SWC and CZ: which is best east and which is best west?

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mitako

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May 21, 2018
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I'm in very early planning stages of a coast-to-coast trip. Starting and ending point is Los Angeles, where I live. Cities to be visited include Chicago, Washington DC, and Boston. Some possibility I'll add in a fourth city, depending on our budget. If I were to take the SWC in one direction to or from Chicago, and the CZ in the other (I know that starts from Emeryville, not Los Angeles, meaning the Coast Starlight will be part of the journey), is the daylight scenery on either of those two trains noticeably better in one direction than the other?

Also, is the SWC really as rough as I have heard? I admit to being a somewhat nervous traveler when the train gets to really bumping and jerking.
 

pennyk

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I like the California Zephyr westbound versus eastbound. I do not have a preference for the Southwest Chief. I traveled on the SWC in December and did not notice a lot of bumping and jerking. I thought it was a very nice ride.
 

Maglev

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I think the scenery is better on the California Zephyr than the Southwest Chief, and I would recommend going westbound. For the connection between the two trains, I would recommend spending a night in Emeryville at the Hyatt House just across the tracks from the station if you don't plan to spend time in San Francisco.
 

SarahZ

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Westbound CZ
Eastbound SWC

The SWC goes over some rough track in Kansas, but you'll be asleep for that portion. I'm normally a side sleeper, but I found that sleeping on my stomach while on the train helps quite a bit. It's not so terrible that it's worrisome. It's just more noticeable than the rest of the route.
 

spinnaker

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Just don't make the same mistake I did on the CZ. There is a gelato station right at the platform and I didn't know about it! :(
 

Rasputin

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I agree with the previous comments - eastbound on the Chief and westbound on the Zephyr but you really can't go wrong on either train in either direction. I have not noticed any rough track on the Chief route.

One thing that I have noticed over several trips is that the eastbound Chief reaches the Raton Pass area later in the day and animal sightings (elk and antelope further east) seem to be more common but of course are not guaranteed. I don't think I have ever seen any animals from the westbound Chief which goes through that area mid to late morning.
 
Joined
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If you are planning to overnight in San Francisco and are travelling heavy, Amtrak's Thruway buses are a great way to get you and your gear around. If you are travelling light, there is an opportunity to take in quite a bit of addition rail travel. The CZ stops in Richmond, CA at an intermodal with BART, the broad gauge electric trains. BART's first and third stops in SF are served by the California and Powell Lines of the cable car system. These cars stop at or near many, many recommendable hotels. Should you be travelling late this year, the Central Subway is currently slated to open in September. This would give you a light rail leg (though not common carrier, BART is decidedly heavy rail) from beneath Stockton Street to 4th and Townsend, the CalTrain commuter rail station. CalTrain has frequent weekday service from San Francisco to San Jose for the scheduled 10am southbound CS. On the weekends, CalTrain can be a bit of risk as there is only 15 minutes between the arrival of the first train from SF and an on time CS.
 

Dakota 400

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If you are planning to overnight in San Francisco and are travelling heavy, Amtrak's Thruway buses are a great way to get you and your gear around.
This is true as long as the train does not run very late and your Thruway bus deposits you at the San Francisco Amtrak station after its closed and late at night. Before I had a cellphone, this happened to me, no taxis around, and my hotel was not within walking distance. Fortunately, there was a restaurant open nearby and the Manager was willing to call a taxi for me.

Frankly, I was very surprised and disappointed that the Amtrak station was closed when the staff knew that the CZ was running very late.
 
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Not scenery related but one advantage to taking the CZ east and SWC west would be a quicker ride and an AM arrival back home on the return trip rather than an evening arrival off the CS. In my experiences near the end of long train trips, I can't wait to get home. Take the longer, more scenic route on your way there.
 

Larry H.

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When we took the Zephyr west a couple years back I was surprised at how much of the trip was in the mountains even after the day ride from Denver. We did the same using the Coast Starlight to Los Angles and then the Chief back. One thing about it was that in both directions the toilets refused to work most of the trip once you got in the mountains. Something one would think they would have long ago fixed. The attendant said that when they did some work on the cars having to do with the vacuum system that makes the toilets go they decided to eliminate one of the two pumps which left them without enough pull to work at high altitudes. The only good thing about it was we got enough of a refund when we complained to pay for a trip to NY from Chicago. I hope the food is reasonable, from what I read and have seen on the City of New Orleans it was terrible.
 

crescent-zephyr

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The Gelato bar is in Denver Union Station. It is inside the station along with a very nice coffee shop (Pig Train Coffee). Since Denver is a service stop, you always have a bit of time to run into the station for a coffee / gelato. When I went last I asked my SCA if he wanted a coffee and he said "no, but I sure do love there little macaroons" - so if you have a good SCA might be a nice gesture to get them something.
 

basketmaker

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The Gelato bar is in Denver Union Station. It is inside the station along with a very nice coffee shop (Pig Train Coffee). Since Denver is a service stop, you always have a bit of time to run into the station for a coffee / gelato. When I went last I asked my SCA if he wanted a coffee and he said "no, but I sure do love there little macaroons" - so if you have a good SCA might be a nice gesture to get them something.
Excellent thought!!!! And thoughtful too!
 

Chey

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The scenery on the CZ is nothing less than spectacular - but if you know a little bit about the history of the Southwest, the 'Land of Enchantment' is not a lot less spectacular. The CZ is definitely worth doing at least once. But the awe of NM and its history have put me on the SWC far more often than the CZ. A personal thing, I guess, but it's compelling to me. The Pueblos, the mesas, the reservations, the rocks and desert... the history, and I recognize both have lots of American history, but the Southwest...I guess it's personal, sorry.
 

tricia

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The scenery on the CZ is nothing less than spectacular - but if you know a little bit about the history of the Southwest, the 'Land of Enchantment' is not a lot less spectacular. The CZ is definitely worth doing at least once. But the awe of NM and its history have put me on the SWC far more often than the CZ. A personal thing, I guess, but it's compelling to me. The Pueblos, the mesas, the reservations, the rocks and desert... the history, and I recognize both have lots of American history, but the Southwest...I guess it's personal, sorry.
Nothing to be sorry about. I love the desert SW too--a marvelous contrast to the near-rain-forest conditions at home in western NC. :)
 

basketmaker

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The scenery on the CZ is nothing less than spectacular - but if you know a little bit about the history of the Southwest, the 'Land of Enchantment' is not a lot less spectacular. The CZ is definitely worth doing at least once. But the awe of NM and its history have put me on the SWC far more often than the CZ. A personal thing, I guess, but it's compelling to me. The Pueblos, the mesas, the reservations, the rocks and desert... the history, and I recognize both have lots of American history, but the Southwest...I guess it's personal, sorry.
I will agree. Both routes have some amazing treasures.
 

crescent-zephyr

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The Raton Pass line is simply awesome. The history, the unique scenery. Plus the route itself, brings back the famous Santa Fe Super Chief from Chicago to LA.

The Sunset Limited is surprisingly scenic as well. I had avoided it for years but when I needed to get from New Orleans to LA I figured I would go ahead and give it a go and I loved it. All of the western trains have something unique to offer.

The Zephyr to me is simply the best scenery you can get. Stack up the Denver to Grand Junction route against any train in the world and you can't beat it in my book. (Several would tie for it I'm sure!).
 

Dakota 400

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The Sunset Limited is surprisingly scenic as well. I had avoided it for years but when I needed to get from New Orleans to LA I figured I would go ahead and give it a go and I loved it. All of the western trains have something unique to offer.
I agree. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my Sunset Limited journey regarding the scenery. I realized that the Eastern start of the trip would be different from the Western part of the trip. But, I really did enjoy the contrasts of what I saw. America is a beautiful country with each section having its own delights!
 

basketmaker

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The Raton Pass line is simply awesome. The history, the unique scenery. Plus the route itself, brings back the famous Santa Fe Super Chief from Chicago to LA.

The Sunset Limited is surprisingly scenic as well. I had avoided it for years but when I needed to get from New Orleans to LA I figured I would go ahead and give it a go and I loved it. All of the western trains have something unique to offer.

The Zephyr to me is simply the best scenery you can get. Stack up the Denver to Grand Junction route against any train in the world and you can't beat it in my book. (Several would tie for it I'm sure!).
You got right... A gentleman I met in the lounge departing Chicago (in 1982) asked me if I had ever taken the CZ before. I said no. He said well don't know your religious beliefs but it will make you believe in God. Thought for a second that here comes a handful of "tracks" and preaching. So I kindly excused myself and went back to my room. Well, all of the next morning and afternoon made me realize wow he was right! Made my mind up that someday I would live in Colorado. Took me 24 years to get here but I made it!
 

Chey

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I was a little kid when my father was stationed at Ft Carson. We lived on the very edge of Colorado Springs, directly below Austin Bluffs. I used to climb the bluffs sometimes - on the eastern edge I got a view of eastern Colorado. Lots of grassland, dotted here and there by a few farms and ranches.

Twenty years later I moved to Denver and I went down to CS to try to find the house I lived in. All the fields I'd had to cross on the way to school had been filled in by subdivisions. I found my way to the bluffs, climbing in a few minutes what had once taken me hours. But when I looked over the eastern edge, all I could see was subdivisions as far as the horizon. No grassland, no farms, no ranches. All I could think was 'Colorado what in the hell have you done??' I realize it's the same in most of the US. It makes me appreciate what California has done to try to preserve its scenery, even though I understand what that did to the cost of living and housing prices.

From the CZ several years ago, fairly far north of Colorado Springs, I saw that the approach to Denver still looked somewhat as I remembered the view from the bluffs; and the Western Slope is (was?) still pretty much like I remembered it. Grand Junction has grown along with its suburbs but they still have the small town feel.

Please, Coloradoans and would-be Coloradoans, don't let developers, politicians et al do what the Springs let them do... *very, very* beautiful state still, and I still dream about it sometimes.
 
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Willbridge

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I'm another vote for both routes, having traveled 100% of both, multiple times on some segments. I use Thruway bus connections between Denver and Raton. I recommend the CZ westbound and the SWC eastbound, especially for trips Denver - West. My favorite part of the SWC trip is in the afternoon (early evening when running late) from Lamy to Raton for the numerous wildlife sightings. The broad panoramas in the New Mexico Highlands are camera-worthy.

A little-known fact is that Denver is in the same category as Seattle and Chicago for the percentage of air-rail passengers on Amtrak. This is in spite of passengers having to figure things out for themselves. Often I have met Europeans who flew into Denver and then caught up with the CZ westbound.

Regarding track conditions on the SWC, a coalition of communities, rail advocacy groups such as ColoRail, three state DOT's has been working with BNSF, Amtrak and USDOT on replacing 1950's vintage jointed rails with welded rail - often rail that is cast in Pueblo, near the La Junta stop. This work was about 2/3 complete when it ran into complications with the new Amtrak.

For the best explanation of what we inadvertently uncovered about the new Amtrak, I recommend seeing a DVD of the film "Z" by Costa-Gravas (1969).
 
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