Fear of Flying: Across the US on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

Amtrak Southwest Chief

By Marie Javins

“I’m sorry, lady,” announced the Amtrak dining car steward loudly. “You are naked.”

He was joking, giving First Class passengers a giggle. The sleeping compartment he had barged into was empty, and the naked lady was fiction. He was setting a relaxed and silly tone for the two-night Superliner trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.

I was in a sleeper Car on the “Southwest Chief,” one of Amtrak’s scenic long-distance services. It traverses eight states and follows, more or less, both the historic Santa Fe Trail and the legendary Route 66.

The train itself was an enormous, tank-like, double-decker beast, far larger than any of the trains I’d seen on the East Coast. Joan, the attendant for my car, explained that the Superliners could not travel back East because of the small size of the many tunnels.

“There are Amtrak souvenir blankets on sale for $7 in the Cafe,” came an announcement over the P.A. system. “The Cafe is downstairs from the Sightseer Lounge. It closes at 11:30 p.m. 11:31 is a terrible time to discover you are cold.”

A Sleeper with Plenty of Blankets

That announcement was for those traveling in Coach. My sleeper was well supplied with blankets. The compartment, about 6 1/2 feet long and four feet wide, consisted of two padded seats, a small luggage space, a top berth, two hangers, a coat rack, a small fold-out table, temperature controls, reading lights, and an enormous picture window. There were three shared toilets, a complimentary drink station, and a small shower down the hall, along with a luggage rack. I had checked my bags and they were inaccessible, stored in the baggage car.

The dining car steward, after setting the passengers at ease, asked for dinner reservations. Meals are included with sleeper cars, so I scheduled a late dinner and stared out at the bleak Chicago snow. We had left Union Station, but immediately stopped again, while mail cars were added to the train. Amtrak supplements its passenger income by carrying mail, and there were more mail cars than passenger cars on the Southwest Chief. In short order, we were en route to Kansas City. The Midwestern winter made me glad for the individual temperature controls.

At dinner, I was introduced to the real appeal of long-distance Amtrak travel. While the Sleeper compartments are totally private, the overall experience is social, kind of a mixer-on-wheels. The dining car steward saw me enter the car, glanced around, did some sort of mysterious calculation in his head, and seated me with two other solo travelers. The roll of the dice places dinner companions together, and this can be entertaining and rewarding, or in a few cases, disappointing.

Photo in Variety

I had rolled double-sixes for the evening and my dinner companions were charming and unique. The middle-aged woman was a friendly high school guidance counselor from Orange County, and the younger man was a working Hollywood character actor with his photo in Variety to prove it. Both freely admitted an irrational fear of flying, a common phobia among long-distance train travelers. But, also an increasingly more common reaction in light of the recent terrorist attacks and the increased security measures on air travel.

We lingered for an hour over tasty penne pasta and good conversation. My dinner companions were sleeper car veterans, and they taught me to tip two dollars at the end of my free meal, and five to ten dollars to my car attendant at the end of the trip. They also told me that while all sleepers fit two people (and a baby, if necessary), single travelers never have to share. This was a relief to me, as I’d been eyeing the top bunk in my compartment and wondering if someone was going to show up to claim it.

We all three left our two dollar tips and went our separate ways. The actor went to the lounge car for some late-night socializing and a video. The guidance counselor and I both headed back to our cars, where our padded window seats had been converted to lower bunks, complete with pillows, sheets, blankets and mints. I turned off all the lights and stared out of the window at passing towns, trailer parks, and railroad crossings, finally falling asleep to the Doppler Effect sound of the horn blowing through Missouri and Kansas.

The next morning the scenery changed from gray winter to gold expanses of hay and leafless trees. Cows grazed near the tracks, scampering away as the train approached. I picked up a clean towel from the luggage rack and had a warm, pleasant shower before joining a stranger for breakfast.

A few hours into Colorado, we slowly ascended Raton Pass to cross the Rockies into New Mexico. The highest point on the route at 7,588 feet, the Pass marked both a change in scenery and atmosphere. The Midwestern plains were replaced by colorful landscapes, rock formations, and the mythology of the American West. Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, and Teddy Roosevelt reputedly frequented this area. As I sat in the Sightseer Lounge and stared out of the huge panoramic windows at the dramatic mountains and cliffs, I could see why.

The Southwest Chief had a half-hour rest stop in Albuquerque. The passengers all got off the train, stretched their legs, and bought crafts from the Native American vendors that lined the platform. Everyone milled about and chatted with new acquaintances, before getting back on the train for the main event.

Native American Tour Guide

The train left Albuquerque at 5 p.m., and everyone rushed to the Sightseer Lounge. Amtrak supplied a Native American tour guide for the two hours between Albuquerque and Gallup, and he pointed out sights along the way, from the Rio Grande to the Acoma Indian Pueblos. Prizes were given to passengers who retained the most information and answered the trivia questions correctly.

The rails between Albuquerque and Los Angeles were rough, making for an interesting dinner that night. The waiters smiled as the train lurched suddenly, sending them careening across the aisles without warning. Amtrak doesn’t own the rails — the freight companies do. Freight doesn’t require comfort and the weight of the heavily loaded cars damages the rails. Every few years, the rails must be repaired, but this had obviously not happened in some time. I found myself wishing the railroad equivalent of ice hockey’s Zamboni machine would come along and straighten things out. But the inconvenience lasted only one night and didn’t disturb my sleep.

Early the third day, after a morning breakfast of pancakes and bacon, we arrived early at Los Angeles’ Union Station, with me singing the praises of Amtrak’s long-distance rail service. While cross-country train travel isn’t the quickest way to reach your destination, for those afraid of flying, it is certainly the most comfortable.

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