I wrote a few days ago about my trip on the California Zephyr to Denver. While I wasn't too happy about some aspects of the train, I enjoyed this ride tremendously, having ridden it several times at varying times of the year, but never eastbound out of California. The winter trip in 2011 across the snowy Sierra was memorable, but this trip, often observing from the back of the last car, I really appreciated the steep canyons and how the railroad was routed through the mountains. This past Wednesday night we arrived at the newly reopened Denver Union Station, quite an impressive place, for sure. I was puzzled why there are seven or eight station tracks for only one regular Amtrak train, but upon doing a little research, see that commuter trains are in the works, which is a good thing. The main area of the station is quite beautiful. I had considered staying at the new Hotel Crawford within the station, but the rates were more than I wished to pay. The front desk is located inconspicuously in an alcove and the rest of the hotel is on the upper floors, so I really didn't get a look at the hotel itself. I inquired about where the Thruway bus would be leaving on Friday morning and then made my way several blocks up 17th St. to the Kimpton Monaco Hotel, which was paid for with United Airlines miles. I have stayed here once before; I am very partial to the Kimpton hotel chain.
The next day I visited the Clyfford Still Modern Art Museum and took in a show that evening at the Performing Arts Center, " The Unsinkable Molly Brown. "
Friday morning I arose at 4:30, checked out, and walked back to Union Station. I persuaded the coffee and snack shop to let me buy food in advance of their opening, so I procured an orange juice, muffin, and banana, which barely held me until Raton. Had I traveled on an empty stomach, I would have been an unhappy passenger. There is a new very busy bus terminal under the area of the railroad tracks. The Thruway bus was to leave at 6 am and no sign of it. Nobody was around to provide any information as to where it might be. I dislike these type of situations. At about 6:15 in came the Greyhound, a very new looking dark blue model. ( OK, Swadian Hardcore, do you approve of this model? ) The driver took my bag and said barely a word to the passengers the entire trip to Raton, but then after our arrival in Raton he opened up and was quite friendly. His son is a conductor for Union Pacific. Three passengers were already aboard, non Amtrak, and they got off in either Colorado Springs or Pueblo. One other man taking the train boarded with me in Denver and a lady boarded in Colorado Springs, both headed for Los Angeles. This made a grand total of six passengers for the entire run, three of them for Amtrak, not very impressive numbers. The bus was quite attractive and in excellent condition. We rolled right along southbound on I25, zipped right over Raton Pass in less than fifteen minutes, and pulled up in front of Raton station. A Greyhound agent was on duty there in their new quarters in a gift shop across the street, the Buffalo Chip. Greyhound had just set up shop in the store in the past few days. The store owner had snacks available and the Foccacia sandwich out of the microwave and coffee hit the spot. I was surprised that Greyhound has an agency in this small town, with a limited number of departures.
There is an art gallery in the old freight house across the street., The staff informed me all the artwork is made from recycled materials. Since my travel companion friend and house sitter is an obsessive recycling fiend, I had to buy him something from this store. I was please to find that the train station waiting room has been spruced up and painted, with better seating than I have observed previously, and a new rest room. ( probably a local community effort. ) But, it was quite deserted, as the three of us from the bus were the only passengers waiting for the train. Amtrak arrived slightly over 20 minutes late and the conductor, Gary Norris, called out my name on the platform and collected my ticket. I guess I look like an Eric. I had a roomette for the day and the SCA was Freddie. Since I was underwhelmed with the food on the Zephyr I passed on lunch, with the sandwich from Buffalo Chip ( you know what that means, don't you? ) having satisfied me and then later went to the Snack Bar and ordered a Heineken and the Hummus and chips, which is one of the few worthy items from Amtrak snack bars. This repast was devoured in my little room. I had considered putting down the bed and trying to sleep for a few hours, as my sleep was poor the night before, but elected to take in the scenery and converse in the Sightseer car. While most agree the SWC scenery is not as dramatic as the CZ, I really enjoy the Wild West views through New Mexico. Then I put on my tour guide's hat, so to speak, and dispensed tons of travel advice to a couple from Pittsburgh and a very nice gentleman from Greece, who was getting off in Williams to take the day train trip to Grand Canyon.
The previously mentioned couple and I had dinner together in the diner, with another very engaging young lady who talked at great length about her career having to do with computers and human genetics, which I will not try to explain. I ordered the Chicken dinner, and was quite pleased with it. The salad had a little red onion and a small carrot, instead of just the lettuce and a cherry tomato or two. I do not order chicken too often, but this was quite good, with rice and vegetables, plus the half bottle of Pinot Grigio, and the cheesecake. Fine dining? No, but it did help brighten my opinion of Amtrak food, which has been on the decline. The dining car was a CCC. The smaller seating area was mostly taken up by piles of supplies. I mentioned to the SCA, Kimberley, that I recognized this as a CCC. Her reply: " Whatever they call it, it is a difficult car to run. " She and her staff did a good job handling the very full car.
My train arrived only slightly behind schedule in Flagstaff. I was surprised that the train crew announced that this was for detraining and entraining passengers only and for others to remain on the train. It has always been smoke/fresh air stop. A crew member on the CZ had told me that they had lost several smoke stop locations recently, because of complaints of litter, so our smoke stop was switched to Gallup and the next one was Needles! All in all, while I have made some negative remarks about some aspects of Amtrak service, it was overall a very pleasant trip from San Francisco to Flagstaff via Denver. To cross our beautiful country in relative comfort is just a fabulous experience. To those who think the trains are too slow, I think the Southwest Chief makes pretty good time. I had departed from Denver on the bus at 6:15 am, set the clock back one hour entering Arizona, and arrived Flagstaff about 9:15 pm. Sixteen hours to go approximately 821 miles, so that is averaging over 50 mph between the bus and train, with stops and layovers. Yes, the train is quite slow in several sections of New Mexico, but the 90 mph running on the Transcon makes up for the poky sections. ( Approx. 220 miles by bus Denver to Raton, and 601 rail miles Raton to Flagstaff. ) Good night.