Thursday, July 7, 2016

San Jose to Salt Lake City behind steam

Note: 1992 was a great year for steam excursions behind Union Pacific Challenger 3985. I was lucky enough to participate in three of them. The one described here is a run from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The next one was a run from Kansas City to Houston for the 1992 Republican National Convention. The third was a run from Little Rock back to Kansas City after the convention. This particular article is about the first of these journeys.

The 1992 convention of the National Railroad Historical Society was held in San Jose, CA in July of that year. Due to work issues, I only participated in the tail end of the convention and then rode the so-called "outbound convention train", a Union Pacific steam excursion to Salt Lake City where I caught Amtrak for Denver and then flew home. This is the story of that trip.

In Altamont Pass
On Sunday, July 26, 1992 we left San Jose on the train which was pulled by UP 3985 (the Challenger), and  which consisted of flat top coaches, a dining car, a lounge, a museum car, a concession car (former RPO), 3 domes, a power car, and a business car. The trip got off to a bad start at the Union Pacific's San Jose yard, with the train backing in very late.  We went to board near the front of the train and learned that the first two cars were reserved for a we walked down the train and got seats behind the second dome (I forget the car name).  Then they ended up using part of our car for yet another group.  The second group was from Mountain Outin tours and Let's Travel (combined).  As for other trips I've written about, they were a pain in the ass the whole trip.  Anyway we finally made it to Milpitas and sat for a while while the yard master got his act together.  We left late, which didn't much matter except that we got to Sacramento after the Milepost One bookstore had closed. There were two or three good runbys in Altamont pass, and according to some folks, while we were stopped somewhere around Milpitas people in one of the domes were able to see a woman on the second floor of her house cleaning in the buff.  Arrival at the hotel in Sacramento was about 5pm, we had dinner at Denny's and crashed for the evening.

Monday: we were in the dome and it was hot.  But the view was worth it.  I don't recall a lot of details about this particular day except that we were running early and there was a question of whether the busses would be at Portola.  So we had an extra runby and still got in early.  Speaking of runbys, Steve Lee apparently doesn't know how to do one.  He never did a high speed runby, never backed completely out of sight, and never pulled all the way past the runby site.  He also seemed to feel that two mediocre runbys were better than one good one at a particular site.  Oh well.  In Reno we went to the Italian restaurant, La Strada (at one point one of my favorite Italian restaurants), at the Eldorado. We enjoyed it quite a bit.  Then some gambling (I won $125 at blackjack...I subsequently lost most of it in Elko.)

Tuesday: longish trip to Winnemucca run by the Feather River folks.  We arrived at Portola and the train was sitting there, but we weren't allowed to board. When we did,  all of a sudden the cars we were in were for the "group". Since the passenger load this day was low they decided to cram us into a few hot cars instead of spreading us out and giving the A/C a chance to work.  On the plus side, their runby locations were fantastic.  We arrived in Winnemucca at a reasonable hour and had a nice dinner at the hotel.  Gambled a little and went to bed.

Wednesday: a short trip to Elko, with the usual Feather River circus just to keep us happy.  Two or three good runbys, fast running, and arrival at about 1:30.  Swam in a very hot pool, and gambled the stay away (and my winnings unfortunately). During the various runbys people had been warning us to look out for rattlesnakes. So during this long afternoon in Elko, my friend Rick and I went out in search of a baby rattle. We found one and used it during a runby the next day...but no one seemed to notice. Dinner was a $4.95 prime rib special at the casino. Excellent.

Thursday: a long trip to Salt Lake City.  The Promontory Chapter was quite refreshingly laid back, especially after the Feather River folks.  Quite a nice change.  But the runbys were mediocre.  A nice day though.  We arrived in Salt Lake City about 6:45 and had dinner at Denny's and walked to the Amtrak station (kid's don't try this at home...there were homeless everywhere).  The California Zephyr and The Pioneer were both late for various reasons so we decided to call before getting out of bed in the morning.

Friday: the train from hell to Denver.  Instead of taking the direct California Zephyr which went via the old Rio Grande route, we elected to take the Pioneer that ran from Ogden to Denver via Cheyenne.  This necessitated taking a connecting bus from Salt Lake City to Ogden.

We called at 4am to find out that the bus to Ogden wouldn't be leaving until 7am instead of 5:15, so we slept in a little and got to the station about 6:50am.  The bus was there, but it now wasn't scheduled to leave until 8. So we walked to Mickey D's for breakfast.  The bus eventually left at 8:30 and after the Zephyr arrived (also late).  We got to Ogden and our train was nowhere to be seen.  I think we left there about 10:30 over 4 hours late.  Reason: engine problems, an air hose leak in the dining car, and heat related slow orders.  I claimed a seat in a coach, and then joined Rick in his sleeper (he went to Chicago, I only went to Denver) to get a meal voucher.  The Wyoming scenery was prettier than I remember it. We lost more time at Green River when the cab signals in our single F40 died and we had to get a UP unit to lead us (this cut our maximum speed to 70, and made it impossible to make up any time).  We also hit some slow orders, and ended up arriving in Denver after midnight, almost 7 hours late.  I hightailed it outside the station to get a cab...and there were none in sight, even though the Zephyr had already arrived. I got to my motel near Stapleton airport and to bed around 1:15. About 2:15 the A/C failed  I slept fitfully until about 6:15, got up, got dressed and caught my plane to Pittsburgh. It left on time, was comfortable, and I could sleep!  As I told my friend at the time, "this may be my last Amtrak trip (unless I need the mileage)" (it wasn't). But this trip made me really down on them as I attributed most of the delay to poor maintenance, and just plain not caring for the customer.  Example: we finally arrived in Denver and people started to get off the train. All of a sudden the lights went off because they had taken the engine (which powers them) off the train without delay. I guess the engine crew wanted to get to bed. Great customer orientation.

I checked that night before dinner and the Zephyr (which took Rick's car onto Chicago) was 5 and a half hours late at Galesburg.

Amtrak has gone through high points and low points since it was founded in May of 1971. To me this was one of the low points. Thankfully things are much better today and I would not hesitate to recommend an Amtrak trip.

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