Riding the rails in Arizona and Mexico by Gordon Hall
A video is available for cost of a blank tape and postage; $20 showing the main highlights of the railways, photo runbys and the complete trip up the scenic Copper Canyon as seen from the video camera mounted in the front window of the dome car. Should be about 10 hours once edited. Contact Gordon Hall if you would like a copy. Karen_Hall@telus.net
We had the opportunity for a family holiday on a special charter train touring around Mexico and through the Copper Canyon packaged with plenty of scenic stops and lots of variety. It sounded like a great way to tour around and see the country, and the timing in early December to get away from the cool wet weather and pre Christmas chaotic rush was just perfect. So planned some touring to make the most of our trip. This review is written for family, friends and rail touring folks. Just click on the links for more info, on each attraction and photos of that area. Our tour included our family of ages 8, 10, 12 mom and dad. We made special arrangements with school for the kids to take homework and learn and report on the trip as we went along.
Our trip began late November 2000 on the Amtrak Talgo train to Seattle, http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/pubtran/amtrakcascades/ the best way to go with a very scenic trip along the shores of Washington State to Seattle harbour. A very comfortable relaxing trip with great views of the Olympic Mountains.
A couple of blocks from the station we caught the Seattle Vintage Streetcar http://transit.metrokc.gov/bus/waterfront_streetcar.html to the waterfront and the kids were delighted with the very informative Seattle Aquarium. A walk up the many stairs of Pike market to an express bus to the airport. Canceled flight to Phoenix Arizona delayed us a bit, booked rental car not there after a bit of a hike with luggage in tow and some time to find another van, hotel had wrong date on our confirmed paid reservation making for a very late and frustrating night.To bed around 2am.
Next day sunny and warm we did the 2 hour drive north to Clarkdale for the Verde Canyon Railroad. http://www.verdecanyonrr.com This is a must do if in Arizona, the railway takes you through a very scenic remote canyon only accessible by rail or foot/horseback. Towering red rock cliffs along the route and excellent narration and history. Take a couple of rolls of film, sunglasses and hat and stand outside on the flat car for the best view. The train has a 1st class section with meals but to see the scenery stay in coach class where each passenger car has a snack bar, basic coaches and an attached flat car with sides and canopy so you can enjoy the fresh air. Be sure to pickup the magazine in the gift shop before leaving with route map and lots of photos and history and other info. Very enjoyable.
We headed off to Sedona for the night and toured the Christmas lights display at a resort, very good. Charlotte had meet another little girl on the train becoming instant friends and was delighted to see her here as well. Sedona is a delightful area for looking around and the famed red rocks, while dad toured and hiked around the kids and mom lazed around and took a dip in the hotel pool. We headed north along the 89A highway through Slide Rock canyon north to Flagstaff, delightful road great views as you climb from desert up to a look out point high in the canyon in the pines with snow on the ground. From Flagstaff we took #180 over the mountain through more snow down to the Grand Canyon park. http://www.thegrandcanyon.com/gc_graphics_files/regional_map_large.jpg
The bus system along the rim seems to work OK but a little slow and very rough roads. The service was sporadic you never knew when they said 15 mintues till the next bus if this meant 25 minutes or 5. Some drivers seemed to race around so they would have more time at the west most end of the trip for a break. This meant you did not have the time to stay out and explore each stop but had to stay close in case a bus came blasting by early. It wasted a lot of time fiddling with the poorly set up bus system instead of enjoying the views. You are not allowed to take your vehicle along the rim. They will soon stop all vehicles outside the park and provide a light rail system from a distant parking area to the main park and shuttle bus area. The frustrating part was the slow village bus system that ran slowly around all the village. We had time to explore most of the west rim and watch the sun set of near the park interpretive center. Allow a full day to best see the park. If you have the time the Grand Canyon Railway would be the best way to go arriving mid morning, stay the night and take the next day afternoon return trip. There is not much for scenery on the rail route though mostly through flat scrub high desert very barren, and a bit pricey of a trip for a family. http://www.thetrain.com
We overnighted in Williams with a good look around the classic Route 66 shops in town, worth a stop. Look for the mini museum with diorama scenes if open when you are in town. Next morning west bound on I40 at the railway overpass you get a good look at the Grand canyon Railway shops area and several old vintage Canadian VIA Rail FA locomotives still in the 1960's VIA Blue and yellow paint scheme. Most of the Grand canyon railway motive power aside from the steam locos are the ex VIA units painted a paint scheme similar to the as delivered 50's CNR (Canadian National Railway) paint scheme. Dark green with gold stripe.
We returned to Flagstaff and a tour of the state museum, with an excellent history of the folks native to the area, worth a stop. Noted an old steam loco at a pioneer museum just a mile from the state museum. After lunch we took highway #17 down to 89A to Prescott and the delightful winding mountain highway, great for a sports car, do not take an RV on this road, wonderful fun winding road fairly remote #89 runs from Prescott to Congress with some great views and steep mountains enroute, though we agreed you can find many more steeper mountain roads and great views in B.C. Canada.
Overnight in Phoenix.
Next day a couple of hours on #10 to Tucson through scenic Suguro National Park, with great views to the desert, and to the Arizona-Sonara Desert Museum. http://www.desertmuseum.org This is a great way to learn about the desert, very well done and informative, helped prepare us for the rest of the trip. All sorts of animals and birds and history and plant life on display here. The kids loved the birds and Raptor free flight displays. Michelle took lots of photos and notes on the different types of cactus for a school report. Following this we did a tour through the International Wildlife Museum, animals from around the world in very realistic sceniced displays. Then off to our hotel in Tucson. The kids loved this.
Next day we meet our tour group of 60 during breakfast, mostly seniors, I am sure they all wondered if our kids were going to trouble on the trip. Loading up on the buses we headed for the Mexican border crossing at Nogales, and after some time clearing customs boarded our charter train the South Orient Express. This is a tourist 1st class train normally run through the copper canyon only but with our special charter by Trains Unlimited Chris had arranged a much different schedule with photo stops enroute and a much more diverse railway schedule. This is something the regular trains do not do. http://www.trainweb.com/trainsunlimitedtours/toppage1.htm
The train consisted of a baggage car with train power and water for the kitchen, and luggage storage, the other 3 cars had the stainless steel Budd fluted bodies cars from the 50's US railways. 1st car a dome had the kitchen in the forward end, upper and lower seating areas with tables where meals were served, 2nd dome car had a forward area with tables where meals were served, under dome was a lounge and bar, then seats no tables in the dome and rear section. Rear car a bar area, and large parlour with large comfy couch style seats where our family seemed to settle in for the trip, large powder room at rear with a very small toilet room. http://www.southorientexpress.com/
We were pulled by the locos supplied by the Ferromex railway. This company took over the original government and smaller railways, most in very bad shape. At one time as in the US passengers and most freight traveled by rail. Now replaced by the road network. All the stations are now very run down mostly derelict buildings and once vast busy railyards are full of old worn railcars left to rust. The mainline track the 1st couple of days was very rough and there were many slow orders enroute. The track was super elevated (banked) quite steeply in the curves for high speed operation, however with the rough track condition we were often stopped or slowed on these curves and glasses and bottles would tend to fall over on the tables as the cars leaned over, a couple of times glasses or stacks of plates would come crashing down around the bar/kitchen areas. Amazing how the cooks and servers could prepare and serve food on this rough track. All of the track was not bad just some sections were a little rough.
The area was desert most of the way with distant mountains, much like Arizona, Cactus some brush but mostly desert. Along the way were small communities of families living in shacks and small homes. In many places old railcars were shoved off on the sidings and rusting away, connecting track long since removed. Many families had taken residence in these old box cars and cabooses, other cars had been stripped of the wood used for housing and firewood leaving a bare metal shell of a car. The highway followed close to the railline most of the route.
The hotels we stayed at on this trip were a real treat, delightful locations with elegant courtyards and settings. Meals were excellent in most. Most of the hotels were of the Balderrrama hotel chain details and photos of each here; http://www.mexicoscoppercanyon.com/
The 1st night was the only on the coast, at an old hotel originally built by the Southern Pacific Railway as a tourist attraction. A stunning setting in the palm trees on the beach. Kids had a good run before departure.
I could go on about the great trip and sites but that has already been done, the following are some links with more info. maps and lots of great photos.
The following are some good tips if traveling by rail on your own;
Over the next week we climbed up the steep canyon walls through incredible views stopping at remote locations to get out for photos. This is very stunning wonderful country. As you start up the climb the vegetation becomes much more thick and there is a great change of vegetation as you climb. Wonderful purple flowered trees dotted the green vegetation through the central area to the peaks where there is pine trees and vegetation is a bit more sparse. There is a regular train that has been running daily up this canyon, 1st and 2nd class trains will now be combined into one train only 3 times a week. Roads are slowly being cut through the canyon, very windy but better pavement as new then most of the rest of Mexico very worn out. What was interesting was the visibly and heavily armed police or security forces at most of the places that we visited. This was evident as well at highway checkpoints we saw as we passed on the train.
For the most part we were fairly close to our hotels, and taken by busses in very good condition. However in the most remote part of Mexico we had a one hour ride on an old school bus along very rough roads to our hotel Mission. Most of the trip was in 1st gear with the odd highlight in 2nd. Next day at this location most folks took another grueling one hour bus ride to a lookout over the copper canyon, I tried but gave up on the way up the hill, despite sticking to bottled water and hotel (safe) food I got sick quite sick to the stomach and did not think I could handle the rough trip. Handing my cameras to others more brave on the rough roads, we all stopped for photos on the high mountain road overlooking the valley and I had a great time getting some photos and wandering back looking around at the rather relaxed farming lifestyle. Others reported a rough road and doubt of the brakes on a fully loaded bus on the steep gravel mountain roads. A look over the video revealed good views of the canyon, but with some haze and the light in the wrong location not good enough for photos, di d not miss much. This lookout is deeper then the Grand canyon and more vast.
The railway through this region is incredible as it loops back on itself from the coast the railway climbs to 8000 feet through the incredible Copper canyon area. The total length of the line to Chichuahua is 415 miles. With numerous bridges and some 89 tunnels. This covers some of the most remote area in Mexico. You get a great sense of the nomadic folks in this area. And do not get the rush of tourism in the main coast areas of Mexico. By stopping in a different location each night there was a nice diverse discovery of each city. In the larger cities, markets were everywhere selling goods found in the US at slightly higher prices. In Creel at other towns we found the youth enjoyed cruising driving up and down the same streets often in rusty old vehicles. It was a interesting mix of old junk and newer vehicles on all streets everywhere we traveled. You might see an old unlicensed 60's era vehicle or something new right off a US showroom floor. With such a collection it seems a dangerous country to drive in. Our 3rd night of the trip on the way to our hotel our tour bus weaved in and out passing slow farm trucks and vehicles along the remote communities, in little villages. Rather then speed zones they have very effective speed bumps that all slow for. Near town we came upon a tanker that had just rolled over in front of us. Upside down the wheels on the trailer spinning, our interpreter jumped out to help the driver as all of us gazed out at the tanker noting the large puncture in the side a liquid pouring out and running towards the crushed cab smoldering possibly a fire starting then with alarm noting the hazardous placard bright red with a flame symbol flammable, it sure looked like fuel pouring out. We panicked thinking it might go up in flames and explode incinerating our bus sitting directly beside the tanker, I urged the bus driver to get out of there, he relented moved up a bit but would not go without our interpreter intent on rescuing the driver. I had visions of everything going up in a fire ball incinerating us all. Finally the guide returned and we left thankful to be in one piece. He later reported that it was just diesel fuel would not explode, but added sometimes they just leave labels and placards on and it could have been any fuel in there. Next day we noted there were no burn marks around the accident site. It took some time for most of us to calm down after that.
Returning to town from the Copper Canyon our engine ran out of fuel near the end of the trip just a few miles from the station we sat on the mainline till the regular passenger train arrived and coupled on and towed us as one big train to town.
On the 2nd to last day of our train trip we noted the train at speed whistling non stop and then the brakes came on full, we could see folks running away from the train then a bump and cloud of dust covering everything as we braked to a halt several hundred feet past a crossing. Many passengers and crew raced to help what it became known as an old school bus used for local transportation we had hit at speed with 32 people aboard. We quickly pulled down the blinds and comforted our children and tried to occupy them otherwise to avoid the panic unfolding outside and the huge crowds gathering in a small community.
To the best that we can learn a bus driver with clear view of the approaching whistling train had either stopped before the tracks then tried to beat the train to the crossing; the train which would have passed in 10 seconds, he either panicked and tried to stop coming to rest on the tracks in the middle of the crossing or stalled the bus mid track. Regardless he and a few others managed to jump clear in time but the train hit the bus mid section full force roughly by this time at 30-40 mph. It seems the driver was running down the road away but caught by local villagers then the police brought him back to the scene. In the end 3 people died and several more were injured many quite seriously. Rescue crews responded fairly quickly.
It took some time to clear the injured then free the train the airlines damaged in the wreck. Fortunately our tour guide with history working on the railways was knowledgeable enough to be able to release the brakes on the train, and back the train up so that the bus could be towed off the tracks. We limped to the next rail station with no train brakes only engine brakes Chris having been able to bypass the lines. The train crawled very slowly with limited braking. At crossings drivers impatient shot the crossing in front of the train, one bus speeding carelessly across in front of us had they known of our accident and limited brakes I doubt they would have been so careless. I must stress please take great care at railway crossings, look before crossing.
So many people were severely affected by the reckless driving of one bus driver crossing in front of us. The whole local community in shock, some with loose of life others injured. The horror of the tragendy engraved on everyone on our train and the many that came to help.
It should be noted that cab riding was allowed on this trip, one chap rode on the front of the train most of the way down over the coupler, others ourselves in the cab and hanging on along the side of the cab gave a very interesting perspective of the trip. Thankfully no one was up front during the accident, the walkways were crushed in. It should be noted that our engines were high nose the engineer located on the right side with the one set of cab controls only, has no visibility to the forward left hand side, he relies on his brakeman for vision here. In the accident the engineer would not have been able to see the bus approaching from the left till it was near the track.
A yard switcher towed our damaged engine away then we had dinner and a bus took most of the passengers now several hours late to our hotel 4 hours north. Many other passengers decided they wished to stay with the train wanting to ride it all the way into town. Our bus ride was in a very new model highway coach which seemed to blast past the trucks and many very slow vehicles on the highway that were moving at a snails pace. The highway was quite rough in places with several stops for speed bumps in small towns and toll collection booths and an armed army check point thankfully they did not go through all the luggage. We arrived around 11pm to a very nice Best Western Hotel with a sign welcoming us out front. While others headed for bed we tried to get the hotel to let us take the luggage of the passengers still on the train to the rooms. A very difficult task as the bus could not get into the yard and left the luggage in a back parking lot. With one dolly and hotel management that refused to let us put luggage in the rooms by the time we wheeled the luggage back to the lobby from the back and got to bed it was 1am. The train passengers waited for hours while the train crew filled out accident reports and waited for a replacement engine, arriving in town and were transferred to the hotel at 4:30am. At 5:30 am our alarms went off for the return trip departing for the train at 6:30am. The mood much subdued this day, for the short rail ride then long customs wait before returning to the Tucson Airport by bus. It was good to be on what seemed to be safer american roads.
We rented a car and went off to visit Old Tucson Studios where many movies of the wild west have been filmed. http://www.oldtucson.com After some good safe american food, and a tour around and watching the lights of the town come on the younger 2 enjoyed several rides as Michelle and Mom took in some old classics films and shows. Charlotte and Timothy mined for gold and found a few bits. Near the end Gordon started to panic realizing he did not have his video camera, thinking I put it down somewhere and someone picked it up we started to search asking around trying to recall, as we left Karen and Michelle returned to see if we were at the mining area still, asking about us they said they just left looking for the camera, Karen held it up and they all had a good laugh as she had been holding on to it. She played us up a bit before admitting she had it. A delightful old western village, we headed off to our bed a breakfast, such a delightful change from our hotel stays.
At the double K ranch I had told the kids they would love the pool with the water fall but did not tell them our hosts were rail fans. Model railways in the bedroom and a fine garden railway around the pool. But the pride was the new caboose an old Southern Pacific Bay window they have been repainting and fixing up with a double bedroom. The model railways had taken a back seat to all the new caboose work which should be ready to stay in very soon. We were disappointed that nothing was operational on the railways, but I am sure this will be corrected once the other work is finished. The next morning after a very good nights sleep and rest in the morning the kids explored and Karen delighted in the gardens and crafts. The kids took a dip in the pool. This is a must stay if you are in Tucson. We drove to the local park for a look around and then some photos of the nearby hills. http://doublekranch.com
Then it was off to explore the Colossal Cave system. The kids delighted in the underground tour, with some interesting history and tales. http://www.colossalcave.com
Afternoon a wonderful sunset on the drive back to Phoenix, and a good nights sleep before our flight home. Ahh the weather. On leaving Vancouver it was much the same as Arizona and Mexico Sunny warm days and higher up on the trip freezing most nights. Some cool mornings.
A much different story and shock returning to Seattle in below freezing weather. Some snow on the ground. Our bus drive back was ok, nice to be home. A couple of days later snow enough to make a mess, ahh to be back in Arizona.
Excellent trip all-round if you get the chance do the Copper Canyon by rail. The next years Trains Unlimited trip is I think better it leaves out the flat part of the country and does the best parts, and leaves out the one very rough bus ride to the Mission. This is the best way to do the canyon by private charter train, photo stops and runbys in remote locations and cab riding. Great hotels and remote scenery. The best way to see Mexico.
As for the train, it was in good shape but could use some minor improvements in a couple of places. But on par and some ways in better condition then the VIA and Amtrak trains. Staff was excellent. Meals some were very good others, well not so tasty, but local flavor. Always served with great presentation and clean tables with linen and silverware. One or 2 as myself did get sick on the trip, but for the most part all well.
We did have the Tracks ahead TV crew on board they shot hours of video and will edit it down to an 8 minute tape to be shown some time next year on the TV program.
Here are a few photos from the trip;
Our charter train over a bridge; http://cdnrail.railfan.net/tpic/mextrn/brg.jpg
Side views of 2 domes and parlour cars;
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