—Ed. note: We asked correspondent and journalism professor at Colorado State University Lee Anne Peck to document her trip via the Southwest Chief to give a first-hand account of traveling from Trinidad during the pandemic. Peck’s husband Joe Coca helped with some of the photography.
What is the fastest, yet safest way to get to Los Angeles from Trinidad during a pandemic — especially when your California-based son and daughter-in-law need your help with the grandkids? Travel by air connecting in Denver from Pueblo? Flying from the Colorado Springs airport or the Denver International Airport? Board a train? Drive 15 hours?
After doing a Google search for “safe train travel,” traveling by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief seemed like a logical choice for me. Husband could leave me at the Trinidad pickup point, and I could grade papers for my online classes, read magazines and sleep. And the safety precautions Amtrak currently has in place seemed better than trekking through DIA.
Amtrak is currently limiting the number of bookings, so passengers have the appropriate physical distancing from each other. It has also stepped up sanitizing and has a fresh-air exchange in the cars every four to five minutes.
After checking the different seating and sleeping arrangements available, I made a round-trip-reservation online for a roomette, “TRI to LAX,” and back. The reservation included all meals, bedding and one free cocktail.
The day I left was a Saturday in early October; because of the pandemic and the decrease in travel numbers, as of Oct. 12, the Southwest Chief travels only three times a week from Trinidad to Los Angeles and back. (The Chief’s 2,265-mile route starts in Chicago, traveling to Missouri and Kansas before getting to Colorado. Check Amtrak.com for exact days and times the Chief arrives in Trinidad.)
I was the only person getting on the Chief in Trinidad, but several people got off — and they were all wearing masks. Peggy, my car’s attendant, who wore a mask, led me to my sparkling clean roomette. Take note: Everyone must wear a mask everywhere on the train except when in an enclosed compartment if you have one — or when you eat or drink. Hand sanitizer was strategically placed in the car’s walkway, too.
Peggy, who has worked as an Amtrak car attendant for 20 years, took the liberty of making dining-car reservations for me for lunch and dinner. Because everyone practices social distancing in the dining car, reservations are a must. Every other booth remains empty with safety signs.
Unfortunately, the Chief does not have Wi-Fi, and the roomette had only one electrical plug that stated “120 volts — Razor only.”
“That shows you how old this car is,” Peggy said with a smile as the train left Trinidad.
Off we went. The landscape was stunning through New Mexico then Arizona. Cattle and antelope roamed near the train tracks in New Mexico.
In the summer, enough sunlight lets passengers see the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but that would not be happening this October trip. We stopped quickly along the trip at smaller stations when passengers exited for a smoke or to give their dogs traveling with them some relief.
In Albuquerque, we had almost an hour stop. A few vendors (wearing masks) were selling their wares along the tracks, and a supermarket was a short block away for anything one might need — from prepared food to regular grocery-store items. I was all set, however.
For lunch at my scheduled 11: 30 a.m. time slot, I had enchiladas with a red sauce that were as good as I have tasted anywhere. The lunch and dinner menus are the same and include entrees such as red-wine braised beef to shrimp in lobster sauce to pasta and meatballs. For dinner, Michael, the dining car attendant, served me the pasta dish.
To protect passengers, all meals — no matter where you eat — are delivered in large white paper bags. Inside is everything you need: drinks, silverware and side and main dishes. Breakfast is continental, served from 5-5:30 a.m., but you can also get a breakfast sandwich with egg and sausage instead.
If you want to stretch and leave your roomette, bedroom or coach seat, the Skyview Lounge car, which sits between the dining and passenger cars, has comfy chairs and lots of windows for observing the outside world. Social distancing is also practiced, and on the lounge’s lower floor, you can purchase beer, wine, snacks of all kinds and hot or cold sandwiches. John was the attendant the afternoon I visited; he seemed a bit lonely as not many people were visiting.
At nightfall and just past Flagstaff, Arizona, Peggy returned to make up my single bed. The roomette does have a bunk bed, too, so another person could have joined me on my trip for an additional cost. I was comfy, and the train rocked me to sleep.
Another important thing to note is that during the trip, the bathroom on my floor of the sleeper car was constantly kept clean. The car’s bottom floor also had a passenger shower, which was kept tidy and had fresh towels. I decided I was clean enough, though.
In the morning, I went to the dining car for a coffee and a banana muffin. We arrived early to the Los Angeles Union Station at 7:20 a.m. Sunday instead of the scheduled 8 a.m. Those of us in the sleeping cars were transported to the station’s Amtrak lounge where an attendant could help with connections, reservations and questions. She also offered snacks and beverages.
Do I have any regrets traveling by train (Amtrak) to Los Angeles during a pandemic? Not at all — I felt safe and protected the whole time. That said, however, I still had to get back home at that point. Check the Chronicle-News Facebook for my comments about the trip back—if I have any.
If you go…
Want to try train travel yourself? Visit Amtrak.com. Tickets in coach and in sleeping cars are based on when you decide to travel. Amtrak’s website recommends you book early. Fares can be higher around any holidays and peak vacation times.
On the days I traveled, coach seats cost $111 (and remember no one sits right next to you unless its friends or family), so you can spread out. My roomette was about $422, which included a bed and a bunk, and all my meals (plus a cocktail).
Remember that if your meals are not included, the train has a fine snack bar, and you can also bring your own food and drink. Download some movies or TV shows from a streaming service before you leave, so you don’t have to spend extra money using your cell phone’s hot spot — although looking out the window during the day is a pretty good pastime, too.