Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 3

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to the third and final part of my bonus Travel Spot, telling the story of the journey that Amanda and I took from California to Chicago this time last year. We travelled on the California Zephyr, a daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, with a scheduled journey-time of 51½ hours. Along the way, it crosses roughly two-thirds of North America, over two mountain ranges and through an array of amazing, contrasting landscapes.

Our first day on the train was covered in Part 1 of this Travel Spot, when we travelled across California’s Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Donner Pass and down into and across Nevada following the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers. The following day, covered in Part 2, saw us going to bed in Nevada and waking up almost all the way across Utah. We then followed the Colorado River through Ruby Canyon before climbing into the heart of the Rockies, through the Moffat Tunnel and down to the other side to Denver.

In this final instalment, you can follow our progress through Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers on our way to Chicago.

As before, I’ve split this post into sections, starting with our last morning on the train, which you’ll find after the gallery, followed by:

If you want to follow along, then ShareMap has an interactive route map.

  • The morning of the third day sees us leaving Omaha, Nebraska, just after we got up.
  • Our first coffee of the day, made using my Travel Press, with water from the cafe car.
  • We're now travelling south alongside the Missouri River...
  • ... which is swollen with flood water, spilling out across the neighbouring fields.
  • The flood waters have receded by the way: in mid-April, the line was underwater!
  • We cross the Platte and Missouri Rivers in quick succession. This is the Missouri crossing...
  • ... which marks the border between Nebraska and Iowa, which means we're now in Iowa.
  • We continue across the flooded fields east of the Missouri.
  • Even though the flood waters have receded, the flooding is still pretty bad.
  • I wonder how much more of this was underwater when the floods were at their height?
  • Leaving the Missouri behind, we head east and for the next hour, our view is lke this.
  • Welcome to the rolling farmland and fields of Iowa.
  • And yes, it is this flat, although I doubt that it's always this misty.
  • We reach our next stop, Creston, at ten past nine, just over two hours behind schedule.
  • It's another small, single platform station.
  • Beyond Creston, we're back to the (almost) endless Iowa farmland...
  • ... punctuated by the occasional road and even more occasional farmhouse.
  • It's not just the Missouri that's flooded. This is the result of the Des Moines River, which...
  • ... we follow for a while, heading southeast towards Ottumwa, crossing another line...
  • ... along the way before reaching the town's outskirts and more level crossings.
  • This old, industrial building on S Marion St, which we pass just before the station, is neat.
  • And here we are: Ottumwa, another 'smoke stop'. We're still more than two hours...
  • ... behind schedule, but there's time to get off and stretch our legs.
  • Ottumwa has a fairly substantial station building, and looking at the structures...
  • ... on the platforms, I suspect it used to be much busier than the current two trains a day!
  • Here's the view towards the front of the train. And with that, it's time to get back onboard.
  • And we're on our way again, quickly passing through the outskirts of Ottumwa.
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Having learnt my lesson from my first night on the train, I went to bed early, calling it a night not long after leaving Denver. We lost another hour, going from Mountain to Central Time as we crossed the state line from Colorado to Nebraska a few hours after leaving Denver. I slept quite well, far better than the first night, although not for long enough, waking up at five o’clock. I dozed for another two hours, then we both got up at 07:00.

Shortly afterwards, we arrived at Omaha, having travelled almost all the way across Nebraska through the night, covering just over 850 km in 11 hours. We had been around 1½ hours late leaving Denver, but any hopes I’d had of making up time through the night were dashed as we were more than two hours late leaving Omaha.

I had a conference call for work, starting at 08:00, so I made coffee in the café car, which we took to the dining car with us to drink with our breakfast. Rather annoyingly, I neither photographed it, nor made any notes, so I can’t tell you what I had. I am, if I’m honest, very disappointed in myself…

Omaha is on the Nebraska-Iowa border, just north of the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. After leaving Omaha at 07:30, we travelled south, following the Missouri for a short while before crossing over the Platte and Missouri Rivers in quick succession.

That year, the region had had its wettest January to April on record. As a result, the rivers were swollen, reaching record levels in multiple places, which became apparent as we approached the two river crossings. Both rivers had broken their banks in several places, with the neighbouring fields under water, often halfway up the telegraph poles.

Mind you, as bad as the flooding was, it was far better than it had been a few weeks earlier in mid-April, when the river levels were even higher, flooding the tracks as well as the fields! As a result, the line had been closed for two weeks, the California Zephyr staring/ending its journeys in Denver rather the Chicago!

We crossed the Missouri, which is also the Nebraska/Iowa border, at 7:45. We finished breakfast and returned to our compartment shortly after that, just in time for my call. Even though I had a US SIM in my phone, it didn’t have any coverage (voice or data) for large stretches of the journey, including this one, so I had to use Amanda’s phone (which had coverage throughout our final day).

After the amazing vistas of the first two days, the landscape of Iowa was something of a comedown. We spent several hours slowly trundling through rolling farmland, interspersed with low, wooded hills. My call ended after at 09:00, and, typically, just after I’d put Amanda’s phone down, my phone decided to get some coverage…

Ten minutes later, we reached our next stop, Creaton, still running two hours late. We both took an hour’s nap after that, but when we woke up, nothing much had changed, the landscape still mostly farmland. I made more coffee at 11:00, this time fetching the hot water back from the café car in my Travel Press before making the coffee in our compartment.

Not long after, at 11:15, we arrived at our next stop, Ottumwa, which you can read about after the gallery.

  • First things first: lunch. And just as I had on the first day, I had mussels...
  • ... followed by cheesecake for dessert.
  • By now we'd reached our next stop, Mount Pleasant, Iowa...
  • ... another fairly modest station.
  • I can't say it's the most visually appealling of the towns we've passed through!
  • However, we're soon back into the rolling Iowa countryside...
  • ... punctuated by the occasional small town.
  • However, just as it had been before Mount Pleasant, it was mostly farmland...
  • ... with the occasional farm buildings...
  • ... and farm houses. This one...
  • ... along with its barn, is worth a second look.
  • Our next stop is Burlington, a fairly large town on the border with Illinois.
  • If my pictures are anything to go by...
  • ... it's a town of many churches.
  • The train tracks run right through the centre of town...
  • ... which means lots of level crossings.
  • Lots and lots of level crossings!
  • After leaving the station, we make our way south, parallel to the Mississippi.
  • ...  which takes us through the marshalling yards...
  • ... flooded by the Mississippi River!
  • Mind you, this is nowhere near as bad as it had been...
  • ... since a couple of weeks before, all of the marshalling yards had been underwater.
  • Not sure anyone is using that hut at the moment.
  • It's hard, in this picture, to see where the river end and the marshalling yards start.
  • The flooding had caused chaos to the schedules...
  • ... and lots of the track was in the process of being replaced.
  • We continue south, crawling slowly along the west bank of the river, which we're going...
  • ... have to cross on the bridge that's up ahead. It's a pretty impressive structure...
  • .. 654 m in length.  Although it looks old, it was only built in 2010, replacing an 1893 bridge!
  • The lift section on this side allows river traffic underneath.
  • We swing around by 90° to cross the bridge, allowing me a view of the back of the train.
  • Looking up the river, that's the Great River Bridge, taking US-34 across the Mississippi.
  • Here we go.
  • The view looking north towards Burlington.
  • I wonder what this is? And how far underwater it is right now?
  • We get some amazing views north along the Mississippi River.
  • It wasn't just the railway that flooded, by the way.
  •  Burlington was hit hard and is still partially flooded.
  • We trundle slowly across the bridge, probably not going at more than 25 km/h.
  • Here comes the eastern bank of the Mississippi...
  • ... which must mean that we're now in Illinois...
  • ... where the river has also broken its banks.
  • I'm guessing that at one point, these fields had been underwater too.
  • Before long, we're back to the familiar farmland.
  • Mind you, this bit of farmland became very familiar: we were stopped here for 75 minutes!
  • And we're underway again. It looks like there's more track maintenance going on.
  • More evidence of flooding. Not the Mississippi this time, though.
  • Llamas? Or Alpacas? Alpacas, I think.
  • More farmland...
  • ... and what looks like a fairly substantial bit of agricultural industry.
  • 25 minutes after we finally got underway, we reach the outskirts of...
  • ... our next stop, Galesburg, where we'll leave it for now.
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Ottumwa was another smoke stop, offering us the chance to get out and stretch our legs. We also changed conductors at Ottumwa, which surprised me. While we kept the same sleeping car attendant, café car server and dining car crew through the whole journey, the conductors changed on a regular basis. I’d noticed crew changes on previous trips, but not at the frequency that they seemed to happen on this service.

As a passenger, you don’t have a lot to do with the conductors, particularly in the sleeper cars. However, they do make the announcements (other than the calls for meals), which is what made the crew changes noticeable on this trip. Some of our conductors kept the announcements short and functional, while others were much chattier, providing plenty of information about what we could see on the route. On the whole, I prefer the chatty ones, but one thing I will say is that all of the conductors were very good at announcing the stops in good time, ensuring people had ample warning and enough time to gather their things together if they were getting off.

After 20 minutes, we left Ottumwa, by now 2¼ hours late. 25 minutes later, at noon, we went down to the dining car for the last time on the trip. I had the mussels, which I’d had for lunch on the first day, thus neatly topping and tailing the journey. I followed that with cheesecake for dessert, going on a final coffee run before heading back to our compartment. By now, we were steadily losing time, arriving at our next stop, Mount Pleasance, at 12:40, 2¾ hours behind schedule.

We carried on across Iowa, reaching Burlington on the west bank of the Mississippi at 13:25. Like the Missouri, the Mississippi had suffered very bad flooding in April. This was apparent as we left Burlington Station, inching our way slowing through the marshalling yards south of the station, half of which were still underwater. The line runs parallel to the Mississippi at this point, before swinging around to cross the river, where we had some clear views from the bridge back towards the town of Burlington, parts of which we could clearly see were still underwater as well.

We reached the far bank at 13:30, at which point we were in Illinois, the final state on our journey, the seventh in all. After crossing several flooded fields, we started on our final stretch, heading northeast across a landscape very similar to that of Iowa. We had about 325 km to go at this point, with the timetable allowing us a leisurely four hours. However, after an hour, not far from Galesburg, we stopped, waiting by a tilled field.

Such stops aren’t unusual: we’d stopped in several passing loops over the previous two days, sometimes for around 10-15 minutes, usually waiting for a freight train to come by. However, 10 minutes turned into 20 minutes which then turned into half an hour, at which point a freight train did indeed go by. Unfortunately, once it had gone, we remained stubbornly stationary, so Amanda converted the seats in a bed and went to sleep, while I joined her a 30-minute nap.

In turned out that there was congestion ahead of us and we were stuck behind a freight train trying to get into the yards at Galesburg. We finally moved off at 15:45 and, 15 minutes later, passed our opposite number, Train No. 5, that day’s California Zephyr, on its way to Emeryville. Ten minutes later, at 16:10, and a mere 4½ hours behind schedule, we finally rolled into Galesburg.

You can see how the final leg of our journey went after the gallery.

  • Finally, we reach Galesburg, which is another smoke stop, so I'm getting off to stretch...
  • ... my legs. What a pretty station building.
  • Next door is this long, low building...
  • ... home to the Galesburg Railroad Museum.
  • Next to the museum is one of its exhibits, this Pullman carriage, The Meath, from 1921...
  • ... and, next to that, is this 1945 Railway Post Office car.
  • And finally, there's Locomotive 3006, a Hudson class S-4, 4-6-4 steam engine from 1930.
  • By now, we're at the end of the platform, where the two-storey brick building...
  • ... which is part of the Children's Museum, has this fine mural called 'First a Dream'.
  • The view in the direction of Chicago, where our locomotives are parked across the road!
  • And here's the view back down the train from our sleeper car. Time to get back onboard.
  • And we're underway again, past (almost) endless fields...
  • ... punctuated by the occasional feature, which, in this case, is a wind farm.
  • Two hours later and we're approaching the Chicago suburbs.
  • This large Metra depot marks the end of the BNSF line at Aurora.
  • The line has the name of BNSF, the freight service that owns the lines.
  • This is Naperville, our final stop before Chicago. It's also a Metra station and here comes...
  • ... an outbound Metra train, which manages to stop, let off all its passengers...
  • ... let all the new ones get on, and pull out of the station...
  • ... all while we're standing at the platform, going nowhere.
  • And we're off again!
  • Now it's getting very suburban and the Metra stations are coming thick and fast.
  • This is Downers Grove/Main Street (one of three Downers Grove stations)...
  • ... and here's another of them, Fairview Avenue. I've travelled on the BNSF line before...
  • ... taking the Metra to this stop, La Grange Road (to visit a coffee shop, Owl and Lark).
  • It's also notable because one of Chicago's many freight lines crosses this one.
  • We're getting closer now, having just passed Western Avenue. Here's our first view...
  • ... of the famous Chicago downtown skyline...
  • ... which is dominated by the Willis Tower (Sears Tower as was).
  • A wider view of the Chicago skyline. The Willis Tower really does dominate!
  • We're almost there! Those are the lines leading into/out of Union Station...
  • ... although in another bizarre Amtrak manoeuvre, we're not going to take them.
  • Instead we go past the end of the Amtrak yards and the Continental Paper Grading Co...
  • ... and over the Chicago River...
  • ... so that we can reverse into the station, back past the Amtrak locomotive shop.
  • Now we're heading due north (and going backwards) into Union Station...
  • ... past more Amtrak rolling stock (Metra is on the other side)...
  • ... and more locomotives.
  • This is the Union Station Power House, which is at the end of the yards.
  • And finally, here we are at Union Station! Apologies for the poor quality photo.
  • Just one more train to go, Metra's Antoich line out to Buffalo Grove and then we're done!
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Galesburg was another smoke stop, and, with the timetable showing that we still had another three hours to go before we were due to reach Union Station, I was more than happy to get out and stretch my legs. This gave me a chance to admire the fine steam locomotive (part of the Galesburg Railroad Museum) and the mural painted on the wall of the Discovery Depot (part of the Galesburg Children’s Museum) next to it at the end of the platform. I also noticed that the California Zephyr was too long for Galesburg station, so our own locomotives were parked across a level crossing just beyond the end of the platform, which must have been frustrating for anyone who wanted to get through, particularly since we were there for a while!

We got underway and made steady, if unspectacular, progress through a landscape of yet more fields, stopping briefly at 17:05 to let Train No. 5, the Southwest Chief, which went past on its way to Galesburg and from there via Kansas City, Albuquerque  and Flagstaff all the way to Los Angeles (another journey that’s on my list).

We were scheduled to stop at Princeton, Illinois, but since no one on the train was planning to get off there, and no-one had bought a ticket to board the train there, we were able to skip the stop to make up some time. As an apology for the long delay (we were still 4½ hours late), the dining car staff (who’d been wonderful throughout the entire trip) came through the train offering everyone cookies, which was a nice gesture.

I had a second work call that day, scheduled for five o’clock, which, if we’d been on time, I’d have been able to do from my friends’ house in the Chicago suburbs. As it was, I had to borrow Amanda’s phone again and do the call from the train.

At 18:30, we passed Aurora station, which is the final stop on Metra’s BNSF line, as well as a major depot. For those that don’t know, Metra is Chicago’s commuter rail system, so this meant that we were finally on the last leg of our journey. 15 minutes later, we arrived at Naperville, our last stop before Chicago’s Union Station. While we were there, an outbound Metra train pulled in, everyone got off/on, and the train pulled out again, all while we were stood at the platform, thus proving that American train passengers can get on and off trains quickly when they have to!

From there, we made our way into the city, passing numerous Metra stations and trains, plus one more Amtrak service (probably on its way to St Louis). The final indignity was our arrival into Union Station itself, where, just like Denver, we went past the station, then slowly backed our way in (presumably so that the train was in the correct configuration to form the outbound service).

Finally, at 19:30, we came to a stop at the platform, a mere four hours and 40 minutes behind schedule. It wasn’t quite the end of our journey though, since we still had to get to Buffalo Grove in the northwest suburbs, which required one more train ride. The good news is that Buffalo Grove is on the Antioch Line, which also runs from Union Station. We caught the next outbound train, which left at 20:25, arriving at Buffalo Grove just under an hour later, ending a journey of almost exactly three days (counting from when we left the house in Sunnyvale).


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3 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 3

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