San Antonio to New Jersey by AMTRAK, 2007
By Larry Walsh

Hilda and Larry Walsh, 2011
Our son Andy announced his intentions to marry. We had almost given up on him. Now at age 49 he would tie the knot at a church in northern New Jersey. My wife, Hilda, and I were not about to miss this one! We would be at that mid-September wedding. But how to get there from San Antonio? Using the Internet, we got a $670.00 (one way) quote from AMTRAK, involving The Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Chicago and The Three Rivers from Chicago to Newark, New Jersey. This fare would provide a private bedroom on both trains (with upper and lower berth) plus all meals. We checked airlines, too. American and United had coach fares that were higher. Southwest was a bit lower, but would land us in Islip, Long Island, and fifty miles out and on the wrong side of New York City. Continental quoted a fare of just $450.00, but with changes in Houston and Tampa, plus the need to leave San Antonio at 6:00 AM. Getting up at 3:00 AM didn’t sound too good to these old bones. We chose AMTRAK.
San Antonio to Chicago via The Texas Eagle

The checker cab picked us up at 7:00 AM. and delivered us to the Sunset Station by 7:30 AM where Amtrak’s train # 22, The Texas Eagle, was on the ready track and about to board. The porter escorted us to our bedroom where we settled in awaiting the 8:00 AM. departure. The Eagle has had a checkered past, enduring threats of cancellation and bouts of poor timekeeping. Our 1300-mile trip to Chicago would be largely on host Union Pacific’s rails. San Antonio’s other train, The Sunset Limited runs on the notoriously congested Sunset Route between Los Angeles and New Orleans. This train is chronically late. Worse, it carries a through coach and sleeping car from Los Angeles. At San Antonio, these two cars are detached from the Sunset Limited and attached to The Texas Eagle. In less congested times, the 5:00 AM. arrival of the east bound Sunset limited gave plenty of time to make this maneuver before the scheduled 8:00 AM departure of the Eagle. As the Sunset Limited arrived later and later in San Antonio, so too did the departing Eagle find itself delayed. In years 2002 and 2003, The Eagle ran on-time barely 20 percent of the time. Something had to be done as Amtrak faced declining ridership and the possibility that The Eagle would be discontinued. A major marketing campaign was mounted to boost Eagle ridership and it has worked! The Eagle is no longer held for a late-running Sunset Limited. At 8:00 AM. it leaves San Antonio, with or without its connection. The connecting cars lay over in San Antonio until the next day, or passengers are bussed to their destinations. Thus far in year 2004, Eagle ridership is up 10 percent and is running on time 70 percent of the time. The goal is to get that one-time performance up over 80 percent and host Union Pacific Railroad seems to be cooperating.

The halcyon years for rail travel between San Antonio and the Northeast cities was 1946-1956. The Missouri Pacific’s Texas Eagle was newly “streamlined”, replacing The Sunshine Special. It carried a planetarium dome car as well as through sleeping cars to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The cars were of two-tone blue, conveying a solid, conservative and elegant image suited to a carrier emerging from 30 years of bankruptcy. Its San Antonio competitor, The Missouri-Kansas-Texas, often called "The Katy," launched its all new Texas Special, all dressed out in eye-catching red and silver cars. Katy, the smaller of the two roads, wanted to convey their “we try harder” effort. The MoPac’s Eagle left San Antonio with two through cars to the east coast. But the Katy had three through eastern cars on the Texas Special. Both The Eagle and the Texas Special were essentially through trains to St. Louis, where eastern connections were made as well as Chicago connections. Both trains arrived in St. Louis at precisely 8:30 a.m. and down through the years they were fierce competitors. Today, alas, the St. Louis connection is gone. Everyone must continue on to Chicago to change.

At precisely 8:00 AM we had the highball and began to move—not forward but backward! Traffic north to New Braunfels and San Marcos is essentially directional; with northbound trains taking the old Katy tracks and southbound taking the old MoPac tracks. Apparently the easiest way for a passenger train sitting in Sunset Station to access the Katy is to back up to the old tower 112 where the Katy tracks crossed the Southern Pacific. From here The Eagle reverses direction and moves forward via the old Katy Line. About 30 miles north, at Ogden Junction, The Eagle crosses over to the old Missouri Pacific line, moves through New Braunfels and 17 miles later comes to its first stop at San Marcos. Since New Braunfels is also a sizeable population center, why don’t we also stop there? Because the Union Pacific dispatcher needs the flexibility of routing trains via either the old Katy line or via the old Missouri Pacific line. There is still a station and loading platform on the "MOP" but alas, the Katy station and platform is gone. Where do you ask passengers to assemble when the dispatcher won’t know until the last minute which route he will take? New Braunfels as a scheduled Eagle stop just won’t work.

The northbound Eagle, AMTRAK #22, carries coaches, sleeping cars, a dining car, plus a sightseer lounge car. At 10:30 AM. we cross the Colorado River and make a sharp left-hand turn before sliding into the Austin Station. A sizeable crowd boards here. The diner opens for early lunch shortly after leaving Austin as we stay on the old Missouri Pacific line to Taylor, Texas. The 35 miles that separate Austin and Taylor are normally congested, but not today. We zip right through and find ourselves waiting for “time” at Taylor. Leaving Taylor, we round another sharp left-hand turn as we leave the old "MOP." For the next 38 miles, we ride the Katy main line again as far as Temple. At Temple, we swing off the Katy and move on to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe at the historic Temple station. For the next 128 miles we are not on the Union Pacific route to Chicago. We run right on schedule to Fort Worth, arriving 20 minutes early, not requiring the built-in recovery time.

The new Fort Worth Transportation Center is a busy place. City buses hurry in and out of their stalls. Trinity River Express commuter trains hustle in and out en route to Dallas and intermediate suburban stations. Our northbound Eagle meets its southbound counterpart here. The Heartland Flyer idles on a nearby track awaiting its 5:25 p.m. departure for Oklahoma City. The old and ornate Santa Fe station lies idle nearby. However, the 1925 era Texas and Pacific station sits just a ½ mile to the west, newly restored and used by Trinity River Express trains.

From Fort Worth, it is an hour over to the beautiful Dallas Union Station. This landmark was quite busy until about 1960 when the long distance trains began to abandon Dallas. By 1971, it was served by AMTRAK's "Eagle" just three times a week (each way). It was a beautiful white elephant with all of the former passengers on the freeway or out at Love Field or Dallas-Fort Worth International. Would it be demolished? As we slid to a stop at 4:30 PM, precisely on time, its renaissance is apparent. There are six active passenger train tracks very much in use. The first two contained DART, (Dallas Area Rapid Transport), the highly successful Dallas light rail system whose sleek trolleys moved through on frequent 10-minute headways. The next two tracks were reserved for the Dallas-Fort Worth Trinity River Express, still in its early years and shuttling commuters along the old Rock Island right of way. Being we were at rush hour, a TRE train was loading next to us, and another was idling awaiting its berth space right behind it. The loading train appeared full of commuters grateful to be off the freeway on the way home. The outermost two tracks were for AMTRAK, and here we were taking aboard a good crowd for Little Rock, St. Louis and Chicago. Long live Dallas Union Station!

We left Dallas on time and moved east on the old Texas & Pacific main line toward Mineola, Longview and Texarkana. This is still a single-track railroad albeit with passing sidings about every 10 miles. It is saturated with Union Pacific traffic and obviously needs to be double tracked (but where will the enabling earning comes from?) To his credit, the Union Pacific dispatcher does his best for us. We lose about 40 minutes getting over to Texarkana, late for the first time on this trip.

I turned into my upper berth as we entered Arkansas, not awakening until we were in Southern Missouri running alongside the Mississippi River nearing St. Louis. The Union Pacific uses directional running for much of its mileage through Arkansas, using the old Missouri Pacific for northbound trains, and the old Cotton Belt for southbound trains. We were moving in the proper direction of travel so we were hustled right through the night and arrived in St. Louis at 6:40 a.m., 85 minutes ahead of schedule. All of that schedule padding and recovery time would not be required. Instead, we would have a lengthy two-hour dwell time in St. Louis waiting for “time”. We are parked at the "AM shack" just outside of the classic St. Louis Union Station and within sight of the Arch. The new light rail line (Metro Link) runs right next to us and over the next two hours we welcomed the crowd downtown for work.

At last, 8:45 AM. arrives and we promptly move out of St. Louis and cross the Mississippi on the Merchants Bridge. For the next 25 minutes we move through East St. Louis, Granite City and other erstwhile manufacturing strongholds. If you need any proof that American industrial jobs have been “outsourced” this trip will prove it to you. It is quite visible, mile after mile, as you move through the “rust belt”.

This final leg of the trip to Chicago is on the old Chicago and Alton Railroad line, once a largely double track and allowing 5 hour St. Louis to Chicago trains in the 1930’s. It is now a Union Pacific single track main line with a 5 hour and 40 minute schedule for us and lots of freight train congestion to contend with. Once again, the Union Pacific dispatcher does us justice. We arrive in Chicago just 10 minutes late, being delayed largely by a raised bridge over the Chicago River. The ride was great and the passengers were friendly. We enjoyed it.
Chicago to Newark, New Jersey via The Three Rivers

It is 2:30 PM. and we have until 10:30 PM this evening before our connecting train to New Jersey leaves. But how should Hilda and I spend these next eight hours? Having once lived in Chicago, it would not be difficult. We parked our bags in the first class lounge and set out for a leisurely walk about downtown, including the shops of Wabash and State Streets, the Palmer House, the bookstores, and that great German Restaurant, Berghoff’s! By 9:00 PM. we were back in the first class lounge of Union Station. At 10:00 p.m., "The Three Rivers" (AMTRAK #40) was called and a motorized cart took us and our bags train side where the porter installed us in our "Viewliner Sleeper" room. I ordinarily do not like to occupy the upper berth because I don’t get to see outside. But this is not true in the Viewliner sleeper, where the upper berth has a large window in it. As we left Chicago, it was fun watching the night-lights of the city, the darkness overhanging Lake Michigan and the lake front casinos with their garish signs and lights beckoning the late night gamblers. Around Whiting and Gary, just a few steel mills were producing and lighting up the night sky. This whole corner of northwest Indiana is hurting, due to the profound loss of manufacturing jobs. We are moving down what was once the mainline of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and now simply CSX. Sleep soon came on this second and final night aboard Amtrak. When we awoke, we were in Youngstown, Ohio.

By the light of day, we got to see what The Three Rivers (Train #40) looks like. It is essentially a mail train, composed of three coaches, one Viewliner sleeper, a diner-lounge car plus about seventeen mail and materials handling cars. Amtrak is planning to give up on hauling mail, so this is an endangered train. Will the states through which it passes provide a subsidy, or will there soon be one fewer train running between Chicago and New York? For now, we are enjoying the ride on a beautiful, clear morning. We are in the Beaver River Valley, still on the former B & O Railway and passing through more of an area that was once part of a broad industrial empire of steel and other manufacturing enterprises. Near New Castle, we swing off of the former B & O and enter the former Chicago mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Mellon and Carnegie would be right at home here. We are now running alongside the Ohio River. The enormous Conway yard is on our left side, all of it now operated by Norfolk Southern. Soon we are passing Three Rivers Stadium where the Ohio River forms from the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River, our train’s namesake location. We slide into the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ancestral downtown Pittsburgh terminal where a few of the once many tracks and platforms remain. Here we service the train and change crews. Ahead lies the formidable Pittsburgh Division, 117 hilly miles that will take us over the spine of the Allegheny Mountains at Gallitzin and down around the horseshoe curve and into Altoona. In steam engine days, The Pittsburgh Division was easily the shortest of all the divisions between Chicago and New York, but also the toughest to operate. There were few places where you could “open her up” and make up time.

We left Pittsburgh and entered this tough division at 10:20 a.m., 20 minutes late. Over the next 30 miles to Greensburg we pass through the heart of our country’s steel-making belt. The mills and furnaces came in the late 19th Century. The towns were close together with names such as East Liberty, Homewood, Wilkinsburg, Bessemer, Pitcairn and Trafford. The towns existed cheek by jowl with the mills where the earlier car-less workers walked to work with their lunch buckets. The flames, smoke and fumes from the mills were tolerated in return for steady employment. The Pennsylvania Railroad operated a frequent commuter service from Pittsburgh over a four-track main line. Today, the towns and their sturdily built, tightly spaced Victorian homes remain right up close to the tracks. But the four tracks have been slimmed down to two tracks and the railroad commuter service is gone. So too are the mills and furnaces. A debate arose around these parts as to what to do with the space vacated by two mainline tracks. Being a trolley town, the light rail advocates urged the newly available right of way be converted to a commuter trolley line. The regional bus authority fought just as hard to convert this strip into a dedicated express bus way. The bus way won and it parallels our trip down this incredible valley. San Antonio’s VIA Transit operators would envy how the Pittsburgh regional buses can race downtown in the rush hour unhampered by traffic, and paralleling a very busy two-track main line railroad. There are express busses and busses, which call on all of the old local stops, frequently stopping at the old stone, railroad stations. Now here’s a bus ride I could actually enjoy.

Our train soon moves over a small “summit” and enters the fabulous Conemaugh Valley. Near the small town of Bolivar, we stop and remained stopped for the next hour. The eastbound main track is undergoing major rehabilitation, leaving open only a single track. We have to wait our turn to thread our way through the needle. As we finally do, we pass an incredible array of machines on the eastbound track. We will encounter no further delays through to Harrisburg. Train # 40 slows as we enter Gallitzin and the tunnels of the town on the top of the Allegheny Mountain spine. Westbound trains come racing out of the tunnels and enter a very gentle downgrade. No so with eastbound trains. Upon exiting the tunnels, you find yourself on an almost 2 percent steady downgrade which stretches for the next 12 miles around the slide, through the Horseshoe Curve then more steep downgrade and curves to Altoona. Over the past 156 years, many a hogger has exited the east portals and found he could not control his train. Passenger trains are not immune either. In the 1940’s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s crack Red Arrow from Detroit lost it on the slide. Eighty fatalities ensued. Trains race into the tunnels westbound but creep into the tunnels eastbound.

We leave Altoona 1 hour and 20 minutes late and enter the old Middle Division. It will be 131 all-downhill miles to Harrisburg, never drifting too far from the guiding and protective banks of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers. The schedule generously gives us almost 200 minutes to make this leg of the journey. We knock off 55 of those 200 minutes and slide in Harrisburg just 25 minutes late.

The Philadelphia Division stretches for the next 104 miles to Philadelphia. Our host railroad will no longer be Norfolk Southern. This railroad abandons the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline and moves over to the ex-Reading lines. AMTRAK itself now owns the old Philadelphia Division. With help from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, AMTRAK is converting this line from almost dead to a major high-speed corridor. Track improvement now underway will soon permit 110 M.P.H. speeds. The catenary, first installed in 1935 and largely discontinued in 1980, will be revived, thus assuring electrified service to Harrisburg once again. A new station will soon open in Middletown, directly adjacent to the newly enlarged Harrisburg International Airport. The current nine daily Keystone trains that begin eastward service here will grow to 12. The current 120 minute scheduled time to Philadelphia will shrink to 90 minutes.

"The Three Rivers" bravely enters the Philadelphia Division expecting to substantially reduce or eliminate our 30 minutes of tardiness. Forget it! The reality is different from the glowing expectations cited above. We stop for extended periods awaiting clearance through work zones, race ahead, only to be slowed again a few miles down the road. We move down the Main Line (of Philadelphia society) racing on a four track main line through towns such as Radnor, Villanova, Rosemont, Bryn Mawr, Ardmore and Haverford and dodging that most famous of all “local” trains, The Paoli Local, as we go. It is said this is the only “scoot” where conductors wore white gloves in deference to the clientele. Of course, we refer to that former resident and Pennsylvania Railroad expert, Peter Shavney, for more details of this railroad in its own hometown.

'Train # 40" arrives in 30th Street Station, Philadelphia at 6:35 p.m., still 30 minutes late. Here all of the mail and material-handling cars will come off. Shorn of our mail, we are left with a 6-car train, including our own baggage car. We must reverse direction here. As soon as the mail cars are off the rear of our train, a HEP-8 straight electric couples on. This electric engine regularly totes 10 to 12 car corridor trains with rapid acceleration. Handling our shrunken consist will be child’s play for it. 7:00 PM. arrives and the dispatcher finds a northbound slot for us, immediately behind a Keystone Express, a Regional Express and an Acela Express. We have 81 miles to go. We must also stop one time at Trenton, New Jersey. The HEP lives up to its reputation, racing over those 81 miles in just 65 minutes, arriving in Newark at 8:05 p.m., just 17 minutes off the advertised! We loved every minute of this trip and hope "The Three Rivers" can survive, even shorn of its mail. The train crew was very friendly and helpful. We felt pampered. Dining was fun, too, especially the experience of selecting menu items with no expectation of getting a bill when the meal was over.

A taxi would take us over to the Avis Rent A Car agency where we could complete our trip to Parsippany that evening.
The Return Home: Newark, New Jersey to San Antonio

There was a time when rail and air carriers offered round-trip discount fares. Sometimes those discounts were substantial. No more! Now a round trip fare is simply double the one-way fare. Gone is the incentive to stay with the carrier you began with. We decide to “get modern” and fly home. One of our sons is a pilot for a major airline, so we decide to use our parent passes. For parents using this pass, the fare is deeply discounted, but you must fly standby. We don’t get on until every possible paying passengers is first seated. In the past, this has worked reasonably well, but in today’s downsizing, the environment has changed. There just aren’t as many spare seats any more.

It is Sunday, September 19 and we are waiting to see if we can board a non-stop flight as far as Denver (forget about any non stops to San Antonio—they don’t exist). We feel fortunate to get called for two available seats. We are flying a Boeing 757, a single-aisle large plane. Just about every available seat is taken, including two separate middle seats that my wife and I occupy. The flight is four non-stop hours and comfortable it is not. Planes today have been called the subway of the skies. The New York City subway cars carry three capacity designations, such as 45-75-80. The first number refers to the number of seats available in that car. The second number refers to the number of people who can comfortably stand (in addition to those seated). By comfortably it means the standing passenger will have access to a pole to hang on or strap of some kind. The third number refers to the number of additional people that can be jammed into the car-sardine style. Often no prop of any kind is available and the ride is anything but comfortable. Thus, a New York subway car has a capacity of all three numbers—200 passengers called a crush load. A long time ago, subway riders voted for cheap fares and crush loads rather than any amenities, first class cars or the construction of new lines. Today, I have seen commercial aviation go full circle. At one time, flying was considered rather exclusive. It was relatively expensive. Passengers were pampered. There were free meals and they were acceptably good. Today, airfares are real bargains, especially in comparison with the old days of air travel. But the move down to near crush loads has been unremitting and largely inescapable. Like the subway, many planes have no seats other than coach. What is left of first-class seating on only a few airlines is pathetically small. The lowest common denominator wins! Meals are non-existent unless you want to pay for a box lunch. (Not very good even at $10.00 a pop). That 4-hour trip brought me close to a case of claustrophobia. Was I really in such a big hurry that I had to endure this crowded metal tube hurtling through the sky?

On landing in Denver, the situation worsened. Our connecting flight to San Antonio, the last of the day, was overbooked. We waited for the gate to close and a bundle of standbys had to find hotel rooms in Denver. Now getting desperate to get to San Antonio, we try to purchase a ticket. Still no luck! They are sold out all of this week. No other airline flies to San Antonio. The following morning we are back at the gate with little hope—as the gate closes on us again. With all of their planes so full, this airline must be making a bundle, right? Wrong. The fares are so low and their costs are so high that they are losing money on every seat sold. Short of spending the week at the airport and hoping, what are we to do? Visions of the old TEXAS ZEPHYR dance through my head like sugarplums. We could leave Denver at 1 p.m. and arrive in Fort Worth the next morning. We could cross the platform to the waiting Texas Special (Katy) and arrive in San Antonio that same afternoon in spacious comfort or even first class if we preferred. Dream on for those days are gone. Today our options are the Greyhound bus (30 hours with a Ft. Worth change), rent a car or keep hanging around the airport and hoping. We opt for the Avis car rental at about $115.00 per day. With 1,000 miles to go from Denver to San Antonio, we can easily do that in two days. Wrong again! After about 400 miles of driving, we are ready to find a motel for the night.

Our bags, of course, have arrived in San Antonio by now. We have a carry on with our medications and a few toilet articles with three days of old clothes to go. But at least we will get home. There are a few pleasant surprises as well. We are amazed at the amount of light rail construction going on around Denver and down the I-35 corridor. We will get to cross Raton Pass by car and not by train. We will see miles and miles of New Mexico and the Texas panhandle that have an appeal all their own. People are friendly. We parallel the old Fort Worth and Denver City line (now BNSF) all the way through Amarillo. and are amazed at the amount of coal traffic.

On the second day of driving, from Childress to Abilene, we cross wide-open country peppered with small towns (Aspermont, Hamlin, Anson) that were once all connected by rail lines. Today you can drive from Childress to Abilene and not encounter a working railroad. Once in Abilene, however, we encounter the mainline of the former Texas & Pacific Railroad and the railroad is very evident. This single-track line is extremely busy, with through freights, yard switching trains, and through trains of BNSF exercising their new trackage rights between Sweetwater and Ft. Worth. The impressive ex T&P passenger station still stands just south of the active downtown

We finally reach home on the third day after leaving Denver. It took us 2 ½ days to journey from San Antonio to Newark, New Jersey. It has taken 3 full days to get back home, ending our return odyssey. My wife was right. I should have booked a round trip on AMTRAK to begin with.

 

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