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Eric & Pat's 2004 Trip on the California Zephyr

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Eric in East County

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Our San Diego-Toledo-San Diego trip made in 2004 was notable for several firsts: it was the first and only time we traveled on the California Zephyr, it was the first time we packed along a radio scanner, and it was the first time we wrote out a trip report to share with family and friends. Our trip began with a stop-off in Santa Barbara to attend our son Bret’s graduation from UCSB. From there we took the Coast Starlight up to Emeryville to catch the CZ for the eastbound passage to Chicago. (The return trip was made on the Southwest Chief.) Since our 2004 trip report was never posted on AU, we thought we’d share it with you now. Because this trip was made 16 years ago, we’ve added some annotations in italics to clarify a few points.

Eric & Pat


Part 1: San Diego to Toledo, Ohio

Stage 1: San Diego to Santa Barbara (June 11th)
We arrived at the San Diego Santa Fe Depot at 5:15 a.m. to catch Pacific Surfliner #763, scheduled to depart at 6:12. There were only about 5 other people in the waiting room, and the ticket office was still closed. While we were waiting, we overheard a conversation about a recent fire north of Santa Barbara that had damaged a trestle. Apparently, the route was now closed to all rail traffic, and northbound passengers were being bused from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.

The ticket office opened at 5:30 a.m. with a cheery taped message, welcoming riders on board Amtrak. By this time, a great many more passengers were starting to arrive, although the station was not nearly as crowded as we had expected it to be on a Friday. The platform gates opened promptly at 6:00 a.m., and we were soon seated on board a Pacific Surfliner unreserved coach. We departed San Diego on schedule at 6:12 a.m.

When the conductor collected our tickets, we asked about the damaged trestle and were told that it was in the Gaviota area, just north of Santa Barbara. The steel trestle was OK, but the wooden deck had been damaged. As a result, passengers on board the north bound Coast Starlight were being bused from L.A. to San Luis Obispo and would catch their train there. The trestle was being repaired and was due to be back in service later that day.

Southern California's typical thick cloud cover (aka "June gloom") was much in evidence as we headed north. At Del Mar, the tracks began to parallel the ocean, and, although it was not yet 7:00 a.m., surfers were already dotting the water. Just south of San Juan Capistrano, the right-of-way veered off to the northeast and away from the ocean. The sun finally started to burn through the murk at 7:37 a.m., not long after we left the San Juan Capistrano station.

At Fullerton, our car began to noticeably fill up with passengers. We arrived and departed Los Angeles Union Station right on schedule. (Upon departure, the rear end of the train became the front end for the rest of the trip north.)

By the time we departed Chatsworth, our car was just about filled to capacity. Also, the last of the haze had burned away and it was now a clear, sunny day.

Just outside Camarillo, we had a 20-minute siding wait for a south-bound Pacific Surfliner to pass us. (Up to this point, we had been running exactly on schedule.)

Just north of Ventura, the tracks again began to parallel the ocean, and the scenery was right out of an Amtrak travel brochure.

We arrived in Santa Barbara only 15 minutes behind schedule.

Stage 2: Santa Barbara to Emeryville (June 13th)
We departed Santa Barbara on schedule on board a Coast Starlight "Superliner" coach.

After about 30 minutes, we could see signs of the recent fire on either side of the right-of-way. The conductor announced that ours was the first northbound Coast Starlight to come through here since the fire.

We eventually worked our way through the burned area. The ocean was on our left and rolling grazing land was to our right. The weather was perfect.

Near the southern boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base, an automatic sensor reported something that caused the crew to stop the train and conduct an outside visual inspection down the entire length of both of its sides. 10 minutes later we were rolling again.

We arrived and departed San Luis Obispo on schedule.

At Santa Margarita, we passed the southbound Coast Starlight, waiting for us on a siding.

After leaving Santa Margarita, we traveled at what seemed like a snail's pace. Thanks to a past experience, we knew that Southern California Amtrak trains have to run at greatly reduced speeds following an earthquake. However, no announcement was made, and we eventually concluded that the slow speed was due to freight traffic ahead. We were 40 minutes behind schedule when we departed Paso Robles at 5:25 p.m.

Across from the Camp Roberts Military Reservation, we had a long siding wait for freight traffic. We were 80 minutes behind schedule when we departed Salinas at 7:56 p.m.

Between Gilroy and San Jose, the engineer was able to make up some of the lost time, and we arrived at Emeryville at 10:58 p.m., only 56 minutes behind schedule.
 

Eric in East County

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Stage 3: Emeryville to Chicago (June 14th-16th)
We departed Emeryville on schedule on board the California Zephyr in "Superliner" Coach 0632, Bedroom B. Our car attendant was Janell.

Almost immediately, we received the bad news that, due to track maintenance, our train would be detoured through Wyoming and we would miss seeing the Colorado River gorges. [This was a major disappointment for us since seeing the Colorado River gorges was why we’d chose to travel east on the California Zephyr. We now travel exclusively on the Southwest Chief where the scenery is guaranteed.]

After departing Emeryville, we broke out our scanner and started monitoring radio traffic to and from our train. (Among other things, we learned that we would be waiting at Davis for a westbound Amtrak train to arrive and drop off a passenger. Later, we heard our engineer report a tie fire.)

At Sacramento, volunteers from the California Railroad Museum came on board to provide an on-going commentary on points of interest along the route we were traveling.

First call for lunch in the dining car was at 12:30 p.m. It had been two years since we had last eaten in an Amtrak diner. This time, it seemed like there were fewer waiters, and we had to ask for water with our meal rather than having it served as a matter of course. There were still tablecloths on the tables, but the individual place settings had paper napkins. Also, if you wanted your dessert a la mode, you had to pay extra for the ice cream, even if you were a sleeping car passenger. (We got around this by ordering one ice cream and one regular dessert and then splitting our portions.) We ate lunch with a couple from the Reno area who were returning from a weekend spent in Sacramento. All the while we were eating, we were climbing the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Range.

After lunch, we moved to the observation/lounge car, where we had ringside seats for the outstanding Sierra Nevada scenery. (Because of our interest in the building of the first transcontinental railroad, this passage over the historic right-of-way through the Sierra Nevada Range was the highlight of our eastbound trip.)

At Sparks, Nevada, we returned to our bedroom to get ready for dinner.

We had supper with a retired couple from Illinois who were returning from visiting a daughter in California. They were excellent dinner companions; the type that make eating in the dining car such an enjoyable experience. The lamb shanks were excellent, and the chocolate cake was a "chocoholic's" dream.

We departed Winnemucca at 7:55 p.m., only 40 minutes behind schedule.

Just before we turned in for the night, we set our clocks ahead one hour to Mountain Time.

We woke up about 6:45 a.m. near the Nevada-Wyoming border. A copy of USA TODAY had already been slid under our door, and Janell had an excellent pot of coffee going in the center vestibule.

Our congenial companions at breakfast were Bill, a retired drama teacher, and Mike, a representative from the laminated timber industry and a self-confessed "train nut." Off to the southwest, we could see a distant range of snow-capped mountains.

After breakfast, we spent the morning in the observation/lounge car watching the Wyoming landscape go by. Those who are concerned about the U.S not being big enough to hold its population should travel through southern Wyoming. For mile after mile, there was nothing but wide-open spaces, with almost no signs of human habitation. Antelope sightings were frequent, and wooden snow fences close to the tracks bore mute testimony to what this area must be like in the dead of winter.

At 2:30 p.m., our train made a brief, unscheduled stop at Laramie to allow passengers to get off and stretch their legs. When we were rolling again, the conductor announced that we would be making a crew change at Cheyenne. (Trivia Note: this stretch between Cheyenne and Laramie is where most of the action for the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille film UNION PACIFIC takes place.)

At our request, Janell found out from the conductor that the radio channel being used by our train from Cheyenne into Denver would be Channel 69.

At 4:38 p.m., we encountered storm clouds. 30 minutes later, we could see forked lightning to the west.

We had dinner with a retired couple from Rochester, New York, returning from their granddaughter's high school graduation in Martinez, California. By this time, we were on the outskirts of Denver, and a light rain was falling.

Following the scheduled service stop, we departed Denver at 8:08 p.m., about 30 minutes behind schedule. Almost immediately, we came to a halt and had to wait 45 minutes because a semi truck and a freight train had tangled somewhere up ahead.

We set our clocks ahead an hour to Central Time before retiring for the night.

We woke up just after 7:00 a.m. Central Time. At about 7:38, we crossed a wide river that we took to be the Missouri and the boundary between Nebraska and Iowa.

Our companion for breakfast was a woman from Pittsburgh, who was returning from Seattle. (She had taken the Empire Builder on her trip westward.)

We departed Creston, Iowa at 9:03 a.m., 92 minutes behind schedule. An announcement was made that we could expect delays because of freight traffic and track work.

At Ottumwa, Iowa we changed engine crews.

Our lunch companions this day included Lou, a train buff who was traveling on an Amtrak rail pass. So far, he'd gone from his home in South Carolina to Los Angeles via New Orleans. From L.A, he had gone north up to Vancouver and had then taken an eastbound Canadian passenger train across Canada. He then went west on the Empire Builder and was now coming east again on the Zephyr. (We certainly hope he submits a trip report giving the full particulars of his various rail travels on that one pass!)

We were about 2 hours behind schedule when we left Burlington, Iowa.

Just as we were departing Galesburg, Illinois, an announcement was made to stop the train because of a medical emergency in one of the coaches. Also, a request was made for assistance from any trained medical personnel who might be on board. (From our scanner, we learned that a coach passenger had suffered a seizure.) Our departure from Galesburg was delayed about 40 minutes while local emergency personnel arrived on the scene and the stricken passenger was removed from the train. We were now running about 2 hours and 40 minutes behind schedule.

Just outside Chicago, an announcement was made that the Capitol Limited, due to depart at 5:35 p.m., would be held for connecting passengers.

We arrived in Chicago at 5:38 p.m., a little over 2 hours behind schedule.
 

Eric in East County

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Stage 4: Chicago to Toledo (June 16th)
After detraining, we made our way into Chicago Union Station and headed for the South Waiting Room. [Back then, we were unaware that, as arriving sleeping car passengers, we could have waited for our Capitol Limited train in the Metropolitan Lounge.]

The waiting room was jammed to capacity. In addition to those waiting to depart on the Capitol Limited, there were also passengers still waiting to board the #3 Southwest Chief, which had already been delayed two hours because of "equipment problems." An announcement was made that the departure of the Capitol Limited would also be delayed because of "equipment problems."

Among the passengers waiting for the #3 Southwest Chief were a number of Boy Scouts in uniform. We talked with one of their leaders and learned that they were from Detroit, and that they were on their way to the Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico. We also saw an Amish couple, dressed in their traditional garb.

At about 6:30 p.m., passengers for #3 finally were allowed to board. This eased the waiting room congestion somewhat, since passengers for the Lake Shore Limited, scheduled to depart at 7:20 p.m., were now starting to arrive in force.

By this time, the stress and strain of dealing with so many hot, impatient passengers was starting to take its toll on the Amtrak station personnel. We heard one uniformed gate attended snap at a customer who had apparently tried to argue with her as to what gate he should be at.

The Capitol Limited eventually left Chicago Union Station at 7:39 p.m., a little over two hours late and just behind the Lake Shore Limited, which left more or less on time.

After leaving Chicago, we set our watches ahead one hour to Eastern Standard Time.

All during the trip to Toledo, there were frequent stops to allow freight traffic to pass. This included a 20-minute wait only 6 miles from the Toledo station.

We arrived in Toledo in the wee hours of the morning and considerably behind schedule. Despite the late arrival, there was a large crowd of eastbound passengers waiting to board, as well as people there to pick up arriving passengers. By good fortune, one lone cab driver was on hand, and we were soon on our way to our hotel.
 

Eric in East County

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PART 2: WESTBOUND TO SAN DIEGO
Stage 1: Toledo to Chicago (June 30th)
Our hotel's shuttle bus dropped us off at Toledo's Central Union Station at 5:55 a.m. The ticket window was already open and there were passengers on hand waiting for the Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited, both due to arrive within the hour. A nice display of historic photos of the current station and its predecessor was hanging on one of the waiting room walls.

The Lake Shore Limited arrived at 6:23 a.m. and the Capitol Limited at 6:30.

We departed Toledo on board a Capitol Limited reserved coach at 5:56 a.m., only 13 minutes behind schedule. Almost immediately we had to stop and wait for a freight train to pass. Once we got rolling again, however, we were soon up to express train speed and continued at this pace all the way to our first scheduled stop at Waterloo, Indiana.

As we approached the station at Elkhart, vintage passenger cars and engines that were part of a local railroad museum could be seen on our left. Among the passengers who got on at Elkhart was an Amish family that included several children.

Just outside of South Bend, an announcement was made that we were entering the Central Time Zone. We set our watches back an hour.

At 9:54 a.m. Central Time, Lake Michigan came into view on our right.

We came to a stop inside the Chicago Union Station train shed at 10:48 a.m., only 13 minutes behind schedule.
 

Eric in East County

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PART 2: WESTBOUND TO SAN DIEGO

Stage 1: Toledo to Chicago (June 30th)
Our hotel's shuttle bus dropped us off at Toledo's Central Union Station at 5:55 a.m. The ticket window was already open and there were passengers on hand waiting for the Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited, both due to arrive within the hour. A nice display of historic photos of the current station and its predecessor was hanging on one of the waiting room walls.

The Lake Shore Limited arrived at 6:23 a.m. and the Capitol Limited at 6:30.

We departed Toledo on board a Capitol Limited reserved coach at 5:56 a.m., only 13 minutes behind schedule. Almost immediately we had to stop and wait for a freight train to pass. Once we got rolling again, however, we were soon up to express train speed and continued at this pace all the way to our first scheduled stop at Waterloo, Indiana.

As we approached the station at Elkhart, vintage passenger cars and engines that were part of a local railroad museum could be seen on our left. Among the passengers who got on at Elkhart was an Amish family that included several children.

Just outside of South Bend, an announcement was made that we were entering the Central Time Zone. We set our watches back an hour.

At 9:54 a.m. Central Time, Lake Michigan came into view on our right.
We came to a stop inside the Chicago Union Station train shed at 10:48 a.m., only 13 minutes behind schedule.

Stage 2: Chicago to Fullerton, CA., (June 30-July 2nd)

Once inside Union Station, we made our way to the Metropolitan Lounge, which had been temporarily relocated to a large room just off the Great Hall. (We later learned from an old floor plan of the station that it had originally been a dining room.) After being issued "flash passes" so we could get back into the lounge, we checked our carry-on luggage next door and then grabbed a bite to eat in the station's "food court."
Seating inside the lounge was somewhat limited, and by 1:11 p.m., the overflow had to sit out on the hard benches in the Great Hall.

At about 2:50 p.m. the conductor of the Southwest Chief arrived and started collecting sleeping car tickets there in the lounge. At 3:10 p.m., an Amtrak agent escorted passengers from the lounge to the boarding gate for early boarding. Once we were all at the gate, however, there was a 10-minute delay before we could actually walk out onto the platform. By 3:20 p.m., we were situated in sleeper #0331, bedroom E. Our car attendant was Kevin.

We rolled out of the train shed at 3:52 p.m. Almost immediately, we were up to speed and racing out of Chicago.

At 4:10, we came to a sudden stop and temporarily lost electrical power. We were soon on our way, however, and when we departed Mendota at 5:22, we were only 55 minutes behind schedule.

By the time we reached Galesburg, we were already seated in the dining car having dinner. We noted that #3 still offered linen napkins and had fresh flowers at each table. Also, there was no extra charge to have your dessert a la mode. Our waitress was Peggy. (We had outstanding dining car food and service for the entire trip.) On the cover of the menu was a great quote from Willie Nelson that is worth repeating: "Most people have the fantasy of catching the train that whistles in the night."

We had dinner with a couple from Florida who were heading for Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. They had come up from Florida on board an Amtrak sleeper to Washington, D.C. and had taken the Capitol Limited from there to Chicago. (Their experiences on the northbound train from Florida apparently did not endear them to Amtrak!)

We crossed the Mississippi River at 7:27 p.m.

In the early hours of the morning, we were awakened by the vibration and swaying of our car from what was obviously a high-speed night passage.

When we peeked out of our window at 7:20 a.m., it was foggy. 15 minutes later, it was sunny and clear.
To our surprise, we were just outside Lamar, Colorado and only about 21 minutes behind schedule. We set our clocks back an hour to Mountain Time.

There was a waiting list for seating in the diner that morning, and we had to spend a few minutes in the lounge car before we could get a table.

When we departed La Junta after a service stop, we were right on schedule. (In La Junta, copies of the PUEBLO CHRONICAL had been brought on board and when we got back from breakfast, Kevin had already slid one under our bedroom door.)

At 9:00 a.m., we heard an automatic sensor report an "integrity failure." This apparently was not serious enough for the crew to stop the train or even slow down. The next sensor reported everything normal.
Just outside Trinidad, the scenery began to change for the better and we made our way to the lounge car. We crossed the state line into New Mexico at 10:22 a.m. and were soon in Raton (which we learned was pronounced "Raa-tone.") We departed Raton right on schedule and, once we had descended down to the plains, were soon making good time.

We went by Wagon Mound at 11:51 a.m.

We were already seated in the dining car when we arrived (and departed) Las Vegas, N.M. exactly on schedule. Our companions for lunch were a couple from Sweden who were traveling to Flagstaff. From there, they were going on to Los Angeles and from there to San Francisco, where they would catch a flight home.
After lunch, we returned to the lounge car to enjoy the Santa Fe National Forest scenery. The weather was perfect, and we noted that the wildflowers and cacti were in bloom.
Just outside Albuquerque, we stopped to let the eastbound #4 Southwest Chief go by.
Arriving in Albuquerque early (!), we had plenty of time while the train was being serviced to get off and look over the various Indian items being sold by Native American vendors set up in an area adjacent to the platform.

We departed Albuquerque exactly on schedule. (Talk about a crack passenger train!)
We ate dinner with a couple from Kansas who were on their way to Los Angeles to catch the Coast Starlight up to Portland to visit their daughter.

Before retiring for the night, we set our watches back an hour to Pacific Coast Time.
We arranged for Kevin to knock on our door at 4:40 a.m. Friday morning so we would be up in time for breakfast, which was only being served from 5 to 6 a.m. As we were heading for the diner, Kevin informed us that #3 was running about 45 minutes behind schedule.

This time, the tables were set with paper plates, plastic ware and paper napkins, and there were only a limited number of menu items available. However, our waitress Peggy was her usual cheerful self and her good humor was contagious, despite the early morning hour. We ate with a couple from Kansas who were heading to the San Diego area for a family reunion. This was their first experience traveling with Amtrak and they were enjoying it thoroughly.

By 6:00 a.m. we were descending the western slope of Cajon Pass. There was a lot of freight traffic and we were moving at what seemed like a snail's pace compared to the day before.
We departed San Bernardino 82 minutes behind schedule. Once we were passed Riverside, however, we were back up to speed. We arrived in Fullerton at 8:09 a.m.

Stage 3: Fullerton to San Diego (July 2nd)

We caught a southbound Pacific Surfliner at 9:03 a.m. To our delight, it was not at all crowded as is the case on the summer weekends.

We made good time heading south. Just north of San Juan Capistrano, we encountered "June gloom" in just about the same place where we had left it three weeks earlier.
Going passed the racetrack at Del Mar, we noted that the San Diego County Fair was in full swing.
We arrived at the San Diego depot at 11:16 a.m. There, we learned that our checked luggage had continued on board #3 to Los Angeles and that it would be arriving on a southbound train in about an hour. We ran a few local errands and then came back and picked it up safe and sound at 12:30 p.m. Our Amtrak vacation for 2004 had come to satisfying conclusion.


 

Bob Dylan

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Most enjoyable, and I'm sure the food was better than what is being served now.

Did yall ever get to ride the Zephyr on its regular route from Denver through Colorado??
 

Eric in East County

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Most enjoyable, and I'm sure the food was better than what is being served now.

Did yall ever get to ride the Zephyr on its regular route from Denver through Colorado??
We only rode on the CZ this one time. If we could be guaranteed that our train would go through Colorado, we might consider booking passages on it again, but with Amtrak, nothing is certain.

E & P
 
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