It's about 12:20 p.m. on Sunday, January 30, 2000, and I've just arrived at Chicago Union Station, where I will be boarding the California Zephyr on my way to Sacramento. I have just spent a very enjoyable weekend with my cousins Debbie and Aaron, and this morning Aaron drove me to the Edgebrook station, where I caught the 11:38 a.m. Metra Fox Lake train to Chicago. As we were waiting, a southbound train approached on the northbound track. This turned out to be a southbound Amtrak Hiawatha Service train, pushed by a 500-series engine and led by "cabbage car" 90222. Finally, my train arrived 11 minutes late at 11:49 a.m. Since it was snowing, I assumed that the delay had something to do with the snow. However, when the conductor came by to sell me a ticket, he told me that the 11-minute delay resulted entirely from the fact that our train had been stopped by a red signal to permit another train to pass (although the other train never showed up). There were three cars open on this Metra train, and the car that I was in was rather full. Sunday service on this line is provided every two hours, and it seems that this weekend service is quite well patronized. We arrived at Chicago Union Station at 12:14 p.m., ten minutes late, and I promptly went over to the Metropolitan Lounge, where I checked in and stored my luggage.
I took out my computer, signed online, and did some work. I had thought of going to a museum where there was an interesting exhibit, but by now there was little more than about two hours left before I would be boarding my train. So I decided to stay around the station. I ate two sandwiches that my cousin Debbie had given me for lunch, and I also walked down a few blocks to a Walgreen's, where I had hoped to purchase some spare AA batteries for my scanner. I found that the store was closed on Sundays, so I returned to the station, checked my messages, and got ready to board the train.
About 2:50 p.m., while checking my e-mail messages for the last time, I noticed a familiar face standing behind me in the Metropolitan Lounge. It was Phil Copeland, a charter member of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee, whom I had first met several years ago on the Lake Shore Limited. Phil is blind, and serves as a member of ACAC representing people with disabilities. He, along with his wife, was on his way to a meeting of the ACAC, to be held next weekend in Portland, Oregon. Today, he would be boarding Train #3, the Southwest Chief, to go to Los Angeles. We didn't have much time to talk, since the boarding of his train was soon announced, but he mentioned to me that he had the entire text of the Amtrak Reform Council report converted to a tape that he could listen to (apparently, this can now be done automatically by scanning the text!).
The boarding call for the California Zephyr was made about 3:10 p.m. I gathered my belongings and proceeded out the door of the Metropolitan Lounge to Track 28, where our train was waiting. The rear RoadRailer was right by the door, and we had to walk down the entire length of the train to get to my sleeper. I used this opportunity to record the consist as I was walking along, and then boarded my sleeper, the first passenger car on the train. After I stowed my belongings in my Room #3 in Car 0532, Superliner sleeper #32105, named Oregon, I walked down to the front of the train to complete my recording of the consist.
Today's California Zephyr is pulled by two Genesis P-42 engines, #99 and #58, and includes two baggage cars, a transition/crew sleeper, two sleepers, a Superliner I Sightseer Lounge car, a diner, a smoking coach, two regular coaches, six express cars, another baggage car, and five RoadRailers. As you can see, I had to walk down 19 car-lengths to get to my sleeper!
On the nearby Track 20, the Southwest Chief was preparing to depart. Although it consisted only of eight cars, it was pulled by four engines (three Genesis P-42s and one F-40). Presumably, express cars would later be added in the yard, and that would explain why four engines would be needed to pull the train over Raton Pass. Although the Southwest Chief is scheduled to depart 15 minutes ahead of us, at 3:20 p.m., it was still in the station when we departed four minutes late at 3:39 p.m.
Soon, my attendant, Rolf Smeby, came by to introduce himself. He also collected my ticket, something that I don't think I've ever seen an Amtrak attendant do. From what I understand, Amtrak conductors are supposed to have the sole responsibility for collecting tickets, but I don't see any good reason why attendants in sleepers shouldn't be able to collect tickets from the passengers in their car.
In my room, there was a small white bag with some toiletries. There also was a card timetable, a special commemorative folder prepared for the 50th anniversary of the California Zephyr in 1999, and a xeroxed copy of the new, abbreviated Route Guide for this train. Although it was nice that some effort was made to provide this latter item, it looked rather tacky, and the content of the new Route Guides is so inadequate that they are virtually worthless. Incredibly, the Route Guide doesn't say anything about the Moffat Tunnel, and it refers only in passing to Donner Pass. (One wonders whether it may have been prepared by Mercer as part of the unsuccessful downsizing implemented by Amtrak several years ago!) Of course, as is my standard practice, I had brought along a copy of the original Route Guide for this train.
As was the case on the Capitol Limited, there was a supply of soft drinks and orange juice available above the stairs in the center of the sleeper, with the ice chest being located on this train in the hallway. There was also a coffee urn, with hot coffee available at all times.
I watched as we passed by the suburban communities along the ex-CB&Q commuter line that we follow on our way out of Chicago. Everything was covered with snow, which made for a very pretty sight. I also had the scanner on, and I soon heard a message to the dispatcher that we "might need the authorities here in Naperville." There was apparently a problem in one of the coaches where a man who did not have a ticket was acting "kind of loony," wandering around and talking to himself. So the police were requested to meet our train at the Naperville station.
Having heard this, I figured that we would be stopping at the Naperville station for some time. So I walked back to the first coach, and went down to the lower level. By this time, we had already arrived at the station, and the particular person in question had just stepped off the train and was walking away from the station. When the police arrived, the attendant and the conductor explained what had happened, and we were soon on our way. But our stop in Naperville had lasted five minutes as a result, and I had the opportunity to step off the train and take a few pictures.
Before returning to my room, I walked through all three coaches. The last coach, which was assigned to local passengers, mostly going to Galesburg and Burlington, was almost completely full. The other two coaches were about half empty, with a number of vacant pairs of seats marked with a sign "reserved for couples."
I returned to my room, where I found a card that had been left for me by Betty Popa-Schuld, the On-Board Chief, who had come by while I was gone. Now, I spent some time updating these memoirs. I took a few video pictures of the passing scenery, but it soon got dark out. We stopped briefly at Princeton at 5:27 p.m., and when we left a minute later, we were nine minutes late.
After again walking to the rear of the train, I returned to my room for our stop at Galesburg. We were delayed slightly in arriving at the station by a red signal, and our stop lasted for seven minutes, partly because a large number of passengers were detraining here, but also because the engineer had to obtain a warrant from the dispatcher before we could proceed. Although there would have been enough time to step off the train here, I did not bother doing so. We departed Galesburg at 6:29 p.m., 17 minutes late.
An announcement was now made that everyone with a 6:30 p.m. reservation should come to the dining car, so I proceeded there. Unlike the situation on the Capitol Limited, where both sides of the car were being used to serve passengers, tonight passengers are seated on only one side of the car (although some crew members ate their meals on the other side, which served for the entire trip as a kind of crew lounge). One table has been removed and replaced with a computer that is supposed to keep track of inventory, but this computer system is not yet in operation, and the computer has been covered with a tablecloth, with silverware stored on top of it. That leaves only nine tables on the side of the car that is being used, with a total capacity of 36. Needless to say, virtually all of these seats are being used for this dinner seating. The menus tonight were just slips of paper. On my last trip on this trip (eastbound in October), the menus had been inserted into a colorful binder commemorating the 50th anniversary of the California Zephyr. But the typographical errors I noticed then had still not been corrected -- the menu still offered "vegetrian" stir fry "seved" over a bed of rice.
I was seated opposite two men from Augusta, Maine, who were traveling to Reno, Nevada for a sportsmen's convention. Although they usually fly, they decided to take Amtrak on this trip for a change of pace. Next to me was seated Aaron Hurd, a 17-year-old high school student from Des Moines, Iowa. He, along with about 18 others from his class, had gone to Chicago for the weekend for a field trip, visiting museums and other points of interest. We had a very interesting conversation about various subjects, and I promised to e-mail Aaron a copy of my story of the trip.
About 7:00 p.m., all of our meals arrived. I had fish for dinner. Aaron ordered the vegetarian dish, and the other two men ordered steak and fish, respectively. They seemed quite pleased with their meals, and I enjoyed my meal, too.
We remained in the diner until about 7:30 p.m., watching as we crossed the Mississippi River and arrived at the station in Burlington, Iowa at 7:16 p.m. The stop here brought back memories of my most recent westbound trip through here last June, when our brakes overheated on the downgrade, a fire extinguisher had to be used to put out the resulting fire, and we were delayed for about half an hour as a result. But tonight, everything went very smoothly, with the entire stop taking only three minutes, despite the fact that two stops were made.
After dinner, I returned to my room. At our next stop, Mt. Pleasant, where we arrived at 7:49 p.m., I observed a group of about five cars and 12 people waiting for the train as we passed by the station. I also noticed the agent pulling a baggage cart that contained only one piece of luggage!
I walked to the back of the train again, where I said goodbye to Aaron and his group, who would be detraining at Ottumwa, the next stop. On the way back to my room, I noticed that the dining car was pretty full for the 8:00 p.m. sitting, but there were a few empty tables. The lounge car was dark and almost completely deserted.
Rolf, our attendant, had mentioned to me that there would be a family boarding at Ottumwa, our next stop, and I knew that our stop would take some time, since there was the large high school group that would be detraining here. So I decided to step off the train at our sleeper to take some video pictures, and did so when we arrived at 8:34 p.m. A woman with two young children boarded our car, and Rolf went upstairs to show her the economy bedroom that she had reserved. I took the liberty of picking up the yellow footstool and closing the door. Our stop here lasted for eight minutes, apparently because it had been suspected that a journal on one of the baggage cars might be overheating. It was checked out by the conductor, and when he reported that it appeared to be okay, we departed. We were now only 13 minutes late, having taken advantage of some of the make-up time built into the schedule here.
Soon after we departed Ottumwa, the conductor came into our car with a family that had upgraded their accommodations on the train to two economy bedrooms. They had boarded the train at Mt. Pleasant, and indicated to me that they while they hoped to secure sleeping accommodations on the train, they waited until boarding to do so, thus obtaining the accommodations at a substantially lower price (Amtrak now gives a significant discount when sleeping accommodations are purchased on board the train, on a space-available basis, rather than being reserved in advance.)
I remained in my room and spent nearly two hours reading the 84-page report of the Amtrak Reform Council, which had been issued last week and which I had downloaded from the Internet and printed out. It is certainly a very controversial document, with two strong dissenting opinions (and one concurrence which seems to call into question many of the report's basic assumptions). Its ultimate impact upon Amtrak is far from clear, but the peace and quiet of my room provided me with a good opportunity to carefully review this document.
When I finished the report, we were approaching our next stop, Creston. I walked back to the coaches, where I discovered that a very large number of people had gotten off the train at the last few stops. The last coach which, leaving Chicago, was full of people going to Galesburg and Ottumwa, was now entirely empty, and in fact had been closed off. The other two coaches were also far from full, with only about 50 passengers in the two cars combined. When we stopped at Creston at 10:46 p.m., only two passengers got off and no one got on. The stop lasted for four minutes, though, because the new engineer had to walk up to the engine. Creston has never traditionally been a crew-change location. However, now that Amtrak has negotiated a new agreement with the unions which provides that a single engineer may run trains if his time on duty does not exceed six hours, it is taking steps to implement the savings that result from this new work rule. As a result, changes of engineers occur more frequently. The conductor explained to me that one engineer took our train from Chicago to Ottumwa, another took over in Ottumwa and worked to Creston, and now a third engineer would take our train to Omaha. With the acquiescence of both the conductor and the coach attendant, I stepped off the train very briefly during our stop here. When we departed at 10:50 p.m., we were 28 minutes late. The conductor told me that we lost about nine minutes due to the fact that we had to follow a freight train into town.
Now I decided to spend some time sitting in the very comfortable Superliner coach seats. There were plenty of empty pairs of seats, especially in the first coach, so I sat down there and spent some time reading William D. Middleton's new book Landmarks on the Iron Road, including the pages that describe the construction of the Moffat Tunnel, through which will be passing tomorrow. Then I returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs.
I decided to remain awake until we reached Omaha, since I had never previously stepped out to see that station. In the meantime, about 12:15 a.m., Rolf came by and started making the beds in the room opposite me and in another room down the hall that would be occupied by passengers boarding in Omaha. Since Room #2 was still vacant, I suggested that I temporarily move to that room while Rolf made my bed, and that is what I did.
At 12:39 a.m., we arrived at Omaha. I detrained and walked down the long platform to the rear of the train, where the new station is situated. It was quite cold out, with a defect detector having previously announced the temperature to be 10 degrees. On the way to the station, I passed the beautiful old Burlington station, now abandoned, which features granite columns and brick arches. The new station is completely undistinguished, of the square "Amshack" design popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Since Omaha is an inspection and service stop, with the engine refueled and all cars inspected here, I had the opportunity to walk into the station, which was almost totally empty at this point. I then reboarded at the first coach and returned to my room. On the way, I stepped into the smoking room on the lower level of the first coach. At this late hour, there were a number of people still down there, and one passenger was playing a "boom box," which was plugged into an outlet. This seemed quite inconsiderate at this late hour, since the sound was audible upstairs, especially when the door to the room was left open. (I was subsequently informed that when the conductor became aware of what was happening, he walked into the smoking room and requested that the "boom box" be turned off.)
When I returned to my room, I noticed that the bed had been made with my head facing backwards. This was undoubtedly done because the main light switch control was at that end of the room, but I like to sleep with my head facing forward. So I moved the bedding around and, after updating these memoirs, I climbed into bed.
Not only did we arrive in Omaha 19 minutes late, but our station stop took significantly longer than the 20 minutes scheduled. By about 1:15 a.m., I heard over the scanner that the refueling and inspection of the train had been completed, but a few minutes later I heard another message that the train cannot move yet, since there was a problem loading mail. I remained awake for the duration of our stop in Omaha, and we did not leave until 2:06 a.m. We had spent one hour and 27 minutes at Omaha, over an hour longer than we are scheduled to, and we were now an hour and a half late. On the scanner, I heard that we were delayed for 66 minutes in Omaha due to a bad order door on a mail car.
Soon, I fell asleep, and I woke up about 3:30 a.m. We were stopped at the station in Lincoln, Nebraska, our next stop. On the scanner I heard that mail car #71198, the third express car behind the passenger cars on the train, had developed a flat wheel and would have to be set off the train. (I heard that the flat spot was either 5 or 7 inches long, and the governing rule is that any car with a flat spot greater than 4 inches must be set out.) Of course, an unscheduled move of this type takes quite some time. Permission had to be received from the dispatcher to place the car on a side track at the station, and several back-and-forth moves had to be made in order to spot the car in the proper place, cut it off, and then recouple the train together. I was really glad that I had my scanner with me, so I was able to follow the progress of the various moves that we had to make. We did not depart Lincoln until 4:24 a.m., having spent an hour and nine minutes there, all but six minutes of which were attributable to the necessity of setting off this car. We were now 2 hours and 40 minutes late, virtually all of which was attributable to problems with Amtrak's mail cars.
I fell asleep again, but woke up for the station stops at Hastings (5:59 a.m.) and Holdrege (6:53 a.m.). Both of these stops feature very attractive historic station buildings which are open for use by Amtrak passengers (indeed, Hastings is a manned Amtrak station). The Hastings station has a covered canopy along the platform, but in Holdrege, there was no canopy, and only a short strip of platform in front of the station was cleared of snow. In each case, we made two stops, but even when we departed Holdrege, it was still quite dark out.
Finally, I woke up for good just before 8:00 a.m., when we arrived at McCook. We made only one brief stop here, to permit two passengers to board. It was now light out, and I noticed that, for the first time since we had left New York, there was hardly any snow on the ground. I remained in bed for another few minutes, then got up, made up my room for day occupancy, and went down to take a shower.
Unlike the situation Thursday night on the Capitol Limited, when I had to search for the attendant in order to find soap, Rolf had stocked the shower with ample supplies of soap, bath towels and washcloths. The water was so hot that I actually had to adjust it to a slightly cooler temperature. My shower this morning was truly delightful, and I was surprised that it seemed that hardly anyone else in my car had taken a shower this morning. (Rolf later confirmed my suspicion that comparatively few sleeping car passengers bother to take a shower onboard.)
I went back upstairs and got dressed. I tried to find my watch, but it didn't seem to be anywhere in my room. So I went back downstairs and looked again in the shower, but couldn't find it there, either. After again searching my room, I returned to the shower, and this time I found the watch buried under a large stack of towels! I was glad that I managed to find the watch, since I had used it for many years, and I certainly was not looking forward to spending the rest of my train trip without a watch!
Next, I walked back to the end of the train. On the way, I met one of the conductors who had boarded the train last night in Omaha. He explained to me that the delay in Omaha had resulted from the fact that the doors to the mail cars had frozen, with the result that it took a very long time to open these doors to permit the loading of mail. He also mentioned that the crew had been alerted to the flat wheel on the mail car by a passing freight train. Noticing that this tall conductor reached almost to the roof of the car, I jokingly asked whether there were any height limitations on Amtrak conductors! He replied that he was 6' 4" and that the height of the upper level on Superliner cars is 6' 5", so that he just about fit, but remarked that a fellow conductor was 6' 6" tall!
The last coach on the train remained empty and closed off, but the other two coaches were much fuller than they had been the last time I walked through the train late last night. I counted about 100 coach passengers in the two coaches that were open, and almost every pair of seats was occupied by at least one passenger. Then I returned to my room.
About 9:30 a.m. Central Time (or 8:30 a.m. Mountain Time), and a last call for breakfast was made. So I proceeded to the dining car, which was more than half empty by now. For breakfast, I ordered orange juice, coffee, a bowl of Raisin Bran and a fruit plate. Soon I was joined by a man who was traveling from Omaha to Denver in coach. He lived near Denver, but had traveled to Omaha to visit his mother who had just undergone major heart surgery. I overheard a young man sitting at a nearby table, who was traveling with his family in a sleeper, remark that the breakfast that he was served was far better than he expected, since he had expected nothing more than airline-style food on the train. I also noticed the station at Akron, Colorado, which still has an old Amtrak sign on the building, even though Amtrak trains have not stopped here for many years. We passed a number of feedlots and stockyards, and even saw a herd of buffalo.
About 9:15 a.m. Mountain Time, I returned to my room, and watched as we made a brief stop at Fort Morgan, Colorado at 9:22 a.m. There is a substantial brick-and-stucco station here, but I'm not sure whether it is open for Amtrak passengers. I spent most of the next hour in my room updating these memoirs. The Rocky Mountains soon came into view in the distance as we began to approach Denver.
As we got near the station, we went around a sharp curve until we were facing north, and then, at 10:41 a.m., we began our back-up move into Denver Union Station. Our move into the station today was complicated by the fact that we had a very large number of express cars at the rear of the train. When I last took the westbound California Zephyr last June, we simply backed into the station, cut off a few mail cars, then pulled forward a short distance to our final stop. But this could not be done today, because Denver is now a stub-end station, and there would not be enough room to put all the passenger cars on the platform if the express cars remained at the rear of the train. So we had to back up, cut off the RoadRailers onto a side track, move forward again, then back up onto the main station track, uncouple another mail car, and finally pull ahead a short distance. We made our final station stop at 11:06 a.m., two and one-half hours late. As we pulled into the station, I noticed, parked on the adjacent track, the Rio Grande Ski Train, with three Amtrak F-40 engines in the lead.
I detrained and walked down to the station, then went outside and walked around for a few minutes, trying to find a convenience store where I could purchase some batteries for my scanner. However, the area around Denver Union Station has now become a "trendy" area, and I could not find any such store. So I returned to the station, purchased the batteries at a gift shop, checked my messages, and made a phone call. By this time, it was about 11:30 a.m., and the final boarding call was made. So I returned to the train and reboarded at my sleeper. We did not depart until 11:47 a.m., having spent 41 minutes at the station instead of the allotted 45 minutes. We were still just about two and one-half hours late.
As we pulled out of the station, I noticed that another P-42 Genesis engine had been added in front. The conductor informed me that this was engine #94, and that it had been added to provide extra power for the climb over the Rocky Mountains. (Interestingly, this engine had been on the California Zephyr when I last took it from Denver to Chicago this past October.)
We were now beginning one of the most scenic parts of this trip -- the steep climb up the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains from Denver to the Moffat Tunnel. I decided to head for the Sightseer Lounge, where this magnificent stretch of scenery could best be seen. Although I had forgotten to copy the relevant pages from the Rail Ventures book, I did bring along a copy of the old, comprehensive Amtrak Route Guide, which contains a very good description of the route. I also had my newly acquired copy of SPV's Colorado & Utah atlas, which provided a very detailed overview of the route. The lounge car soon became pretty full, but it never filled up entirely. I watched as we went around the Big Ten Curve and then snaked through about 30 tunnels until we finally reached the Moffat Tunnel, an hour and 40 minutes after we departed Denver. I was a little surprised that no announcements of any points of interest were made over the loudspeaker, even in the lounge car. From time to time, I took some video pictures of the beautiful scenery.
Just prior to the Moffat Tunnel, an announcement was made that passengers should not walk from car to car while we are passing through the tunnel. I had expected such an announcement to be made, and I remained in the lounge car for the entire duration of our passage through the tunnel. But I observed three persons disregard this announcement, including the On-Board Chief and a dining car attendant, who went from the diner to the lounge car, and a passenger who went from the lounge car to the next coach. I did not smell any fumes coming in when these doors were opened, though.
When we exited the Moffat Tunnel at 1:36 p.m., the last call for lunch was announced, so I immediately proceeded to the dining car. Since very few people chose to eat lunch so late, the car was largely empty, and I had a table to myself.
The snow cover changed dramatically once we exited the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel. Suddenly, the ground was covered with at least a foot of snow. I guess this is why people from Denver come out here to ski!
At 1:47 p.m., we reached the Winter Park station. A number of people got off and on here, and the stop lasted for four minutes. We then proceeded along the Fraser River until we reached Granby, our next stop. The added snow cover made this part of the trip a little special. We stopped very briefly at Granby at 2:14 p.m., about which time I returned to my room and updated these memoirs. As we descended from Moffat Tunnel, the snow cover gradually diminished, and soon there was hardly any snow on the ground.
I didn't spend all that much time in my room, since I knew that we were soon approaching Gore Canyon, one of the scenic highlights of the trip. So I went back to the Sightseer Lounge car, but the car was nearly full. I therefore decided to go instead to the first coach, which was almost completely empty. By going back several cars, I got a much better view of the front of the train. Gore Canyon was really magnificent, with the Colorado River down below partially frozen, and chunks of ice appearing in strange positions. We went through a number of tunnels and, at 3:34 p.m., passed the eastbound California Zephyr which, unlike our train, was only a few minutes late. Much of Gore Canyon is inaccessible by road, so the train is the only way to see it.
Up to this point, it had been sunny out all day, but now it started to get cloudy. I remained in the coach until we passed Bond, the point where the old Denver and Salt Lake Railway line goes off to the right, while we follow the Dotsero Cut-Off -- built as late as 1934 -- which leads to Dotsero and a connection with the original Denver & Rio Grande Western line to Salt Lake City via Pueblo and Tennessee Pass. Then I returned to my room, where I updated these memoirs while watching us proceed quietly along the Colorado River. We crossed the river several times, and I moved back and forth between my room and the now-vacant Room #4 (whose occupants had boarded in Omaha and detrained in Winter Park) so that I could view the river side of the tracks. The scenery now wasn't quite as dramatic as it was during our passage through Gore Canyon, but it was still very nice.
During the afternoon, Rolf came by with a basket containing individually wrapped pieces of cheese and crackers. This was a very nice touch, something that I've never seen before on an Amtrak train.
At 4:45 p.m., we reached Dotsero, where we joined the old Tennessee Pass line (now no longer a through route). Here we passed a coal train that had two engines at each end, plus an additional two engines in the middle. We were still running along the Colorado River, but now, for the first time since we left Denver, we began to parallel Interstate Route 70. In a few minutes, we began our journey through the magnificent Glenwood Canyon.
The design of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was one of the most controversial sections of the Interstate highway system. Glenwood Canyon is nothing short of spectacular, with cliffs towering hundreds of feet on both sides. For many years, it was the route of two-lane U.S. Route 6, but the widening of this road into a four-lane Interstate highway threatened to significantly diminish the beauty of this awesome canyon. After much deliberation, it was determined to construct the eastbound and westbound lanes on separate levels, to use a specially- colored concrete that would blend with the color of the natural rock, and to construct a bike path along the road. While not entirely satisfactory in mitigating the impact of this very heavily traveled road in this scenic canyon, the measures adopted do significantly reduce its impact. The last time that I took the train through this canyon, I felt that the highway had really marred its beauty. This time, I was somewhat more awed by the scenery, and found it more inspiring.
To best view this deep canyon, I went back to the Sightseer Lounge car, which was largely empty. It was getting a little dark and hazy, but you could still get some pretty good views. The glass panels in the car's roof assisted you in getting a glimpse of the top of cliffs, but this canyon -- like the others that we passed through earlier in the day -- is far more spectacular when viewed from a dome car. Nevertheless, I did enjoy our journey through this canyon.
At 5:25 p.m., we stopped at the Glenwood Springs station. It was our first stop in over three hours. Since a couple was boarding our car here, I stepped off the train and walked back to the coaches. It was snowing lightly out. Glenwood Springs has a very attractive stone station, but I didn't have time to go inside, since our stop lasted only four minutes -- just enough time to load and unload baggage. I reboarded at the first coach, and when we departed at 5:29 p.m., we were precisely two hours and 15 minutes late.
Before walking back to my sleeper, I counted about 60 or 70 passengers in the two coaches that were open. Walking through the diner, I noticed that only 16 people had taken advantage of the 5:00 p.m. dinner sitting.
When I arrived at my car, I found that Room #4 opposite me was now occupied by a very friendly couple from Auburn, California who would be taking the train to Colfax (the nearest stop). They had driven their daughter to Aspen, Colorado, where their son ran a ski shop, and were now returning home. The husband had previously ridden the original California Zephyr in 1957, and had fond memories of the trip. Since it was now completely dark, I remained in my room, updated these memoirs, and did a little reading.
At 6:30 p.m., a dinner call was made, and I proceeded to the dining car for my meal. I was seated next to Fred, a postal employee in Des Moines, who had boarded the train last night in Iowa and was headed for Seattle via Emeryville. Some friends of his had won an Amtrak trip for five people, and since they could use only four of the tickets, they invited him to come along as their guest. He mentioned to me that he intended to write a story about the people he met on the trip, and we agreed to exchange e-mail addresses so that we could send each other our respective stories.
Opposite me sat two women, both going to Sacramento, but for very different reasons. One woman lived in Sacramento, and was returning from a visit to her family in Rochester, New York. This was her first train trip, and she was very pleased with it, commenting that the meals were excellent and that the coach seats were comparable to first-class airline seats. The other woman was coming from Wisconsin to attend the funeral of her 89-year- old mother in California. She was taking the train because of her fear of flying.
The two women ordered the fish selection, while Fred asked for the chicken dinner. I also had chicken for dinner, and it was very tasty. We had quite a lively conversation, and we stayed in the diner until about 7:30 p.m.
In the meantime, at 7:07 p.m., we arrived at Grand Junction, Colorado. This is a crew-change point, and the train stopped here for 14 minutes. As was the case the last time I was here six years ago, the historic station building is boarded up, and an ugly concrete-block building just to the west serves as the station. A kiosk selling fruit and drinks has been set up next to the station, and many of the on-board crew went out to purchase various items. A few passengers did so, too, but no announcement was made that passengers could step off the train here. I would have wanted to do so, but I was in the middle of dinner, so I remained on the train. (Actually, there is considerable make-up time built into the schedule between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. I was not aware of this, and had figured that we would arrive in Grand Junction after I had already finished dinner.) When we left Grand Junction, we were just under two hours late, having made up an additional 18 minutes since our last station stop.
After dinner, I returned to my room, rested for a while, and then went back to the first coach, which was still very sparsely populated. I sat down at an empty pair of seats and did some reading. It was very quiet, and the attendant soon turned off the main lights in the center aisle. At 9:03 p.m., we paused briefly at Green River, Utah. No passengers were scheduled to get on or off the train here, and after a few seconds, we were on our way. It seems that we've made up a little more time, as we are now only an hour and 50 minutes late.
I then went to the lower level of the lounge car and purchased a cup of tea and a bag of potato chips. This is the first time on this trip that I have bought anything in the lounge car. A movie is being shown, but only a handful of people are watching it. The lounge car on this train is a Superliner I car, which features six comfortable tables on the lower level (on the Superliner II lounge cars, there are only two normal tables -- one of which is often appropriated by the lounge car attendant -- with the other four tables being replaced with two awkward and uncomfortable tables with inside-facing seats). I sat down at one of the tables for a little while, then returned to my room.
Listening to the scanner, I heard that we would be stopping at the ninth car for the stop at Helper. So I went back to that car, the second coach, where the attendant and conductor were standing in the vestibule on the lower level. They mentioned that one passenger had stepped off the train at Grand Junction to buy beer and failed to return before the train departed. (I subsequently found out that another passenger had returned as the train was pulling out, and a second stop was made so that he could board the train.) We stopped at Helper, which features an undistinguished modern brick station, at 10:25 p.m., and two passengers boarded. I was able to step off the train briefly during our short stop here.
I then went to the lounge car, where I started talking with two young men, one who was traveling from Vermont for a reunion with his father (whom he hadn't seen in five years) in Salt Lake City, and the other of whom was on his way to San Francisco to visit his sister. There were only handful of people in the upper level of the lounge car at this point -- including one person who had passed out and was lying on the floor. After a while, I returned to my room and did a little reading. About 11:45 p.m., I decided to pull down the bed and go to sleep. I fell asleep pretty quickly and slept through our stop in Provo.
About 1:30 a.m., as we were approaching Salt Lake City, I woke up, and we pulled into the Salt Lake City station at 1:39 a.m. There is considerable make-up time in the schedule approaching Salt Lake City, and we are now only an hour and eight minutes late, having made up over 40 minutes since our stop in Helper.
Until recently, Amtrak trains had used the old Rio Grande station in Salt Lake City, a huge station near the downtown area. The main hall of the station has been converted into a museum, and Amtrak was relegated to a relatively small area at one end of the station, but the facility was a relatively decent one. However, the city apparently wanted the tracks in that area removed for urban renewal. As a result, Amtrak has moved its station to an Amshack that it built in a nearby deteriorated area, surrounded by abandoned, boarded-up warehouses and vacant lots. It is hardly a place one would like to be at 2:00 a.m.! Supposedly, this is a temporary facility, but it will probably last for several years at least. I didn't feel that I was missing much by staying on board rather than getting out and going inside the Amshack.
I fell asleep again and did not wake up until about 2:30 a.m., by which time we had already departed Salt Lake City. Then I promptly fell asleep once more. This part of the route would be new mileage for me, since I had never previously ridden Amtrak west of Salt Lake City. I slept until about 4:00 a.m. By this time, we were already in Nevada, and I changed my watch to Pacific Standard Time. By listening to reports of the defect detectors on my scanner, I was able to follow our progress along the route, and I observed us go around a sharp curve just west of the state line. I tried to fall asleep again, but I'm not sure that I succeeded in getting much sleep.
At 5:42 a.m., we stopped briefly at Elko, where two passengers got on. The station in Elko is a plastic Amshack, reminiscent of the one on the route of the Capitol Limited in Connellsville, Pa. It is located in a light industrial area which, needless to say, is deserted at this hour in the morning. We were now only an hour and 17 minutes late.
Finally, at 6:30 a.m., when the first call for breakfast was made, I woke up for good. At this point, we were near Beowawe, on the ex-SP route, which is paralleled closely here by the ex-WP route. Since 1924, these two lines -- which were constructed by different railroads at different times -- have been paired, with the SP route used for westbound traffic, and the WP route for eastbound traffic. (Of course, both railroads have now been merged into the Union Pacific.) At times, the two lines are adjacent to each other, but most often they are some distance apart, and at times one is not visible from the other. The scenery in this area is generally reminiscent of western Texas on the Sunset Limited route -- with mountains visible in the background, but with the immediate foreground consisting primarily of flat sagebrush.
At about 7:00 a.m., I got out of bed, made up the room for day occupancy, and went downstairs to take a shower. When we approached the next station stop, Winnemucca, I went downstairs in our car, where a couple detrained. They were the only two people to get off the train here, and we paused only briefly at 7:57 a.m. The old yellow-painted frame station is no longer used, and the only facility available for Amtrak passengers is a small plastic bus shelter.
Now I went to the diner for breakfast, which turned out to be one of the most interesting meals of the trip. I was seated with three other men. David, sitting opposite me, was from Ireland, and was here in America on a "holiday" (to use the British term). He had made his Amtrak reservations on the Internet, and was traveling from Boston to San Francisco. He had taken the Lake Shore on Thursday night from Boston to Chicago, the same night I went from Washington to Chicago on the Capitol Limited. Since the sleeper on that leg of the trip was prohibitively priced, he traveled instead by coach, and was assigned to a car that was uncomfortably cold. Of course, the train was about five hours late, arriving in Chicago about 4:30 p.m. He seemed to be enjoying this part of the trip much more, and had brought along a copy of the book U.S.A. by Train, a book published in England about train travel in the United States.
Next to him sat Tony, a police officer in Bakersfield, California. He had driven with his sister to Salt Lake City, helping her to move there, and now was returning home. He mentioned that he had brought along a large trunk, but the station agent in Salt Lake City had refused to check it, since he got to the station less than 45 minutes before the train arrived. So they had to put the trunk on the lower level of his sleeping car. This was his first time on a sleeper, and he found it less comfortable than he had expected, but overall seemed to be enjoying the trip. Tony had a warm, outgoing personality, and we all remarked how fortunate Bakersfield was in having him as a police officer.
The last person occupying my table was Norman, a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also returning from Salt Lake City, where he had driven with friends, but unlike the other three of us, was traveling in coach. We had some very interesting conversations, mostly about Amtrak travel, and remained in the dining car for over an hour, until we were the last passengers still there.
After breakfast, I walked back to the end of the train. The first coach was still quite empty, and there were no more than 50 passengers in the two coaches which were in service. In the rear coach, one passenger, who at this early hour was already drinking a can of beer, was visibly drunk. He claimed that some of his belongings had been thrown in the garbage, and went down to the lower level of the coach to reclaim some items from a large brown paper bag used for trash. Then I returned to my room and updated these memoirs. We passed through very bleak countryside, with little evidence of habitation. For most of the way, we followed a route parallel to but some distance away from Route 80. As we approached Sparks, however, we began to run along the Truckee River and closely parallel Route 80.
On the scanner, I heard a communication that no passengers will be allowed off the train in Sparks. This was followed by an announcement over the loudspeaker that the facilities at Sparks belong to the Union Pacific Railroad, and that they have decided not to allow any passengers not detraining here to get off the train. Attendants were instructed not to allow anyone not ticketed to Sparks to get off the train. I have never heard of any such restriction imposed by a host railroad anywhere else, and it seemed to be an example of UP's unfriendliness towards Amtrak and passenger service. (The only parallel I can think of is the Cardinal's stop at the Russell Yard for servicing. But, unlike the situation there, Sparks is a passenger stop.) However, Rolf explained to me that the station is adjacent to an active yard, with a track used by freight trains situated between the track we pulled in on and the station, and there was recently an incident in which a passenger was almost hit by a passing freight train. Thus, UP's attitude is, I guess, somewhat understandable.
When we arrived at Sparks at 10:41 a.m., I took some pictures of the attractive, yellow-painted station. Soon two docents from the California Railroad Museum boarded our car, and were assigned the family room downstairs for the duration of their stay on the train. They would be broadcasting commentary on the route from Reno to Sacramento -- one feature that was entirely lacking up to now.
Besides the significant make-up time built into the schedule between Winnemucca and Sparks, we only spent 12 minutes at Sparks, rather than the scheduled 22 minutes. As a result, when we departed Sparks at 10:53 a.m., we were only 31 minutes late.
Our next stop, Reno, is only three miles further along, and we arrived there at 11:01 a.m. Reno features a classic station with a large, high-ceilinged waiting room. I stepped off the train here and walked inside the station, then went back to the first coach, where I reboarded the train. About 40 coach passengers got on here, although, according to the attendant, only three were supposed to board. John Vansack, the coach attendant, had to handle the boarding of all these passengers by himself, without any assistance from either of the conductors. Fortunately, there were ample seats available for these boarding passengers, especially in the first coach. Due to the close proximity of several grade crossings in downtown Reno to the station, the train blocks these crossings when stopped at the station. The City of Reno has protested Union Pacific's plan to increase freight traffic through the city, and there is a plan being considered to construct underpasses. We spent five minutes at the Reno station, and when we departed, we were just over half an hour late.
We continued to run along the Truckee River, which was quite beautiful. The commentary on the loudspeaker explained some very interesting features of our route, including the wooden flumes along the river that are used to supply water for electric generation.
At 11:30 a.m., the first call for lunch was made. I went to the dining car, and was seated next to a man traveling in coach from Grand Junction, Colorado to Seattle, and opposite a couple who were traveling in a sleeper from Chicago to Sacramento. For lunch. I just had a salad and a soda. I didn't spend all that much time in the diner for lunch, since I wanted to get ready for the approaching scenery of Donner Pass.
At 12:10 p.m., we arrived at Truckee. There is a yellow- painted frame station here that has been converted to a visitor center, but is obviously still available for waiting passengers. Only two or three people got on here, and they had to cross another snow-covered track to get to our train. We paused here for less than a minute and were soon on our way up Donner Pass. I now went to the Sightseer Lounge car to get the best views of the spectacular scenery ahead.
The first interesting feature along there route is the Stanford Curve, a long switchback which provides a needed opportunity for elevation gain. Looking up from the valley, you can see the parallel line up on the ridge, culminating in two tunnels (one for each of two parallel lines), the portals of which are also visible from below. After passing through here, you get a view to the right of Donner Lake below, and then you go through a two-mile long tunnel at the summit. For the next few miles, the ground is covered with several feet of snow. However, this year's snowfall is considerably less than normal.
I was soon joined in the lounge car by the man from Auburn who had the room opposite me. Having lived in the area for years, he was very knowledgeable, and pointed out many points of interest not mentioned by the commentary broadcast on the loudspeaker. He also mentioned that he often skied at some of the ski areas that we passed, and noted that his son was a world championship skier, having gone as fast as 150 miles per hour on skis. (Gee, I thought that only Acela Express trains could go that fast!) The views to the right of the train down at the valley were spectacular, and you could also catch some glimpses of the front of the train going around curves. Although there were a number of people in the lounge car, the car was far from full. Soon, we passed the site where the California Zephyr had been marooned for several days by a snowstorm in 1952. My companion from Auburn commented that the father of one of his friends owned a ski lodge nearby, and was the first to reach the stranded passengers on the train.
I also started talking to one of the women with whom I was sitting for dinner last night. She wanted to learn more about the scenery along the route that we had covered, so I lent her my copy of the 1993 Amtrak Route Guide that I had brought with me. She was quite excited to have the opportunity to read it, so I let her keep even after I returned to my room (I got it back later). I think that it should really be a priority for Amtrak to restore to its trains meaningful and informative Route Guides and make them available to all passengers.
After we passed the viewpoint to the left, with the steep drop down to the valley of the North Fork of the American River, the scenery became a little less spectacular, and I returned to my room. By now, we had descended significantly from the summit of the pass, and there was no longer any snow on the ground. Soon, we passed an area known as Gold Run, which commemorates the fact that in the late 1800s, gold was "mined" by scooping up all the topsoil and running it through sluices to capture the traces of gold contained therein. Needless to say, this environmentally unfriendly method of gold mining was soon outlawed, but its effects remain even today.
At 2:21 p.m., we arrived at Colfax. I heard an announcement made that we would be making two stops here, so I went downstairs, hoping to detrain from my car and reboard at the coaches on the second stop. Rolf, the car attendant, had no problem with what I was planning on doing, but the conductor refused to let me do this. This is the first time on the entire trip that I was prevented from getting off the train where, in my opinion, it was not unreasonable for me to do so. So instead I opened up the window in the vestibule to get a picture of the old boarded-up frame station, with a sign stating that it is Colfax's "future" train station. At present, though, there is only a small gazebo to shelter waiting passengers, and the train stops at the adjacent grade crossing to board and discharge passengers. When we departed Colfax after a five-minute stop, we were 50 minutes late.
From Colfax to Roseville, there are two parallel single- track rail lines, each on a slightly different grade. The docent explained over the loudspeaker that the line we are traveling on is the original Central Pacific line from the 1860s, while the other line was built at the turn of the century, with better grades. At one point, we passed by the stone-arch portal of a tunnel from the other line. The docent pointed out the historic Auburn station, with a newly-erected statue of a Chinese laborer, commemorating the work of the Chinese in building this railroad over Donner Pass.
Since we were soon approaching my final destination, Sacramento, I began to gather my belongings together. While doing so, Rolf came by with some more cheese and crackers. I also made one final trip back to the coaches at the end of the train.
Our next stop was Roseville, where we arrived at 3:34 p.m. and departed two minutes later. The old yellow-painted frame station here, which stands some distance back from the tracks, has been restored, and there is a new concrete platform.
From Roseville to Sacramento, the line is relatively straight and flat. On the way, we met the route of Sacramento's light-rail line, which parallels the railroad coming in to Sacramento. I hadn't realized that Sacramento had a light-rail system, and I decided that I would have to ride it as part of my stay here. Before I knew it, we were rounding the final curve and pulling in to the Amtrak station in Sacramento. It was precisely 4:00 p.m., and we had arrived on time! We had made up all the time that we had lost earlier in the trip. (Indeed, when I subsequently checked on Amtrak's web site, I found out that the train had actually arrived in Emeryville 22 minutes early, thus have made up a full three hours en route!)
I detrained, gave a $10 tip to Rolf, and prepared to walk towards the station. As a nice parting gesture, Rolf asked the an Amtrak employee, who was passing by with a cart loaded with baggage checked to Sacramento, to let me put my own luggage on the cart to be transported to the station. I said goodbye to Rolf, and the train departed at 4:04 p.m. Upon arrival at the station, I attempted to give the employee (who turned out to be the station agent) a $1 tip, which he refused to accept. I then walked around the corner to the Vagabond Inn, where I would be staying for the night.
My two-day trip on the California Zephyr was quite enjoyable. The two major delays that we encountered were not the fault of the freight railroads, and as far as I can tell, we were not put on a siding even once to facilitate the movement of a freight train. The cooperation of both freight railroads -- BNSF and UP -- in facilitating our passage was remarkable. Every crew member on the train was pleasant, and both my attendant, Rolf, and the coach attendant, John, did a really great job. I enjoyed the trip very much, and am looking forward to the next two legs of the trip -- Sacramento to Emeryville on a Capitol train, and Oakland to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight.