Transit Adventures

The Scenic, Early and Chatty California Zephyr from DEN to SLC — One delay from a drunkard in Grand Jct who missed the train and made it wait, lying about having a 3 year old on board

After a nice day in Denver visiting friends and only taking RTD once, the 16th Street Free Mall Ride its time to continue my trip with my day on the California Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake City, a route I’ve only done eastbound arriving in Denver after dark.

I get to the station at 7:40am after a nice mile plus walk from the friends house that I’m crashing on the couch of. As I cross the 20th Street bridge, I photograph the Zephyr arriving 19 minutes late at 7:34am (delayed from an air hose breaking and releasing in Iowa). I go out on the platform and say Salt Lake City. A friendly car attendant tells me I need to cross the street and go to the podium in the station to get my boarding pass first.

At 7:47 I’m at the conductor podium which is at the oppsite side of the temporary train station, far away from the door. The scanner part of his iphone is broken. He is going by last name, another Cox is boarding. At 7:52 I’m at the door to my coach and I’m told to choose any seat. There are tons of empty seats! I hop off and get a full photo essay of the platform. I head up to the crowded sightseer lounge, all of the seats on the prime right side of the train are taken.
8:00 — second call for breakfast announcement
8:05, our scheduled departure time comes and goes. I sit in the lounge car, with power outlets that don’t work. The ones at my seat do. I later learn the outlets on the right side of the car work, the left don’t.
8:10 — Still in Denver, get third call for breakfast
8:17 — We leave, heading forward, the way the train headed in. There tons of railroad ties stacked about for RTD FasTracks. Announcement for two hours to a smoke stop at Winter Park. We slowly pass 23rd street and head west, passing hotels and go under I-70. We follow Ica street and a bridge under construction, I assume for FastTracks. We go through a yard and pick up speed.
8:28 — catch our first glimpse of the mountains slowly going through another rail yard and last call for breakfast. I go downstairs and buy some coffee (I was up too late last night with my friends), not wanting to miss any mountain scenery in the dining car and pass houses and mountains. We follow I-76.
8:40 — the foothills get closer through Arvada, towards Clear Creek Canyon through subdivisions, it’s a nice, clear Colorado day.
8:47 — We reach a canyon and pass the Rocky siding
8:50 — Officially climbing with curves and a last view of the Denver skyline.
8:56 — reach the bottom of the ponderosa pine ecotone and through rock.
8:59 — first tunnel. The right side of the train is the place to be, oh well. We then go through a series of 27 tunnels, some short some long, the scenery is incredible. I wish I am sitting on the opposite, right side of the lounge car or better yet in a vista dome.
9:27 — pass a BNSF freight train at the cliff siding.
9:43 — Keep heading into the mountains, pass a train with military transport trucks.
At 9:44 we get the announcement for the Moffat Tunnel and to not go between the cars while in the tunnel to minimize diesel fumes. I go back to my seat to sit more comfortably and notice a few lights. We enter at 9:47 and I stay in my car as instructed to minimize diesel fumes. At 10:00 we leave the tunnel and pass the Winter Park Ski area. There is plenty of snow.,We’re ten minutes from the Fraser-Winter Park Station. I head downstairs for the photo stop as we head towards Fraser. The attendant keeps opening the window. Its a bright blue sky day.
We get to Fraser-Winter Park at 10:11. I have a good photo stop getting the back of the train by the sleepers, we leave at 10:18, 11 minutes late to follow the Fraser river to Granby.
10:27 — come to a stop by a river and then start following the Fraser. A lot of the train is day trippers, few are going all the way through to California. See some deer dashing and running in front of the train. The Fraser is spectacular.
10:39 — annoucement for Granby in five minutes, no one getting off. One getting on. I sit in the no longer packed lounge. Station at 10:44. I get a decent from the train photo essay. I grab my iPhone changer and realize the right side of lounge has working outlets!
11:04 — keep following the Colorado and get on a wider stretch and start moving quickly on the plateau following US-40. It’s a wide plateau with snowfields but not huge drifts allowing some stage brush to be visitable.
11:20 — see some more deer. The lounge is quite quiet. See a Kyote, Pass a coal train going through a unique canyon.
11:36 — Siding: Azure as the canyon gets wider. Keep seeing more deer.
11:45 — Keep going through tunnels, joined by a road. There are cliffs on each side.
12:00 — call for lunch. I decide to go. I first eat with an interesting professional photographer and then chat with your usual retirees that are railfans. The service is the fastest I’ve experienced on Amtrak since so few people are on the train. The lunch takes me all the way to Glenwood Canyon, so I don’t take as many photos as I would like of I-70s impressive engineering feat in the canyon walls.
1:32 — Glenwood Springs next.
1:40 — I stand downstairs as we enter a tunnel and approach Glenwood springs for ten minutes. We arrive at 1:42 and I get photos of the front of the train, the back of the train and inside the station. We slowly leave the station on time at 1:52, passing a mountain style Lowes and Target. We also pass a sewage treatment plant and other less impressive structures. As we follow I-70 out of Glenwood Springs.

I get distracted chatting with the railroad memorabilia collector, specializing on dining car cutlery and a women who commuted for five years from Montpelier to White River Junction on the Vermonter. She discusses how she once experienced a derailment on the Vermonter and how scary that was.

At 3:33 we arrive grand junction, home to the only convenience store in a station on the zephyr, 35 minutes before our scheduled departure time. I get a full photo essay of all 3 buildings at the station along a newly modernized amtrak platform that includes a secondary (and rarely used) island platform with tactile warning strips and a wheelchair lift enclosure. The lift isn’t enclosed but left exposed on the actual side platform. It’s a Jeremiah layover, full photo essay. I notice many passengers have ran to nearby convenience stores. We end up leaving a women behind running to a grocery store, desperate to buy her brand of cigarettes and totally drunk.
The dining car steward comes through at 4:12 with dinner times of just 5, 5:30 and 6:45. I choose the 6:45 seating. We slowly leave Grand Junction.
At 4:18 we stop on the edge of used car lots in Grand Junction. Apparently the woman who missed the train has told the station staff that they’ve left their 3 year old kid on the train. The conductor and attendants are searching the train looking for any unaccounted for children.

At 4:34 a taxi drives up we all see the drunk girl who missed the train trying to buy her brand of cigarettes on the ballast outside of the train since were close to a road. The conductor is outside looking absolutely furious, getting back on. He’s fuming, the first time a left behind passenger actually managed to make the train stop to wait for her. She accomplished this by lying that she left her baby on board to stop the train. I hear that she has a huge stash of liquor at her seat, its unclear if she’s traveling with others. The conductor tells her to remain in her seat and if he catches her drinking she’s off the train. I’m surprised he can’t throw her off the train for lying under some interfering with federal transportation clause.
At 4:52 we start heading into Utah. The Butes are spectacular as a coal train joins us.
5:06 — we keep following a river, without cell service along the edge of buttes.
5:25 get back to roads off in the distance. The sunset is spectacular.
5:54 — dusk descends, I’m even more annoyed about the 20 minute hold up. I wonder which stops would have been smoke stops had the trian been on time. I decide to sit in my seat to enjoy sunset over the buttes of Utah.
6:00 — announcement or Green River, a quick off and on. I’m sitting in coach, people want to know the Super Bowl score. I look it up, Ravens are pounding the 49ers.
6:11 &dmsah; the conductor makes an announcement, “there’s a minor game going on” and gives us the Super Bowl score as we cross a bridge at sunset into Green River.
6:15 — stop in Green River with no sign for the station this odd young mother and another women try and leave there drinks and kids with me so they can run out and try and smoke at Green River. They fail, the train starts moving before they leave the lounge car. Smokers amaze me sometimes.

At 6:45 I get my call for dinner. I’m seated with a Spanish father and son and a man who leaves when he finishes looking at the menu and decides there is nothing he wants. I end up joining another twosome for conversation. One going from Grand Junction to SLC and the other Glenwood springs to SLC. One does it for a television station and the other owns a small town movie theater struggling to survive in Paonia Colorado, a small town that I’ve been too. There leaving in June, the theater sold. Soon I see the drunk women who missed the train entering the dining car. She has a large (not Amtrak issued) bottle of sometime she’s trying to hide but I see clearly. I’m amazed the crew hasn’t kicked her off the train yet for drinking her own stash. It’s a decent meal of chicken served far too quickly (After I’ve managed just two bites of salad) since the diner is so empty on this light run. The train stops in Helper at 7:33, 13 late. It’s good conversation and we shut the diner down at 8:15.

I go back to my seat and the conductor walks by. He tells me Helper is a ten minute fresh air (it’s in the Union Pacific yard which bans smoking) if the trains on time and there often early into Provo. Were expected there five minutes late. I’m not that disappointed since at least it was dark in Helper and I have a goal for another trip. I can tell we’re in the mountains by winding slowness but obviously can’t see anything. On a curve I see the lights of the engines illuminating a highway overpass and shallow valley.

8:38 — see cars off in the distance. I see the lights of the locomotive exposing rock, were climbing Soldiers Summit someone mentions. I go back to the lounge car and notice the young mother is in the car alone, she has left her five and six year old daughters alone in their roomette to sleep. (I wonder if this is an okay thing to do or not, I don’t know the answer). There about three of us chatting in the lounge car. I have a very interesting time listing to the really rough life of the young mother from North Carolina basically running away to extended family and what sounds like a Sugar Daddy she has never met in Nevada with her young daughters and another young guy who has also had an extremely rough life.
8:55 — the crew quickly announces the Ravens won the Super Bowl 34-31.
9:42 — Stop in Provo and get the last announcement for the night. It includes the fact the train has a 11:30 departure time from Salt Lake City and to wander off anywhere since there is nothing near the station.

The rest of the ride is uneventful and along the new tracks used by FrontRunner South. This is UTA’s new commuter rail line that opened in December. It built its own separate tracks parallel to the UP line. Amtrak still uses the freight tracks, now sharing the ROW with FronRunner.

I get off the train when we arrive in Salt Lake City, early at 10:38, ending an interesting conversation, remembering how fortunate I am to have had such an easy life. This Amtrak trip is definitely one for the memory bank. As always its not just for the scenery but the fascinating people, and that idea of moving away, trying to have a better life. The one delay on the trip is one I’ll also never forget, a drunkard lying about having a three year old on board so she can have the train wait for her after missing it. I walk over to the Hampton Inn to check into a hotel room I’m sharing with my Dad who shortly arrives from his JetBlue flight arrival from New York.