2005 – USA – “California Zephyr”

Chicago to San Francisco by Train

We sat waiting at Union Station in Chicago opposite the main staircase.

If you have seen the film “the Untouchables” you would recognise the staircase from the scene where Kevin Costner’s character tries to shoot a gangster whilst also trying to avoid shooting a baby in a pram.

Union Station Chicago is yet another of America’s beautiful railway stations. It is a very atmospheric place to wait for a train.

A glance at the departure board showed the prominent role that Chicago plays still plays in the US system.   It is virtually impossible to avoid Chicago if you are crossing the country by rail.

It was 1pm and within the next 3 hours no less than 4 great trains would leave Chicago heading west.   At 2:15pm there was the “Empire Builder” that would head north to Milwaukee and then across to Minneapolis St Paul, Portland and finally to Seattle.   At 3:15pm there was the “South West Chief” heading southwest towards Los Angeles. Following it at 3:20pm there was the “Texas Eagle” heading south to St Antonio in Texas and then west also to Los Angeles. Finally there was our train, “the California Zephyr”, due to leave at 1:50pm and heading straight across to San Francisco.

About 10 minutes later we were called down to the platform and we boarded the train. Unlike the Lake Shore, the Zephyr was formed of double deck “Superliner” carriages. I recognised them from an earlier trip I had made back in 1986 when I had taken the Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to San Francisco.


Despite the bigger carriages, our little 2 bunk compartment was the same layout as the one on the Lake Shore. It was on the left side of a central corridor again.   The friendly attendant stored our excess luggage and explained the facilities on board. As we had the prospect of two nights on the train we were glad to see that there was a communal shower to use.

The California Zephyr, which takes its name from an earlier 1949 train that plied a similar route, is billed as Amtrak’s most scenic train ride and it takes over 50 hours to cover the 2,438 miles from Chicago. Our schedule had us arriving in San Francisco in two days time at 4pm.

1960’s Zephyr / Herbert Maruska / Creative Commons 2.0

The train headed out on time at 1:50pm and we sat in our compartment watching Chicago disappear behind us. The first stop was after about 30 minutes at Naperville in the suburbs and after that, as the train picked up speed again, we went to explore.

In the centre of the train were the two service vehicles. There was an observation lounge with seats pointing out towards the large windows on either side. It was obviously the main social centre of the train and people had already gathered there and were chatting and drinking beer.   On the floor below the observation lounge was a little buffet counter and bar.   The next carriage was the dining car with tables of four laid out next to wide panoramic windows. The kitchen was downstairs.

We stayed in the observation car for a while and enjoyed a beer or two whilst watching the scenery. The scenery was mainly cornfields. In fact, there were cornfields as far as we could see on both sides.

At about 5:30pm we crossed the wide Mississippi and rolled to a stop at Burlington (205 miles from Chicago). Burlington was the first stop in Iowa.

Crossing the Mississippi

We went to the dining car and had dinner.

By the time we had finished we realised that were still passing through cornfields.   Crossing by train certainly gives you a better idea of just how vast America is and how much corn there is too.

The attendant made our cabin ready for bed and we were all tucked up as we pulled into Omaha, Nebraska (505 miles) at around 11pm.

Amtrak Sleeper / jshyun / Creative Commons 2.0

The train continued through the night crossing Nebraska and entering Colorado. The mournful whistle to warn motorists at level crossings was blowing a lot as it went. It was a full moon and the shadow of the train could be seen out of the window. It was wonderful and atmospheric, yet neither of us could sleep.   The track was truly awful and much worse than we had experienced back east.

The American railways are really built for freight trains nowadays and the track probably gets a good hammering.   The ride was rough as hell and, try as we might, we only managed about 3 hours a piece.


I dozed off at about 4am and came to around 7am.  When I woke I found that the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. I called the steward and he told us that one of the passengers had had a heart attack in the middle of the night and we were now waiting for an ambulance to take him to hospital.

We were already in the dining car having breakfast when the ambulance turned up. Everyone hoped the passenger would be okay and nobody seemed to mind that the fact that Zephyr was now over two hours late.   Eventually we pulled into Denver (1,038 miles) at around 10am.


After Denver we went to the observation lounge to secure a couple of seats for the next part of the journey; the upper Colorado valley and the passage through the Rockies. It was pretty amazing stuff. The train climbed slowly out of Denver, then up into the narrow valley and then along it in a series of S bends.





After it was over we had a light lunch in the diner and then retired to our compartment for an afternoon nap.


We had an extended stop at Grand Junction, Colorado (1,311 miles) around 6pm and then we went off again to the diner for another dinner.


The train was supposed to get to Salt Lake City (1,608 miles) around 11pm but as we were running late we didn’t make it until after 1am. There was a lot of clattering and clanging associated with that stop and it didn’t help our sleep. We couldn’t have slept worse than the previous night, but the track condition wasn’t any better and we didn’t get that much rest the second night either.


The next morning, after breakfast, we pulled into Reno, Nevada (2,202) just after 11:30am. We were now more than 3 hours late. The extra hour had been lost for some unexplained reason.


I suspected that the delay was because passenger trains get low priority on American railways and often have to wait for the freight trains to come through.


It was getting quite late in the afternoon by the time we hit the next scenic delight of the trip; the traverse of the Sierra Nevada.


Again the train climbed up into the mountains and through another series of “S” bends and tunnels as it negotiated the last big natural barrier before the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t quite as scenic as the previous day but it was still fantastic.


We pulled into Sacramento, California (2,353 miles) almost 4 hours behind at 6pm and it was almost 8:30pm when we finally pulled into our Emeryville terminus (2,438 miles) where we had actually been due at 4pm.

I didn’t mind the late arrival; in fact I was a little sorry to get off. Crossing the continent by train over the past 4 nights had been wonderful. My only complaint was that we hadn’t really slept well.

We spent a few days in San Francisco looking around. It was my first visit in 20 years but I couldn’t see too many changes. We had wonderful sourdough bread and some great seafood too.


We also rode the preserved PCC street cars along Market Street and around to Fisherman’s Wharf. There is an interesting collection and they were painted in the various old colours of many defunct US systems.

2007 August temp Folder 294
A San Francisco PCC car in the colours of Birmingham Alabama


After a couple of days we flew down to LA and from there back to the UK on American Airlines.

Categories: USA