To Santa Fe by Amtrak

San Clemente Pier.
San Clemente Pier.

After several attempts, I’m off to Santa Fe, NM, to visit my friend, the author Janet Lowe. Wanting to get some rest, avoid airports and try something different, I opted for the overnight trip on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Leaving San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner, its a bit more than two traffic-free hours to the classic Los Angeles Union Station. After less than an hour’s layover, I’m in my roomette for the overnight to Lamy, NM on the Southwest Chief.

Funny thing about Amtrak, or rather what most folks think about it. We hear of the delays, derailments and downsides, its budget problems and complaints about public subsidies. Of course, freeways and airports — and now US auto makers — are far bigger pigs at the public trough than the trains. When I was talking about taking this trip, friends and acquaintances generally would snort about Amtrak being a waste of money, or say “what a neat idea” and then sort about it being a waste of money.

Plain fact is that transportation systems have always been supported by some sort of tax money, whether it was the land grants from the feds that got the railroads built, the airports constructed with either military or federal dollars, or the state and federal bucks that built — and are now trying to patch potholes from coast to coast on — the interstate highway system. Get over it.

Santa Fe depot in San Diego.
Santa Fe depot in San Diego.

For their landgrants, the railroads built everything, including stations. The trip starts off at our beautiful Santa Fe Depot, near the bay in downtown San Diego.

My mid-day train on the Pacific Surfliner is about half-full, with folks embarking and debarking along the route. A few years ago, Amtrak renamed and upgraded the equipment, and along the years since the ’71 takeover from Santa Fe has changed the name from the San Diegan to Pacific Surfliner. It now goes as far as San Luis Obispo once a day but the other trips end at Santa Barbara. A cafe car has snacks but it’s best to bring your own ($2.50 for a bottle of water).

The tracks still hug the coast to past San Clemente and the afternoon sunset can be spectacular. Through the heavily tinted windows, the San Clemente pier (the train stops there) is a beautiful, California vista.

Inside, the cars are similar to other commuter lines that Amtrak offers around the country. This route is the busiest outside of the Northeast corridor… a big traffic drop, but still the easiest way to get from downtown-to-downtown, Los Angeles to San Diego.

It seems that the trip through the LA passenger yards takes the longest of the trip, but it was good to see some investment on the part of Amtrak. Newish looking shops, wash facilities and activity in the old roundhouse. It’s a hub for the rail system, with three long-distance trains a day either starting or ending here. We pass the Mission Tower and go up the incline to what’s been called the “Last of the Great Stations,” the last huge passenger train station built before WWII and the decline of passenger traffic that came after.

The hour’s layover gave me just enough time to wander the halls of the station, which was fairly busy for a Saturday evening. Now as hub for LA’s subway, local and regional transit systems, there was a decent crowd at the Traxx restaurant and about three-fourths of the waiting room seats were filled. A couple, just married probably minutes earlier, were having their wedding photos taken by one of the fountains in the plaza. I thought they were models. I don’t know much about wedding gowns, but this one looked spectacular, as did the bride. Can’t tell you much about the groom. As I was wandering around the front of the building a few minutes later, their limo went by with the new Mr. and Mrs. screaming out of the back window. Happy life to them.

The call went out at 6:25 for the Southwest Chief, Track 11, and off I went for the overnight to Santa Fe. More to come.

Day 10: Friends and Exploration

I hooked up with my college buddy Cole Warner, an editor at the Times-Picayune, for breakfast. He and his family are doing much better than when I left them in February 2006. Their house was a few blocks from a levee break and they’d moved what was left over to Baton Rouge.

Cole looked much better… they’d moved back into the house in December and things were getting back to normal, as much as they can in New Orleans.

I spent the rest of the day in the Warehouse District and waterfront, visiting the National World War II Museumand other spots in the area.

I highly recommend the museum, as it takes visitors from the beginnings of the conflict in the early 1930s through a bit of the post-War period. It also, pretty equally, covers both the Pacific and European theaters.

For lunch, I wandered over to the Riverwalk Marketplace. When I left in 2006, there were two cruise ships anchored behind it, and very few shops were open. The two cruise ships were filled with police, firefighters, municipal workers and their families, refugees in their own town.

The mall is about three-quarters open… probably what it was before the storm. The rest of the Riverwalk (the site of the 1984 World’s Fair) seemed to be restored.

Day 9: Looking for the Gulf

Back in late 2005 and 2006, I spent a couple of months in New Orleans helping, I hope, on the cleanup from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there, I never got down to the tip of Louisiana, through Plaquemains Parrish. I spent the day cruising down Highway 23 to the southernmost point of Louisiana.

As sad as it is, this area looks like the hurricanes hit just a few months ago. Lots of trailers, damaged buildings and not a lot of people. A few places have recovered, mainly those that service the shipping and oil industries that use this as a jumping off point.

The couple of schools along the way looked rebuilt, but the hospital in Pt. Sulfur, along with a couple of community centers, are damaged and closed. Two fire stations looked open, with their rigs parked in the engine bays, but the buildings around them were heavily damaged.

A friend later told me that this area had pretty much been depopulated.

Then there it was, past the little town of Venice, the road ended at a sign that said “Southernmost Point of Louisiana.” Can’t see the gulf from there because it’s not the end; the shipping channel continues for a few more miles. It’s just as far as I could drive.

On the way back, I took the ferry across the Mississippi River at Point a la Hache, then heading back into New Orleans.

Day 8: New Orleans

It was a bit strange heading over I-10 into New Orleans. A couple of years back, I took this route a few times while working on the cleanup from Hurricane Katrina. Still a lot of traffic here, even in the middle of the day.

Oh, and by the way, before heading over to New Orleans, I got lost one more time in Baton Rouge. The nearest laundromat to my hotel was near LSU; I found it OK, but missed the turn to go back the same way. With the roads in that town going all whichaway, I wandered around a half hour before finding the freeway. And as you might know from my web site, I like driving around and discovering new things. After a half-hour, I did stop and ask for directions; ended up I was about a half-mile from I-10.

Back to the road into New Orleans. If you haven’t been there since the storm — or never been there — a bit of the layout of the town. East of the Causeway (the highway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain) is the City of New Orleans and where the damage started. So, once you get through the swampy area south of the lake and pass I-310 and the airport, it pretty much looks like it always has: ugly suburban sprawl.

West of the Causeway, back in late 2005 and early 2006 when I was helping on the cleanup, damage was visible from I-10.

On my return visit, some of the mess was still visible, but there has been a tremendous amount of cleanup. There’s still a long way to go… you can’t flood much of a major city for a month and shut off the power for weeks and expect everything to be cleaned up in a few weeks. But, there has been progress.

Next: Heading South