Here I am with another live broadcast! I'm on the California Zephyr right now as I'm writing this. It is 9:11 PM on May 11, 1996 and I'm somewhere between Winnemucca and Elko, Nevada. I've already set my clock ahead to 10:11 PM since a time zone change will be coming up soon. I want to get to sleep early enough to wake up around sunrise.
Click here for photos & more info about the California Zephyr.
Before going into my review, let me pass on a few suggestions that are good for anytime you are traveling by train. First, try to obtain current schedules for all segments of your trip before you head for the station. Quite often, the schedules you want will not be available at the station nor on the train.
I took the Coast Starlight up to Oakland, California on the first segment of my trip. They had run out of individual schedules, but at least they did give everyone a copy of the "National Timetables". I've already got a couple of those, but still consider this a prize! After those "National Timetables" are published, they soon become hard to obtain. There are even times that you can't order them from 1-800-USA-RAIL. The California Zephyr did give everyone individual schedules when we boarded. However, you should really make sure you have a schedule for all segments of your trip long before you head for the station, just in case.
You've checked your local Amtrak station and found they seem to have every schedule except for the trains that actually stop at that station? Has that shaken your confidence in Amtrak having any idea what they are doing? Actually, it makes a lot of sense. Amtrak sends boxes of schedules to every station, including a lot of schedules for the trains that stop at that station. The people that use that station usually want the schedule of the train they are taking and not the schedules of trains that do not stop at that station. Eventually, all the schedules of the trains that stop at that station run out. Schedules for the trains that don't stop at that station almost never run out. Thus, you will often find schedules ONLY for trains that don't stop at your local station. More will be on order, but they are often unavailable if any schedule changes are expected in the near future.
Newsflash! It is 9:22 PM and we seem to have stopped abruptly for an unknown reason. I've got my train radio on and am awaiting word. There are some humorous suggestions from passengers that we have a flat tire. Actually, they are not far from the truth! Evidently an air hose got a cut in it (like a flat time, eh?). When the brake air hose is damaged, the breaks are automatically applied and the train stops. The power in the train just went out, but since this is a notebook computer, the notebook's battery functions like backup power and I can keep typing!
It is now 9:30 PM and the power just came back on. I think they repaired the air hose and are now walking the train just to double check and make sure everything is O.K. It is now 9:36 PM and we are on our way again after just a 14 minute delay.
To go on with the suggestions, try taking at least two clocks with you when you travel by train. Whenever you stop at a station, change the time on one clock to match the time that the train was scheduled to leave the station. That makes it a lot easier to see how long it will be to the next and further stops. It also makes it easy to see if your train is making up time or continuing to fall further behind.
Taking photos? This suggestion is especially important on the California Zephyr. I'd suggest that you get one of the new frame grabber software packages for your computer that allows you to grab individual images off video tape. Then, instead of trying to take lots of still pictures, just video tape the scenery. Later, you can play it back and grap individual still images on the fly. I took pictures the hard way, with my 35 mm camera. There are many breathtaking views on the California Zephyr, but some of them come and go in a couple of seconds. Or, as you are about to snap a picture of a spacious panorama, a tree that is 10 feet from the train jumps in front just as your hear "click"! Using a video camera, all you need is one good frame from thousands of continuous frames. You just find it when you are playing your tape back and capture it to your computer disk! If you decide to do it the old way with a still camera, be prepared for lightning decisions and a bit of frustration as you play "peek-a-boo" with some of the best vistas in the nation!
For the review itself ...
I took the Coast Starlight (Train #11) up from Los Angeles starting at 9:00 AM and arrived in Oakland, California that evening. I had never gotten off in Oakland before, so this was my first visit to Jack London Square. It is quite a place and well worth the stop! The California Zephyr wasn't leaving until 9:00 AM the following morning, so I had booked a room at the Best Western Thunderbird Inn. You can walk to it from the station. The station is at one end of Jack London Square and the Thunderbird Inn is a couple blocks from the other end. That is about the least cost and adequate accomodation near the station. If you want to pay more, there are plenty of other hotels in Jack London Square, including some right on the dock of San Francisco Bay.
One thing I found unusual about Jack London Square is that the trains go right down the middle of the street for several city blocks! If you were driving a car, you could find the Coast Starlight or California Zephyr creeping up to your rear bumper! The trains go very slow down this street because of that. If you stay at the Jack London Inn, ask for a room facing the tracks! You can watch trains "drive" down the street all night.
There are many many restaurants and shops in Jack London Square and one of the biggest Barnes & Nobles Bookstores I've ever seen. If you can, spend some time wandering the streets of the Square. Follow the wolf tracks that lead you through a history of the life of Jack London.
A point of useful information: Since the train leaves at 9:00 AM, breakfast is not served in the Dining Car. That is usually the case for trains that start out any later than 8:30 AM. You can buy Breakfast items in the Lounge Cafe once it opens though. Sleeping Car passengers will find free coffee and juice in their car. On the Coast Starlight, pastries and coffee is available for free to Sleeping Car passengers in the Pacific Parlor Car. Across the street from the Jack London Oakland Train Station there is a sandwich shop. You can get some breakfast items and coffee in there and take them onto the train with you. That is what I did.
The Train ...
The California Zephyr is a Superliner I. The train was being brough out of some storage yard into the station and had to come in backwards. There are only two ways a Superliner Train can go backwards. Either the conductor hangs out the back and radios the engineer where he is going (very dangerous except for a short distance), or another engine is attached to the back of the train and pulls it backwards. Since the storage yard is so far from the station, another Amtrak engine pulled the California Zephyr backwards into the station.
When to get on?
Usually, if there is no Car Attendant waiting to receive me, I just hop right on and head for my room! That was the case this morning. Visitors can come right on with you, but be sure to leave the train when they announce that it is time for visitors to leave. Otherwise, the train will leave with them onboard and they will have to pay the price of the ticket plus an onboard purchase penalty to the next station!
The trip to the Sierra Nevada was interesting, but I don't think I appreciated it as much as I usually would. I was too filled with anticipation of getting to the Sierra Nevada! I'd never taken this Amtrak route before and this was all new to me.
We had a guide that boarded the train at Sacramento, California and road with us the entire way through the Sierra Nevada all the way to Reno, Nevada. He told us about everything along the way through the train's paging system. Sometimes the guides only talk in the lounge car. Using the paging system was a much better idea. The lounge car gets very crowded if that is the only place to hear the guide and I really didn't want to leave the comfort of my Economy Sleeper. If someone didn't want to listen, they can individually turn off the paging system in their own private sleeper.
The guide was informative, but very dry. It was obvious he had either memorized or was reading the information. There were only a few parts where the guide himself seemed excited and told the story with feeling. Still, it was good having the information even if was just being read to us. I found out about several things and took several pictures of things that were not mentioned in the Amtrak route guide.
Being my first trip through the Sierra-Nevada, it was more work than pleasure. One of my goals was to try and photograph as many of the sites as possible, especially the photo opportunities mentioned in the Amtrak California Zephyr Route Guide. So, I couldn't just sit back, relax and enjoy the view. Future trips along this route should bring me much more relaxed pleasure. To do every route full justice I think would take 3 trips. The first would be to "scout" the route, just get familiar with it but take no photos and do no writing. The second trip would be just to take photos and the third would be to write a running commentary along the way.
All through the Sierra-Nevada there were a lot of trees. That in itself was quite beauriful and I know I'm going to have to take this trip again in the winter. The area must look like a winter wonderland. There were just a few breif, but spectacular sites on the way up. There were several places where the train would hug the mountainside with a shear drop of 1,500 to 2,000 feet on the other side. I could see miles of forests, river and canyon.
There seemed to be a lot more to see on the way down. We could look down at valleys and across to canyon walls for much of the trip. The Truckee River flowed right beside the tracks for hours. From high above, we were able to look down on Donner Lake where the Donner Party had their wagon train trapped in a snow storm. Of the 89 pioneers, all but 47 died and those that did survive had resorted to cannibalism! Today, Donner Lake is a vacation resort town.
In this area, you will find much of the ground covered with snow, even in the middle of May!
Once the train passes Reno, Nevada, there isn't any really special scenery. I was finally able to relax and get a bite to eat.
Speaking of eating ... I want to mention about what I call the "seating lottery". I think most people usually win at this game, but sometimes you can lose. In all the trains I've been on, I've only lost once, on the Coast Starlight on the way to Oakland. It works like this: You enter the dining car. You tell them how many are in your party. They sit you wherever they can fit you. If travelling alone, this is usually a good chance to meet three other strangers. If you are willing to start up the conversation when nobody else does, then you will usually have a very entertaining dinner. This one time, however, I was placed with a Chinese family of 7, 4 at one table and 3 at the one where I filled out the table for 4. I knew I might be in trouble when the children started talking Chinese. I knew I was definitely in trouble when they had trouble communicating their order from the menu to the dining car attendant. They didn't know English and I didn't know Chinese. Except for a few occassional hand signals, that was one of the quietest dinners I've had on a train! Usually, however, dinner conversation turns out quite enjoyable. If you are not travelling alone, then you've got your own conversation partner with you no matter what.
The following morning I got up pretty early. I went to the first seating for breakfast at 6:30 AM. From the route guide, it looked like I might want to take a few photos in the early morning. I did, but if sleep is important to you, then I wouldn't say the scenery was worth rising before 7:00 AM. If you are not up by 7:00 AM, you will miss some really interesting rock formations on canyon walls and will miss the stop in Helper, Utah. Around this area you will see a lot of very impressive canyon walls. I got a number of photos of the canyone walls and rock formations. There are so many beautiful and unusual formations that it is hard to decide when enough photos are enough!
After Helper, Utah, there is a good stretch of hills and flatland where you can just relax and not worry about missing any good photo opportunities.
It is now 10:13 AM on Sunday, May 12, 1996. The train is running a little late so an on-time train would be starting through this area at about 9:45 AM. We are now going through Ruby Canyon. The canyon walls seem to go on forever right outside the window of the train. The base of these walls often starts less than 1000 feet from the tracks. Between the rails and the canyon walls flows the Colorado River, the river that carved these canyons over millions of years. Here and there are rafters in the Colorado River. If they are looking for whitewater, that must be further downstream. The Colorado seems pretty calm along this stretch. The tracks will follow the Colorado River and the canyon for 238 miles. I could easily use up many rolls of film on this one site alone, never knowing if the scenery around the corner will surpass all that has come before and never sure if it is the best of what is to come later. Unfortunately, I'm lower on film than I would like to be so have to be very conservative of where I take pictures. I'll have to send a note to Amtrak to stock 35mm film in the Cafe in addition to just the disposable cameras they already sell.
There have been few signs of civilization along this segment of our trip, other than the rafters in the river. However, we just passed a sign in the middle of nowhere that said "DINOSAUR MUSEUM / FUITA EXIT". I'm sure that sign was meant for a nearby road which I must have missed. A little further along, a highway comes into view in the distance along with an occassional ranch here and there. The canyon walls and the river have moved further from the tracks, but are still in view.
It's 11 AM and I'm saved! We just stopped at Grand Junction, Colorado. They announced that you can get all sorts of things here that they don't have on the train (such as film!). I got off the train and followed the crowds. They were all going to the left. There was a store to the right, but everyone was going left! I followed the crowds to a vendor stand and then into the station. No film there. Figured I had nothing to lose and went back all the way to the end of the platform where the little store was. There were only two other people that had gone that way, but it was a treasure find!
First, I was able to buy all the film I wanted for my camera (4 more rolls). The film wasn't even overpriced, which I would have paid since I was about to enter the Rocky Mountains with just one roll! This store also had more information on trains and more model trains than I have ever seen anywhere! They had every train magazine I have ever heard off and many more! They had train T-shirts and hundreds of model trains and supplies. The name of the place is DEPOT MODEL TRAINS & PORCELAIN DOLLS. It is at theeast end of the Amtrak Station (take a right as you leave the train). It is run by Jean & Eldon Hauth and is located at 201 South Avenue, Grand Junction, CO 81501, Phone (970) 245-5504. They do mail orders, so give them a call and tell them you heard of them on the "Liberty Amtrak Pages" on the Internet World Wide Web.
Here is some advice to avoid the mistake that I made. Don't leave your seat between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM (assuming the train is on time). I checked the Route Guide and found no photo opportunities listed. I figured I'd get an early lunch so as not to miss anything later. While at lunch, we passed through some of the most beautiful canyon country on both sides of the train! So ... when you take this trip, try to go later, or at least bring your camera with you!
Some related information is that they do start serving lunch at 11:30 AM on the California Zephyr and try to be all finished serving by the time they get to Glenwood Springs at 12:50 PM. I think this is because they have to serve dinner early. The first dinner seating is at 4:30 PM and the next is at 5:45 PM. If the train isn't late, it will get into Denver around 6:30 PM. I think they need to have dinner finished by that time, so that is the reason for the early serving of lunch and dinner.
It is now 1:10 PM and we are going through Glenwood Canyon. These canyon walls sometimes start as close as ten feet from the train track and go straight up! To see the top, you have to press you head to the window and look straight up. The beauty of the canyon is continuous for many miles. There are quite a few opportunities for photographs here. And ... it is snowing! Nothing is sticking to the ground, but there is definitely snow going by. In many places the canyon walls are a bit further from the tracks and that makes it a bit easier to get a better view and easier to take photographs.
It is now 5:12 PM and we just came out of Moffat Tunnel. This is where the train crosses the Continental Divide at an altitude of 9,239 feet. There are spots of snow everywhere. The Moffat Tunnel is 6.2 miles long and it took the train 10 minutes to go through it. The Car Attendants had to turn off all the blowers, close the doors at the ends of the cars and not allow people to cross between cars while we were in the tunnel. Otherwise, exhaust from the Engines would enter into our cars. Prior to the construction of the Moffat Tunnel in 1928, it took trains 5 hours to pass through this area using a route that had to climb to a height of 11,600 feet!
It is now 5:22 PM and I should be less than 90 minutes from Denver. I'm going to have to pack up everything so that I'm ready to get off the train at my stop. I'll fill in the details when I get to my hotel in Denver. I have dinner reservations for 5:45 PM, but I'm not sure I'm going to bother. First, I'm not up for a heavy meal and the light item tonight is something I don't like. Second, my guess is there is going to be some good photo opportunities between here and Denver. I find it difficult to get the shots I want from the Dining Car while trying to eat and carry on a conversation with the others at the table.
Starting here, the rest of this review was written several days after the end of the trip.
The Car Attendant asked me for a bit of a favor. A new passenger would be getting on and taking over my room in Denver. If it wasn't too much trouble, he wanted to know if I could move out of my room for about 20 minutes while he made the beds and got everything ready. He had another room I could move into during that time. Coincidentally, my time was called for dinner, so I decided that would be as good a place as any to kill some time while my room was occupied. I did take my camera with me.
I had dinner with the same people that I had lunch with. First time that ever happened to me, but that was fine. I enjoyed their company at lunch. However, I decided to keep a bit of a lower profile this time. During lunch, these people posted certain questions about Amtrak that they assumed where rhetorical without available answers. Most of the questions they had I did have the answers to and provided them. I like making conversation during dinner, but I'm very uncomfortable being the center of attention. Thus, I was rather happy when the conversation moved in a direction not related to train travel. I really like to talk about travel by train, but I like to talk about everyone's impressions and reasons of travel by this mode and about where they are going. I don't mind talking about some of the things that I have learned about train travel in the conversation, but I feel out of place when my role becomes that of an information dispenser. I'm going to have to think a bit more about this.
Once I got to Denver, I was thinking of walking the mile or so to the hotel. The hotel was the Comfort Inn, the one provided by Amtrak Great American Vacations. Last time I did that, however, the wheels on my rolling suitcase gave out and I ended up dragging my suitcase quite a way without realizing it. The cab fare was only $3.20, so that was probably the best way to get to the hotel.
I was quite impressed by the hotel room and the Comfort Inn Downtown! They gave me room number 2270. That was on the top floor, right in the corner of the building. Two walls of the room were completely glass from floor to ceiling and they met with a curved glass panel in the center. I immediately pulled back the drapes all the way in both directions. I had a full 90 degree view from that room! Two entire sides and a nice smooth curve through the corner of the room were all glass! I could see the city in every direction. If I stepped right to the edge of the window, I could look straight down 22 stories to the street. After sundown, I just turned off all the lights in my room and looked out over the lighted skyline of the city as I drifted off to sleep. If you happen to find yourself in Denver, stay at that hotel and try and get one of those corner rooms. 2270 is at one corner of the hotel on the top floor. I'm sure 2170 would be right below that, 2070 below that, and all the way down the floors.
In the morning I grabbed the shuttle called "DASH", Denver Airport SHuttle, to get me to my flight to return home. DASH costs $15 and leaves from every hotel.
This flight to return home was the first time I had been on a plane since I first started traveling by rail. I had never noticed how cramped the seats were, never been bothered by the low quality of the meal before, and didn't remember all the "hurry-up-and-wait" that is involved in flying. You hurry to the airport and then wait in a long line for your boarding pass. You hurry to security and then wait your turn to go through the metal detectors. You hurry to the terminal and wait until your turn to board. You hurry to your seat and then wait until the plane takes off. When you finally get where you are going, you hurry to gather up your stuff and then wait to get off the plain. You hurry to baggage clain and then wait for your luggage. That is one of the dangers of riding the train. You will be spoiled and never view travel by plane as quite the quality, even first-class on a plane.