When Amtrak’s Texas Eagle leaves its station in historic St. Paul’s Square, it does so in reverse. Slow and steady, until you can see the Lone Star neighborhood through the windows. There, it changes tracks and finally heads northbound, toward its final destination, Chicago.
The Eagle is scheduled to depart San Antonio at 7 a.m. on a recent Thursday. While passenger after passenger arrives on the platform, the train already waits on the tracks. It’s still dark, and fluorescent lights reflect off the train’s metal surface, making it look somehow futuristic and old-fashioned at the same time.
People shuffle around on the platform, waiting to board. Many of them carry blankets and pillows for the journey; some opt for coffee instead. Each yawns at one point or another.
The only audible excitement comes from a group of young elementary school kids, who eagerly await their train adventure. “This is awesome,” whispers one of them.
Traveling by train from San Antonio to Austin or points beyond is not rapid or especially convenient, but travelers say it’s affordable and really comfortable.
While 7 a.m. might be a normal departure time for the typical train commuter, it’s actually the last one of the “night.” Texas Eagle trains leaving San Antonio are regularly scheduled for 9:55 p.m., 2:45 a.m., 6:25 a.m., and 7 a.m.
There are two passenger trains that frequent Amtrak’s San Antonio station. The Texas Eagle runs between San Antonio and Chicago. The entire trip takes about 32½ hours. On its way it passes through Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis, among many other stops. The Sunset Limited, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans, takes approximately 48 hours one way. Stops on the way to California include Del Rio, El Paso, and Phoenix.
Passengers can connect the two routes in San Antonio, traveling between Chicago and Los Angeles in a just about 65 hours and 20 minutes.
Because train schedules dictate its operating hours, the Amtrak office is open only at night. It’s a small building, functionally arranged, housing a few rows of plastic seats, two vending machines, and a ticket booth.
In the past, passengers would wait in more splendor, at Sunset Station. The historic depot building, right next to the current Amtrak office, hasn’t served as a train station since 1998 and is now a venue for weddings and events. Completed in 1903, Sunset Station was built in the Spanish Renaissance style and has become a symbol for San Antonio’s longtime history with rail travel.
And yet not many Texans seem to travel by rail these days. While Amtrak’s ridership has declined only minimally over the last two years, the number of passengers doesn’t come close to competing with those on Californian or Northeastern routes. The San Antonio station counted only about 57,000 boardings and deboardings in 2017. Although population is only one factor affecting ridership, the metropolitan areas of comparably sized Pittsburgh recorded roughly 145,000 that year and Sacramento, California, Amtrak’s seventh-busiest station, logged more than 1 million boardings and deboardings, according to Amtrak data.
San Antonio’s low numbers are apparent aboard the Texas Eagle that Thursday morning. The 40 or so people waiting to board the train are distributed by their destination to different train cars. That results in fairly empty train cars, at least for the 2½-hour journey to Austin.
However, the few passengers seem to enjoy the luxury of sprawling over the plush seats. Many of them immediately go to sleep, no doubt a result of the many carry-on blankets and the lulling rhythm of the train.
Not sleeping but definitely cozy on their very first train journey are Santos and Blanca, both 63 years old. They’re on their way to Austin, to see their grandson’s golf game.
“It’s the first time we’re going to see him. And the reason we’re taking the train is because I hate that traffic going over there. We’ve done that route three times already” says Santos.
Blanca nods: “The first time it took us four hours.”
Both have experienced the Interstate 35 commute that many residents of San Antonio and Austin consider a nightmare. “We had traffic bumper to bumper, and we’d go for five minutes and then we’d stop again” Santos recounts.
It was one of their children, Blanca remembers, who suggested they take the train. “This is nice” she says and points towards her stretched-out legs and the metal foot rest in front of her.
“It’s comfortable. And I don’t have to worry about him [Santos]. You know his vision is not what it was anymore.”
“And she always falls asleep” Santo teases her.
But comfort is not the only factor for them, they say, since the $15 one-way Value Fare is affordable as well. “It’s probably what we would have spent on gas anyway” Santos surmises.
Others use the freedom of not being behind the wheel themselves to get some work done. Nicole, a 20-year old student from San Marcos, has chosen a seat in a car with a panoramic window. “I’m visiting a friend in Fort Worth” she says. “This way I can do my homework. But it also wastes less gas, and there’s less air pollution.”
It’s her second time taking the train. So far, she’s satisfied with the service. “It could be on time more. Today it was 10, 15 minutes late. But it didn’t bother me that much.”
In Austin, the second stop for the Texas Eagle, passengers can step outside of the train for a minute, stretch their legs, or let their service animals explore the grassy strip next to the platform.
Jeff, 53, uses this break for a quick smoke. He still has a long way to go, traveling to St. Louis. It will take him about 23 hours, he muses as he watches new passengers boarding the train. This is the second time he’s taken this train. “It’s just better than the bus,” he says before hurrying off to get back on the train before it leaves.
Does commuter rail travel have a future in Texas? One study, with analysis by L.E.K. Consulting for Texas Central Partners, which is developing a high-speed train line between Houston and Dallas, shows that a majority of Texans wouldn’t be opposed to Texas Central at all.
Plans for the Lone Star Rail District, which would have facilitated public transit between the San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas, fell through after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in Austin voted in 2016 to remove Lone Star Rail from its long-range transportation plan.
“Lone Star was a great idea, but unfortunately they didn’t have the ability to work with the host railroad, which would be Union Pacific. If they did, you probably would have trains running between Austin and San Antonio either now or you would have them in several years” says Peter LeCody, president of the Texas Rail Advocates interest group.
He does, however, have high hopes for Texas Central, which he says “is really going to open up a lot of eyes.”
LeCody is aware of the concerns many San Antonians have about rail travel, such as fears that it might end up a boondoggle. “We’re working now with some of the State legislators. Hopefully we can get this moved up to a point where we can renew the interest in getting a corridor rail service started.”
Until solid infrastructure is in place, rail travel might be more travel adventure than daily commute for most Texans. The seats are more comfortable than on a plane, at least.