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How is Amtrak faring after its close call?

Amtrak has escaped the federal chopping block with a few dents in its budget, but its nine Western routes appear to be intact. The Southwest Chief even offers a new "land cruise" program. Here's a brief sketch of a recent ride:

"Visitors will become passengers, if they don't detrain now." The conductor's last call left riders chuckling while the Chief pulled out of Union Station in Los Angeles, bound for Chicago. As the train rolled eastward through the night, the streetlights of Southern California gave way to the starlight over the Mojave Desert.

Dawn greeted the Chief in northern Arizona, and early risers saw a herd of elk trotting by the tracks. We breakfasted in the dining car, then listened as a guide described the red rock country east of Gallup, New Mexico. After a window-washing stop at Albuquerque, the train ran on to Lamy, just south of Santa Fe, where--at 2:32 P.M.--we got off.

Three afternoons later, we boarded the westbound train, admired the sunset while eating steak (rare as ordered), then watched Hitchcock's North by Northwest in the lounge car before turning in. The Chief beat the timetable (scheduled 7:40 A.M. arrival) back to Los Angeles.

How is Amtrak faring? The best way to find out is to ride a train yourself. Now's the time to reserve space for a late fall or winter exurcusion; holiday periods are heavily booked. Our timetable on page 57 lists some options for 1/2- to 1-1/2-day (one-way) rail journeys in the West.

Formed by an act of Congress in 1971, Amtrak--the National Railroad Passenger Corporation--carried nearly 20 million passengers last year, including more than 6 million on the nine Western routes. Amtrak will continue to receive federal subsidies, but they'll be cut at least 10 percent in 1986. Amtrak officials say the operating subsidy has been reduced by some $400 million since 1981 and that the revenue-cost ratio is steadily improving. On-time performance, up 11 percent since 1980, now hovers at 80 percent system-wide; some trains, such as the Chief, average better than 90 percent.

To contend with the cut, Amtrak will probably have to trim personnel, a spokesman told us. He predicts the "already skeletonized" Western route system won't be diminished, but some stations may lose agent service.

The most scenic addition to the system came in 1983, when Amtrak took over the Rio Grande Zephyr route from Denver to Salt Lake City--a 531-mile segment now run by the California Zephyr. In winter, it traverses the best snowcapes.

To supplement the views on the Chief, Amtrak has initiated a free "land cruise" program with a short morning movie for youngsters, a guide who describes the afternoon scenery, and a feature-length film at night.

Here's a rundown of what you can expect aboard Amtrak:

Rolling stock. Bilevel Superliner cars (introduced in 1980-81) are used on the West's long-haul trains. These consists of coach, sleeping, and dining cars, and a lounge-cafe car with wraparound windows on the upper level, a cafe below. Single-level Amfleet cars are used on the San Diegan and San Joaquin.

How smoothly the cars ride depends largely on which contract railroad maintains the track. Regular riders say Santa Fe track seems to ride more smoothly than Southern Pacific. New undercarriage trucks are helping ease the shakes.

Accommodations. Overnight passengers have a choice of coach or sleeping cars. In coach, the seats recline; ask the train attendant for a pillow and blanket. There's a nonsmoking section in each coach car.

Each Superliner sleeping car has 14 economy bedrooms, 5 deluxe, and 1 family bedroom. The economy seats two people comfortably, sleeps two compactly (one on the folding seats, one on a pull-down berth); you share rest rooms with no showers. The deluxe sleeps three; there's a toilet and shower in the room. The family bedroom sleeps two adults and two youngsters on child-size beds; no bath.

Attendants help with baggage, prepare your bed, even serve your morning coffee.

Food. In our dining car, we found the food wholesale if mundane. Some evening meals are precooked, frozen, and reheated--on a par with airline fare; our breakfast eggs were fresh, but the home-fried potatoes were dusted with enough paprika to make a Hungarian feel at home. Prices run about $3.25 for breakfast, $4 for lunch, and $5.50 to $10.50 for dinner.

The cafe serves microwaved sandwiches and beverages.

Fares. "All Aboard" fares continue until June 29, 1986. For example, round-trip coach fare from San Francisco to Denver is $150 per person; children 2 through 11 ride for half-fare. For an economy bedroom, add $76 in each direction.

Western rail excursions. On page 57, we list trains with Superliner service, giving schedules in effect through December 31 and probably later. We show departure and arrival times in both directions, and some way-station times. For other stops, consult Amtrak timetables.

Reserve tickets well ahead, especially for bedrooms. For reservations, see your travel agent, or call Amtrak locally or toll-free at (800) USA-RAIL.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1985
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