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Amtrak Pioneer: Steve's Review

Photographs, travelogues, accommodations, and other information about train travel on the Amtrak Pioneer route.

Special Information:

Radio Frequencies:

These are only approximate. The frequencies indicated below were being used by the Engineer, Conductors and Dispatchers at the stations indicated along the route of the Pioneer. The use of any particular frequency may have started before the station indicated and almost always ended well after the station indicated.

  • Channel 39 - 160.695 - Ottumwa, Iowa
  • Channel 37 - 161.415 - Creston, Iowa
  • Channel 66 - 161.100 - Omaha, Nebraska
  • Channel 66 - 161.100 - Ft. Morgan, Colorado
  • Channel 20 - 160.410 - Ogden, Utah


We rushed to get to Chicago's Union Station just so that we could explore the First Class "Metropolitan Lounge" before we boarded our train. We arrived at the lounge at about 2:00 PM. I guess that wasn't quite early enough as the lounge was already full to capacity!

There is a desk as you enter the Metropolitan Lounge where you "check-in". This Metropolitan Lounge is only for sleeping car passengers. You present them with your ticket at the desk and they issue you a blue "Boarding Pass". They write your train number and car number on the pass. They told us that we would need this pass in order to board our train.

There is a large carry-on baggage holding area. They do not want people bringing their luggage to their seats in the lounge unless it is a laptop computer or similar items. The idea is not to clog up seats or aisle space with luggage. The only problem is that this creates a huge pile of luggage in the waiting luggage "pen".

I'm not sure there was any point going to the Metropolitan Lounge at all. They did seem to have free coffee and other drinks as well as a row of telephones with chairs. For the most part, however, the room was just as crowded as the waiting room where coach people waited for their train.

Those that want "Red Cap" service, people to help you with your bags and sometimes even drive you to the train on their carts, go first.

We are arriving near Denver. Mostly there are cattle ranches all around. We just placed something in the middle of nowhere that looked like an Amtrak graveyard. I suppose it could be the home of a wealthy rail enthusiast that collects old Amtrak rail cars. There was a great assortment of types of passenger rail cars that are no longer seen in the western Amtrak routes, include several dome cars. Most of them had Amtrak logos on them, but there was no consistent pattern as to the color scheme of the cars. This seems like it would be a strange place for Amtrak to officially place their obsolete cars as it is really dozens of miles away from anything at all. There are just cattle ranches for miles and miles.

Denver is where they seperate the Pioneer from the California Zephyr. From Chicago to Denver, the front of the train has all the California Zephyr cars. They all start with the two digits "05". The rear of the train contains all the Pioneer cars and they start with the two digits "25". Each section has its own Dining Car. Reservations and announcements are made seperately for the two Dining Cars. One is referred to as the "Oakland Diner" and the other as the "Seattle Diner".

The entire train is backed into the station in Denver. Another lounge car and another coach car are added to the end of the Pioneer section of the train as we pull in. The lounge car is to replace the Sightseer Lounge Car that will go with the California Zephyr when it pulls out. The Lounge Car added to the Pioneer is not a Sightseer Lounge Car but is instead an older Superliner Diner Car. Amtrak does not have enough Sightseer Lounge Cars for all their routes at this time. This extra Dining Car is set up and operated similar to the Pacific Parlor Car on the Coast Starlight except that it is open to all passengers and not just Sleeping Car passengers. Beverages, sandwiches, snacks and souveniers are sold in this Lounge Car. The additional Coach Car added to the very end of the train is not a Superliner Car. It is a "high-top" car. These were the predecessors to the Superliner cars and are just a bit shorter than the Superliner Cars.

The California Zephyr is the first to pull out of the Denver station. On this trip I am in Economy Room #10. That is the very last room on the upper level. Since my Sleeping Car was at the front of the Pioneer section of the train, that left nothing at all in front of my car when the California Zephyr section pulled away!

I stood at the window of the door that used to go through to a Coach Car in the California Zephyr. I saw the California Zephyr pull away and then saw two Amtrak engines followed by a mail car backing toward my Sleeping Car. They slowly backed in until they connected up to my Sleeping Car and the rest of the Pioneer segment.

The mail car was a single level car. That meant that I could see right over the top of the mail car from the window in that door! The engines themselves were taller than the mail car, but not as high as the window. From that window, I had a great view of the direction in which the train would be heading! I could see the engines rolling down the tracks, the track signals, the mileposts, and all the scenery going by the engines in front of me! I took a number of pictures out that window and you can get a good idea what I am talking about by looking at those pictures in the photo section.

This was one time that I wish I had also brought a video camera along. The track noise combined with the engine noise and the smoke from the engines made this seem more like an amusement park ride than an Amtrak train ride! I could see, hear, feel, and even smell that engine clacketing down the track pulling the train around each curve! The only experience I remember similar to this was riding in chairs mounted on a freight car pulled by a diesel locomotive at the Perris railway museum.

Now it is 8:00 PM Mountain Time on Wednesday, June 19, 1996. There is still plenty of daylight outside. I can't believe the scenery on this route! I honestly think this route is even more scenic than the California Zephyr route through the Sierra Nevada and Rockies. So far, I've taken well over 100 photos on this trip and we don't even get to the Columbia Gorge until tomorrow! Not all those photos will be posted here as I only use about 20% to 25% of the shots.

I've tried to take photos of each scenic spot, but I had to give up. There are just too many! What would be the scenic highlight of many other routes is just mundane scenery on this route. I have taken photos of the most dramatic and interesting scenery along the route of the Pioneer, but I have skipped taking photos of many very scenic spots for fear of ending up with thousands of photographs!

If you are interested in just how much business Amtrak gets, both trains for this vacation, the Southwest Chief and the Pioneer, were about as full as they can get. Coach was booked solid and there were hardly any open Sleeping Rooms. I've been told this is common for summer. Amtrak's problem certainly can't be lack of ridership on these train! I've heard from people that consult to Amtrak that most of these long-distance trains absolutely make a profit for Amtrak. Amtrak's accounting procedures show that money is lost on every passenger that rides these trains, but that has a lot more to do with poor accounting procedures than with the true profitability of these routes. Amtrak does run negative overall, but not because of these long haul trains. What makes these trains appear negative is the way systemwide expenses are allocated to individual routes, regardless of the actual cost to opperate that route. More about this topic can be found in other web pages at this site.

The ride on the Pioneer is quite different than the ride on the Coast Starlight or even the Southwest Chief. It seems that this ride is a lot more "bumpy". I knew this could be because I'm in Economy Room #10 which is at the end of the train car. However, I noticed that it is also still bumpy even when standing in the middle of the car where I get coffee or take pictures out the vestibule windows. I notice that there is a lot of "clickety-clack" track noises, more so than I've noticed on any other train. My understanding is that means the tracks are still the old 80 foot rails instead of the new quarter-mile coils. Whatever the reason, I'm concerned about the quality of the pictures that I'm taking as it is impossible to steady the camera.

For many miles we were heading west on tracks that ran right up the south side of the Columbia River Gorge. The river was in view for almost the entire trip into Portland, Oregon. Try and get a sleeper on the north side of this train if at all possible. On our train, that would have been the even numbered rooms, but I'm told this can change from train to train. If you end up on the south side of the train, then spend your time in either the diner or lounge car while traveling along the Columbia River. We saw quite a few impressive dams, bridges, waterfalls and rock formations along the gorge.

Overall, I think the Pioneer is the most scenic route that Amtrak offers. The California Zephyr provides several quick dramatic views going through the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, but the Pioneer offers hour after hour of beautiful and impressive scenery.

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