Take the A-Train

Chicago to San Francisco

Rex's USA Diary


Chicago Sears Tower
Sears Tower, Chicago

As I said, home to Harrison Ford, but also to Al Capone who, interestingly enough, lived in both Chicago and San Francisco (as in the title of this page) - the latter not by choice of course! In a perambulation around the local city blocks a taxi driver made sure I was aware of the building behind me - the Sears Tower, tallest building in the USA.

Another contact in my walk around the block was a guy who chatted for a while then switched the subject to a shortage of money (his) and a need for a metro fare to get home (13 miles). He wasn't impressed when I said that at 3mph it would only take him about 4 hours to walk it! I gave my coins to an honest panhandler around the corner.

Union Station Chicago had impressive echoing halls, marble floors and wooden seats. The earlier years of great US passenger rail services had been pretty much stuffed by the advent of air travel. But then came the creation of AMTRAK, a Federally funded corporation formed by the US Government whose function is to provide a national railroad passenger service. AMTRAK started service on 1 May 1971 with a staff of 25, now has over 22,000 employees and was allocated a skimpy $1.2 billion for 2004 funding. AMTRAK owns 730 miles of track, has over 22,000 route miles through the use of line owned by freight companies and moved more than 24 million passengers in 2003. Anyway, the significant point is that a lot of juggling of trains goes on to fit in both freight and passenger services on a whole range of different companies tracks in the most efficient way possible.

Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow

Enough of this excitement - dinner time! My banquet of choice was taken in the station bar & cafe where I dined on roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy and squash with desert being a bottle of coke. My money for this sumptuous repast was taken from me by a Jean Harlow look-alike - scary! Wikipedia: Jean Harlow

Ultimately I filled my 3-hour stop-over in Chicago and lined up for Leg 3 of my journey - the California Zephyr to San Francisco. So, into the line at Gate C, directed to Platform 26, then car 512 where I settled upstairs in seat 56. The conductor said the train would be full, so no spreading out on two seats. OK Boss!

California Zephyr Route Map

I helped a gray-haired gent seated across the aisle with directions to the restrooms and the lounge car. He was in turn helping the Peruvian lady sitting beside him. When she moved off we introduced ourselves, struck up a conversation and eventually managed to sort out most of the ills of the world. However, Walt was not so happy with the effect US Foreign Policy was having on other countries, and we talked about Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. I was starting to wonder about his background when he told me he was a social worker and in his early years had started up an orphanage in Korea. That was apparently a backlash effect on him of the government work he had been doing there - and no he couldn't really talk about that stuff even though he was retired. Hmm, right.

Our conversation moved on and he revealed a childhood in racist Georgia and that as 'political correctness' changed he had known Negroes, Coloured, Blacks and African Americans in his time. Walt said he could see how he had grown from a 'redneck' to a caring social worker. I found his memories of segregated Georgia to be fascinating and prodded him about writing a family history of his early life. He said his kids weren't interested in that stuff, but I lobbied for his grand-kids. They would probably never have the chance to talk this through with him - he should skip a generation and write something for the next generation down the tree. At that point Walt got quite enthused, which was pleasing.

My friend, all power to your pen and keep your sights on your grand-kids. Sorry for calling you Walt - I decided not to use your real name in case that caused you issues.

There was a great sunset in the west that night and after dark we had a thin sickle moon in a clear sky. I had my GPS out and found that Chicago was at 580 feet above sea level and that the train was back up to 80 mph as it roared across the plains. Walt was most impressed with my techy toys.

Wyatt Earp

During the night we passed through some interesting places: Galesburg (home town of the Ferris brothers who invented the Ferris Wheel and popcorn); Monmouth (birthplace of Wyatt Earp); Danville (stagecoach and Pony Express stop); the Skunk River (abandoned Rock Island Line track - Jesse James and gang carried out their first holdup on a Rock Island train); Ottumwa (home of Radar O'Reilly from MASH); Osceola (birthplace of Marion Morrison - since renamed as John Wayne, first Delicious apples, and covered bridges from The Bridges of Madison County); Omaha (birthplace of Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, and Henry Fonda, trailhead for cattle drives since 1884); and Kenesaw (a crossing of the wagon train's Oregon Trail). We moved from Nebraska into Colorado where we went back an hour onto Mountain Time and our iron steed galloped us into buffalo country.

With the dawn of a crisp, clear day and our approach to Denver, I was shocked when I checked my GPS! Any time I had looked out the window at night there had been no hills - this country was flat! But we had somehow gained 4500 feet and were heading into the mile high city, still at 80 mph.

Denver Ski Train

Denver Ski Train

We arrived early into Denver's Union Station (sigh), so that broke a cardinal rule I associated with railways - that trains are never early. While we were going nowhere I took the time to wander through the cars checking out the dome car, cafeteria, dining car and sleeper car areas. Walking back down the platform I commended a couple of guys with long-handled squeegees cleaning our carriage windows in preparation for the mountain views ahead. Outside my window was a bright orange train with silver and black trim - it was The Rio Grande line's Ski Train through the Rockies. Woops, 0830 MT and on the move again - hurrah!

Almost immediately we began climbing into the Rockies and the scenery became pretty amazing and all one could wish for in beauty. After 100 miles we reached the 6 mile-long Moffat Tunnel, the highest point on AMTRAK's network at over 9,200 feet. The tunnel took us beneath the Great Divide and when we came out the other side of the mountain we were in the middle of the Winter Park Ski Resort. We passed through Glenwood Springs (burial place of gunfighter 'Doc' Holliday and Sherrif Pat Garrett) and Castle Gate (Butch Cassidy country).

More chatting with Walt - he is a LDS member joining family in Salt Lake City, but he ended up meeting them an hour late in a blizzard! Around Green River we were switched off the Southern Pacific line onto the Union Pacific line (the two run beside each other through the Rockies). We ran for some time on that line until for some reason we stopped in the middle of nowhere. Well, time for another toy. Out with my little ICOM R5 receiver to scan the railway channels. Aha! We had been traveling behind a freight train, but it had blown up its engine! We had to wait for a replacement engine to be sent out to tow it away. When that was sorted out, all we had to deal with was the snow! That had gradually built up and our train moved slowly and stopped frequently. We finally got into Salt Lake City around 1 AM where I said farewell to Walt and watched as a new bunch of cold and tired passengers boarded and sorted themselves out into seats. Then we were off into the snow again.

The next bit of entertainment occurred about 100 miles down the track. Somewhere before Winnemucca (Butch Cassidy robbed the town's bank in 1900) our train slowed to a stop in the wilderness. On came an announcement to say that there was a broken track ahead and we were third in line behind two freight trains waiting to get through. A works gang was on its way (through the snow) to fix it up. That was good for a few hours of sitting listening to audio books. Eventually we crawled over the repair, stopped for a moment to pick up a new train manager who had arrived with the repair gang, and got on our way again. The manager was a bouncy lady sporting a collection of badges in her hat. She introduced herself over the PA, told us about her early-morning start and much driving through snow, then across country to the rail break. She then set about pacifying a train full of grumpy people and rescheduling their onward connections based on an anticipated 6-hour late arrival in San Francisco. It was good to be doing 80 mph again so I went along to the cafe car (downstairs) and celebrated with a beer and a muffin in the lounge (upstairs) for a while. At 5 PM I went back to the lounge for another beer when we were all ordered back to our seats. AMTRAK was about to provide a free dinner to everyone on the train. We fed on stew, baked potato and broccoli.

Mothball Fleet
Mothball Fleet

The train traveled alongside wild rivers, through mountain gorges and in and out of towns born from gold rush days. There was Reno (gambling casinos everywhere), Truckee (burned down six times between 1871 and 1882), Norden (average snowfall 34 feet a year), Cape Horn (Chinese labourers were lowered by rope over a cliff to carve out a rocky ledge for the train track) and McClellan Air Force Base (largest almond processing plant on earth - hmmm, maybe that was their neighbors). We passed through Sacramento (birth of the 49'rs gold rush, Pony Express, Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads and transcontinental train travel), Davis (bicycle pathways are throughout the city to discourage car use - I could live here!), Suisun Marsh and Bay (herons, Boeing experimental wind farm and Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet or mothball fleet.). Howard Hughes Glomar Explorer had been held here after its use as a CIA deep-sea Russian submarine recovery vessel was over.

Our train finally reached Emeryville, the end of the line for the California Zephyr at 11PM (Pacific Time now) and 6 hours late as predicted. I trundled my wheelie bag out of the station, towards the Bay a few blocks and into a Holiday Inn I had found on the Internet. Having booked myself in for three nights I headed off for a shower and bed.