We rock along gently, lurching occasionally, the metal of the train’s undercarriage rattling and groaning, each car jerking as though to separate itself from the rest, the whistle hooting far ahead as we come to crossings. A rising sun slants in through the overhead windows of the Lounge car where I sit to write. The dry mesquite covered landscape drifts by, separated by circular green fields of irrigated cotton, and stands of rattling drying corn. Small homes and poorer neighborhoods flank the tracks as we near a town.
We stop in the major towns, San Antonio, Del Rio, Alpine. Passengers load or unload. Lights go out as cars are coupled or uncoupled, powering down for safety from the dangerous 480 volts at 3,000 amps that the locomotives generate. They add the cars from the Chicago-bound Texas Eagle, and refill water tanks. Food does not usually come aboard since the two commissaries at New Orleans and Los Angeles stock the trains with enough food to feed 300 passengers three meals a day for three days. We get free, quite bountiful, meals with our Roomette.
Inside our Sunset Limited, train 001, a conglomerate of young and old stagger and sway with the train, winding their way toward the dining car or back to their coach seats or forward to the roomettes. The atmosphere is friendly, people smiling and nodding as we pass. So completely unlike airlines where long lines, mean spirited inspections, and cramped seats create ugliness and tension. Here all is sweetness and light.
There are three options for riding the trains. The first, and most expensive ($1,200 for the round trip from Houston to Alpine), is a Bedroom. It has three comfortable chairs, two of which fold down into a bed, with another bed overhead if necessary. The room has its own bathroom with a sink, commode, and shower. It is completely and comfortably private. If you decide you want one, however, the bedrooms are usually booked far in advance since there are few of them on the train, usually no more than four or five.
In the sleeper cars, usually two per train, there are also Roomettes ($300 round trip for 2 people). The roomettes are relatively comfortable, with two opposing chairs. Once the beds come down, however, as they were when we finally boarded, there is about 6 inches between the stacked bunk beds and the sliding door to the hall. There is no closing the door unless you have already crawled into bed or laboriously climbed into the upper bunk. Changing is done in the Dressing Room or bathroom just down the hall, or flat on your back in the bunk. At ONE A.M. when we finally boarded in Houston, that was not an option. All we wanted to do was to crawl in and sleep. Not even bothering to get into jammies, we just slept as we were. It was wonderful.
And finally, in separate cars far to the front, there are coach seats ($67 round trip from Houston to Alpine). Coach passengers, like airline passengers, are not allowed into the “upper class” sleeper coach areas. The coach seats look comfortable. They are, but not for sleeping. We walk through the coach compartment and see people curled uncomfortably, contorted into pretzels, covered with skimpy blankets, cramped and struggling to sleep in two seats. It is just fortunate that the armrest between the seats can be raised out of the way. As one woman told us, the seats don’t recline far enough (reminds us of the airlines), and there is no footrest even to lift your feet. Hence, the curling up.
In the dining car, those of us blessed with roomettes or bedrooms, are seated, willy-nilly, wherever there is a spare seat at one of the tables. Strangers become instant acquaintances. Interesting conversations crop up and new friendships blossom. We luxuriate in the surprisingly good meals, the prices clearly posted for the “others.” Those “others,” down at the other end of the train, the lowly coach passengers have to pay for their own meals down in the Café, in the bowels of the Lounge car or creep surreptiously into the dining car and pay the big bucks.
At the tables, we learn that some of our fellow passengers are retirees visiting family, elderly couples just touring the country, a young bicycle-rider from California going riding with his parents in Durham, N.C, an Australian lawyer seeing the country, three cute Mennonite girls in neat white bonnets and long blue dresses headed for northern Mexico, and an assortment of passengers as mixed as the country itself.
In the lounge car, tables provide ample space for board games or cards. Comfortable recliners face the large windows that provide ample vistas of the countryside. Even the coach passengers can use those. Below the lounge car, is a cash-only Café. Over the loudspeaker (which will provide wakey-wakey whether you like it or not), we learned that the train was offering a “special” for the coach customers of a chicken sandwich for only $10. Meanwhile, we luxuriated upstairs with a full menu, plus wine, ranging in price from $15 to $25, none of which we had to pay.
Oh, yes, a word about the “facilities.” There are private bathrooms in the bedroom compartments. No need to crawl out of the bunk and stagger down the hall to the closet. You have your privacy. According to Susan, however, once the bed is down accessing the sink is no longer possible. For the rest of us, whether Roomette or coach, there are closets, and I would not call them much more than that. Each has a tiny sink and toilet. Don’t plan on turning around. There is one slightly larger space with a shower and small dressing room. One per train car for all the passengers. Plan on staying dirty all the way to LA.
If we were able to put behind us the long wait at the train station, which we did, the ride itself is comfortable, friendly and pleasant. If you are going, invest in the Roomette. It is worth the price of admission.