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The caboose

by Forrest Whitman

The California Zephyr Report

Train #5, The California Zephyr (CZ), pulled out of Union Station Denver at exactly 8:05 a.m., as advertised, on May 2. The conductor welcomed us over the PA and reminded us that National Train Day, May 8, would feature special displays and even goodies in the old Union Station waiting room. That waiting room still seems rather grand. It’s many feet high and has those vaulting windows at either end. Some of the echoes in there have been reverberating for over a century it seems. Getting there from the Ark Valley could be a bit of a challenge. The bus does stop at Union Station, but the schedules don’t line up well. One would have to spend the night in LODO to catch the Zephyr out in the morning.

Dining Car And View Basics

Now to the question everyone asks, “How was the food”? As we pulled out through Denver’s western suburbs I was at the first seating in the fragrant breakfast diner. The coffee was good, strong and kept coming. The omelet of the day was tasty as well: swiss cheese, grilled onion, green pepper and mushroom. The spuds were tasty too, though I added hot sauce. Grilled sausage was on the side. The servers were amiable, even downright interested in everyone. Price was what you’d expect for any medium priced restaurant, say Country Bounty or Patio Pancake in Salida. They fed 94 patrons that morning, about a third of everyone on board.

The view was worth the ticket price. Snaking up through the S curves above highway 93 is always lovely. Diners exclaimed as they saw elk, coyotes, and the big reservoir up above Eldorado Canyon come into view. The swirling mists and light snow made it all more picturesque. The tunnels just keep coming (44 in all) until one gets to the big one. Named for Mr. Moffat, those 6.2 pitch dark miles to Winter Park always seem a little mysterious. It’s the second longest tunnel in the U. S. and still impressive as it was in 1928.

Price and Equipment

My $66 fare to Glenwood Springs is almost exactly what the Greyhound would charge. If one figures auto expenses at the $.50 a mile the IRS uses, the train is a bargain. I know my “conservative” friends would argue that the train is subsidized. But, according to the National Association. Of Railroad Passengers my train trip was the least “subsidized” way to go. One would have to figure into an auto trip on I-70 the cost of the Eisenhower Tunnel, the State Patrol, the maintenance trucks and a dozens of other CDOT expenses. We don’t figure all of that cost when we hop in our flivvers.

The high level Superliner cars on the Zephyr have served well for 29 to 31 years. Some have been refurbished, but, others, especially the coaches. need work. Before long the superliners will need to be replaced, but they’ve served remarkably well and still cut a nice picture rolling through the Rockies.

Some Great Conversations on the Way Home

Glenwood Springs station is a lovely old Victorian gem and the railroad museum inside is worth a visit. Train #6 pulled out right as advertised at 12:50 and the bar car was filling up even then. I enjoy bar car conversations. For the price of a beer you can hear many a story. I heard from an ex-pat living in Latvia. Seems if you’re wanting to retire there the Balkans are quite a bargain, though the common market has cut back on the luxury aspect somewhat. An interesting conversation happened with the night guy from the roundhouse in Durango. Seems the locals hate coal smoke (even though their economy likes it). They use wood chips to keep the boilers heated over the long cold nights to cut down on coal smoke and that causes some interesting moments. Two Mexicans from Aspen (here legally) chatted in Spanish about the jobs they do and how hard the hotels try to fill those jobs with Gringos. The Gringos all quit. Jokes went around and one of the conductors joined in with a few of his own, all mildly off-color. He thinks the U.P. would still like to get this train off our scenic mountain route and re-routed though Wyoming so as to make way for the coal drags.

I was ready for dinner and got in for the first serving at 5:00. Again a moderate price and a good crew. The young woman next to me had the steak, which looked great, while I enjoyed the bison meat loaf and baked spud. She was taking the train back to Denver because she’d been advised that I-70 over Vail Pass was a “nightmare” and had been closed off and on all day. We did see plenty of snow swirling outside the dining car. The wet snow added to the spring trip. Glenwood Canyon was especially lovely with the clouds parting and fresh white on those red crenelations. We backed slowly into Union Station early at 6:45. Many a “good bye and good luck” were exchanged. The California Zephyr is a fine trip.

What’s Going To Happen At Union Station?

The old gray lady is looking a little grim these days. Only one track remains and that’s soon to be torn up. Amtrak will build some kind of temporary facility out on Wewatta and 21st by Coors Field. RTD and some inter-city buses will still stop at Union Station, but it’s a long walk to the temporary train barn. COLOrail group is still suing to get more train access to the “new” Union station. It seems late in the game for that lawsuit, but we’ll see. The really hard part will be lugging the luggage across Wewatta to the tracks. They plan to install a pedestrian walk light, but good luck in blizzards.

Forrest Whitman pretty much loves to ride any train anywhere, but he rides buses too. Gus, the dog who takes care of him, loves railroad tracks and walks them with his buddy Bodie in Salida.