Amtrak Southwest Chief Travelogue
Chicago to California by George Drury
Wednesday, February 7
My trip to California started on train 336, out of Milwaukee at 1:00 p.m. It departed on time, and even before departure an attendant came around with a cart offering drinks and snacks. My first thought was I ought to support this new venture, but when the attendant told the guy behind me that the only sandwich was peanut butter and jelly, I was glad I had finished off the last of the tuna at home. However, food and beverage service is an improvement for the Milwaukee-Chicago trains. Passengers on those trains have long memories, and for about 15 years conductors have routinely announced the lack of food service.
The train was only lightly loaded, and only 2 passengers boarded at Sturtevant (the equipment doubtless carried more passengers on its return from Chicago at 3:15). South of Sturtevant the train glided to a silent halt. Head-end power was restored in 3 minutes and motion in 6. Despite that delay, arrival in Chicago was several minutes ahead of schedule. Sixty years ago the Milwaukee Road advertised 75-minute, 80-minute, and 85-minutes trains over the 85-mile route , with steam power and jointed rail , and I think those timings are still possible.
In Chicago Union Station I found Amtrak's first-class lounge and waited to check in. It took a while. The attendant was busy helping a young man decided whether to ride the Capitol or the Cardinal a week later. The attendant said I'd have to check my larger piece of luggage, a soft bag of a size to fit under the seat in front of me or in one of the overhead storage compartments. She said it was a safety hazard.
"A safety hazard?" I asked. Yes. If the building caught on fire, people might trip over it. So I went back out and down the hall and handed it in at the parcel room. The attendant there said it was hardly worth checking, since train 3 was nearly ready for boarding.
The train was announced about 10 minutes later. There was a major rush of passengers to the parcel room, and underfoot were a whole bunch of little kids, just about the right size and invisibility to trip over. As I went out the gate, someone said "All the way to the left," which I'd have taken to mean track 28 except that another Amtrak employee said "Straight ahead, the train on the left." Amtrak no longer posts train names and destination next to the door to the platform.
My sleeping car was way forward, and only the first few car lengths of the platform were lighted. A little daylight filtered in from the skylights and out of car windows. I showed my yellow boarding pass to the conductor, who wanted instead the ticket. It turns out that the yellow boarding pass is merely admission to the first-class lounge. Had I looked at it, I'd have seen that, but it was pretty dark out there.
The vestibule was full of people who had been told their baggage would be brought out to them and now were being told they'd have to go back into the station to get it. Once that cleared up, I climbed up to the second level, found room 5, and settled in.
The train leaflet describes the Southwest Chief as Amtrak's fastest train between Chicago and Los Angeles. There's not much competition for that honor, I thought, then I remembered the Eagle, which takes 20 hours longer to make the trip, but its route is almost 500 miles longer. Not much competion.
Departure was on time at 3:20, between two Metra trains. Almost immediately the lounge attendant announced that the train would stop in the yard so mail and freight cars could be attached. He warned that we might experience some back-and-forth motion. Well, that's what trains do. Then a soft, husky voice came over the loudspeaker: "Carold, please tell me that you got your delivery from the commissary." Then the afternoon's movie was announced, a Flintstone flick titled "Viva Las Vegas." A voice from a nearby room said "Sh*t, I can't miss that!" I was glad I had a book in my lap and daylight illuminating the scenery outside. Eventually I ambled back to the lounge car for a beer, and I noticed the movie hadn't begun yet.
The train was on time to Galesburg, then inched along as if the brakes were dragging to the junction near Cameron, where the train crossed from the former Burlington line to the former Santa Fe line, then got back up to speed. I chose the 7:00 dinner seating and was seated with a young oriental man already well into his dinner and not at all into conversation. The barbecued ribs were good. I finished the meal with caramel turtle ice cream cake, after thinking ahead to several days with friends who aren't much on dessert. After dinner I talked for a few minutes with Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (it took most of dinner for my brain circuitry to answer the question of where I knew him from).
I hadn't spent much time before dinner in the sleeping car, but when I returned after the meal I was aware that the car was rocking violently. The window curtains were swinging out 8 to 10 inches, and there were loud knocks of metal-to-metal contact. An announcement from the loudspeaker advised passengers in car 331 (my car) that the track between La Plata, Missouri, and Kansas City was rough (adding that the track was owned by the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway) and mentioned that during the service stop west of Kansas City a worn shock absorber on the car would be inspected. I stepped back into the adjacent sleeper, a Superliner of the first series. It was riding smooth and steady. The motion of my sleeping car made reading impossible and a shower inadvisable. I made down the bed, climbed into it, braced my elbows against the sides, and lay there wondering if it was possible for a Superliner sleeping car to rock itself right off the track.
The slow running into Kansas City made sleep possible, but I awoke during the stop to see a three-car Superliner train roll past , probably the Ann Rutledge, due into Kansas City 1 hour and 19 minutes before the Southwest Chief. I slept through the fueling stop at Argentine and the service stop west of there, and awoke as the train left Lawrence or Topeka.
Thursday, February 8
The car was still having its periodic spells of rocking, but they didn't seem quite as violent as before. I was awake long before dawn as the train arrived Dodge City about 45 minutes late. I looked out into the darkness and decided the place didn't look much different from other plains cities , it has a nice old brick station building fenced off and unused , and got up, dressed, shaved, and went to the dining car for breakfast and pleasant conversation across the table.
For a long time I've wanted to experience the Southwest Chief's 100-mile dash from Garden City, Kansas, to Lamar, Colorado. The timetable allows 20 minutes, from 6:47 to 7:07 a.m. It's a respectable burst of speed even after you factor in the time zone difference. "Bleak" was about the kindest word I could think of for the high plains, given the heavy frost on the ground and the thick cloud cover not far above it.
As the train approached La Junta, the conductor warned passengers that the platform there was a sheet of ice and asked attendants not to let passengers off. Then the lounge car attendant said there would be time to step off the train during the stop and use the telephones in the station but don't stray because we don't take a head count. A third voice simply said don't get off. I looked out the door. The platform was wet and salty, no worse than Milwaukee for several months of the year.
Departure from Lamar was 62 minutes late, and arrival at La Junta was only 29 minutes late, a testimony to padding in the schedule. Departure from La Junta was 25 minutes late.
Just out of La Junta the train turned southwest into empty country. There wasn't much to deflect it from a straight line as the track followed watercourses out of the Arkansas Valley. Nor was there much in evidence to delay the train, but it was 12 minutes further behind schedule when it departed Trinidad after a brief stop. I switched to the opposite seat for a while for better light from the window while doing the crossword puzzle in the paper, and realized that the rear-facing seat had a lot more padding , a new seat cushion, which was also obvious from the difference in the color of the upholstery.
I had never ridden over Raton Pass by day (well, not since 1966). It's one of Amtrak's steepest climbs. Historically, it was an odd bump in Santa Fe's route, resulting from the railroad's need for coal and water. The Santa Fe could have bypassed Raton by heading southwest from Dodge City following the route of present-day highway U. S. 56, but when the railroad was built that area was occupied by hostile Indians; moreover, there was little water along that route.
The train climbed up Raton Pass into the clouds. Visibility was perhaps a train length in the fog. Rime on the trees indicated that it was cold outside. In the little settlements along the route there was an occasional effort to spruce up houses, but it was generally thwarted by the local attitude toward dead cars.
The air was clearer south of the summit tunnel, and at Raton the sun almost broke through the overcast. Like several previous stations, Raton occasioned a double stop for the train , and the passenger portion of the train was only eight cars: baggage, transition sleeper (dormitory), two sleepers, diner, lounge, and two coaches.
For lunch I had La Plata Bob Salad, a southwest-influenced salad with grilled chicken on top,
named for the station caretaker at La Plata, Missouri. It was the only specialty item on the menu
(or do I remember an omelet with green chilis at breakfast?). Regional and specialty items would
be welcome additions to a rather bland menu. The menu cards themselves varied from train to train.
On this Southwest Chief there were menus on cardstock, complete with a J. Craig Thorpe painting;
the menu covered all three meals. Two days later, the same menu appeared in photocopy form in a
clear plastic folder, reminiscent of roadside diners and luncheonettes of the 1950s. The
California Zephyr had the same sort of menu but with two dinner menus for the two evenings of the
As the train headed south from Raton it encountered winter weather: snow and complete whiteout
conditions. By Las Vegas the train was out of the snow, and the sun was shining at Lamy. Arrival
was 32 minutes late, but the train was probably early into Albuquerque, given the 47 minutes of
schedule padding from Lamy to Albuquerque.
Saturday, February 10
I got to the Lamy station about 2:20 for the 2:33 departure. My host asked the agent how the train was doing. "About sixish" was her answer. The reason, she said, was that the crew was not rested. We went back to the house, a matter of 5 minutes, and had another beer. We telephoned later on and were told the train would be there between 6:00 and 6:30. We got to the station at 5:55, and my friend left me, after ascertaining there would indeed be a train some time soon. There were four other passengers in the waiting room, and a sign on the ticket counter advised that sleeping car space was available.
The train arrived at 6:25. As it stopped, I scanned the cars. The coaches were up front, so I walked back along the platform. One of the coach attendants called back toward the sleepers that there was a passenger coming. There were no lights on the platform, and I took the brick pavement on faith.
My sleeper attendant said she had made a 6:00 dinner reservation for me but had no idea the train would be so late. She went to check with the steward to see if a 6:30 reservation was available and returned in a few minutes with word that I should go in with the 7:00 seating. That I did as the train stopped at Albuquerque.
I chose the steak which was pretty good, and had another crack at the caramel turtle ice cream cake. I looked around the dining car. The crowd didn't look at all like people used to look in dining cars, nor even as they're pictured in Amtrak brochures. I'm old enough to believe men shouldn't wear hats indoors, and I'm willing to modify that to not wearing hats in nice places to eat , go ahead, wear your Green Bay Packers cap in Burger King, and I won't express out loud my view that it covers up your bald spot nicely.
After dinner I read for a little while, then made the bed down and climbed into it. The car was a first-series Superliner, and my room had a lot of rattles and vibrations, with a cluster of them in the upper berth, but for the night I can't report anything but Gallup (3:14 late) and Needles (3:03 late).
Sunday, February 11
By the time the train reached Barstow (2:06 late) I was in the dining car for breakfast. The waiter cheerfully reported "Everything except grits." Fine with me. Conversation with passengers who had been aboard since Chicago revealed that the train spent several hours at La Junta because the crew that was to take over there had arrived from the west several hours late on February 9 because of bad weather along the way. They were given their full rest period, and I'd rather have a well-rested crew than a fatigued crew up front. Back when Santa Fe ran passenger trains, there were plenty of crews at La Junta, and there probably still are, but only for BNSF freight trains.
Across the aisle there was conversation about medical disasters and medical near-disasters ("She almost had to have it amputated," one of the women hissed.) I was glad to see Cajon Pass by day, even if the scenery isn't especially pretty. The San Gabriel Mountains were capped with snow, and ahead of the train, beyond San Bernardino, I could see the mass of what I later guessed was Mount San Jacinto. There was sunshine at the top of the pass and at the bottom, with clouds in between.
At San Bernardino there were several Metrolink trains waiting out the weekend. Passengers for the northbound Starlight were taken off the train there to be bused to Los Angeles to be assured of making the 9:30 departure for points north along the coast. That bus would have to step right along, and the sleeping car attendant said that No. 3 would probably arrive Los Angeles before the bus did.
Train 3's trip from San Bernardino into Los Angeles via Fullerton was marked by a lack of urgency, but arrival in Los Angeles was at 9:55, only 1 hour 15 minutes late. There's about 40 minutes of slack in No. 3's schedule from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, compared with No. 4's time between those points. On the way in, the train passed the Coast Starlight, which was just beginning to back from the coach yard to the station. Those passengers on the bus would easily make their connection.
A welcome addition to Los Angeles Union Station since my last visit several years ago is a Hertz counter. I got the car, picked up my checked suitcase, and was on my way into the traffic of Los Angeles in a very few minutes.
Postscript: A month later I cashed in some frequent flier miles and flew down to Houston to visit friends. The noisy upper berth in my sleeper room was nothing compared to the noise level in the Saab 340s on which I flew from Memphis to Houston, and, although rumpsprung, the seats in those sleeper rooms were a lot more comfortable than the seats on those planes.
Planes? Yes. It took three tries because of mechanical difficulties and weather, and I arrived Houston not at 3:35 p.m. but at 11:30 p.m. That's later than Amtrak has gotten me anywhere.
Friday, February 16
About 11:00 I walked over to the station from the hotel. About 25 persons were sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the 11:35 departure of train 6, the California Zephyr. The board listing arrivals and departure had more on it than I could remember ever seeing at Sacramento: 14 departing trains plus 4 buses to Stockton to connect with San Joaquin trains.
It was a nice spring day (despite my aunt's comments the previous day about the poor birds/trees/flowers that didn't realize it was still winter , she has forgotten the New England winters of her youth) so I went out to the platform, where a lot more people were waiting.
At 11:15 a westbound freight rolled through the station, crossing to the eastbound track just before reaching the Sacramento River bridge. At 11:30, when No. 6 was due, a short eastbound freight came through. At 11:52 there was a westbound hi-rail truck. At 12:04 I heard another passenger say "They said about 12:15." At 12:14 an Amtrak employee escorted a handicapped passenger out to the platform. The first announcement about the status of the train came at 12:23 (the train had just left Davis). I wondered how much money in fares was represented by that crowd of people standing on the station platform.
Meanwhile a good crowd gathered for Capitol No. 729. The doors of the California cars opened and then beeped every two seconds all the while they were open. We have become a society that needs beeps, or at least that someone thinks needs beeps. I live near Miller Brewing, and during the open window season there's almost always a truck backing up somewhere around the place. In "Fiddler on the Roof," Tevye sings about wanting a yard full of ducks and geese and hens, and each quack and honk and cluck would tell all the neighbors, "Here lives a wealthy man." I hear quick honks in parking lots and think "There drives a wealthy man." I also think, "God has a special place lined up for you."
The train arrived at 12:38. There was no announcement about coaches to the rear and sleeping cars forward. I had taken my clue (which was erroneous) from several people who looked like sleeping car passengers clustered at the west end of the platform.
I boarded car 0632 and found my way to room 8. I found the upper berth down and discovered a beverage cup and a piece of broken glass on the floor. I stowed the berth and put the debris in the trash container. The train pulled out at 12:49, 1 hour and 14 minutes late , 83 miles into a 2436-mile trip.
When the attendant came by to explain how the room worked, I asked if the end door, about 10 feet from my room, could be closed to keep out noise and cold air. He explained that the toilets in the car hadn't functioned for the entire westward trip and the mechanical department people in Oakland tied the end door open that morning so the toilets would work. I didn't believe it then and I still don't, and nobody I've told it to believes it either.
I responded to the call for lunch and was given number 21. I noticed that the four tables nearest the serving area in the center of the car had become storage areas and that the two tables nearest the sleeping cars were reserved for crew, essentially turning the car into a 48-seat diner to serve the equivalent of four 10-6 sleepers and 5 44-seat coaches, a diner-to-revenue-space ratio even worse than that of the old CB&Q-D&RGW-WP California Zephyr. I went back to the sleeper and heard number 1, party of four, called to the dining car. About Roseville the steward got to 21. The grilled chicken sandwich was good, but I looked at the potato chips on the plate and wondered who got the whole ones.
The weather was beautiful, and so was the scenery up over Donner , SP had a far more scenic route than WP, but WP had a good press agent. I spent the afternoon and much of the next day correcting proofs of two books in order to keep the project on schedule. I did look out the window from time to time.
The train was full as far as Reno. There were a number of passengers going as far as Reno in the sleepers, perhaps because the coaches were sold out, perhaps for the relative peace of sleeping car travel. The train stood at Reno from 5:16 to 5:29, then moved ahead a car-length and stopped again for another minute. There was a long announcement about how clearance was necessary to enter the Sparks station, because it was a Union Pacific station, not an Amtrak station, and an admonition not to go into any buildings there. Indeed, all afternoon there had been a steady stream of announcements from the PA system, including a complete recitation of the dinner menu and an announcement that the steward would come through in a few minutes but not right now taking reservations for dinner. The sleeping car attendant repeated many of the announcements, and there was the usual announcement that shoes must be worn. I looked, and mine weren't anywhere near new.
I ordered a beer with dinner. The waitress set down an open bottle of Heineken (but no glass to pour it into) and said "It's not cold." Other dinner failings: No rolls; I ordered mashed potatoes but got baked (that part didn't matter much); the little packet of sour cream came as a island in the juices from the steak and was therefore messy to open. When the steward collected for the beer, I said that this stuff was really a lot better cold than at room temperature. He told me that he didn't have an ice well to keep it in and the refrigerator was small and got opened a lot. I said train 3 served cold beer in the dining car. (He didn't charge me for the beer.)
Across the table was a man who boarded at Reno. He bought his sleeping car space (room 10, between my room and the end of the car) on the train, and he said the conductor gave him a discount because the end door couldn't be closed. After dinner I read for a while, then went downstairs for a shower, on the way asking the attendant if he'd please make down room 8. He did that, but the head end of the bed was up at an angle, and wouldn't stay down when I pushed it into position. The seat cushions didn't line up properly and were thin and hard from years of being sat on, so the bed was hard and lumpy. Even so, I slept pretty well. During the night I woke up cold (the temperature control knob made no difference in the temperature) and tried unfolding the second blanket, which the attendant had rolled and placed lengthwise next to the window. The blanket had seven corners and was three layers thick.
Saturday, February 17
The track out of Salt Lake City ensures that people will be up and heading for diner by Provo. I was joined by two young men, one of whom wolfed breakfast down without any conversation and left (and under most circumstances I don't consider breakfast a social occasion) and a deaf-mute who wasn't much for small talk either ("poor guy," I thought, knowing that pity accomplishes nothing at all).
Half of Castle Gate, for decades a landmark on the Denver & Rio Grande Western, has been knocked down so the highway could be widened. Departure from Helper, Utah, was at 8:01, 31 minutes late.
Before digging in for some more proofreading, I read the Salt Lake City paper. The big item was a discussion of whether Mormons could use caffeine. What brought the matter up was the Coke machines at Brigham Young University. The author concluded that caffeine was permissible cold (Coke, Pepsi, etc.) but not hot (coffee).
The public address system revived, and there was a long advertisement for a video about the California Zephyr, "Silver Thread Through The West." I didn't pop for one but instead enjoyed the scenery, especially the canyon of the Colorado River in the area of the Utah-Colorado state line.
The stop at Grand Junction was long enough for stretching the legs. The station there appears to be undergoing restoration, but for now it's fenced off. Departure was only 12 minutes down. Slow running out of Grand Junction and a meet with a freight added 12 minutes to the delay by the time the train left Glenwood Springs.
I rose to the lunch call like a trout to the fly (the call included a complete reading of the menu) and enjoyed pleasant conversation with the man from Reno and a young woman from Grand Junction who was taking the train to Denver rather than flying.
I finished my proofreading and went back to the sightseer lounge to sit in a more comfortable seat than the ones in my room and enjoy the scenery on both sides of the train. There were lots of kids in the car and there was lots of kids' stuff on the seats and floor. I took a seat near some young women who were talking in incomplete sentences and laughing. (As I wrote that sentence, I realized I had already described several people in this narrative as "young." This may be another symptom of what begins with getting that first copy of "Modern Maturity.") The two boys near me were playing a card game under the watchful eye of their father (also young), who was wearing shoes lettered "All Terrain." The shoes looked like they got off carpet about as often as most SUVs get off pavement. The boys' mother came up from downstairs with snacks. One of the boys got a bowl of Cheerios, and about two minutes later gravity sneaked up on the Cheerios while the boy's attention was elsewhere.
I went back to the sleeper, a Cheerio-free area, in time to hear a long announcement about dinner reservations followed by a repeat of the same announcement. Then came choo-choo, ding-dong, and toot-toot sounds as a prelude to an invitation from the car attendant to come to the center of the car for fruit and cookies. It too was repeated. A 25-minute wait at Dell for train 5, the westbound California Zephyr, added to the delay, and the train left Granby after the briefest of stops at 5:18, 1 hour and 1 minute down. East of Granby there were several westbound freights in sidings and on double track. The station stop at Fraser, which now also serves as the Winter Park stop, took 7 minutes, and departure was 1 hour and 7 minutes late.
As the train approached Moffat Tunnel, there were dire warnings from the PA system about the dangers of passing between cars while the train was in the tunnel. Passengers in car 0632 were asked to keep their room doors closed , that in preference to the risk imposed by closing the end door (the toilets would stop working). The trip through the 6.2-mile tunnel took 12 minutes. As the train emerged from the East Portal, I cautiously slid open my door and sniffed. No exhaust smell. The ventilation fans in the tunnel must work okay.
The dinner sittings were early (4:45, 5:30, 6:15, and 7:00) so the crew could clean up and close the car by the time it reached Denver (well, no, the crew and the car were continuing on to Chicago), and it was announced that if time permitted there would be another dinner seating as the train departed Denver (translation: don't count on it). I had a reservation for the 7:00 dinner sitting. I entered the dining car and the steward seated me opposite a pleasant-looking couple. We had about half a sentence of conversation when the steward asked me to move to a single seat at the other end of the car so he could seat two people where I was sitting. So I went. I was seated with three people who were just finishing their 6:15 dinner and departed almost immediately. I had a solitary dinner amid the debris of their dinners. The trout was good; the ambience was not. I began to think that Amtrak could provide a smooth ride or a good meal or a comfortable bed or courteous service or on-time performance but no combination of those.
I know Amtrak's timekeeping depends on the freight railroads on whose rails Amtrak runs. I know that Amtrak can't compete with the airlines in the matter of overall travel time, but it should try to do better than Conestoga wagons. The times printed in the timetable should mean something other than "it won't leave before this time." The several hours of padding in the schedules of the trains from the west coast to Chicago lets those trains arrive in Chicago on time, but passengers at points along the way deserve better timekeeping. I've waited at some of those little stations , no shelter, no information, no plumbing. Too, passengers continuing beyond Chicago are likely to fret about connections, especially passengers who don't realize that even if the train is 2 hours late at Omaha, it could arrive Chicago ahead of schedule. Several years ago the Eurailpass folks sent me a watch as a reward for filling out the form listing all the trains I had ridden (good grief, another railfan , we lost money on him). Amtrak recently sent me a calendar. What's the implication?
At 7:52 the steward announced the dining car was closed and if there were no delays it would reopen upon leaving Denver (translation: don't count on it). Just then the train came to a stop under a freeway. I could see a sign for Exit 212C, 20th Street. Maybe a mile from Union Station. The train was due in Denver at 7:55. Remember that it left Fraser 1 hour and 7 minutes late, and the line from East Portal to Denver is not a place for Engineer Oldcrock to jam the throttle in Run 8 and make up time. Padding, that's what it is.
At 7:57 the train moved again around a wye past some grounded boxcar hulks. At 8:03 a trainperson announced the Denver stop , there would be time to get off and stretch the legs. She said "we are at our departure time" [which was 8:15] so don't stray far from the train. The train backed down along track 1, uncoupled a mail car at 8:14, and stopped at 8:17 (22 minutes late) next to the Ski Train; beyond the Ski Train was the American Orient Express.
For the 1000-mile trip across the plains to Chicago, Amtrak decided two diesel units were sufficient and parked one of the three in Denver. No, not the lead unit, but the third unit, which required several switching moves, during which the train had no light.
At 8:48, head-end power having been restored, the steward announced the last call to dinner. At 8:51 the power went off again, then came back on. At 8:53 there was an announcement asking visitors to leave the train. Departure was at 8:58. The train stopped at 9:00, then went, then stopped at 9:03, then backed up, made two more stops, and at 9:09 moved ahead a little. Actual departure, the sort of thing where the train accelerates and keeps going, was at 9:17.
When the attendant offered to make down my bed, I told him about one end of the bed not staying down. He used a roll of toilet paper as a wedge to hold the bed down. He seemed to know how to do that real well.
Sunday, February 18
I awoke as the train left Omaha and looked at my watch: 6:42. After four resettings for time zone changes, I'd admit a two-minute error and say the train was on time. The train was 1:14 late at Sacramento, 12 minutes late at Grand Junction, 1:07 late at Fraser, within hailing distance of Denver Union Station 3 minutes before scheduled arrival time, at least 43 minutes late out of Denver (depending on what constitutes departure), and on time at Omaha.
Out of the window of the dining car I saw the remains of a coal train derailment at Red Oak, then several miles east of there, several piggyback trailers that looked rather used up (a few miles farther east is where the California Zephyr derailed in mid-March).
The man and woman opposite me discovered they were both going to Syracuse, and there was a moment of major astonishment. (People used to say "Oh, wow!" I don't think they say that these days.) They talked about tai chi and yoga. Years ago my grandmother, who lived deep in the heart of northern California, asked about yoga. I told her it was kind of like sour cream. The answer seemed to satisfy her. Breakfast was good, if leisurely , the order got lost for a while in the elevator.
The train continued east across Iowa, late at Creston, later at Osceola, on time at Ottumwa. I talked for a while with Curtis Katz, whose occupations include coach attendant and cartoonist for Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
At 11:45 the dining car steward announced lunch. He said it was the sixth day of the trip and some menu items were running short (don't they restock the car in Oakland?) and he would make the last call as the train left Burlington, because of the arrival time in Chicago , and he didn't say that arrival in Chicago would be than 4 hours after departure from Burlington. Long ago the dining car of the Denver Zephyr began serving breakfast somewhere around Burlington and kept at it much of the way to Chicago, which was a little more than 3 hours away in those days. Having finished breakfast about 9:30, I'd have been glad to have lunch at 1:00 or 1:30. A moment later the lounge car attendant announced he was taking a break for lunch. The dining car made its last call at 12:11, and the snack counter in the lounge car reopened at 12:50, but the attendant said he would close as the train left Galesburg.
It occurred to me that all the way along I had been hearing announcements about the lounge car closing and reopening. I certainly don't begrudge the attendant his breaks and his meals, but might it be worth having a second lounge attendant? All that non-service in the lounge car seems like closing a restaurant at noon so the waitresses can go home for lunch. When the attendant announced the closing, he said it had been a pleasure serving us. Why not continue the pleasure a bit longer?
As the train approached Chicago, the car attendant asked how I had enjoyed my trip. I told him it was not the relaxed, quiet, first-class experience I had hoped for and paid for. He said the ride was a piece of cake compared to the trip west a few days earlier.
The train stopped in the Chicago coach yard at 3:42 to uncouple the Roadrailers and mail cars. It inched into the station, the head end power flickered off and on (as it had during the whole trip), and there was an admonition from the loudspeaker to be seated for safety. Arrival , the point where the train stops and they open the doors and they ask everyone to remain in their rooms while they unload the baggage , was at 3:58, 22 minutes ahead of schedule.
I had time for a late lunch (or early supper) in Chicago Union Station before boarding the 5:08 train back to Milwaukee. The train was comfortable and fast and on time, and I always enjoy the way the train to Milwaukee accelerates away from Western Avenue in Chicago.
Postscript: In a phone conversation a month after my trip, Philip Larson, Product Manager for the
California Zephyr said he really does read the comment cards. That dining car steward had been
reported several times and would be called on the carpet. He added that there's no need to shut
down the diner at Burlington and the lounge at Galesburg. I should think a last call at Princeton,
104 miles from Chicago, would be sufficient. It isn't so long ago that Amtrak was able to serve two complete sittings of breakfast out of Milwaukee on the 7:20 train (wait, that was 1972 , but have they forgotten everything they knew?).
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