Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Train 5: afternoon on the Zephyr

Train 5: Reno, NV

Train 5: Nevada

Train 5: Winnemucca, NV

We're late through Winnemucca, Nevada. It's not somewhere I'd heard of before we stopped here, so it was with great pleasure that I stepped off the train into the cold morning air to say hello to a new place. The train had stopped at Winnemucca's station, evidently another victim of Amtrak cost cutting. Still, with only two trains a day, a glass bus shelter seems to be effective.

This is another smoking stop, so there's time to walk about and refresh the body with some natural air. The train has come to a halt on a long stretch of straight track. The small town doesn't offer much distraction, although a windowless bar is close to the station. Perhaps for those longer delays... the conductor talks motorbikes with some of the passengers, recalling his first Harley Davidson that he bought second hand from the California Police before modifying himself.

At Winnemucca we take on board a lively young man who is en route to Eureka, California. It's a long story. He bought a '93 Ford Taurus on the Ebay auction website last week. He flew to Michigan to collect the car, and drove as far as Winnemucca before the transmission failed. He's taking the train with us as far as Reno before flying via Oakland to Eureka to pick up a truck and trailer to go back and get the car. My trans-Continental journey pales into insignificance. He is, nonetheless, upbeat about his recent purchase, and has a few early morning Bloody Marys to help him calm the nerves about missing his flight in Reno.

As far as we know, he made the flight...


Train 5: alongside the Humbolt

Another day, and another sunrise opens to reveal an incredible change in scenery. Last night I fell asleep the moment I had propped up my head with my pillow. We were running no more than forty minutes late last night, and I had hoped to be awake to step off an get some fresh air when we paused for half an hour at Salt Lake City. I was, however, out like a light. I will have to return to Salt Lake another time.

When I first look at my watch, it's 06:30. We've now passed into Pacific Time, so I turn it back an hour and savour the extra sixty minutes my day will have. The Pacific still seems a long way away.

I sit up the lounge car, watching the scenery race past. We are crossing a vast, barren plain, it's surface of rough grass and scrub only disturbed by occasional fences marking the boundaries of ranches, or lines of telegraph wires that disappear to some distant telephone. The distant mountains that surround us are capped with snow, and as we turn across this immense flat bottomed valley, the sun seems to move back behind another mountain range, treating me to a second sunrise. This is a landscape that I have never seen before, and it leaves me breathless.

My on board bridge coach passes by, and points out the Humbolt River, just visible some way off besides us. This is the river that the settlers who would eventually reach Califronia followed. Unluckily for them it disappears into a sink for about forty miles near here. Once more, I have to admit that without the comfort of a train to carry me away from this place, and a plentiful supply of food and water, I would not like to be out here on my own. It may be beautiful, but it also feels incredibly vast and unmeasurably ominous. My bridge expert has also hunted out here - apparently there are plenty of chucker out here (an animal I've never heard of... apparently it's "slightly smaller than a pheasant", which doesn't give me much to go on).

I head to the restaurant for breakfast. The first eight of us are put together on two tables of four. Amtrak maintain this very sociable policy of placing passengers together. It saves tables being dirtied unnecessarily, and helps the conversation flow. I'm pleased to be sitting with two sleeper passengers and another coach passenger. One is English, touring a new part of the USA by train on his own, because he gets more holiday time than his partner. Opposite is a young man, returning to southern California after helping his mother move to Toledo in Ohio. To my right is a native of Denver who now lives in California. He's returning from an annual trip back to see friends. Over French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, grits and fried potatoes, and fuelled by a free flowing source of coffee, the conversation flows, and all my sour memories of the dining car are erased.

The sun rises higher in the sky, and my second full day on board this leg of the California Zephyr begins.


Train 5: Nevada

Train 5: Eating

In the preparation for this trip, I spent a lot of time researching my routes and asking questions in online forums. A lot of the more informed forums were discussing an imminent change which will affect many Amtrak routes, and which will shift the method of food preparation in the diner towards off-train cooking and on-train reheating. So far, I've only traveled on one route that this has started on (the Lake Shore Limited) and even then I didn't really notice any difference to my breakfast. However, as one attendant explained to me when asked, not all trains on these certain routes have implemented the changes.

The California Zephyr is, however, still doing things the old fashioned way. I had often seen the Amtrak menu that offered steak for dinner, so was very interested to give it a go. We walked down to the dining car at seven thirty, as the attendant made the third call for supper.

The restaurant car of a Superliner train is an attractive place to dine: there are spaces for 72 people at any one time, although I suspect that even in high season that's a rare sight. All the tables are on the upper level: dumb waiters bring food up from the kitchens below. At this time (and this will change with the new food service) the train employs three people on the upper level to serve the food and two chefs downstairs to prepare the food.

I ummm and ahhhh and eventually decide on the steak, proudly listed at the top of the menu and a juicy cured piece of meat that goes for $21. Why not, I'm on holiday, and there isn't much else than food to spend money on when you're on a train. We're brought a salad, served with a puddle of our chosen dressing on top. A big blob of blue cheese dressing will surely undo any good that having a salad might have done. I accompany the meal with a bottle of Samuel Adams beer - a pleasant discovery on this trip - American beer can have flavour (sorry, but I can't help going on about it...).

We eat our salad as the sun sets on Uath. Although it's not quite so rugged and alien, I can't help remembering the Road Runner cartoons of my childhood. Every part of this trip has exposed me to a new kind of scenery, but of course it is always recalled somewhere deep down inside by a film or television programme that I saw years ago. The USA is the country that has exported it's landscape on film, and doubtless many visitors make a point of searching out something or somewhere they first saw on the silver screen.

The main courses are delivered - I don't recall exactly which dish my dining companion chose, so I won't pass specific comment except to say that her impressions were not that great. My steak was fine - cooked medium rare as I like it and tender to the mouth. But the overall meal was disappointing. The baked potato had been baked for too long, and the two strands of brocolli served with my steak did not give me the impression of a $21 dish. As grateful budget travellers, we both cleared our plates and sat there contentedly, but I was somehow disappointed. If there is one thing that you expect to be done well in America, it is the food. And this was overpriced, underwhelming and just disappointing.

We passed on desert but I took a decaf coffee to try and round off the meal. I was feeling bloated and heavy inside. The staff was friendly, but not exactly inspiring. Serving the same six or seven meals every night must have a depressing effect on them, especially as their days are now numbered in charge of a real restaurant. If this is the quality of the evening meal service before the cut backs to staff and the introduction of extension off train food preparation, I hate to think what it's going to be like after they've been introduced. So far my impression is that breakfast and lunch offer much better value than the evening meals on Amtrak.

We have another beer from the cafe and chat in the lounge car attendant. He's a charming and engaging man who serves me throughout the trip with a friendly smile and light conversation. I ask him his opinion of the evening meals served in the next car, and he hesitates.

"They're a little overpriced for what they are, you know..." he summises. "But I always say that everyone should do it at least once."

I agree completely. I think we've chosen a good night for it as well, bounding across Utah towards Salt Lake City, the scenery more than compensated for the uninspiring meal. As I drink my beer and chat in the lounge car with Fleur, I can't help feel saddened that every time a small cut back affects a service like this, we get one step closer to the complete eradication of what makes traveling by train so enjoyable.

Our attendant tells us that his father and his grand father worked on the railways, and he had decided that that was what he wanted to do by the time he was ten years old. He's worked every route except those based in California, and even has fond memories of the now discontinued Montrealer, which ran overnight from Montréal to Washington DC. It's a train I would have loved to have taken, and which would overshadow the minimal three coach service that now runs only as far as New York, and not overnight. Our lounge car attendant remembers the north bound runs when a pianist would get on board at New York and play for the people in the lounge car.

"It's all changed since then."


Train 5: old buses, somewhere in Utah

Train 5: Utah

Train 5: First call for dinner

As with all the trains I've taken so far, I've done a lot of self catering prior to depature. I have two boxes for two meals on board, with such delightful meals as herby couscous and tuna (with a hint of lemon) or an instant pasta meal cooked, cooled and boxed. For this, the longest run so far, I've tried to make sure I have a chance to also sample at least one of each of the three meals offered by the Amtrak restaurant car.

So far, I've found the breakfasts to be very good. They're good value, well cooked and come with juice and plenty of coffee. Breakfast is also a good time to be in the breakfast car, as waking passengers return to the world of socialising on board the train, and we compare notes about sleeping, how the scenery has changed and what has brought us here.

I've yet to try an Amtrak lunch, but will hope to do so in a few days time when I head north on the Coast Starlight to Seattle. So along with Fleur, who also feels like a treat, we make a reservation for dinner. During the afternoon, one of the restaurant attendants makes a call for reservations, and she begins a tour of the train, starting in sleeper class, then coach class, before finally checking in the Lounge Car for us tourists. Unfortunately, the latest time offered for dinner in 19:30, which seems about normal for the USA but annoys the hell out of me. There are, however, plenty of spaces, so we take a slip of paper and return to our lazy afternoon activities.

I am invited downstairs to the smaller lounge on the lower level of the Sightseer car for a game of bridge with some of my coach class companions. I haven't a clue how to play this game, and I must admit that I doubt any method of teaching bridge will help me much. I tried a few games and ended dummy at least once (I don't know what this means), underbid my hand at least one (again, no idea what that means) and won once (no idea how). As late afternoon slipped into early evening, we passed into Utah, and suddenly the landscape offered another change. I suspect my mind wasn't on the game, because again we had another beautiful landscape rolling past.