Photos by Alan Burden, Lynn Hammond, Kevin Korell, Jishnu Mukerji, and Steve Weagant.
Click small photos to see larger
Chapter 0: Introduction
It was time. It was time to take that major transcontinental trip and have this year's summer rail fest on the west coast. Between possible fests in Southern California, Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest, Northern California was chosen because it had the least pending projects. Agreeing upon this amongst our fest regulars at our BARF 2007 meet in January, the steel wheels were set in motion for OTOL Northern California RailFest 2007.
Because of the need for many of our participants to travel to California, and the fact that most of us are based on the east coast, it was decided not to hold any other gatherings in March or August as we did in 2006. The time and cost involved in taking a transcontinental trip and the number of nights in hotels made having any other fests financially impossible. Besides, most of us have a limited number of days we can take off from work.
Chapter 1: Preparation
There was the website, which helped participants keep in tune with the itinerary, the guest list, area restaurants and hotels, scanner frequencies, and links to the homepages of the various rail carriers who would be our hosts. As is always the case, there would be many itinerary changes before we were able to execute our plans.
There were rumors about the demise of Chicago-Emeryville through service on the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR, and there was that train's detour through Wyoming whose starting date was pushed back many times. The train also had its overall schedule lengthened by three hours not long before our group was to use it.
A few east coast participants chose to fly across country. Lou Petrillo and John Corbett chose to fly both ways and just participate in the California portion of the fest. Jishnu Mukerji flew to Denver to join our westbound CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR journey, and he remained with us for our time in California as well as the eastbound return trip. Bill Magee was not able to travel to California, but he would fly to Denver, board with Jishnu, and ride our Wyoming detour route to Reno before flying back east.
Piotr Dzwonek would only be taking a New Jersey-Chicago round trip, since he could not be away from home too long on account of his foot injury last year. He would return on Saturday night's eastbound CARDINAL.
Then there was the BART planning. Bill, who travels frequently to the Bay Area, reminded me that BART tickets have a time limit, meaning that as my system tour was planned, we would not be able to ride the entire system and exit when and where we did without having to leave the system at least once. Bill actually did a dry run for me on already-scheduled vacation trips to San Francisco, riding BART to test out various travel scenarios.
Once everyone's hotel plans became clear, it was obvious that we would be clustered in several distinct areas each evening. One group was staying in Walnut Creek, another in Oakland's Jack London Square district, one in downtown San Francisco, and the others at various hotels in the vicinity of San Francisco International Airport, including Burlingame and South San Francisco. Because most would require extra BART travel not on the official fest itinerary (particularly the airport and Walnut Creek people), I made up special color coded Bay Area team itineraries so that I could determine the projected BART costs for each team.
Muni posed some challenges as well. A few people told me that since the cable cars are more a tourist activity than a transit line, there are often long boarding lines at the three turnarounds on the Powell lines. I eventually moved our cable car journey to take place first thing of the day to avoid the lines, which start to form around 9:00 AM. Muni also underwent a schedule change and slight route restructuring effective June 30th, just 2-1/2 weeks before we would be riding the system.
One major issue was the fact that we were riding trains in the Bay Area first, and then switching to the Sacramento area for the last full day in California. Our travels, which would have been simpler on the Capitol Corridor, instead involved taking ACE through the Altamont Pass, and then an Amtrak San Joaquin train from Stockton to Sacramento. This would have meant dragging our luggage around with us all day, not only on ACE and the San Joaquin, but also on CalTrain and numerous VTA light rail cars. Thankfully, Lynn Hammond had an idea to rent a car and drive our luggage from one city to the other. Working out the logistics of the luggage transfer became another major issue to deal with in the latter part of the planning process. The need to allow time for the transfer, which we agreed would take place in San Jose, meant re-working the VTA itinerary and taking a later ACE train than originally planned.
The original idea was to stay in Stockton that evening after ACE, and then take a San Joaquin to Sacramento around lunchtime the next day. But the lack of downtown chain hotels within walking distance of the Stockton train station and the above luggage issue changed all of that.
Then at the last minute BART implemented a slight construction-related schedule change on its Dublin/Pleasanton Line that affected my morning itinerary. Too late to reconstruct the itineraries, I just printed out an addendum and handed it out to participants as we met then either on the train or in Chicago or California.
As you can see, planning was an arduous activity. Now it was time to have fun carrying out all those well laid plans!
Chapter 2: Friday, July 13, 2007
The first official day of our fest had east coast participants making their way first to Washington, DC and then boarding the westbound CAPITOL LIMITED towards Chicago.
Chapter 2.1: Amtrak REGIONALS, Trains #95 & #125, various East Coast points to Washington, DC
Skip Howard had the longest rail trip of anyone involved in the fest. He started out from the Route 128 station outside of Boston on Regional 95 at 6:20 AM. (Those boarding at points from New York south were booked on Regional 125, but that train originates in New York so it was of little use to Skip.) He reports that 95 ran pretty well. It got him to Washington at 2:08 PM, eight minutes late.
The others boarded Regional 125 for their respective trips to Washington. Alan and Grace Burden got on in New York, Piotr boarded at Metropark, and Michael and I joined them in Philadelphia. All of us were in Business Class.
The consist of Amtrak's REGIONAL, Train #125(13) New York to Washington:
907 AEM-7 locomotive
48161 Amfleet I Club-Dinette (Business Class) *
82554 Amfleet I Regional Coachclass
82018 Amfleet I Regional Coachclass
81501 Amfleet I Regional Businessclass (used as Coach)
82652 Amfleet I Regional Coachclass
82072 Amfleet I Regional Coachclass
* Piotr (MET-WAS), Alan and Grace (NYP-WAS), and Michael and I (PHL-WAS) were here.
Our trip was pretty much close to schedule. We arrived in Washington Union Station at 2:51 PM, four minutes early.
Chapter 2.2: In Washington, DC
Skip met us at Gate G as we arrived. The six of us then went to the Club Acela to await the CAPITOL LIMITED.
Boarding for our first long distance train began at around 3:40 PM. Our train was on Track 16, which has a low service platform on one side for boarding Superliner trains.
Chapter 2.3: Amtrak CAPITOL LIMITED, Train #29, Washington, DC to Chicago, IL
Outside the train, those of us in the 2900 car met our attendant, Cornelius. He directed us to our rooms and later came by to personally welcome each of us.
On this train, the sleepers were towards the front, the coaches in the rear. Therefore as we walked by, I was able to jot down the car numbers. I knew we would have to pass by the baggage car and engines once we arrived in Chicago, so I wasn't too concerned about running to the front of the train to get them right away. Here is the entire consist of the CAPITOL LIMITED, Train #29(13) Washington to Chicago:
146 P-42 locomotive
99 P-42 locomotive
42 P-42 locomotive
39015 Superliner II Transition Dorm/Sleeper
32055 Superliner I Sleeper **
32044 Superliner I Sleeper *
38007 Superliner I Diner
33027 Superliner II Sightseer Lounge
34103 Superliner II Coach
34134 Superliner II Coach
31045 Superliner I Coach/Baggage
* Piotr, Alan, Grace, Michael, and I were here.
** Skip was here.
Well we left right on time at 4:05 PM. But things went downhill fast. The train ran slow and made a few unexpected stops between Silver Spring and Rockville due to CSX signal problems. By the time we left the first intermediate station stop at Rockville, it was 4:51 PM and we were already 22 minutes off the advertised.
During the time we were running slowly in suburban Maryland, the dining car crew came through the train taking reservations for dinner. Piotr, Skip, Michael, and I opted for 5 PM, while Alan and Grace chose to go later.
At precisely 5:00, the call went out for the first dinner seating, and off we went. We were handled pretty well by the staff, and we were impressed by the number and caliber of selections on the menu. Our first dinner of many aboard the long distance trains turned out to be a positive experience.
Meanwhile, we did not recover the time we had lost near the beginning of the trip. By Martinsburg, WV, our deficit had doubled to 45 minutes when we left there at 6:30 PM. In Cumberland, there is a short dwell for changing of crew. However when we left at 8:12 PM, we were now 55 minutes down.
Most of us had our rooms made up for nighttime mode by 9 PM. I recall being awake however until Connellsville, PA, where we left at 11:02 PM, now one hour 20 minutes down. Things were not looking good, and we were still far from the expected trouble area in Indiana. Well before Pittsburgh, I also went to sleep.
Chapter 3: Saturday, July 14, 2007
Saturday was simply a travel day. Those coming from points east of Chicago by train arrived there, and then the group later departed on another train for the west coast.
Chapter 3.0: Amtrak CAPITOL LIMITED, Train #29, Washington, DC to Chicago, IL (continued)
Most of us awoke around 7 AM, having just left Toledo. The six of us went to breakfast at various times when convenient.
Train 29's schedule had recently had 15 minutes added west of Pittsburgh because of some Norfolk Southern trackwork, so we were not as late as it seemed from looking at the printed timetables. Still, I had decisions to make regarding any Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) activities. However, eating lunch would be our highest priority in Chicago since we knew we would otherwise be having no meals until dinnertime on the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR. Riding the Pink and Blue Lines would only be possible if we came into Chicago on time. For now, I deferred the final decision until we got closer to Chicago.
After breakfast, Skip and I walked back to the coach section of the train to attempt to watch out the rear window of the last coach. However, the coach attendant was sitting there and told us that we were in danger by standing by the window, so we had to move.
Meanwhile, we put Steve Weagant to use in Chicago. I had neglected to bring a memo pad to take notes for this fest, so I text messaged Steve to ask him to please pick one up for me. Alan also needed a new surge protector and asked Steve to get one.
Track congestion through Ohio and Indiana did not appear to be as bad as we experienced on previous trips. However, we were slowly losing more time. Our stop in Waterloo was at 8:12 AM, one hour 33 minutes late. By Elkhart (9:21 AM), we were one hour 49 minutes off the advertised. And at South Bend, the last scheduled stop before Chicago, we left at 9:45 AM, six minutes shy of two hours late. While padding might help us into Chicago, we should have already been there. In addition, Lynn and Mike were also running late on their train. So I made the decision that we would not ride any CTA lines, but just go to lunch and relax in the Metropolitan Lounge while in the Windy City. Via text messaging, I communicated this to Lynn and Mike, and also to Steve in Chicago.
Chapter 3.0.1: Amtrak LAKE SHORE LIMITED, Train #49, Cleveland, OH to Chicago, IL
Meanwhile, Lynn and Mike Hammond rode the LAKE SHORE LIMITED from Cleveland to Chicago. This train, due in Cleveland at 3:35 AM, had taken a severe delay in New York State, and it actually picked them up in daylight at 6:02 AM (almost 2-1/2 hours down). We kept in contact via text messaging as they followed us along the same line towards Chicago, and we continued our contact once we arrived while they were still en route. They ultimately arrived in Chicago at 11:14 AM, almost one and a half hours late, so they were able to make up one hour.
Chapter 3.1: In Chicago, IL
The CAPITOL LIMITED arrived in Chicago at 10:35 AM, officially one hour 40 minutes late. Waiting there for us was Steve and his girlfriend Rosalyn. We decided to go into Union Station's Metropolitan Lounge, check our suitcases, and wait for Lynn and Mike to arrive before going to lunch. By the time we all checked in and left our suitcases at the luggage room, we still had about half an hour to wait. Some of us used that time to recharge our play and communication devices.
Steve went to meet the Hammonds as they arrived into the station. Once everyone was together, Rosalyn distributed fresh roses to everyone. It was a sweet gesture and a fine sendoff for what would be the longest segment of our journey.
Our group of ten began walking the length of Union Station's north side platforms headed for Ogilvie Transportation Center to have lunch in their food court. Halfway down the platforms we became eleven people as Robert Madison met us. We then did our caddy corner crossing of Canal and Madison Streets to reach our destination.
Lunch was enjoyable as we dined at various food court establishments. After we ate, our group got smaller. Piotr left to visit a friend in Chicago before returning to Union Station to catch the CARDINAL. (You can continue reading about Piotr's return in this seperate trip report.) Robert went back to his job in Chicago, and Rosalyn went home. The other eight, (the California-bound party of Skip, Steve, Lynn, Mike, Alan, Grace, Michael, and I), walked back to Union Station to spend the rest of our layover time in the Metropolitan Lounge.
When we arrived back at the lounge, a conductor was at the desk collecting tickets for our train. At about 1:30, we got the call to queue up by the exit door for the ZEPHYR. The train was boarding on Track 22.
Chapter 3.2: Amtrak CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR, Train #5, Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA
On this train, the sleepers were at the rear of the train, so we did not have far to walk. However, I knew I had three days to get the full consist of Amtrak's CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR, Train #5(14) Chicago to Emeryville:
198 P-42 locomotive
64 P-42 locomotive
39029 Superliner II Transition Dorm/Sleeper
34006 Superliner I Coach
31008 Superliner I Coach/Baggage
34062 Superliner I Coach
33024 Superliner I Sightseer Lounge
38036 Superliner I Diner
32057 Superliner I Sleeper **
32039 Superliner I Sleeper *
* Steve, Lynn, Mike, Skip, Michael, and I were here.
** Grace, Alan, Jishnu (DEN-EMY), and Bill (DEN-RNO) were here.
Those of us in the 32 car met our attendant, Paulette, who we would get to know really well over the three-day journey. Donald was the attendant in the 31 car.
We were on our way west precisely at 2:00 PM. The first segment of the trip as far as Aurora was familiar to many of us as we had ridden out there on METRA during our Windy City RailFest in 2003. Unfortunately, our timekeeping was already suffering as we left Chicago's commuter territory. Our stops at Princeton and Galesburg were 13 and 11 minutes late respectively.
Not long into the trip, Alan and Grace noticed that their bedroom was getting uncomfortably warm. Alan guessed that the air conditioning unit at the bedroom end of the car was not working, but that they were getting a little from the roomette end. Donald was aware of the problem, but there was little he could do about it. In fact he had noticed the car was a little hot as the train was being backed into Union Station from the yard, but a technician in the station found nothing wrong.
At about 4 PM somebody from the dining car came through the train taking reservations for dinner. We later found out that this was our waiter, rather than the Lead Service Attendant (LSA). He did a very sloppy job of getting reservations. He missed the two women who were in Rooms 9 and 10 in our car. The one in room 10 was extremely angry and she went to the diner to give a piece of her mind and get a reservation.
Just after Galesburg those of us who had chosen the 5:00 dinner seating were called to the diner. The process was handled fairly well. Besides the LSA, there was one waiter and one waitress. The latter was quite efficient, but the former seemed a bit slower and less experienced. Eyebrows were raised when I asked for two starches (potatoes and rice) instead of one starch and one vegetable.
During our dinner we crossed over the Mississippi River, coming into Burlington, IA. That was probably the most scenic highlight of the trip between Chicago and Denver.
After dinner we took advantage of the rear window of our car, which was also the rear of the train. What an attendant on the CAPITOL LIMITED had deemed too dangerous for us to do for a few minutes was perfectly safe on the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR for three days. It was interesting going through some Iowa towns, where the BNSF tracks split and straddle the town.
As the sun set, we began having our beds made up by Paulette. Some retired while others stayed up a little longer. I traded text messages with Jishnu and Bill, who were now in separate hotels in Denver and would be joining us in the morning.
Another fine day of train travel was over, but it would only get better the next day!
Chapter 4: Sunday, July 15, 2007
Sunday began and ended with us aboard the westbound train, with a few interesting highlights as we spent a little time in the two largest cities en route between Chicago and California.
Chapter 4.0: Amtrak CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR, Train #5, Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA (continued)
As many of us awoke we found ourselves in eastern Colorado, as we made our station stop in Fort Morgan. Somewhere overnight going across Iowa and Nebraska we had lost a little more time. The time was 6:01 AM MDT, which meant that we were 41 minutes late.
We did not all go to breakfast together. By the time Michael and I were ready, some from our group had already eaten, and some opted to go later. The people seated across from us were travelling separately, but both were going as far as Denver. The service for this meal was atrocious. The entire process took way too long, considering that the dining car was not all that crowded. The inefficient waiter made no apologies for the slow service. One of the people eventually gave up on eating since she recognized that we were coming into the Denver area. The other person waited a little longer but eventually had to give up as well. We still had a staff of three in the diner, but we later found out that one of them was preparing to detrain so she was not available to work breakfast.
We arrived into Denver right on time at 7:35 AM, having backed into the station as is customary. With a scheduled departure time of 8:05, this gave us half an hour to walk around and stretch our legs. Upon detraining, we saw Bill and Jishnu waiting to board. Bill was in a hurry to board because he knew his roomette had been double booked so he wanted to stake his claim to the room by putting his belongings inside.
Also detraining was our waitress who had served us the previous night. We told her we were sorry to see her go. Deep down we were even sorrier that nobody replaced her, as we were at the mercy of the inept waiter who remained.
Some from our group had neglected to bring their ticket stubs with them when they went into the station, and they were given a hard time by a rent-a-cop when they tried to enter the gate leading up to the train platform.
Well we now had ten people in our group with the addition of Bill and Jishnu. That number would remain until we got to Reno on Monday.
For some reason our train was delayed in leaving Denver. With the detour routing and expected shorter travel time to Salt Lake City, this was not a huge concern. We departed at 8:21 AM, headed straight north towards Greeley and Cheyenne.
Between Denver and Salt Lake City, there were no official station stops along our detour route. Thus it was a good thing that Bill and Steve had done their homework about the route since we otherwise would not have been able to track our progress.
As mentioned before, Bill was riding with us now because of the detour, even though we were missing what was arguably the most scenic portion of the train's regular routing. Still, Bill found himself mixing a little business with pleasure, looking at the high tension lines parallel to the tracks.
At 9:35 AM, we passed the former rail station in Greeley, CO. We would pass many such structures, as the route we were taking was once served by the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR and more recently by the now defunct PIONEER.
At about 10:40, we crossed the border into Wyoming at a location called Speer, and then curved to the left onto a connecting track leading to the Union Pacific's Overland Route. After a few delays, we finally entered the Overland Route at 11:00 AM. Almost immediately, we passed by the former Borie Station, now just an unused gravel lot. Borie was used as a station stop for Cheyenne. This which eliminated a ten-mile backup move into and out of the city, which lies east of the track we just took out of Denver.
Our route passed through some interesting rock formations, technically still part of the Rocky Mountains but by no means as scenic and hilly as other parts of the range to the south and north.
At 11:52 AM we passed through the city of Laramie, WY. Rawlins came at 1:40 PM, while we were having lunch. Then we passed Rock Springs at 3:15. All three had once been station stops when trains regularly served this route.
For the remainder of our trip, the absence of the third employee in the diner was noticed. Mr. Personality had to wait on a lot more tables than he did east of Denver, thanks to Amtrak taking off the other server.
A crew change stop was announced for Green River, WY. This was designated as a smoking stop, so passengers would be allowed to detrain. There were no smokers in our group, but we opted take a walk outside anyhow despite the temperature. Whether stretching one's legs or ingesting cancerous smoke into one's lungs, this was the only place all day between Denver and Salt Lake City where anybody could get off the train. Besides, when will any of us ever be able to say we were in Green River, Wyoming again? Incidentally, there is also a Green River in Utah on the normal ex-D&RGW line. Both are named for the same north-south river.
Our Green River stop there lasted 15 minutes, from 3:39 until 3:54 PM. It was very hot outside, close to 100 degrees despite the fact that we were still 6200 feet above sea level.
The temperature outside was certainly felt within the 31 car, as Alan and Grace, and now Jishnu and Bill as well, experienced the air conditioning problems. Jishnu's roomette was downstairs, and he reported not feeling too hot. Bill, who was in one of the upper level roomettes, said that while he had been warned by Alan of the problem upon boarding, he really didn't feel it until later in the day as the outside temperature rose through the 90's.
The conductor who came on duty at Green River tried to fix the problem by turning off a breaker that cut off both AC units. He believed that the AC unit at the bedroom end had iced over, so by turning the units off the ice would melt and the unit would perform better. Sadly this would not help; effectively it made matters worse because the only working air conditioner at the roomette end of the car was also shut down for a while. The doors between the 31 and 32 cars were left open as well as the door between the diner and the 31 car, and the diner's and the 32 car's air conditioning were turned up full blast in an attempt to "borrow" some cool air from the adjacent cars.
Through much of our run across Wyoming, we were running parallel with I-80, often within sight of it. As we resumed our travel west of Green River, we noticed that I-80 had a monumental traffic jam in progress. From here into Utah, traffic was backed up for miles along the highway. We could not find an accident or some other cause for the problem. Conversely, aside from the stop in Green River, our run across Wyoming since we entered the Overland Route in Borie had been free of any unscheduled stops. It was double track the whole way.
Somewhere in western Wyoming, the same waiter came back to get dinner reservations. I was in the other sleeping car talking with some of our group members, but I had told Michael to get the earliest seating available. Well just as the guy had ignored some people last time, he walked right by Michael and did not get a reservation for him or us. I had to go find him to secure a reservation for the two of us. We ended up all split up at various seatings and tables, but we all got to have our dinner before Salt Lake City.
The last Wyoming town (and former station stop) we passed through was Evanston, at 5:30 PM. Just a few miles past that town, we crossed into the state of Utah. Around here our train's dining crew began the process of serving dinner.
About 30 miles or so past the border, we entered the scenic Weber Canyon, and began running next to I-84 instead of I-80. The tracks actually turned to the northwest towards Ogden here, although we wound through the canyon facing many different directions.
Finally we came into the city of Ogden, where we made very sharp turn to the left at a junction to head south towards Salt Lake City. We were about a mile south of downtown Ogden where that city's station is, but we did not get near it.
We found ourselves headed southbound in the suburban corridor between Ogden and Salt Lake City. Thus we got another fringe benefit from our detour route that we would not have had otherwise. To our immediate left was the construction of the new Utah Transit Authority (UTA) FrontRunner commuter rail. Kudos to the parties involved in planning this new line, so that commuter and freight traffic will run on totally separate sets of tracks. Along the way we could also see grade crossings and station platforms under construction.
Coming into Salt Lake City, we had to back into the station on account of our arriving from the north and departing to the west. We wyed using the ex-Western Pacific line that we would be leaving town on later.
Chapter 4.1: In Salt Lake City
We came to a stop at the platform at 8:28 PM. I don't think any of us had expected that we would see Salt Lake City in daylight, but there it was! (Over the normal routing, we would have been due to arrive at 11:05 PM.) We had over three hours dwell time there, and naturally after the almost nonstop trip from Denver, we were invited to step outside.
We arrived so early that the Am-Shack that currently represents Salt Lake's station had not yet opened. It normally opens its doors at 10:30 PM, in advance of the regularly scheduled train.
However about one block to the north is the new Salt Lake Intermodal Hub that opened in 2005. Since its opening it has only functioned as an intercity bus terminal. The bus ticket agency also sells convenience store items, such as snacks, drinks, and what I was looking for, batteries. It was also nice to use a bathroom that wasn't moving at 79 mph!
The Intermodal Hub has drawings on the walls of its corridor of what the place will look like when it is finished. When it is built out, artists' depictions show that it will stretch down to the Amtrak platform and replace the Am-Shack. It will also support the Front Runner commuter rail, as well as the UTA TRAX light rail extension now under construction.
During the layover some of us viewed the LRT construction. It was a little tempting to walk up to the Gateway shopping complex which was a long block away. However, with the neighborhood's safety questionable, and this being a Sunday night, we decided against it and instead remained close to the platform and train.
Some from our group elected to have their beds made up and retire for the night. I remained off the train as long as I could, and even popped into the Am-Shack to check it out once it had opened.
After a long layover, we departed from Salt Lake City three minutes late at 11:38 PM. After all that time sitting there, one would think they could have gotten out on time. Still, three minutes is not all that bad, and as you will see, ultimately it really didn't matter.
During the Salt Lake City stopover, the air conditioner in the 31 sleeper was restarted, but sadly it didn't work. Only the AC unit at the roomette end was working, just like it had been before. When the power was turned back on, it took some time before the compressor in the roomette section had any results in cooling the car. It was well after 2:00 AM before the bedroom end of the car had cooled down to a comfortable level.
As we left civilization and started across the dark dessert, another day went into the history books. Even I was asleep not long after our departure. Bill says he stayed up until the Utah/Nevada state line in Wendover and saw the casinos there.