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The California Zephyr; Again
The last time I rode the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco I spoke with the conductor as we approached Sacramento on the last day of the trip. He lamented on the sorry state of rail travel, how passenger trains were a thing of the past and that soon trains like the Zephyr would be gone. He said that he would miss the train but that it was a lost cause to compete against the convenience of the automobile and the speed of air travel. It was, he said, best to enjoy the trip now for in a couple of years the few remaining long distance trains would be history.
That conversation took place on June 27, 1963 with a conductor from the Western Pacific Railroad onboard the original California Zephyr. I was a 15-year-old railfan who had convinced his family to take a long dreamed-of cross-country trip by train. Amazingly (and with no small amount of courage and trust), my parents not only went along with my idea, they let me plan all the rail arrangements myself. And plan it I did collecting timetables and brochures from virtually every possible railroad and plotting an itinerary that included the Pennsylvania RR's General, the Southern Pacific's Lark, and the Santa Fe's El Capitan. But the star of that trip was the California Zephyr operated jointly by the Burlington, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific railroads. This was the train that would take us from Chicago to San Francisco.
The original California Zephyr had everything 1963 rail travel could offer: modern equipment, great service, spectacular scenery and more dome cars than any other train. The first sight of that train in Chicago Union Station was stunning. It was a fluted stainless steel piece of mechanical artwork: and look at all those domes. What a sight that was to a teenage railfan from the dome-deprived East Coast. But here I was two days later riding on that beautiful train, sitting in one of those wonderful domes and talking to a man who was far wiser than I about the business of rail travel. And he said there was no future for passenger trains, even trains as magnificent as the California Zephyr. I had the sinking feeling that this train ride as a teenager would be my once in a lifetime chance to see the country by rail.
The imminent demise of passenger trains predicted on that day over 42 years ago turned out to be just a tad pessimistic. Certainly times and trains have changed, but you can still cross the country by rail and you can still ride a train with the same name and even much of the same route as the 1963 California Zephyr. Ever since that trip I wanted to someday ride the Zephyr again: to see if the magic of the 1963 trip could be recreated. Out of college in 1970 and married in 1971, certainly another trip on the Zephyr could not be far off for two people as excited about travel as my wife and I are. But as each year passed we always had other plans, other priorities, or just did not have the time or inclination. After all, we can always ride it next year, can't we? After 41 "next years", maybe not.
Times have been tough on Amtrak recently. The financial vultures are circling again and the future of the long distance passenger train is in doubt. The potential for losing the chance to ride the Zephyr was the impetus for this quickly planned trip. Best ride now rather than chance what the future holds.
So, "next year" has finally arrived. Today, Saturday, August 20, 2005, the best part of that 1963 trip will be recreated. My wife Marie and I are in Union Station, Chicago. We have our tickets. We're taking the California Zephyr to San Francisco. I'm riding the Zephyr again!
Day One: Saturday, August 20: Out of Chicago to Points West
It is early Saturday morning in Chicago. My wife and I are on the walking path bordering Lake Michigan. It is not even 8am and it is already hot under a hazy Midwest morning sun. Yesterday we flew in from Philadelphia and spent the night at the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop area. After our walk along the lakefront and through Millennium Park, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and a nice morning at the Art Institute (a world-class museum for French Impressionist artwork). The Palmer House has graciously permitted a late checkout, so following our visit to the museum we return to the hotel, freshen-up, check e-mail and make some last OTOL postings (including bold predictions of our Zephyr arrival times), pack our two carry-on bags (we travel very light), and hop a cab for the five minute ride to Union Station. We arrive at the station at about 1:15pm for the scheduled 1:50pm departure of the Zephyr.
Chicago Union Station has a split personality. The Great Hall is a wonderfully preserved remnant of the glory days of train travel. In contrast, the train gate areas are an architectural afterthought: kind of a Midwest version of Penn Station in New York. We decide to wait in the Great Hall where, ironically, large advertising banners tout Southwest Airlines. I hope those ads are not an omen. Just two months earlier we were booked on the Coast Starlight for a trip from Seattle to San Francisco. The morning of departure the Starlight was so late that we cancelled the train ride and flew Southwest instead. That would have been our first overnight Amtrak trip in seven years. Is the same about to happen again? Not this time.
Oddly, train departure announcements are not being made in the Great Hall area. So, at about 1:35pm we make our way back to the Amtrak boarding area. The gate for Train #5 is open and tickets are being checked. The Zephyr is boarding. We show our tickets and walk into the dark cavern of the Union Station track area. The sleeping cars are located toward the front of the train so we take the long hike out the dingy platform to find our car, #532: the second of three sleepers. Dave, our car attendant, greets us at the door and hauls our two bags up the narrow stairs to Room C, our little home away from home for the next three days. The bags fit nicely in the room with one perched perfectly on the small overhead rack above the chair.
Dave is the perfect car attendant. He is attentive, but not intrusive. He gives us a quick rundown of our room and the ins and outs of the trip. He suggests that we stay in the room until the dinner reservations are taken to ensure we get first crack at the available seatings, and it is advice we heed. He tells us to not hesitate to call him night or day, and on those very few occasions we called for his help he was available within minutes. At 1:50pm the Zephyr almost imperceptibly begins its movement out of the station and our trip is underway.
The trip west begins along the three-track former Burlington mainline now owned by BNSF Railway. Initially the route is shared with the Southwest Chief and local trains of METRA, the Chicago commuter rail authority. Our speed picks up and quickly the urban vistas of Chicago change to suburban sprawl and then to the flat farmland of Illinois. At Aurora we leave METRA country. Shortly we pass Galesburg where the Southwest Chief leaves to join its traditional Santa Fe routing to Kansas City and Los Angeles. Out the window is the flat farmland of the Midwest. This is the original route of the Zephyr and I dare say this area has not changed much in 42 years. I have fired-up the laptop loaded with the TopoUSA mapping program and begin following our progress. My wife starts work on one of her logic puzzles. She will complete quite a few over the next couple of days.
At about 3pm, Donna, the Dining Car chief, stops by for dinner reservations. On the few long distance train trips we have taken we have learned that the onboard world revolves around meals and food. So we carefully ponder the times offered for dinner. Seatings are at 5:30, 5:45. 7:30 and 7:45. We take the 7:30 option figuring it would be late enough to help fill the time in the evening. Our reservation is confirmed with a card, and Donna heads off. Dave has also included a menu with the information packet in our room, so with more than four hours to go before dinner we are already mulling over our choices.
With Donna having come and gone, we are now free to roam the train. We head back three cars to the Sightseer Lounge. Not surprisingly, the lounge is not heavily occupied as we cross the table-flat terrain through farms, small towns and past towering grain elevators. We sit back there for about 30 minutes or so, but quite frankly, the Sightseer Lounge is not a favorite of ours. I do not find the seating particularly comfortable, and the windows on this particular car are scratched and dirty so even the sightseeing is restricted. It is a far cry from the domes of the 1963 Zephyr. I hope the newly redesigned versions of the Sightseer are better, but this old version is not that pleasant a place to sit. So, after a short while we head back to our room.
The first major trip milestone occurs at about 5:30pm. We cross the Mississippi River into Burlington, Iowa. Even in this day of routine air travel, crossing the Mississippi has a special mystique. It is the great line of demarcation between east and west. On transcon flights I look for the river on every trip. But unlike the view from 38,000 feet, clouds cannot obscure the view on this trip and the river is more than a thin meandering watercourse seven miles below. Even this far north, the river is impressive. We cross the Mississippi just south of the city within view of the cable-stayed bridge for US 34 and turn north into the namesake town of the old Burlington Route, the former BN, and now the BNSF. The "B" in each case is this very town: Burlington, Iowa. But while I am impressed with this type of triviality, Amtrak is not. The stop at the old CB&Q station is brief and we are shortly off and heading west across Iowa.
A new wrinkle in Amtrak long distance train travel since the last time we rode is the smoking stop. Let me emphasize that neither my wife nor I smoke. But the smoking stop, an extended station stay usually for a crew change but long enough for everyone to get off the train and walk around, became a valued event on this trip. Designed to prevent smokers from becoming suicidal on the entirely non-smoking train, it is also affords non-smokers a chance to get some fresh air and step foot in a town that many will never visit again. The first of those stops is Ottumwa, Iowa, best known as the fictional home of Company Clerk Radar O'Reilly of the 1980's TV series MASH.
We step off onto the platform and take the obligatory picture in front of the Ottumwa station. We also get our first good chance to look over the train. The 2005 Zephyr is not a bad looking train at all. A little worn for sure, a bit dirty in spots, some peeling paint and decals, but still the train is a nice matched set of Superliners and is led by a clean and pretty attractive pair of P42 Genesis locomotives. A couple more quick pictures, and with the all aboard call, we reboard and continue west. This off the train, quick walk, and back on would be a dance repeated numerous times over the next days.
Now, down to business: it is close to dinner time. We patiently await the call for our seating and right at 7:30 Donna's welcome voice comes over the PA (which works great, by the way). Our seating is now ready. We head back two cars to the diner. Donna seats us with a couple from Chicago who are heading for Granby, Colorado to visit Rocky Mountain National Park.
We ponder the same menu options that we had been pondering over for the last 4 hours and make our final choices: the cheese ravioli for my wife and the lamb shank for me. Add a split of red wine, and we have the potential for a pretty nice dinner. And guess what? It really is a nice dinner: very tasty and well served by Donna's staff. Donna runs a professional operation and stops occasionally to crack a joke. We later learn she was a last-minute crew addition off the "extra board". That is our good fortune.
Our table mates, one of whom works for Amtrak in Chicago, are great company as we leisurely ride the train from day into night. It is not often that a couple from New Jersey has a nice meal with a couple from Illinois while watching the sunset over Iowa. That night, we did. Finishing with a dish of ice cream (Marie) and key lime pie (me), we take advantage of the late seating and linger while enjoying the view and the experience.
Dinner over, and night fallen, we retire to our car and have Dave make up the room for sleeping. The large lower bed now reduces the usable floor space, but the room size is still manageable. This is probably a good time to comment on our car and room. It is an original Superliner I model and has seen better days. The eccentric air handling system (which Dave later explains routinely over cools some rooms while allowing others to cook) has resulted in someone installing a makeshift baffle of cardboard and duct tape over the ceiling vent in our room. The goal is to prevent us from freezing to death even though it is summer. Thanks to OTOL's suggestion, I brought a small roll of duct tape and reinforce this impromptu HVAC control system. With the cardboard secured in place (not pretty, but effective), the room temperature is just fine. I also jam washcloths into two spots along the wall to dampen vibrations and rattles. With those minor adjustments, our room is actually very comfortable. The car itself is quiet, rides smoothly, and all the critical plumbing needs are working perfectly. All in all, our car is an oldie but still a goody.
The Iowa miles pass quickly in the darkness while I follow our progress with my laptop and the mapping program. The western portion of Iowa is surprising hilly and our route has numerous twists and turns. Nighttime on a train in a darkened room is a peaceful and relaxing experience. Small towns pass in the night as I sit glued to the window. Soon we cross the Missouri River into Nebraska and enter the first major city on the route: Omaha. We come into Omaha from the south and while creeping into the station area I see a set of Union Pacific business cars being moved about in an adjacent yard. It is a gorgeous matched set of yellow UP streamliners including a dome car. If this were 1963, that could be the Zephyr's arch rival, the City of San Francisco, pulling into Omaha on its own competing trip west. Maybe this is 1963? Perhaps our train passed through a mysterious time shift in Iowa: kind of a railroad "Field of Dreams". Not a chance. Arrival at what today passes for the Omaha train station snaps me right back to 2005.
We stop at the sad sack Omaha Amtrak station at 11:00pm: about 40 minutes behind schedule. The station is bare-bones for the two daily off-hour arrivals. The original Omaha station sits dark and idle to the side. This is the second smoking stop, but we pass on the opportunity to leave the train. There is nothing to see, it is late, and it is time to call it a night. I perform the gymnastic feat of climbing into the upper berth without wrenching any critical muscles. Day One ends for us as the train leaves Omaha heading west toward another day and points west.