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Riding the California Zephyr Train into the Polar Vortex

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“Zephyr” means “a gentle breeze,” but that’s far from what I found in Chicago when I arrived from California on Amtrak’s California Zephyr on January 29th.

Cold, Colder, Coldest

I scheduled my winter California Zephyr trip to Chicago a couple of weeks in advance.  I knew it was going to be cold in late January, but with each day closer to the trip, the forecasted lows in Chicago began to look out of the ordinary.

Curious about my California Zephyr project? Read about it here!

We were mostly on time during the three days of travel, until passing through Mendota, Illinois. We didn’t know why we were stopped, but the minutes turned into hours. The temperature outside was below zero by that point (-20C for the rest of the world). I could barely make out the outlines of nearby barns through the blowing snow, signaling that the wind chill was much colder. It turned out that the snow plow in front of the engine had somehow become lodged under the engine. It was fixed after a few hours and we finished the final 90 minutes to the city.

Fifty-three hours after leaving Truckee we pulled into Chicago’s bitterly cold Union Station, five hours late.

I briskly walked a couple of blocks to my hotel, took a long-awaited hot shower, and went down to the attached pub for a cocktail and dinner.

The first phone call I received while I was sitting at the bar was my credit card’s fraud department asking me if I just tried to purchase gasoline at a 7-11 in Glendale, California. I explained that I was in Chicago, and the only credit card I brought on this trip was canceled. I hope nothing else goes wrong!

Then I immediately received the next phone call. It was Amtrak notifying me that all services tomorrow were canceled due to the extreme cold. This was thankfully one of the few times I purchased travel insurance.

Now many people asked me why I was only spending 24 hours in Chicago, just to turn around and get right back on the train again. First, come on, it’s January. Second, there’s no way to avoid using that cliché…this project is about the journey, not the destination. I will spend a couple of nights on a future trip when it’s warmer, giving me time to explore the city.

So what was I to do with an extra 24 hours in Chicago? Nothing. The whole city was shut down. Wind chills approached -60F. The pub next door was the only one open in that area of the financial district, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and held on to it most of the day. Barstools in this place were at a premium. I watched on CNN as rail crews placed ropes soaked in kerosene along the track’s switching mechanisms throughout the city and lit them on fire to prevent cold damage.

The crews did work extremely hard to get the long-distance routes back up and running the following day. We were rolling out of Chicago right on time, westbound back to California, only a day late.

We did encounter a few cold-related delays immediately after leaving Chicago. One of the switching mechanisms in the Chicago suburbs was frozen, so we waited about 30 minutes as this was thawed. Then right after crossing the frozen Mississippi River, one of the many freight trains making up lost time broke down on the tracks in front of us. We were stopped for three hours as they tried to clear the track for us. A number of other smaller delays put us back in Truckee nearly five hours late.

Or I should say, 29 hours late. When I left for Chicago there was a small storm forecasted to begin in Lake Tahoe on Saturday. A couple inches of snow at high elevations. No worry, I’d be arriving on Friday before the storm. But by the time I was on my way back for a Saturday arrival, that couple of inches became eight feet of snow at the passes. Great, will I be stuck in Truckee because I can’t even drive the hour back home? Fortunately, the storm slowed down enough for me to sneak into my driveway just as the heavy snow started, and it didn’t stop for over 48 hours.

Riding the California Zephyr in Winter

With all of that said, this train route is amazing in the winter! No, seriously!

Two of the most scenic portions of the route, the Sierra Nevadas and the Colorado Rockies, are absolutely beautiful covered in snow. And you’re going through areas that aren’t tainted by other vehicular traffic. Gore Canyon in the Rockies, for example, is only seen by rafters and rail passengers.

The Colorado River is frozen over and there’s a gorgeous contrast between the white snow, blue skies & water, and red rocks. The plains of the midwest are peacefully dormant, waiting to feed America as soon as it thaws. The entire landscape is completely different. Bald eagles, elk, and bighorn sheep are some of the things to keep an eye out for.

There are fewer passengers on the train as well, and just about everyone had two seats to themselves in coach.

I did meet a number of interesting people on the train, as one always does when taking a long-distance train.

I had dinner one night with a gentleman who rides the entire Zephyr every so often just to ride it. He can really just relax and enjoy watching the world go by, waking up in a different part of the country than when he fell asleep. I had dinner the next night with a retired couple that was on their way to Iowa from Santa Cruz to visit family for a couple of weeks; he was a fellow Air Force vet and fighter jet crew chief back in the 50’s.

Then there were two travelers, one from Iowa and another from the U.K., both taking the train to San Francisco, with no plans upon arrival. Like not even having lodging booked. They didn’t know one another when they boarded the train but it sounded like they became good friends by the time we got to California.

The two cafe car attendants were great. The gentleman eastbound was from Poland and has worked for Amtrak for almost a year. He loves the job for the travel and meeting so many interesting passengers. Sandy, the westbound attendant, has been working for Amtrak for 13 years. Her parents met while working on the train in the 60’s; her father was a dining car waiter and her mother was a cook.

Photographing From a Train

I continue to learn more and more about photographing from a train – it’s an exciting challenge.

Being able to see what’s coming is very important, and choosing the right coach seat for this takes the stress out of not always having a seat in the lounge car.

I’ve had to shoot at pretty large apertures, like f/2.8 or f/4, just so I could keep the shutter speed high enough without having a ridiculously high ISO. These wide apertures also made window spots less noticeable.

With these open apertures, and to get the most of the landscape, I was sticking with a focal range of 24mm to about 35mm to get the most depth of field. Manual focus is the only way to go, focusing about a third of the way to the horizon.

Speaking of shutter speeds, there’s not a lot of room to avoid high ISOs. When I want to freeze motion I set 1/1000s when the train is at full speed, 1/500s between 25-50mph, and 1/250s when we’re below about 25mph. If my subject is close to the train I’ll double that, and if I’m shooting a landscape with no foreground subjects, I can halve it. When I want to show motion blur, 1/60s is usually good enough to show lateral motion while avoiding camera shake.

I used a homemade flexible lens hood to help avoid glare and reflections. I made a few notes to refine it for the next trip but it’s definitely a big help.

When is the next trip?

My next California Zephyr trip will be in the spring. One of the things I’m most excited about is comparing these snow scenes, especially the farm scenes, to the spring thaw!

There were far too many photos to post on this blog and it was difficult to decide which ones to show here. View the rest in my California Zephyr Winter gallery.

Catching up on the news of the day in the Truckee railroad station while waiting for the westbound #5.
Farmland near Fernley, Nevada
Dusk between Lovelock and Winnemucca, Nevada in the Zephyr’s observation car
The California Zephyr’s crew swapping out in Grand Junction, Colorado
The California Zephyr passing by snow-covered pastures along the Colorado River
Looking down at the frozen Colorado River in upper Gore Canyon
The Colorado River near Kremmling, Colorado
After hours of amazing views of the Rockies, the California Zephyr quickly descends into the plains and farmland surrounding Denver
Denver’s Union Station during one of the California Zephyr’s longer station stops
The California Zephyr passing through snow-covered back yards in Osceola, Iowa
Taking a fresh air break in Ottumwa, Iowa. The temperature was in the single digits with a biting wind
The California Zephyr passes over the frozen Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa
Jerzey has been working for Amtrak for nearly a year and loves the job. He hails from a town near Krakow, Poland
The California Zephyr passing snow-covered and windswept farms near Mendota, Illinois
Chicago’s financial district was eerily quiet during the 2019 Polar Vortex event
The Chicago River rarely freezes, but it didn’t take long during the 2019 Polar Vortex event. Temperatures were just about at the all-time record lows for the city
Screens showing all but the long-distance train routes canceled during the 2019 Polar Vortex in Chicago
The California Zephyr passing through frozen farmland near Mendota, Illinois during the 2019 Polar Vortex event
The California Zephyr passing a church in Mendota, Illinois
Early morning rolling past farmland in eastern Nebraska
Rolling past farmland in eastern Nebraska in the early morning hours
The Denver Union Stock Yards was built in the late 19th century along the railroad route as a massive commerce center for the booming cattle industry
Our conductor Mandy giving the “all aboard” after a smoke & fresh air break in Granby, Colorado, after the train had to stop for a mechanical delay
It wasn’t until I looked at these pictures later that I noticed a hawk perched on these lone trees in the middle of the Nevada scrub.
Sandy, the cafe car attendant, has been with Amtrak for 13 years. Her parents met while working in the dining car in the 1960s.
Union Pacific workers near Boca, California
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Joe Clark

Sunday 1st of November 2020

How much is the fare?!!

John Peltier

Monday 2nd of November 2020

You'll have to go to their website and click the Book button to calculate fares.


Tuesday 12th of February 2019

So very interesting. I very much enjoyed the story of the trip, and then scrolling through the images. I typically blend my photos into the story, posting them here and there, but you've got me reconsidering that. Do you format it that way on purpose? I'm also thinking it's about time to hop on and head to Grand Junction. I could easily be that guy who just rides coast-to-coast once in a while.

Favorite in the portfolio is a intimate view of the tracks in snow. Love those compositions.

Look forward to more, and good travels to Uganda. dcraig

John Peltier

Tuesday 12th of February 2019

Just playing around with some new formats - I usually mix the photos with the words but thought I'd try something new. No good? Would it be better the old way? I'm far from having any kind of editor credentials so the feedback is appreciated :) Give it a shot! It's a beautiful ride! Cheers.

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