The California Zephyr [February 2001]

In February of 2001, I had a speaking engagement on a Friday evening in Salt Lake City. Schedules for a return flight to the San Francisco Bay Area didn't look very attractive, but Amtrak's California Zephyr worked out just fine. Unfortunately, Salt Lake City, in preparing for the 2002 Olympics, has given rail travel the short shrift. Amtrak was forced to abandon the beautiful former Rio Grande station, in order to make room for a freeway offramp. So, Amtrak now uses a lowly "Amshack" temporary building on the edge of the Union Pacific freight yard, in a not-so-nice part of town. I was able eventually to find the depot-disguised-as-mobile-home, where I learned that the Zephyr would be an hour late getting into town. When the train finally arrived at 0100, the reason for the lateness was obvious: only two P42 locomotives instead of the customary three. In order to prevent the train from stalling out further west, Union Pacific was to provide an extra locomotive. Unfortunately, this would slow us down for the rest of the trip, as freight locomotives are geared for slower speeds.

One good piece of news, however, was that I'd scored the legendary "Room 15 Upgrade". On an Amtrak Superliner Sleeper, Room 15 (also known as Room F) is the "family room", a huge compartment taking up the entire width of the bottom end of the car. Normally, it sleeps five people, and most family rooms are reserved months in advance. However, on this night, someone had cancelled out at the last moment, and since I'd booked my standard room only a few days before, I'd paid the full "yield managed" fare. Finding out that Room 15 was vacant, I was able to change my ticket and grab the biggest room on the train, for no additional fare.

After the train arrived, I immediately boarded and bedded down for the night. The UP locomotive didn't show up until about 0300, so I was startled when I woke up at 0300 to find us stil in Salt Lake City. But, eventually, we started moving, and the gentle rocking motion put me back to sleep.

I awoke again at about 0700, to find the sun rising outside. We're running about three hours behind, so those are the Pequop Mountains just east of Wells, Nevada.
The western slope of the Pequops.
Eventually, we pulled into Sparks, Nevada, just outside of Reno, for another crew change. Earlier, we had a crew "die on the law" in Elko, so the "dog catch" crew brought us into Sparks. Notice the overcast skies and the lumps of snow on the ground, a preview of things to come on Donner Pass.
Passengers lined up to use the single payphone at the Sparks Yard Office.
Our approach up the Truckee River indicated lots of snow ahead.
Swinging around a bend in the Truckee River, the leading UP unit comes into view, with the Sierras in the background.
Approaching Truckee, the snow began to come down in clumps. Below us on the mountain, we could see Interstate 80, with cars spinning out of control. Arriving in Truckee, I was able to take a shot out of the vestibule window, while we waited for a snow flanger to get out on the tracks ahead of us.
Coming down off Donner Summit, we could see breaks in the clouds, allowing enough sunlight for one last shot.

[February 2001][March 2002]