Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Training Through the Sierras

I spent the majority of today on board Amtrak trains between Sparks, Nevada and Fremont, California, taking in the sights and generally relaxing.

My train, Amtrak #5, the westbound California Zephyr, was showing as 21 minutes late almost from the moment it left Chicago, but I had a feeling there was a lot of "recovery time" (padding) in that schedule, so we reckoned on assuming the train would not be late at all. We had plenty of time to walk down to Denny's for breakfast. Over breakfast, we read the local newspaper, including an article talking about the opening of the sky bridge between the Atlantis Hotel and the Reno Convention Center, the key properties of the Reno in 2011 Worldcon bid. The article notes that the sky bridge is sufficiently large that you can put exhibits in it, and I wondered if a Reno Worldcon might use it for fan tables or maybe the Worldcon History displays. That led me into thinking how either would work well; if the Fan Tables were there, you'd have to make sure you generated sufficient traffic between the hotel and convention center or the tables would be a dead zone except during "commute times," and the History Exhibit would present a security problem in that the area would be open 24 hours and would need protection, given the number of irreplaceable artifacts that are in the display.

After breakfast, Lisa drove me the short distance to the Sparks Amtrak station, arriving around ten minutes before the scheduled 9:41 AM departure. Lisa began re-rigging the pickup for single-person (plus Kuma Bear) operation, moving her radios and Kuma's car seat to where I'd been sitting. Her plan was to head east toward Columbus as soon as she saw me off on the train. We could have walked to the station, but Lisa begrudged the extra time she'd spend walking back to the hotel to retrieve her pickup.

While Lisa worked on setting up radios, I looked through my radio gear and railroad timetables and realized that Union Pacific uses different frequencies on this section of the Roseville District than are programmed into my 2m ham radio. For the life of me, I could not remember how to add new channels to the radio. I asked Lisa, who began to try and remember how to program it as well. I heard a distant train horn blowing for a grade crossing off to the east, and it sounded like it might be an Amtrak unit (most Amtrak locomotive horns have a different sound than those on most freight locomotives). I suggested to Lisa that we go ahead and walk to the platform even though it was "only 9:41." As we walked out there, I looked to the east, and saw the headlight of a train in the distance. Soon, it resolved itself into the form of a pair of Amtrak locomotives and a train of Superliners – my train, having caught back up most of its lost time.

Somewhat to my surprise, there were a handful of other passengers boarding the train at this "stealth" station, and several getting off as well. I climbed on board, found a place to stow my luggage, and followed the car attendant upstairs, where she assigned me a seat. I had no plans of spending much time in that seat, however, and made a bee-line for the observation-lounge car in order to stake out a seat before we got to Reno, only a few minutes west of Sparks. I caught of glimpse of Lisa waving from the platform, but she couldn't see me behind the train's tinted windows. We pulled out at about 9:49, having recovered nearly all the lost time on the schedule. I expect we probably regained the remainder at Reno.

By the time we rolled into Reno's station (located in the trench through downtown Reno; it's a couple of miles north of the Convention Center/Atlantis complex), I had made it to a single seat in the Lounge car, where I would spend much of the next few hours. There was a mob scene on the platform at Reno, and I felt a little smug at having skipped it. The Lounge seats are first-come, first-served, and I made certain of getting a right-side seat so I'd have a good view of Donner Lake as we went over the summit later.

The train was completely full, and many of the passengers seemed surprised that there were no advance seat assignments. I explained to some puzzled passengers that Amtrak works like Southwest Airlines. I mentioned my usual description of Southwest as "a bus line with wings on it," and one young boy, maybe ten years old or so, didn’t get the analogy at all – to him, a plane couldn't possibly be a bus! But the adults mostly understood. Eventually, conductors came and rounded up the people who thought their revenue seats were in the lounge and escorted them back to seats in the coaches.

I settled in for the ride up the mountain, after briefly risking losing my seat by popping downstairs to buy a coffee. (Fortunately for me, people respected my having left a book on the seat.) I followed along with my Altamont Press Railfan Timetable and listened on the radio as we headed toward Roseville. At Roseville, I watched for a look at the massive rotary snowplow. There was no need for snow-removal equipment today, though, as it was a brilliantly clear day, and the only snow on the ground were a few patches in sun-sheltered areas near the summit. It's good for the view, but I worry about next year if we don't start getting some snowstorms to rebuild the snowpack.

The ride through the Sierras is not fast. The speed limit never exceeds 40 miles per hour and is as low as 30 for many miles between the nearly two-mile-long Summit Tunnel and Rocklin, a distance of over 70 miles by rail. The line is double-track most of the way, except for two sections (over the summit and at Yuba Gap) where Southern Pacific, during their "burn the furniture for firewood" period before Union Pacific bought them, had singled the line to save money.

The view after Truckee, in particular, is spectacular, as the line climbs above Donner Lake, through a horseshoe curve, and heads into the snowsheds and the long tunnel. Most of the snowsheds (long sheds that covered the track to protect them from snow) have been removed, the better to look down upon the cold, clear waters of Donner Lake.

Having just recently re-read Bill Fisher's book 30 Years Over Donner, his memoir of having been a signal maintainer for the SP along this line, I was particularly interested in watching out for places he mentioned, especially Emigrant Gap, which was a bustling little railroad outpost in his day but today is only appears to be a single storage shed and a few bits of debris that may be the foundations of former railroad buildings.

After Emigrant Gap, I decided to give up my lounge seat and went to the diner for lunch. The selections weren't all that exciting – I had a burger and potato chips – but my appetite is always enhanced by eating while riding on the train. Alas, there's little opportunity to exercise, and my blood sugar reading an hour later was 156 – higher than I would have liked, although not desperately dangerous.

After lunch, I decided to make sure I remembered where my original seat was. The Lounge was less crowded, as we'd moved out of the most interesting view areas, so I felt confident that I could get a seat in the Lounge again. I eventually found my seat by dint of finding my computer bag, briefcase, and coat in the overhead rack. The seat itself had someone in it; a woman had a "child-in-arms" which didn't need its own seat, technically. I was happy to tell her that she could count on my not being there the rest of the trip to Emeryville. I took my bags downstairs to where my big bag was, put my coat in my large luggage, and stowed my briefcase on top of the large luggage.

(Yes, I had indeed left my computer and personal belongings in the overhead rack for several hours. I know that makes some people reading this get the vapors, and that in some parts, that stuff would have been stolen by someone getting off at the next stop. I did not consider the chance of that happening to be high enough to worry about.)

I took my computer down to the now-quieter Lounge and fired it up. With the spare battery installed and nothing power-hungry running, this box is good for around six hours, so around 2 PM I started composing this message, "catching up" to this paragraph in the narrative as we passed the Elvas junction between Roseville and Sacramento. People familiar with Sacramento such as yourbob (who I did think about and send a virtual wave between Rocklin and Roseville) will know this as where Business 80/Cap City Freeway goes under the tracks near Cal Expo. I observed a whole lot of tents of homeless people pitched in the river-bottoms area just before the junction with the ex-Western Pacific route at Haggin.

When the train pulled in to Sacramento, along with a whole lot of revenue passengers, a guide from the California State Railroad Museum left us. He had been riding with us since Truckee giving a running narrative of the trip. (Actually, he rode as far as Martinez because that's where he'd parked, but the narration ended at Sacramento.) Unfortunately, his announcements did not reach back to the Lounge, so I only heard his talk the couple of times I went back to the coaches. I am grateful to him, however, for having kept an eye on my diabetes meter, which I'd accidentally left sitting out next to my luggage when I repacked things. I had meant to take it with me and only realized that I'd left it behind when my alarm went off to tell me it was time for a blood test. Fortunately, it was sitting where I'd left it.

At Sacramento, I saw several Capitol trainsets waiting on the other tracks. I expect that one of these might be the set making up the train to which I would connect with at Emeryville. Entering trainspotter mode, I noted CDTX locomotives 2001 and 2014 for future reference.

Our train was ready to go at 3:11, but our departure was delayed a couple of minutes on account of the I Street Bridge being open to let river traffic go. I heard the dispatcher enthusiastically give the clear signal to "highball the Nickel" over the bridge and on to Emeryville.

West of Roseville, the train speed limit increases to 79 mph in most stretches (except the 40 mph, 17-mile section between San Pablo and Benicia). On paralleling I-80 west of Sacramento, I saw miles of stop-and-go (sometimes just "stop") traffic grinding its way back to the Bay Area. I was happy to be one of the people not adding my vehicle to the mess on the highways on the last day of this long holiday weekend.

After we left Martinez (final stop before the end of the line at Emeryville), I realized that we were running remarkably early, and that I should be able to catch an earlier train than the 7:20 PM Capitol. We pulled into Emeryville at 4:55 PM, a full 50 minutes early. This shows clearly how much recovery time is added after Sacramento. We had arrived at Emeryville about the time the train was scheduled for its stop at Martinez. This was okay because the earlier two stops at Martinez and Davis are marked in the timetable with a "D" meaning "discharge passengers only; may leave early."

Arriving so early meant that I could make a connection to Capitol train 743, the 5:15 departure from Emeryville. This is obviously not a connection that Amtrak's ticket system allows you to book because it would require a time machine if everything ran to schedule; however, unlike every other Amtrak train, tickets for the Capitol are unreserved coach, and therefore good on any train, not just the one I originally requested. I called ahead to tell Cheryl I would be home about two hours earlier than expected. She walked down and met me at the station.

The remainder of the trip passed uneventfully. I spent some time reviewing documents for a project I start for work tomorrow morning, but otherwise took it easy. I have taken the train between the Bay Area and Sacramento many times, of course, but this was only my second trip ever through the Sacramento-Reno/Sparks section. It certainly was not the fast way home, but it's certainly the trip I enjoy more than any other mode of travel.
Tags: amtrak, trains, travel
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