Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 1: San Francisco to Elko, NV

20 04 2018

I’m on the train! I’m taking the California Zephyr from San Francisco (Emeryville, actually) to Chicago. It’s a 52-hour trip — 3 days and 2 nights. I was never going to go coach for that distance, and the roomettes are pretty small, with shared toilet and shower facilities downstairs. So I sprung for a ‘Bedroom’ and it’s more spacious than I thought it would be.

Here are my first impressions of the journey (only some of my 200+ photos are here):

  • It’s a beautiful, cloudless day to be starting such a journey.
  • Train left Emeryville station exactly on time at 9:10 am.
  • The attendant for my car — Ralph — will be with us the entire way to Chicago.
  • The ride is very smooth and pretty quiet.
  • My room is clean and the windows are SUPER clean.
  • My room (Bedroom, in Superliner parlance for Amtrak) is more spacious than I thought it would be — it comfortably seats 3, but would only sleep 2 and perhaps a small child. For one person, there’s PLENTY of room — a big sofa (that converts to a large single bed) and a small armchair. Above is the fold-out bunk, which I won’t be using, of course. There’s a tiny closet, 3 power outlets (all near the door, unfortunately, which means draping cords across the sofa/floor to the tray table), a combined toilet/shower (TINY, as expected), pull-out table for my laptop (or for playing cards etc. if you were with others), small hand basin and mirror in the main room, plus a full-length mirror, a cupboard for trash (which didn’t close properly, but Ralph sealed it with duct tape at my request), air con controls, reading lights, room lights, night light. The door to the room can be latched from inside, but not outside. It’s a glass door, so you can easily see across the corridor to the view on the other side of the train. There’s a curtain for the door for privacy at night and for when you leave your room. Curtains on the windows too, though I doubt I’ll use them — I like early morning sunshine. (Here’s a tip worth investigating: If there are two of you, it seems to cost as much to have two of you in the one room as it does to make two bookings with a room each — you could choose adjoining rooms and gets heaps more room than two sharing the one space. This is based on how the fare structure seems to work, which is everyone pays for a coach seat and then adds on their accommodation charge. Now don’t quote me on this, but I reckon it’s worthwhile seeing how much it is for two separate room bookings, compared to two people under the one booking and therefore in the one room.)

  • The rooms and dining and viewing sections are all upstairs in these double-decker carriages, with the showers, toilets, food kiosk/lounge, and baggage downstairs. This means that you see far more than if you were at ‘ground’ level, like in a car.
  • I can hear the people next door talking, but not what they’re saying. I can also clearly hear when they flush their toilet, and smell it! So the insulation/barrier between rooms isn’t the best.
  • As with any train experience, you see a side of the country that’s normally hidden from view when you’re travelling in a car. There were quite a few homeless camps — far more than I expected to see. And rubbish — lots of rubbish. Graffiti is pretty pervasive too. Abandoned boats and decaying jetties at the water’s edge. Even a dead seal. A surprising number of mattresses have just been dumped near the tracks — it’s like someone said, “Let’s take it to the end of the road and toss it over the fence.”
  • Someone had a sense of humour! They stuck two plastic pink flamingos into some stockpiles of blue metal on the side of the track 🙂
  • I’ll be wearing ear plugs at night — the train toots its horn fairly often, especially in built-up areas where roads directly cross the rail. Plus there’s the general noise of wheels on tracks, more noticeable at higher speeds than lower. That said, it’s a very smooth and quiet ride.
  • Some of the stops/places we went through in the first few hours — Richmond, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Auburn, Soda Springs, Truckee, Reno…
  • By 2 pm we were well into the snow, going through the Tahoe National Forest. The eucalypts around San Francisco had changed to pine trees, and the flat land had changed to mountain land with steep drops. The blue sky had changed to very cloudy. Essentially we followed I-80 much of the way for the first 5 or so hours. I wonder if those driving on I-80 realised there was a train almost directly above them!
  • I saw cows in a field! It’s not often you see that in the US.
  • Of course, the room/train has no TV, movies, entertainment, though cell phone service is a bit better than I expected, even up in the Tahoe National Forest. But as we’re skirting I-80 (the thin ribbon of road on the left in the photo below), I’d expect we’re picking up signal from the towers along that route.
  • There have been quite a few tunnels. Nothing too long, but I decided to turn on my blue night light so that I wasn’t in pitch darkness when going through the tunnels.
  • I saw some strange aqueducts, for want of a better word. They were on raised wooden platforms, and were like half a 44-gallon drum cut lengthwise, then joined end to end. Those I saw had fast flowing water in them. They almost looked like a sluice.
  • We went through the famous Donner Pass. Long tunnel near there.
  • For lunch on the first day (all meals are included in my room cost), I had the baked chilequile (sp?) which looked awful but tasted good. That was followed by greek yoghurt cheesecake, which wasn’t too sweet.
  • I met the Amtrak police officer on the train! Yes, the train has its own police officer. He’s been working for Amtrak Police for nearly 30 years riding the rails across the USA, and in that time he said he’s had to deal with about 150 deaths and accidents. Deaths are from vehicles trying to outrun the train at a crossing, or trying to outrun another train without realising the passenger train is passing as well at 70 mph, or, more frequently these days, suicides. The engineer/driver gets about 3 days off for counselling after such events, and these accidents/suicides can delay the train for several hours, as you’d expect. He always hopes for an uneventful trip, one where he has to do basically nothing except deal with any minor issues on the train. He said on the open track the train does up to 80 mph, but when in the mountains, it’s more like 30 or 40 mph. Freight trains don’t always have right-of-way, but if the passenger train has been delayed, then the freight timetable takes precedence.
  • In addition to the dining car, you can buy drinks and snacks (I wrote that as ‘snakes’!) on the train, including wine and beer and spirits. Wine is $6.50/glass, so I bought my own bottle, plus my own Diet Coke as they only sell Pepsi on the train.
  • After the Donner Pass area, we rapidly came out of snow country to pretty much no snow around Truckee. It’s an hour to Reno after leaving Truckee.
  • You get a brand new roll of toilet paper for your trip 🙂
  • East of Truckee, someone has come along the rail access road and placed little rock cairns on top of big boulders. Only train passengers who were looking north would ever see them. Thanks!
  • For meals, you sit at a table of 4, so as a solo traveler, you can end up speaking with up to 3 others.
  • There’s more cell service than I had expected through the Sierras. only lost signal for a few minutes at a time. With no wifi on the train, I’m using my cell phone as a wireless hotspot.
  • Crossed into Nevada around 3:20 pm, some 6 hours after departure. We’re now in the high desert — vegetation is totally different, and it’s a more barren landscape. Lots of browns and sage green/greys, rocks and boulders, and not much else. Cloudy.
  • Arrived in Reno, NV at 3:40 pm, right on time, if not a tad early. Scheduled to leave Reno at 4:06 pm, and left right on time.
  • There are a couple of Amish on board — I believe they don’t fly. I’m sure there are others who don’t fly for whatever reason too, then there are those like me who just want a different travel experience.
  • Spots of rain as we were leaving Reno, spoiling the clean windows and the view. But they certainly didn’t last long.
  • Rocks, lots of rocks. There’s some harsh country just east of Reno.
  • Haven’t seen any deer (or sheep?) yet, though I’ve seen their paths through the grass.
  • Broken-down fences, vehicles, barns, houses, factories, and towns. The sad state of much of rural America. Trashed trailer parks with rubbish strewn everywhere.
  • About an hour east of Reno (following SR 95), it’s just sand, salt flats, and tumbleweeds. And flat. Almost nothing grows here, and I expect very little rain falls here. I’ll take back the rain statement. An hour or two on, and there were heavy rain clouds and evidence of quite a bit of rain in the past day — lots of puddles, big and small.
  • Lovelock, NV — there were irrigated fields here! There must be some decent artesian basins, because I doubt they’re getting their water from direct rainfall and dams. The irrigated fields had those BIG rolling sprinkler systems, the sort that makes the green ‘crop circles’ you see from the sky when you’re flying over the US.
  • The sky is endlessly changing — blue sky, solid grey sky, bold clouds, rain clouds, puffy clouds…
  • In northern Nevada, we continued following the I-80, and had more snow-capped peaks in the distance.  Lots of gulches.
  • I lost cell service for about 3 hours, and called it a night not long before we got to Elko, NV (around 9:15 pm). The train continued travelling overnight reaching Salt Lake City around 2 am.
  • Throughout northern Nevada there’s no sign of livestock or large native animals. However, late in the day (the sun went down about 7:15 pm and it was fully dark about 30 mins after) after Winnemucca, NV there were a few cattle (with new calves).
  • For dinner I had the Norwegian Salmon, with a herbed rice and vegetables. It was delicious and everything was perfectly cooked. I was very pleasantly surprised.

See also:



2 responses

20 04 2018
Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 2: Utah to ?? | Rhonda Bracey: At Random

[…] Day 1: San Francisco to Elko, NV: […]

21 04 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: