Part 1 of 3 — Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief
Story by Steve Marshall, photos by Steve Marshall, Michele Marshall and Greg Marshall
© Steve Marshall
The idea to someday travel on a private railroad car began well over 30 years ago. My parents found out that one of Henry Flagler’s personal railroad cars was going to be in our hometown of Columbus Indiana as part of an exhibition. Henry Flagler was the founder of the Florida East Coast Railroad and widely credited with the settlement of the state of Florida as we know it today. I don’t remember a lot of details about the railcar other than I was both very impressed and I came away with the desire to someday travel on one. So fast forward to about four years ago while thinking about ways to celebrate my parent’s 50th anniversary and suddenly the 30 year old memory met the current need for a unique family excursion and I found myself planning a dream trip.
I had the good fortune of connecting with Lovett Smith, the owner of the 1928 Pullman built NYC-3. It had been built for Harold Vanderbilt, one of the directors of the New York Central Railroad. This car was the perfect size for our group of 9, complete with kitchen, lounge area, staterooms and open rear platform. Even though I did have some contact with a couple of other car owners, there was never much doubt in my mind that NYC-3 was our best choice. And a lot of this came down to I clicked with Lovett right away and trusted him. He and I spoke over a period of about two years prior to the trip. Even though I did not meet him prior to the trip, I felt like I knew him quite well as we exchanged numerous phone calls and emails during the planning process.
The route and itinerary was decided pretty early on. My parent’s favorite city is San Francisco so getting there was the priority. Then, we just planned the route so that we would have the best scenery out there and back while working within the context of how long we could be gone. I have to say that the routing fell in to place pretty easily. There are only so many options you can do when you have to use trains already operating on the Amtrak system.
Day 1 (March 28)
The first day began in our driveway in the late morning with a large van from Chicago and a lot of luggage plus the three of us. We made the stop by Columbus to pick the other six from our group and off we went. We did not go directly to NYC-3. While we were on our way to Chicago, it was arriving in Chicago over four hours late on Amtrak train #49, thanks to a near miss with a vehicle at a grade crossing in New York State. Instead, we went to North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and did some shopping and sightseeing before doing an early dinner at the Grand Lux Café, where we celebrated my niece’s 10th birthday. We later went up in the John Hancock Building to watch the sun set and then gathered our luggage (which the Grand Lux had very kindly allowed us to store there) to go to NYC-3.
So now it was time to actually go to the railroad car. I had found out from Lovett that the ramp that was normally used to access the Amtrak Coach Yard was closed so it would mean some possibly tricky route finding. Sure enough, one wrong turn later and we ended up approaching the yard from the south and there it was, NYC-3 parked right between the main part of the yard and the South Branch of the Chicago River. Lovett met us there, we loaded our luggage aboard and we were ready for our adventure to begin.
Day 2 (March 29)
But before we could begin, we had to go grocery shopping. Yes, we had chosen to use the on-board kitchen to cook our own meals. We decided that, in addition to saving a few dollars, using the kitchen would be part of the adventure of the trip. So we headed out this morning for an Italian market called Eataly and a grocery store called Trader Joes. On the way, we visited Millenium Park, home to Cloud Gate or the Bean, which is a very worthwhile sculpture in the park. Before we began our grocery shopping, we had lunch at Eataly in one of their on-site restaurants. It was excellent. After doing our Eataly and Trader Joes shopping, we decided we needed donuts for breakfast the next morning so we stopped at the Doughnut Vault on the way back to Union Station.
By this time it was about 2 PM, one hour before our scheduled departure on train #3, the Southwest Chief. So here we were, all gathered in the waiting area of Chicago Union Station with our groceries. Lovett came in to the station, worked his magic and got us through the gate and to the NYC-3, which was at the rear of the train right next to the gate. We loaded our things on board and immediately began stashing the groceries in the kitchen.
At 3 PM, on time, we began slowly rolling. The journey had officially begun and we were all very excited. After multiple years of planning, it was finally real. Out from under the train shed we went into the bright Chicago sunshine, around the corner and then we began to pick up speed. Away we went through countless Chicago suburbs, meeting freight trains and Metra trains along the way. Once we got west of Aurora, it was just us and the farm fields and small towns and the occasional freight train.
Once we got west of Galesburg, we got on original Santa Fe trackage and really picked up speed with some 85-90 MPH running. After crossing the Mississippi River and the Fort Madison, Iowa stop, the freight traffic increased dramatically. I wish I could describe accurately how impressive it was to be on that rear platform with those intermodal trains screaming by the other direction, but it has to be experienced to be believed. That evening the eastbound traffic was busy and it was one train after another. It didn’t take long to figure out the signal system. Once an eastbound would pass, the next signal behind him would often already be showing solid yellow by the time we got past it. Then the next signal would be flashing yellow and the one after that would be high green. Usually the next train would go flying by on the flashing yellow, doing every bit of 60 MPH.
At some point we took a break from the railfanning activities and had a wonderful dinner of warm soup and salad and bread followed by homemade pie. Immediately after dinner and clean up, we arrived in Kansas City. I had been eagerly anticipating Kansas City for some time, as I knew that a lot of work had been done on Kansas City Union Station. So as soon as we rolled to a stop, I ran inside quickly to see it. It is beautiful. This is quite an asset for Kansas City and its downtown area.
After departing Kansas City, we rolled out to Argentine Yard and stopped for refueling. And then, we departed west into the Kansas darkness for the long overnight journey across the state and a Colorado dawn.
Day 3 (March 30)
Due to my own excitement and not wanting to miss a lot of our journey, I only ended up sleeping about an hour. So my dad and I ended up hanging out on the rear platform near Tecumseh, Kansas, where talk on the scanner indicated there was some kind of derailment preventing us from getting in to Topeka. We finally started moving after losing nearly an hour and I slept fitfully off and on, but not before witnessing the meet with our counterpart train #4 at Florence, Kansas about 3:30 AM.
Somewhere about Lamar, Colorado, I decided it was time to completely commit to getting up and dressed so I headed back to the nice warm shower and washed off the previous day’s rear platform dust and found some clean clothes. By the time this was done, we had already left the town of La Junta, Colorado and we were well on our way across the grasslands of southeastern Colorado to a date with Raton Pass. After a delicious breakfast of doughnuts and orange juice, we began to spot snow covered mountains in the distance to the northwest toward Cuchara Pass. After departing Trinidad, Colorado, the rear platform suddenly became a popular place as we slowly wound our way through the curves and tunnel of Raton Pass. Viewing this from the open rear platform was quite a treat. Arrival in Raton, New Mexico symbolized to me our arrival in the West. The red adobe buildings are proof that you are truly someplace different and unique.
We had a quick, but quite good, pizza lunch near Las Vegas, New Mexico and admired the many old semaphore signals which are still operating in the area between Raton and Las Vegas. Then it was up and over Glorieta Pass and a meet with our counterpart train #4 at Ribera. This whole area in here is some of the best scenery of the trip and is slow with lots of curves and grades. After a short stop at the Santa Fe gateway town of Lamy, we made good time down to Albuquerque, which is a lengthy crew change and servicing stop.
In Albuquerque, we talked to the guy who brought us in from La Junta and then one of the guys who was going to bring us out to Kingman. While talking with the outbound engineer, we watched part of the refueling process. This is very interesting and although there are several other refueling stops, here in Albuquerque you can watch the operation, unlike many other places on the route.
All day today, the tracks we have been on have been passenger only as the BNSF main freight line runs south through Belen and east through Amarillo, Texas. About 30 minutes southwest of Albuquerque, the passenger line joins the freight line and you are on the freight line all the way to Los Angeles. To me, this was one of the more anticipated parts of the trip. It did not disappoint. Meeting train after train after train at speed on the high desert west of Albuquerque was incredible. I spent as much time as possible on the rear platform taking it all in. I will not soon forget the experience. It was approaching early evening and the light was golden color and of course it was setting to the west and I was facing east on the rear platform and it was beautiful. This is something all railfans should experience if it all possible, it’s that special.
We had another wonderful dinner between Gallup and Winslow. By this time it was dark and the temperature outside was getting cold as we continued to climb west toward the Arizona Divide. After dinner clean up, I decided to sit outside as long as I could, starting from Flagstaff. Imagine my surprise when I realized that there was snow on the ground at the station stop. In one of the more memorable moments of the trip, I sat outside leaving Flagstaff and as we passed freight train after freight train, rode up well past the Arizona Divide in a blizzard. There were several spots where the visibility was pretty bad and the signals, after we passed them, would just disappear in a smudge of fog and snow. Passing freight trains were blowing huge amounts of snow sideways onto the open platform, but I stayed out there wanting to experience as much as I could. Finally, the temperatures just got too cold and by the time I went to move inside, I didn’t dare stand up as I realized the platform was snow and ice covered and slick. So I crawled back inside and went to bed and watched the snow come down from the warm comfort of the lounge. It was a great way to end a great day on the train.
Day 4 (March 31)
My lack of sleep was now starting to catch up with me. As a result, I didn’t wake up until we were nearly in Victorville. I wanted to witness all of Cajon Pass, but ended up just being awake for the descent. The weather was once again perfect and we passed numerous freight trains all the way in to San Bernardino. At San Bernardino, the tracks make a pretty sharp turn and begin to run due west all the way in to Los Angeles. Along with sharing the tracks with numerous BNSF freight trains, we now began seeing Metrolink trains at various stations along the way like Anaheim and Fullerton. We finally rolled in to Los Angeles Union Station less than an hour late.