Many nights, as I fall to sleep at my home in Kansas City, I hear the whistle of trains as they come and go on their various routes. It’s a somewhat forlorn sound, but also one that piques my curiosity. Where are the trains going? Where have they come from? What adventures lie at the end of the line?
To find the answers to those questions, I found myself entering Kansas City’s Union Station one night after 10 p.m., ticket and backpack in hand, ready to board Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its route from Chicago to Los Angeles. I have traveled across Europe, Canada and Japan by rail, but never in the U.S., and never in a sleeper car. Check two off of my bucket list.
The Southwest Chief Route
The Southwest Chief route is 2265 miles that crosses through seven states in about 51 hours. In addition to Kansas City, the Chief stops in more than 30 cities, including Albuquerque New Mexico, Flagstaff Arizona and San Bernardino California. The route follows the path of the old Santa Fe Trail in places, climbs to more than 7,500 feet and crosses both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the two largest rivers in North America.
You can get off and stand on a corner in Winslow Arizona, grab another train to the Grand Canyon or hang out with Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty in Dodge City Kansas. In places the train reaches nearly 100 miles per hour and at other times creeps through the canyons of northern New Mexico at about 20 miles per hour.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Air travel is just too big of a pain these days.
- You like to see what is between Point A and Point B.
- Good for those who enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Sleeping Cars on the Southwest Chief
The Southwest Chief is a two-story Superliner and offers five options for sleeping accommodations: Roomette, Bedroom, Bedroom Suite, Family Bedroom and Accessible Bedroom. Since it was just me, I chose the roomette, which technically can sleep two. Basically, it’s two over-sized seats that face each other with a small table in between during the daytime. At night, the seats slide together for one bed and a bunk folds down from the wall for another bed.
When I boarded in Kansas City at 10:45 p.m., my porter, Steve, already had my bed made up. Two pillows were provided, but I’m glad I brought my own. A sheet and light blanket were also provided, but I wish I had brought something a little heavier. Each little roomette has its own climate control, but I was still a little chilly. A washcloth and hand towel are also provided.
The Bedroom Suites and Family Bedrooms include a toilet and tiny, tiny shower. For others, a public shower on the lower level is as big as most home showers. Full size towels and bar soap are available. Bring your own shampoo and slippers.
Fortunately, or not, my little roomette was just across the hallway from the toilet where I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth. I crawled back into my space, pulled my sliding door and curtain closed, then snuggled into bed. It was really quite a cozy space and I have no complaints about the comfort of the bed.
But I didn’t sleep right away. Perhaps it was the excitement of the trip or the unusual sounds around me, but sleep didn’t come easily. Perhaps it was others visiting the toilet across the hallway. Friends had promised me I would sleep so well, rocked by the sway of the train. It just didn’t happen for me.
Dining on the Southwest Chief
By 7 a.m., announcements over the loud speaker told me that breakfast was ready in the dining car. Thanks to Steve, my porter, reservations had been made for me at the 8:30 seating. Dining space is limited, so you just can’t show up when you’re hungry. Reservations required. I was surprised that the food was fairly tasty – not at all like airline food. Each meal offered about five choices from sandwiches and soup to pastas and steak.
Because it was just me, I was assigned to a table of four with another solo traveler and a couple from the Baltimore area. They had never seen the southwest U.S. and were excited to visit the Grand Canyon for the first time. They booked a package that included transportation and overnight accommodations at the Grand Canyon. Theirs would be a two week round-trip adventure.
When I returned to my roomette after breakfast, Steve had put the bedding away and my seats back in order. Instead, I wandered the train a bit. Not a seat was available in the Observation Car where seats faced the windows and the windows extended overhead. Travelers talked, read, and just watched the scenery pass.
Two coach cars were partially filled and these with many young European backpackers and others who chose to sleep sitting up. I learned that train travel is an approved mode of transportation for the Amish, so many Amish families gathered in one car.
At lunch, I was seated with two elderly women from Philadelphia who were traveling to Los Angeles to visit a grandchild. They had spent much of their lives traveling by train and were delighted that this was my first experience.
Stops Along the Way
Every couple of hours, the train would stop to pick up other travelers, to load supplies and offer passengers an opportunity to get out and stretch their legs. In Raton New Mexico, we saw an abandoned Harvey House Hotel, its magnificence and glory days still visible despite boarded up windows and doors.
My stop was in Albuquerque where I planned to spend the night with a friend before catching the return Southwest Chief back to Kansas City. As we arrived there, Native American vendors with tables filled with jewelry, pottery and blankets filled the platform around the station. Many passengers took advantage of the shopping opportunities there.
But I hurried on to meet my friend and enjoyed a quick whirlwind tour of Albuquerque.
My return trip began about noon the next day and I felt like a veteran as I boarded the train and found my little roomette. I made reservations for dinner and read the latest copy of “Arrive,” Amtrak’s in-flight magazine that was provided. The conductor pointed out interesting sites along the way, including a really big brown bear not far from the tracks in southern Colorado. I was too slow with my camera to catch that shot.
That night, as I snuggled into my little roomette, sleep came quickly and deeply. Although I had my phone alarm set, my porter gently knocked on my door about 6:30 a.m. to let me know we were nearing Kansas City. As we arrived from the west, the sunrise illuminated Kansas City’s beautiful Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the sculptures atop the convention center, and of course, our beautiful Union Station that has been welcoming train travelers for almost 100 years.
I was home.
- Although snacks are available on the train, they are a bit pricey. Pack your own.
- If you like, you can bring your own alcohol.
- Bring slippers to wear in the communal shower.
- Carry on bags must be about the same size as those that fit in overhead bins of most airplanes.
- There’s no additional charge for checked bags.
- Tipping porters and other Amtrak staff is appropriate.