By Fran Baseden

“Riding the rails” is something that I had not done since the early 1960’s. Taking the Amtrak from Phoenix, AZ, to Dallas, TX, this past Christmas was a big event for me. However, Amtrak stopped coming into Phoenix about 10 years ago so I had to leave from Tucson, 110 miles away. The first thing I noticed about Amtrak in my contacts with them (which were many over a period of several months) was that no matter what time of the day or night I called for information, the operators were always courteous and helpful.

Due to limited walking ability, I was able to book an accessible sleeper so long as I brought a doctor’s letter and other proof of disability to show to the train conductor in order to qualify for the room. Wondering what they would have done if I had forgotten the documents or didn’t have any to begin with, I shuddered to think of the consequences. No need to worry, however, as once on the train no one ever asked for proof.

Well-Equipped Waiting Room?

I was assured by the reservations clerk there would be no problem getting a wheelchair when I arrived at the train station in Tucson. “The waiting room is well equipped,” the woman stated on the telephone. On arrival, though, it became obvious she had not been to Tucson or she would have known the Tucson station only had one wheelchair. When I arrived an elderly woman, who appeared as if she had staked a claim to it and was not going to relinquish it until after the train had departed, already occupied it. The walk to the train was not that far, at least that is what my driver said, as she helped me to it limping, huffing, and puffing.

So Much for Accessible Boarding

I did not take my steadfast electric scooter with me, and I was glad that decision had been made because the train I was on did not have a hydraulic lift to raise or lower a scooter, electric wheelchair, or even a regular wheelchair. The only way to board the train was to take a very high step onto a metal stool, grab the sidebars on the car’s doorway, and request the porter give assistance. As far as I was concerned, at this point in the trip (which hadn’t officially begun yet), Amtrak was batting zero.

Once on board the train, things began to look brighter. The accessible sleeper was a delight. The room was as wide as the train with two seats facing each other that made into a bed on one side and a sink and commode on the other. The area was plenty large enough for a scooter or wheelchair, and there was a nice big window on each side of the room with a privacy curtain down the middle. The room had an emergency call button, a ceiling fan, and a radio that didn’t work. The wall and ceiling lighting was sufficient both day and night. The seats were very comfortable, but when made into a bed sleeping wasn’t that pleasant.

Cost Factors and Meals

The cost of the accessible sleeper was considerably less expensive than a non-accessible one and much larger. In fact, the accessible sleepers are the largest rooms on the train (at least this is what I was told). There were only two sleepers on my train so I was glad that I had made my reservations two months in advance. According to the reservationists I talked to, less than a month in advance would have been too late. All of the Amtrak seating and sleeping arrangements were, however, far more expensive than air travel would have been. In the accessible sleeper all meals were included in the cost of the trip. I do not know about the other accommodations. I was able to order from the regular menu (which included a $20.00 steak dinner). Otherwise, in my opinion, the food was somewhat pricey. Meals were delivered to the room in a timely manner, once on a tray covered with a white linen cloth like in the “old days.” The rest of the time meals arrived in a rather clever brown paper sack with handles attached, and could be conveniently set outside the heavy sliding compartment door when empty.

The dining car was up a flight of stairs and forward five cars, but for those who could walk, it sounded very nice from the way it was described by other passengers. Each compartment had a speaker with a nice sounding, deep voiced male giving out periodic notices: the dining car was open, closed, snacks available, movies were starting, etc. The baked chicken from the dinner menu was the best I have ever eaten, but all other meals, I thought, were standard fare.

Sights, Scenes and Strangers

It seemed as though we stopped at every puddle between Tucson and Dallas. In actuality we made 20-30 stops going by way of Austin and San Antonio. It was fun to see the countryside change from desert to prairie, then grassland, and finally lakes and rolling hills. One train stop was in the middle of nowhere with a park bench and a sun roof, another was in a tiny town that had Victorian style homes albeit rundown but, oh, they must have be beautiful in their day. I saw snakes, deer, and longhorn steer, rabbits, wavers, hobos, and a wolf along the way. One time we lost a wheel, another there was a train in front of us that had trouble, and we had to stop long enough for it to get ahead of us, so we didn’t run over it.

As we rode through small, rural communities it appeared to me that more people rely on the Amtrak as a primary source of travel rather then a secondary one as I had imagined. Because the accessible sleeper is on the first level and most people are riding on the upper level, I did not meet many people. The ones I did meet, however, were all friendly and interesting. One family was traveling together so their young children could simply experience the joy of train travel. Another woman said she took the Amtrak several times a year from Tucson to Missouri to visit her elderly mother. A middle-aged man said he travels between Texas and Los Angeles on business two times a month, and always on the Amtrak. From time to time people would come from the upper level to the first level to enjoy the fresh air coming through the open window in the luggage stow area. If they saw my light on or the door slightly open, they knew they were welcome to stop in and say hello.

Beautiful fireworks lit up the sky on New Year’s Eve during the return trip all the way across Texas. New Year’s morning broke overcast, and very quiet as we passed through small towns that might have just quit partying.

Home Again

Back in Tucson my driver, unfortunately, had not heard that we were arriving an hour early. I was concerned about getting off the train with Christmas gifts and bags stuffed full. The able-bodied porter set my heavy bags down on the ground (probably 300 feet from the station), assisted me off the train, then turned and walked away. When I finally caught one more glimpse of him I asked for help. “It isn’t my job,” he yelled, as the train pulled out heading west to Los Angeles.

Did I enjoy my trip on the Amtrak? Yes, I did. Were there problems with accessibility? Lots of them. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.