America By Train: The #5 California Zephyr

Observation car of the California Zephyr

Observation car of the California Zephyr.

Seat61.com, the bible for train journeys worldwide, has this to say of crossing the United States on Amtrak’s #5 California Zephyr service:

Without a doubt, crossing the United States by train from coast to coast is one of the world’s great travel experiences.  Amazingly, it’s also one of the world’s great travel bargains… a 2-night, 2,438-mile journey aboard one of the world’s greatest trains.

Loving train travel (the more epic the better) and yet never having experienced it in my native country, when my partner Dileeni and I travelled to the USA in September 2014, visiting friends in Chicago before heading over to my old stomping grounds in the San Francisco Bay Area, I convinced her that we really wanted to go by train, seeing the country along the way (better than flying, but without having to drive).

We reserved a 2-berth Superliner ‘roomette’ sleeper for ~$800USD total, and leaving behind our friends in Chicago in the bright light of early afternoon, boarded the train, bound for a 4.00pm arrival in Oakland two days later.

Chicago

Chicago

While not personally over-fond of creature comforts, the “roomette” qualified as cramped, even by my lax standards — a broom closet pretty much exactly the width of the narrow bunks, into which we shoehorned our modest baggage with some effort. Still, you could lay down, and our snack supplies were plentiful, and we settled down into the rhythmic chuk-a-chuk of the rails, watching the city scenery give way to towns and fields for an hour or so before the train braked hard to a stop after we hit and killed a pedestrian outside Naperville.

This revelation — the drunk, now dead, pedestrian who had chosen to place a coin on the track to get ‘smushed’ and then failed to step out of the way of the passing train — was occasioned by an unexplained four-hour halt in the middle of a soybean field, and the eventual appearance of a white van with AFTERMATH SERVICES ominously stenciled on the side. Word of what had eventuated finally reached us in the sleeping car like a game of Chinese whispers, in rumors and speculations, but suffice it to say that your train killing someone mere minutes into a 50-hour journey is not exactly a favorable omen. Plus, this occured smack in the middle of National Rail Safety Month.

Nor, it can be said, did the trip improve from there. The Amtrak service several times halted for an hour or more in the middle of nowhere, waiting for other higher-priority trains to pass by our particular section of America’s chronically neglected rail network. We arrived in the morning to towns that we should have reached the previous evening; we reversed and backtracked with no explanation at random points in the journey; we rarely broke above 50kph. But it was meals in the dining car that we came to look forward to the least.

All meals are included in the price of a sleeper ticket, “adult beverages” (their words) excluded. Theoretically, getting three squares a day in the dining car should have been an unqualified plus — the food wasn’t bad, after all, although the menu was understandably quite limited — but being only two people, Dileeni and I couldn’t fill up an entire booth, and this meant that every meal became a round of dreaded “social roulette”.

Would you get bible-loving, Jesus-preaching churchies as dining companions? A bearded weirdo with prominent underarm odors and gun-centred libertarian notions? Or just people so dull, so utterly beige, that merely being party to their conversations compared unfavorably with watching paint dry? It was like a study in everything socially that had gone wrong in America since Reagan — the willful misinformation, the chest-beating patriotism, the born-again fervor and denials of reason, and the general dimness with which most everybody seemed aware that a world even existed outside the US of A.

Passing through the aspens of Colorado.

Passing through the aspens of Colorado.

We did one night get sat with an older British couple, Ed and Mary, who were good fun and liked a drink and felt similarly about the whole affair. We commiserated together in the way that kids do in a tragic summer camp, captive to the company of people you’d rather avoid, and yet unavoidably committed for the long haul, as we hadn’t even yet reached Denver.

There were compensations too, of course, — the climb into the mountains, eventually, outside the Colorado capital, and the forests of quaking aspens that rushed by outside the train window like waves of gold; or waking into the red-rock desert of Utah, with its horizon full of fantastical geological formations. And coffee, bottomless coffee in the mornings in the dining car after our companions had shuffled off, chatting to our wisecracking waiter Leroy who, if he was incredulous at the things his guests often said or did, was at least amply amused by them as well.

In the end, we arrived into the Emeryville section of greater Oakland deep into the night of our third day, more than seven hours late, and hopped an Amtrak bus (with, predictably, much delay) over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, a city that since my departure six years earlier seemed to have divided itself ever more sharply into a monied class working for the tech companies of Silicon Valley, and an underclass struggling to live in what was now, partially as a consequence, the most expensive city in America.

The final verdict on the California Zephyr, then: it’s painfully slow to begin with, and even then you will probably be delayed. The scenery past Denver is amazing, especially in the mountains (but a whole lot of cornfields before that). The “roomette” was affordable, and the price not much higher than a comparable one-way airfare, but it’s also pretty cramped, and even the full-on “rooms”, which cost a fair bit more, aren’t as nice even as a kupe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Food: not bad, but bring snacks and your own alcohol. If you’re a sociologist, you may find the dining car fascinating.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5). An ‘epic’ train journey to be sure, but hardly one of the world’s greatest. Consider renting a car and road-tripping instead, provided you have ample time.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the rocks at Baker Beach.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the rocks at Baker Beach.

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