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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak California Zephyr
Chicago-Denver
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1999f20a/1999f21a.html

It's about 2:50 p.m. on Monday, June 21, 1999, and we have just returned to Union Station in Chicago after spending several hours at the Museum of Science and Industry. The highlight of my visit to this museum was the restored Pioneer Zephyr of the Burlington Route. In 1934, this trainset made a non-stop run from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours and five minutes. Ironically, it traversed the same route that we will be riding tonight -- except that it will be taking us at least 18 hours to cover the same distance traversed by the 1934 train!

We all met at the museum at 2:00 p.m., and took a bus back to downtown Chicago which left at 2:17 p.m. We then transferred to another bus, and we arrived at Union Station about 2:50 p.m.

Our first order of business was to retrieve the baggage that we had stored in our three lockers. The charge for each locker was $6.25, which had to be paid in quarters! Thankfully, there were change machines available that provided change for $5 bills. Once this procedure was completed, I went down to the boarding area to tell the attendant that we had a group of 21 that should be pre-boarded. I was informed that the train is not boarding yet, due to mechanical problems. So I went back to find the rest of the group. No sooner had the rest of the group caught up to me and I returned to the boarding area, than an Amtrak representative saw me and asked us to board the train. So we proceeded over to the train, where we were asked to board the rear coach and were seated in the very rear of the car. Since it was only 3:15 p.m., with 20 minutes to go before our departure time, I detrained and walked to the front of the train to record the consist.

Today's California Zephyr is pulled by two P-42 Genesis engines and one F-40 (#259), and includes an MHC car, a baggage car, a crew transition sleeper, three sleepers (one of which is a Superliner II car), a diner, a Superliner I Sightseer lounge car, a smoking coach, two 34000-series coaches, a snack-bar coach (the snack-bar portion of which was not in service), and another baggage car at the rear (apparently used for mail). I had never previously ridden in most of the equipment on this train, but, interestingly, the snack-bar coach to which our group was assigned (#35011) was on the Houston section of the Texas Eagle when I took that train from Dallas to Chicago in June 1991 -- my first trip on a Superliner. And the Sightseer Lounge was on the train that we took from Raton to Flagstaff on our summer 1997 Philmont trip.

As I was returning along the platform from the front of the train, I met John Decker and his father-in-law, who were proceeding to their sleeper room. I had first met John on the Texas Eagle several years ago, and we became very good friends. I knew that John would be on this train, which he was taking to the Railfair in Sacramento, and it was very nice to meet him again.

I reboarded the train, but our departure time passed without us leaving the station. I heard a comment over the scanner that the coach seats had apparently been overbooked, and that there were not enough seats for all passengers. But seats were soon found for everyone, and we departed at 3:41 p.m., only six minutes late.

I watched as we proceeded down the center of the three-track ex-Burlington line going west from Chicago. This is a well- established commuter line, with frequent METRA service and many quaint, old stations. Soon, we made a brief stop at Naperville, near the western end of the commuter territory.

I next walked down to the lounge car, where I met John Decker and his father-in-law. As usual, John was following the route of the train on a very detailed atlas. I spent about two hours sitting in the lounge car, talking to John and following our passage through the flat farmlands of Illinois. In the meantime, I took advantage of the presence of an outlet in the upstairs serving section of the lounge car to plug in my computer for recharging. Jodi, the leader of our group, used the other outlet to plug in her cellular phone, and she used the phone to call several people in Denver to make arrangements for our arrival tomorrow. At 5:30 p.m., shortly after we made a brief stop at Princeton, John and his father-in-law went to the diner for dinner.

We stopped at Galesburg at 6:14 p.m. Here, we made two stops, and quite a few people got on the train. There is an old steam engine and some other old rail equipment on display here. When we departed ten minutes later, I went down to the lower level of the lounge car and ate my salami sandwich (left over from lunch) for dinner. Many boys from our group were down here, playing cards and talking rather loudly. I was very glad that our train was assigned a Superliner I lounge car, which has six standard, comfortable tables on the lower level (on the Superliner II Sightseer Lounges, four of these tables are replaced by two awkward and uncomfortable tables designed to be handicapped accessible, but rarely, if ever, actually used by handicapped people).

At 7:11 p.m., after crossing the Mississippi River on an impressive truss bridge, we arrived at Burlington, Iowa. I stepped off the train here, and noticed the conductor walking down the platform. I observed smoke coming out of the wheels of one of the cars. Then I reboarded the train and walked back to my car, where I perceived a very noticeable smell of smoke. It turned out that the brakes on four cars had overheated, and at least one was on fire (with the fire having to be put out with a fire extinguisher). We pulled up a short distance, but then stopped again, even though we were blocking a crossing. Finally, the conductors concluded that the brakes had cooled down and it was safe to move ahead, and we resumed our journey at 7:42 p.m. We were now 42 minutes late, though. At one point I heard on the scanner that our rear coach will be removed from the train at Salt Lake City. Of course, that won't be of much help if the brakes start overheating again before we get there! After we started moving, and everything seemed to be okay, it was stated on the scanner that we had to use the brakes several times on a downgrade before our station stop in Burlington, and that could explain why the brakes on several cars overheated. And, when I next heard a defect detector report a few minutes later, it announced that there were no defects.

We stopped at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa at 8:07 p.m. The station here is an unattractive cinder block building. We made two stops here, first for sleeping car passengers, and then for coach passengers. Quite a few passengers got off and on here, and we spent about ten minutes at the station. I observed the stop from one of the tables in the lower level of the lounge car. The food service counter was closed at this time, and it did not reopen until 8:40 p.m. Many people came down and were very disappointed to learn that they could not purchase food or beverages until the attendant came back.

Soon, I fell asleep for a few minutes. When I woke up again, I noticed a very long line, which extended up the stairs, for food and beverage service. It turned out that an electric cable in the dining car had malfunctioned and, as a result, meals could not be served there. Passengers were given vouchers to obtain food in the lounge car, and that explained the long line. In the meantime, the batteries in my computer had died, so I decided to make my way through the line and go upstairs in order to recharge the batteries.

We stopped at Ottumwa, Iowa at 8:57 p.m. This is a very large, modern stone structure, constructed in the 1950s by the Burlington Route. Again, we made two stops, and were ready to depart about 9:05 p.m., but we did not move. Finally, about 9:15 p.m., an announcement was made over the loudspeaker that we are waiting for authority from the dispatcher to proceed. On the scanner, I heard a request for the telephone number of the Amtrak "help" desk in Fort Worth. I found the situation particularly ironic in light of the extraordinarily good BNSF dispatching I had experienced on my trip on the Empire Builder last December. Almost immediately, though, I heard a train order being dictated by the dispatcher giving us authority to proceed as far as Creston, over 100 miles away. When we finally started moving again at 9:19 p.m., we were 50 minutes late.

I noticed that there was now a vacant pair of seats in the first coach next to an outlet, so with the permission of the attendant of that car, I sat down there so that I could plug in my computer. I spent about two hours there, working on the index to a book. It was very quiet and peaceful there, in contrast to the lounge car, where a loud movie was being shown. (I should point out that most of the boys from my group watched the movie and thought that it was very good!) The attendant was very friendly, and I made it clear to him that I would be willing to give up my temporary seat at any time if needed to accommodate passengers boarding the train.

Our next stop was Osceola, where we arrived at 10:32 p.m. There is an old brick station here, which is apparently still open for Amtrak patrons. I stepped off the train here for a few minutes and talked to a group of six sisters who had gotten together for a reunion and were getting off the train. Quite a number of people boarded the train here, which is not surprising in view of the fact that it is the nearest station to Des Moines. When we left five minutes later, we were still 50 minutes late.

Soon after we left Creston, our next stop, at 11:10 p.m., I decided to return to my assigned seat in the rear car and go to sleep. I noticed that two of the boys were sleeping on the floor in back of the two rear pairs of seats, and I decided to join them. I occupied the aisle at the very end of the car, but this didn't matter, since our car was the last car on the train, and there was no reason for anyone else to walk back there. I have found that although the Superliner seats are very comfortable for sitting, they do not recline far enough back to be able to lie down flat, and it is more comfortable to sleep on a flat floor. I had brought my sleeping bag with me, and used my small backpack as sort of a pillow. Although I woke up quite a few times during the night, I think that I slept relatively well, and got a few hours of sleep.

We arrived in Omaha at 12:37 a.m. I woke up and was tempted to step off the train here, since this is a crew-change point, and we are scheduled to spend 20 minutes here, but I was quite tired and decided to stay where I was. On the scanner, I heard a request for a maintenance person to go to the dining car in order to repair the broken cable. It seems that, as a result, our stop here lasted over an hour, and we did not depart until 1:40 a.m. Notwithstanding this, I found out the following morning from the conductor that they had not succeeded in repairing the electric cable in the diner, and that, as a result, only cold food would be served for breakfast.

I woke up for our stops in Lincoln and Hastings, Nebraska, but quickly fell asleep again. Finally, after we left Holdrege at 5:35 a.m., about an hour and 20 minutes late, I decided to get up, since it was getting light out. I walked through the coaches, noting that the last three coaches were still almost completely full, but that the first coach, used for local passengers, was more than half empty (although a woman who had boarded in Omaha was sitting in the seat by the outlet which I had occupied last night). I went into the lounge car, which was almost completely deserted, and sat down at a table on the lower level. The scenery had changed significantly since yesterday, with the flat cornfields of Iowa giving way to more rolling terrain, and much of the land being used for grazing cattle rather than growing crops. I was soon joined at an adjacent table by a young man who was traveling from Osceola to Granby, Colorado, where he would be serving as a counselor at a YMCA camp.

We stopped briefly at McCook, Nebraska at 6:44 a.m. This is our last stop in Nebraska, so I decided to step off the train very briefly, so I could say that I set foot in Nebraska on this trip. There is a beautiful old brick station here which is still used for Amtrak passengers, but the former double entrance door has been partially bricked up in an unattractive manner, and the ornate canopy over the entranceway is obscured by an Amtrak sign. After we left McCook, I returned to the lower level of the lounge car and updated these memoirs. At one point, an elderly woman sat opposite me, and told me about her first train trip, which she took with her husband 70 years ago. She explained that they had been on a bus trip, but the roads got flooded, and they had to take a train instead for part of the trip. (Today, of course, it usually works the other way!)

I walked back to our coach at the rear of the train, where I was informed by some of the boys that they were giving out free danish in the lounge car. Then I went into the diner, with the intention of eating breakfast there. The attendant informed me that, due to the power failure in the diner, they were not serving breakfast there to coach passengers, but all passengers were welcome to help themselves to a free continental breakfast which they could eat at their seats. So I took an orange, a banana, a bowl of Special K, a cup of milk and a cup of coffee, and brought it down to the lower level of the lounge car, where I sat opposite a retired couple from Florida. They had come from visiting their family in Ohio, and would be taking VIA's Canadian across Canada as part of their trip. I told them about my recent trip from Winnipeg to Toronto and assured them that they would have a wonderful journey on VIA. They also told me about their trip across the United States last year by Amtrak, noting that at one point they were delayed for three days due to a washed-out bridge. Amtrak paid for their stay at an expensive hotel in Salt Lake City during this period, and they were quite pleased that three days had been added to their vacation at Amtrak's expense! During breakfast, we passed through Akron, Colorado, which is no longer an Amtrak stop, but formerly was a scheduled stop, and an Amtrak sign is still on the building.

When I finished my breakfast, I went back up to the upper level of the lounge car, where I joined John Decker and his father-in-law once more. I watched as we passed a herd of buffalo to our right, and then passed a huge feedlot, where thousands of cattle are raised for market. Then I moved to the first coach, where I sat down at a pair of empty seats and updated these memoirs. We made a brief stop at Fort Morgan, Colorado at 8:10 a.m., after which the conductor announced that it would be another hour and a half until we arrived at Denver, which would mean that we would be arriving about an hour late.

The Chief of On-Board Services soon made an announcement apologizing for the problem with the diner. She said that the diner would be out of service until Salt Lake City, at which time (midnight tonight) it would be replaced by another diner. Until then, she explained, Amtrak would be providing alternate meals to all passengers. She apologized for the inconvenience, and asked passengers to send in copies of their ticket stubs to Amtrak to receive some compensation. Actually, as far as I and our group were concerned, we had not been inconvenienced in the least by this problem. We had no intention of eating dinner in the diner last night, and this morning we were all provided with a free breakfast, compliments of Amtrak. And since we are detraining in Denver, what happens after that is no concern of ours. So the unavailability of meal service in the dining car actually worked to our advantage!

Soon, I went down to the lounge car again to say goodbye to John Decker. At 9:40 a.m., we began our back-up move into the Denver station. The back-up move took ten minutes. Then we had to stop to allow the mail car at the rear of the train to be taken off, and we then pulled forward again. At 9:53 a.m., one hour and 18 minutes late, we came to our final stop at the Denver station, and passengers were permitted to detrain.

We were met at the station by a driver with a 15-passenger van. Most of the boys waited outside while David and I went inside the station to retrieve our baggage. Denver Union Station is a majestic building, built to serve many trains, but served today by only one train in each direction. Fortunately, the main concourse, which also serves as a waiting room, remains essentially intact. Originally, passengers would walk through the station directly into a subway leading to the trains, but recently a roadway has been installed between the three remaining tracks and the station, and access is now via another subway that leads down from the side of the station. When we walked inside the station, sleeping car passengers were already on their way to board the train, but coach passengers formed a very long line behind a desk at which a conductor was stationed to collect tickets and assign seats.

After about 15 minutes had elapsed, with no baggage having been delivered, I walked back outside and noticed that the baggage had been loaded in three carts pulled by a tractor, that were about to be brought into the station. Then I saw that the baggage for our group was already being taken off the carts. Apparently, some of the boys waiting outside the station had started taking their luggage off the carts, and the baggage personnel decided that it would be easier to unload all of our baggage outside, right next to where our van was parked. By 10:25 a.m., we were on our way, with the California Zephyr still in the station.

Our trip from Chicago to Denver was a big success for everyone. In the words of one of the boys, it was "awesome" and "cool." Indeed, some of the Scouts were disappointed that we would not be returning by train! There were absolutely no problems with the behavior of any of the boys on the second night of our trip, and I think that almost everyone slept very soundly. Moreover, the free breakfast this morning was an unexpected treat. I must say that although we experienced all of the varied scenery from New York and Washington to Denver -- the rugged Appalachian mountains, the grimy industrial area between Cleveland and Chicago, the flat cornfields of Illinois and Iowa, and the hillier terrain of Nebraska -- somehow I got the sense that we were just transported from New York to Denver by some magical means. But I really enjoyed our train trip, and am very glad that we all decided to travel to Denver by train.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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