The Great Train Adventure/Nightmare: Denver to Glenwood Springs

This day should really be called the great train debacle …

To start with, you should know that the drive from Denver to Glenwood Springs takes three hours. We planned to take the train, which takes six hours – but it would allow us to see incredible scenery, so we didn’t begrudge the extra time when we started out this morning.   But you’ll see that change as you read on ….

Woke up at the crack of dawn (6:15am) to make our 8:00am train, made it out of the house by 6:50, and only then thought to check whether our train was on time. Turned out that we had a two-hour delay, so we had a leisurely breakfast at the Denver Bicycle Café and stopped at a nearby Whole Foods for train snacks (thank goodness) before returning our car downtown.

We walked down the 16th Street pedestrian mall to get to the train station. It’s pretty touristy, but it made for a pleasant walk early in the morning. We made it to the train station by 9:00 and were pleased to see that the train was boarding at 9:22. The Denver train station is beautiful, so we were happy to hang out there for a little while.

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We joined the throngs in the boarding line at 9:15, and we waited. And waited. And waited. We finally saw the train at about 10:30 and boarded at about 11:00.  We hustled straight for the observation car, where we spent most of our first two hours .

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The trip from Denver to Winter Park was stunning, though the train continued to go slowly and lose time. Still, from the observation deck, we had a great time..

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The train gains over 4,000 feet in elevation, switches back and forth along mountain passes and deep canyons, and goes through 27 tunnels in 30 minutes. The longest tunnel is six miles long and takes you underneath the Continental Divide. We were also sitting next to a train nut (he is starting a six-day “train finning” tour, meaning that he’ll photograph trains and then chase them along their routes in his car). He provided interesting (usually) information about the freight trains that we passed.

After Winter Park, the train starts to follow the Colorado River. I spent almost all of my time in the observation car, though Prescott and I had perfectly fine second-floor assigned seats near the front of the train. But the observation car has windows up to the ceiling, and in addition to the great views, it feels light and airy — and if you have the right vantage point, you can take some great photos.

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The train feels pretty confining to me. I had heard that the cross-country Amtrak trains were different from their East Coast cousins, and the California Zephyr (the train we’re on) gets rave views. But while the observation car is a lifesaver, the rest of the train seems a lot like other Amtrak trains. Yes, we have two stories, and yes, we have a lot of leg room, and yes, our seats recline a whole 35%, but it still looks and feels like any other Amtrak train. And it smells like and Amtrak train. The restrooms are teeny-tiny (but clean). You can get up to move, but your range of motion is really limited, to a narrow aisle and you’re constantly having to get out of the way of other people. Prescott and I don’t have a sleeper car – this made sense when we booked our tickets, but I might make a different choice next time.

As we approached Bond, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, things started to go very, very wrong. We were already running nearly five hours late, and then the train stopped. The conductor announced that “something” had happened on the track up ahead and that we might be delayed anywhere from one to four more hours.   It turned out that the track ahead of us had heated up and become “soft,” which requires some sort of maintenance before trains can proceed. So we suddenly had nowhere to go.

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The conductors grudgingly allowed us out of the train by a dry, desolate railroad yard. They gave us a very short leash: we were pretty much supposed to stay within a hundred yards or so of the open door. When Prescott and I made a brief foray beyond the maddening crowds to walk along the river, we were shortly and efficiently shooed back to the train.

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Still, I really appreciated the opportunity to be out in the almost-fresh air (our train was still billowing diesel smoke), to take a walk and sit in the sagebrush and talk with some random passengers.

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After about an hour in the rail yard, we were corralled back on the train and enjoyed another more stunning views of the Colorado River. As the river grew wider, we saw more and more people rafting (one group mooned us) and fishermen.   The rock face of the canyon grew redder, and then we broke out into increasingly large valleys between the canyon walls.

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And then we stopped. Just stopped, across a field from a beautiful old cabin and a waving field of grain. But we were very much stopped.

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The conductor told us that the good news was that the soft track had been fixed, and that it would take about fifteen minutes for the maintenance crew to clear out. Then, after about half an hour of waiting, another announcement came over the loudspeaker: one of the maintenance trucks had broken down on the track, and it would take almost two hours to fix the problem. And as the magic hour of fixing approached, we heard the loudspeaker yet again – telling us that, because of federal regulations, neither the train engineers nor the conductors were allowed to work any longer (they had maxed out their 12-hour shifts). So we had to sit an extra forty-five minutes waiting for a new crew to appear (where did they come from?) and get the train ready to go.

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Our original Glenwood Springs arrival time was supposed to be 1:53pm. We arrived right at 10:50pm – just nine hours late …

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