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SUMMER 1997 AMTRAK TRAVELOGUE

PART IV - THE CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR

by Carol Larsen

SATURDAY, JUNE 28, 1997

The final activities of the National Railway Historical Society convention ended just before dinner. I planned to eat with Brad and Ruth, the only other Northwoods Chapter members at the convention. However, first I thought I would begin checking on the progress of the westbound California Zephyr which was due into Salt Lake City at 12:13 AM and scheduled to depart at 1:05 AM. To my surprise, the agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL told me the Zephyr was only 17 minutes late leaving Grand Junction, CO. Based on that information, I made arrangements with the Bell Captain for a 12:00 midnight shuttle ride to the depot, with the possibility of changing that if the train would run later.

After dinner with my friends, I returned to my room to pack. How I would miss being in the same room for enough days to be able to settle in, and also the beautiful view of the mountains. Well, Amtrak has an advantage over that with the ever-changing views. At 11:15 PM when the Zephyr should have been between Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, I decided to call again. This time I was told it was 2-1/4 hours late at Helper, UT, which would mean that it had just left Helper at 10:52! That was quite some time to lose in a short distance, which made me suspicious of the information I received in one or both calls. I verified with the agent that it had been only 7 minutes late at Grand Junction. She said it was then 54 minutes late at Green River, UT and lost the rest of the time (1 hour and 21 minutes) in the 71 miles to Helper. She said that would put the Zephyr into Salt Lake City at about 2:30 AM if they didn't make up any time. Salt Lake City is a 52-minute service stop, which could be cut shorter. She advised me to be at the station at 2:00 AM. I pity any poor person who took that advice!

I checked in with the Bell Captain and cancelled my 12:00 midnight shuttle trip, telling him I would check with Amtrak again in about an hour. The train might have made up some time by Provo or even arrived in Provo by then (scheduled time 10:42 PM). I was still suspicious of the latest agent advice.

SUNDAY, JUNE 29, 1997

When I called again at 12:15 AM, the agent seemed a little confused, but told me the Zephyr was expected to arrive at Salt Lake City at 12:47 AM! There appears to be some padding in the schedule between Provo and Salt Lake City, a distance of 44 miles which shouldn't take an hour and 31 minutes. By then I really wasn't sure which, if any, agent I should believe, but would rather be safe than sorry. I told the Bell Captain I wanted a 12:30 AM shuttle ride.

Another conventioneer was in the lobby, a man from New York City who was also to catch the westbound Zephyr. He, too, had been told to be at the depot at 2:00 AM, but decided to take my advice and go right away. We brought our luggage to the lobby, hopped into the shuttle van, and were at the depot by 12:35 AM. I asked the ticket agent when he expected the train. He asked me when I would like the train to be there. I said, "I'm here, so any time now!" He then said that it would be there "any time now--at 12:47 AM." Good planning on my part! I saw a few other conventioneers in the depot who had been waiting awhile, having planned to be there before the scheduled 12:13 AM time.

Salt Lake City is a crew change point as well as a service stop, so the new conductors were there to take our tickets before the train arrived. About that time, we heard the train whistle; it pulled in as we headed for the platform. There was a large group of sleeping car passengers for all three sleepers, so one of the conductors went down the platform to alert the sleeper attendants. The sleepers were near the end of the train. I've been accustomed to finding the sleepers at the head of the train, except for those to be cut off with part of a train going to a different destination.

My car attendant, Bill Woelfel, was nowhere to be found, so the woman attendant from the next car came to help his passengers board. As I had expected, there were Superliner I sleepers on the Zephyr. In my room I found a silver-grey paper bag imprinted in teal green with a zephyr logo and the words "Great Trains of the West" and "Room No. ___." The color scheme reminded me of the Superliner II room colors. In the bag were toiletries: lotion, shampoo, talc, deodorant, shave cream, disposable shaver, and shower cap.

With the servicing completed, the Zephyr departed Salt Lake City at 1:27 AM, only 22 minutes late. By 1:30 AM, I had settled into bed, staying awake just long enough to see Great Salt Lake right outside my window on the left side of the car. That brings up another point. I had thought my room, number 5, would be on the north (right) side of the train instead of the south side. Either I was wrong or the car was reversed. It doesn't really make that much difference to me, especially on a short trip such as this.

During the night, I slept well and was only vaguely aware of a radio transmission about a grain train trying to get ahead of Amtrak. I awoke around 5:30 AM somewhere in the Nevada desert. Daylight was breaking but I fell back asleep while hearing something on the radio about calling a cab for an Elko, NV passenger. I guessed we were running later again, probably because of the grain train. The next thing I knew, my travel clock said 7:35--time to be up and doing. By the time I was almost ready to go for breakfast, it occurred to me that I should have set my watch and clock back an hour for Pacific Daylight Time, so I slowed down a little and headed to the diner at 7:45 PDT as they were calling numbers 1 through 4.

As I left my room, I caught my first glimpse of Bill at the opposite end of the car. On my way through the other two sleepers, I became aware of a lot of passengers having English accents, maybe a tour group. How wonderful for them to see our beautiful country on the California Zephyr, which has the best and most dramatic scenery of any of the Amtrak routes I have traveled. I wished that I could have included the Rocky Mountain portion of the Zephyr route in my travels again this year, but it didn't fit in with my stops and allotted time.

In the diner, Calvin, the steward, gave me number 26. I went on to the next car, a Superliner II lounge car, until my number was called. Calvin seated me with an older lady from Texas, who was overdressed by modern travel standards in a paisley suit with a pearl necklace. Also at our table were two women from Florida who had attended a floral convention in Salt Lake City. The conversation centered on previous travel. Our waiter, Willey Loyd, announced they were out of the omelet which I would have ordered, so I had pancakes instead.

After breakfast, I returned to the lounge until we arrived in Sparks, NV, a service stop where I could walk the platform and take photos. The man from New York City who shared the hotel shuttle with me saw me making notes and asked what the engine numbers were. He said those were the same two he had come out with the previous week. Before breakfast, I had heard an HBD axle count of 64. The consist was as follows:

P42    59
P42    11  (back to back)
MHC    1523
Baggage car  1166
Transition Sleeper  39019
Coach  34054
Coach  34033
Coach  34049
Coach  31519
Sightseer Lounge  33043
Diner  38036
Sleeper  32013
Sleeper  32028
Sleeper  32038
Coach  34101
Diner  38043

One of the coaches contained the smoking room on the lower level. I don't recall which Amtrak route was the original "smoke free" route where no smoking was allowed anywhere on the train. It was nice not having blue air in the lounge car, but the extended "smoking stops" at certain cities made a late train run even later. The smoking rooms have solved this problem.

As I reboarded at my sleeper, I spoke with Bill. He's still familiarizing himself with this portion of the route, as he was displaced from the Desert Wind in May. I asked him the purpose of the extra diner and coach at the end of the train. They were empty cars being transferred from Chicago to Oakland. We left Sparks at 10:45 AM, only 50 minutes late.

I returned to the lounge car to be able to see scenery on both sides of the train. I overheard comments from several parties who were looking for the Mustang Ranch mentioned in the Route Guide and didn't know it wasn't a ranch! Before I knew it, Calvin was announcing lunch, but I decided to wait about another hour. The Chief of Onboard Services was giving a commentary on the Donner Party as we approached the Donner Pass and Lake area.

As I began to feel hungry, I obtained number 11 from Calvin. While waiting for my number to be called, I went to the lower level of the lounge car with the intention of buying a California Zephyr mug. Sue, the attendant, was out of them by then. She said she hadn't been issued her full complement of souvenir supplies and some of her mugs were either broken or for the Lakeshore Ltd. There were no sweatshirts or caps at all. I hadn't thought about a sweatshirt; depending upon what they looked like, I might have wanted one. Well, it would have only caused another suitcase overload problem. That's the trouble with trying to travel light when you're going to be away from home almost a month! Since I wouldn't be back on the Zephyr this trip, Sue very generously offered to mail one to me when she returned to Chicago. I gave her my card and she noted "Zephyr mug" and my date of return home on the back. She didn't want me to pay for it then, but if it comes I'll be sure to send her an extra large check.

Back upstairs in the lounge car, I listened in on an interesting conversation between a couple of other conventioneers about Amtrak funding and passenger rail. If I hadn't been in such a rush when Calvin called my number at 1:35, I might have been seated in the diner with them, as their numbers were also called then. Instead, I was seated with a lady from Virginia traveling to Oakland and a man and his son from Germany coming from Chicago to San Francisco, who were interesting table partners in their own right.

At an adjacent table, I overheard a conversation from an intelligent-looking young couple from Chicago. The wife asked their table companions if they knew when we would be coming to the Sahara. What?! Her husband corrected her by saying that it was the Sierras, but I had the feeling that they were still expecting a desert. I couldn't hear their table companions' response, but later I heard the young woman say she's a high school math teacher. Good thing she doesn't teach Geography!

With my attention returned to our table, I ordered the chicken soup and salad. The lady ordered soup and the burger and the man and his son ordered tortellini. While they were waiting for their tortellinis, another waiter brought tortellini to two coach attendants who had just sat down at a table at the end of the diner. Shortly after that, Randolph, our waiter, told the man and his son that they were out of tortellini and they would have to order something else. Mmmm! I was the only one to order dessert--a good slice of warm apple pie.

Since the man and his son would also be taking the Thruway bus into San Francisco, we had a discussion of what stops were best for us. I had yet to decide, since the stops had been changed since I last went into San Francisco in 1994. Then, I still caught the Thruway bus in Oakland at the old SP station. The only stop in San Francisco was the Ferry Building, although the schedule also showed a stop at the Caltrain station. Shortly thereafter, the transfer point was changed to Emeryville.

At Sacramento, we were 54 minutes behind schedule. It was a relief to come into that city less than an hour late instead of 14 hours late like the week before! I didn't anticipate arriving on time into Emeryville because the schedule padding takes place between there and Oakland.

At 4:55 PM when we left Suisun-Fairfield 1 hour and 6 minutes late, Bill announced that the Chief of Onboard Services was holding his "Chief's Round- Up" in one end of the dining car for all sleeping car passengers: complimentary cheese, melon, crackers, dip, etc. I wasn't hungry, but went down for some snacks and photos. That end of the diner was crowded, but most people were taking their goodies back to their rooms.

We arrived in Emeryville at 6:00 PM, and hour and 5 minutes late. This was the first time I had detrained in Emeryville, so the station was new to me. Unfortunately, when the train stopped, the sleepers were far down the platform from the station. I had a long way to wheel my luggage down the platform, through the station, and out to the front walk where the Thruway buses were loading. There was a mob of people waiting to board, a lot of whom were confused about which stop they wanted in San Francisco. The bus I boarded wasn't stopping at Union Square. Although I had determined that stop was probably only a couple of blocks from my hotel, I had chosen the Ferry Building where I knew I could get a cab most readily. By then, I wasn't up for wheeling my luggage a couple of city blocks. Since I've been home, I received one of my transportation bulletins describing the fact that in June the Union Square stop was temporarily moved a few blocks further and renamed to something about shopping district. That would have made it an even less desirable option for me.

I shared the front seat with a man from northern Illinois who was headed for a motel near the airport. He was to pick up a rental car there the following morning. He had a change of plans from flying out or he would have chosen a motel and rental car close to one of the Thruway bus stops. He was hoping to find a reasonably priced way from the Ferry Building to his motel.

The Thruway buses pulled out at 6:25 PM and arrived at the Ferry Building at 6:45, despite heavy traffic and streets that had been blocked off for a Gay and Lesbian parade and festival. The street adjacent to the Ferry Building was littered unbelievably with food and paper refuse from the festival food stands. Upon our arrival, I went inside the Amtrak office and waiting room. Another change--this had been moved into a larger section since the last time I was here. Heading to the automated travel information board, I selected the button for Taxi. The man who answered said he wouldn't be able to send a cab there because of the parade/festival. I assured him that the traffic was coming through, so he said he'd see what he could do.

Back outside, I told the Illinois man about the airport shuttle button on the info board, but in the meantime the bus driver had promised to work something out for him. As I waited in front of the Amtrak office, I saw some people further down the curb grab an empty cab that had turned into the driveway. Was that my cab? I decided to select a more advantageous position and soon grabbed a cab that was discharging passengers there. I don't think we took the most direct route to my hotel, but at least we didn't become trapped in all the crazy post-parade downtown traffic. The cab fare from the Ferry Building to the Westin St. Francis was $7.20, about what I had previously paid for an equal distance in San Francisco. By 7:45 PM, I was checked into my hotel from which the Globus tour would depart at 8:15 the next morning.

Copyright © 1997 by Carol Larsen

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