Trip Report: MKE to RAT: Boy Scouts to Philmont!

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Service Attendant
Nov 26, 2007
New Berlin, WI
A few weeks before our trip, I asked a lot of questions in this thread. Thank you so much for all your help! I used the links to timetables and route guides to create a packet for each pair of seats. That was a great way to let the scouts see where we were going, how late we were, and end the endless questions about these things. ("Look at your timetable...")

In mid-July 2021, I traveled with a group of 23 people (8 adults, 15 scouts ages 13-17) from Milwaukee WI to Philmont Scout Ranch (Raton) in New Mexico.

11:00 AM MKE-CHI 12:29 PM Hiawatha
2:50 PM CHI-RAT 10:25 AM SWC

4:42 PM RAT-CHI 2:50 PM SWC
5:08 PM CHI-MKE 6:45 PM Hiawatha

Both ways on the SWC featured the same consist:

The baggage at the end really ruined the railfan window.

We arrived at MKE an hour before our departure and hung around in the lounge. The staff called us to load up first, which was nice. Instead of giving us our coach seats, we were placed at the end of the train in the cafe car. Us adults took the booths on one end and the kids were on the other side of counter in the other half. It was nice to get away from them for 90 minutes! On this part of the journey, it was really nice having booths to sit and and talk. But there were several groups of other passengers that came in, saw us in the cafe car, and left. So I'm not sure how great this situation was for the other passengers on the train. Each one of us had a large backpacking backpack and one small backpack for the train. They all fit nicely in the overhead racks in the cafe.

We arrived on time to CHI and marched to the Great Hall and picked out a corner. We set up there and then split into groups to get lunch in the food court. During this time someone from Amtrak approached us and told us to come to our track about 30 minutes prior to departure, since that is when other LD trains would be boarding and thus freeing up space in the lounge.

Upon arrival at the lounge, we found out that our train was late. Normally the train leaving that day would have arrived the previous afternoon, but it was 19 hours late and arrived late in the morning instead. So we waited for it to be prepared. Finally it did arrive at our track about an hour after the scheduled departure. We departed at 4:10 PM, 80 minutes late.

There were two other scout groups waiting with us to board the SWC. (another scout group would board the train in Naperville IL) Amtrak personnel had us all line up and took us to the train after the sleeper passengers. We boarded at the rear coach-baggage and piled our gear in the baggage area. Then up the stairs and basically just filled in the coach/baggage, starting at the rear. After all the scouts had boarded in Naperville, the four scout groups were about 75% of the upper coach seating. (1.5 cars) The baggage area was a sight to behold... there was at least $100,000 worth of backpacking gear in there.

We brought plenty of food with us for the train ride. Additionally, since the cafe did not take cash, that limited the number of scouts that could buy things down there since very few had credit/debit cards.

We adults spent a lot of time in the lounge chatting. Also got to talk with the other scout leaders and got some insights as to how Philmont was going to go for us. This was our troop's first experience at Philmont, whereas many troops go every couple of years and thus have an institutional knowledge about it. The scouts mainly stayed at their seats, although eventually a group of them discovered the joy of sitting in the lower lounge in a booth and hanging out.

Due to the late train, we didn't get to see KC Union Station in either direction. They were both sub 10 minute stops.

We arrived in Raton at 11:33 AM, 63 minutes late. The conductors asked some scouts to help unload. Several were in the baggage area and several were on the ground, creating several large piles of backpacks. Once they were done, all the scouts went in and found their backpack and gathered up with their own troop. The crew leaders had to then talk to the Philmont shuttle drivers to see which bus they were on.

We spent the night in Raton at a hotel. The other three troops went right to Philmont. We very much enjoyed the pool at the hotel and a good night's sleep.

Our experience at Philmont was outstanding. We got lucky with fairly good weather - the month previous was the 'wettest month at Philmont in 20 years'. On our last day in Philmont at base camp, we received several large boxes of food from Amazon. Turns out we had about 3 times as much food as we really needed, but it was nice to know we would not go hungry! We also discovered that morning that our 4:42 PM train was about 4 hours late, which is about what we were expecting based on recent on-time performance.

Our shuttle (school bus) left Philmont around 3 PM to go to Raton. Before dropping us off at the station, we did make a stop at the grocery store. Despite us having plenty of food, we all bought even more. We did convince one scout to not buy a large jar (1 gallon?) of pickles.

Then we were dropped off at the station. There was an older couple there who were serving as the station attendants. They told us where to put our backpacks, answered questions we had, and said they'd be back before the train arrived. (I believe they just holed up in the separate ticket office) It was nice to have someone there for this part of our journey. The station was decent... air conditioned, bathrooms, some seating, and a few outlets.

Having four hours in Raton was just about perfect. It is such a nice downtown. Some shops, some interesting architecture, and several nice restaurants. Our group split up between Los Chanquis (excellent home-made Mexican) and Bruno's Pizza. The downtown area was safe and we were able to let the scouts go off in groups on their own, and the adults got some time to ourselves. The weather was excellent - 80's and sunny.

We got back to the station as it was getting dark. The station attendants had us line up our backpacks by each group (there were three scout groups; one got off in KC, one got off at GBB) and then we waited. When the train arrived the conductor had our group put our backpacks in the baggage area of the coach/baggage car, then walk down the platform to enter the train and go up the stairs. We filled in the coach behind the lounge, starting at the lounge. The train departed at 9:17 PM, 275 minutes late. (4.5 hours) All the scout groups basically went right to sleep.

The next day on the train was nice. Same as the way out. Lots of lounge time. Spent a lot of the afternoon playing cribbage at a lounge table. It was great to have soda again after a week without caffeine. Both ways on the train there was a mask mandate. On the way back we were pushing the rules quite a bit. (keep in mind this was in July 2021 at basically the lowest point of the pandemic so far) I don't think we got any reminders, whereas on the way out I did hear train personnel tell some people to put on their masks, and there was a 'serious' mask announcement made every few hours.

The issue we had was that our train was 4.5 hours late and wasn't making up time. We were concerned about getting to Chicago before the last Hiawatha left at 8:05 PM. Fortunately we did arrive at Chicago at 7:26 PM, 276 minutes late. (4.5 hours) We quickly gathered our bags and marched to the lounge. Someone there then told us to line up at the Hiawatha tracks. We made it!

But then began the worst 6 hours of the entire 13 day trip. We waited and waited. 8:05 PM came and went. Finally at 8:30 PM or so we were able to board. Same situation as the way out: they put our group in the cafe car. This would prove to be terrible for us. We were in those booths and we waited. There was something wrong with the engine. They tried to fix it. Finally they said they were bringing in a new engine from a yard 1.5 miles away. That move took about 1.5 hours. Finally around 11 PM or so we left the station. But the PTC wasn't working on our train. So we had to stop. They tried to fix it. Finally they had to ask the railroad to allow running without PTC. Took a long time and we got permission. Finally left our position just a mile or two from CUS around 12:15 AM. Arrived in Milwaukee at 2:06 AM, 272 minutes late. (4.5 hours) Or 7 hours and 21 minutes late, considered we should have been on the previous Hiawatha. It was awful that we were in those booths, which is fine for a couple hours. But we were dead tired and it would have been great to be in a real seat. Many scouts were sleeping in the aisle of the cafe. The other bad thing was the constant promise of 'just a little bit longer'. If we would have known it would take that long, we could have easily conjured up an armada of minivans to come pick us up in downtown Chicago and we'd have been home well before midnight. It was a real sour note to end an awesome adventure.

I did try to get a refund from Amtrak. The woman I talked to on the phone originally made it sound like we had a good case. But the people doing the review rejected it. Not even a small partial refund. That's some customer service.

Without the very last 6 hours of our trip, I believe most in the group enjoyed the Amtrak experience and would do it again. But at this point, I don't know. It was brutal.

Eric in East County

Lead Service Attendant
Jan 20, 2016
East San Diego County
Thank you for a most interesting trip report.

Considering the state of the airlines these days, you might just as easily have had long delays had you chosen to fly. When you make this trip again, you now know to plan on exercising the mini-van option from Chicago that you mentioned.

As I mentioned in an earlier comment to your thread, my first long-distance train trip was from Ohio to Colorado Springs and back for the 1960 National Boy Scout Jamboree. Our entire train was a special with just Boy Scouts. For me, it was the first time that I had been west of the Mississippi River. That train trip resulted in making me a life-long rail fan and someone who prefers the train for long distance travel. Many of your Scouts might also become railfans as a result of this trip.
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