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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak California Zephyr

It's about 7:15 p.m. on Monday, April 19, 2004, and I've just arrived at Denver Union Station, where I will be boarding Train #6, the California Zephyr, on my way to Chicago and then back to New York via the Cardinal.

My trip began yesterday with a 7:00 a.m. flight from Kennedy Airport in New York City to Denver. Although LaGuardia and Newark Airports are closer and more convenient to my home, I was able to obtain a non-stop flight on Delta Airlines from Kennedy Airport to Denver for only $127.60 - a very low fare for a one-way, non-stop flight on a major airline! Had I taken a flight from Newark or LaGuardia, I either would have had to pay a much higher fare, or I would have had to take a one-stop flight or change planes enroute.

My friend Arvin volunteered to drive me to the airport. We left Teaneck at 5:05 a.m. and - despite making a few wrong turns - arrived at the airport at 5:50 a.m. There was a very long check-in line to obtain a boarding pass, and even though I used the shorter line for kiosk self-check-in, I had to wait in line for 15 minutes. But once I got my boarding pass, there was no line for security, and it took only another five minutes to go through security and walk down to the gate. I also succeeded in taking both my airline-size suitcase and my backpack onboard, despite the official rule that only one carry-on bag is allowed per person.

Our flight left on time at 7:00 a.m. and arrived in Denver at 9:05 a.m. (Mountain Time), 15 minutes early. The plane was only about one-third full, so I had a full row of three seats to myself (as did many other passengers). In fact, there were several rows of seats that were completely vacant. I did stretch out over all three seats for part of the four-hour flight, but didn't sleep very much. Complimentary drinks were provided, but meals were available only at an extra charge (I obtained orange juice and coffee, but did not purchase a meal). All in all, the flight worked out very well. It was one of the most pleasant flights I've ever taken.

Upon arrival at the Denver airport, I took the shuttle train to the main terminal, where I found out that there is a public bus that runs to downtown Denver every hour for a fare of $8.00. Although fairly expensive for public transit, this was by far the cheapest way to travel to downtown Denver (the new Denver International Airport is located about 20 miles from downtown). I had to wait for about half an hour, until 9:50 a.m., for my bus to arrive. The buses used on this run feature high-back reclining seats, similar to long-distance buses. Only five people (including me) boarded the bus at the airport, with two passengers getting off at the first stop - the airport park-and-ride lot.

We arrived at the bus station in downtown Denver at 10:30 a.m. I (along with one of the two remaining passengers) stepped off the bus, and I walked for about five blocks to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where our meeting would be held. Somewhat to my surprise, my room was already available for occupancy, so I had some time to get settled before my meeting began at 1:30 p.m.

The meeting, which took place on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning and concluded with lunch on Monday, was very interesting, and - I thought - a significant improvement over last year's Denver meeting.

On Monday afternoon, after the meeting was over, I did some sightseeing with three people who had come to the meeting from Los Angeles. First, we took a tour of the very beautiful Colorado State Capitol, with a marker on the steps indicating the precise spot where the elevation is a "mile high." I was astonished to discover that all entrances to the Capitol were open and that there was no visible security at any entrance! The tour guide explained that, when a higher level of alert was in place, only one door was opened and everyone had to go through a metal detector, but it still amazed me that there was absolutely no security today. We also visited the Colorado State Historical Museum, located a few blocks away.

About 4:45 p.m., my friends from Los Angeles took the shuttle van to the airport (they had an 8:00 p.m. flight to catch), while I decided to take a ride on the light-rail system. I had ridden just about the entire line last year, but thought it would be nice to ride it once more. However, when I arrived at the Stout and 18th Street station, I discovered that I had only $20 bills, and the ticket machine would not accept them. So I walked over to a nearby Starbucks, where I purchased a cup of tea to get change.

Returning to the Stout and 18th Street station, I boarded the 5:00 p.m. southbound train to the Mineral station in Littleton - the southern end of the line. This train, which consisted of three cars, soon became quite full, as it was the height of the rush hour, and many people were going home. When we arrived at the Mineral station, I detrained and took the next northbound train one stop to the Littleton-Downtown station. I got off and walked upstairs (the tracks there are in a cut) to check out the Littleton station building. The original stone Denver & Rio Grande depot has been moved a short distance to a location adjacent to the light-rail line, and it now serves as a cafe and waiting area for passengers. Interestingly, the former office for the ticket agent has several pictures of the station in its original configuration, and there is very comfortable seating provided for waiting passengers.

I then boarded the next northbound train, which I took to its terminus at 30th and Downing Streets. The northernmost section of the line - which is the only single-tracked portion of the entire system - passes through a lower-class area. When I reached the end of the line, I detrained and boarded another waiting train, which departed three minutes later. I took that train back to the Stout and 18th Street station, where I got off and walked back to my hotel to retrieve my suitcase.

The simplest way to get from my hotel to Union Station would have been to take the free 16th Street Mall bus. But I wanted to complete my ride on the entire light-rail system and to arrive at Union Station by rail. So I returned to the Stout and 18th Street station, where I boarded the 6:53 p.m. southbound train, scheduled to arrive at 10th and Osage at 7:02 p.m. This train, as might be expected, was also quite crowded. When we arrived at 10th and Osage at 7:03 p.m., one minute late, my northbound connecting train to Union Station - scheduled to depart at 7:04 p.m. - was already pulling into the station, and I just barely made my connection! Had I missed it, I would have had to wait half an hour for the next train, as service is provided only every half hour on this rather lightly-used line.

I had checked with Amtrak several times during the day and was informed that my Train #6 was running about an hour and a half late. I was advised that the train was expected to arrive in Denver at 8:10 p.m. and to depart at 8:30 p.m. So I knew I had ample time to catch my Amtrak train. But I was glad that I made the 7:04 p.m. light-rail train, which arrived at Union Station at 7:12 p.m. I walked down into the pedestrian subway and back up to the station, where the message board above the ticket window indicated an anticipated arrival time for my train of 8:15 p.m. This gave me some time to update these memoirs and make some calls from my cell phone.

At 8:22 p.m., an announcement was made that the California Zephyr was now arriving on Track 1. Soon, passengers formed a line leading down to the entrance to Track 1, and at 8:30 p.m., boarding commenced. I stowed my belongings in my room and walked down the platform to record the consist.

Tonight's California Zephyr is pulled by engines #136 and #204 and includes a baggage car, a sleeper used as a crew dorm, two coaches and a smoker/coach, a Superliner I Sightseer lounge car, a diner, two sleepers and three express cars. I have been assigned Room #8 in Car #32092, named Mississippi (the names of Superliner II cars have been removed from the outside of the cars in the latest repainting, but they still appear on the interior doors). Checking my database, I discovered that I occupied this very room when I took the Capitol Limited from Pittsburgh to Chicago on July 31, 2000! This is one of those rare instances when I have been assigned the very same room in a particular car more than once.

Returning to my car, I was greeted on the platform by a man who asked if I was Dan Chazin. He turned out to be Robert Glover, a Director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, who was on his way to Washington for a NARP Board meeting, and was occupying Room #2 in my car. He commented that he had noticed me walking down the platform to record the car numbers and assumed that I would be the only one on the train doing such a thing!

When I walked to the front of the train, I noticed that various cables were being connected between the two engines. Robert Glover subsequently explained to me that the lead unit on the train from Emeryville to Denver was a UP engine, and that that engine was removed in Denver and replaced with an Amtrak engine. That also explained why the stop in Denver lasted for over half an hour, about 13 minutes more than scheduled.

Right after we departed Denver at 8:53 p.m., one hour and 15 minutes late, a call was made for dinner. Ordinarily, I would have made a point of eating dinner in the dining car on the train, but the hour was rather late, and I had brought along a sandwich left over from lunch. So I decided instead to eat the sandwich in my room and skip dinner in the diner tonight.

In the meantime, I noticed that, in the small rack near the window of my room, there was an Amtrak ticket envelope. I opened it up and discovered inside a ticket stub for a reserved coach seat on tonight's Train #6, from Reno to Chicago. Stapled to it were two unused tickets - one for Train #40 from Chicago to Philadelphia, and the other for a connecting train from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. I was puzzled how an envelope with a coach ticket stub got into my room, but since there were two unused tickets in the envelope, I decided to turn the envelope over to the conductor. I walked through the train, found the conductor in one of the coaches, and gave him the envelope. I noticed that the first two coaches were quite full, but the rear coach was completely empty. It also seemed that just about every room in the two sleepers was occupied.

We proceeded for a short distance out of Denver and then, at 9:07 p.m., came to a stop adjacent to some refineries. The reason for our stop was that a train was blocking our crossing of the Union Pacific Railroad just ahead. But soon, another problem developed. I heard the attendant in the rear sleeper call for the conductor on the loudspeaker, stating that there was a medical emergency. A man occupying a deluxe bedroom in the rear sleeper had intestinal problems and needed to be taken to a hospital. We were stopped adjacent to a road, so it was possible for an ambulance to come directly to trainside. But while an ambulance was called, it seems that it got lost on the way, and the ambulance (together with a police car) did not arrive until 9:50 p.m. Once the ambulance arrived, the man was promptly taken off the train. By then, the UP crossing had also been cleared, and we moved ahead at 9:56 p.m. We were now about two hours late.

Soon, Charles, the attendant, came by to offer to put down the bed in my room. He commented that he was not on duty 24 hours a day and would soon go "off duty," so that if I wanted him to put down the bed, he would have to do it now. I was a little surprised at his comment, as I always assumed that sleeping car attendants were supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day - especially since some passengers might be boarding or detraining in the middle of the night. Although I would not normally bother a sleeping car attendant at a very late hour unless absolutely necessary, I thought that the attendant was supposed to be available to passengers at all hours. I wasn't quite ready to go to sleep yet, and I know how to make the bed myself, so I declined his offer. I should mention that, despite his comment about going "off duty," Charles did, in general, have a friendly attitude towards passengers.

I soon began to feel rather tired and decided to go to sleep. About 10:30 p.m., I made up my room for night occupancy and climbed into bed. I didn't sleep all that well, and was awake for our station stops at Fort Morgan, McCook, Holdrege, Hastings and Lincoln. The ride, at times, was quite bumpy. When we departed Lincoln at 6:06 a.m., we were just short of two hours late.

I finally awoke for good about 7:00 a.m. Since we would soon be arriving in Omaha, where I wanted to step off the train, I got dressed and walked ahead to the coaches. When we arrived at the Omaha station at 7:15 a.m., I detrained, walked down the platform to take a picture of the engine and to record the number of the last express car on the train, and then returned to my room.

At 7:32 a.m., I heard on the scanner a request that paramedics be summoned to the station because a passenger had to be taken off. It seems that he had forgotten his Ritalin medication and, as a result, "he won't make it to Chicago." Unlike the situation we experienced last night, here we were stopped at a station in the middle of the city, so the ambulance arrived within five minutes, the passenger was removed from the train, and we pulled out of the station at 7:39 a.m. The stop had taken only four minutes longer than scheduled, and we were now one hour and 55 minutes late. Interestingly, our departure time, 7:39 a.m., was precisely the same on my last trip on this train, about a year ago (although then, the train was scheduled to depart Omaha at 6:15 a.m., 32 minutes later than the current schedule).

(A little later, while sitting in the lower level of the lounge car, I started talking to a man who had been assigned to sit next to the person taken off the train at Omaha. During breakfast, it seems, this person started acting rather strangely and commented that he needed to check himself into a mental hospital, but wasn't sure where he should get off the train to do so. His seatmate encouraged him to get off at Omaha, where an appropriate hospital would presumably be available, and he agreed to do so.)

The weather was quite dreary when we made our station stop in Omaha, and it soon started raining lightly. I went downstairs to take a shower, and found - much to my surprise - that the shower room was stocked not only with towels and soap, but also with a large supply of toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and shampoo. I have never seen such a variety of items available on an Amtrak train! A bucket provided for empty towels was quite full, indicating that quite a number of passengers had already taken showers this morning. The water was only lukewarm, but it was adequate for a short shower.

I then returned to my room and got dressed. After we crossed the bridge over the Missouri River at 8:09 a.m., I went into the diner for breakfast. I was seated opposite a woman from Royal Oak, Michigan, who was coming back from Denver, where she had spent several days visiting her niece. Also seated at my table were a couple from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia who had visited their daughter in Boise. We had a very enjoyable conversation. The woman opposite me mentioned that, on her last Amtrak trip, from California back to Michigan, she had a very rude attendant who refused to provide her with bottled water (the attendant told her to go downstairs and get it herself!), and the train was about seven hours late arriving in Chicago. As a result, she received a $600 voucher from Amtrak, which she applied towards the cost of this trip. She thought that this trip was much better, although she complained about the bumpiness of the ride last night. The other couple commented that they were enjoying their trip very much and intended to recommend Amtrak to their friends.

We spent over an hour in the diner lingering over breakfast. I had my usual Continental breakfast, while the others at the table had eggs or pancakes. During breakfast, we made a five-minute stop at Creston, Iowa. When we left the dining car about 9:30 a.m., we were the last passengers there.

I now returned to my room and updated these memoirs. It was raining heavily out, and it was dark and gloomy. At 9:57 a.m., we stopped for three minutes at Osceola, but I didn't even think of stepping off the train due to the inclement weather outside.

After relaxing in my room for about an hour, I decided to explore the rest of the train. I had previously heard on the PA system that the movie "Rugrats" would be shown on the upper level of the lounge car, and, indeed, that cartoon movie was being shown there. Interestingly, it was shown only on the upper level of lounge car, not the lower level, so I went down there and sat down at an unoccupied table. (Although I generally object to the showing of movies in the lounge car during daylight hours, in this case it didn't seem inappropriate, given the rather uninteresting scenery and dreary weather outside.) I then walked into the rear coach, which I now found was occupied by a school group of 35 people. The students were from the Mennonite Christian School, and were traveling only one stop - from Osceola to Ottumwa, where they would be spending the afternoon and then returning to Osceola by van. I had noticed some of these students wandering through my sleeping car a little while ago. I now understood why the rear coach had been kept unoccupied - it was needed for this group. Also in this coach were some BNSF employees who were deadheading to their next assignment. They were originally supposed to detrain in Galesburg, but were subsequently told to get off at Ottumwa.

At 11:30 a.m., we arrived at Ottumwa - which features a sprawling, stone-faced station built by the Burlington Route in 1951. Here, the large Mennonite school group detrained. It was still raining rather hard, so I didn't attempt to step off the train here. For some reason, our stop lasted for 11 minutes. When we departed at 11:41 a.m., we were one hour and 40 minutes late, having benefitted from the make-up time built into the schedule between Osceola and Ottumwa.

About 12:00 noon, the first call was made for lunch. A few minutes later, I decided to go to the dining car and was seated opposite a couple from Omaha who were traveling to Washington to ride the special cars aboard the Cardinal. They had heard about the trip from friends of theirs who will be attending the NARP meeting and decided to experience this unique train ride. Next to me sat a man who had boarded in Reno and was traveling to Galesburg, where he would make a bus connection to the Texas Eagle, which would take him to Little Rock, Arkansas, his home town.

For lunch, I ordered the green salad, which featured a large plate of assorted greens. During lunch, we made our station stop in Burlington, Iowa at 1:02 p.m. and then crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. I soon returned to my room, where I observed our train overtaking a BNSF freight train that was proceeding in the same direction. Just beyond, we passed through the small town of Monmouth, Illinois. I also made a few calls from my cell phone.

At 2:00 p.m., we arrived at Galesburg. Although it was still rather gloomy out, it had stopped raining, so I walked forward to the first coach and briefly stepped onto the platform to take a few pictures and get a little fresh air. Our stop here lasted for three minutes, and when we departed at 2:03 p.m., we were three minutes shy of two hours late.

On the way back to my room, I noticed that only one person was sitting in the rear coach - the one which had previously been occupied by the school group. I started talking to him, and it turned out that he was the person who had left his coach ticket in my room! He was a scout for the NFL and was traveling from Reno to Atlantic City to attend a meeting there. (Interestingly, the last part of his ticket - for an NJ Transit train from Philadelphia to Atlantic City - read "Amtrak Thruway Train"!) When he arrived at the Reno station, he asked for an upgrade to a sleeper, and was somehow assigned Room #8 in my sleeping car. As we approached Denver, it was discovered that the room had been sold twice, so he was asked to vacate the room so that I could occupy it! Apparently, no other rooms were available (except for Room B in the other sleeper, which apparently was left in a less-than-desirable condition by the person who had vacated it due to the medical emergency), so he stayed in the coach and obtained a refund of the added charge for the sleeper. He also mentioned that he had enough of the train and had decided instead to fly from Chicago to Atlantic City. I cannot understand how the agent in Reno could have resold my room to someone else (especially since I made my reservation over a month in advance), but at least I could now understand how the coach ticket happened to have been left in my room!

I spent most of the remainder of the trip in my room, doing some reading and updating these memoirs. We made a brief stop at Princeton at 2:53 p.m. and proceeded ahead to Chicago. Approaching Naperville, we slowed down considerably, and when we departed Naperville at 4:19 p.m., we were two hours and 10 minutes late. Soon, I heard on the scanner that we would be arriving in Chicago on Track 24.

Charles, our attendant, mentioned that, since the Madrid train bombing, a new procedure is in effect when detraining in Chicago, supposedly to enhance security. He is required to hand all luggage to a person standing on the platform, who arranges it all in a row for pick-up by passengers. As a fellow passenger commented, it is difficult to understand how this procedure in any way enhances security, but it does have the benefit of providing for an orderly way to take luggage off the train and provide for its delivery to arriving passengers.

At 4:45 p.m., as we passed the Cicero station, I received a call on my cell phone from Michael, a 12-year-old blind railfan from the Chicago area whom I regularly talk to online. We had arranged to meet this afternoon at Chicago Union Station, and he was calling from his cell phone to advise that he was on a Metra train bound for Union Station that should arrive there about 5:10 p.m. I told him to call me again when he arrived at the station, and we would then determine exactly where we would meet.

On the PA system, I heard our attendant ask to be informed which side we would be unloading on, but he got no response. As we passed the Amtrak coach yards south of the station, I noticed Surfliner coach #6404 in the middle of a Superliner consist. What this car, designed for service in California, is doing here, I have no idea.

We arrived on Track 24 at Chicago Union Station at 4:56 p.m., one hour and 24 minutes late. About a minute later, an announcement was made that passengers can now detrain, so I walked downstairs, retrieved my suitcase, and went into the station, where I met Adam Auxier, who was coordinating the private cars on the Cardinal that I would be taking to New York. I was also introduced to George Chilson, a candidate for President of NARP, and to others who would be riding on the private cars. I then went into the Metropolitan Lounge, where I stored my suitcase, took out my computer, and signed online to check my e-mail.

My trip from Denver to Chicago on the California Zephyr was quite pleasant, but relatively uneventful. I have traveled this route quite a few times before, and the dreary weather was certainly not conducive to viewing the scenery. I sure hope that the weather improves for the next leg of the journey, when I will have the opportunity to ride in luxurious private cars through the scenic New River Gorge on the Cardinal!

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