Monday, December 26, 2005

Amtrak Adventure

After visits to England and Zürich, we celebrated Thanksgiving with the kids and grand-kids in Colorado. Our return to California on Amtrak would be merely a postscript. In fact it was actually an afterthought. When we'd booked airline tickets from San Francisco to London to Zürich to Denver, we were so delighted to find a low-cost fare on British Airways, that we forgot about getting from Denver back to San Francisco.

Why not take the train, just for fun. We had time for the 33 hour trip, and we'd enjoy the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, passing through the Utah and Nevada deserts during the night. Even the name of the train that makes this daily run between Chicago and San Francisco, had a romantic sound: "The California Zephyr".

Our motel in Denver shuttled us to Union Station early Tuesday morning, and we arrived shortly after 7:00 am in plenty of time for the 8:20 am departure. We were not too dismayed to learn that the train had been delayed three hours; we'd been aware of bad weather to the east: heavy snow and high winds in Nebraska and Kansas. In fact, even Interstate 80 east of Denver had been closed for a day, and we felt fortunate that Denver and points west had missed the brunt of the storm. Because of the delay, the Amtrak agent was handing out breakfast vouchers, good for up to $10 each, at Dixon's Downtown Grill, a nice restaurant a couple of blocks from the station. Although we'd already eaten a quick breakfast at the motel, we were happy to walk for awhile in central Denver, then enjoy a second morning meal.

The weather was brisk as we strolled along the 16th Avenue pedestrian shopping street, all the way to the other end where we could see the capitol building. On the way back, we became aware of security officers quietly policing the street. We'd seen in the newspaper that President Bush was due in town for a campaign fund-raising lunch on behalf of a local candidate, to be held at the Brown Palace Hotel.

Back at the station, a sign in the ticket window announced an additional hour delay. There wasn't enough time to leave the station again, especially since we'd been told that instead of the scheduled 30 minute stop in Denver, the train would depart as soon as possible. So we hung around, admiring the grand architecture of the 100-year-old station, built when rail travel was the big new thing. There were interesting photo displays outlining the history of the building. One, taken of soldiers leaving for the Korean War, showed the spacious, three-story waiting room packed with thousands of service men and their families. It was quite a contrast to the fewer than 100 people who were waiting with us.

Noon came and went. My husband strolled back to the ticket window to ask if there was any new information. While he was there, the agent took a phone call. As he hung up, he said incredulously, "I don't believe it!" An announcement over the public address system soon informed us that the train was in suburban Denver where, on orders from the Secret Service, it would be held until the President had left town! No one could imagine how a train that was already several hours late, could pose any security threat to the visiting President. Passengers on the train, whose destination was Denver, were in touch by cell phone with people at the station who had come to meet them. It must have been particularly frustrating to be so close, but not yet there! We later learned that the passengers on the train had been told there was a mechanical problem that had to be fixed before the train could proceed. This may, in part, have been true, but I believe most of the delay was a totally idiotic security move.

We had time for lunch, after all, and enjoyed seeing the old two and three-story brick warehouses and workshops that have been rehabilitated in the LoDo district around the station. (LoDo is short for Lower Downtown, so called either because it is downhill toward the river from the capitol mall, or because the buildings are low-rise in contrast to the newer high-rise buildings in central Denver.) These handsome old buildings now house trendy shops and restaurants.

After another period of waiting in the station, the train finally arrived about 3:30 pm and we departed Denver at 4:00 pm, nearly eight hours behind schedule.

It was a relief to finally be moving west. We explored our tiny roomette and calculated how to stow our baggage in the limited amount of space. Since the price of the roomette included meals, we were eligible for a box lunch from the snack bar.

The train climbed the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, twisting over some tight switchbacks, though dramatic western scenery. A couple of passengers from New Zealand were entranced. We reached Fraser and Granby about dark. We had passed though both towns the previous day when we'd driven down from the mountains to Denver.

After two breakfasts and two lunches, we were not sorry to be seated at the last dinner service: white tablecloths, flowers in a silver vase, black waiters in black livery. But the food left much to be desired! Our ticket allowed us to order anything from the menu. My husband tried the steak, which wasn't too bad, but both the man across the table and I left most of our pasta on our plates.

Since we'd gotten up at 6:00 am that morning, we retired early. It wasn't hard to figure out how to recline the two facing seats to make a lower berth, and to unfold the top bunk from the wall. There was very little room to move around, but we managed. At least the room was warm and both of us slept fairly well through the rest of Colorado and most of Utah, except that we were beginning to worry about reaching the end of the line in Emeryville, California, at 1:00 or 2:00 am a day and a half later. We had no idea if the station (or anything else) would be open, and we knew that the local buses and trains that we had counted on taking us home, would not run until after 5:00 am.

One alternative was to get off the train in Davis, California, where a nephew and his wife live a short walk from the station. But we hesitated to appear on their doorstep at a late hour without previous warning. With no cell phone, (we'll travel with one, the next time!) the only way to make a call was during the 12 minute stop in Salt Lake City. But by the time we reached Salt Lake City in the morning, it was looking more and more like we'd arrive in Davis well after midnight.

We traveled though western Utah and most of Nevada, seeing the snow on the desert. The New Zealand couple took lots of photos. Ramshackle wooden houses in rag-tag desert towns looked picturesque to them. We stood for over an hour in a canyon with a freight train ahead of us and a freight train behind. The cold weather had snapped one of the rails, and a crew had to be called in to replace it. The engineer said it often happens on Union Pacific lines, the inference being that they were not well maintained. I felt the same about all the equipment. Everything worked --- more or less. And things were reasonably clean. But it was clear that the cars and the fittings had seen heavy wear.

Sometimes we sat in our roomette and watched the scenery. Sometimes we sat in the lounge car where we talked with other passengers and followed the route on the DeLorme atlases we'd brought along. As we fell further and further behind schedule, people began to bond in mutual resignation.

I was interested in learning why other passengers had taken the train rather than flying or driving. No one admitted to being afraid to fly. Some were frequent train travelers and had experienced delays as long as 24 hours. The majority of the passengers were retirement age people who had time to spare and didn't mind the delays. One younger man, who'd gotten on the train in New York and changed to the California Zephyr in Chicago, said he'd made the cross-country trip four or five times. He seemed eager to engage in philosophical conversations (mostly one-sided) with other passengers. Maybe the attraction of a long train trip was the captive audience. One couple, traveling in response to a sudden death in the family, had been unable to get plane reservations at the last minute because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The husband was calmly reading a book, but his wife was beside herself with nothing to do. I gave her a paper-back book I'd finished reading; I hope it helped. I had reading and knitting to do. My husband always has problems to work on.

Most impatient were the smokers. There was no smoking allowed anywhere on the train and most station stops were so brief that through passengers were not allowed to disembark. The smokers had gathered in one end of the lounge car, and it was not hard to overhear one woman's loud complaint. She recalled past train journeys when there had been a smoking car where smokers stayed up all night, playing cards, drinking and partying. It didn't sound at all appealing to me, but it was clear she really missed it. One crew member who ran the snack bar (imperiously) also served as a kind of recreation director, showing videos and trying to organize tables of bridge or cribbage. I don't think he had very much success with the card games, and after he went through the three videos he had on board, he played them again.

We stopped for about a half hour just before arriving in Winnemuca, Nevada. The crew in the engine had reached the federally mandated limit of hours they could work, and a fresh crew was trucked in. The new engineer had more sympathy with the impatience of the passengers and began to give us more information. That helped a lot. He even took pity on the smokers, and we were allowed off the train for five minutes in Winnemuca, in the dark, in the snow. Everyone, even the non-smokers, took advantage of the break, and I asked the New Zealand couple if they had ever imagined being glad to arrive in Winnemuca.

By this time, many passengers had missed connections. But the engineer began to let us know what the alternatives were and what accommodations Amtrak would make. We were asleep when the train crossed into California and labored over the Sierras, (an unscheduled second night on the train.) By then, it was clear we would not arrive in Emeryville until about 4:00 am and the crew assured passengers that buses would be waiting to transport people to various destinations in California. I was impressed by the passenger service at this point. I also pitied the sleeping car attendants and the dining room and kitchen staff. They had only a few hours off before the return journey to Chicago. Our sleeping car attendant maintained a helpful and cheerful attitude, and I particularly appreciated how often he cleaned the toilet room we all shared.

It was dark and raining when we finally disembarked at the end of the line. A large bus drove five people into San Francisco and the driver was able to tell us that the Caltrain station was open by then. He dropped us off, we bought a ticket from a vending machine and immediately boarded the first southbound train of the morning which was standing ready on the platform.

The local train seemed to fly compared to the speed we had been traveling from Denver to Emeryville: 1400 miles in 36 hours for an average of 38.8 mph.


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