
Over the years Railways have slipped down my list of priorities and I can’t see that changing, so the prospects of me doing another big US trip for another couple of years at least are remote. Perhaps that makes this experience all the more precious but I have other things in my life that I dearly cherish too, and let’s be clear that this wasn’t a cheap do. I will go back - and I’ll go back as long as there’s life left in Amtrak.
My final score:-
New miles:- 575
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