California Zephyr

Public transport in the US often leaves something to be desired but there are some real gems that most americans don’t seem to notice. The California Zephyr is perhaps the best of them all snaking up from the Pacific Coast all the way over the mountains, the desert and the plains to eventually trundle into Chicago’s Union Station 2,438 miles later.

(The original California Zephyr before it set off in 1949)

When we got up early last Friday, just getting to the train station proved an ordeal even though it was less than 4 miles away. Emeryville station is nothing to write home about and neither is the area — it’s just mile after mile of warehouses and parking for containers. Like many Amtrak stations, it was built in the late 20th century. The older Oakland station is now stranded on the other side of the interstate from the railway tracks. Nobody ever seems to have thought about connecting the new station up to other forms of public transport.

(The original starting point of the California Zephyr)

While the line is much older, the service and (approximate) route that runs today began in 1949. It skirts the San Francisco Bay up to the State Capital Sacramento then climbs up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, crosses Nevada, Utah and follows the Colorado River through some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen. The sun sets over the Rocky mountains as you descend into Denver where we ‘detrained’ but it continues on for another day to Chicago. The timetable isn’t designed to get people to the right place at a convenient time, it’s designed so that you travel through the most beautiful scenery in daylight.

(view from the train in Colorado)

The train itself has that American over-engineered feel — Â huge horsepower, thick riveted metal and soft but solid furnishings. It may not be beautiful (or fast) but it will last forever. Everyone who works on the train has character. Frank — who runs the snack bar — gave us regular updates on his cigarette breaks via the intercom. The menu for each meal was read with some pride because the food was actually rather good — certainly an order of magnitude better than planes I’ve taken recently (yes United and Virgin Atlantic, I’m looking at you) and you get to sit in the restaurant car chatting with the other people strange enough to take the train.

(The Rockies)

It took 32 hours to get from Emeryville to Denver and just over 2 hours to get back by air. But the plane back from Denver to San Francisco was joyless and claustrophobic — every cost salami sliced until there was nothing good left. Most americans we’ve talked to about taking the train think we’re mad but there’s something special about the Zephyr, something that’s long gone in the airline business — long may it continue its daily trundle of thousands of miles through some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.

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