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Taking the Amtrak Zephyr from Denver to Emeryville:

from the Phantom's postcard collection
Here's a postcard from the Denver, CO train station

On Getting Home after September 11th:
a rant about Amtrak's awful service

by Diannek
(Click here for a list of 10 easy things Amtrak could do to improve service!)

Like thousands of Americans, I was out of town on that fateful day -- in Denver, due to fly home on the evening of the 11th. Luckily, I was staying with friends but like everybody else in America, I was anxious to get home. The news from Denver's airport wasn't encouraging, so I called Amtrak and was told I could reserve a coach seat on the Thursday morning Amtrak Zephyr, leaving Denver at 8:30 am and arriving in Emeryville, CA, Friday afternoon at 5:30 pm. I took it. (Bad idea!)

I arrived at the Denver Depot early that morning armed with a newly purchased blanket and pillow because the reservation clerk said to bring my own. I didn't have much luggage. I didn't have my cell phone or my computer with me. I hadn't figured I'd need them since I was staying with friends. (Wrong!)

We boarded around 8:30 am, as scheduled. There was a huge jam of people wanting to get on the train, mostly Californians, I think. The conductors took our tickets from us and gave us pink boarding passes which we were supposed to put over our seats to "reserve" them. There was no name or anything on the pink slip, just a code that stated our final destination. Amtrak isn't like all the other trains in the world where conductors actually come round and punch your ticket once you've boarded the train and then give it back to you.

The train was crowded but I got a seat at the window, which was dirty, but that was okay. Later I found out that the seat's foot rest was broken. That wasn't okay. A young woman sat down beside me. We bonded right away, luckily. Desiree was smart, funny and very good company. (That was a good thing.) 

The train didn't pull out for nearly 3 hours. The rumor was that we were late because of the derailment of the previous day's Zephyr, somewhere in Utah. But it was just a rumor because there was no PA announcement and no conductor or service worker came by to explain things to us.

We cheered as we finally pulled away from the station and headed off into the Colorado mountains. The scenery was beautiful, lonely farms, rocky streams, and wooded hillsides all passed our windows. The ride was slow, passengers said it was because we had extra cars and couldn't work up much speed over the mountains. (Oh?)

Desiree and I eventually got tired and cranky sitting in our seats watching the cows roll by so we decided to investigate the train. We found the restrooms, the club car and the snack bar, but it was closed until further notice. However, no notice would be forthcoming because the PA system was broken. Desiree decided to check on dinner reservations and was scolded for not going about it properly. There's a certain protocol about train things but it was all a mystery to us. We were called "newbies" by the train staffers, who treated us like we were children, and reluctantly explained procedures to us as if we were slow-learner elementary school children. (Puzzling customer service, if you ask me.)

This old postcard shows the kind of scenery we were watching.

Dinner in the dining car was pleasant enough, even though the staff was crabby and food selections seemed to be running low. We had a decent meal, a glass of wine, and the company of two amusing strangers. After that we claimed two seats in the club car and watched the last half of a movie we'd seen already. We were approaching Utah now and heading into the teeth of a thunder, lightening and rainstorm that positively lit up the train as we lumbered along into the night. (Sort of scary...does lightening ever hit trains, I wondered?)

When we couldn't put it off any longer, we decided to try sleeping. Our train was one of those double-decker affairs and I had noticed that the bottom section of our car had empty seats because it was the handicapped area, and luckily for them, there were no handicapped people aboard. I told Desiree I was going to sneak down there and sleep so she could curl up in both of our seats for the night. I grabbed my pillow and blankie and headed down. I wasn't the first one with that bright idea. There was only one double chair left. I grabbed it and eventually got to sleep about 1 am. 

When we reached Salt Lake City around 2:30 am, we were all "rudely" woken when the conductor threw on the over-head lights and demanded to know where our pink tickets were. Oops. We'd all left them in our "real" seats, upstairs. He clucked at us and said he'd never seen the likes of it before, able-bodied people taking up seats that rightfully belonged to handicapped people. We assured him that if any handicapped people boarded the train we'd give up the seats for them, and to please turn out the light and go away because we were trying to sleep!

The train rested in Salt Lake City for several hours more for some unknown reason. (For supplies, maybe?) Finally, the train tooted its lonesome whistle and off we chugged again. I slept fitfully until about 6:30 am when I couldn't stand it any longer. Out of spite, I used the handicapped john -- it was clean and large -- a nice change of pace from the others, which were exact replicas of the worst airline bathrooms. Most of the other passengers were still trying to sleep. Why not? There's not much else to do.

snack bar
The view of Utah from the snack bar!

Desiree was still sleeping so I went to the snack bar for coffee. Mercifully, it was open and the attendant was even cheerful. He gave me a free refill and I was so grateful that I actually tipped him the full price for it. I sat happily reading and making notes, doodling watercolors and watching the sage brush and sand of Utah roll by. I was camped in a four-person booth and was determined to call it my own for as long as I could. It beat sitting in my "real" seat by a country mile, and I was beginning to get a very good idea just how long a country mile could be as I watched the cactus roll by.

Desiree showed up around 10 am. The snack bar was running out of food by then because there had been a steady stream of people coming down for breakfast. Everything was gone by then except for a few sandwiches and some nasty-looking day old (week old?) muffins. Desiree had a sandwich and convinced me to get one too since we had no idea when we'd get our next meal. Some other young people drifted by and took over the table across from us, so we spent the rest of the morning chatting and playing cards, generally enjoying ourselves, as best we could. 

We're stuck in Winnemucca for hours!

We pulled in to Winnemucca, Nevada, at noon. My train schedule said we should have been there at 6 am, so we were now six hours late. The rumor was that we would be stopped for forty-five minutes, just time enough to get off the train and find a place to make a phone call. Many passengers had cell phones, but most of them weren't working in Nevada and others had battery problems. There were only about 6 electrical outlets on the train, which were always being used to recharge somebody's cell phone. (Six outlets!)

We scrambled off the train and headed into town to search out a phone. I needed tell my husband that I'd be late -- really late -- and that I'd need a ride home from Emeryville, which is about an hour from San Jose. I had no idea when the train would arrive. So I told him I'd borrow a cell phone when we got close to Emeryville and call him. There were rumors that we might not even make it that far. In addition to the derailment, which we had had to skirt, there had been another train accident or an oil spill or something, which might hold us up even longer.  (Is this where the term "fell asleep at the switch"  originated"? I think so.)

Passengers were really getting testy by Winnemucca. We couldn't get off, but we weren't moving. There wasn't much food aboard, the booze had run out -- at least the beer and wine were all gone -- the bottled water was toast, and if that wasn't enough, some of the toilets had backed up. Many irate passengers were frantically phoning ahead to see if they could rent a car -- in Winnemucca, in Sparks, in Reno -- anywhere. Teams of strangers were making friends and figuring out alternatives, if we would ever start moving again. (So long, Winnemucca!)

Throughout the trip, we received no news broadcasts, no information about the state of the country, no information from any train staffers why the train was so late, and no reassurances from anyone when, if ever, we'd even leave Winnemucca. Eventually some enterprising soul from town pulled up beside the train in what looked like a UPS van, which was full of wine and beer. He sold out quickly as passengers scrambled off to buy whatever he had for sale.  (Desiree bought us a nice bottle of Chardonnay, which we enjoyed immensely!)

We finally left at 3 pm, some nine hours behind schedule. About three or four hours later, around 6 pm, I think, we arrived in Sparks. Another rumor was floating around that we would be receiving a complimentary meal once we left Reno. Hurrah! Reno is just five minutes from Sparks by car, but not by train, of course. We stayed in Sparks for a long time. People began packing up and leaving the train in droves. Another rumor floating around was that the train was going no farther than Sacramento, which we wouldn't reach until much later in the evening. 

Those of us left aboard were dreaming about the complimentary meal. Would it be a nice box lunch with fried chicken and potato salad, maybe a chocolate chip cookie? That would be nice. It would have to be a box lunch, right? How else could they feed all of us? (Dreaming of food!)

Apparently, there's no train station in Reno. We stopped blocking a busy street, backing up the local traffic near the casinos. The train people were busy off-loading and on-loading stuff, probably our dinner. It was a short stop but I stepped off the train anyhow. Desiree worried that I won't make it back aboard in time. I watched the little yellow stool by the door as I snapped off a few photos. As long as the stool was there, the train wouldn't leave. A local homeless person boarded the train and then went through the other side. He couldn't wait for the train to leave to cross the street. That got a laugh from the passengers, but the train man wasn't pleased.

Here we are in Reno! I can see the casinos!

I considered simply getting off the train in Reno, walking over to the El Dorado Hotel and getting me a room. It would be so easy. But then I'd have to deal with getting home the next day, so I put that idea aside. We didn't stay long in Reno, which made the waiting traffic very happy. (Besides which, our free food was coming.)

Our complimentary meal was served shortly after the train started up again -- in the dining room. We had to get a reservation. We were very excited. Another meal in the dining room. Oh goodie. We were hungry, of course. When our turn came along, a whole line of us were herded into the dining room and shown to seats. There are no menus, no proper cloth napkins, no silverware, no glasses, nothing like the previous night. The food was served quickly by the same grumpy waiters, on paper plates with plastic forks. It wasn't a nice box lunch, instead it was a sort of stew poured onto crunchy over-cooked instant rice. Yuck! We were given sodas to wash it down. No water was available. (Prison food!)

Here's a shot of my train pals. That's Desiree and me on the right.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the club car, watching yet another movie we'd seen before. Our gang of new friends was with us. They were lots of fun. We passed the time telling ghost stories, chatting about how awful Amtrak was, trying to figure out the state of the world, and talking about how we'll all keep in touch afterwards. We decided to hang out in the club car until the train finally reached the end of the line. 

I walked the length of the train once again to gather up my things and drag them to the club car. Passengers were sacked out trying to sleep, even though everybody would have to get up at 3:30, which was now our official time of arrival. I crept by them quietly so as not to wake them.

Back in the club car, all was quiet -- no radio, no music, the TV didn't work, except as a video player, but we could all talk here without disturbing the sleepy passengers. No staff member was on duty. The train folks would have preferred that we go to our seats but we just couldn't bring ourselves to do that. We decided to take photos and exchange emails, of course. Eventually, at 3:30 am, some twelve hours late, the train finally pulled into Emeryville. (Happy to be home, finally!)

Note to Amtrak: This train trip with all the stranded 9-11 airplane passengers aboard would have been a wonderful Public Relations opportunity for you to show the world that train travel could be an enjoyable experience. Instead, you seized the opportunity to turn it into a trip from hell. You might have considered the following:

1) "Newbies" -- your word for first-time train travelers -- need help, not scorn.
2) If you have 150 more passengers than you usually have on board, you need more food, water and booze.
3) Somebody should clean the johns once in a while.
4) If you make all pertinent announcements over the public address system, it should be working.
5) Figure out how to make the trains run on time.
6) Provide some sort of contact with the outside world.
7) People are not cargo. You simply can't except people to sit in their seats for 44 to 75 hours at a time. Provide something for them to do. Your club car only holds about 50 people. Only 20 people can watch the movie in the club car. Consider bringing aboard more than two videotapes for an evening's entertainment (how much could that cost?)
8) Make sure that: the seats are not broken, the cushions are not bottomed out, the windows are clean, and the air-conditioning is working properly.
9) Train you staff in customer relations. The traveling public should not be treated as though they were free-loader poor family relations who are imposing on your hospitality.
10) Tighten up your security policy. You have none in place now

Amtrak, your last resort!
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