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Trip Report

California Zephyr
Chicago-San Francisco

August 20-22, 2005
Section 3 of 3


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Day Three: Monday, August 22: The (Very) Long and (Very) Winding Road

Battle Mountain NV and the historic Owl Club Casino Day three breaks over the uniquely barren ridges and basins of northern Nevada. Where are we? Unlike more populated areas, this moonscape countryside offers few clues. I look at adjacent Interstate 80 for hints. I look for a road sign or mile post. The answer is soon revealed. A large "BM" painted on the hillside is the clue. We are coming into Battle Mountain, Nevada. Oh oh: on time we are not. We are now nearly two hours late. As Dave explains while changing our room back to day mode, we were done-in by track speed restrictions that punished us while we slept. Oh well, on time was a nice thought.

The diner opens at 6:30am, now Pacific Time, and we repeat our Sunday breakfast of pancakes, orange juice, and coffee. Our dining companions are railfans from Washington State. We discuss various train things, and I express, much to their surprise, how much I like northern Nevada. To westerners this is a boring wasteland. To me, it is the West. Cattle ranches extend for miles. Dirt roads head off toward distant hillsides and who knows what. Open range. Cattle guards. Sagebrush. The West. I love it.

Former WP track just north of our former SP track Today's Union Pacific operates on two separated tracks through northern Nevada. One is the old single track line of the Southern Pacific and the other is the old single track line of the Western Pacific. In 1963 these two tracks were the homes of the fiercely competitive City of San Francisco (SP) and the California Zephyr (WP) streamliners. I remember sitting in the dome of the Zephyr on the WP track and watching the operation of the semaphore signals on our track from the dome (yes, actual moving arm semaphores) and looking over enviously at the more modern single track SP line. In 1963 the SP was the prosperous line and the WP was financially hanging on. Now both are owned by the Union Pacific. Today we are on the former SP track and all the old semaphores on the adjacent WP track are long gone.

Bill Magee next to the Winnemucca Station building The Winnemucca smoking stop

Shortly after breakfast we make another smoking and walking stop at Winnemucca. This mid-sized northern Nevada town has a special place in our lives. It was one of the overnight stops Marie and I made back in 1971 on 28-day, 8000-mile trip from Philadelphia to the west coast and back. The trip was taken in a two seat, Triumph TR6 roadster. For two kids from Philadelphia (and we were kids in 1971), Winnemucca was about as foreign looking as Mars. Today, thanks to an Amtrak smoking stop, we are standing in Winnemucca for the first time in 34 years. To everyone else on the train, Winnemucca is just another smoking stop at a bus shelter station in a dusty town. To us, that dusty town is a pleasant memory of the early part of our lives together. We wonder if El Tony's motel still exists (it does not) or if the Winners Casino is still operating (it is). Our moment of nostalgia is broken by the train horn. We snap back from 1971 to 2005. Caught at the rear of the train when the boarding call is made, we hop onto the last coach and trek through the entire consist to our little Car 532, Room C hideout. Good bye Winnemucca.

Leaving Winnemucca, the two Union Pacific tracks diverge with the old WP track staying on its northerly route toward Portola and the Feather River canyon. We follow the old SP track southwest toward Reno. It is at this point that today's California Zephyr becomes yesterday's City of San Francisco. Our tracing of the original 1963 Zephyr's route is over.

Temporary Amtrak Reno station Zephyr pointing west at Reno

Slow orders and trackwork continue to kill our progress west. At times we are creeping along at 20mph while the I-80 traffic is probably going 85. That is very frustrating. Reno, another smoking stop, is finally reached at 11:45am, now about two and a half hours late. The nearly completed Reno Trench, a below grade cut that will carry the Union Pacific tracks through central Reno free of grade crossings, is off to our right. We are on a "shoofly" construction track. The temporary Amtrak station is a couple of trailers with a plywood sign mounted on an old luggage cart. When the trench opens later this year Amtrak will move back to the restored and enlarged Southern Pacific station.

Shortly after Reno, we head for lunch: our last meal on the Zephyr. We dine on a pair of Angus Burgers (pretty good burgers, I must say) as we climb into the Sierras and cross into California, our final state. The diner is full and Donna is calling names on the PA as tables open. It appears that she has lost part of her staff at Reno and the service with this meal is slower and less efficient. We pass the stop at Truckee and begin the final climb to Donner Summit.

Sierra Nevada Mountains approaching Donner Summit in California Lunch over, we say goodbye and thanks to Donna and the food gang and head back to our room. We will miss her. A volunteer guide is now onboard and is on the train PA system describing the various features and historical sites on this, the original transcontinental rail route. It is a very nice thought, but the commentary is so dry, monotone and humorless that it is more annoying than informative. That annoyance may have been a subtle symptom of how we were beginning to feel.

Just before the summit we stop. And sit. And sit. And sit some more. It seems that trackwork ahead closed the single track line over the pass. Our onboard crew does a good job keeping us informed as to the reason for the delay. After about an hour, the first train is released over the pass. It is our companion train, the eastbound Zephyr. After the eastbound Zephyr passes, we slowly resume the trip west through the summit tunnel and start our long decent to the valley and Sacramento. That is good news, but for us, the trip is taking a turn for the worse.

There comes a time in every endeavor of endurance when you just reach your limit. In long distance running, that is called "hitting the wall". On this train ride, my wife and I have "hit the wall" right here in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California (as Marie later confessed, she actually hit the wall much earlier: I fear it may have been just outside Chicago). Following lunch and the long delay, we have basically shut down. The scenery is great, or at least I think so, but we do not care. The trip is now over 50 hours long and the end is still hours and hours away. Enough already. All we want is to get to San Francisco and get off the train.

Our trip down the west slope of the Sierras is agonizingly slow. Thirty miles on the parallel Interstate 80 takes us 90 minutes to travel. Sometimes we are moving at walking speed, or what seems like it. Just as it seems like we are finally making progress, we stop still one more time for about 15 minutes approaching Sacramento, and once again for another Amtrak train: a Capitol. Finally, almost seven hours after leaving Reno we pull into Sacramento. It is 6:40pm. We are well over four hours late.

Zephyr in Sacramento Station at 6:45pm: now 4 hours, 30 minutes late We step outside for some desperately needed fresh air and our final platform walk of the trip. It is hot and we are tired. Soon, bedraggled and beaten, we head onto the last leg of the trip. The train heads west on the double track Capitol route. San Francisco Bay appears and what a welcome sight that is. Our bags are packed and the laptop is shut down. Darkness falls for the third time on the trip. The lights of San Francisco are in the distance across the bay. We pass Richmond, then Berkeley, and then it is over. Emeryville: the end of the line. Time: 8:35pm. Nearly four hours late. After two days, eight hours, and forty-five minutes, our trip on the 2005 California Zephyr is history. Dave has taken our two bags down to the vestibule. We bid him goodbye and thanks for a job more than well done. We step off the train for the last time.

Arrival in the Bay Area has rejuvenated our spirits. It is cool and the air has that wonderful San Francisco feel. We briskly walk through the crisp night to the station building and the waiting San Francisco shuttle bus. The bus leaves after about 15 minutes and provides the upper-deck crossing of the Bay Bridge with a spectacular nighttime view of the San Francisco skyline. What a wonderful view. The first bus stop is at the Ferry Building and that is our stop. It is 9:25pm. With no checked luggage, we simply grab our small suitcases from the driver and make the short walk up the Embarcadero and across to the Hyatt Hotel on Market Street. Hotel check in is a breeze and an hour later we are being seated for a late evening dinner at Scala's Bistro on Powell Street with cable cars just out the window. We have made it! San Francisco by the California Zephyr: again.

A Look Back

Now, several months later, we can reflect on our trip onboard Amtrak's California Zephyr. Did it rekindle those memories of the 1963 Zephyr? Has it returned me to true railfan status? Sadly, no on both counts.

The Zephyr exceeded expectations in many ways. The onboard service was very good. The dining car experience was quite pleasurable and the food above average. Our dining and traveling companions were interesting and friendly. The bedroom accommodations were comfortable despite not being on one of the refurbished cars. And the scenery is still awe-inspiring. It was a top-notch performance by Amtrak.

As expected, the BNSF Railway was a great host delivering us on time to Denver. I must also add an entirely unexpected observation. As far as I could tell, the Union Pacific Railroad also did an excellent job dispatching our train throughout their portion of the trip. Almost all our delay time on the UP was for trackwork and slow orders, not dispatching. Despite heavy traffic, freight train delays were minimal with numerous trains sitting on sidings waiting for us to pass. At least during waking hours, we had at most 15 minutes of delay for passing freights. The UP dispatchers did a fine job moving our train.

On the down side, the lack of an attractive lounge car with traditional seating left a huge void in the entertainment options. Other than eating, sleeping, and looking at scenery, there is nothing to do on board. A Zephyr version of the Coast Starlight's Pacific Parlour would be a welcome addition for sleeping car passengers. To have a quiet place to sit, share a drink and some snacks and stories with other passengers would be a valued feature to the trip. For us, the Sightseer Lounge does not cut it.

But the heart of the problem is that the train is just excruciatingly slow. Mix that with extended periods of pure boredom and that is a lethal combination. That last day seemed to take a week. From my wife's perspective particularly, the slow pace of the trip is a real killer. She is not a fan of planes either, but air from Philadelphia to San Francisco is 6 hours. This ride from Chicago took nearly 57 hours. She enjoyed the train experience at times but is in no hurry for an encore performance. And I agree with her. The ride was very nice at times but it was simply too long and too dull. Make no mistake; Amtrak did a good job with our Zephyr trip. They delivered what they promised in fine style. But a lot has changed in 42 years and our taste and priorities in travel is one of those things. I think that long distance rail travel may not be for us.

So, will we a take long distance train again someday? As we staggered off the Zephyr in Emeryville that evening in August, the answer would have been a loud and firm no. Now four months later, it may not be a firm no but it is pretty close. For us, Amtrak long distance travel will be an occasional adventure dispensed in very carefully planned and measured doses. We might consider a train like the Empire Builder with its earlier western arrival time, or the Starlight from Seattle to San Francisco for a single night trip and early arrival. Early scheduled arrivals make the impact of late trains less onerous. But will Amtrak be a means of getting from A to B and a regular part of our travel and vacation plans? No.

So, while we will not be regulars on Amtrak long distance trains, we are glad we took the California Zephyr to experience long distance train travel again and to relive a portion of that 1963 trip. I also hope that the option remains to cross the country by rail even if we are not necessarily the ones using it. We thank this Amtrak train crew for the fine job they did transporting us from Lake to Sea.

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