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Amtrak California Zephyr
Chicago, Illinois to Oakland, California
October 30, 1996 - November 1, 1996
Steve's Travelogue

This is the second leg of my three leg journey, October 26 to November 3, 1996, going from Fullerton, California to Chicago, Illinois on the Southwest Chief, Chicago, Illinois to Oakland, California on the California Zephyr, Oakland, California to Los Angeles, California on the Coast Starlight, and then the short commute from Los Angeles to Fullerton, California on the San Diegans.

Click here for photos & more info about the California Zephyr.

Wednesday, 3:05 P.M. (Central Time), 10/30/96, Chicago, Illinois

Live! It is now Wednesday afternoon. If you rent from Enterprise, make sure you make a note of how to get back to the garage! I didn't and I had a hard time finding where to return the car. I knew it was at 555 Madison, but the garage entrance itself wasn't on Madison. I also had a bit of a difficult time finding a gas station so that I could fill the tank before I returned it. Eventually I found a Shell station which I believe was just a few blocks from Enterprise on Jackson Street. I did what I thought was a LOT of driving and it took less than $4 to refill the tank. The GEO Metro gets a lot of miles per gallon!

Chicago has an interesting station. The Chicago Union Station is one of the few Amtrak stations that has an "Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge." The Metropolitan Lounge is always just for Sleeping Car passengers, or first class passengers on trains without Sleeping Cars.

You check-in when you arrive, just like at an airport. Then, they give you color coded stickers with your train number on them and ask you to stick one on each piece of carry-on luggage.

They also give you what they call a "boarding pass", just like at the airport. However, what they call a "boarding pass" is not a "boarding pass" at all, but really an admission pass into the Metropolitan Lounge! Regardless, the Amtrak staff keeps calling it a "boarding pass." Some Amtrak staff will ask to see your "boarding pass" as you board the train, and they even announced that Sleeping Car passengers must show either their ticket or their "boarding pass" to receive their dinner in the Dining Car without charge. This is what the "boarding pass" actually does say:


Chicago Union Station

DATE: _______________ TRAIN NUMBER: _________________
CAR NUMBER: _________ SPACE: _______________

Thank you for using Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge today. Please present this pass to the receptionist to be readmitted. Lounges are also available for first class travelers passing through Washington Union Station, New York Penn Station and Philadelphia 30th Street Station. We'd also like to remind you that Amtrak is not responsible for personal belongings.

After reading that little warning at the end, they then tell you to place your carry-on luggage in this special roped-off area and ask you to sit in a place where nobody can keep an eye on their own carry-on luggage! There are even signs that warn you not to take your carry-on luggage into the lounge area since that would crowd the floor space and create a hazard to the people in the lounge. Yet, they want to remind you that Amtrak is not responsible for this luggage that they just instructed you to leave unwatched!

Since only Sleeping and First Class Passengers are allowed in the lounge, there probably isn't much danger of theft. However, if Amtrak isn't going to take responsibility for my unwatched luggage, I'd sure like to have it within view. My suggestion would be to place the luggage area in the middle of the lounge. That would make it possible for most people to keep an eye on their luggage. It would also dissuade potential theft since a thief would not know which luggage is being watched and which isn't.

Sleeping Car Passengers are usually boarded onto the train via their own entrance to the loading platforms which is at the rear of the lounge area. An announcement is made for all passengers to go to the front of the lounge area, gather their carry-ons, and take them to the back exit of the lounge area. From there, it is usually a long trek to the train.

Evidently, the Car Attendants are not notified in advance about boarding. Even though Sleeping Car Passengers are loaded as a group ahead of the Coach Passengers, the Car Attendants asked each person as they passed if they were Coach or Sleeping Car and directed them accordingly. Since all of us were Sleeping Car passengers in this group, the Car Attendants soon realized that everyone was heading the same way and ended the delay they were creating by asking every passenger!

My Sleeping Car Attendant, Frank Robinson, is already on my good side! Even though it is 3 in the afternoon, he had a fresh pot of coffee ready the moment I stepped on board! Not only that, but he has a full rack of soda and juice ready. I am pretty sure I had him on my last trip on the California Zephyr and was very impressed with the way he kept coffee available all day. I asked him about that, and he said he always keeps coffee available for his passengers. He also said he tries to keep juice and soda available, but it is a bit more difficult to make sure that plenty of that is always available. He said coffee is easy to always keep some available and he always makes sure there is plenty available from early morning until late in the evening. That is my kind of Car Attendant!

I noticed some interesting Amtrak Rail Cars as our train slowly moved out of the Chicago station. They were brand new high-speed U.S.Mail Amtrak cars. They had a color scheme that would sort of match either Amtrak's or the U.S.Postal Service and had both "Amtrak" and "U.S.Mail" painted on the side of the cars. I took a picture of those cars. On the way into Chicago, I had seen some other interesting mail carriers. These were tractor trailers that had been modified to become part of a train. These were not like the rail-cars that we often see that allow one or two trucks to be carried piggy-back. The trucks were NOT sitting on a flatbed rail car. Somehow, the truck body was suspended between sets of wheels and the truck itself became the rail-car! In flatbed multi-modal transportation, the wheels of the truck sit on the flatbed of the rail-car. The trucks that made up this train had their rear tires hanging in mid-air! The tires weren't sitting on anything! The tires were just hanging down from the body of each truck body. The front end supports were also just hanging down in mid-air. A whole string of these trucks were connected, one to the next, with railroad car wheels between each truck, holding each truck up off the tracks! I had never seen trains like this in California. I did not get a chance to get a picture of those, but if I ever see them again, I'll go out of my way to make sure I get pictures!

Wednesday, 8:00 P.M. (Central Time), 10/30/96, Ottumwa, Iowa

I hope I'm not becoming a social butterfly! It is out of character for me. I had a bit of a conversation with a lady that just transferred from a Viewliner Sleeper on her trip from Philadelphia to Chicago, to this Superliner Economy Room. She was disappointed that it was smaller and did not have a television and bathroom. Even the least expensive rooms in the Viewliner Sleepers have toilets and televisions in every room. We discussed a number of other items about train travel. This was her very first trip.

A couple returning to California sat in the room next to mine. They wanted to know which side was best for viewing the mountains. I didn't remember one side of the train being better than the other, but I lent them my "USA by Rail" book so they could see if they could figure out which side of the train would have more sights. They were very impressed with the book and wanted to know where they could purchase a copy. At Dinner, we said we needed seating for "3" and we sat and had dinner together along with another man traveling by himself. We talked so much that we were the last people to finish in our entire section! Don't worry about us hogging the table space, though. There were only two seatings this evening: 5:30 PM and 7:15 PM. We were the last to leave, but it wasn't even close to 7 PM when we left and there were plenty of empty tables even after everyone with 7:15 PM reservations had arrived.

Wednesday, 9:23 P.M. (Central Time), 10/30/96, Osceola, Iowa

There is a new Route Guide for the California Zephyr and Desert Wind which was placed in every room by the Car Attendant. The new Route Guide has far less information than the old one! I'm going to have to make sure I get both the new and old Route Guides typed into these web pages. Many of the best sights of this route are not mentioned at all in the new Route Guide. If you want to know more about the route of the California Zephyr before you travel it, be sure to get a copy of USA by Rail , Zephyr , or a new forthcoming book:Thru The Rockies, Not Around Them: A Guide To Scenery and History Along The Route of Amtrak's California Zephyr by Curtis L. Katz.

If you use the last restroom on your right downstairs in the Sleeping Car, be careful of the heat! The side panel under the sink can get very hot. Last year my daughter burned her ankle while changing her clothes in that restroom in the Southwest Chief. I usually don't use that particular restroom, but I did this time and that panel was very very hot! It may be the back side of the heater for the downstairs Special Bedroom and maybe they have their heat turned on high. I think it is rare to be so hot, but this is the second time I have noticed it, so do be careful if you use that particular restroom.

Speaking of heat, it is rather warm in my room. I have the air-conditioning turned onto maximum and I can feel the cool air coming out of the vent quite fast. However, the heating and cooling system are two separate systems and it is possible for both heat and cool air to be coming into your room at the same time. The heater is under the windows. Even though you have your own thermostat to adjust for "WARMER" or "COOLER", the heater will often operate independent of your desires. I think the Car Attendant has a control that he operates which adjusts how much cool air blows into the corridors and how warm the heater under the window gets. I always have my control set to maximum cool. That usually works fine in winter. The center aisle is also usually very cool and I usually leave my door open with my curtain closed to allow some of that cool aisle air to flow into my room. This time, however, I think the aisles are warmer than my room. I have closed the glass sliding door and will experiment to see if the vent can pump in cool air faster than the heater is warming my room.

Wednesday, 9:58 P.M. (Central Time), 10/30/96, Creston, Iowa

I'm in room 7 of the last Sleeping Car of the California Zephyr. Well actually, since they have the coaches at the end of the train and the sleepers at the head of the train, I'm in the first Sleeping Car of the California Zephyr. They usually number the Sleeping Cars starting at the Dining Car. Thus, the Sleeping Car right next to the Dining Car is usually number 30, the next one 31, the next one 32, and so forth. This train started the numbers at 31 instead of 30. I'm in car 33 and that is the furthest from the Dining Car. What a trek to dinner! There is another Sleeping Car connected to this one further from the Dining Car. At first, I was mystified why it was numbered 01. Sleeping Cars are almost always in the "30's" on the western routes. Later, the mystery was solved when I found a sign taped to the door that read "Crew Car" to discourage people from passing through.

Thursday, 12:30 A.M. (Central Time), 10/31/96, Omaha, Nebraska

There appears to be a huge deserted train station here. Amtrak seems to have built one of those little buildings to use as the current station, but there is a very very large building that is built over the tracks with walkways, stairways, etc.

I grabbed my jacket, went outside and walked the length of the train. There were very few people outside the train, just the die-hard smokers. It seemed pretty cold outside, so cold that my jacket didn't even keep me warm. The quiet and emptiness of the station is eriee. I took a couple of pictures of the train. The only lighting is from a huge set of construction lamps like you sometimes see on the freeways when they are doing road construction at night.

The train stops here for quite a while, normally about 35 minutes, from 12:12 A.M. to 12:37 A.M. The train arrived early, so we were here even longer than that! One thing that is really a shame about train travel is that you often get to see the ruins of what once was. Before air-travel and the interstate highway system, these rail stations were the major transportation hubs of the nation. The train stations were as busy and as alive as today's major airports. You can get an idea of the past from the magnitude of stations like this one in Omaha. In the middle of the night with the eerie lighting and emptiness, you can almost feel the ghosts of the throngs of people that boarded the trains here.

Thursday, 1:41 A.M. (Central Time), 10/31/96, Lincoln, Nebraska

As long as the train is on time, which it is, it stops here for 10 minutes. I went outside for some fresh air. I didn't take my jacket or my camera this time. I figured I'd only be outside a couple of minutes and wanted to really feel the cold fresh air on me anyway. Actually, it didn't seem as cold as Omaha. I stepped out for a few minutes. There was nobody outside except some of the crew! Not a single passenger other than myself stepped off the train. I guess everyone is asleep and the smokers already had their big break about an hour ago. I talked to the Car Attendant a bit. Looks like he is doing the work for 2 or 3 cars during the night. The Car Attendants take shifts sleeping, letting the one Car Attendant that is scheduled to be awake take all 3 cars during the night.

The Car Attendant said that we will be making a number of stops tomorrow where we will be in the station for 5 or 10 minutes as long as the train stays on schedule. I looked at the schedule and did not find any stops where we were supposed to stay for any length of time. I think he just meant that we would have these little breaks at various stations if we continue to stay on time and arrive into each station a little before the time that we are scheduled to leave.

Thursday, 9:34 A.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Denver, Colorado

I got up about 7 A.M. and had breakfast with two other guys. One was visiting the United States from the Netherlands and had an Amtrak RailPass. The other American appeared to be out of money and was curious if I knew if Western Union Moneygrams were fast enough that he could make a phone call and get the money during the one hour while we stopped in Denver. I know Western Union works fast, but I was doubtful it would work that fast! However, I recommended that he make his phone call in Denver and see if he could arrange to have the money delivered to him when we got to Salt Lake City, Utah where we will stop for about an hour.

Everyone at our table had the French Toast "an Amtrak tradition" except me. I had the mushroom omlette with hash browns and it was delicious! We talked a lot about train travel. This was the first trip for the other American. He was in coach. The man from the Netherlands was in the Sleepers. He asked me about the policy on tipping. I helped him out the best I could, but if you've read my page on tipping, then you are aware of the lack on consensus on that subject.

We arrived into Denver at the end of our meal and I got off the train to wander around. I already had plenty of pictures of the inside of the Denver station from previous trips, so I decided to wander the streets a bit. As usual, I found hotels closer and within walking distance of the station than the ones that Amtrak Travel will book for you. I don't remember the hotel names, but I did take a photograph of the closest hotel with the name clearly visible. I will post that picture here.

There was a sign in the station explaining how to get to Grandpa's Depot Store. It is just across thestreet from the station, one half block down on 17th at 1616 17th Street, Suite 267. There was plenty of time to look around. They mostly sell through the mail, but they had a number of items on display. It is worth a look, especially if you are into railroad memorabilia. You can also pick up a catalog while you are there and order something later!

I'm very happy with our car attendant. Plenty of coffee was available all the way until midnight last night and I was even able to pick up a bottle of 7 Up before I went to bed. Coffee and juice were also ready when I woke in the morning.

Thursday, 11:53 A.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Fraser, Colorado

We just left Fraser-Winter Park, Colorado. This must be one of the prettiest towns in the nation. It is certainly the most scenically situated of this entire route! There are snow covered mountains in every direction from this town. I took more than a dozen photographs just from the train and the station platform! Winter Park is also a very popular ski resort. Although the schedule doesn't show the train staying here for any length of time, the train usually arrives early to this station and you are given a chance to get out and walk around for 7 or 8 minutes.

Thursday, 1:18 P.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Somebody just turned on the music in the train. Out of nowhere, the music just started playing over Channel 2. The view is tremendous. I'd strongly suggest trying to be on the left side of the train as it heads west. I've already taken over 100 photographs since Chicago, most right in the Rocky Mountains. I have enough film for another 127 photos before I reach Oakland, but that has to last through the rest of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada unless that train souvenir store is open in Glenwood Springs, the next stop. I am very concerned about the quality that will result from these photographs. The sun has been on my window all morning and that makes the dirt on the window show very well. Photographs I have taken before under these conditions come out like there is a light brown filter over the lens. When the sun ducks behind a clould or a mountain, the view through the window becomes crystal clear! I'm trying to ration my shots and take them when I have optimum lighting conditions. But, if I see a view that really impresses me, I am taking it anyway despite lighting conditions and hoping for the best. Here is a hint: Take a large black sheet with you. If the sun is shining into your room, it will often reflect off pillows, the seat cushion, or even the other person traveling with you. You will see the reflection in the window and it will end up on your photos. Just cover the item causing the reflection with the black sheet and your problem is solved. Unfortunately, there is not a simple solution to dirty windows other than attempting to wash the outside of your own window while the train is in a station. That is almost impossible if you have a room upstairs on the train.

Thursday, 03:15 P.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Glenwood Springs, Colorado

The train stopped here for about 10 minutes and I was able to get out, walk around a bit and take a few pictures of the town, the train, the station, and the snow covered mountains surrounding it all! The "Denver Hotel" was right across from the station and there were also many restaurants within walking distance. There was another hotel picking up passengers but I missed the name of that hotel. This town definitely looked like a place where I would like to vacation!

Thursday, 06:14 P.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Grand Junction, Colorado

The train almost always stops here for 15 minutes. There is usually a stand on the platform where peanuts, fruits and various souvenirs are sold. There is also an Amtrak station here with telephones and another souvenir shop. A very large number of people got out from the train and headed directly for the stand, the souvenir shop or the station to use the phones. I, however, immediately headed to the eastern end of the station where I knew I would find Depot Model Trains & Porcelain Dolls! If youare running low on film, they have lots of 35mm film and even some of those disposable cameras. Regardless of whether you are heading east or west, you need to make sure you have plenty of film! Heading east, you are about to enter the Rocky Mountains. Heading west, you will travel through the Sierra Nevada on the next day. Either way, the breathtaking views are going to tempt you to take a lot of pictures! This store also carries lots of train magazines, especially about model trains, and a number of souvenier train caps and T-shirts. I purchased 3 rolls of 36 exposure film and knew that would easily carry me all the way home along with the film that I already had with me. Very few people from the train were aware of the existence of this place and very few went to browse. Their are some, but very few signs on the platform telling about it. The few people that did go to browse were really looking for books about travel on Amtrak trains. I think the store would make a smart move to stock such books.

Thursday, 8:32 P.M. (Mountain Time), 10/31/96, Helper, Utah

I just came back from dinner. I sat with the same person from the Netherlands that I had breakfast with and I also sat with a gal that he had met on the train. She is a graphic artist and is trying to get published in writing children's books. That is a bit of a coincidence. The wife in the couple that has the Economy Sleeper across from mine who I had dinner with last night is also into writing Children's Books. I guess there is a real demand. I should know since my own kids are always having me buy new books for them!

As usual, we discussed a lot about Amtrak. I guess Amtrak is something that everyone riding the train always has in common. We also talked a lot about how everything slows down on a train. It is one of the few times in your life when you can really sit back and think about things. We all seem to be doing so much in our life that we seldom sit back to just think about why we are doing all these things and if maybe we should be doing something different. That took up much of our conversation this evening. Once again, we were the very last to leave the dining car, and once again it wasn't a problem since this was the last seating anyway.

I've enjoyed the social experiences on this train more than almost any other time that I have traveled alone. By nature I'm an introvert. Thus, it is pretty difficult for me to participate in social situations at all! Place me at a dining table where the people don't speak English or have very strong accents, and I'm lost. I try real hard to converse with people at my table when we really have few common interests. But, give me people that speak English and have some common interests with me and each other, and I can really enjoy the conversation! So far, I've really lucked out on this trip to be with people where we could carry on an interesting conversation throughout the meal.

Friday, 10:47 A.M. (Pacific Time), 11/01/96, Sierra Nevada, California

I've got so much I want to write about, but I am dumbfounded by the slendor of the Sierra Nevada and can't take my eyes off the view! I want to talk about my conversation at breakfast with a vacationing Conductor on the Amtrak San Joaquins and the discussion of evolution with the chap from the Netherlands and a lady from Oakland. I might want to write a bit about our early arrival and long stop in Sparks, Nevada that gave me a chance to take a lot of photographs of the outside of the train and crane and snow removal equipment in the Sparks rail yard. But, that will all have to wait until the view becomes a bit more mundane!

Friday, 12:31 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/01/96, Sierra Nevada, California

I am still high up in the Sierra Nevada. We passed Emigrant Gap just a while ago and are in an area where they have constructed three parallel tracks. I think they were constructing these tracks the last time I came through here last June. We are moving very slowly along this section of track and there won't be much to see until we clear these trees.

The beauty of the Sierra Nevada is tremendous, especially with the early snowfall they had this year. I think it beats the Rocky Mountains by a long shot. For the Sierra Nevada, the best side of the train is definitely the right side heading west or the left side heading east. That is a shame since it is just the opposite for the Rocky Mountains. Thus, if you are in an Economy Room, it isn't possible to get the best view for both segments unless you switch rooms. My Economy Room was on the wrong side of the train for the Sierra Nevada segment, but that didn't present much of a problem. The Car Attendant had piled linens into Room #4 on the correct side of the train. There was enough room on the chair for me to sit there, so I just moved over there to take pictures whenever a photo opportunity came up on that side of the train.

I have been very frustrated by the sunlight on this trip. For the entire length of this trip, the sun has stayed on my side of the train even though the trip through the Sierra Nevada goes from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. I figured the closer we got to noon, the closer the sun would get to be directly overhead and then would be on the other side of the train in the afternoon. The sun does rise in the east and set in the west, so I had no reason to expect the sun to stay at my window all day. However, I think the latitude plays a more important role in the position of the sun on this route. It seems to me that the sun has stayed just below the top of my window all day, beeming light onto the dirty window and turning it into a brown filter to interfere with all my photography. The sun is moving from east to west, of course. But, since we are heading westerly at an latitude well above the equator, the entire arc of the sun is south of the train instead of directly over the train. Thus, the sun persists in staying south of the train and at my window as the sun makes its arc from east to west!

I ate breakfast about 7:30 this morning and expected that to be my only meal until dinner. I knew I'd be glued to the window with my camera during the entire trip through the Sierra Nevada and would not be willing to take a lunch break at that time. The diner wasn't very crowded for breakfast at 7:30 A.M. and no announcement had been made yet for people to come to breakfast. They often don't make an announcement until it is almost time for the last call for breakfast. The purpose of that is to not wake people up with an early announcement. The Diner is usually open at either 6:00 A.M. or 6:30 A.M.

They sat me at a table with a man who was just starting to eat his breakfast. This man was a Conductor on the San Joaquins who was on vacation. We talked quite a bit about Amtrak and what he'd like to see change. The most important thing he felt was needed is for Amtrak to run more trains on their existing routes, especially routes like the San Joaquin. He had a job with trains for many years, but not on the trains. He used to work in one of the track towers. Amtrak automated all that and he had the option to either count tickets in the San Jose administrative office or to become a Conductor. He decided he would enjoy the Conductor job more than counting tickets and I think he was right! Unfortunately, by switching fields, he had to start all over again and I guess is considered almost at the bottom level of seniority. He only gets two weeks per year for vacation even though he has been working with the railroad for many years. I met him again later outside in Sparks and we walked together a bit as I took some pictures of our train and some of the other rail equipment in the Sparks rail yard. We walked up to the locomotive to see if he knew any of the crew. The locomotive was empty at that time though.

The vacationing Conductor finished his breakfast and left the table before I had even been served my breakfast! Then they seated another lady at my table. We talked a lot about kids and families. I received my meal and finished it before she was even served her meal! It didn't really matter since nobody was in a rush. Then, the man from the Netherlands sat down to eat with us. He brought his business card with him this time and handed it to me. I guess he lectures and does research in InterCultural Studies at the Universiteit Utrecht in The Netherlands. The three of us had an interesting discussion about religion and evolution. Eventually the lady left and we continued the discussion ourselves for a while.

Friday, 1:20 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/01/96, Colfax, California

This is interesting! Both the eastbound and westbound California Zephyrs have arrived into Colfax at the same time. We passed the eastbound one, but then the eastbound one backed up and finally stopped right beside our train. The dining car is right next to me! I can see the people inside and they just sat some people directly across from my window. Here we go! We are moving out of the station. The eastbound train has a private car on the end, I think called "Silveris".

Ice. I hear a lot of talk of "ice" in the sleepers. Quite often, the Sleeping Car Attendant will make sodas and juice available in the Sleeping Car. From the looks of it, this has become an official policy on the California Zephyr. All the Sleeping Car Attendants keep a good supply of soda and juice around the clock by the coffee urn. Unfortunately, unlike the Superliner II Cars used on the Coast Starlight, the Superliner I cars do not have a freezer/refrigerator under the coffee urn counter. On the Coast Starlight, juice and ice are usually kept in a refrigerator drawer under the coffee urn counter. Without such a feature on the Superliner I Sleeping Cars, there is no place to keep ice cold. So, even though soda and juice is conveniently available around the clock, there is no ice to make it cold! If you want ice, you have to ask your Car Attendant to get some for you.

Click here for the next leg of the journey which is on the Coast Starlight!

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