The Journey Home: The Fading Glory of the Southwest Chief

I wasn’t paying close attention at the time, but in the late 1970’s the US government decided to buy out all the failing passenger rail services, with the goal of preserving some semblance of intercity passenger rail in this country. Out west, cities are far apart, and the new czars of rail travel realized that comfort and convenience would be paramount for success.

They took a design from the Santa Fe line, adapted it, made it too tall to work east of Chicago, and the Superliner was born. Superliner I was the last passenger coach built by the renowned Pullman company, while the Superliner II, a smoother-rolling variant that was a little more… judicious with the output from the toilets came along a short time after that.

None have been built since. Sure, there have been upgrades (self-contained toilets retrofitted, electricity available everywhere), but the rolling stock is aging.

On electricity — long ago I took a ride and there was exactly one electrical outlet available to coach-class passengers. A little community grew around that outlet, and while the cafe attendant tried to regulate us, we worked out a better system on our own.

But while the cars have been superficially modified to evolve with the needs of the passengers, there’s really no denying that they are getting older. Train 4 from Chicago to Los Angeles brought that home to me. Some cars had trouble with toilets. The public address system was spotty — at one point the attendant for my car got on the PA to say that the rest of the announcements were’t coming over our PA. Apparently there were a couple of dicey almost-missed-stop moments in my car.

The dining car’s air conditioning failed; my waiter said that on the last leg of the journey one of the crew knew what switch to throw, but now he was gone. Sounds to me like a circuit breaker.

The cars themselves still felt solid, we moved along smoothly. But it’s the little things, the door latch that required coaxing, the outlet that just won’t let go, that give you the feeling that maintenance is falling behind. And as the cars get older, the maintenance requirements are just going to increase. It’s going to require commitment to keep these cars comfortable and safe, and when the little things start to slide, it’s an indicator that the commitment is not there.

Twice on my journey east I heard a rumor that Amtrak would be canceling the long-haul western routes. If that’s true, I’m glad I took this ride. The subject of California’s high-speed rail also came up often. To which I said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I would honestly prefer it if the state spent maybe one percent of that cost to upgrade the low-speed rail already in place along that line (California has already pitched in to pay for other Amtrak upgrades in the state.) It’s beautiful country. Slightly-less-slow service would attract a lot of new customers, at a price the high-speed option could never touch.

I look forward to rolling along the coast in a brand-new Superliner III, then turning inland on the Southwest Chief, its rolling stock gleaming in the desert sun — the iconic journey that everyone must do at least once. The Route 66 where someone else drives.

Those will be the days.


4 thoughts on “The Journey Home: The Fading Glory of the Southwest Chief

  1. The last week of AT&SF passenger rail service in 1971, before Amtrak took over, my dad took my brother and me on a ride on the Super Chief from Lamy to Albuquerque while my mother drove the same route to drop off and pick us up. All so we could say all our lives we rode on the Super Chief. For the longest time I had the ticket (not particularly picturesque). Thanks, Dad.

  2. While we take the Surfliner once every year or two, my time with the Amtrak Southwest Chief has been limited to returning home from college my very first Christmas away in 1981, and in 2010 to Philmont. Very romantic, yes, but very short on comfort for a day+ trip. I delude myself that we should take the California Zephyr from Oakland to Denver or even the Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis. But I know the reality wouldn’t match imagination.

  3. How now Harlan Amis? Why so angry? Just read your FB post swearing off Facebook. I rarely post anymore because I don’t get a lot of reaction. I would end my FB relationship but I just like knowing what my relations are up to.
    Summer is my FB time, since during the school year I just seem sucked dry. In a nation that constantly wrings its hands about teachers and teaching, it is still touch and go for me – will next year’s enrollments be high enough to justify 11 or only 9 or10 science positions? Every May I might find myself laid off. It’s so stupid.
    This post is interesting to me because you enjoy the train so much. My one and only experience was riding with you up to visit John. To quote you: “See America as you crawl by.” Agony.
    Personally I’m jealous of the Hello Kitty bullet train in Japan. HK is a guilty pleasure of mine. I can’t explain why. Don’t judge.
    I read an interesting opinion piece (somewhere. I forget where) that said if half of Elon Musk’s hyperloop money was spent on busses, and encouraging companies to stagger their workday schedules, then all of L.A.’s commuting woes would be solved.

    • I don’t remember exactly what I wrote when I decided to make Facebook write-only, but apparently I sounded pretty pissed off. And maybe I was; maybe it was an accumulated anger with all the nonsense there, finally coming to a head.

      Facebook is built on righteous anger.

      Facebook did not make me happy, and I realized it had become my “news” source — I heard about the world through the complaints of my friends.

      On the subject of trains, my more recent rail trips have been much more pleasant than our trek back in ’85(?); the differences are two: no smoking anywhere on the train, and being able to afford a “roomette”. The latter is significant because these days coach passengers cannot bring along a suitcase full of beer.

      Ah, the breakfast of Oreos washed down with Shaeffer as we rolled across the desert…

      While I would certainly enjoy a bullet train down the coast, I just don’t think this country is capable of building it. So, I lean toward realism.

      I had to read up a bit on the hyperloop; all I can say is that if something like a 35-min transport system between LA an the Bay Area could be built for $7.5 billion, it already would have been. My only question is whether two zeroes are missing, or three.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *