Train Ride to L.A. Shows Albuquerque Depot Doesn't Measure Up to Other Amtrak Stops
By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
"I'm sittin' in the railroad station, got a ticket for my destination"— Paul Simon
I'm standing in Albuquerque's tiny, scruffy Amtrak ticket office because there aren't enough chairs. There's no soap in the restroom and the single commode this day has unleashed a sizable flood.
Meanwhile, the handicap restroom, so beset by woes, is closed.
In the ticket office waiting room, the grim peephole windows seem more appropriate for a jail cell, and the air fits a bayou.
"This place is a dump," admits Amtrak station agent Marvin Pendergrass. "We don't even know when a train arrives."
My destination on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend is Los Angeles. The purpose? To learn whether Albuquerque, which owns a long and glorious rail travel history, is alone in sticking its passenger train headquarters in something resembling a storage shed.
My trip will reveal that Amtrak has given up completely on some stations. Others, like Albuquerque's, struggle mightily to survive. And a few well-appointed depots still make train travel a wonderful way to go.
Banished to a box
In truth, Albuquerque's Amtrak office on First Street once was a storage shed. On the back of the gray stucco blockhouse, one of the last buildings standing that was connected to the legendary Alvarado Hotel, are these faded words: "Indian Store Room."
The Indians are still around, selling silver and turquoise jewelry on the station's platform, 30 hard yards east. Close by the platform rises the nifty, partially completed Alvarado Transportation Center. In a few months, Greyhound buses, a light rail commuter line and a Downtown tourist train will arrive to join the center's city bus hub, already in place.
Amtrak passengers will be shut out of the new complex, banished to the office the railroad has used since 1993, when the original station burned down.
Things have been worse. Pendergrass says that for awhile after the '93 fire Amtrak sold tickets in the parking lot from the cab of a pickup.
But why are things the way they are today?
Simply, the city and Amtrak haven't been able come to terms. Amtrak blames the city; Albuquerque faults Amtrak.
The city owns the aged ticket office, lets Amtrak use it rent-free and has no intention of moving it. An Amtrak spokesman says the railroad had a deal with the city's old Urban Council to move into the new transportation center, but the city reneged.
A representative for the city says Amtrak never got on board, likely for financial reasons.
"It just breaks my heart what is happening to Amtrak," says Mayor Martin Chávez. "But they don't have penny one."
Chávez says he walked Amtrak officials through the new transportation facility three years ago or so, and they were interested. But nothing happened.
"We can't carry their burden. Look, Greyhound donated land to the city and gave us $1 million to be in that complex."
Marc Magliari, a director of media relations for Amtrak, says Albuquerque reneged. "They were going to give us room, but then decided not to. I can't tell you exactly why."
To outsiders, the separation is painful. "It's a travesty to know your big, beautiful transportation center won't have Amtrak in it," says Marty Soholt, who lives in Mantua, Utah. Like me, Soholt will travel to L.A. this night on the Southwest Chief, which originates in Chicago.
Railroad lifers like Soholt, 52, call Amtrak's Albuquerque ticket office an "Amshack." Indeed, Amshacks dot the nation these days as the railroad recinches its tourniquet-tight belt. Small, makeshift structures for the most part, often unstaffed, Amshacks reflect the railroad's downsizing.
"Most of the nicer stations are not nicer because of Amtrak," Soholt says. It's "because the community that they're in restored them."
Gallup's station is clearly that way. The original building was designed by the remarkable architect Mary Jane Colter, and opened in 1923. Thanks to the city of Gallup, the historic depot has been partially refurbished, and Indians still dance there in the summer.
Up the track at Winslow, Ariz., La Posada, once a glittering Colter-designed Harvey House, which stands alongside the Winslow station, is being privately restored as an upscale hotel and restaurant.
You can still get off a train at the historic California stations of Barstow and San Bernardino, but you have to tell a ticket agent ahead of time. Amtrak has pretty much abandoned those two depots, both architectural marvels.
A community has to make the first step to reunite the two, says Soholt. "People in cities where Amtrak is need to understand that Amtrak is not a profitable concern."
Where is the welcome mat?
The Southwest Chief finally pulls into Albuquerque 21/2 hours late. The delay, passengers learn, is because the engine struck a shopping cart someone placed on the tracks north of the city.
In Amtrak's 34 years of existence, money has poured out of the railroad like Victoria Falls. Earlier this year, only after Congress came up with $1.2 billion was Amtrak able to chug onward. Last month, Amtrak's board of directors fired the president of the railroad, transit system genius David Gunn, for lack of "vision."
Mayor Chávez says he doubts "we'll have passenger service in New Mexico in two years."
In the Southwest Chief's lounge car this night, three passengers have squeezed around a small table. Guillermo Reyes, 56, is a probation officer; Eugenia Mendez, 63, a retired schoolteacher; Roberto Blanco, 49, a restaurateur.
The three act like old friends, but met only hours before on Albuquerque's station platform. All are heading back to Los Angeles, after spending a few days visiting New Mexico, where they saw relatives or did business.
Quickly the three find a common concern: the unpleasantness of boarding a train in Albuquerque, which can only be done through the back door of a dimly lighted baggage room in the Amtrak ticket office.
Mendez: "I've seen a lot of changes in Albuquerque since 1987, but the station is always under construction. It never changes."
Reyes: "It's not a very attractive place."
Blanco: "Did you notice everyone was sitting on the floor waiting?"
Mendez: "You couldn't get through it. Not people-friendly at all."
Blanco: "After that place, you almost don't want to get on a train."
Reyes: And the smell in there ... what was that?"
Mendez: "Not green chile ..."
No room at the in-bounds
"We want Amtrak to be in Albuquerque," says Ed Adams, the city's chief operating officer. "We've tried to help them find another place, but they've never responded."
Amtrak's Magliari explains the railroad's split with the city this way: "Our philosophy is like the airlines'. A city provides a facility, and we provide the trains. We want to be where everybody else is, but at a cost we can afford."
Magliari says that across the nation transportation modes share space in the same venues.
A handsome, red brick building, erected in 1925, houses Flagstaff's train station.
In 1994, that city bought the station from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. Major renovations were done by the city, including adding a visitor's center. Amtrak had a ticket office in the old station and continues to have one in the new building, paying a modest monthly lease to be there. Amtrak isn't merely a tenant. The passenger train service runs a shuttle that takes visitors to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon.
"Amtrak's part of things here," says Sharlene Fouser, who supervises the station's new visitor's center. "We're glad to have them."
Finishing with a flourish
Like a lot of railroad stations, mammoth Union Station in Los Angeles has experienced the peaks and valleys of American rail travel. Built in 1939 as the last large metropolitan passenger terminal in the United States, and designed in part by Colter, Union Station clearly reached its zenith in 1950. That's the year the movie "Union Station," starring William Holden and filmed mostly in the station, appeared. Soon after, everyone discovered air travel and the downtown station with the tall, white clock tower out front, grew deserted. Only after Amtrak came along in May 1971 did Union Station experience a rebirth.
Owned by a private development corporation, Union Station today is a busy place. Commuter lines to other parts of Southern California feed into the station. Twenty-eight Amtrak trains depart or arrive daily. The station's terrazzo floors and muraled ceilings gleam. A restaurant in the waiting room features linen tablecloths and a menu that offers champagne for $280 a bottle.
There's a cozy bar with Art Deco details and a wonderful courtyard trimmed by rose gardens and shaded by jacaranda trees.
Eddie Sandoval, an Amtrak red cap who carts travelers to and from trains, has worked at Union Station for 17 years. "I like the people; I like to help them," he says. "I can't imagine Amtrak not being here. This is home."
Home for me is Albuquerque, where the Amtrak station awaits my arrival. The truth? I'm in no big hurry to get there.