The California Zephyr [March 2002]

While scheduling a business trip to Chicago, much to my pleasant suprise, I discovered that would be cheaper to take the California Zephyr home on the return leg. So, a brief 15 minute walk from the last business meeting of the day, and I was at Union Station, all ready to go.

Chicago Union Station is the starting point. Last of the truly grand American railroad stations, Union Station is still the Heart of downtown Chicago. Nearby, the soaring Sears Tower gazes across Lake Michigan to points east.
On entering the headhouse, one experiences an elegance that airport architects have never strived for, nor achieved.
Descending into the depths of the station, we arrive at the concourse and stub tracks, where Amtrak shares space with METRA commuter trains serving the western suburbs.

This trip would also be an experiment with flash photography. Usually, I'm content to utilize natural light and long exposures, but "painting with light" offers some new opportunities. It's just a little flash (guide number 70) but it can have some impact, thanks to the use highly reflective decals on railroad equipment.

Nearby, a set of BNSF business cars awaits some executives. The old trainshed windows provide just enough natural light to make the shot.
Suddenly, it's Train Time. I meet my car attendant, a wonderful 20 year vet named Freida. With no time to waste, the California Zephyr starts rolling West, slowly at first in the darkness underground Chicago. Suddenly, daylight appears, and the Zephyr boils out of the station. Next to the entrance, a number of Amtrak diesels bask in the sun, at a location once called the "Zephyr Pit".
The Zephyr races along the Burlington triple-track "speedway", passing lesser trains and yard goats grunting away. As we pass Cicero Yard, pairs of local freight engines pause and wait. The early springtime sun sets quickly, and dusk hides the flatlands of Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Time to sit back and relax.
The California Zephyr arrives in Denver at dawn, as the BNSF has delivered us nearly an hour early. Approaching the station, we pass the BNSF Denver locomotive house, which is still a colorful post-merger kaleidoscope.
At Denver, I de-train to have a chat with my brother Dennis, who lives in nearby Lafayette. Freida warns me "don't stray too far!" before helping some arrivals with their luggage.
With low, overcast, threating skies, we depart Denver on-time, but now we're running on the Union Pacific, which has its own schedules and priorities. On the way up to Moffet Tunnel, we're slowed by several meets with coal train after coal train. As the summit approaches, our route begins to twist and turn, and sometimes the front of the Zephyr is visible.
Approaching Granby, the skies begin to show patches of blue.
Between Granby and Glenwood Springs, the canyon begins to deepen as we descend the Rockies.
By the time we reached Glenwood Springs, we were more than an hour off schedule, so the Conductor elected to make a only a quick stop.
We arrived at Grand Juniction nearly two hours down, and just after sunset. Grand Junction is a crew change point, so we had a little more time to de-train and look around.
Time for one more grab shot of the head end before hopping back on board.
Dawn arrives over the Sonoma Range, just before our stop at Winnemucca. We're only one hour down, thanks to some generous schedule padding. .
As we glide through Nevada, we're greeted with mostly blue skies, which will hopefully hold up for our transit of the Sierras.
Following a brief stop in Reno, we begin the winding climb along the Truckee River to Donner Summit.
After a series of tunnels and tight curves, we cross the summit at Donner Lake. Looks like mostly cloudy skies on the way down to the coast.
During the winter and spring season, passenger traffic on the California Zephyr ebbs between Colorado and California. Still, it's often difficult to find a seat in the Superliner Sightseer Lounge. For this shot, the little flash unit was up to the task.
Already over an hour late, we've stopped at the entrance to Blue Canyon to await a slow merchandise freight which is slugging it out up the hill. I took the opportunity to open the window downstairs and get a decent shot of the rest of the train.
The freight finally arrives, and we start moving again.
As we arrive in Roseville, two hours late, the sun has already set, leaving a gray overcast smudge above the legions of gray, smudgy locomotives at the enginehouse.
Thanks again to schedule padding, we arrive in Emeryville, only 45 minutes late. One last grab shot of the head end before boarding the bus that will take us over to San Francisco and the Caltrain depot.

[February 2001][March 2002]