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Trip Report

Seven Nights, Six Days, Five Trains
Living in the Lap of Luxury, Amtrak Style
Cardinal, California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Cardinal

November 3-9, 2003



This was our second rail trip since we thoroughly enjoyed last year's journey. Our itinerary was the only way that we could leave Cincinnati and spend seven straight nights on a train, then return.

November 2nd we tracked the Cardinal all day using Julie, Amtrak's computer voice. Each time she said the train was one hour late but should be in Cincinnati a half hour late at 3:38 am, which should allow us to sleep a little longer. We decided to take a four hour nap then sleep on the train. Of course neither one of us could sleep even though we tried. Just to be safe we wanted to leave the house by 2:15 am and drove to our daughter's house so she could take us to Union Terminal, since it's only five minutes away for her. Candy wasn't too thrilled about waking so early. Her husband Andy asked her, "you really don't need me to go too?"

Monday November 3rd

Cardinal and California Zephyr

We walked in the terminal at 2:45am and asked "how late?" and one of our fellow passengers said "one hour". We got a coffee and hot chocolate and waited. There were six other passengers with a couple more waiting for arrivals.

About 4:15am the train was announced and we were told to go downstairs to the platform but not to board until told. As we reached the platform the Cardinal was just coming into view. There was one engine, dorm car, sleeper, diner, cafe car, three coaches, plus two more cars on the end.

We were placed on the second coach and sat in the middle. It was still warm for November and no heat was on. Our coach was half full. Quite a few detrained before we boarded and once seated the train started moving.

The first stop was Hamilton Ohio. A couple boarded and sat in front of us. They smelled. The aroma was a mixture of cigarettes, fried food and beer. We had to move. When Dawn returned from the restroom she said the last two seats were empty, so we took our gear and Chicago tag and went to our new seats. It did smell better plus there was only one seat across from us.

I snoozed off and on but Dawn can't sleep in coach. At 7:00am, just outside of Indianapolis, the second call for breakfast and we were seated with an older man and a younger girl. When she saw the prices on the menu she left. We all had eggs, bacon, potatoes, biscuit, and coffee. $6.00 plus $2.50 for the bacon. The server, Mike was very jovial. There was a group from the sleepers traveling with America By Rail Vacations name tags.

Back in our seats the train seemed to go either very fast or slow; there was no in-between. After using the restroom Dawn stood behind my seat and gave me a neck, shoulder, and upper back massage. I told her we should have brought our business cards and handed them out for massages on the train. Amtrak may frown on that though.

At 11:25am eastern we were still in Indiana farmland but we should be close to Chicago. Rolled into Union Station at 12:15 pm central, one hour fifteen minutes late. Checked the bags at room 341 outside the Metropolitan Lounge and went to the food court and had a couple of Chardogs. The lounge was crowded when we returned.

Got the boarding call for the California Zephyr at 2:00pm, retrieved the bags and walked about a mile to our sleeper car. There are seventeen cars: two engines, dorm, two sleepers, diner, lounge, three coaches, and seven mail cars.

We are in a family sleeper which we booked five months ago. We enjoy the extra room especially for luggage. Plus it's close to the shower and three restrooms and not a lot of foot traffic. Picked up speed fast and since it was a smooth ride, Dawn took a shower. The water was nice and hot as I went next. We brought in the luggage from the rack since we had the room. It was foggy outside with light rain.

At 5:30 we were called to dinner. We wanted to be in the diner when we crossed the Mississippi River. We were seated with a couple from Leesburg, VA, Dennis and Kathleen. It was a half hour before we were waited on, must be shorthanded. Dawn and I ordered T-bone steak, baked potato, salad, vegetable and cheesecake and chocolate cake. Food was good. Our table mates were world travelers, having taken trains in Europe but this was their first ride on Amtrak. We were asked to leave at 7:00pm to allow them to get ready for the 7:15pm seating.

It was raining hard as we were early into Ottumwa, Iowa, so the train waited for departure time. We rang for Rolf, our attendant to ready our beds. Rolf was a pretty good guy. We even saw him bussing tables in the diner. We hit the sack at 8:00pm as we were tired and the bed was comfy. The ride through Nebraska was rough as it felt like the car was leaving the tracks. It felt good to snooze after so much time without quality sleep.

Tuesday, November 4th

California Zephyr

We woke up at 6:00am MT as daylight was breaking. The landscape reminded me of North Dakota all flat plains. Went up to Rolf's station and helped ourselves to coffee and juice, then straightened the room and dressed for breakfast.

In the diner we were seated with Cheryl from Chicago and a young biologist from California. I tried the French toast and sausage, Dawn the pancakes, as we were entering Denver. We passed the station then backed to the platform. We finished eating and walked outside to take some video. A man was washing all the windows at least on the right side.

Back inside we asked Rolf to make up the beds as we gathered the cameras and headed to the sightseer lounge to make sure we found good seats. It took a while to leave the flatlands as we made our slow assent up the foothills. The car was standing room only as we were on the left side. We rotated our double seat to see out the right. Lots of curves back and forth as we reached the rocky hills and the beginning of the mountains. Through the Big Ten which looks like the number 10, the photo opportunities begin with many cameras rolling. A couple of foreign guys in front of us are talking loud in their language which will show up in our video. Good commentary from the conductor filling us in on the tunnels. At the Moffat Tunnel he asks us not to move from car to car to keep the diesel fumes and coal dust from entering. The foreign guys must not understand English since one went right back to the coach car. While in the tunnel we used the restroom downstairs one at a time to save our seats.

We stopped at Winter Park and Granby, then after the Gore Canyon the call to lunch. We are seated with a lady from Canada, a physical therapist and a lady from Cleveland. Dawn had the grilled chicken. I had the Black Angus burger, okay but not great.

Back downstairs to hang out in the room. Sights still good but not as spectacular. We are following the Colorado River plus I-70 has popped up, sometimes right sometimes left. Near Glenwood Springs a group or rafters are floating down the river. At Grand Junction they are selling fresh fruit and souvenirs next to the station. We bought two bags of peanuts then took photos of the old station next door. The train is early so we have time to wander.

Next was Ruby Canyon with the sun setting on the rock formations gave excellent video shots. Then past the ghost town Cisko, Utah with it's six inhabitants.

At the 5:30 dinner call as we passed the deluxe rooms a line was forming. While we waited the elderly man in front of Dawn let out a very loud fart. I told her that the people behind us thought it was her.

Thankfully we were seated with two men from Harrisburg PA, real rail fans who had traveled by train in Europe, Mexico and Canada. Our server, Joe, the same as last night was kind of gruff. You had to do things his way, no chit chat. The men all ordered the T-bone and Dawn the salmon. Joe was serving a tray of drinks to the next table when he lost it. Water, coffee, tea and milk all over the floor and the man on the end's pants. Joe was not a happy camper. We thought, uh oh, as we didn't even complain about the wrong salad dressings. Kind of like the soup Nazi on Seinfeld. We made the best of dinner with good conversation and good humor.

The room next to ours has a couple where the guy can't get around very well, a little too husky. Rolf had to bring all their meals. I hope they tip him extra. The room across from them has two women, who when I said "hello" looked at me like I was crazy.

At 8:30 we went to the lounge to watch the movie "The Italian Job". Dawn didn't care for it and went back to read. There was something going on in one of the coaches. After the movie I was walking through the diner and noticed a women filling out some kind of report.

We were forty-five minutes early into Salt Lake City. We detrained to walk a bit and a fellow passenger asked us what happened since the police were here. I videoed the entire train and noticed the police boarded. They brought a male passenger off in handcuffs. We overheard the conductor saying that the man doesn't get his ticket money back.

Another nice sleepful night with the time zone change, an extra hours sleep. In the morning Dawn went up to get coffee.

Wednesday, November 5th

California Zephyr and Coast Starlight

At 7:30am, they announced the first call to breakfast but the diner was full and we had to take a number. We got number two. How did these people know the diner was open when it wasn't announced? At 8:00 they called numbers one through four. We were seated with a couple from Roseville, GA, Mel and Sharon. They were the funniest and most talkative couple we met. I had pancakes and bacon, Dawn quiche. The servers were hinting that we leave so they could prepare for lunch. They announced that Friday's eastbound Zephyr would be routed through Wyoming.

Dawn showered while I shaved and brushed. I missed the Mustang Ranch but it was closed anyway. We departed Sparks about 35 minutes late. Forty people boarded in Reno. I took my hot shower, dressed and went up to the sightseer lounge to video the Sierra Nevada's. Good video, just as breathtaking as the Rockies, with more greenery with pine trees and more snow. A few horseshoe bends with snowsheds where we could see the front and rear of the train plus the tracks ahead.

At noon the call for a "brief" lunch. The tables behind the server's station weren't being used so we were seated with a couple from the Bay area and this was their first rail trip. They had booked coach to Grand Junction and back but Amtrak called and asked if they wanted to upgrade to sleeper for $100. They jumped at the chance, then returning they inquired about a sleeper. The price to Emeryville was $380. On board they asked and the conductor sold them the last sleeper for $130. Good deal. They also planned on more Amtrak trips in the future including a tour of Major League ballparks.

Back in the room a 1:30pm stop at Colfax CA, 45 minutes late. Just after leaving, the eastbound Zephyr passed, about 50 minutes late. We left Roseville at 2:50pm, 50 minutes late also.

Pulled into Emeryville at 6pm, a newer station with a lot of connecting California trains. We put our luggage on hold at the ticket counter and walked the pedestrian bridge over the tracks to the mall. There is a large food court with anything you can imagine. We decided on the gyros and tuna melt. Then Dawn called home to check on the cat and the birds. Back across the bridge to the station for about a two and a half hour wait. The seats are comfortable. There is an audible message board that tells the status of the various trains.

At 9:30pm the room started filling with people from the shuttle buses from San Francisco. The Coast Starlight was announced as delayed. At 10:30 the train was leaving Oakland and would arrive in five minutes. At least 50 passengers boarded. After a long walk to the first sleeper we were cheerfully greeted by our attendant, Debra. We signed our tickets and walked up to room three. This is our first night in a standard sleeper since we have only been in family sleepers. I took the upper bunk where the headroom wasn't as bad as I thought as there was room to change clothes and turn. I strapped myself in and was gone. It felt like I was being rocked in a giant cradle.

Thursday, November 6th

Coast Starlight and Empire Builder

I started waking about 6am. I had no idea where we were. I dressed and climbed down to the cup of coffee Dawn had ready for me. Walked to the diner at 7am and sat with a couple from San Luis Obispo. They were riding in coach and were newly engaged on the way to Albany, OR.

Back to the room to get the camera then to the Parlour Car. We sat in one of the two couches with a couple on their way home to Olympia WA. This was their first rail trip and they are enjoying it. They looked through my USA By Rail book which is very helpful on any route.

Good video of the Oregon mountains and countryside. At Klamath Falls we got off to video the train and the station. Temperature is 37 degrees. At Klamath Lake there appears to be a bald eagle following the train. Just past the lake the train is stopped for 45 minutes. I hope we can make up this time for our connection in Portland.

Back to the room to do teeth and shower but after I had stripped I noticed there were no towels. After I brushed my teeth I found the towels in the luggage rack, but now the shower was occupied.

I've never seen so many Christmas trees in one place, it goes on for miles and miles. 11:05am into Chemult OR we were 90 minutes late. Just got word that we would be bussed from Eugene to Portland. We still have time for lunch with our new neighbors across the aisle, Bud and Jean from Hemet CA. Beautiful scenery in the diner but forgot the camera. The wine tasting was announced for 3pm but we are off the train at 2:50pm and on the bus behind the station. We have an hour and ten minutes to drive 105 miles to Portland. The bus driver made excellent time as we pulled into Union Station at 5:05pm, just 20 minutes late.

We are whisked through the impressive station to the platform (they are waiting for us) and stand by our sleeper, the last car on 28. The door was closed, I hope they see us. Someone radios inside and the door is opened. We are greeted by Larry Ray our attendant who takes us to our family sleeper with both side tables set up with linen and a bottle of wine each. Two chicken dinners were saved for us which included antipasto, fruit salad and brownie. There is no diner until the we connect with the Seattle section in Spokane WA at 12:30am.

The conductor takes our tickets as we finished our meals. I took a shower then to the cafe to buy some playing cards. The counter was closed so we watched the movie 'Daddy Daycare' until the attendant returned. Back to the room where the beds were turned down. We told Larry not to do the upper bunk since we both sleep in the lower. We played cards and ate peanuts then hit the sack at 11pm.

I remember feeling and hearing the connecting of the two sections of the Empire Builder in Spokane. When we lose power for a few minutes the silence is deafening. We drop an hour overnight switching from Pacific Time to Mountain Time.

Friday, November 7th

Empire Builder

Awoke about 6am. Dawn went out to look for coffee but no luck. Somebody, maybe the conductor, is using the handicapped room for their quarters. We dressed and went to breakfast. We are seated with a women from Canton OH who rode to Spokane with her daughter on the way to Alaska and was returning by train. We talked about her upgrading to a sleeper. We watched our language since she was the wife of a minister.

To get back to the room we have to walk through six cars, the diner, the lounge,and four coaches. Brushed teeth, got the cameras and newspaper and walked to the sightseer lounge. Although we were here last year, the mountains and scenery are snow covered and the animal tracks are visible. The next stop is Browning MT, 45 minutes late. Here the landscape begins to flatten.

In talking to an elderly lady from Texas we find out that it is her 81st birthday today but Amtrak has lost her overnight bag which includes her heart medicine. They are going to try to replace it at one of the stops today.

Lunch at 12:15 we are seated with a retired physician from Walla Walla WA. He must be 80 years old plus and they are heading to the Mayo Clinic for annual checkups. Black Angus burger and gardenburger for us. Back in the room Dawn realized she forgot her wallet in the diner. As we made the six car walk her name was announced to retrieve her wallet in the diner.

We stayed in this section of the train to get off the next stop, Havre MT to phone home. Once outside I walked to our sleeper car to retrieve the video camera. It was cold as I got a shot of the entire train. Snow covered the platform with sand scattered for traction.

At 2pm MT we were a half hour late. Dawn took a shower, then we just lounged in the room the rest of the afternoon. At Glascow MT the bank thermometer read six degrees. We switch to central time in North Dakota but the diner remains on mountain time for dinner. While at lunch we reserved the 6:45 dinner. It is 4:45pm MT and the sun is setting. Last stop in Montana Wolfpoint.

We didn't hear the dinner call so we went up and found the diner full. The staff accommodated us on the other side of the server's station which wasn't being used. T-bone steak again and the brazed beef special. Back in the room the beds were turned down.

We detrained at Minot ND since it was ten blow zero, our kind of weather. Lots of activity here 40 or so boarding. I guess that is the reason for the empty coach car. we were now on time. I fell asleep after Rugby ND. It was a little bumpy overnight.

Saturday, November 8th

Empire Builder and Cardinal

We slowly rolled into St, Paul-Minneapolis. At 6:45am Larry, our attendant, suggested we eat breakfast since many people boarded here and will eat. We were seated with a very young Amish or Mennonite couple who were returning from a wedding in Staples MN to Winona MN. We ate pancakes, bacon and quiche. They shared an order of pancakes and bacon. When they spoke to each other it sounded like Dutch but talking to us in soft English. I sought the steward and gave him $12 to cover their meal and tip.

I shaved and did teeth. Water wasn't hot. Dawn wanted to shower but the door was always locked. I guess there is no hot water. I'm reading our daily paper, the Star-Tribune while Dawn is snoozing. In Winona WI they announced a broken rail ahead and we should be delayed 15 minutes. The train rolls slowly then gradually picks up speed. 11:40am in Tomah WI we walk upstairs to be ready for lunch call. Seated with us is a retired couple from Everett WA traveling to Ann Arbor MI. This time Dawn orders the Black Angus burger and I get the Jambalaya. We finish at 12:45pm in Wisconsin Dells.

As we get our bags organized we asked Larry Ray if we may take his picture. He said wait until Milwaukee and we'll step outside and have the train in the background. At 2:45 we are in Milwaukee, 45 minutes late, where we take the photos. Back in the room, we wait for Chicago.

We slowly roll into Union Station, take off a private car, switch tracks and back into the gate. One hour late, we check the luggage at the Metropolitan Lounge and go up to the food court for a burrito and popcorn. The lounge is not crowded and as of 6:45pm, no delays. We noticed the tour group from Monday is waiting to board with us.

We start loading at 7:20pm. The three coaches are full. We are directed to the first car. The cafe car has been removed from the Cardinal and the attendant is setting up the snacks and drinks in the first two sets of seats on each side. We walked all the way to the front and now we have to sit right near him. Once set up he is selling chips, cookies, muffins, soft drinks, beer, wine and juices. There is a long line and we get to witness all the transactions. He does have a good sense of humor for the situation. He says this is the first time this has happened to him.

We are cruising slowly through northern Indiana and at 9pm the diner actually opens. Some people come right back to their seats, I think they noticed the prices. We kept an eye on the lounge while the attendant went for his meal. He returned at 10:30pm and packed his wares to store in the kitchen.

About half of our car detrains at Lafayette IN so I moved across the aisle to give us more room. It's hard to sleep since the ride through Indiana is a little rough. I dozed off and on then realized we were in Hamilton OH.

Sunday, November 9th


It was 5:30am ET and I gave Dawn the phone to call Candy to wake her up so she can pick us up in Cincinnati. We should be there in about 20 minutes.

Wrong. In Ivorydale, five minutes from Union Terminal we stop. There is a derailment on our track. Dawn tried to call back but the batteries were dead. After an hour we were switched to another track and began to move. I think we could have walked there in that amount of time. It was almost 7am when we arrived and left the Cardinal where Andy was waiting to drive us home.


It was a great trip, beautiful scenery, good food and interesting people. We can't wait until our next rail journey hopefully sometime in 2004. One side note: since we spent all seven nights it took a while to get back our land legs. At home it still felt like we were on the train, the house was swaying. It took at least a week before it stopped feeling that we were sleeping on a train. That's not such a bad thing either. It was as though our vacation was extended another week.

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