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Rolling Through History on a Train

June 19, 1988|STANFORD M. HORN | Horn is a San Francisco free-lance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The gentle roll of the luxury liner had quickly lulled me to sleep seven hours earlier. Bedtime followed the customary evening movie and a nightcap in the top deck, a 360-degree view lounge that crowns so many new liners these days.

Earlier, the traditional multicourse meal had been served in the sparkling dining room. Last night it was highlighted by juicy prime rib and fresh apple pie a la mode.

Just before dressing for dinner I had tried my luck at the afternoon bingo game.

Now, as the morning sun came beaming in the window, the crisply attired steward knocked on the door to offer a pre-breakfast of orange juice, a warm croissant and steaming coffee.

Before navigating my way to the dining room for the formal breakfast, I pressed a button on the wall for background music. Then I turned on the shower in the compact bathroom.

Amber Waves of Grain

Returning, I again glanced out the cabin window. The waves we were slicing through glistened as far as the eye could see. Amber waves of grain. My luxury cabin was sailing through Iowa. I was aboard Amtrak's luxury liner, the California Zephyr.

The Zephyr is several things: a powerful piece of hardware, a rolling history lesson, a successful example of modern industrial design that allows the best 48-hour food-entertainment-hospitality package between Chicago and San Francisco and an orchestra seat at a terrific, continuing geographical display.

The California Zephyr is three trains in one. Amtrak calls it a "Superliner." Between Chicago and Salt Lake City it carries double-decked sleeping cars, ultramodern chair cars, dining units and window-wrapped sightseeing lounges at speeds up to 80 m.p.h.

All equipment is modern, smooth-riding and air-conditioned. At Salt Lake City, in a precise half-hour operation, the train is disjointed into three sections.

The main section continues to San Francisco. The others are formed into trains bound for Las Vegas/Los Angeles (renamed the Desert Wind) and Portland/Seattle (renamed Pioneer). The westbound breakup occurs near midnight while most passengers are asleep.

Cavalcade of History

Thus, almost all the major population centers of the West Coast are linked with the Rockies, the Plains states and Chicago by daily no-change-of-train service. At Chicago's Union Station, transfers are made to and from streamlined trains that serve major Eastern and Southern cities. New York, for example, is 17 hours down the track.

From San Francisco's Golden Gate to Chicago's Gold Coast and Sears Tower, the California Zephyr transports passengers 2,427 miles through a 48-hour cavalcade of American history. The pace is unrelenting.

The Gold Rush. The Donner party. The golden spike. The Pony Express. The mothball fleet of warships. The Indians. Gambling casinos in "The Biggest Little City in the World." Copper mines. The Mormon Temple. The Moffat tunnel. Steamboats. Stockyards. Silos. Great railroads--the Southern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande, the Burlington Northern.

Lavish landmark rail depots crafted in and for the heyday of train travel. Great mountains--the coastal range, the Sierra Nevada, the Wasatch, the Rockies. Great rivers--the Colorado, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Platte. Great cities--San Francisco, Salt Lake, Denver, Omaha, Chicago.

There's scarcely an hour when some part of American lore or grandeur doesn't roll past the Zephyr's windows. Announcements, guides and brochures call our attention to the nation's heritage during the Zephyr's easy-to-take two-day course in U.S. history.

Big, Reclining Seats

If you haven't been on a train for a long time--or ever--the California Zephyr's interior car design may be a surprise. Double-decked cars are roomy. Soft, upholstered, reclining seats are bigger than airline first-class seats. There are fold-down trays, sun draperies, reading lights and large overhead storage racks.

Doors between cars open at the touch of a finger or a toe. Restrooms, seating for handicapped passengers and luggage space are on the lower level.

Cars are carpeted or upholstered, effectively keeping outside sounds out. There are large tinted windows, soft lighting, air conditioning and ice-water fountains.

Amtrak double-decker sleepers have four types of private bedrooms. Each converts to a private sitting room by day.

Economy- and family-bedroom passengers have hot and cold water, spacious vanities and electric outlets, but use bathrooms on the lower level.

Viewing Both Sides

Deluxe and special rooms have private toilets. Deluxe accommodations also have showers. All bedrooms have a glass wall facing the corridor, so views out of both sides of the train are possible when draperies are left open.

Announcements are available at the touch of a button. Stewards stop by early in the trip to deliver a complimentary wine and snack tray and to explain the cabin's features.

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