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By Jack M. Turner

Tuesday, September 22, 2015 would be the beginning of my homeward bound journey starting with the California Zephyr.  Following a restful night at the Vagabond Inn and a stroll around the block, I took the hotel’s courtesy shuttle back to the Sacramento Amtrak station.  Like the first line from the title song of the movie “Smoky and the Bandit” I would be “eastbound and down” as I rode the California Zephyr and Capitol Limited eastbound then the Silver Meteor down to Florida.

Since my last visit to Sacramento a few years ago, the station area has been reconfigured with the tracks moved out well beyond their former location.  Heeding a friend’s suggestion, I hopped aboard one of the motorized carts used to transport passengers and their luggage to the distant platform.  Passengers attempting to walk to the train are tasked with a long walk through a tunnel beneath the tracks complete with a steep walk up the ramp to the platform.

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The Sacramento railway station, seen from behind the Vagabond Inn, displays its Southern Pacific heritage

Train # 6 rolled in from Emeryville about 25 minutes late and I took up residence in car 32064, the second sleeping car.  This sleeper’s line number was 0632 and it was sandwiched between car 0631 (covered by sleeper 32006) and deadhead sleeper 32075 “Connecticut” which trailed my car.  A private car, former Canadian National “Burrard”, brought up the rear of the train.  I occupied roomette 7 which on this trip was on the right hand side of the train.


The eastbound California Zephyr arrives in Sacramento on September 22, 2015

We departed Sacramento Track 5 at 11:34am and 20 minutes later passed massive Roseville Yard which today serves the Union Pacific as it formerly did the Southern Pacific Line.  Lunch was called in the diner, two cars forward, and I enjoyed the panko chicken sandwich once again.  I checked my “GPS Altimeter” I-phone app as we traveled between Rocklin and Auburn and found we were at 905 feet elevation.  As we climbed toward Donner Pass we passed through several tunnels and at 12:49pm I noted we were at 2149 feet elevation, a gain of over 1200 feet in just 20 minutes. 


Panko Chicken was my favorite lunch item throughout the trip

Following the stop at Colfax we passed high above Interstate 80 then reached Cape Horn, located far above the American River.  A volunteer from the California State Railroad Museum pointed out scenic highlights via the intercom which was most helpful.  At 1:12pm our elevation stood at 2904 feet.  The scenery kept getting better and better and as we passed Gold Run at 1:20 I learned from the museum docent that the westbound train generally misses much of the sights up to this point as its track is separated by obstacles that block the view.  This explained my puzzlement on our last trip westward a few years ago as I knew I missed sights seen on my last eastbound trip over Donner Pass way back in 1976.


The Amtrak station at Colfax, CA


Passing high above I-80 east of Colfax

We reached 3470 feet elevation at 1:25pm and the talking defect detector indicated our train speed at 30 mph as we continued to climb.  The American River again appeared well below the rail line shortly before we reached 4000 feet at 1:35.  Less than 10 minutes later train # 6 passed through Tunnel # 1 built in the 1850s.  This evoked thoughts of the television series “Hell on Wheels” which dramatizes the building of this stretch of the transcontinental railroad by the Central Pacific.  Just east of the tunnel the train reached the steepest part of the rail line and passed the 4700 foot level at Blue Cańon.  The balloon track on the left 5 minutes later exists to help turn helper engines and snow plows as needed.  At 1:57 we passed Emigrant Pass, elevation 5280 feet, then noted Spalding Lake below on the left.  Soon a snow shed enveloped the California Zephyr followed by outstanding views of a valley through tree tops on the left.


The American River Canyon is visible at many points on the CZ  route


The climb to Donner Pass features spectacular views of the Sierras


Passengers gaze at breathtaking sights from the Sightseer Lounge Car

The climb continued and at 2:28pm the elevation was 6503 feet west of Soda Springs.  The Donner Pass summit came at 2:37pm at Norden, elevation 6900 feet, then the rails entered a two mile long tunnel.  A few minutes later. beautiful Donner Lake came into view below on our left then we met a westbound UP freight with a helper engine on the rear.  Coldstream Canyon followed and we rounded the horseshoe curve at Stanford which revealed the freight train we had passed 6 minutes earlier now on a high shelf on the left.  Ten minutes later we pulled into Truckee and spotted a hotel featured on the television series “Hotel Impossible” last season.


Donner Lake is one of the highlights of the California Zephyr trip


This hotel in Truckee was featured on “Hotel Impossible” in 2015

The rocky Truckee River escorted us eastward as the descent continued in more gradual fashion.  Around 4:00pm the CZ stopped at Reno where there was time to stroll the platform to take a peek at the private car on the rear.  My timing was good as the owner invited me to take a quick walk through the beautiful “Burrard” then I retired to my comfortable but decidedly more spartan Superliner sleeper.  Dinner in the dining car came at 5:30 and the steak was delicious but the serving crew was far from professional.  This surely contrasted with the service provided back in the “Burrard”.  My dining car tablemates and I observed the difference in the desolate scenery outside our window from the hours before and wondered how difficult it must be to live in that area as some people did.


The head end of train # 6 winds along the Truckee River


Rock strewn Truckee River


A form of water control along the Truckee River


A quick tour of private car “Burrard” during the stop at Reno


Mountains east of Sparks, NV


The desolate Humboldt Range between Sparks and Winnemucca

Nightfall came before the stop in Winnemucca, popularized by the song “I’ve Been Everywhere”, then we met a westbound freight on the nearby split line where the former Southern Pacific and Western Pacific lines parallel.  I was briefly awakened at 3:35am during our stop at Salt Lake City then slept soundly until we pulled into Green River, Utah at 8:15am.  A few minutes later we met the branch line to Moab at Crescent Jct.; we had chased a train along that line on our last visit to the area a couple summers ago.  One half hour later we sailed through the ghost town of Cisco then caught our first glance at the Colorado River at 9:25.  We would enjoy viewing the impressive river for 249 miles throughout the day.  Just beyond this point the former Rio Grande line took us through Ruby Canyon, the first of several scenic canyons we would traverse over the next seven hours.


Sunset in remote Nevada west of Winnemucca


“I’ve Been Everywhere”: evening on the Winnemucca platform


Entering Ruby Canyon along the Colorado River

Grand Junction, CO offered a 20 minute stop and a chance to walk the platform and visit the popular station gift/sundries shop in the depot.  My mind wandered back to my 1976 eastbound trip on the Rio Grande Zephyr when this station provided great photo locations for the little D&RGW domeliner.  I also recalled a visit in the late 1990s when my family and I were fortunate not to miss Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr due to inaccurate information from Amtrak about the estimated arrival time of our late train.  Luckily the station agent had recommended an eating establishment a couple blocks away and he tracked us down by phone in those pre-cell phone days so we could hustle back to the station.  My present day CZ departed Grand Junction right on schedule a 10:23am, following the placid Colorado River and a series of desolate mountains and rock formations eastward.


Private varnish “Burrard” at Grand Junction


Mothballed Union Pacific power stored at Grand Junction


A stored UP switcher at Grand Junction


The Colorado River east of Grand Junction


Flood control device on the Colorado River

A lonely high school football stadium on the right in the town of Rifle reminded me that the excitement of Friday Night Lights can be found in almost every nook and cranny of the nation entertaining fans in both large cities and small hamlets.  Lunch in the dining car came with spectacular scenery as the Zephyr stopped at Glenwood Springs then entered beautiful Glenwood Canyon.  A tasty angus cheeseburger provided a nice repast while viewing the Colorado’s cascading whitewater.  A while later we passed Dotsero where the former Rio Grande Royal Gorge route branched off.  Today that line is intact but mothballed by the Union Pacific except for the eastern end which hosts the Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad (see link to my story below).


The head end of the California Zephyr along the Colorado


West of Rifle, CO


Approaching popular Glenwood Springs


Rafters in Glenwood Canyon


Following the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon


The eastbound and westbound lanes of I-70 are stacked through the canyon

An empty westbound UP hopper train passed at 1:06pm then we entered aptly named Red Canyon 7 minutes later.  On my last eastbound journey (in 1976) I had observed that one could imagine being on Mars if the canyon’s few scrubby trees could be ignored.  As the CZ continued along the Colorado a person in a raft mooned the train; this seems a ritual that is encountered on most rail trips along the river.  Over the next few miles several fully attired fishermen could be seen as they angled for freshwater fish from small boats.  Meanwhile, the golden leaves on nearby aspen trees leaves shimmered in the wind as we continued our eastbound trek.  The westbound California Zephyr eased by at 1:46, close on the heels of a UP freight running just ahead of it.







During the two o’clock hour we passed through photogenic Gore Canyon and Byers Canyon, passed through Tunnels 37, 36, and 35 perched high above the Colorado’s churning whitewater, and viewed a herd of spotted deer in a broad valley laced with colorful aspen trees.  The following hour featured a meet with another westbound freight at ominously named Troublesome Siding which did result in a 21 minute delay, followed by the station stop at Granby, and passage through Fraser Canyon.  The station stop in Fraser evoked memories of throwing snowballs with my son John on that very same platform during a stop on our westbound CZ trip in December 2005.  (See my story “Florida to Hawaii Aboard Amtrak and Princess” linked below).


Winding along the river east of Rancho del Rio


Whitewater stretches provide spectacular views


A sharp curve between CP Radium and CP Gore


West of Granby the Zephyr passes through scenic Gore and Byers Canyons


A broad valley affords a commanding vista


Three tunnels can be seen ahead as # 6 twists above the Colorado River


The river is rocky and wild west of Granby


Open spaces appear periodically


Aspens are at their peak along the former D&RGW line


A stand of aspens dominate this valley south of the railway


West of Granby


The platform at Fraser is a welcomed chance to stretch the legs

Soon we passed Winter Park, a popular winter ski resort, and entered 6 mile long Moffat Tunnel, one of the engineering marvels of North American railroading.  Moffat was constructed in 1923-27 and stands at 9108 feet elevation as it passes below James Peak.  East of the tunnel the railway descends through a series of tunnels and sharp curves which reveal the city of Denver alternately on the left then the right as the train makes its way over one of the most exciting stretches of railroad in the nation.  After a short back up move we reached Denver Union Station 8 minutes early at 6:30pm.  The 40 minute stop provided ample time to stroll inside the recently remodeled station while has transformed an already classic station into a beautiful multi-purpose facility containing restaurants, shops, and an upscale hotel.


Looking down at Denver as the CZ reaches the edge of the Front Range


A freight can be seen below at Big Ten Curve


Continuing down the mountain as the westbound freight works its way uphill


The sharp curves and elevation change is clearly visible


Private car “Burrard” carries the Train 6 markers at Denver


Inside remodeled Denver Union Station


The front of Denver Union Station

Annoying squeaks of an undetected source in the wall made sleeping difficult until I reversed the bedding and slept with my feet facing the rear of my room instead of sleeping feet first.  The result was a marvelous night’s sleep until 7:00am when I visited the diner for an early breakfast.  As we left Creston, IA the lure of more sleep called me back to my roomette where I got two more hours of sack time.  After a few more stops in the Hawkeye State, the Zephyr crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Burlington and entered Illinois at 11:30am.  Lunch was called by the lead service attendant who was efficient but annoying as she yelled into the public address system every time she made an announcement.  Fellow passengers agreed that she reminded of a drill sergeant as she admonished captive passengers to wait at the door for a table and noted that community seating is practiced.  My tablemates for lunch were a wonderful couple from Virginia whom I had dined with earlier in the trip and I enjoyed their company greatly. 

Back in sleeper 32064, the car attendant named Trevette was cheerfully tidying up the rooms as he had done throughout the trip.  I admired his patience in dealing with a difficult passenger who insisted that her bed be left down until about 30 minutes before we reached Chicago.  Fellow passengers were not pleased by her companion, a mangy mutt wearing a vest labeled “Service Dog”.  It was obvious that the dog was not of a normal breed that typically fills that role and the passenger did not display any apparent disabilities requiring a four legged companion.  Passengers occupying rooms adjacent to hers noted frequent barking through the night which made me happy I was located down the hall.  She was one of two passengers on board the train who had their pet dog along for the ride.  The other had drawn a rebuff from the conductor for walking his dog to a yard across the street from a train station to, shall we say, fertilize the yard.

The upscale western suburbs of Chicago clicked past the window and I noted the Lemon Tree Café in Downers Grove which was featured on television’s “Restaurant Impossible” show a couple months prior.  A couple of earlier delays resulted in the CZ pulling into Chicago Union Station 40 minutes late at 3:30pm, closing an excellent two day journey on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.


A new Viewliner baggage car at the yard in Chicago


An Iowa Pacific engine used on the Hoosier State wears the Illinois Central inspired paint scheme


P32 # 512 stands ready at the Chicago yard

I divided the three hour layover between the comfortable Metropolitan Lounge, walking around the vicinity near Chicago Union Station, and strolling through the station’s Great Hall.  As train time approached, word came down that there would be a delay as the Capitol Limited’s engines had to be swapped out.  Finally train # 30 backed in on Track 26 and sleeping car passengers boarded first.  As the sleepers were at the front of the Capitol, I rode with a red cap to my car which both prevented having to tow my luggage down the long platform but also got me to sleeping car 3001 ahead of other passengers which ensured a good spot for my bags in the lower level luggage rack.  Sleeper 32029 was in good order and roomette 5 was on the right hand side. 

The Capitol Limited departed Chicago at 7:23pm, tardy by 43 minutes due to the engine switch.  As we crossed the Chicago River the first dinner seating was called and as we passed the old steel mills around Gary my meal was served.  The cross country café seating was functional though somewhat strange with the 10 tables nearest the forward end of the car being slightly tapered instead of rectangular.  My steak dinner with the usual baked potato and vegetable medley was delicious and accompanied by good conversation.  The train’s eastward progress was slowed by the need to stop and go as we followed a Norfolk Southern freight train and one stop consumed 20 minutes waiting for a westbound freight to pass.  As a result, our lateness had doubled by South Bend and increased a bit more by Elkhart where police, fire, and ambulance vehicles worked some type of event adjacent to the train station.  Luckily, these had a negligible effect on our time-keeping though details were hard to discern given the late night darkness.  Shortly it was time to turn in and sleep came easy, interrupted only by stops in Toledo at 1:20am and Pittsburgh at 6:55am. 

Having learned the prior night that an extended breakfast would be served in the morning followed by no lunch service, I rolled over and slept until 10:00am.  Though I missed some beautiful mountain scenery, this was a small price to pay since I had traveled the old Baltimore & Ohio line multiple times on prior Amtrak trips and the luxury of extra sleep was welcomed after three straight nights on the train.  The first vestiges of autumn were displayed by the foliage on the mountains west of Hyndman, PA .  The stop at Cumberland, MD was truncated by our tardiness which precluded my risking a walk to photograph engines # 190 and 120 as the crew would endeavor to make up a few minutes.  I made my way to breakfast as we departed Cumberland at 11:15am and had a table to myself since most passengers had eaten at a more traditional hour.  The late meal suited me as lunch would have to wait until after arrival in Washington and dinner would be late since my connecting train departed after 7:00pm.


French toast and pork sausage for late breakfast on the Capitol Limited

The stop at Martinsburg’s historic station, said to be the oldest currently in use on the Amtrak system, and the next stop, Harpers Ferry, found train # 30 still running over 100 minutes late.  The latter stop always is one of my favorite settings as the small depot stands adjacent to the historically significant Civil War town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  Departing the station via a trestle, the Capitol Limited enters a tunnel leading from West Virginia into Maryland while the state of Virginia stands directly across the river.  Shortly we passed the unique Point-of-Rocks, MD station which stands between the diverging lines to Baltimore and Washington and serves MARC commuter trains linking the nation’s capitol with Martinsburg.  A half hour later the Washington suburbs steadily grew until we reached our destination, Washington Union Station, at 2:25pm.  Generous schedule padding had allowed us to trim our lateness to 80 minutes.


The historic station at Martinsburg, WV


The view from the rail bridge at Harpers Ferry where two rivers and three states converge


P42 # 190 led the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington

After depositing my luggage in the first class Club Acela lounge, I made a beeline for a sandwich shop in busy Union Station.  While eating I was entertained by the sight of a saleswoman accosting passersby in an attempt to sell beauty products at a sales stand beside a busy station corridor.  The notion of walking around the Capitol Hill area was nixed by a cool rain falling outside so I opted for browsing at some of the magnificent station’s stores and enjoying its grand architecture then relaxing in the Club Acela.


Beautiful architecture in Washington Union Station

The southbound Silver Meteor departed on-time at 7:25pm with me ensconced in roomette 3 in sleeper 62022 “Meadow View”.  Shortly after departure from Alexandria, VA sleeper passengers who boarded at Washington were invited to the dining car for dinner.  My tablemates were a mother named Wendy and daughter Laura who were headed for a college interview in Savannah.  It was interesting hearing their favorable impressions of their first long distance train trip while gazing at the northern Virginia landscape outside the window.  We lost 40 minutes between Fredericksburg and Ashland as we trailed Amtrak train # 85 which was not making good time.  Heavy freight traffic prevented the dispatcher from being able to route us around the slower train via the other main track.  We lost another 10 minutes during our station stop in Richmond, departing at 10:34pm.  The line to Richmond’s Main Street Station, used by trains bound for Newport News, branched off on the left six minutes later followed one minute later by the lead track to old Broad Street Station off to the left.  The impressive crossing of the James River appeared soon then the Meteor zipped toward its stop in Petersburg at 11:11pm.


The southbound Silver Meteor prepares to depart Washington


Viewliner sleeper 62022 during the stop in Richmond, VA

Our 79 mph passage over the former Atlantic Coast Line route caused the upper berth to rattle, making it difficult to fall asleep.  The cure was found by placing my suitcase on the empty bed to simulate a small passenger and I slept great all the way to Savannah at 7:15am.  Breakfast in the diner was pleasant as train # 97 rolled through the Georgia lowlands and stopped at Jesup to discharge a few passengers.  The thought occurred that diner 8528 could represent my final meal in a Heritage fleet dining car as new Viewliner II diners may be rolling by the time of my next planned overnight trip in Summer 2016. 

The familiar CSX route took us through Nahunta and Folkston, GA, across the St. Marys River into Florida and through the Sunshine State towns of Hilliard and Callahan then on to my final destination, Jacksonville.  Our official arrival time was at 9:57am, 48 minutes late, after an 8 minute stop to unload the baggage car at the north end of the platform due to some type of track work. 

My trip had passed through 24 states (many in two directions) and included 8 nights aboard Amtrak sleeping cars.  Some new commuter train routes had been covered and I had spent time in four of Amtrak’s busiest terminals.  I had partaken of 23 meals in Amtrak diners and witnessed scenery ranging from marshlands in Georgia to urban scenes in the Northeast, red rock plateaus in the Southwest, the Pacific beaches and cliffs of California, and Colorado’s towering Rocky Mountains.  Out west four excellent hotels gave me a break from riding the rails and my plan to attend three football games had been accomplished.  It was a fine trip as everything went well and I am ready for the next journey.

Vagabond Inn, Sacramento:

Royal Gorge Story (2012):

Florida to Hawaii Aboard Amtrak and Princess (2005) Story:

First Leg of this Rail Journey:  FLORIDA TO NEW MEXICO BY RAIL By Jack M. Turner



Amtrak Pacific Surfliner roundtrip Fullerton to Oceanside
and NCTD Sprinter ride to Escondido, California.
  September 17, 2015



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