Back     Home     Forums     Chat     Search     Site map     Print this page  
On Track On Line - Trip Report Menu
This Report:   Section 1   Section 2   Section 3    

Trip Report

Across North America by Rail

August 20-September 5, 2005
Section 1 of 3


(Click small photos to see larger; all larger photos are less than 60K)


Growing up, I was a big train fan. My parents and I rode the San Francisco Zephyr and the reborn California Zephyr across country--in coach. That experience prompted us never to ride Amtrak as a family again.

I gave up trains as a teenager but I was inspired to try Amtrak California's Capitol Corridor service on my birthday in 2004. I was so impressed that it got me interested in trains once more. As the owner of my local train shop says, you never really give up the passion.

I do nothing in half measures so I decided that I wanted to ride the train across North America. My plan had several iterations but was limited to a two-week length due to work commitments. I thus could not go from sea to shining sea. But I would still make a nice circle around North America.

My journey would consist of the following legs:

  1. Amtrak's California Zephyr from Emeryville, California to Chicago Union Station.
  2. Four days in Chicago (Three days riding Metra commuter trains).
  3. Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited from Chicago Union Station to Buffalo-Depew, New York.
  4. A five-hour layover in Depew.
  5. Amtrak/Via Rail Canada's Maple Leaf from Depew to Toronto Union Station.
  6. Two days in Toronto (One day spent riding a GO Transit commuter train).
  7. Via Rail Canada's flagship train, The Canadian, from Toronto Union Station to Pacific Central Station in Vancouver.
  8. Amtrak's Cascades service from Vancouver to Seattle.
  9. Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Seattle to San Jose.

Those who know the Bay Area will know that this was not a perfect circle-I did not start out in San Jose. Okay, I admit it: I was too lazy to wake up early and catch a Capitol Corridor train to Emeryville!

Not long after I thought of this trip, President Bush announced his Fiscal Year 2006 budget for Amtrak, which essentially would kill the railroad except perhaps in the Northeast Corridor. I spent several months contacting many elected officials to tell them to fund Amtrak. I wondered if my trip--which fell fortunately in FY2005--might be the last one I might ever be able to take on Amtrak.

Fortunately, as the time drew near, the Senate and House restored funding to Amtrak. Though the fight was not over yet, it did seem that my journey would not be one of mourning the end of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Still, to be a train fan or to model trains is one thing. To actually ride them long distance is another. Was North American rail travel still worth fighting for in the 21st Century? I hoped to find out the answers, good, bad, or indifferent.

I spent 16 days on my journey, with only two of those days not spent riding some train or other. I took approximately 600 photographs of the trains I rode on and the places and other trains I saw. Though I kept a journal, there is no possible way I can relate every meaningful event on my trip. Instead, I have decided to share with you a summary of each leg, and some aspects of each trip. I hope you will find them interesting.

Amtrak #5, California Zephyr 20 August-22 August 2005

Amtrak #5, the California Zephyr, at Helper, Utah. Amtrak Superliner I Diner #38014 In my roomette as the California Zephyr continues its ascent in the Colorado Rockies alongside the Colorado River. We are getting closer to Moffat Tunnel and the Continental Divide.
At Ottumwa, Iowa, I finally get a chance to go forward and photograph the motive power of the California Zephyr, in this case, two GE P42DC locomotives Amtrak #5, the California Zephyr, by now a ghost train having disgorged most of its passengers in Omaha, finally arrives at Chicago Union Station, around four hours late

Origin: Emeryville
Terminus: Chicago
Detrained At: Chicago
Host Railroads: Union Pacific (Emeryville-Denver); BNSF (Denver-Chicago)
Time Performance At Detraining: Approximately four hours late.


  • General Electric P42DC 117
  • General Electric P42DC 170
  • Heritage Baggage 1255 Phase IVb (livery)
  • Bombardier Superliner II Sleeper 32095 Phase IVb
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Sleeper (Rebuilt Sleeper) 32033 Phase IVb
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Sleeper 32026 Phase IV*
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Diner 38014 Phase IV
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Sightseer Lounge 33000 Phase IV
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Coach 34000 Phase IV
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Coach 34001 Phase IV
  • Pullman-Standard Superliner I Snack Coach 35009 Phase IV
  • ExpressTrak 74028
  • ExpressTrak 74102

(*=My car)

Accommodations: Superliner I roomette #4. My Superliner I Sleeper had seen slightly better days. The roomette was adequate for my purposes but I could not plug in my travel surge protector to plug in my laptop--the protector could not fit in the recessed outlet. I should have brought an extension cord! The upper level bathroom on the Superliner I is adequate, but the lower level lavatories are closets: you can barely close the door before you are on top of the toilet. The sinks are like old airline lavatories with handles for hot or cold water. The hot gets really hot while the cold water comes out like a geyser. The Superliner I Sleeper ahead of me had been rebuilt with brighter lights, brighter interior color, and the king of all train lavatories. These had bright lights, plenty of room to move about, and faucet handles that you pressed down for 30 seconds of water flow. The shower on my car was excellent: plenty of hot water, a removable spigot, and a button that supposedly provided 30 seconds of water but often did much more than that when pressed.

Sleeping Car Attendant: E.B. "Mr. B" Barnes, one of the best out there. "Mr. B" did his best to keep everyone happy and had to contend with a journey plagued with controversies over track work and busing (see below).

Scenic Highlights: California Sierra Nevada Mountains; Colorado Rocky Mountains and canyons.

Controversy: BNSF track work near Ottumwa caused Amtrak to contact some passengers the preceding Thursday to notify them of a five-hour delay. Amtrak offered these passengers the choice of detraining for a bus to Chicago to make connections or remaining on board. Other passengers were contacted Friday and told that the bus connection would be made from Omaha. No one clued any of the on-board train staff as to what was going on. At Denver, more passengers boarded only to be told that they would have to detrain in Omaha to take an eight-hour bus ride to make Chicago rail connections. At Omaha the next morning, the majority of the CZ's passengers detrained. I remained onboard along with approximately 39 others. The California Zephyr essentially became a ghost train. The anticipated five-hour delay did not materialize as someone at BNSF or Amtrak decided to place a temporary section of track over a removed diamond to allow us to get to Ottumwa.

On-Board Food Service: The dining car staff was terrible, as was the food they produced. The typical Amtrak fare often came out overdone or just unappealing. The staff was often rude or impatient and at one point, I watched them get short with each other. A good example of their demeanor was on the second night when the passenger across from me asked the waiter what the Pasta Primavera was like. "I don't know," he replied, "I don't eat pasta." The Lounge Car microwave food was much better by comparison.

Overall Grade: C+. It pains me to give the CZ a low grade as it is my favorite historical train. But without the Pacific Parlour car (see below) and a top dining car crew, this run has to rely on its scenic route. Note to Amtrak CEO David Gunn: Please upgrade this train immediately!

Chicago Metra Commuters 23, 24, and 26 September 2005

A Metra BNSF Railway line commute arrives at Naperville station. The locomotive is the unusual EMD F40PHM-2 variant, only used by Metra, and only on this route. A Metra EMD F40PH leads a commuter train into Kenosha, Wisconsin, from Chicago's Ogilvie Transportation Center. A few minutes later, it will head right back to Chicago.

I rode the BNSF Railway Line from Chicago Union Station to Naperville and back, and then from Chicago Union Station to the Aurora Transportation Center and back. In between, I rode the UP North line from the Ogilvie Transportation Center to Kenosha, Wisconsin and back.

At Chicago Union Station, one ticket office serves all Metra lines. Chicago Union Station itself is a bit of a disappointment. The Great Hall is a wonderful bit of architecture (if you can ignore some of the bums sleeping on benches), but the rest of the station looks its age, and does not feature that many food or shopping options.

I journeyed to Naperville as it is the inspiration for my HO model railroad layout. It is also a fantastic place to watch BNSF, Metra, and Amtrak trains. The station in Aurora is the former CB&Q Aurora Shops and roundhouse. As such, it was a nicer station than the one in Naperville (which was undergoing renovation). But it was not as good a place to watch trains as the BNSF mainline is up on an embankment. Metra uses three types of bilevel commuter cars on this route. The first type is old CB&Q cars made by the Budd Company which are neatly marked with BNSF's former logo. The second type is Budd Company bilevels of the same era, but of apparently different origins. The final type is Japanese Nippon Sharyo bilevels. You can note these by their bigger windows, blue seats (compared to brown), and slightly newer looking interiors. That said, many people ride these trains and while they were not dirty, they resembled the mass-transit form of transportation they are.

Metra run several trains all the way up to Kenosha, Wisconsin. This line originates out of the Ogilvie Transportation Center (the former CNW station), which is everything Chicago Union Station is not. The OTC is a joint business/retail/train center. It features a large food court and several mall-type stores. These serve as nice distractions for waiting passengers and the business offices above the station do not interfere with passengers or vice-versa.

The ride all the way to Kenosha is not that scenic of a trip despite your relative close proximity to Lake Michigan-the train runs mostly inland. Metra use Budd or Nippon Sharyo bilevels-the only difference is in the motive power used. The riding experience was comparable.

On all Metra trains, the conductors do move about and tickets are taken and passes checked. A woman boarded a BNSF Railway line train I was on without money for a ticket and she was removed at the next stop.

Amtrak #48, Lake Shore Limited 26-27 September 2005

Amtrak #48, the Lake Shore Limited, arrives at Buffalo-Depew, New York, around an hour late. Note the auto carrier train to the right of the LSL. Depew had long trains of these cars in its small yard.

Origin: Chicago Union Station
Terminus: New York Penn Station
Detrained At: Depew, NY
Host Railroad: Norfolk Southern Chicago-Cleveland, CSX east of Cleveland
Time Performance At Detraining: Approximately an hour late.


  • General Electric P42DC 6
  • General Electric P42DC 42
  • Heritage Baggage 1218 Ph III
  • Heritage Crew Dorm 2518 Phase IV
  • Morrison-Knudsen Viewliner Sleeper 62021 "Morning View" Phase IV
  • Morrison-Knudsen Viewliner Sleeper 62039 "Stream View" Phase IV
  • Morrison-Knudsen Viewliner Sleeper 25034 "Southern View" Phase IV*
  • Heritage Diner 8531 Phase IVb (Temoinsa Rebuild)
  • Budd Amfleet II Amlounge 28004 Phase IVb
  • Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25093 Phase IVb
  • Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25116 Phase IVb
  • Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25049 Phase IVb
  • Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25062 Phase IVb
  • Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25100 Phase IVb
  • Business Car 10001

(*=My car)

Metropolitan Lounge: As a sleeping car passenger, I was entitled to use the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago. This had welcome free luggage storage, free soft drinks and snacks, a lot of room with seating, two TV areas and some quieter sections. When it came time to board the train, an Amtrak employee led us out to the platform ahead of coach passengers.

Accommodations: Viewliner roomette #1. I was very impressed with the 1990s-era Viewliners! They were bright, clean, modern looking--not like the more poorly lit, slightly run-down late 1970s Superliner Is. My roomette was taller, if a bit narrower, and featured a sink and toilet. The downside was not having a bigger waste bin with the inclusion of these amenities. The upper bed was easier to deploy than the ones on Superliners.

Sleeping Car Attendant: Richard. He was very competent, but definitely a by-the-book sort who was not really all that interested in cracking jokes or sharing stories with you. At least he got the toilet pressure working at our first stop!

Scenic Highlights: Who could tell? We left Chicago in darkness and I got off in the early morning at Depew.

On-Board Food Service: Dinner was slightly better than on the CZ but the dining car staff were just as stressed out. Breakfast was passable. I did not have a chance to sample any lounge food.

VIP Sighting: Our train carried Amtrak's lone business car, the "Beech Grove." On board was Amtrak CEO David Gunn, who was returning from the re-dedication of the Empire Builder in Minnesota. Gunn came through the dining car as I sat eating and chatted with an amateur rail historian across from me. I had hoped Gunn would return so I could tell him a few things (like: please upgrade the California Zephyr) but he did not come back. The next morning, however, at Depew, he stood on the Beech Grove's veranda and waved to us as the LSL rolled onwards.

Overall Grade: B. I definitely loved the Viewliner experience and was sad to have to get off at Depew to make my Canadian connection. (I could have gone to New York to journey to Toronto, but time did not allow). The dining car staff hurt the overall grade.

Continued in next section

On Track On Line - Copyright © 2003-2017 David Warner, Harry Sutton, & Alan Burden Back     Home     Top