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Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales

The California Zephyr, August 2000

Page 9

Wednesday August 16,
Pacific Time

The next thing I knew it was 6:30am. Normally much too early for me, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. Mom got up soon after I woke, but I stayed in bed quite awhile to get the cobwebs out of my head. I leaned over the bunk to look out the window upside down. From the golden scrub brush I knew we were in Nevada. I laid back in bed and listened to the morning announcements. They said we had made up some time overnight. There was a rumor floating around that the train may have exceeded its 79 MPH speed limit just a tad during the night.

At 7:15 I got up slowly, cleaned myself up, and watched the scenery. I’ve always enjoyed the Nevada desert. Here in the northern areas one finds much more vegetation, dry as it is, than in the south.

We had breakfast at 9:10, and while we were eating we stopped in Winnemucca. We were not far from where we had dinner on the eastbound trip. I ordered the Golden Gate plate of eggs and shredded potatoes. These were not crispy like hash browns, but soft and buttery. It tasted like an old fashioned diner recipe. I thorough,y enjoyed my breakfast.

Later in the morning Liz found the article about Amtrak being in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms, so around 10:45 I took it down to Doras who was in #12 on the lower level. She invited me to sit down and she educated me about the politics of Amtrak. She mentioned that there was a vote coming up in Congress that would allow states to use federal ground transportation funds for rail projects, something they cannot now do. (The bill was defeated a few months later by a narrow margin.)

We also talked about the differences between Superliner I and Superliner II models. Doras said she preferred the closet in the earlier model, instead of the rod here. But I told her I liked having easy access to the hanging stuff. She also thought they always kept the air conditioning on too high. I came to agree with her later in the day when I had to put on a sweater, even though it was at least 80F outside.

She also talked about her experience on a Viewliner single-level sleeper they use back east. They can’t use bi-level equipment there because many of the tunnels are too short. On the Viewliner she was so thrilled to see a window on the upper bunk that she decided to sleep there instead of the lower one. The attendant didn’t think it wise for a woman of her age to climb up into a bunk, but she insisted and had a great view from her bed. I mentioned that the Superliners really needed to have a window, even a small one, by the head of the upper bunk to relieve the closed-in feeling with the ceiling so close.

As we talked about the car’s features she asked for a wish list of things that I thought could be improved. After I excused myself I went and made a list in my little log book, and e-mailed it to her a few days later. Among other things I mentioned the rest rooms. They were just too tiny. In our eastbound Superliner I the upstairs toilet was arranged differently from all others. Instead of the toilet facing the door, it faced one end of the car. This gave it a whole square foot of extra floor space which really made a difference in comfort. Plus the paper dispenser was right in front of you instead of at an awkward angle on the side. As a bonus, it also had a window so one didn’t have to miss the scenery, and a curtain offered privacy if you were passing through a populated area. As the trip wore on, I found myself going to the adjacent Superliner I car when I needed to, just for the extra space.

At 12:08 we stopped in Sparks. As in Grand Junction we had to make two stops. The passengers on the private cars got off and were bussed a couple of miles to Reno. We then learned that those people were from a company which was rewarding them with a trip for being good employees.

Ten minutes after leaving Sparks we made our stop in Reno. Our train was blocking a street, and a woman who was waiting in her car behind the crossing gate got out and walked over to an adjacent store and went in for a minute before returning to her car. It looked like she had done that before.


We got to Truckee at 1:50. At 2:05 there was an announcement that one of our locomotives had broken down and we would need to wait for two helper locomotives from Reno to help pull us over the mountains. While we were waiting we went to the diner for lunch. From there we could easily see town’s activity on both sides of us. At 2:38 two locomotives passed, one yellow Union Pacific unit and one black Southern Pacific unit. Soon after the electricity went out for about five minutes while the helpers were attached .The diner got a bit stuffy without power for the ventilation. But I was enjoying my hamburger. This one had a lightly toasted sesame seed bun and it was much better than on the eastbound train.

But there would be more delays. The crew determined that passengers connecting to the San Joaquins would need to get off here and be bussed to their connection. Our train wouldn’t make it on time. So at 3:17 passengers were being unloaded. The people of Truckee seemed none too pleased as we were blocking traffic at a cross street. We watched several people on both sides attempt to turn around and find alternate routes.

Finally at 3:22 we were moving forward again! The crew chief said Emeryville was six hours away, which would make us about three and a half hours late.

By 3:37 we were back in our car and at 3:40 we were passing Donner Lake. Five minutes later we stopped above the lake to allow Train #6 to pass. At 3:52 the dining car steward announced that the diner would be open much later than planned due to delays. Although dinner was not scheduled to be served, late lunches were still available for awhile.

As we climbed upwards into the mountains I looked ahead and saw our two helper locomotives. These units were belching a lot of thick, black smoke. Our Amtrak Genesis locomotives rarely had any visible emissions, and when they did, they were pretty light. At 3:52 Entered Mt. Judah tunnel and I was able to see the locomotives enter ahead of us.We exited the tunnel at 3:55. At 4:00 we stopped at Norden to remove helper the engines. From there it was downhill all the way.

An afternoon snack

At 5:30 Liz, Heidi & I went to the snack bar for snacks. I got a sweet roll and some milk. We went to the rear of the lower level and sat at a table. Across from us was a man with two boys. After a little while Heidi went back while Liz & I talked to him. It was his first train trip. He thought it would be fun to take the boys on a little tour of the country. They came from somewhere in the southwest and they were making a loop through Denver, to California, down to LA then home. They would be spending a couple nights in Emeryville near the station, and wanted to tour San Francisco the following day. He asked about bus service, but I suggested they find the nearest BART station and ride it under the bay to the Powell Street station. From there they could take cable cars over the hills. He thought that was a great idea.

After awhile Liz left, but I kept up the conversation. The man was complaining about our lateness. He had overheard some members of the crew who were angry that the private cars had been the major cause of our delays. He said, since they were angry, he had a right to be angry too. I said that trains are often late, but speed was not the reason for riding them in the first place. Rather it was to see the country. He agreed and decided it was best just to enjoy the ride. He later said I had helped calm him down, and that he wasn’t concerned anymore.

As we passed the American River Canyon I had him and the boys come over to my side to see. After a bit more conversation I excused myself and returned to the family.

Somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00 I went downstairs to get some snacks to hold me over. I picked out a muffin and some juice. Gail, the attendant, let me have it for free, due to the lack of dinner available. She was giving out quite a bit of stuff to others as well.

At 7:04 we arrived in Roseville. We asked A.J. about where Mom & Liz would connect to the Coast Starlight. A few minutes later we were told they would connect at Emeryville, as the Starlight was also running late.

We made it to Sacramento at 7:35. We pulled alongside a Capitol Corridor train and I was able to see inside of both the upper and lower levels of one of its California Cars. Very luxurious for a commuter train. Liz and I then went outside where it was hot, but dry. Much more comfortable than Denver. However, I felt a bit out of place with my sweater on. The fully functional air conditioning had fooled me into thinking we were in a cooler climate.

Liz and I, along with A.J., Doras, and a few other passengers were milling around the platform. I was fairly close to the door when I noticed the train was moving! A.J. yelled "All Aboard" and we all hopped in as fast as we could. Then it stopped again. A.J. was not pleased. He had not heard the whistle and he asked us if we had. No one did, but we weren’t listening for it. As soon as the train started moving he said he signaled the engineer to stop.

Doras said "This is going into my report." One fellow, who acted like a conductor but wasn’t in a uniform, said "Don’t worry, we won’t leave you. If that ever happens just wait and we’ll stop for you." Thanks. Exactly how were we to know that if you don’t tell us beforehand?

At 7:57 we were out of Sacramento. I noticed the handicapped room was vacant so I looked inside to see the layout. This was certainly the most spacious room on the train. On the left side was a setup similar to our little rooms, with two seats facing each other. On the other side was a large bathroom facility with a privacy curtain. In the middle was a place to lock down a wheelchair.

We got to Davis at 8:22 after which it began getting dark. A.J. soon made an announcement that he would be collecting our pillows after Martinez, where we arrived at 9:09, four hours late.

The end of the line

I was on the left side of the train as we pulled into Emeryville at 9:55. Mom and I had put together some tip money for A.J. and I handed it to him as we got off. Heidi’s Mom and Dad were a short way down the platform to greet us. We walked and walked, and I realized we had to go a lot farther because of all the private cars ahead of us. Through the windows we were able to see what those cars looked like inside. They were extremely luxurious. They had clearly gotten a modern makeover. The dome car had sleek wooden railings with a row of lights underneath them. We could see into the sleeping cars as well, but these looked more like their original configuration. The silver car said California Zephyr on the side.

We hung around the station, keeping an eye on the baggage claim area. Nothing happened for along time, so at 10:25 I went to the desk clerk who said it would be another 15 to 20 minutes before we would have our bags. That seemed a like an awfully long time, given that we had been waiting 30 minutes already. I saw Doras filling literature racks (the lady must be perpetually on-duty) and I mentioned that I thought that was excessive. She agreed.

Finally I saw the train pull forward and the baggage car was out front. As bags were being unloaded people began lining up alongside it. I went to investigate, and saw some people getting their bags right there, while other bags were being unloaded on the other side onto a cart. That’s where ours went. I had in my hand a little brochure about baggage service and it said our bags were guaranteed to be in our hands within 30 minutes of arrival. It was now more than 45 minutes. I read it out loud to the baggage handlers then went back inside.

I finally took possession of our bags at 10:50, almost a full hour after our arrival. The cart had come around, but instead of taking the cargo to the baggage claim area, they just started handing them out right on the platform. I saw ours and grabbed them off the cart myself. The fellow who acted like a conductor but didn’t dress like one took my claim tickets. I mumbled a complaint about how disorganized this all was, and he told me to chill out. It was a frustrating end to an otherwise great trip.

My mother in law asked if we wanted to wait to see Mom & Liz off on the Starlight, which would arrive after 11:00pm, at least two hours late. Although I wanted to, I was pretty tired and hungry. I thought it best that we get moving. We said our goodbyes, and rode back to San Mateo via the Bay Bridge. Our crossing of the bay offered a nice view of The City at night. I had trouble staying awake, but my wife was alert enough to tell her mom and dad all about our adventures. We Arrived in San Mateo around 11:30. I had a bowl of soup and went to bed.


Mom & Liz arrived in Salem Thursday afternoon. They had a good trip, but they had some trouble with a cranky dining car steward. They missed dinner the night before because the Starlight's diner was closed when they boarded. In the morning they got a number for breakfast, and waited in the lounge car. They hadn’t heard their number for a long time and when Liz went to inquire she was told the diner had closed until lunch. The attendant said she had announced their number and scolded Liz for not hearing it. Liz complained to the Chief of Onboard Services. He told Liz that the PA system in the lounge was out of order, and the diner attendant knew that. The attendant was instructed to go into the lounge to announce numbers, which she failed to do. For compensation, the Chief gave them free food from the snack bar for breakfast, and later, a free lunch in the diner.

Thursday night, back at home, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was still on the train. I stumbled to the bathroom walking with my legs slightly spread, as I would on board. It was not unlike my experience waking early Sunday morning in Denver and thinking we were stopped at a station.

I have since kept in touch with Doras. I’ve sent her some news clippings about Amtrak and Monterey County rail issues. And we’ve talked on the phone a couple times about rail advocacy issues. She is a busy lady! Doras was developing a network of volunteers to be station hosts, like the hostess we had in Denver, all over Amtrak‘s western division. Her latest project is to set up a committee to improve relations with the freight railroads, and she reports she has rounded up some prominent railroad experts to do the job.

Meanwhile, we can’t wait for our next train ride!

Eastbound: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Denver: | 5 | 6 | Westbound: | 7 | 8 | 9 |

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