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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak California Zephyr

It's 7:00 p.m. on Monday, April 7, 2003, and I've just arrived at Denver Union Station, where I will be boarding the California Zephyr on my way to Chicago and then to Washington (via the Capitol Limited) and New York.

My trip began yesterday morning, when I flew from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Denver International Airport on Frontier Airlines. Although my flight was not scheduled to leave until 9:00 a.m., I needed a ride to the airport, and my friend Steve agreed to give me a ride but only on the condition that he could get back to Teaneck by 7:15 a.m. So we agreed that we'd leave Teaneck at 6:00 a.m. Steve picked me up at 6:05 a.m. and as one might expect at this early hour on a Sunday morning we encountered no traffic. The trip took only 20 minutes, and we arrived at the airport at 6:25 a.m.

Not only was there no traffic on the roads, but there were hardly any passengers at the airport, either, when I arrived. The Frontier ticket window was not open yet, and there was no line at security. In fact, at the security checkpoint, there were about ten agents of the Transportation Security Administration waiting around with nothing to do! I breezed right through security, and by 6:30 a.m., I was at the gate (conveniently located immediately adjacent to security). It had taken me only five minutes to get from the airport entrance to the gate a record for me, I think, even before 9/11/01!

Of course, I was the first person at the gate waiting for our plane, and it would be two and one half hours before the plane was scheduled to depart. So I worked on the minutes of a meeting. When I finished the minutes, I signed online, using a dataport on an adjacent pay phone, and sent out my draft minutes.

On this trip, as usual, I traveled with my backpack and airline size suitcase. Theoretically, I should be able to board the plane with both items, claiming that the backpack is for my computer and thus qualifies as a "personal item." But usually, I end up cramming so many papers and other items into my backpack that it is hard to make that claim. Today, though, I purposely kept my backpack rather light, and I managed to get both through security and on the plane without having to check my suitcase.

Boarding began about 8:25 a.m., and the flight ended up being about 90% full. However, I had purposely selected an aisle seat towards the rear of the plane, and I lucked out in that the middle seat was vacant, thus giving me room to spread out my papers. Although everyone had boarded and the doors were closed by 9:00 a.m., there was a delay in loading something on the plane, and we did not pull away from the gate until about 9:30 a.m. We also encountered some turbulence during the flight, and we arrived in Denver at 12:00 noon (Central Time), about half an hour late. I took the hotel van to the hotel, where I checked into my room and went downstairs to the conference, which started promptly at 1:30 p.m. and continued through the next morning.

The conference was over about 1:30 p.m. on Monday, and I arranged with Brian, the one local resident who attended the conference, to give me a ride back to Denver. (Of course, everyone else took the hotel shuttle directly to the airport.) Since my train was not scheduled to leave until 7:30 p.m., I had some free time. Brian took me back to his home in southeast Denver, where I made a few phone calls and signed online to check my messages.

At about 4:45 p.m., Brian drove me downtown. I had never ridden the Denver light rail system before, and hoped to use my remaining time to ride the entire system. We arrived at the 30th and Downing station at about 5:15 p.m., just in time to catch a southbound train.

At present, the Denver light rail system consists of one line extending south from downtown Denver to the suburbs of Englewood and Littleton. The southern end of the line parallels the rail line leading south from Denver to Colorado Springs. This section passes mostly through rather unattractive industrial areas, with only the short segment south of downtown Littleton being residential in character. The stations on this section of the line are spaced rather far apart, and I noticed only one grade crossing on a little used road, and protected with flashing lights and gates on this entire stretch of the line. However, the maximum speed on the line appears to be 50 miles per hour. One interesting feature of the line is that the original Littleton railroad station, built of stone, has been restored, and now serves as a cafe.

At the northern end, where it reaches downtown Denver, the light rail line divides into two branches. The eastern branch, which I took south to Littleton, follows local streets through the heart of downtown Denver, separating into two parallel streets (for northbound and southbound trains, respectively) for part of the way. The western branch, which has stations for a sports stadium and an amusement park and terminates at Union Station, runs for the most part along railroad rights of way. Both lines, of course, have numerous street crossings in the downtown area, and it appears that trains do not have priority at these crossings.

As do all new light rail systems, Denver's operates on a "proof of payment" system, which requires that all passengers purchase a ticket from a machine before boarding, with the tickets subject to random inspection on the trains. When I went to purchase my ticket, I found that I was offered two options - a "local" ticket, and an "express" ticket. Since I had no intention of taking an "express" train, I purchased a "local" ticket for $1.15 and boarded the train, which left almost immediately. Subsequently, I discovered that "local" and "express" do not refer to the speed of the train or the number of stops that it makes; rather, they are used to designate the length of one's trip, with passengers traveling south of the Englewood station required to purchase an "express" ticket! This usage of the term is extremely confusing and resulted in my obtaining a ticket that was technically invalid for the last portion of my journey. However, I wasn't about to purchase another ticket, and no fare inspector came by to check tickets. (I did purchase a $2.50 "express" ticket for the northbound ride, though.)

The two car train that I boarded went only as far south as the I 25/Broadway station, where a pocket track is provided to permit trains to reverse direction. I had to detrain there and take the following three car train, which had originated at the 18th and Stout station downtown, the rest of the way to the Littleton/Mineral station, the southern end of the line. Upon our arrival there, I took the next train back, which was made up of the same equipment. As might be expected, I found the southbound trains to be quite full, although there were some empty seats, while the northbound trains were nearly empty.

Since I had some time before the scheduled departure of my Amtrak train at 7:30 p.m., I decided to ride the light rail train up California Avenue - a route used only by northbound trains. I got off at the 18th and California station and walked one block to 18th and Stout, where I took a southbound train to Alameda. There, I transferred to a northbound Union Station train, which I took to the end of the line at Union Station, arriving there at 7:03 p.m. This train was nearly deserted, and I think only one or two other passengers rode all the way to Union Station.

The light rail station at Union Station is located just west of the station, with the large neon "Travel by Train" on the classic facade visible in the background. A direct connection with the station is provided via a pedestrian subway built many years ago to access the various station tracks. Today, only two of the tracks are active (Amtrak trains leave from Track 1 and the Ski Train, which runs only on weekends in the winter, leaves from Track 2), but the light rail station is accessed via the stairway that used to lead to Track 9. The underground passageway from the station concourse has been adorned with various historic photos of the station.

I walked into the large station concourse, which features a high ceiling and the original high backed wooden benches. Although only two trains a day stop at Denver, the station actually looked pretty full, with about 80 people waiting to board our train. A moving message display above the ticket counter indicated that the California Zephyr was running half an hour late, and was not anticipated to arrive until 8:00 p.m.

Since I had not yet obtained my ticket (and, contrary to what an Amtrak reservations agent had told me, there is no Quik-Trak machine at the Denver station), I walked over to the ticket window and asked the agent for my ticket. For some reason, he couldn't find the reservation at first, but he eventually did find it and issued me my three tickets for the trip. I then made a few phone calls, purchased a souvenir at the gift shop, and sat down to await the arrival of our train.

At 8:10 p.m., I heard on the scanner that our train was making its final approach to the station. An announcement was then made that all sleeping car passengers should present their tickets at the check in desk. I did so, and was given a red boarding card with my name, car and room number on it. Interestingly, the stock used for this purpose was printed with the station stops for Trains 25/26 and 35/36 - the former Pioneer and Desert Wind - both of which had been discontinued about eight years ago! I guess that they're trying to find some way to put these obsolete cards to good use.

About ten minutes later, sleeping car passengers were asked to board the train. I walked down into the underground passage and then up a ramp to the platform where the train was stationed. After storing my luggage in my room and in the luggage rack, I walked down the platform to record the consist.

Today's California Zephyr is pulled by Genesis engines #139 and #49 and includes a baggage car, a transition/crew dorm car, two coaches with handicapped seating on the lower level, a coach with a smoking section on the lower level, a Sightseer lounge car, a diner, two sleepers, and seven express cars in the rear. Except for the diner, all of the equipment is Superliner I vintage. I was assigned Room #13 in Car #32025, a lower level accommodation. This is the first time in a while that I've traveled in a lower level room.

Both sleepers appeared to be full, or nearly so, including all four standard bedrooms on the lower level. Opposite me in Room #14 were a couple from near Syracuse, New York, who were coming home from a cross country trip that included the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight. They had purchased their tickets to take advantage of Amtrak's two for the price of one special offer, and were traveling by coach the entire way, except for this one segment on the California Zephvr, for which they had obtained a sleeper. In the adjacent family bedroom was a family of four (two adults and two children) who were traveling from Reno, Nevada to Burlington, Iowa in order to visit their family in Iowa.

On an adjacent track were two new full length dome cars of the Holland American Line, a company that offers land cruises on the Alaska Railroad. The cars had been opened to the public for inspection, but they now appeared to be closed. I took a picture of these two magnificent cars with my digital camera, and reboarded our train.

At 8:57 p.m., we pulled forward, leaving the platform, but then we backed up onto another track to pick up some additional express and RoadRailer cars. Not until 9:15 p.m. did we finally depart the Denver station, and even then, we crawled along at a very slow speed for the next half hour or so.

In the meantime, a call for the 7:30 p.m. dinner seating was made, and the attendant suggested that if I wanted dinner, I should go to the dining car. I did so, and was seated at a table by myself. I had a vegetarian dinner, with ice cream for dessert. A pleasant surprise was that Amtrak had arranged for a singer with a guitar to play a few songs in the dining car, and subsequently in the lounge car. I don't think I've ever observed this being done before, and it was appreciated by the passengers.

After dinner, I spent a little time in the Sightseer lounge car, listening to the singer with the guitar, and then I walked through the coaches. Almost every seat in all three coaches was occupied by at least one passenger, but a number of passengers had a pair of seats to themselves. Then I returned to my room and started working on these memoirs. I heard a defect detector at milepost 494.1 announce that we had 92 axles (with the temperature being 29 degrees). Since the number of cars I counted at the Denver station would have amounted to only 72 axles, it was clear that additional cars had been added during our back up move. Subsequently, by looking out the window on curves, I noticed that a number of RoadRailers had been added to the rear of our train. (When we crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa, I was able to count 10 express cars and seven RoadRailers on the back of the train, indicating that three express cars, in addition to the seven RoadRailers, had been added to the train during our back up move after departing the station.)

At 10:41 p.m., we made a brief stop at Fort Morgan, Colorado. When we left Fort Morgan two minutes later, we were one hour and 18 minutes late. I started getting sleepy, so at about 11:00 p.m., I pulled down the bed and climbed in. Although it took me a while to fall asleep, I did sleep through our stops at McCook and Holdrege, Nebraska. I was awake when we stopped at Hastings at 4:12 a.m., but fell asleep again after we departed. Finally, when we arrived at Lincoln, Nebraska at 5:54 a.m., I woke up for good. One passenger detrained from our car at Lincoln, and the station agent met him with a cart to transport him to the station building. The Lincoln station features a steam engine and a series of old boxcars on an adjacent track painted with the names of various heritage railroads. When we departed Lincoln at 5:59 a.m., we were one hour and 12 minutes late.

I remained in bed for a while, watching the snow covered rural scenery. Although it was snowing when we left Denver last night, the snow did not stick. But as we started passing through Nebraska, I observed that the ground was covered with snow. The snow remained on the ground until we crossed over into Iowa, after which it diminished and eventually disappeared altogether. Although it did not snow for the rest of the trip, it remained cloudy and very gloomy out.

We came to a halt at 6:30 a.m. at Ashland, about halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. It seems that we had to cross in front of a westbound freight train, but the switch was frozen and could not be moved remotely by the dispatcher. Originally, the dispatcher requested our train to manually throw the switch, but since the BNSF freight train was closer, the crew of that train volunteered to do the job instead. When we started moving again at 6:47 a.m., I heard the dispatcher ask the engineer whether he would be able to arrive in Omaha before exceeding the maximum time allowed under the Hours of Service Law. His reply was that if there were no further problems, he should "slip in okay." Finally, at about 7:00 a.m. (Central Time), I decided to get out of bed so that I would be able to step off the train when we arrived at our next stop, Omaha.

As we pulled into the Omaha station, the old Union Pacific depot - now converted to a museum -- was on our left. The original Burlington Route station -- also a magnificent, classic building - was on our right. But neither building is used as a railroad station today, and Amtrak passengers are relegated to a small, boxy Amshack, located at the east end of the platform. Omaha is a service stop, and an announcement was made that the stop will last for about ten minutes and that passengers are welcome to detrain and stretch their legs. I detrained from one of the coaches and walked to the front of the train, where I took a few pictures of the engine. Then I walked into the Amshack and returned to the train, reboarding at my sleeper, and taking some pictures of the original Burlington Route station on the way. The station platform was rather icy, and one had to use care while walking along it. Our station stop ended up lasting for 13 minutes, and when we departed at 7:39 p.m., we were one hour and 24 minutes late.

I remained in my room until 8:13 a.m., when we crossed the Missouri River. Then, I went to take a shower. The water was quite warm, and the shower was quite enjoyable. There were quite a few used towels in a bin on the floor, thus indicating that many passengers availed themselves of the opportunity to take a shower. Next, I returned to my room and got dressed.

About 8:40 a.m., the final call for breakfast was made, so I went to the diner for breakfast. I was seated opposite a couple who were traveling from Denver (where they had gone for the weekend to visit their daughter) to Kalamazoo, Michigan. They occupied a standard bedroom on the upper level of my sleeper. Sitting next to me was boarded at Hastings, Nebraska and was traveling to Osceola, Iowa. I ordered the Continental breakfast, with orange juice, Rice Krispies, fruit salad and coffee, while the couple opposite me ordered eggs. Soon, the attendant returned and informed us that the diner had run out of eggs! We were all rather surprised at this, but the woman sitting opposite me remarked that last night, many items were also unavailable. The couple found an alternate selection, but one wonders how the diner can manage to run out something as fundamental as eggs!

During breakfast, we stopped at Creston, Iowa at 9:35 a.m. For the first time, I heard over the loudspeaker a detailed commentary on the town, the station building, and other features of interest in the area. It turned out that the commentary was being provided by the coach attendant, Curt Katz. In all the years that I've been traveling an Amtrak, I've never heard of a coach attendant providing a commentary anywhere nearly as detailed as the one provided by Curt. (Actually, most coach attendants don't attempt to provide any commentary at all.) Talking to Curt, I found out that he is originally from Wayne, New Jersey and has been working as an attendant for Amtrak for over 20 years, during which time he worked on other trains, such as the Empire Builder and the Pioneer. Apparently, he has done extensive research into the history of all points of interest along each route to which he is assigned, and has developed a detailed script. It was truly a delight to see an Amtrak attendant take such an interest in learning about the points of interest along the route, and I can only hope that other attendants try to emulate the wonderful example he has set. (Unfortunately, his commentary was barely audible in my sleeper.)

Creston features an ornate brick station -- the original station built by the Burlington Railroad -- but that building is no longer used as a station and has been converted to a museum. Amtrak passengers must use an unattractive corrugated metal building just to the east. The next stop, Osceola (named after an Indian chief), has a dark brick building which is still being used by Amtrak.

After breakfast, I returned to my room and then went to the lower level of the lounge car with my computer. This section of the lounge car, which has six tables, was practically deserted, and I spent over an hour there working on these memoirs.

As we approached the Ottumwa station, Curt made some very interesting announcements about the history of the city and its name little of which appeared in either the Amtrak Route Guide or the Rail Ventures book. He also noted that the large stone station at Ottumwa was built in 1951, following a design developed by the architectural firm of Hollivert & Root. Curt explained that the Burlington Road was known for its modern streamlined Zephvrs, and the management of the railroad felt that they needed to construct modern stations to complement the modern trains. They hired this firm to develop a prototype design, built first at LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Curt pointed out that Ottumwa was once a division point for the CB&Q, thus requiring a large station building, but that today only a small portion of the depot is used by Amtrak, with the remainder converted into a museum. Although the structure has a rather bland, modern look, its construction with stone gives it an appearance of quality and endurance which Amshack type architecture lacks. Curt also noted that an old CB&Q steam engine is on display adjacent to the station (although the station building blocks much of the view.) I had the opportunity to step off the train during our stop at Ottumwa, and when we departed at 11:46 a.m., we were one hour and 13 minutes late.

I now returned to my room. A few minutes after noon, the first call for lunch was made, so I went to the diner for lunch. I was seated opposite the couple from upstate New York who were in Room #14 in my car - directly opposite my Room #13. They made very enjoyable companions for lunch, and I learned that the wife was born in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, later lived in New Milford, and gave birth to one of her children at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck!

I ordered the green salad (a new menu choice), along with a Pepsi, for lunch, and had ice cream for dessert. My companions got hamburgers, and seemed to be pleased with their choice. Somewhat to my surprise, the diner quickly filled up, and late arrivals were placed on a in the diner for about an hour, until we began our descent of West Burlington Hill and approached the station in Burlington, Iowa. At that point, I walked back to the lounge car and heard Curt's commentary about the significance of the stone station (another Hollivert & Root design, built in 1944 to replace a Victorian building that was destroyed in a fire during an attempt at its restoration). Curt noted that the station was also damaged in a flood in the early 1990s, but that efforts have been made to preserve and restore the building. When we departed Burlington at 1:31 p.m., after a three minute stop, we were one hour and 41 minutes late. The additional lateness was due largely to several stops we made to clear work sites and to obtain track warrants to proceed ahead at various points.

I watched as we crossed the Mississippi River on a massive truss bridge, with a swing span, built in 1898. Curt explained that both this bridge and a highway bridge to the north were declared hazards to navigation by the Army Corps of Engineers, due to the narrow clearance provided by the swing span. He pointed out that the highway bridge has been replaced by what he termed a "suspension bridge" (I corrected him, noting that the bridge is actually a cable stayed bridge), and also stated that plans are underway to replace at least the swing span of the railroad bridge with a more modern lift span (which affords greater lateral clearance).

I spent some more time in the lounge car, where I was able clearly to hear Curt's wonderful commentary, but also spent some of the time in my room. I stepped off the train briefly during our stop in Galesburg, from where we departed at 2:28 p.m., but didn't remain on the platform very long, due to the penetrating cold, accompanied with strong winds.

As we proceeded through Illinois, I followed much of our route on the Great Lakes West SPV Atlas that I had brought along. Of course, Curt provided his very informative commentary about the various points of interest along the way. He noted that this area of Illinois was first settled in the 1830s, largely by people who came from the northeastern states. Thus, he stated, the town of Monmouth, Illinois, which we passed through, was named after a town in New Jersey with the same name. (I later corrected him, pointing out that Monmouth is the name of a county in New Jersey, not a town!) At 4:00 p.m., between Princeton and Naperville, we passed the westbound California Zephyr, Train #5.

We made our next to last stop at the suburban station of Naperville at 4:36 p.m. When we departed a minute later, we were one hour and 55 minutes late. I now gathered my belongings together to prepare for detraining. Contrary to what I've experienced on other Amtrak trains coming into Chicago, we did not back into the station; rather, we made a two minute stop to drop the freight cars on the rear of the train and proceeded straight into the station, pulling into Track 20 at 5:19 p.m. We were still one hour and nine minutes late, but we had made up 46 minutes since we departed Naperville. Today, we encountered few delays coming into Chicago, and our pulling straight into the station (rather than backing in) saved considerable time. I walked into the Metropolitan Lounge to await the departure of my connecting train, the Capitol Limited, scheduled to leave at 7:00 p.m.

My trip from Denver to Chicago on the California Zephyr worked out quite well, with Curt Katz' outstanding commentary being an unexpected delight. Now I'm looking forward to the second part of my journey - the trip from Chicago to Washington on the Capitol Limited.

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