Monday, January 13, 2014

The California Zephyr - You have to want to go

I don't say that to in any way disparage the experience you'll have once you actually get ON the Zephyr. It is wonderful. It is only that making the arrangements is difficult. You truly have to want to do it, because Amtrak doesn't make it easy.

In tourism today there is an adage: Questions create anxiety, anxiety creates resistance, resistance causes reluctance (a reluctance to visit your destination). Traveling with Amtrak for the first time certainly causes anxiety, resistance and reluctance. Their website doesn't provide complete information about (All of your questions won't be answered here, either, just the assurance that even with not knowing everything, it will be OK!)

Our original departure date was Wednesday, January 8. At about 6am on January 7, I got an automated phone call telling me that train had been cancelled because of the effects of the Polar Vortex over Chicago. I spent the next hour (mostly on hold, the actual arrangements took only minutes) to reschedule the trip, fortunately for the following day. This phone call actually reassured me, because nowhere did Amtrak assure me that they would be diligent in notifying me of delays or cancellations.

Amtrak in Nebraska follows the southern BNSF route, which means we had to travel to McCook, a distance of about 75 miles and get a motel room (we chose the Chief Motel because of its proximity to the station) for our scheduled 3:43am departure time. I understand the philosophy of Amtrak's scheduling of the Zephyr. They want to be going through the scenic Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains during the daylight, so they schedule travel through what they consider the "boring" Great Plains at night.

We set our alarm for 2:45am to get up in time to make our way to the station. There was a text message waiting for me letting me know that the train had been delayed until 5:55am. That's the trouble with these middle-of-the-night departures. Notifications come in the middle of the night too. We set our alarm again for 5. That time when we got up, the arrival time had been moved back to 6:10am. Not too bad.

The Amtrak station in McCook doubles as the BNSF headquarters. It is not staffed by anyone that can tell you anything. It is dingy, dreary, with very little signage, and no where indicating long-term parking, etc. The surfaces are rough and uneven. There is a ramp on the west entrance, but when the train actually arrives, it has been drilled into your head that it only stops for two minutes, so everyone scurries trackside. My mom, in her walker, dumped her luggage going down the two steps to the platform. No attendant held the door or helped. It was fellow passengers who assisted us in getting everything gathered up.

We made our way to the train with the other passengers and all of our luggage, only to be told that there was no room in the cars for baggage and that we must follow the conductor a couple of car lengths down to stow our bags. Now, we're making a 36 hour trip on this train, and I will be needing what I've packed in our bags! So we get to the car and she's trying to hurry everyone on board and FINALLY listens to me when I tell her we have booked a sleeping room. Oh... in that case, walk BACK to the original location, wait for them to pull the train forward, then board, bags and all.

We get on board (again, with no help, even for Mom or our bags), to find that there's no room in the baggage rack. The train is super full since it was the first to leave Chicago after two days of cancelled trains. Our roomette already has the bunks made up, since we were expected to board at 2:43, so we just heave our bags up into the top bunk. Our wonderful room attendant Stephanie comes by and helps us make the bottom bunk back into chairs and lets us know the dining car opens at 6:30 Mountain Time. We sit and read, watching the small towns go by, guessing which ones they are until then, and make our way to the dining car.

Once you get on the train, all is well. The staff is wonderful - informative, friendly and professional. It seems that the shortcomings belong to corporate Amtrak. When you book a sleeping room, all of your meals are included, minus snacks purchased from the lounge car and alcohol.

Once daylight arrives, we spend our time back in our roomette watching the Colorado prairie and small towns roll by. The train doesn't make too many stops between McCook and Denver, though it goes right through many small towns. Most towns have beautiful little depots, dating from an earlier era of train travel. Sadly, Amtrak doesn't use these. Many are closed and decrepit, or have been purchased by private owners and repurposed.

In Denver, there is exciting new construction of a light rail line between the Denver International Airport and Union Station, so the historic stop is closed for about another month. After tweeting this fact, I was contacted by Amtrak and told that the station would open up again in February of 2014. Union Station is located in the heart of Denver's downtown district, and would make a great overnight or weekend trip, as there are plenty of hotels, dining and entertainment within easy walking distance.

After a brief stop, it's on up into the Rocky Mountains, stopping first at Fraser, (Winter Park), then Granby. I never have been able to figure out if there is good local transportation options if you were to decide on a weekend trip, say for skiing to these two destinations. Same too with Glenwood Springs. However, I am happy to report that Amtrak in Glenwood Springs stops right downtown - easy walking distance to lodging, restaurants and the Glenwood Hot Springs. Might be the destination for a future adventure!

Perhaps these destinations - Denver, Fraser, Granby, Glenwood Springs, etc. should market Amtrak packages!

I can't say enough good about our cabin attendant Stephanie. She is so warm and professional, even working 18 hour days on the trip and being on call 24 hours.

The scenery through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas is, indeed, spectacular. It's great viewed from the roomette windows, and even better from the observation car, though seats can be hard to come by. Because the train was so full, there were lots of folks sleeping in there.

A word about sleeping... Mom slept great, but me, not so much. I do recommend packing some kind of sleep aid. I'll try some Advil PM on the return trip and hopefully that will be a little bit better.

Though our trip started out two hours late, by the time we reached our departure point, Sacramento, we were only 15 minutes late, plenty of time to catch our San Joaquin train south to Bakersfield. The station at Sacrament is another perfect example of a dismal Amtrak station.

We arrived safe and sound and I'll continue the narrative on the return trip.

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