Three Nights in a Daycoach California Zephyr and Lake Shore Limited
November 7-11, 2005
I had flown from New York to San Francisco on November 3 for several days of meetings in San Jose. To get there from SFO, I used BART to Millbrae, thence Caltrain commute service to Mountain View and the VTA light rail line from there to a station near my hotel in San Jose. I also made two round trips to San Francisco by various combinations of Caltrain, Amtrak and the VTA's light rail system. On the afternoon of Sunday, November 6th I was finished in San Jose and rode Caltrain to Millbrae, thence BART to Orinda where I visited friends for the afternoon and evening.
My return transcontinental trip on Amtrak began on Monday, November 7, 2005. I arrived at the Emeryville station about 8:50am and train #6 pulled in for boarding at 8:55. We had been told it was 4 hours late arriving the previous day and were glad it pulled in on time with everything in working order. Two other attendees at my San Jose meetings also were at Emeryville; one was heading to Harrisburg and the other along with his wife were headed to Lancaster, PA. They planned to transfer to #30 at Chicago and later to the Pennsylvanian with an early morning wait at Pittsburgh.
I noted the consist as the train pulled in. We had two P42's pulling a baggage car, crew sleeper, 3 coaches, a Sightseer lounge, diner and 2 sleepers. All except the baggage car were Superliner equipment. The coaches were loaded by destination, which was especially critical since there was, but one car attendant to cover the three coaches. The head coach was used for those heading for points as far as Reno, the middle car for points between Reno and Illinois and the rear car for the Chicago passengers. I headed upstairs and selected a seat on the left side of the car with a full window. The attendant confirmed to me that the load would be light this trip so I probably could keep the double seat the entire way. After excellent announcements by the conductor and car attendant, the train departed on time at 9:15AM. Upon leaving we passed a standing UP freight with "Impeach G W Bush" written in the grease on the side of the lead engine. We headed east along scenic San Pablo Bay and reached Sacramento 14 minutes early. Over on the next track, leaving as we stopped, was Amtrak #11 the southbound Coast Starlight that was due here at 6:30AM, hence 4 1/2 hours late. Departure from Sacramento came on time and was to be the last on time departure of the trip. Lydia, the dining car's cheerful Lead Service Attendant, soon introduced herself on the PA and announced the first call for lunch at 11:25. Then we started encountering UP freights. Before Roseville we passed 4 westbounds and overtook 4 eastbounds in what must have been a dispatcher's nightmare. UP has a huge 4-mile long facility at Roseville and I don't think I ever have seen so many diesel locomotives in any one place.
After Roseville we began climbing the Sierras so I just sat back in the Sightseer Lounge car and enjoyed the ride. Two representatives of the California Railroad Museum boarded at Sacramento and explained the points of interest as far as Reno. They did not talk constantly but what they said was of great interest. One location they mentioned was Yuba Gap, 5500 feet high, where in January 1952 the City of San Francisco became stalled in the snow and ice. The 226 passengers enjoyed 4 days there before a rescue train reached them. Then, of course, there was the story of the ill-fated trip of the Donner Party. Much as we enjoyed the scenic ride, a few of us were becoming concerned as to the whereabouts of westbound Train #5 that was long overdue. The conductor said we should see it "east of Truckee" which was true but it was well east of Reno when it finally passed, about 10 hours late. The conductor boarding at Reno said the reason was "a derailment near Omaha" which we hoped would be cleared up before we reach that area.
Aside from the large hotels and casinos in the "Biggest Little City in the World," the thing to watch at Reno was the progress on the new "trench" under construction to eliminate a series of grade crossings through downtown. It was visible and some parts of it did have double track in place. However it was not yet in use and our train ran along the shoofly tracks and stopped at a temporary Amtrak station. The old station is not in use but I was told it will be rehabilitated and connected to the platforms in the trench below by escalators and elevators.
A friend and I made reservations for the second dinner sitting and entered the diner about 6:40. We were seated with a middle-aged couple from Petosky, MI, who were heading for Chicago, returning home from a 2-week vacation. They had gone west on the Empire Builder and very much enjoyed it but wondered why the sleeping car charges were so much more on the Zephyr. That surprised me since I understood that Amtrak had raised the Builder's charges after the refurbished equipment was placed into service. I had a salad followed by salmon with baked potato and Mexican corn. The salmon seemed a little dry but other than that everything was fine, as was the service. However, the hotel power failed several times during dinner so the serving was somewhat delayed. Each time the train had to stop in the middle of nowhere while the engineer went back to the second unit to "reset the computer." At one point he reported by radio that if the most recent fix doesn't work, "that will be it as I can't do anything more." Luckily whatever he did worked and there were no further power problems.
Our next stop after dinner was the metropolis of Winnimucca, NV, where a small bus shelter with some missing side panels serves as the Amshack. There another brief power failure was fixed. We then headed into the night across the flat desert country toward Salt Lake City and I dropped off to sleep about 10:45pm. The next thing I remember is very slow movement and snaking around curves. I assumed correctly that we were nearing Salt Lake City so started paying attention to what was going on outside. After much curving around we came to a stop at two mobile home type buildings put together that now serve as the Salt Lake City station. Indeed, the downtown buildings appeared to be a mile away with the station in the middle of nowhere. I was told that the proposed commuter rail service to Ogden is to use this station and that an extension of the light rail line is planned from the existing terminal at the UP Station to the new "intermodal center."
I dropped back to sleep but later learned that an UP engine was added to the head end because the dynamic braking on the Amtrak units was not working properly. Also, two mothers who boarded at Salt Lake sat near me. One had 3 children, the other 2. And I soon was awakened by one child yelling "woo, woo, choo choo," and "here comes Thomas." Perhaps this 5-year old someday will be an NRHS or NARP member but early this morning he was a nuisance. I finally did drop off to sleep again and awoke at 6:45, washed up and entered the diner just as Lydia was making the first call about 7AM. For breakfast I had a delicious omelet and was seated with a lady en route from Truckee, CA to Omaha. She had some trouble with the crew over her assistance dog but found them much more helpful when she asked about buying a roomette at a cost of $234. Before that she was seated in the lower level of one of the coaches, alone with her dog so I don't understand why the crew had objected. In any event, my breakfast was delicious with excellent service from Lydia and her crew. Our companions across the table were a couple from Reading, PA, returning from a 2-week trip. They were going to spend a day in Chicago and then continue to Philadelphia on the Cardinal.
I adjourned to the lounge car and we soon started running through some rather spectacular rock formations. The conductor came on the PA to announce that we would see some scenery normally covered during darkness including the Gilloley Loops that the line traverses for 5 miles before heading east again. Later came Castle Rock, a high formation whose top part looks like a castle. Before Castle Rock our train made a short smoke and photo stop at Helper, UT. Here the engineers changed, the addicts smoked, I took a photo and very little else happened except for a Utah Ry unit coal train that first overtook us but later waited at the end of the siding. Next came Green River, UT, followed by Grand Jct., CO, a servicing, photo and smoke stop. Prior to all this I had changed to a double seat toward the rear of the coach so as to avoid the possibility of the "choo-choo" children keeping me awake all night. The old station at Grand Jct. is closed, replaced by a nearby cinder block building. The agent there advised that Train #5, our westbound counterpart, was about on time and we probably would meet it in Glenwood Canyon, just where the Zephyr's used to meet in the past. Shortly after departure we entered beautiful Glenwood Canyon and we paused but 2 minutes for the meet with #5 at "CP CHACRA." The spectacular scenery continued for hours but, unfortunately, we missed the part between Granby and Denver due to the lateness. The winding descent of the Rocky Mountains into Denver with numerous tunnels always is a sight to behold but this time we had to "behold" it in the darkness. The train started to make up some time as the UP Dispatchers were good to us between Glenwood Springs and Denver and had all the freight trains waiting for us rather than the other way around. Before entering Moffat Tunnel the conductor made an announcement about its history and admonished the passengers to not walk through the cars while in the tunnel as diesel fumes and coal dust would enter the cars. That was good advice. Darkness set in shortly after leaving the tunnel but the winding descent into Denver still was interesting as the lights of the city could be seen below, first straight ahead, then on different sides of the train as we wound around.
I had dinner at the 7pm sitting and was seated opposite a young man from Switzerland who had attended a conference in Salt Lake City, having boarded the train there at 5am. He had reached the station at 3:30 for the 3:45 departure time and was surprised that few passengers were around; most arrived closer to 5 as they followed the American practice of calling ahead to get the train's status. We had a good discussion of railroads and life in the US and Switzerland. He was going to spend 5 days in Chicago and a few more in New York before flying home to downtown Zurich where he has a 12 minute tram commute to work. I suggested he take the Lake Shore Limited to NY as it travels through some very scenic country in daylight hours and he was going to check into this at Chicago. This evening the fish entrée was catfish which was quite good with mixed veggies and a baked potato. Since I was not traveling in a sleeper, I passed on desert, which is just as well.
Denver arrival was at 8:39pm, about 1' 40" late. We backed into station Track 1; a somewhat more luxurious train, the American Orient Express was parked on Track 3 while some of its passengers were enjoying dinner in the deluxe diner. I assume it would depart the following morning for a daylight ride through the Rockies. I used the layover time to walk around the station. The big change since my last visit is that the under track passage has been reopened at the west end and leads to the light rail system. Walking up the same stairs I once used to board the Yampa Valley Mail, I found the two-track light rail stop with ticket machines and a map. No LRV's came along during my few minutes there. The area around the front of the station, once somewhat seedy, has been redeveloped into trendy bars, etc, and appeared vibrant.
Returning to train-side, I got talking to a few of the passengers. One lady who had been on board since Sacramento mentioned she was heading for Detroit and that she and her husband are moving to Michigan. California is too expensive for them; they can barely make ends meet and think they'll do better in Michigan. I mentioned a recent article in one of the Bay Area papers that discussed this situation and stated that far more people now are moving out of CA than are moving in. I also spoke with a middle-aged man from Sacramento who was experiencing his first train ride and enjoying it. It seemed incredible to me that anyone living in a place like Sacramento had never previously been on a train but he had not traveled much. Finally, I ran into a young couple who had flown from Philadelphia to San Francisco on US Airways and became sick and upset by some bad turbulence. They gave up their non-refundable air tickets and called Julie to book coach passage on Amtrak. They, too, were enjoying the trip.
Back on board the train, departure came at 9:17pm, slightly under two hours late. But we lost power again just outside the station and had to reset it once or twice, resulting in a further 10-minute delay. "Nobody" was around at Ft. Morgan (maybe Secy. Mineta was right?) where we departed at 10:48, now 2 hours, 8 minutes down. Since I was getting drowsy, I washed up and turned in after first setting my watch to 12 midnight, Central Time.
Wednesday, November 9th: I was awakened by Lydia's "First call to breakfast" announcement about 6:45am, having slept more or less soundly since midnight. I had slept through McCook, Hastings and Holdrege; the Omaha stop was announced just as I headed for the washroom. Upon leaving OMA we remained 2'11" late so at least had not lost any time during the night. Moreover, the BNSF seemed to be taking good care of us and we really zipped along through the Heartland with the freights waiting in sidings. There also were some long sections of double track where high-speed meets were possible. This was a beautiful day with bright sun and blue sky. I elected to have breakfast in the lounge car, closing out my credit card tab with the attendant. He printed out a receipt showing everything I had and we entered the total on the pre-signed credit card receipt. Very civilized. My breakfast today was an "AmMcmuffin" type item and coffee. I then went upstairs to the lounge area to read the previous day's election results in the Omaha paper. I have sent in my absentee ballot several weeks earlier.
A new crew had boarded at Omaha and the conductor soon announced all the details of the train including ETA's at stations down the line with a 5pm projection for Chicago. He emphasized that these times are subject to possible further delays. We had made up about 6 minutes by Creston where 15 boarded.
Unfortunately, things kept happening. At MP 333.32 in Charlton, IA, we had to await a westbound freight and then get a track warrant to pass through a hand thrown crossover and proceed on the westbound main because of trains ahead. After making he crossover move we again resumed a decent speed but the delay cost us 12 minutes. We soon overtook 3 eastbound coal trains and then resumed running on the regular eastbound track. At many locations in this area the two tracks were separated, almost as though two separate railroads had been constructed and later consolidated. Further up the line, at Maxon (MP301) we had a delay from 11:25 until 11:57 awaiting what turned out to be a westbound empty coal train.
Ottumwa was to be the next leg-stretching stop but I decided to go in for lunch about noon since we had no idea when we would get there. Our table companion was a chap from Denver heading to Philadelphia who had wanted to catch #30 to Pittsburgh, thence the Pennsylvanian. He says his family is always kidding him about his dislike of flying and this lateness will give them even more ammunition. He was happy when I told him that if he does miss the connection, he could take the Lake Shore to NY where he could catch any number of trains to Philadelphia. He had heard of the Acela and said he'll insist on being put on that between NYP and PHL to make up for the inconvenience. I had the salad bowl for lunch and found it to be quite good and filling, even without meat.
While we were having lunch the train reached Ottumwa where it made a 15 minute stop. Departure was 3 hours, 33 minute late and there were many anxious passengers regarding the 2 1/2 hour connection with Train 30 at Chicago.
After Burlington, Iowa we crossed the Mississippi on the ex CB&Q long double track bridge. Although the train ran at good speed between stops, there were many slow downs due to single tracking for track maintenance work. Before Galesburg an announcement was made that persons connecting with Train 21, the Texas Eagle, should detrain at Galesburg and take a van to Springfield. The van appeared to be the 10 passenger variety and didn't appear too comfortable for the long ride to Springfield. Finally the conductor made an announcement that Train 30 would not be held and passengers planning on taking that train should go to Customer Service at Union Station to be accommodated on other trains or housed for the night. Those heading for Philadelphia, Lancaster and Harrisburg could take #48 to New York and my friend was contemplating taking #48 to Syracuse and a Greyhound bus to Harrisburg. He used my cellphone to call "Gracie" whom I was told is Julie's counterpart for Greyhound travelers.
All of the problems of missed connections soon became minor when my wife called from home to tell me that the media are reporting that David Gunn had just been fired. After discussing what she had learned about this, I called NARP in Washington to get further details and then advised some of the other passengers in the lounge car and Lydia in the diner. Their mood was somber.
The final delay occurred after Naperville when we caught up to a local out of Aurora. Since the other two tracks are heavily used at this time of day, we couldn't get around it. The final arrival in CHI was at 6:45pm, 3 hours, 40 minutes late. Despite the lateness, the trip had been fun. The crew was excellent and we had traversed some magnificent scenery in beautiful weather. A friend met me at Union Station and we proceeded to my hotel via CTA "L".
Lake Shore Limited
Upon returning to Union Station the following morning, I received somewhat of a shock to learn that the baggage lockers now rent for $4 an hour or $12 for the day. Gone are the days when one inserted a quarter and got a key. This system requires you to pay $4 at a central location and then scan one of your fingers. Along with several others, I could not get any of the scanners to read any of my fingers. The attendant was paged and he overrode the system to allow me to use a locker without the scan. He said this system was used "due to 911 security" and I gave him my opinion that gadgets like this are a waste of time and money and do nothing to enhance security. The system also issued me a ticket with a "Secret Code" that should have been sufficient "security."
Having successfully checked my suitcase at an exorbitant price and after considerable delay, I spent most of the day visiting points of interest in Chicago. In the early evening I met two friends for dinner at the famous Berghoff German restaurant on Adams St.
After dinner the three of us walked over to Union Station and experienced the enjoyable process of retrieving my suitcase from the high priced locker. After entering my "Secret Code" and paying the additional $8 by credit card, the system repeatedly refused to recognize my thumb scan. One friend found an Amtrak employee who paged the "locker guy" while the other asked for help on the locker company's white phone. That call just resulted in a buzzing sound but the Amtrak page brought the person whom bypassed the marvelous secure system. A door opened and lo, there was my suitcase. Never again will I use this ridiculous and overly priced system. If traveling first class I'll leave my luggage at the Amtrak lounge and if by coach, will leave it at the hotel for a later pick up.
A large crowd was in the Amtrak waiting room. Train 30, the Capitol was just loading for its scheduled 5:35 departure, the Cardinal for its on time 7:35 departure and the City of New Orleans for its 8pm departure. There was no word on the Lake Shore but shortly before 8pm seniors and disabled persons were invited into the inner lounge area. Upon entering the area I was "invited" to take a seat but soon was told, "not here, over there." This made no sense as there were plenty of seats and no other trains to depart but the officious Usher said she didn't want me to get on the wrong train. I didn't even waste time asking how that would be possible as all the other trains had departed. Earlier there had been long announcements that the Cardinal and Capitol had departed, the City of NO was loading and train 48 is the only train remaining. "If you are waiting for some other train, go to Customer Service as you have missed your train."
The station staff soon discovered that #48 was parked on Track 26 so we were allowed to board. From the rear, there was a large ExpressTrak car, 4 Amfleet II coaches, an Amfleet II lounge car, Heritage diner, 3 Viewliner sleepers, a baggage car and two P42 locomotives. Departure came at 8:21 (7:55) and it soon was ticket time. This conductor wanted to see photo ID for everyone (my first such request this trip) so I showed him my Florida resident card. The car attendant asked the code for Croton-Harmon and I told her it's "CRT." That accomplished, we slowed to a crawl and stopped for 15 minutes at the former Rock Island crossing at Englewood where we were treated to the passing of two CTA Green line L trains above us as well as 1 northbound and 3 southbound Dan Ryan CTA trains below us. After leaving Englewood the train headed east at a good clip. About 15 miles east of South Bend we passed a single car westbound SouthShore train. Only a few boarded at South Bend so we didn't remain there very long. The station there is the former South Shore station built when the SSL pulled out of downtown. They no longer use it since SSL relocated its South Bend terminal to the airport.
A walk through the coaches after South Bend revealed the first coach to be 2/3 full of people for ALB and SDY with one (me) to CRT, the second to have a 50% load of passengers for Toledo and other local points the third about 2/3 full with SYR and ROC people and the last about 75% full with Buffalo and NYP riders. During the brief stop at Elkhart, some of the museum's historic NYCRR collection was viewable under spotlights. I dropped off to sleep about midnight, woke up briefly during the stops at TOL (2:15) and Erie (6:20) and got up for good when we pulled into Buffalo Depew at 7:45. At this point we had made up some time and were only about 40 minutes late. About 30 passengers boarded there.
Now it was time for breakfast. This time I had the scrambled eggs with hash browns, OJ and coffee. My table companions had just boarded at Buffalo and were heading to NY City for a convention. They liked Amtrak but were complaining about the recent increases in New York hotel rates. Their room was said to cost $450 a night. That's OK if someone else pays but with those prices, the "someone else" may restrict travel in order to cut costs. After Buffalo we started running at good speed with few delays and were only about 45 minutes late at Rochester. Soon the conductor came through asking everyone to clear their things off empty seats, as a very large crowd would be boarding at Syracuse. Indeed, upon arrival there the crowd was loaded into the rather full coaches instead of the one car further back that had been filled with passengers detraining at SYR and ROC. Most of them, including a group of about 15 young people, soon made it back to where the empty seats were located. This group was heading for a high school debate program in Boston. Between BUF and Utica we passed quite a few westbound CSX freights and overtook one with UP power but did not suffer any delays.
A walk through the train after SYR indicated the turnover of passengers since last night. The conductor finally got all those who boarded in SYR into the right cars so the composition was as follows: 1st car: 2/3 full, nearly all to ALB; 2nd car: 3/4 full about 50/50 between ALB and NYP with a scattering to Croton-Harmon; 3rd car: 80% full and 50/50 between ALB and NYP; 4th car: 75% full, nearly all to NYP. And the ExpressTrak car was still on the rear! A good number of the Albany passengers changed there to #448 for Boston.
The "first, last and only" call for lunch was made about 11:30. My table companions were a schoolteacher from Syracuse and a retired electrician, also from SYR, both heading to the New York City. We all ordered the Gardenburger that took a very long time to come. While we were departing Schenectady one of them mentioned that the train doesn't seem to be moving too fast. The timing was right and I told them it should go faster now, just as we hit the higher speed track. We finished lunch just as the train was crossing the Hudson.
Along with nearly everyone else in my coach, I detrained at Albany to watch the action and take some photos. I could see why the Albany passengers were put in the two head cars; only the rear vestibule of the head car was on the high level platform. Train 448 was across the platform which meant that it had to make a back up move to access the Boston track. The engines were removed, baggage unloaded from the low level platform way up front, a P32 was added and the ExpressTrak car removed from the rear. The baggage for Train 448 then was loaded on to that train which consisted of a P42, baggage car, Amfleet II lounge car and 2 Amfleet II coaches. During this time, Train 283 from NY to Niagara Falls had arrived on another track. Our departure came at 12:58, making us 28 minutes late and I now was nearly alone in the head car. On the NS and CSX, the Amtrak crews call out the signals on the radio so I was well aware of what was happening as we moved along. After Albany we raced down the Hudson at 90 mph while enjoying the scenic river and beautiful fall foliage. At Hyde Park when the train was nearing Metro-North territory, the engineer called the Metro-North dispatcher and I learned that P32 #710 now was pulling the train. Because of work on Track 2, we crossed over to Track 4 just south of Peekskill with much whistle blowing at the work locations. Train 48 reached my home station of Croton-Harmon 22 minutes late at exactly 3:00, thereby concluding a most enjoyable transcontinental railroad trip. My wife was there to meet me and we were home about five minutes later.