Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The original California Zephyr had five dome cars and was timed to allow passengers to see the best scenery in the Sierra Nevada and Colorado mountains in the daytime and to pass through the relatively boring deserts and prairies at night. Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge car, shown below, is no dome car, but at least the timing has been retained. The Sierras were particularly impressive this trip as there was still a lot of snow.

The problem with the Sightseer Lounge is that, unlike a dome car, it is really hard to see out of both sides from any given seat and, of course, you can’t see in front of you at all. To make matters worse, all but two of the chairs have been bolted in place so that they don’t swivel, which everyone wants to do as the scenery goes by or switches from one side to another. The same thing was true on the Coast Starlight lounge car, so it appears to have been planned rather than just a rusting of some of the swivel chairs.

Lots of people took photos through the windows with iPhones, but there wasn’t a lot of point as the glass was distorted (especially if the camera was directed at any angle) and lights often reflected off of the glass. I went to the last car on the train and opened the little window in the door to take some photos in one of the Colorado river canyons, but eventually a conductor found me and chased me away.

The $500 million restoration of Denver Union Station has really messed up through train traffic, indicating that Denver planners really didn’t care about Amtrak. Where once the train would come in from the west and head out to the east, now a back-up move is required that adds quite a bit of time to the trip. Here’s a photo of some of the train seen through the overdesigned canopies that don’t even shelter all of the passengers standing on platforms waiting for one of Denver’s commuter trains.

I’ve asked many passengers why they chose Amtrak over flying. In some cases, Amtrak cost less money. Others said it was just more pleasant being able to walk around rather than being stuck in a sardine can. One person said they didn’t like going through the airport security lines.

I learned the answer to that point early Tuesday morning. Amtrak has signs in the stations saying that, because it doesn’t require everyone to go through security, it may do random bag checks.

At 5:00 am we pulled into Omaha where the train is scheduled to make a 15-minute stop for a crew change. Normally Amtrak crews are very scrupulous about keeping quiet in the coaches where everyone is trying to sleep. But at this stop, a man carrying a bag went through the coach, shining a flashlight in everyone’s eyes and tapping on their feet. “Is this your bag?” he asked over and over. He finally found the owner in the back of the car.

“Good morning, I’m the police,” I overheard him say in a friendly voice while quickly flashing a badge. “Amtrak doesn’t have TSA baggage screening, so it’s my job to ask people questions at random. I notice your bag doesn’t have a name tag on it, so I’m using that as a flimsy excuse to conduct an unreasonable search of your belongings. Are you having a good trip? Where are you going today? Are you visiting your family? That’s nice. Are you carrying any heroin? Well, I hope you don’t mind if I paw through your bag to find out. If you don’t agree, I can probably kick you off the train. Where are you coming from? Denver? Well, marijuana is legal there, so you can see why I’d be suspicious that you are carrying heroin. How are you getting home? You’re flying? Why aren’t you taking Amtrak? Could it be because you don’t like being awakened at 5 o’clock in the morning so I can conduct an unreasonable search of your bags?”

Those weren’t his exact words, but they convey both the text and the subtext of what he said. It wasn’t exactly the same as United Airlines throwing someone off of a plane to make room for one of its deadhead employees, but it was irritating nonetheless. The man also checked the baggage of another passenger who had been sitting across from me because he had suspiciously stepped out of the car at Omaha to smoke a cigarette. For what it’s worth, both of the passengers were white, though the policeman was black. I asked a conductor who the guy was, and he vaguely answered that he was “from a different agency but not Amtrak.” Remind me not to take the train through Omaha again.

I’ve sampled more of the food and concluded that anything that isn’t made fresh on board is pretty tasteless. People who’ve ordered steaks say they are pretty good, but I don’t eat steak and everything I’ve had looks like it came out of a frozen dinner pack and was microwaved a few seconds before being delivered to me. Considering that most of the people in the diner are sleeping car passengers who paid four-star hotel prices for an overnight trip, Amtrak could do better by contracting out its diners to a modern-day Fred Harvey.

We left Denver on time last night, but lost time somewhere in the night and it now appears we will be about an hour late into Chicago. I’ll write a report about the final leg of my journey on the Capital Limited tomorrow.


5 thoughts on “Amtrak’s California Zephyr

  1. Sandy Teal

    For a few years I had to travel frequently from Seattle to Montana and I wanted to try Amtrak for the trip so I started to plan it. The problem was that the trip was about 12 hours and the schedule was the same every day of the year. The trip would be, in both directions, essentially sunset to sunrise, so that all the beautiful scenery up and down the Columbia Gorge and through the Rockies would be in the dark.

    Moreover, the coach fare was about the same a flying, but the thought of sleeping overnight in a seat and nothing to see outside was not very appealing. The thought of sleeping in a bed on the train wasn’t bad, but it cost more than a First Class hotel and would have no amenities, and what is the point of being on a train if you are going to be in a sleeper car the whole trip?

    I assume Amtrak has its business reasons for arriving in Seattle at dawn and leaving at dusk, and ontly having one train per day. But it is sad to think that picturesque part of America has no daytime train if that was the predominate way to travel. In Europe that trip would be a spectacle in itself for a train ride.

    And that is one problem with trains in the USA. The distances are so vast that train travel must occur overnight and that is expensive and uninteresting compared to alternatives.

  2. Frank

    Hilarious description of your interaction with the Amtrak gestapo.

    Flying sucks, too, but at least it’s far quicker.

    Today’s post reaffirms that driving is the best way to go as it offers far more lodging and dining choices from camping and cooking yourself to staying in nice hotels and eating at fine restaurants. The route options are virtually unlimited, and you can stop anywhere along the way for however long you like.

    And you don’t have to sit next to annoying or sick people.

  3. prk166

    If I were an Amtrak employee interfacing with customers who just witnessed some “security” yahoo wake-up every single passenger at some ungodly hour for a security theater show I would not admit that it was Amtrak police doing it if I could direct the blame elsewhere. If nothing else it’d make my job a lot easier.

  4. StuckInOmaha

    It would have been the Nebraska State Patrol working in very close coordination with Amtrak staff in the Omaha office as well as conductors on the train.

    It’s nice that they aren’t racially profiling, but their aggressive tactics do result in people getting dragged off the train with quite flimsy examples of probable cause for search and seizure.

    I believe the Nebraska State Patrol do it to sharpen their teeth in the morning. I got dragged off the train by them last year.

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