Albuquerque Stories and Tips

Lounge Loitering in Amtrak's Southwest Chief

Amtrak Lounge Car Photo, New Mexico, United States

Amtrak's Southwest Chief

Amtrak's Southwest Chief connects Chicago with Los Angeles, passing in the way through Kansas City, Topeka, Dodge City, Raton, Lamy (Santa Fe), Albuquerque and Flagstaff.

Santa Fe - Albuquerque

By the end of the nineteenth century a dramatic event shaped the future of Santa Fe; Amtrak decided to skip the city in favor of Albuquerque. Consequently, the last became the largest city in the state, while Santa Fe kept its status as the state's capital. Currently a direct railway - called the Rail Runner - is being constructed between Santa Fe and Albuquerque - the first Amtrak station south of Lamy-Santa Fe. Being a major Amtrak stop, thus trains passing trough Albuquerque stop for refueling and uploading food, thus the breaks there tend to be lengthy.

In an attempt to counterbalance Amtrak's decision, early in the twentieth century it was decided to create a tourism industry by building Santa Fe mainly of adobe in the Pueblo Revival style. The hamlet of Lamy - roughly eighteen miles southwest of Santa Fe - houses the nearest Amtrak station to the capital; from there, the Santa Fe Southern Railway brings passengers and cargo to the city. Lamy was the name of Santa Fe's first bishop; the quarry from where the stones for the cathedral were taken is next to the Amtrak's station.

This time I joined the Amtrak's Southwest Chief in Lamy and left it in Albuquerque. As per the travel conditions, the short trip lasts between a hour and ninety minutes, thus instead of finding a seat in a couch car, I loitered the whole trip at the lounge car.

Practicalities

As of late October 2008, the trip costs $16; though the additional cost from Santa Fe to Lamy should be added. Amtrak operates shuttles between them, but since the last adds $20 to the cost, the trip is not recommended, unless - of course - you are writing an IgoUgo review. As of the same date, there is no public transport from Santa Fe to Lamy.

The Cars

Amtrak cars have two levels, the entry one is often dedicated to boarding the car, hand-luggage storage, some couch seats and toilets, while the upper levels host the couch, sleeping, and dining areas. The lounge car is usually located between the dining one and the first couch car.

The Lounge Car

After having traveled extensively in Chinese trains, the American ones offered an interesting and complementing experience. There is no doubt that the Chinese one are more modern, faster and often more sumptuous; however, those failed to provide a lounge car.

In comparison to other cars, the lounge one offers a slightly different arrangement. Its upper level offers an attractive sitting area while the lower one hosts a snacks bar, a cozy sitting area with proper tables and toilets much larger than the ones in other cars. A point to keep in mind is that the upper level has air conditioners, while the lower one is cozy and warm; that is of special relevance after the sun is gone, when the train becomes a training camp for Arctic conditions.

The Upper Level

Connecting the dining car with the couch ones, the upper level of the lounge car is the perfect place for sightseeing while enjoying a coffee and a snack. At its ends are television sets, though I have never seen them working. Not that it matters since the seats are arranged perpendicular to it and facing large windows covering much of the walls and ceiling; ignoring the moving landscape is impossible. Small tables are on the sides of some of the low chairs; they fit for drinks and small snacks, anything more substantial should be consumed in the lower deck

The Lower Level

In Chinese trains I enjoyed very much the free hot water offered at the samovars located by the cars' ends (the other end featured the toilets). Boarding a train with a tumbler or a cup and a large stock of coffees and teas ensured pleasant trips, where I stayed hot and happy in the freezing Chinese winters. Not surprisingly, American trains do not feature samovars.

The snacks' bar is the local version, and how its name hints, it is much larger than the Chinese counterpart. This is the economic version of the dining car, offering drinks, snacks and small meals. All the heating is done using microwave ovens, thus sandwiches and similar products end up chewy and rather spoiled.

Electric Outlets

Electric outlets can be found on both levels of the lounge car and allow recharging gadgets. However, they often do not work properly. If trying to use the one on the upper level, take note that it is not allowed to leave the cable across the central passage.

The Announcements

The way between Lamy and Albuquerque crosses several Pueblos - indigenous settlements of the high desert. The word is Spanish for "village" and denotes the fact that the indigenous people in the area lived in settlements andwere not nomads.

One of the attendants kept informing us of the sights along the way through the speakers system; this happens only along interesting stretches of the trip, and as a matter of fact this is the last such stretch until Los Angeles.

I have witnessed this several times by now, the event always provides entertaining moments:

"The church would be facing this way," the conductor proclaimed, apparently unaware we couldn't see her hands. She giggled when she caught herself, but did not gave us the correct direction.

The Food

Food is available in the dining car and in the lounge; at the lounge car it is in the form of a snack bar at its bottom level. Unlike most of America, the prices here include taxes and are rounded, saving thus the need to deal with dimes, nickels and pennies. A coffee in a paper cup costs $1.75, the complete menu is presented in one of the pictures added to this entry. However, the choice of foods includes just comfort and fast foods and the service is patchy with often breaks; a sign on the counter announces the time it will re-open.

The Views

The second half of October in New Mexico's high desert is beyond the frost date, hence despite the days being hot, the nights are freezing. Thus, the vegetation offers a rather timid display with the greens fading into yellow. Low grass fills the space between scattered bushes and tree, while "mesas" (table-shaped rock formations) provide interesting views. Next to Albuquerque, the Sandia (Watermelon in Spanish) Mountain is especially beautiful.

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