Amtrak’s long distance train services can be a conundrum. Taxpayer-funded, often unreliable, and unprofitable since Amtrak’s formation in the early 1970s, they’re also a fun way to spend a weekend.
I found myself in Dallas looking for something to do over a weekend, when I happened across Amtrak’s Texas Eagle. Also known as southbound train 21/421(21 is daily from Chicago to San Antonio, 421 combines with Sunset Limited in San Antonio and continues to Los Angeles three days a week), the train provides also provides much needed daily common carrier service to smaller communities along the route.
The idea drew some strange looks from fellow Dallasites accustomed to an hour flight or a four hour drive to get to the Alamo City. By comparison, the journey on Texas Eagle is scheduled at ten hours and five minutes. Voluntarily subjecting oneself to a journey ten times longer than flying might seem like unnecessary torture, but it’s important to remember that sometimes the destination is the journey.
A microwave might cook food in minutes, but that doesn’t prevent the slow food movement from rediscovering the pleasure of an hours-long braise. Similarly, there’s a slow travel movement out there which takes pleasure in anachronistic forms of transportation like train and ocean liner, rediscovering the travel sensibilities of yesteryear.
For a first time visitor, it might be worthwhile to maximize time on the ground at the destination. I’ve been to San Antonio multiple times before, and I was really just looking for a new experience to spend time on during an otherwise unplanned weekend.
A coach ticket would have been about $30, while a Roomette (Amtrak’s introductory sleeper accommodation) was going for $108 (the price for accommodations is the same, regardless of the number of occupants, although each room category has a maximum). Sleeper accommodations also include meals, so there’s a good bit of value in the additional cost on a daylight train. I also value sanctuary, and it’s nice to have somewhere to escape if the lounge car gets too noisy.
Even at ten hours, it’s not the full calendar day commitment like my journey on Coast Starlight last summer, but there’s still some panache in hopping a train, even at Amtrak’s rather time-worn facilities. Union Station in Dallas is built in the rather palatial Beaux-Arts style popular at the turn of the century (the building is a 1916 vintage) although the passenger waiting areas have a rather institutional midcentury feel to them, with signage a mixture of ancient plastic letterboard, dry erase boards, and computer printouts.
The inbound train was about an hour behind schedule, but arrived in Fort Worth on time, thanks to heavy schedule padding. The journey between the two cities can be done in as little as thirty minutes, but on Train 21 it’s scheduled at a leisurely hour and 35 minutes to make up for delays (as it did in this case). For the rest of the journey, the train stayed more or less on schedule, arriving into San Antonio a few minutes early.
Although the sleeping car accommodations seemed fully booked, the dining car wasn’t anywhere near capacity. A full section of it was closed throughout the journey, and while reservations are typically taken for lunch, the sleeping car attendant advised lunch that day was first-come-first-served. There was a single server covering a handful of tables at both meals.
I was shocked to find mussels as an entree option at lunch, and again pleasantly surprised when they turned out to be delicious (and quite a healthy portion). I wouldn’t have imagined the shellfish to be popular on a midcontinent train service, but they’re offered on virtually all Amtrak long-distance trains for the current menu cycle. Interestingly, Amtrak publishes different menus for each branded long-distrance train, which seems wasteful as they’re identical on most Western long distance trains, aside from the cover art.
Time spent not dining on the train was quite comfortably air conditioned in the roomette with a vista to captivate through the large picture window. It was fascinating to watch prairie scrub slowly morph into a more subtropical lushness as the train snaked its way south into another climate zone, passing through fields that alternated between corn and cattle.
For socializing and even finer multidirectional views, there’s the lounge car with tables and lounge seating, as well as the first level cafe with snacks, soft and hard drinks, and take-out style meals at reasonable prices. Across from me a pair of older ladies had brought snack with them and laid out a makeshift picnic dinner at one of the tables, while next to me a group consumed an impressive amount of beer and got more animated as the evening progressed.
Pulling into each station stop was something of a treat, watching the local townspeople come out to collect people who were expected to arrive or saying their farewells to those departing. At some stations there also appeared to be a number of rail fans, just out to see the train stop through on its daily trek south.
Dinner was a fine surf and turf of flatiron steak and a mixed seafood cake of scallop, crab, and shrimp, which was quite lovely with a reasonably priced glass of cabernet finished off by Amtrak’s traditional pecan tart. A la carte the entree price seemed rather inflated at $39, but some how it felt more reasonable when included in the price of the ticket.
The Takeway: The journey was worth the time and expense, from the onboard and in-station people watching to the dramatic Austin station stop where the train is backdropped by the Austin skyline and seems to float across Ladybird Lake at sunset. If time isn’t of the essence, the greatest luxury of taking the train is in simply the time on the journey, but certainly not wasting it.
Pro Tips: Travelers continuing past San Antonio should book Train 422, since those are the cars that combine with the Sunset Limited to continue West. The station stop in San Antonio is scheduled at several hours in the middle of the night, which may allow for more restful sleep than when the train is underway.
If booking sleeping accommodations, remember to bring cash for gratuities. Meals are included in the sleeper ticket, but tips are discretionary, and much appreciated.
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