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TrainWeb Visitor Travelogue


It was great to meet you, Ray, Frank, and the others at the TrainWeb booth. After returning home, I enjoyed reading your account of riding behind the 3751 and also your comparison of train vs. plane.

I've been home from California for four weeks now. It doesn't seem as though I've been home at all, between having company here and spending almost a week in Chicago with my aunt. I finally found time to begin my travelogue, the first part attached here. If I don't have time to send Part II later today, it will have to wait with the other three parts until my return from a 19-day tour.

Looking forward to more travelogues from you, especially from the Heartland Flyer.




by Carol Larsen

I was especially looking forward to traveling on Amtrak again this year, as well as attending the National Railway Historical Society convention and Railfair '99 in Sacramento. Until last year, at least one Amtrak trip has been part of my summer travels since my first extended Amtrak experience in 1993. Due to discontinued routes and changes in station cities, there was no reasonable way to fit Amtrak into any travel plans I might have made in 1998. Reflecting on my 1999 trip, if for some unlikely reason I never again ride Amtrak or attend another convention or rail event, this year's experiences will always stand out in my mind.

I skipped the 1998 NRHS convention in Syracuse, NY because of date conflicts, but had been anticipating the 1999 convention in Sacramento ever since the 1997 announcement of that city for 1999. My first visit to Sacramento was in 1994, when I devoted an entire motor coach tour lunch/shopping stop to the California State Railroad Museum there. A deciding factor in my selection of that tour was that it was the only one of several I was considering to allow any time at all in Sacramento where I could visit the museum. It was a fast visit!

Anyone who is remotely familiar with that museum will realize that an hour and fifteen minutes is nowhere near enough time to begin covering everything there, let alone to cover it in depth. I thought I would have several hours between trains to spend in the museum in 1997 while on my way to the NRHS convention in Salt Lake City, but that plan failed due to an unexpected and lengthy train delay.

Last fall I learned that this year I would not only have enough time to explore the museum while enjoying the convention activities, but the convention week would coincide with Railfair '99. Could anything be more perfect? Because of Railfair, it would be a joint convention with the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (R&LHS).

When the 1999 convention registration booklet arrived in February, I had to decide quickly how much time to allocate to Railfair, which convention activities to select, and what days to arrive and depart. I knew that Amtrak space would be at a premium with members from two nationwide rail organizations and non-member individuals from all over the country converging on Sacramento for Railfair, many by train. My convention reservations had to be made immediately, too, because of the popularity of the included rail excursions and demand upon the convention hotels.

There were many options open to me. Normally when I travel on Amtrak, I like to make my round trip on different routes. I decided to travel west on the California Zephyr. It had been several years since I'd been on the portion of the Zephyr through the beautiful and dramatic scenery of Colorado, with the front range of the Rocky Mountains, tunnels, and canyons. Upon leaving the convention, I could have taken the Coast Starlight to Portland or Seattle to join a motor coach tour and return home on the Empire Builder. However, I began to see that this would keep me away from home for a longer period than was desirable then. Thus, I chose the simplest plan, to make the round trip on the Zephyr. I thought I wouldn't be missing any Amtrak routes I hadn't already traveled recently. At that time I didn't know when Amtrak would be adding the new train into Oklahoma, the Heartland Flyer. Oklahoma is one of two states I have yet to visit. Amtrak will never take me to the other state--Hawaii!

I could make my own Amtrak reservations either by phone or on the web site, but prefer to give business to my travel agent. When I presented my Amtrak itinerary to Mary, I already knew that the sleeper accommodations were sold out for the day I wanted to leave home. I had commitments that precluded my leaving earlier or I would have liked to arrive by Friday, June 18, for the opening day of Railfair. Although I traveled around the country in coach during my earlier years on Amtrak, I definitely prefer going First Class. With four months before the trip, I thought I could probably find a cancellation and upgrade to a standard bedroom.

For the first several weeks after making my Amtrak reservations, I checked the web site every day, called 1-800-USA-RAIL, and even E- mailed Amtrak to inquire about the possibility of their adding more sleepers for the influx of convention and Railfair passengers. During this time I was told that there were already four sleepers assigned to the Zephyr that day because of two large groups. Four would be the limit of sleepers due to the necessity of feeding all those people in one dining car.

One trick I had yet to try in my efforts to find an available standard bedroom was to call the 800 number at approximately 4:00 AM ET, the time when Amtrak's computer is purged of all passengers who have cancelled space or not paid for their reservation before the assigned deadline. That was to be my last resort. I'm not really into being up in the middle of the night, especially when I have to be at work in the morning.

About a month before my departure date, I began daily checking the web site again, still with no success. My last day of work for the school year was June 11, after which I didn't mind making phone calls during the night. In the last week before my departure, I set my alarm clock for 3:00 AM (4:00 AM EDT). I spoke to some very well-informed, friendly, and helpful Amtrak agents at that hour. They obviously had more time to talk than during daytime hours, but didn't have a standard bedroom to offer me. One agent I spoke to during that week told me that tour companies and travel agents often book blocks of rooms and then cancel them at the last minute if they can't be sold.

While checking the Web site, there was another item important to confirm before the departure date--train departure/arrival times. The summer Amtrak schedules went into effect on May 16, with some slight changes in the Zephyr times. Train #6 would leave Sacramento at 12:05 PM instead of 12:55 PM. This change could pose a serious problem for someone arriving at the station shortly before the time printed on their ticket. The earlier departure from Sacramento meant a scheduled 3:40 PM arrival in Chicago, instead of 4:20 PM. This allowed me a better chance of catching the 5:08 PM 339 Hiawatha, arriving in Milwaukee at 6:45, instead of possibly having to wait for the 8:05 PM 341 Hiawatha, arriving in Milwaukee at 9:37 PM. Upon reaching Milwaukee, I'm still 2-1/2 hours away from home.

My itinerary as it stood when I began my trip:

.........CITY.......TIME......DAY..DATE...CARRIER............SVC. CLASS
ARRIVE:__CHICAGO_____2:07 PM__THU__06-17__TRAIN 336


ARRIVE:__CHICAGO_____3:40 PM__WED__06-30___TRAIN 6____________0633-04

ARRIVE:__MILWAUKEE____________WED__06-30__TRAIN 339



Milwaukee is the closest Amtrak city to my home town. With no timely way to make connections on public transportation, I'm still hiring someone to drive me to and from the train. Gary arrived at my house a little after 8:30 AM. It wasn't necessary to leave home quite so early, but a friend who lives in Milwaukee planned to meet me at the Amtrak station there. I wanted to allow time to visit and also watch other passengers arrive. We made good time enroute, arriving at the Milwaukee Amtrak Station at 5th and St. Paul at 11:05 AM.

The first thing I noticed in the station was a new arrangement of the waiting room seats since I was last there two years ago. The seats now run parallel to the ticket counters instead of perpendicular as in the past.

My friend arrived shortly after Gary left. We stayed in the seating area until about 12:20 when people began lining up by the gate. Mid- week and mid-day Hiawathas in the summer aren't normally crowded, so we were easily near the front of the line, waiting for the 12:25 PM boarding call when we had to say good-bye.

Once through the gate, I found the conductors just standing on the platform pointing the passengers in the direction of the proper car. That was a first! After having to somehow boost my large suitcase aboard the train, I readily found the first seat in the coach where I could conveniently stow my luggage.

Soon after the 12:35 PM departure, conductor Mr. Burns came through the car to collect the tickets. I spent the entire trip listening for rail communications on one of my Amateur Radio 2-meter scanning transceivers while watching the Wisconsin and Illinois scenery flash by my window.

I have two new radios since my last Amtrak trip, both shirt-pocket size. These operate on AA cells instead of ni-cad battery packs as my other radio did, eliminating the need to bring several battery packs and a desk charger. I use AA ni-cads for one of the new radios, which are recharged in a small wall charger. Since both radios are small, I brought both, to search and monitor Ham radio frequencies in my hotel room on one while monitoring rail frequencies on the other. From past experience, I don't bother with Ham radio frequencies while on the train. If anyone is interested in further details on the radios and how I used them, I will be glad to respond by E-mail.

When we arrived in Chicago at 2:07, I was in a hurry to be off the train and into the station to pursue the matter of a sleeper upgrade. Gathering my luggage, I was the first person out of my car and the second one proceeding down the platform.

F40PH in push/pull mode
Horizon coaches

Copyright 1999 by Carol Larsen

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