The Amtrax Californian Zephyr is a (very) large silver behemoth of a train that snakes across the country from Chicago to San Francisco, it covers 7 States and 2438 miles including a pass though the Rockies amongst it's many highlights. The trip from Chicago's Union Station to Emeryville (San Francisco) takes 52 hours, there are two ways to travel in this train "coach" and "roomette", coach consists of a seat while the roomette consists of a small room with bunk bed/access to showers and meals/drinks included, coach does not.
Now as travellers we highly considered doing the roomette for the experience and comfort however on looking online the "coach" seats looked very roomy and well, as travellers on a budget $130 each looked a lot more appealing than $380 each (at time of booking), besides we survived 48 hours on a beaten up, cramped, smelly train from China to Tibet so really, how hard could it be to be in a comfortable western style seat for 52 hours? How little did we know.
After our first (and second) night trying to sleep in it I can tell you wasn't the most comfortable, the seats are a little hard and I ended up with neck and back ache both nights, many passengers seem to book two seats (or been lucky enough to not have someone next to them) giving them a place to lie more comfortably and most have brought a pillow, this is, if you have the room and the want to carry anything else on board (there is a two bag minimum for each person) highly recommended, you can tell the passengers that do this train trip regularly or before!
However, minor seat comfort gripe aside at the end of our car is an observation room with large windows that extend up to ceiling, tables to eat and read at and lounge chairs to kick back and truly soak in the view(s), beyond that a dining car offers hot meals and below that a snack bar with all the sugary treats and microwaveable hot dogs and burgers America has to offer. Couple of hints re: eating, if you can bring your own food/snacks, while the food is "ok" it's not cheap, breakfast starts from $10, lunch and dinner start about $15 and rise up to around $25, two Pepsi's and a sandwich cost $11 and while that probably doesn't sound to bad to some, if you are on a budget make a few sandwiches before you board, buy a big bag of chips, some bottled water (you can top that up for free on board) and it will help you out and stop you over spending. A lot of passengers did this.
As I said that the trip usually takes 52 hours, and it's fair to say that usually these Amtrax trains do have delays here and there so be prepared for that and our trip certainly wasn't without incident. We were delayed on leaving (30mins), had two massive delays due to frozen brakes (thought to be on fire at one point) where the fire department and engineers were called out (these totalled 3hours), when we entered the Rockies it was nothing but thick fog so while that was a little disappointing visually it also meant we were crawling through the mountains, then we had to wait for a train snow plough train to get us through the snow covered tracks. Another delay to let a train go through which later we found out got hit by an avalanche where we had been standing, delays due to catching up with freight trains, delays as work to tracks, signal issue delays, delays delays delays, you get the idea.....in total we were on the back end of about 7hours worth.
Arguably you could moan and groan however I think it's very reasonable to say if this trip was in England with even a fraction of the snow America has had then we wouldn't have even left the station! So while it's frustrating and tiresome it's a pretty impressive feat that they can keep the lines of transport open and the communication (I felt) was good at all times besides it's not as if you can do anything about it, just sit back and enjoy those views, and they are spectacular. I have to give Amtrax a lot of credit, they had a "plan B" for everyone on board who had connections, they put people on buses, rebooked them on other trains, paid for cabs (one lady got an 1hr 30min cab ride paid) and even set passengers up in hotels, they also gave the whole train a free hot meat in the dining car to help with the annoyance, it's easy to forget that it affects the crew too who throughout the trip were positive, apologetic and polite.
Finally we arrived in Emeryville, having pretty much the same feeling as that Tibet train trip..... Enough! Yes, It was a hell of a long time to be on a train (60+ hours) but for $130, the views alone of Nevada, Colorado River, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, still make It worth every single penny.......although next time I'd do the roomette and maybe in the summer!
Music of the train ride:
Fleetwood mac: "Worried Dream"
Tori Amos: a Sorta Fairytale
Iggy Pop: I am a Passenger
Rufus Wainwright: San Francisco
Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums",