An Amtrak Adventure – Leaving Chicago

It’s Tuesday 6th September 2011 and we’re looking forward to a long train journey from the Mid West to the West Coast of the US of A on the Amtrak California Zephyr.

We’d been staying in Chicago for a week to celebrate Margaret’s birthday with our son Oliver and his family Katie, Henry and Beatrix who live in Kansas plus our daughter Kirsten and husband Julian from London.  A great time had been had by all but now it was time to go our own ways.

The morning started well with a family breakfast in the food court of the Water Tower Mall on Michigan Avenue, Chicago, a little shopping for our grandson Henry’s forthcoming 11th birthday and last minute packing.  Then it was down to the hotel lobby, checkout, final hugs and kisses and into a taxi heading for Union Station which sits under the shadow of the Willis Tower, more famous under its earlier name of the Sears Tower once the highest building in the world and on the banks of the Chicago River.

The Chicago River has an interesting ecological history with a parallel to what is about to happen to us.  In the 19th century when Chicago was developing from a town to a city and becoming the hub of the mail order industry, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, the main source of drinking water for the city.  Of course, in those days, people didn’t take much notice of pollution and happily emptied the sewers into the river.  Very soon the Lake became unsuitable for drinking.  Something had to be done.  With a stroke of genius a French engineer came up with a solution which involved reversing the direction of the river so that it flowed out of Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi taking the pollution to another city St Louis.  We don’t know what the good citizens there did to deserve this treatment but it helped Chicago and its citizens to flourish.  As we entered the station we learnt that, like the river, we were in for a change of direction.  The California Zephyr had been cancelled!

Amtrak has a reputation for poor punctuality but this really did take the biscuit.  We had only got the tickets from a counter in the same station a few days in earlier and there was no mention of any problems.  The Amtrak Information desk did not want to know and directed us to the Amtrak Service desk who said the railway company had tried to contact us by phone this morning.  It turned out that the phone call had been made to an 0207 number, i.e. a central London number, which was nothing to do with us.  Whatever –  the Service desk couldn’t help and sent us to the Ticketing desk where there was a long queue – or a ‘long line’ as they say in America.

Eventually, having got to the front of the line, the call came to go to desk 11.  At long last there was someone who admitted that Amtrak had severely disrupted our plans and wanted to work on finding a solution.  The main options were a full refund then we could make our own arrangements to fly to San Francisco, get a train down through Texas, through New Mexico and on to LA with three changes or to take the Southwest Chief direct to LA then the Coast Starlight to Oakland for San Francisco.  We didn’t want to miss out on our adventure:  so it was off to the lounge to wait for the 3.00pm Southwest Chief.

The Metropolitan Lounge is reserved for sleeping car passengers and provides comfortable seating, free coffee and soft drinks, wifi and relative peace.  Amtrak is almost a home for senior citizens.  The majority of people in the lounge were couples in their 60’s and 70’s with only a few younger people and some small children.  Jim, a tall, uniformed man in his 60’s, the train manager, came into the lounge, introduced himself and proceeded to check our tickets.  Once he’d seen all the sleeper passengers he announced that the train was ready for boarding and so it was time to get going.

The train was a double-decker and we soon found our coach.  And there was the sleeping car attendant, standing by the yellow steps, to help us board the train.  Our Superliner Standard bedroom – sometimes known as a roomette – was on the upper deck and on the right-hand side.  This was great as the views would be better and, as the journey was essentially travelling East to West, we’d be facing North most of the time so no direct sun burning in the windows.  The Superliner bedroom consists of two facing easy chairs that fold down into a bed a night with a top bunk that folds down from above the window.  When they’re down there is very little extra space in the room.  During the day a table folds out between the chairs and there’s a large picture window from which to enjoy the passing countryside.  The storage space in the room is minimal but we’d been pre-warned and had checked in our big cases so only had small overnight bags to stow.  There are reading lights and fairly basic air-conditioning controls that seem to work.  There’s also a power socket that will be very useful for keeping the netbook, phones and cameras fully charged.

At 3.07pm, 7 minutes late, train No. 3, the Southwest Chief, slowly pulls out of Union Station after a series of tannoy messages between the crew about supplies or lack thereof.  We’re on our way to LA where we are scheduled to arrive at 8.15am on day 3.

As we leave downtown Chicago through miles of shunting yards, there is an excellent view back to Chicago’s famous skyline.  It is most noticeable that the track-sides are very clean, litter free and even manicured – in contrast to our old familiar grubby British Rail tracks.  Soon we’re passing through neat suburbs and then out to the surrounding towns.  The first stop, after 28 miles, is Naperville a prosperous looking commuter town.  We know the exact distance because the ticket wallet details the complete route along with timings for arrival at each station and the distance from Chicago. So we also know we are only 28 miles into the 2,265 miles to LA.  Once outside Naperville it’s onto the wide open prairies of rural Illinois.  The crops are varied but seem to be predominantly corn with big cobs ready for harvest. [I learn later that the corn is being produced not as a food crop but to produce ethanol for an alternative fuel.]

At the second stop, Mendota IL (mile 83), there are about 20 passengers to pickup including three Amish couples.  The train is far too long for the far too short platform and has to stop four times moving forward two or three carriages at a time until everyone has got on.  We’re now about 15mins behind schedule.

Earlier in the journey we have had a visit from Robert our sleeping car attendant.  He explains about the sleeping arrangements and also points out that the restrooms (toilets) are in the middle of the carriage and the shower room is on the lower deck.  It turns out that he should have been working on the California Zephyr today but has moved across to the Southwest Chief as they have extra carriages to accommodate diverted customers such as ourselves.

There is also a visit from the dining car attendant to take reservations for dinner.  Robert has advised that an early dinner time is best as they do run out of some dishes.  The first sitting is at 5 which seems very early so we chose the 6 o’clock sitting.  The menu sounds very good with steaks, bbq pork ribs, shrimp casserole and a half chicken.  Let’s see if it lives up to expectation.  Being sleeper passengers all our meals, coffees and soft drinks are included in the ticket price.  Of course we do have to pay for beers, wine and cocktails.  Haven’t seen the price list yet so hope we’re not in for a shock.

We have however had one shock, there’s NO WIFI.  How are we going to live for more than 40 hours without the internet?  In Chicago a couple of PAYG sim cards were purchased but they don’t have an internet option only calls and text messages.  This means that this blog will only be published after the trip.

The train rolls along at a rather pedestrian pace, this is not the land of high-speed rail.  However there are some fairly violent wobbles from time to time, usually when going over a level crossing, which might be an indicator as to why the slow speed.  Also the klaxon, or whistle as it is called, is blaring out almost continuously as roads cross the tracks at regular intervals.  The crossings are un-manned and typically consist of a flashing light, clanging bell and flimsy barrier.  In the towns along the way there are often vehicles waiting to cross but in the countryside there is seldom a vehicle in sight.

The line is heading about SW across the very flat country of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri into Kansas.  The first big city, sometime after 10pm tonight, will be Kansas City, a city which despite its name is mostly in the State of Missouri.  We were there for the first time on Christmas Day 2010 when we flew in from London via an overnight in Washington DC.  There was a lot of snow, the temperature was around -10C and the place was mostly deserted.  This time the temperature is likely to be about +20C at the end of a beautiful late summer’s day and no doubt there will be plenty of people around.  Quite a contrast.

Six o’clock and it’s time for our booked sitting for dinner.  They say that one of the best things about long train journeys is the people you meet.  This meal proved the point.  The tables sit four people and the staff decide who will sit with whom.   We’re seated with two fellows, Dan and Frank, both lone travellers.  Dan is travelling from Rhode Island to LA for a fiftieth high school re-union.  He’s wearing a gun club T shirt and tells us he’s a member of the Tea Party.  Talking is his hobby.  Frank is a much quieter middle aged guy who turns out to be an academic from mid-state New York and an Obama supporter but who supports the second amendment clause about the right to bear arms.  At least they have one thing in common.  We have a lively and good natured debate about things political ranging from support for small businesses to why the Japanese didn’t invade the US – because they were frightened by the idea of meeting masses of armed citizens defending their property and life-style.  The fact that heavy bombers capable of flying across the Pacific did not exist, and that any attempt to send a flotilla by sea would be detected days before it arrived in continental US waters didn’t seem to come in to it.  The one subject we all agreed on was the need to support the railways.  They are both life-long railway travellers and remember the US rail system when it was run by private companies.

Dinner was excellent.  After a small green salad with a choice of dressings, Margaret had a shrimp casserole with rice whilst I had a New York steak medium to rare with a baked potato.  There was a choice of desserts and we both had pecan pie followed by coffee.  The whole meal was washed down with a half bottle of chardonnay and another of merlot.  And drinks were very reasonable priced.  A bottle of good merlot was $22, i.e. about £13.

During dinner the train stops at Galesberg, a town which has a serious claim to fame in the development of two major features of pleasure parks.  The first is the building of the first Ferris wheel by local boy George Washington Ferris and the second the invention of popcorn by another local boy Olmsted Ferris, his uncle.  [Olmsted also has the dubious reputation as the man who brought the dandelion to America from Europe.]    Very shortly after leaving Galesberg the mighty Mississippi appears on the right and a few minutes later we cross the river on a double-decker bridge, 3,347ft  long with double-tracks – the largest of its kind in the world.

We have now moved up to the observation car with a little wine and are watching a fantastic sunset.  In half an hour the sun has changed colour from yellow to deepest red.  A bit difficult to photograph from a moving train and through double-glazed windows.  Although it’s only 8.15pm our room is beginning to beckon.  The sleeping car attendant has said he will make up our bunks at 9.  The train is about to pull into La Plata Missouri (298 miles) and is now 25 minutes behind schedule.

True to his word Robert appears just before 9pm and proceeds to set up the beds.  When we say we’re not quite ready for bed he offers us the use of the vacant compartment across the corridor.  Excellent.

Just a small observation, the rooms are really quite small, the corridors are very narrow and the staircases between decks are very cramped.  And, the restrooms are difficult to turn round in, a little smaller than an economy cabin aircraft toilet.  How does the average outsized US citizen cope with train travel?

And another thing, there are a significant number of British voices.  Is it that many Brits are train travel fanatics or is it the spirit of adventure calling?  Haven’t actually got into conversation with any of them yet but must make an effort to find out why they are travelling this way.

So it’s nearly the end of our first day.  The next stop is Kansas City (437 miles) which means we will soon be entering the State of Kansas, our fourth state of the journey.  The train has caught up a bit of time and is now about 15 minutes late so the average speed has been just under 60 mph – it feels slower but maybe that’s because we are used to trains travelling at speeds between 100 and 120 mph and faster on Eurostar.  Apart from some fairly violent shaking, similar to air turbulence but coming up from the rails, the train has been very comfortable, the staff very friendly and helpful and the scenery as good as a prairie can be, a bit repetitive.  We have yet to experience the sleeping arrangements but we know that breakfast is available in the dining car from 6 am and it’s free-seating so maybe we’ll meet up with some different people tomorrow.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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