My Amtrak Adventure

For a recent birthday, I decided to treat myself to an Amtrak trip. Kathy couldn’t really take the time off from work, and I had accumulated enough free miles to earn a free round trip, first class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The MP/T&P operated a number of Eagles that radiated out from St. Louis to Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, and other points across the system. The Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take an Eagle to Houston, Laredo, San Antonio, Brownsville, or Mexico City. Other Eagles would take you to Dallas, Ft. Worth, Abilene, El Paso – even Los Angeles, if you made connections on the Southern Pacific.

Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston & New Orleans, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

eagle-approachingThe train coming up from Austin was about an hour late getting into Ft. Worth – not a good beginning! But since Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks in this part of the country, it is generally at the scheduling mercy of UP, BNSF, and other freight-haulers. But I checked in with the conductor, who pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in.

roometteAccommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette,” which is what I had, is the smallest. It has two bench seats that face each other, and a sliding door for privacy. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also offers bedrooms, family bedrooms, and bedroom suites, depending on a traveler’s needs, some with “en suite” restrooms and showers – see www.amtrak.com for more information.

Meals in the dining car are included with your first class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course. (More about the meals later.)

After the usual wait for servicing the train and loading passengers, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth. Until recently, pulling in and out of the Ft. Worth station required a complicated series of backup moves, crisscrossing through the Tower 55 interchange, and heading to Dallas on the UP through Arlington. Now however, the Eagle takes the more convenient route of the Trinity Railway Express commuter train (formerly the Rock Island line) through Richland Hills, Hurst, and Irving, on its way to Dallas Union Station.

As we pulled into Dallas, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day, and warned any passengers getting off the train at Dallas for a smoke break, to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading east past Deep Ellum, Fair Park, and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Heading through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

dinner-in-the-dinerSomewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.)

I found the sleeping car attendant, and asked him to make up my bed while I went to the club car to read and sip a little bourbon – it was my birthday, after all! I returned to my room, with the bed now prepared for sleeping, changed clothes and crawled between the covers, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy & drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot – we had made up that hour, and were actually a few minutes early. I headed down the hallway in my pjs to the coffee pot – another “perk” of riding first class, complimentary coffee. A few minutes later, I got dressed and went back to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis.

But that’s a story for next time.

 

Everything Old is New Again

As a railfan, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to live in the old days, the so-called “Golden Age of Rail Travel” of the 1920s through the 1940s, when you could get on a train at a station in just about any town, no matter how small, and it would take just about anywhere you wanted to go.  The train was literally your gateway to the world.

I got to experience a little bit of that this past weekend.  Kathy and I had gone to the D/FW area to visit some family and friends and do some antiquing and shopping in Denton, where our daughter Brittany lives.  We were also there for our niece’s housewarming party, which was in downtown Ft. Worth.  So, while Kathy & Brittany did the mother-daughter shopping thing, I took the train from Denton, through Dallas, and on to Ft. Worth, where we met up and went to the party.  (I’m so blessed to have a wife who tolerates this hobby of mine!)

The first leg of the tratrain2ip was on the Denton County Transportation Authority’s “A-Train.”  Now, just saying that makes me think of the classic Big Band-era tune, “Take the A-Train,” which I suppose is what their marketing people were going for when they picked that name.  (You can listen to the song through the player at the bottom of this page.) The line is built on the old M-K-T (Katy) corridor, and runs from downtown Denton to Lewisville, then to Carrollton.  I bought my ticket from one of the vending machines on the platform and sat down to wait.  I’m happy to report these trains run on time.

When I rode the A-Train in December, 2011, they were still using refurbished 50-year-old Budd RDC coaches they had leased from the Trinity Railway Express (TRE).  This time, though, they had brand new equipment built by Stadler Rail of Switzerland – they’re also the manufacturer of choice for Capitol Metro in Austin.  Very modern, very clean, very quiet.  Also very comfortable.

Tatrain_interiorhe coach was empty except for one other passenger, and I sat down at the front, right behind the operator’s control room, also known as the cab.  I understand that Saturday ridership is usually somewhat sparse, but it’s busy during the week.  (I’ve also heard that they expect ridership to jump even more when TexDOT begins tearing up I-35E for their new construction of that freeway and turns it into even more of a parking lot than it is now.)

The engineer gave the traditional signal that the train is about to move – 2 short blasts from the horn.  So, as my friend Joe Calvert (himself a retired railroad man) used to say, “Toot-toot and gone.”  These modern trains are very quiet, and acceleration and braking are both quick and smooth.  We were up to speed in no time.

It’s interesting, the things you see while riding a train.  For example, we’re used to sitting at crossings in our cars, watching trains go by.  It’s a different thing to be in the train going by, and look out at the drivers, sitting there waiting for you to go by.  Another thing: the strange, almost voyeuristic feeling of looking over into people’s backyards.  You know, most people keep their front yard neat, to keep up appearances for their neighbors, if nothing else – but backyards, it seems, as a different matter.

dartplatform3We arrived at the Trinity Mills station – the end of the line for the A-Train.  I stepped out to wait for the DART train – Dallas Area Rapid Transit – that would take me to downtown Dallas.  Those trains also run on time, and it arrived in 3 minutes.  The all-region ticket I had bought earlier was good for all trains, all day, and I stepped aboard.

Unlike the so-called “heavy rail” equipment of the A-Train, DART trains are “light rail.”  That’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the equipment that is light or heavy, not the rails.  DART trains are electric, drawing their power from the catenary wires overhead.
dartrailmapdec2012largeIf you haven’t ridden a DART train, you really should try it the next time you have to go anywhere near downtown Dallas – they are amazingly clean and convenient.  You don’t have to worry about traffic, and there’s no hassles or expenses for parking.  Wanna go to the Dallas Zoo? Take the Red Line.  Need to visit the VA hospital?  You want the Blue Line.

dartviewSo here I was on the Green Line, which runs through Carrollton and Farmers Branch, south past Love Field, and on towards downtown and then to Fair Park.  This picture is looking east along Valley View Drive in Farmers Branch.  See that little building on the corner where the white truck is parked?  I think it’s a Chinese restaurant now, but it used to be a little diner called “Mr. Hilton’s Railroad Crossing.”  I working there as a short-order cook in 1978, the summer Kathy and I got married.

dartcabviewAs we continue south, part of the time the line runs at ground level, part of the time on elevated tracks, part of the time under ground.  But always, fast.  In a few minutes we were approaching the American Airline Center downtown and DART’s Victory Station, where I again would change trains.

Once again I was REALLY glad the trains ran on time, because as we pulled into the station, there sat the westbound Trinity Railway Express, which would take me to Ft. Worth.  I stepped off DART, walked across the platform, and stepped onto the TRE.  The doors closed, and toot-toot, we were gone.

tre121-2The TRE has been operating since 1996 along the old Rock Island corridor between Dallas and Ft. Worth, and is quite a success story, with annual ridership of over 2.5 million passengers.  I first rode it about 2001, when I took it to Dallas Union Station, to attend a Promise Keepers rally at the old Reunion Arena.

The TRE mostly uses American-built EMD locomotives and bi-level coaches built by the Canadian company Bombardier. Their coaches are also clean and quiet, and their added height means they have a more pronounced side-to-side motion – not so much to make you seasick, but enough to notice that you are “rocking to the gentle beat, and the rhythm of the rails is all you feel.”

They operate numerous trains between downtown Dallas and downtown Ft. Worth, daily except Sunday, with intermediate stops in Irving, D/FW Airport, Hurst and Richland Hills.  The train also stops at the Ft. Worth Intermodal Transit Center where you can connect with Amtrak intercity trains, Greyhound Bus Lines, and The-T, Ft. Worth’s city bus service.

tre125-1The TRE’s western terminus is the old T&P train station, on the southern edge of Downtown Cowtown.  This old building is an Art Deco palace, and has been given new life in recent years, and turned into a high-rise complex of luxury condos.

FW_LobbyThe building has these cathedral-like ceilings, with intricate masonry, tile and burnished aluminum.  FW_Ceiling_DetailThe chandeliers in the lobby have to be seen to be believed – it’s easy to see why it’s become a popular spot for wedding receptions.  FW_door_detailThe diamond-shaped T&P logo can be seen everywhere – even in the door handles.

Standing in that lobby, it’s easy to imagine that you are a traveler from the 1930s, arriving to board the train.  Maybe you’re heading west, taking the T&P to El Paso, and changing trains to go on to Los Angeles.  Or maybe you’re heading to Chicago, or New York.  They’re all just down the hall.

tptavern2Another cool thing here – the T&P Tavern.  This is the refurbished cafe-lounge area adjacent to the main waiting room in the station.  It’s a fun and funky little place with some really cool railroad memorabilia, giant travel posters on the wall, good food, and a nice selection of craft beers.  It’s easy to imagine travelers from the past, sitting there, enjoying a meal or a drink while waiting for their train.

I sat at the bar and sipped a glass of rye whiskey and felt very connected to the past.