Support this website by joining the Silver Rails TrainWeb Club for as little as $1 per month. Click here for info.

TrainWeb Visitor Travelogue: John's California Zephyr Trip

A Round Trip on the California Zephyr, March, 1999

First, always give credit where credit is due.  I have liberally hyper linked to photos from Steve Grande's collection to help illustrate this travelogue.  Thank You, Steve.  When  you use any of the hyper links, please use your browsers' BACK button to return to this travelogue.

Part I:  Westbound, March 12-14, 1999

On March 5, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  To honor the occasion, they brought their immediate family (my brother and I, our wives and our children) to Minden, Nevada on March 15 for an anniversary celebration.

My wife, our son and I elected to take this trip by rail, and make it a vacation.  Since our son is in grade school, he had some homework to do -  oh well, into each life SOME rain must fall.

This was not our first trip on the California Zephyr (also called the CZ).  We had taken the same trip in Christmastime, 1997, so we had a plan for our travel.

Kansas City to Omaha

On Friday, March 12, friends took us to the Kansas City, MO, Amtrak depot.  It's located immediately east of Kansas City Union Station (which will reopen as a meeting place and science museum in November 1999).  Since Kansas City is the western terminus for the Missouri Mule as well as a division point for the Southwest Chief, it has two tracks, a waiting room with a mini-convenience store, lockers, and a mechanical department office (here is a picture of the Kansas City Amtrak platform).

We, however, only took limited advantage of these facilities.  We spend a little extra money in the Winter months for our trips because we take the Amtrak Thruway shuttle to join the CZ in Omaha. With snow potential in the Midwest from October 15 to March 25, it just seems to be common sense to let someone else do the driving on the first leg.

The shuttle is operated by the Renzenberger Company.  They provide train crew shuttles nationwide, but they protect the Kansas City-Omaha run with two regular drivers and vans.  There are six hours available for the trip (6:30 pm departure from Kansas City, 12:31 am departure of the CZ in Omaha); the shuttle is scheduled for four hours (it arrives about 10:30 pm) and the actual trip takes three hours (plus a scheduled supper stop in St. Joseph, MO).

On this trip, both shuttles are running, since there are 10 people with reservations.  Only 8 of us show up, so two families traveling back to California go in one van, and we plus a young college student bound for Vail go in the other.  This is good news for us.  We can strap our son down in one of the back seats and let him take a nap between St. Joseph and Omaha.

Our driver is a great guy; we've been with him before.  He even grants a small side trip:  As we arrive in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha, he detours by the Fox Park coach yard of the Union Pacific to see if the business train is in (it's not).  We do, however, see the EC-3 detector car, and lots of Armour Yellow and Harbormist Gray.

Like Kansas City, the Omaha Amtrak station is a small building set in the old station complex.  On the North side of the complex is the former Union Station.  It is now the Omaha Western Heritage Museum.  On the South side is the former Burlington Northern station; it is suffering from benign neglect.  The Amtrak trainshed occupies a single working track of the former BN station, and it has access from the UP via a crossover and the BNSF from its southern curve towards Offutt Air Force Base.

We get a baggage cart (Omaha still has free station carts from the old days, bigger and more capable than the "Smart Carts"), and settle down to wait the last hour and a half.  Tonight, though, we have a surprise:  Train 5 is ahead of the advertised!  It pulls in about 11:45 pm, and the train crew comes to the station to collect transportation and give out coach seat checks.

Omaha to Denver

As with our first trip, the crew calls First Class passengers before they call Coach.  We have Deluxe Bedroom E in car 531, so we march on through the Coach folks.  Now we have another surprise.  Since Christmas, 1997, Amtrak now spots the sleepers to the front of the consist, immediately behind the head-end equipment and the dorm transition sleeper.  We are certainly glad we have the baggage cart.

I'm not the consist-aholic I once was, so I don't have car numbers.  However, here is a description of the trainset for this run.  The California Zephyr is a Superliner equipped train, so all the cars are double deckers, built by Budd, with fundamental engineering dating to the Santa Fe's El Capitan of 1955:

2 GE Genesis locomotives
1 GM-EMD F40PH, painted for the Florida Fun Train
1 Express (MHC) car
1 Heritage Baggage-Mail Storage (Budd-built)
1 Transition Sleeper
2 Superliner Sleepers, loading numbers 532 and 531 (believe they are Superliner I series)
1 Diner
1 Sightseer Lounge
1 Superliner Smoking Coach
3 Superliner Coaches
4 Express (MHC) cars

The 531 car has the molded beige plastic for the interior wall lining.  The 532 car has carpet.  We prefer the carpet - it's easier on the elbows when moving through the cars at speed.  Oh, well-.

A Deluxe bedroom has a gross footprint of about 45 square feet  (here are photos of a typical Deluxe bedroom).  To compare with the pre-Amtrak equipment, the Deluxe Bedroom has an identical footprint to a Pullman compartment, with the addition of a shower in the facility.

When we get to car 531, our porter, Phil, is waiting for us.  He's a senior man on the route, but his assistance consists solely of telling us our room is at the top of the stair.  More on Phil later.

Our three big bags go down in the storage racks on the lower level. My wife's purse and quilting bag (as big as a 4 suiter), our son's bag, my athletic bag and briefcase come into the room.  In a few minutes our bags are stowed, our son has his pajamas on and teeth brushed, and he hops into the upper berth.  We grownups will take the lower.

12:31 comes, the doors shut, two longs sound on the airhorn from the engine, and we glide into the night.  We set our watches for Mountain Standard Time (since we'll transition somewhere around McCook, Nebraska).  Then its time to change into nightclothes and retire for some sleep.

Amtrak has a route guide for the CZ:  Phil apparently did not load any in Chicago.  On the last trip, as well as on this one, we use the older and longer route guide from Steve's Trainweb site.

I've loved traveling by Pullman all my life.  My biggest problem on Amtrak is getting enough sleep - not because of the ride, but because watching the world go by, even at night, is just plain fun.  Where else but on a train can you look in on the towns of America?

I sleep until somewhere east of Fort Morgan, Colorado.  The growing dawn invites me to slip out of bed, put my clothes on, and settle down in the easy chair.  In a few minutes my wife wakes up, as well.  I go to the stairwell and get us coffee and juice, while we watch the world go by.

Just a few minutes later our son wakes up and we get him juice.  We all dress enough to go to the diner, and down the hall we go - Guess what??? So has everyone else.  It's not even 7 in the morning, and "Phillip, your Dining Car Steward," is already giving out reservation slips!!  Our son and I go to the lounge, while Donna goes back to our room to take a shower and turn herself from pretty to beautiful.

On the way into Denver, what a surprise - on the south side is a yard, and look at all the passenger equipment in it!!  Mostly Budd cars, and would you believe it?  There are some still painted in the Northern Pacific two-tone green scheme.  Later I learn this is the home of Rader Railcar, of Hudson, Colorado.  These are the folks who failed to get the Marlboro Unlimited super-luxury train up and running for Phillip Morris.

Finally, we get called to breakfast.  The diner is in-between our car and the lounge, so we have the best of all worlds.  We each sign our meal checks (Amtrak budgets about $20 per meal per passenger from the First Class ticket cost for food), and we have a morning feast with a view on the way to Denver. My wife had biscuits and sausage gravy, our son had pancakes, and I had two eggs with sausage.  I just hope that someday Amtrak puts French Toast on the CZ breakfast menu.  (Here's a sample menu, courtesy of Steve's Trainweb site).

Denver is a railfan's paradise.  The CZ has to go into the BNSF yard, roll by the locomotive servicing facilities (including a turntable and one stall of what looks like it once was a switch engine roundhouse) and back down on Union Station.  The train keeps backing down to the Post Office, drops all but one of its aft express cars, and rolls forward to its final spot.

When we arrive in Denver, even with the switching, we are again early against the timetable.  We get out, walk alongside the cars and into the station.  It's a wonderful spring morning, a hint of cool but jackets not needed.  We meet up with our across the street neighbors, who moved to Denver 10 days ago.  We take them aboard the train, show them around, and whet their appetite for rail travel.

Through the Rockies

Once again, on time, we hear the two longs of the airhorn, and we leave Union Station, now on the former Denver and Rio Grande Western.  We are off to attack the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and our ascent will culminate in passing through the Moffatt Tunnel.

The morning passes quickly, especially when we stop on the Front Range for a red board.  Not 100 yards from that block signal is the end of a coal unit train, stopped.  Apparently, we are having to dance through a multiple stage meet, compliments of the Union Pacific.  Eventually the freight takes siding, and once more we are on our way.

The conductor starts warning us about the Moffatt Tunnel.  Since it is so long, porters, stewards, and the lounge car attendant get instructions to make sure all end doors stay closed, so as few Diesel fumes as possible enter the cars.  Then all of a sudden, "Phillip, your Dining Car Steward," comes on the intercom and asks anyone who wants to eat early to come to the Diner.  We immediately go from our bedroom to the Diner, and have lunch while enjoying the panorama of the run up to Moffatt, including that huge portal, and then the run downhill to Fraser-Winter Park and Granby.

We spend the afternoon rolling through the canyons of the Rockies and the Western Slope.  We see at least five bald eagles (including two young ones and one in flight), an elk and a small herd of mule deer.  If there is a better way to see the wild lands of Colorado short of mounting a backpack for a week besides the CZ, I want to know about it!  Too bad our son is exhausted, he takes a two-hour nap.

Later afternoon finds us in Glenwood Springs, home of the huge volcanic-heated baths and pool.  We grab a quick walk along the platform, to stretch our legs.

After Glenwood Springs, our son does a couple of pages of arithmetic homework that his teacher gave him.  He's missing a week of school, so she gave him some things to do- he also has found a playmate on the train.  I buy him a deck of Amtrak cards, and my son does multiplication drills, while his playmate (who is 7 or so) does addition drills.

A word about porters:  In what will be two round trips on the CZ, we've had an absolutely superior lady, two adequate ladies, and Phil.  The best way to describe Phil is just minimum service.  No drink cards, no route brochures, no flowers, no magazines - just coffee, juice, and the beds made down.  That superior lady, on our 1997 eastbound trip near New Years, got a $20 tip.  Needless to say, Phil will not get nearly that much.

The Chief of On-Board Services comes through right after Glenwood Springs and takes our supper reservations.  Donna has wanted to try the Baked Stuffed Trout (the CZ specialty) since 1997.  We ask for the second seating of dinner tonight (while the CZ stops in Grand Junction) - she and I both get the trout.  Trust us:  Order the trout!  Our son goes for the prime rib.  He may be 9, but he devours that good looking hunk of beef.

After supper, our son, his playmate and I go to the lounge car.  Disney's The Parent Trap is the early video.  My wife takes advantage of the time to take a shower and get ready for Sunday.  She asks Phil to make our beds down, and after getting our son to bed, she relaxes while I take my shower.  We retire somewhere east of Green River, Colorado.

On to Reno

The only thing I remember about the night is arriving under the brilliant trackside lights of the former Western Pacific Station in Salt Lake City - but I'm tired, so I fall right back to sleep.

I wake up to the dawn somewhere in Nevada.

Again, we trek to the diner, and again, we have one of Amtrak's excellent breakfasts.  There is nothing better than eating in the diner and watching the world go by.

Overnight, the CZ dropped an hour from the advertised.  We will get into Reno around 10:30 am.  We start putting our stuff in order for departure at Fernley, but I wait until we leave Sparks to move our bags down.  There is an extended family on our car (they take the handicapped room, two standard bedrooms, and a deluxe bedroom), and they need to work hard to detrain at Sparks.

When we arrive in Reno, we get one last assist from Phil:  He puts the stepbox out.

So, how do we assess this segment of our trip?  Real simple:  Riding on Amtrak is part of the vacation - when we stepped off the train, we'd had two days of rest and sightseeing that we could never do if we had stuffed ourselves in a 737 or driven in our car.

The 50th Anniversary Eastbound Run of the California Zephyr, March 19-21, 1999

We returned to Reno on March 19.  With a 5:30 pm departure, we planned to turn in the rental car and arrive at the depot around 3:30 pm.

Reno's Amtrak depot is a former Southern Pacific station.  It's a beautiful thing to look at, but the surroundings are a little risqué for our liking.  to the east of the station, the old Railway Express building is now The Men's Club (it's a strip joint).  To the immediate west of the station is a facility called the Reno Turf Club.  Even so, it's easier to get on board in Reno than it is to find your way into the yards at Sparks.

From Reno, into the Night -

The train was running about 15 minutes late as it came down Donner Pass.  Today, train 6 carried an extra added attraction:  The private car Tamalpais, which is owned by the General Rail Corporation was holding the marker lights, bringing a wedding party from somewhere in California to Reno.  Tamalpais was cut off the train at Sparks.  General Rail is a member of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), whose members have passenger cars available for charter throughout the Nation.

Today's eastbound consist was:

2 GE Genesis locomotives
1 Heritage Baggage-Mail Storage
1 Transition Sleeper
2 Sleepers, cars 632 and 631
1 Diner
1 Sightseer Lounge
1 Smoking Coach
3 Coaches
1 Express car
Private Business Car Tamalpais (only to Sparks)

Reno has no baggage carts.  Some soul (whether a bum or a passenger) had "liberated" a Wal-Mart shopping cart.  It was there, so we used it.  The only bags we carried were my wife's quilting bag (she had a project in progress, and used the downtime to get some work done) and my work case (with the tickets).

In Reno, unlike Omaha, there is no organization at train time.  The station man announces about where the cars will spot, and off you go.  We had to go east, to the track side of "The Men's Club," to reach the sleeper spots.  Reno is also unlike Omaha in that there are two working tracks.  The inner track is for westbound trains, and the outer track for eastbound.  As the CZ arrives, we cross to the outer track, and wait for the day trippers to unload.

Our porter this time is Natalie, a college student who makes runs on the Chicago extra board.  She greets all us boarding passengers with "May I help you? - the coaches are three cars to the rear-"  I guess the crew did not get a loading list to her.

I respond with "Miss, we have Bedroom E to Omaha-"

She immediately responds with "Please come aboard-" and we get aboard.  Again, our three big bags go into the rack, and we take our travel stuff to the compartment.

As we settle in, the Conductor comes by, and greets us cordially (He has ten minutes and one stop left today - )  He lifts our ticket, and then Natalie comes by again.  Maybe she did have a boarding roster after all.  She has a dinner reservation for 6:30 pm for us.  She certainly has set the room up, that is true:  There are flowers in the vase, brochures on the table, and coffee in the pot.  Still no drink coupons:  Maybe that is Amtrak's latest service cutback.

From the upper level corridor window, we watch her bring the stepbox in.  Then the Conductor gives the highball, the horn gives two longs, and we're on our way home.

When we get to Sparks, Curtis Katz, a great coach attendant, gets on the intercom and announces that people can walk around the platform.  We all hop off and go back to look at Tamalpais.  It's a beautiful business car - you can see oaken paneling throughout.

We stretch our legs from marker lights to headlights, and then get back on car 631.  As we do, the dining car steward calls our sitting, and it's off to the diner.  Donna has a salmon dish, while my son and I have the Kansas City strip.  For dessert, my wife gets a fruit and cheese plate to go, while my son and I have the apple pie.

We've had a really long day, so we ask Natalie to make our room down early.  We settle in for night and the run to Salt Lake City and points east.

Since our first trip in 1997, my wife has wanted to see the Utah salt flats from the train.  This time, she gets her wish.  By luck, I wake up just short of Wendover, Nevada/Utah in the middle of the night.  As we leave the easternmost casinos of Nevada, we drop into the salt flats and start gaining speed.  She gets her wish!   A few miles later, we slow down for a few minutes, and meet train 5 working its way westbound - we can see into the diner and the lounge, but otherwise, its just a quarter moon shimmering off stainless steel.

We arrive in Salt Lake City sometime around 5 am (still 15-20 minutes late).  I look to see if the UP has any of its executive fleet in town (they don't), and I go back to sleep until dawn somewhere around the steel works of Geneva.

Breakfast this morning is on the run up Soldier Summit.  This is the first of an exciting day of scenery.  My son and I go back to the compartment to clean up (and for him to knock out a little more homework before going back to school on Monday).  Then, all of a sudden, my wife bursts into the room.  "Quick, hurry up, this is the 50th anniversary of the inaugural run of this train; there's a guide in the lounge car."

The 50th Anniversary of the California Zephyr

Our son goes with Donna, and I quickly shave.  When I get to the sightseer lounge, I settle in for the first of four surprises:  The morning video is an older advertising film of the CZ:  Produced sometime in the 50s, I guess, but maybe the early 60s.  Wonderful shots of the Burlington's GM E units, the Rio Grande's Alco PAs, and the Western Pacific's F units.  The movie shows the train from the Cable Car Room Coffee Shop to the round-end observation dome.

The second surprise is the narrator for todays ride:  Mr. Dan Kuhn used to be with Amtrak (he's a fourth generation railroader), but now he is the rail planner and rail historian for the Utah Department of Transportation.  He shows Donna and I some of his pre-Amtrak CZ memorabilia.  Donna settles in with her quilting next to Mrs. Kuhn, who has crochet work going.

The third surprise is a poster:  Amtrak hands each passenger a special 50th anniversary poster.  It's a pretty four-color thing.

On we roll, and now Amtrak's publicity department puts on their own video on the 50 years of the Zephyr:  For the pre-Amtrak period, it features the CZ, and whitewashes the other SF-Chicago runs.  The hint of the other runs comes in when Amtrak took over and cobbled together the San Francisco Zephyr (SP Overland Route to Reno, Western Pacific east of Reno to Salt Lake, UP Overland Route to Denver, and original BN to Chicago).  The publicity department did not check their facts:  Mr. Kuhn, another passenger who is a member of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society and I all catch a number of technical errors.  If you see this film, take it with a grain of salt.

As we roll east, lunchtime comes around, and my son and I go to the diner:  Donna keeps our seats in the lounge, since the afternoon is the most spectacular scenery of the whole run.  Cecil is our waiter:  He's a big soul with a big heart, and a way with kids.  (By sheer good fortune he serves us at all our meals on this trip - He could name his tune in any top-flight restaurant in America, but I'm glad he's on this diner!!!)

I have the soup and salad, while my son has a beefburger.  We pull into Grand Junction, CO during our lunch, and I slip off the train to call my mom.  She enjoys passenger rail travel as well (she rode the UP City of Salina as a teenager), and I wanted to share the sheer fortune of traveling today with her.

After lunch, back to the lounge we go, and Donna takes her turn in the diner.  Dan Kuhn keeps up his superior narration:  It is historically, geographically, and technically as near perfect as you will find.  As we work our way through the canyons and climb towards a suppertime summit in the Moffatt tunnel, Amtrak pulls off its fourth surprise.  While we wait for the afternoon meet of Trains 5 and 6, there's an on-board Birthday Party!  Amtrak springs for complimentary cakes and soda - including Arthur Dubin's famous soft drink of the rails, Ginger Ale.

We pass through Glenwood springs, and watch as homeward bound skiers and spring-breakers board the coaches.  Now its on our way through Glenwood Canyon, enroute to the Dotsero cutoff.

Between the eastern end of Glenwood Canyon and Dotsero, we have another trainwatchers delight:  On the end of Train 5, the Union Pacific has tacked on their business car Sunset (acquired in the SP-UP merger).  It's a Budd-built car, and I've seen it through the years in the SP Sunset Limited colors (Stainless steel with a red letterboard lettered in Railroad Roman, and the SP Daylight symbol along with the name on the nameboard).  It looks a smidgen alien in Armour Yellow, Harbormist Gray, and Red Scotchlite lettering/striping.

Dan and Curtis Katz run a trivia contest after the meet, as we work our way through the Dotsero cutoff, Red Canyon and Gore Canyon.  What a way to spend an afternoon!

I ask the steward if my son can be taken down the kitchen stairs on the diner and be shown the kitchen - she agrees, and my son comes back saying "That was cool - they cook everything down there!"  This Dining Car crew is the best we've had yet!

Donna takes a few minutes to go back to our compartment and make our dinner reservations.  We get places at the second seating.

While Dan and his wife eat, we guard their stuff.  They have places at the first seating.

Our seating gets called in Byers Canyon .  Once again, Donna and I have the trout while our son has the prime rib.  We have dinner through the sunset hour, and our desserts come as we pass through the Moffatt tunnel and start down the Front Range.

The Last Overnight

After supper, its time to clean up for the early morning on Sunday - Natalie is eating in the crew spot of the diner, so the 632 cars porter gives us bath towels.  As we finish cleaning up, we pass by Plainview and the Denver metropolis bursts out with its night lights - a beautiful sight.

We decide to go to bed early - a 6:45 arrival in Omaha means rising around Lincoln, and that's in the 5 o'clock hour.  But where is Natalie?  She's not in the car, upstairs or down, nor is she at the crew table in the diner.  OK, time to make down the section ourselves.  It takes a little work, but we get the job done, and we retire to watch Denver grow as we descend.  As we back down on Denver Union Station, Dan Kuhn comes on the intercom one last time, to thank the passengers for traveling Amtrak, and to thank them for sharing the anniversary of the CZ with him.  He'll be taking Train 6 back to Salt Lake City in the morning.

I've been traveling trains since I was 3.  Trust me, early mornings are not a great time to detrain.  Overnight, though, we get some great news (to us) -  Train 6 has lost some more time on the run across Nebraska - we will be about 45 minutes late into Omaha.  That means we can have one last breakfast in peace.

When we arrive in Omaha, we have one last surprise.  Waiting on the westbound UP tracks is Train 5, the westbound CZ - it is 7 hours plus late!  The BNSF had a freight derailment around Creston, and Amtrak had to divert 5 onto UP's old Chicago and Northwestern line - and that meant a fourth engine - I assume for one of three reasons:  First, I don't know whether the old C&NW tracks had a unique type of CTC or not, second, the Amtrak crew had to expire against the Federal 12 hour "Hog Law" on the delayed trip to Omaha, and third, I don't know how many Amtrak engine crews are qualified to run on the C&NW trackage of the UP.

On to Home

Just before 8:00 am, our Renzenberger shuttle arrives, and its time to go home.  Again we stop in St. Joseph, but this time no one really wants much of a meal.  Our driver is a great guy:  Since we live right off the interstate, he offers to drop us at the house!  We take him up on it, and then we sweeten his tip!  He is truly good people.

So that is our 1999 journey on the California Zephyr.  It's the way to travel, especially when you plan the travel as part of the vacation.  All in all, we had a good trip.  My one concern is the service level of the First Class porters:  I do believe it is time for Amtrak to put on some traveling inspectors and award a few demerits.

Click below for pages in the directory of TrainWeb sties:
0-9 A B C D E

ad pos61 ad pos63
ad pos62 ad pos64

Support this website by joining the Silver Rails TrainWeb Club for as little as $1 per month. Click here for info.