“Jay Gould's daughter said, 'Before I die,
There are two more roads that I'd like to ride.'
Jay Gould said, 'Daughter, what can they be?'
'The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.'”
I was reminded of the old hobo ballad because I've never ridden over Southern Pacific rails. I've been on the Santa Fe many times, beginning with a Cub Scout trip from Albuquerque to Lamy sometime in the early 1960s, and then a longer trip to California in 1965. And there were several visits to family in New Mexico in the 1980s and '90s. But the storied Southern Pacific has eluded me until this year.
Amtrak has a Service Award Trip program which allows long-term employees to take a “free” trip after ten years of service and every five years thereafter. I've never taken the offer because it isn't completely free: Internal Revenue Service rules require Amtrak to collect taxes on 80 per cent of the tickets' value—usually 30 to 40 per cent. But this will be my last chance to take such a trip. I started work on February 21, 1984, and the service award trip needs to be taken within one year of the anniversary. I turned 63 in November, and don't expect to be working in 2019. So this is my last chance.
Last summer Kathleen and I found out we'd be grandparents for the first time around the middle of January. Our daughter and son-in-law live near Portland, and they wanted Kathleen to stay with them for the first month. It was a great opportunity to use my Service Award Trip. Beginning next Monday (barring unforeseen circumstances, we'll head west on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, then south on the City of New Orleans to its namesake. After a night in the Crescent City, we'll ride west on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, where we'll switch over to the Coast Starlight, spend one night in San Francisco, and then head north to Portland on the Starlight. (Sadly for us, the Southern Pacific's successor, Union Pacific, is replacing ties between Eugene and Portland, so the last three hours will be on a bus.)
Not only will this be my last chance to take the Service Award trip, it may be my last chance to ride the Sunset Limited. It's been around since 1894, and is the oldest continually-operating name train in the country. And it was and is central in the fight both to kill off and to save the American passenger train.
In the 1960s, after most American railroads had given up on passenger service, their strategies for dealing with the issue varied tremendously. A few road, such as the Santa Fe, maintained excellent service consistently, even when they were trying to discontinue money-losing trains. But some, led by the Southern Pacific, downgraded service to drive away passengers on at least a few of the trains they wanted to eliminate. And it really wanted to get rid of the Sunset Limited. By 1968 the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset was a coach-only train, with a the only food service from the road's infamous Automat Buffet.
When Amtrak took over the route on May 1, 1971, regular sleeping, dining, and lounge car service was restored. And it survived the major Amtrak cuts of 1979 and 1997. But in the last few years, it's been the target of conservative politicians who use it as an example in their crusade to eliminate Amtrak. It doesn't have the ridership of other long-distance trains, mainly because of there are no same-day connections on the New Orleans end, along with the elimination of the New Orleans-Orlando segment after Hurricane Katrina and the bypass of Phoenix in 1996. And like 1979 and 1997, 2015 is a year with a Democratic president and Republican ascendancy in Congress. At this writing, it's unclear whether the Obama Administration will follow the example of the Carter and Clinton Administrations and agree to major Amtrak cuts. Unlike the the two previous Democratic administrations, Obama's has been consistently pro-Amtrak. But whether that will be enough to prevent another mass train removal is up in the air at this time. Personally, I believe the Sunset route to be a key one in the national transportation system.
While Kathleen will stay in Portland for about a month, I'll need to get back to work. My plan is to fiddle-faddle my way from Portland to Los Angeles, taking the Starlight to Sacramento and then using a bus-train bus connection that should get me to Los Angeles Union Station in time for No. 4, the Southwest Chief. It's another train with an uncertain future. Just as the Union Pacific downgraded its, line through Phoenix, leaving the Sunset to stop at Maricopa, a little town some 30 miles south of Arizona's capital, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe plans to downgrade the storied Raton Pass route through Albuquerque, Lamy (the stop for Santa Fe), Las Vegas (older than the one in Nevada), and Raton, New Mexico; Trinidad, La Junta, and Lamar in Colorado; and across Kansas through Garden City, Dodge City, and Hutchinson. At Newton, Kansas, the line joins up with the BNSF's main freight route for the run into Chicago.
BNSF is willing to maintain the line to passenger train standards if the states along the route agree to pay the cost. So far, Kansas and Colorado have committed to support the route. It's up to New Mexico. Should the Land of Enchantment fail to support the route, the Southwest Chief could be gone. The alternative would be to route the train on the main freight line through Wichita and Amarillo. It has the advantage of adding these stations to the Amtrak network, but the disadvantage of bypassing some of the West's most beautiful scenery.
In fact, it's the route that inspired “America the Beautiful.” In the summer of 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, then a professor at Wellesley College, made a trip from there to Colorado Springs, where she had taken a temporary teaching position. At Chicago she stopped over to visit the World's Columbian Exhibition, nicknamed the “White City,” which she changed to the more poetic “alabaster.” From Chicago she took the Santa Fe through La Junta. West of Kansas City she heard a fellow passenger complain about the endless wheatfields, but for her they were the beautiful “amber waves of grain.” And as the train rolled west across the plains toward La Junta, gaining altitude all the time, she saw the Rocky Mountains, which really do look purple in the distance.
Bates missed going over the Raton Pass, where passengers can see deer and bear from the train, the grasslands between Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico, broken by the rock formation that really does look like a Conestoga wagon, as you pass by Wagon Mound. Here pronghorns are common, their white rumps easily visible as they run away from the train.
Las Vegas, a notorious wild-west town in the 1880s, is home to La Castañeda, a former Harvey House that's now being redeveloped. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders came there for their reunions. And in the first movie version of Red Dawn, the inn served as the Soviet headquarters.
At Glorieta Pass there's more mountain scenery. It's where in 1862, Colorado Volunteers, with the help of a local guide, took a hidden path around the Confederate lines, destroyed the Rebels' supply train, and put an end to the plan to extend the Confederacy to the Pacific. From Glorieta the train heads through Apache Canyon and then heads down the Rio Grande Valley into Albuquerque, with the majestic Sandia Mountains seemingly changing with every mile.
The Raton Pass route is truly a national treasure, and I home and pray that New Mexico joins Kansas and Colorado to keep the Chief running over the line.
The upcoming trip has given me inspiration for a writing project—to examine the past, present and future of long-distance passenger trains, with special emphasis on the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.
But right now, I'm just looking forward to a great American rail journey.
Image: The Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited. probably in the 1950s.