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Rich's 1998 Amtrak Trip
www.trainweb.com/travelogues/rrrich/zephyr.html



PART 5



CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR


Martinez, California to Chicago, Illinois


July 28-30, 1998



(Railroad Log #16a- Oakland to Salt Lake City)


After bidding adieu to the Coast Starlight, I hung around the platform in Martinez, since it was a pretty nice warm morning. The agent had assured me that my room would still be available when the Zephyr arrived. I watched one of the colorful orange, red, and blue "California Car" sets on one of the Capitols pass through the station, then saw one of the San Joaquins pass through. Soon the train pulled up to the station, after having left a few minutes late from Emeryville. I found the Superliner II sleeper "Vermont," in which I would be riding this trip, and approached the door. My car attendant was named "Applegate," and I explained to him that I was supposed to have gotten on the Zephyr in Emeryville, but didn't because of the tardiness of the Coast Starlight, and his reply was something like a very gruff "Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I know all about it!" -- the first car attendant I have had this trip who appeared less than friendly. I found my room on the upper level, and the room was much better than the one I had in the Starlight -- I could actually open and close the door on this one! (see Part 4 of my travelogue). I organized my suitcases in the room and waited for Mr. Applegate to stop by and introduce himself and offer to show me all the features in the room, like most of the car attendants routinely do, but he never showed up! I actually do not remember seeing Mr. Applegate much at all over the next 2 days. We soon left Martinez, 28 minutes late. I did not have a contingency plan for the upcoming connection in Chicago, since, according to reports posted at http://www. reservations.amtrak.com over the last few weeks, the Zephyr had been running pretty close to schedule.

I soon found my perch in the Sightseer Lounge, which was relatively crowded, as I retraced the route between Martinez and Roseville which I had ridden earlier in the day. There was a young long-haired "hippie" type man in the lounge who was playing some kind of Native American flute during the first part of this trip -- the young man may have in fact been a Native American himself. The music was sweet, but after the first 15 or 20 minutes, it began to bother me, and I hoped I wouldn't have to listen to it all the way to Chicago! I soon found a seat in the other end of the Sightseer Lounge, and eventually had lunch in the diner with three high-school girls who were going from San Francisco to visit a friend in Truckee for a few days. The dining car steward was a woman named Jackie, and I never did find out who the Chief on the train was until much later in the journey. Like Mr. Applegate, the sleeping car attendant, the Chief never came through the sleeper to introduce him (or her) self.

Shortly after leaving Sacramento 41 minutes late, there was considerable track work between Roseville and Auburn, which delayed the train approximately one half hour. It was not too early to begin thinking about possible contingency plans in Chicago as this tardiness continued; however, I assumed later on we would begin making up time and there would be nothing to worry about. Between Sacramento and Reno, a couple gentlemen from the California Railway Museum in Sacramento had boarded the train, and gave a commentary about the scenery and historic aspects of the Sierra Nevada, through which we were passing. I always enjoy these "commentaries" which AMTRAK uses -- they add a lot of interest to the train trip, and I can always use any historic information I can get for a series of "narrative railroad logs" which I am putting together for all the AMTRAK routes. Some time next year, I may submit some of my narrative logs to Steve Grande for possible inclusion on one of these Train Web pages. In addition to the California Railway Museum guides, I talked some to a black fellow in the Sightseer Lounge who was a railroad historian. He was able to add quite a bit to the ongoing commentary by the Railway Museum (even though he wore a funny railroad tie!).

By the time we had left Colfax, we were running 1 hour 19 minutes late -- hmmm, this doesn't look too good! Oh well -- Chicago is still 2284 miles and 2 days away -- plenty of time to make up time! I continued listening to the Railway Museum guides, and the railroad historian, but was also talking with 2 ladies in the lounge who apparently had also been on the Coast Starlight with me, and had commented on seeing me sweating in the hot Pacific Parlour Car the day before! One woman was named "Opal," and was a very nice down-home farm lady from Iowa, who spent most of her time on the train stitching some kind of decorative pillow case or something, which she was hoping to finish before we got to Ottumwa, Iowa. I never got the other lady's name, but she was also very nice and reminded me of a college professor. She too was stitching something, but it was not the same type of craft that Opal was working on. I spent much time on the Zephyr talking to the "stitchers." As we traveled through the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains, I took a lot more video, but there are a lot of trees in California! It was a constant fight to get some good scenery videotaped, between the trees and the rock cuts, which seemed to suddenly appear each time I think I'm about to come across a pretty scene! As we passed through the Sierra Nevada, at one point we met the westbound Zephyr, and again had to stop to "exchange something" from it.

I sat in the room for a while as we approached Truckee, since my room was on the north side of the train, and that is where the best view of Donner Lake, Norden, and other points of interest is. I made my dinner reservations, and, as the train went around Stanford Curve, in the valley of Coldstream Creek, the Railway Museum guide pointed out the Material Handling Cars (MHC's) which we were carrying on the rear of the train today. Apparently AMTRAK is now in the freight business, as well as passengers! Does the presence of the MHC's now make us a "mixed train?" We left Truckee 1 hour 16 minutes late, after I got some beautiful video of Donner Lake, which had quite a few boats on it today. Between Truckee and Reno, the route of the Zephyr is parallel to Interstate 80, which appeared to have quite heavy traffic today, and several backups. It's nice to be on the train, and not on the highway at times like this!

As we passed through Reno, the railroad historian informed me when we were about the pass the famous archway downtown which says "Welcome to Reno - the Biggest Little City in the World," so I could videotape it. Passing through eastern Reno, the large Hilton casino hotel is quite prominent to the south -- this hotel was originally the MGM Grand Hotel, then it became Bally's Grand Hotel, and now it is a Hilton. I had attended a conference there many years ago, so recognized it. Back in the Sightseer Lounge, I continued talking to the stitchers, and the long-haired young man with the flute was now playing a harmonica. We departed Reno 1 hour 25 minutes late, but only departed Sparks (4 miles from Reno) 1 hour 16 minutes late (of course, the padded AMTRAK schedule allows 27 minutes to go that 4 miles!). After we left Reno, I went back to the room, and finally figured out how to turn on the in-room music! I still hadn't seen Mr. Applegate, the attendant, since Martinez. I eventually had dinner with a couple from Colorado who were returning home from Seattle, and a fellow with a beard who had been first in line for both lunch and dinner! As we continued across the desert after dinner, I attempted to follow my very detailed topographic route maps, but there are no landmarks of any consequence in the Nevada desert, so it was difficult to follow, to say the least.


(Railroad Log #16b - Salt Lake City to Denver


Apparently the Zephyr had made up some time overnight passing through Nevada and Utah, since we departed Salt Lake City only 55 minutes late in the morning, quite a contrast from my 1996 trip, when I had ridden the now-defunct Desert Wind, which was more than 6 hours late by the time it had left Salt Lake City! -- mechanical problems. The 1998 version of this train, with the new Genesis engines, was much more mechanically sound. I found a seat in the Sightseer Lounge relatively early, and was soon joined by Opal the farm lady and her seatmate. Passing through the ranchlands between Salt Lake City and Provo, Opal gave me a lesson in how to identify various breeds of cattle, many of which were visible along the railroad. She also pointed out which animals were beef cattle and which were milk cows. We left Provo 1 hour 19 minutes late, so we were again losing time for some reason. Passing through the Spanish Fork Canyon between Provo and Helper, I pointed out the various features of the 1983 Thistle landslide, which are still quite visible from the train. The landslide took place in 1983 and several miles of the railroad and highway were realigned as a result of it. The landslide mass initially created a large lake, and the entire town of Thistle floated downstream. At my milepost 63 (see an earlier portion of this travelogue for an explanation of my mileposts), the hummocky surface of the landslide is still quite visible to the west and south of the railroad, and a mile or two further, parts of some of the Thistle buildings which floated downstream are still visible.

After we passed Thistle, Opal and I continued our "cow discussion," and soon the first movie of the day was shown in the Sightseer Lounge, and, as I have commented on before, AMTRAK plays their videos LOUD! I had asked the downstairs lounge attendant, who controls the video, if he could turn the volume down, and he told me he couldn't. If I had known who the Chief was, I would have gone to him or her next, but I still had not identified or met the Chief -- maybe we didn't have one this trip.... As we approached Helper, I believe the attendant did turn the volume down a bit finally.

We departed Helper 1 hour 17 minutes late, and a few miles south of town, as we were crossing the desert, the train seemed to slow down considerably, because of "track work;" however, I did not see any track work for at least 500 miles after that! And the train never did pick up much speed the rest of the day. Every freight siding we had passed the rest of the day had a freight train waiting in it! Throughout the day, I had looked for some of the train crew to find out why we were going so slow for such a long time, but I never saw any of the train crew all day. We made the flag stop at Green River, Utah, and had departed that station 1 hour 54 minutes late. Shortly after that, the Chief made an announcement that the train was "on time," and we would be arriving in Denver on time; therefore, lunch would be served early and the first dinner call would be made at 4:30 PM. Of course, I knew from my own watch that we were nowhere near "on time," but at least found out that there was a Chief on the train, but I still had not met her, and did not know what she looked like. As we continued to crawl across the desert, I got quite a bit of good video, due to the lack of vegetation in the area! At Crescent Junction, I again changed tape cassettes, and was now on tape cassette number 4 -- it's a good thing I brought along that 5th 2-hour cassette since I still had a lot of traveling to do! As we passed through Ruby Canyon and entered Colorado, I had lunch with Opal and her seatmate, and a young woman who was working as a nanny for some young children.

The train continued to move at a snail's pace all across Colorado, and there were still freight trains on every siding. I was now truly concerned about the connection in Chicago the following afternoon. We had left Grand Junction 1 hour 40 minutes late, which still wasn't too bad -- IF we were to not lose any more time! And I still had not seen any of the crew members (conductors, brakemen, etc.,) -- I assumed they were hiding somewhere so they wouldn't have to answer questions from passengers wondering why we were going so slow and losing time. I have ridden AMTRAK for enough years that I knew exactly what the problem was -- freight traffic. AMTRAK still is not given the proper priorities of movement by its contracting railroads that freight trains get. I was not too surprised, yet why had AMTRAK's Web site reported this train to be on time lately? In discussing this with other passengers and some of the car attendants, I was told that this problem had only surfaced in the last couple weeks due to increased freight traffic on this line. Another explanation I got from someone was that AMTRAK was held back now over freight trains because AMTRAK is now "hauling freight" (the MHC's), and doing a job which "should be done by freight trains, not by AMTRAK." Hmmm -- sounds so weird that it may actually be true! If any of you readers know anything about this, I'd like to hear from you -- please e-mail me at rrrich123@aol.com.

We left Glenwood Springs 1 hour 41 minutes late -- not much different than Grand Junction. For the first time since Martinez, I saw Mr. Applegate. I had stepped off the train for a few minutes to stretch, get some fresh air, and take videos, and Applegate told me to walk up the steps to the Glenwood Springs station to get a better vantage point for my videos, so I did. As we left Glenwood Springs, I watched an endless parade of river rafters and kayaks float down the Colorado River adjacent to the train for several miles. As we continued across Colorado, still at a snail's pace, Jackie the dining car steward made an announcement that now we were indeed "a little late," and the first dinner seating would be at 5 PM, not 4:30. I went to my room to make dinner reservations. The choices tonight were 5 PM, 6:30 PM, and 7:45 PM, and, in keeping with my tradition of taking the latest seating to maximize the daylight video time, I chose the 7:45 seating. I soon went back to the Sightseer Lounge, which was quite crowded now, and, among other passengers, a large group of loud rowdy college-aged kids were standing around a couple of the seats, completely blocking the aisle of the Sightseer Lounge, and generally being loud. There were no crew members or even car attendants around to tell them to quiet down -- in fact, there appeared to be very few, if any "officials" on this train -- no train crew, the phantom Chief, and car attendants were generally not available. I have seen worse trains, and the Zephyr wasn't "that" bad this trip, but this train definitely wins the "Train from Hell" prize for this trip! At one point, we passed the westbound Zephyr, which appeared to be running approximately 3 hours late.

It began raining as we approached the continental divide, then it stopped as we passed through the Middle Park area and the town of Kremmling. At Kremmling, the Zephyr came to a sudden stop. All I saw was a freight train next to us on a siding, and figured we were waiting for some other freight train to pass, so the train next to us could move, and then we could move. We sat in Kremmling for at least one hour -- apparently the freight train next to us was not completely in the siding, and one end of the train was sticking out of the siding and blocking the single track main line; therefore, the Zephyr could not move anywhere until the freight moved. I looked for a crew member to explain to me what was going on, but, as usual, found nobody. I know from my experience with AMTRAK that the crew often stays in the lower level of one of the coaches, if not in the lounge, so I looked in the lower level of every car on the train for the crew, but found no one! I had no idea whatsoever where they were hiding on this train -- they have to be somewhere! I found out later what had happened -- the freight train was abandoned because its crew "went dead" -- the very powerful Railway Workers Unions prohibit any crew member from working longer than a 12-hour shift, due to safety concerns. After 12 hours, the crews "go dead." Crew members who disobey this policy are subject to very high fines. Therefore, when a railroad crew's 12 hours are up, THAT'S IT!!! They must leave their work station immediately, and a relief crew is to be deployed. Apparently the crew of the freight train went dead before they had a chance to complete the movement of this train. The AMTRAK crew had dispatched another Union Pacific freight train in the area, which had come to Kremmling and pulled the stranded freight back into the siding where it belonged, thus allowing the Zephyr to continue. We left the Granby station 3 hours 12 minutes late, and my layover in Chicago the following day was 3 hours 10 minutes!

I had dinner with a British couple who were complaining loudly about the service they were getting from one of the dining car crew, who they believed was not listening to what they had to say. I took one last video scene of the Winter Park ski area, before we entered the Moffatt Tunnel. We had departed the Fraser/Winter Park station 3 hours 27 minutes late.

I eventually asked around and found the phantom On-Board Services Chief. One of the car attendants told me her name was "Mary" and she could probably be found in the dining car. I asked Jackie the steward who Mary was, and she pointed her out to me. Of course I had seen Mary all through the trip, but had assumed she was one of the dining car staff, since the only times I ever saw her, she was helping the dining car staff with their duties. I tried to explain to her my situation about possibly missing my connection in Chicago the next afternoon, which would screw up my schedule not only for the Capitol Ltd, but also for the two trains I had made reservations on after the Capitol. Her reply was something like "Don't worry about it -- you'll make your connection." I then told her that I didn't see how that was possible since we were already nearly 3 1/2 hours late, and getting later. Her reply was "I don't have time to talk about it now -- I'll talk to you later. But don't worry -- you'll make the connection." Excuse me, but I always thought the AMTRAK On-Board Chiefs were hired to talk to passengers and resolve their problems at the passenger's convenience, not the Chief's convenience..... Not wanting to make a scene, I retreated and figured I would talk to Mary during the Denver stop, which would be after the dining car closed and it would be "convenient" for her.

I then made one more attempt to find the train crew, and see if they had any insight as to our schedule between Denver and Chicago. I think I finally asked one of the car attendants where I might find the crew, and they told me to check the lower level of the "transition sleeper" at the head of the train -- of course! I should have known that, since I knew this train had a transition sleeper, which is the car in which the crew and the on-board service attendants stay in. The transition sleeper was two cars ahead of my "Vermont" sleeper, so I went into the car and down the stairs in the middle. There was the 3-man train crew! Finally. They had gotten on at Grand Junction and were coming to the end of their shift in Denver. The conductor said "May I help you?" I told them I was concerned about our tardiness and arrival into Chicago the next day, and the crew was quite helpful.


A note to Train Web readers : in general, train crews do not like to be bothered by questions from passengers about schedules, connections, and on-board services -- those questions are normally dealt with by the Chief. However, a passenger can approach the train crew as I did, but here are some tips -- don't rush up to them in a frantic "panic mode!" Do not start accusing or harassing them -- if you act like you know a little bit about AMTRAK and how AMTRAK has contracts with their carrier railroads, the crews are generally quite approachable.


The crew told me that yes, we had been going slow all day because of very heavy freight activity on the former Rio Grande line between Salt Lake City and Denver, and the conductor showed me a two-or three page listing of all the "slow orders" which the Zephyr was subjected to on this long day. They explained to me what had happened in Kremmling, and had also told me that they themselves were about to "go dead" at 10:50 PM, since they had started their shift at 10:50 AM in Grand Junction, and had commented that it was ridiculous to take 12 hours to travel the 274 miles between Grand Junction and Denver. When I talked with them, the Zephyr was still 2 or 3 miles out of the station, creeping through the train yards, and it was now 10:40 PM. The crew had told me that they had already contacted a relief crew, should they need one if they were to go dead before we arrived at the Denver station. They also told me that, east of Denver, on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, there would probably not be any further freight delays, and the Zephyr would not likely lose any more time before Chicago. To thank me for my understanding, one of the crew gave me an unused chemical "flare stick," which is a plastic container of fluid, which, when broken, will release a chemical which glows and can be used for emergency purposes. I thanked them for their info, and prepared to get off the train in Denver and talk to Mary the Chief. We arrived at Denver at exactly 10:50 PM! The crew did not go dead before arrival!

At Denver, I again looked for Mary -- maybe she would have time to talk to me now. I began walking through the train, but did not see her. Going back through my sleeping car, Mr. Applegate was cleaning and bagging used bed linens. I asked him if he had seen Mary, and he said "She's not on the train now." I asked him if she had gone into the station, and he said "She's not on the train now," as he gave me a dirty look as if I were "in his way" and preventing him from doing his job. I walked into the station, did not find Mary, but decided to make an air reservation to fly from Chicago to Cleveland the following evening "just in case" I missed my connection, even though Mary had told me "not to worry" earlier. I found one telephone that did not have a line to use it, but the entire "Airlines" section had been ripped out of the attached Yellow Pages phone book! Forget it, I thought -- I would see how we were doing in Omaha the following morning, and make my contingency plan from there. I went back into the sleeper car, and again got dirty looks from Mr. Applegate, since I was obviously "in his way" while he was trying to clean the car.


(Railroad Log #16c- Denver to Omaha)


Well, the Grand Junction-Denver crew was right, since, after Denver, there were no more significant freight delays and the Zephyr sailed across the Plains at its posted speed limit. This kind of shot the theory about the freight railroads delaying AMTRAK because it was "hauling freight," since the three MHC's were still attached to the rear of the Zephyr. It was a rainy morning, and there was no more spectacular mountain scenery to videotape. We arrived in Lincoln 3 hours 29 minutes late, and departed 3 hours 33 minutes late. Mary the Chief made an announcement saying that everybody who was connecting to the Capitol would make their connections, and that they would receive some "messages" after we departed Omaha, which would give us a better arrival time, and would recommend contingency plans for people connecting to other trains. I believe she actually made it to the Sightseer Lounge once, and I asked her if AMTRAK would hold the Capitol if the Zephyr arrived within an hour or so of the scheduled departure time of the Capitol, and her very defensive reply was "No! Nothing is being `held'! You will make your connection on time!" Of course I still didn't believe her, so, after we stopped in Omaha, I went inside to the pay phone, called AAA, and made a tentative night reservation to fly from Chicago to Cleveland "just in case" Mary was wrong, or if we did actually lose more time. I would pick up my ticket at O'Hare Field in Chicago. After I made the reservation, however, I realized that, even if I did miss the connection to the Capitol, it was still probably impossible to make the flight, since I would have to get from downtown Chicago to O'Hare Field first. Oh well, at least I had not committed any funds to this plan yet. Maybe Mary was right, and maybe the Capitol would be held if there were connecting passengers. We would probably get to Chicago by 8 PM at the latest, and the scheduled departure of the Capitol was 7:20, so I assumed that the Capitol would probably be held, in spite of what Mary said.

I walked into the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge car to get a can of Diet Coke, and, to my surprise, Mary was working the lounge! I commented that she was helping out in the lounge today, and she told me that the lounge attendant was "sick" and unable to work today. Approximately one hour later, I had gone back to the lower level of the lounge, and the regular lounge attendant was back. I commented that I was glad he was feeling better, and he said "I wasn't sick -- AMTRAK was `messing with me'". Apparently he was considering quitting right on board earlier. I, as well as many other fellow passengers, including Opal and the other farm lady, had the distinct impression that the crew members on this train were not getting along well with each other.


(Railroad Log #16d- Omaha to Chicago)


After we departed Omaha, another announcement from Mary was made -- they had gotten their "messages," and everybody would make their connections, and not to worry. I don't know the source of these "messages" -- maybe they are from some alien civilization in the bowels of the AMTRAK Operations Center in Philadelphia? I went back into my room later, and Mary stopped by and said "You're fine -- you'll make your connection!" I commented that I didn't see how, since we were still 3 1/2 hours late, unless AMTRAK held the Capitol. Again, she defiantly told me that the train will NOT be held -- we will get to Chicago in time to make my connection.

We left Creston 3 hours 5 minutes late, Osceola 3 hours 12 minutes late, then we did have another short freight delay as we were approaching the Ottumwa station. We left Ottumwa 3 hours 40 minutes late, and the farm ladies got off at Ottumwa. After Ottumwa, I decided to conserve my videotape again so I would have plenty left for the rest of my trip -- there isn't much spectacular scenery in Iowa and Illinois anyway! We left Mount Pleasant 3 hours 42 minutes late, Burlington 3 hours 40 minutes late, and Galesburg, Ill. 3 hours 44 minutes late. I had lunch in the diner and sat with a couple who had been to the Cheyenne Frontier Days, and a young girl who was an aspiring horsewoman interested in equestrian competition.

As we traveled through the western suburbs of Chicago, a small group of us was still sitting in the Sightseer Lounge, as we were stopped for a few minutes. It was about quarter of 7 in the evening, and Mary the Chief appeared again. I asked Mary if she thought we'd get to Union Station by 7:30, and her reply was "No, the `messages' have not changed -- we'll be in Chicago by 7 PM." I know from living in the Chicago area for many years, and riding AMTRAK into and out of Chicago for almost 25 years that we were at least 30 minutes from Union Station at this point, but Mary insisted we would arrive by 7 PM! We finally arrived at Chicago Union Station at 7:30 PM, just as I had predicted, 3 hours 10 minutes late. Not that bad considering everything, I guess!

In Chicago, I did not have to use the contingency air reservation, which was fine -- I really did not look forward to the idea of arriving in Cleveland , Ohio at 11 PM, then trying to catch the Capitol Ltd at 3 or 4 AM. As things turned out, the Capitol Ltd would be departing Chicago late anyway, since the equipment used on the Capitol is the same equipment which is used on the inbound Empire Builder, which had arrived late today.

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