Much as I enjoyed my stay in Chicago, my main purpose for going there in the first place was to catch a train which would take me back home. At first, I had intended to try to make a tight transfer, but I realized that it would have been tricky to get from St. Louis to Chicago in time to catch the train to San Francisco, and if there had been ANY delay on the St. Louis – Chicago leg of the trip, I would mess up the transfer, so I figured it was better to spend one night in Chicago. And then I decided to spend two nights in Chicago, which allowed me to have a full and satisfying day there.
Chicago Union Station is the busiest long-distance train station in the United States. Just take a look at a map of the Amtrak system, and you’ll notice that an awful lot of train lines converge in Chicago. Most major train stations in the United States only see 2-4 long-distance trains per day, whereas when I was at Chicago Union Station, the train to San Francisco was departing just fifteen minutes after the train to San Antonio, Texas, and likewise, the train going to Seattle was departing just fifteen minutes after the San Francisco train (and the train to Los Angeles was departing shortly after the train to Seattle). This is on top of the fact that there are the local commuter trains called ‘Metra’ (they look like Caltrains, but had more snow on them), as well as the Polar Express (at the train station, whenever I saw a family with young children, there was a 90% chance that they were waiting for the Polar Express). To impose order on this chaos, Chicago Union Station requires boarding passes (unlike any other Amtrak station I have been too), and when it is time to begin boarding, an Amtrak employee will call out the name of the train (for example, “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR!”), line up the passengers, and then walk them through the maze of the station to the correct platform.
On the train, I briefly talked to a couple who was travelling from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Their train from Philadelphia arrived at Chicago Union Station just five minutes before the train to San Francisco departed. They said that the Amtrak employees arranged for a very speedy transfer which is why they got on the San Francisco-bound train on time. I cannot imagine an airline company arranging a transfer between an arriving and departing airplane within a five minute window.
Speaking of airlines, one of the advantages of train travel is that there is NO SECURITY CHECK. Amtrak employees do check whether or not you have a valid ticket, and they do NOT like unattended luggage/packages in places where luggage/packages are not supposed to be stored, and there are some forbidden items, but generally it is a way easier process than boarding an airplane.
Once on the train, I got to see a lot more of the Illinois landscape. First the train passed through suburbs of Chicago, and then it was a vast expanse of farmland coated in snow, with isolated farmhouses, stands of trees, and streams breaking up the white landscape. During this portion of the trip, I talked with a young woman who was going from Chicago back to her hometown, Burlington, Iowa.
Just about when we arrived in Iowa, the sun set. I was expecting Iowa to be more farmland just like Illinois, so I was surprised to see how industrialized it was (I learned that the train goes through the most industrialized region of Iowa – which makes sense, of course manufacturing and industry would be concentrated along the most important train route).
I stepped off the train in Omaha, Nebraska for a breather. Omaha was no colder than Chicago, but the ground was slick and slippery, so I did not walk far from the train. After Omaha, I went to sleep, and woke up in Colorado.
Colorado, like Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska, was covered in snow, but it looked different. We stopped in Fort Morgan, and then Denver. It was so cold that night that the remote-controlled switches on the tracks were failing, so whenever the train needed to use a switch, it had to stop, the conductor had to get off the train (in the middle of a blizzard), use the manual switch, get back on the train, and then the train could go ahead. Naturally, this led to the train being hours behind schedule.
Denver was also coated in snow, but in a very different way than Chicago. Chicago is liberal in its use of salt, and makes an effort to clear snow. Denver doesn’t bother with salt, or clearing snow. The Colorado residents I met on the train said that all snow in Denver melts within days, a week at most, so they don’t bother with it. They could tell just by looking at Denver that it had snowed at night, because otherwise it would have been much more melted down. One of the most remarkable sights I saw in Denver were people (homeless people, I presume) setting up tents along a riverbank covered with snow. I’ve certainly seen tent encampments of homeless people before, but never amid such snow.
When we got to Denver train station, I was told to stay on the train platform because we didn’t have time to enter the station. Then we stayed in Denver station for more than half an hour. I got to watch snow fall of the platform roofs.
A conductor told me that only 50 passengers were supposed to board the train in Denver. Instead, 130 passengers boarded in Denver. What happened? Well, a bunch of people discovered that taking the train was faster than flying.
Let me explain.
That day, every single flight at Denver International Airport was cancelled, due to to a combination of weather and the incompetence of whoever manages flights at Denver. People on the train told me that, when they tried to reschedule their flights, they were told that they would have to wait at least four days in Denver. The people going to places such as Utah and California figured out that it takes less than four days for a train to get to those places, so they got train tickets. Thus, it turns out that trains are sometimes faster than airplanes.
I will continue with my account of riding the California Zephyr from Chicago to
San Francisco Emeryville (which is just a ten minute bus ride away from San Francisco).
Ah, but what is this thing about a ‘Green Christmas’? Well, a lot of people on the train lived in places like Iowa and Colorado, and they were visiting their relatives in California. Why were they going from Iowa/Colorado/Philadelphia/wherever to California, rather than inviting their California relatives to visit them? Because they wanted a “Green Christmas” (they coined the phrase, not me). I suppose the people who wanted a White Christmas took the train going in the opposite direction.