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CZ by KZ: Amtrak’s California Zephyr

As viewed from the sleeper section at the back of the train, Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr exits Gore Canyon—at 1,500 feet the deepest on the train’s route through the Colorado Rockies—on August 30, 2016. Today’s CZ closely follows the schedule of the original launched in 1949. Karl Zimmermann photo

CZ by KZ: Amtrak’s California Zephyr

PTJ 2017-01By Karl Zimmermann/photos by the author

“You’re my last two,” James said, meeting us at the tail end of the California Zephyr and grabbing our bags. He would be our sleeper attendant, and he led us past two alluring Northern Sky Rail Charters’ private cars to his sleeper and ours, No. 533, and stowed our bags.

“Look!” Laurel said, pointing to the name bannered by the vestibule door of our Superliner as we entered. “George M. Pullman.” This was one of just two original Superliner sleepers to be named. (The other honoree, Edward L. Ullman, is more obscure.)

“That,” I said, “should be a good omen,” and, by and large, it proved to be.” It was August 30, and we were about to head west from Denver for what I’ve always thought the most scenic day on rails in the United States: the crossing of Colorado and Utah on former Denver & Rio Grande Western, now Union Pacific rails. We’d ridden the Zephyr twice fairly recently, but only on the less spectacular eastern, BNSF route from Chicago (“Travels with Lily,” Fall 2011 PTJ, “A Revived Union Station, a Familiar Amtrak,” Fall 2015 PTJ). The last time we’d done the ex-D&RGW stretch was over a dozen years ago. A family reunion in Salt Lake City provided an irresistible opportunity to remedy that oversight.

The CZ was famously carded for scenery: “Scheduled to show you the wonders of this scenic route in daylight hours” boasted the first, 1949, version of “Vista-Dome Views,” the route guide handed out on board that survived until the train’s demise in March 1970. To make the point, the accompanying schematic map alternated backgrounds of bright, sunny, yellow day with black, starry night. We were about, metaphorically at least, to come out of the dark into the daylight. I had with me a copy of the 1969 version of “Vista-Dome Views” for comparison with today’s brochure and timing and, perhaps, for nostalgia.

The previous afternoon we’d hopped the new RTA commuter rail at Denver International Airport for a brisk 35-minute journey to Union Station, where we disembarked about ten yards from the front door of the Crawford Hotel, where we’d be staying. We had a fine seafood dinner there at the curiously named Stoic & Genuine (like the Crawford, in Union Station) with rail author and photographer Steve Patterson and his wife. Patterson often serves as a volunteer National Parks Service Trails and Rails docent on the train, providing narration between Denver and Grand Junction—but, unfortunately, not on our trip, which began at 8:17 the next morning, just a dozen minutes late, which set us up nicely for breakfast.

The westbound CZ behind a five-unit Rio Grande locomotive set snakes its way through Byers Canyon, as photographed in the 1960s from parallel combined U.S. Highways 6 and 24.

We moved to Superliner I “class diner” No. 38000, where we had the first of our three meals, courtesy of the roomette for which we’d splurged with Membership Rewards points. This wouldn’t be an overnight trip, but we liked the idea that we’d have a quiet retreat once we crossed Utaline and the scenery required less constant attention and, after that, when it was time for a preprandial cocktail. With three meals for each thrown in, the roomette seemed a reasonable extravagance.

But after an excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, cheese grits, and bacon, it was to the Sightseer Lounge that we headed for the looping climb up the Rockies’ Front Range to Moffat Tunnel. Seats were scarce, but we joined a couple from Annapolis, Md., Steve and Donna, and impressed them with our 1969 “Views”— by then just brown ink on a single folded amber sheet, a much simplified version of the staple-bound two-color original but with all the same along-the-way info. It also gave times for all points of interest (estimated if not station stops), which Amtrak’s route guides don’t. But in combination with the current timetable, this nearly half-century-old guide did help us predict arrivals at our favorite spots, since the schedules are similar: leave Denver in 1969 8:20 a.m., in 2016 8:05 a.m.; arrive Salt Lake 10:00 p.m. in 1969, 11:05 p.m. in 2016. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes longer today, including a good deal of padding, but, by extrapolation, the old guide served us well.

“Right now, we’re traveling almost due north—sort of circling around to gain altitude.” This is what we would have heard the Zephyrette, the fabled stewardesses that staffed the CZ, read over the public address system at this point in journeys from 1949 through 1970, with the Great Plains stretching endlessly to the east. “But in a few moments, when we come to Tunnel No. 8, we’ll head west again—up South Boulder Canyon.” From there, she and “Vista Dome Views” would have kept us informed as we rolled along the Fraser River, then followed the Colorado for 238 magnificent miles, through canyons that wouldn’t stop: Byers, Gore (my favorite, 1,500 feet deep), Red, Glenwood, DeBeque, and finally Ruby, its rich colors enhanced by the afternoon sun…

PTJ 2017-01Read the rest of this feature in the 2017-1 issue of Passenger Train Journal

This article was posted on: March 10, 2017