The Southwest Chief is a 2,256-mile Amtrak route operating between Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California. Knox students commonly use it for regular travel to Chicago and for commuting to and from home. Unlike the California Zephyr, the other transcontinental train running through Galesburg, the Southwest Chief is usually on time. The route runs through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Most of the trackage is owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
Route and Scenery
From Los Angeles, the train runs east to Riverside, California, north to Barstow, and then more or less northeast for much of the rest of the journey. Much of the western half of the trip is high desert, the California and Arizona portions of which are traversed in the night. The train's path takes it between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, to Flagstaff, and there are a number of connecting buses. The primary stop in New Mexico is Albuquerque, where the train often tends to arrive early, which allows travelers to get off and explore the downtown area for up to an hour and a half. The train briefly enters southeast Colorado before entering Kansas by nightfall, with day not arriving again until the train is in Kansas City, Missouri, where there is often some time to explore as well. The train rushes through Missouri and detours briefly into Iowa before crossing the Mississippi at Fort Madison, Iowa, arriving in Galesburg an hour later.
If you're heading west, the order is reversed.
The scenery on the California Zephyr is, on the whole, much more interesting.
Most Knox students stay in the coach cars, of which there are three, located on the rear end of the train. Almost all seating is on the upper level (lower level seating is for disabled persons). The lower level also contains luggage storage and bathrooms. There is one bathroom on each car where, behind the diaper-changing table, one can use a coin to turn a screw and then fiddle with the car number.
When the train is at all crowded, the train attendants assign seats. Otherwise the seating is usually open. A placeholder slip stuck on the luggage rack claims the seat for you when you are not in it.
Knox students do not tend to use sleeping car accommodations. The one known exception is Brian Conley, who reserved one reportedly because the coach seats were sold out. They are triple the cost (or more) but have more privacy and beds.
The chairs offer a lot of legroom, and the seats can be leaned back and a footrest propped up for sleeping. Sleeping is very uncomfortable, although it is much improved if you have a two-seat row to yourself. Generally, conditions are much less cramped and more comfortable than airplane travel
The windows have a lot of glare.
Most Knox students, taking the train to and from Kansas City or points east, often share seats. Those who get on or are going further west will have a whole row for much of the trip. Generally, due to the lower population density of the service area, the Southwest Chief is less crowded than the California Zephyr.
In front of the coach cars there is a lounge car, with cramped seating arrangements on the upper level (these are popular with people who have seatmates they don't know) and a snack bar with seating booths on the lower level. The snack bar serves food including hot dogs, hamburgers, personal pizzas, chips, hot wings, candy, cookies, sodas, and airplane-sized bottles of alcohol. The alcohol laws of whatever state the train is in are followed. The food is expensive, and is tolerably good, but after two days one's stomach might feel a little queasy. The snack bar is open from 6 AM to 11 PM. After 11 PM, the lower level is a good place to socialize, drink, and play music without bothering anybody else.
In front of that there is the dining car, with serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food is better, with waited tables and so on, but dinner runs about $15-20 per person. A train attendant comes through the train asking for reservations for lunch and dinner, but he goes to the sleeping cars first. It is best to make reservations with parties of at least three people when the train is at all crowded, because otherwise the porters will seat smaller parties together at the same table, leading to awkward conversation.
The climate within the trains is generally quite dry. It is best to stock up on water or other beverages for overnight travel.
There is no smoking allowed on the trains. Every few hours the train stops long enough for passengers to smoke a cigarette. These stops are not particularly regular and are based on train schedules and station intervals, so cigarette smokers must be prepared.
The cars were built several decades ago, so there are very few electrical outlets. Generally there is one located near the center of each coach car, in a seat row. The lounge car has two plugs on the upper level and three or four more plugs on the lower level. Sometimes one is forbidden from using the outlets on the lower level, but nobody will check after the snack bar is closed.
Staff and fellow passengers
Southwest Chief riders are a curious bunch. They come from various walks of life, although they are rarely in a hurry.
A large number of Knox students use the Southwest Chief, generally for travel between Knox and points west. Unlike the California Zephyr, the Southwest Chief is reliable enough to be used for travel to and from Chicago.
Most people talk to the snack bar attendant most, followed perhaps by the train attendant during a long cigarette break. They are nice, laid-back people.
The trains, numbered 3 (westbound) and 4 (eastbound), depart once per day.
The published schedule is located here.
Major Knox student-frequented stops and their schedules (in local time) include:
|City||Westbound train departs||Eastbound train departs|
|Chicago||3:15 PM||3:10 PM (end)|
|Naperville||3:50 PM||2:34 PM|
|Galesburg||5:53 PM||12:00 PM|
|Kansas City||10:55 PM||7:35 AM|
|Topeka||1:09 AM||5:10 AM|
|Newton (Wichita)||3:25 AM||2:51 AM|
|La Junta||8:30 AM||8:13 PM|
|Albuquerque||4:45 PM||12:45 PM|
|Los Angeles||8:15 AM (end)||6:55 PM|
The train is almost always on-time or early, barring track closures or other major delays.
Nonetheless, when expecting a train, one should always check the Amtrak website for schedule updates. Sometimes the website is not updated in a timely fashion (especially during major delays), in which case it's better to call 1-800-USA-RAIL for train status information.
- California Zephyr
- Burlington Northern Santa Fe
- Union Pacific
- Illinois Zephyr
- Carl Sandburg (train)