11/12/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Riding the Sunset Limited

Recently my wife and I rode Amtrak's Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans. We were heading out for a two-week vacation tour of Louisiana and were in no hurry to reach our destination. We wanted to avoid the stress and aggravation of air travel, view the American Southwest rolling by our window, have time to read and talk in the privacy of our own compartment. Our last extended railroad journey had been many years ago, when we took the train from Vancouver to Jasper through the Canadian Rockies, a trip made memorable for the beauty of the scenery and the comfort of the train.

The Sunset Limited makes the run from Los Angeles to New Orleans three times a week, hence the "Limited." It covers the two thousand mile journey in forty-eight hours, passing through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, with stops in Maricopa (Phoenix), Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, and Lake Charles, among others. On alternate days, it makes the return trip to Los Angeles.

We boarded the sleeping car at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday for a 10 p.m. departure. We were greeted at the entrance to our car by Ted, the friendly attendant, who showed us to our compartment, carrying our bags. He had already made up our room for sleeping. The seat had been folded out to make a full bed; the top bunk had been lowered, with a ladder attached for access. The compartment was equipped with a small sink, a tiny bathroom stall with toilet and shower, and a small closet. There was also a single seat facing the bed and a pullout table. The large window could be curtained for sleeping.

We chatted with Ted, a balding man in his mid-forties with a pleasant face. He told us he is a divorced father of three girls and lives in Los Angeles. He has been working the Sunset Limited run for thirteen years and likes his job. He works a four-day shift, and then has six days off, giving him lots of time to be with his children. He is responsible for the entire sleeping car -- six bedrooms, fourteen roomettes, and one family bedroom -- and is on call 24/7. He makes up the rooms and responds to requests for help and information. We found that if we needed assistance and pushed the call button, he would be knocking on our compartment door in two or three minutes.

There was not a lot of room to maneuver in our compartment with the beds out, so I went out onto the platform for a stroll until departure time. The platform was deserted except for a few Amtrak employees and some straggling passengers. I walked up to the front of the train to check out the massive engine that would haul us across two-thirds of the American continent. One of the headlights was out. An Amtrak employee also noticed this and reported it to the engineer, signaling the problem by placing his hand over one eye. I went back to our compartment and as there was nothing else to do, we made ready for bed.

Our departure was delayed an hour and a half while the headlamp was replaced. The train was parked in a side yard, waiting for clearance. We lay in our berths looking out the window at a freeway overpass, hardly the start we had anticipated. Finally the train began to move. We watched the darkened city slide by our window for a while, and then tried to fall asleep. The motion of the train, the constant blaring of the horn at crossings, the unfamiliarity of the beds made sleep an elusive hope. At 6:30 a.m., when the first call for breakfast came over the intercom, I pushed back the curtains and looked out onto the beautifully barren Mojave Desert.

Around 8:30 we went up to the dining car for breakfast. Two rows of tables with cushioned two-seater benches facing each other, a serving area in the center of the car, stairs leading down to the kitchen, two servers, Chuck and Manny. Our dining companions were Kevin and Brad. Kevin had boarded in Maricopa. He was a retired long-haul trucker, heavy-set, shaved head, chin whiskers and mustache, with tattoos on his fingers and a diamond stud in one ear. He owned land in Texas and was on his way to El Paso. Brad was a stand-up comedian from Los Angeles who performed at military bases abroad and in clubs. He was traveling to Tucson to visit his ailing father, hospitalized in intensive care. We soon learned that Kevin and Brad were life-long gun owners, so we made a point of steering clear of politics as we worked our way through the scrambled eggs and sausage patties.

Ted had put away our beds while we ate. Back in our compartment, we settled in to watch the saguaros passing in the distance on the Sonoran Desert. The rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the tracks was relaxing and somehow reassuring. We were grounded to the earth, moving across it on steel rails at eighty miles per hour, travelers on a journey.

We got off the train in Tucson to stretch our legs. We strolled around the station and ordered lattes at the hip café. The station manager blew his whistle, the horn sounded, passengers trotted to their cars, so we reboarded. A few minutes after the train got underway again, we heard the call for our lunch seating and returned to the dining car.

Our luncheon companions were two large ladies, traveling alone. One was from Sacramento, on her way to Mississippi to celebrate her father's ninety-eighth birthday. The other was from Perth, Australia. She was making a grand tour of the U.S. by train, visiting relatives in Washington, Michigan, Arizona, and Texas. Amtrak seemed the perfect way for her to tour the country, see the land, and meet its people. She was on her way to San Antonio.

After lunch I stretched out on the seat, put my head on a pillow, and took a nap. My wife read in the chair. Later, Ted came by with a corkscrew and opened our bottle of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. We played gin rummy and sipped wine as the belly of Texas streamed by our window.

We had dinner with Susan and Erik. Susan was another large lady with a kindly face, from North Carolina. She was on her way home after visiting relatives in Arizona. Erik was an older man, fit and energetic, from Montana. He was a train buff. He had ridden the Empire Builder to Seattle, the Coast Starlight down to Los Angeles, and was returning home via Chicago on the City of New Orleans. He tours around the country every year on Amtrak and has a train set in his home. His wife does not share his enthusiasm for train travel, so he rides alone. He is very knowledgeable about Amtrak. He told us that Congress wants to defund the Sunset Limited. The Desert Wind, which ran from Los Angeles to Chicago through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, was discontinued years ago. Erik believes that Amtrak is dying a slow death. Its locomotives are old, breaking down, and not being replaced. Only the passenger system in the Northeast is still vital for commerce. The privately owned freight system, which owns the tracks, regards Amtrak as a nuisance that interferes with right of way. Erik was clearly concerned that America's passenger rail system, once the main engine of industrial progress, might go the way of the dinosaur.

Our second night we had better luck with sleep. We turned in around eleven, took sleeping pills, and slept fitfully as the train rumbled across Texas. Getting out of my upper berth in the dark to use the bathroom without waking my wife presented an interesting acrobatic challenge.

We had a long stop in San Antonio while cars were decoupled, and passengers boarded. Some people got off to ride the Texas Eagle to Chicago. We were convinced our train would not reach New Orleans on schedule, but Ted assured us that we would be on time because the schedule is padded to allow for just the sorts of delays we had experienced.

At lunch we were seated again with Susan, then joined by Frank, a spry elderly man with ginger colored hair, a twinkle in his eye, and humor in his voice. He was from North Dakota, another train buff. He was going to ride the City of New Orleans up to Chicago, then catch the Empire Builder back home. He ordered a hot dog and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. As we talked about the fate of Amtrak, Frank remarked pointedly that most of the cuts to Amtrak had come under Democratic administrations, notably the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

As we entered Louisiana the train passed through a succession of small towns, ramshackle houses along the tracks with old pick-up trucks slumping in the front yards. The train's horn kept up a continuous mournful wail as we approached crossing after crossing. The peace of the desert and the Texas back country was gone. We were ready to get off the train.

For our last meal we dined with Mitch, a retired Amtrak engineer returning to New Orleans from his second home in the San Bernardino Mountains of California. He had piloted the Sunset Limited for twenty years, and now had a free pass to ride Amtrak whenever he chose. He was worried about the fate of this run, and of the Amtrak system in general, which he called, aptly, a rolling national park. If Congress shuts down the Sunset Limited, he said, he will probably have to sell his home in Louisiana, because he cannot afford the cost of frequent air travel between New Orleans and Los Angeles. He pointed out that although Amtrak covers seventy percent of its operating costs through revenue and needs only a modest subsidy from the government to make up its deficit -- far less than other subsidies the government provides to private enterprise -- Congress is hostile to the service.

As he spoke, Erik and Frank walked by and we hailed them to make introductions all around of the Amtrak faithful. Mitch noted that Amtrak serves thirty-five million passengers every year, a large enough demographic to have some political clout, but only if they are organized. With Erik and Frank nodding their approval, Mitch urged us to join the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a lobbying organization with offices in Washington, D.C. A yearly family membership costs fifty dollars.

After saying good-bye to our fellow travelers, we returned to our compartment to pack up and get ready for our arrival at Union Station in New Orleans. As Ted had predicted, we were right on schedule.