TABLE 9290: Chicago – San Francisco


This month we are going to look at one of our Beyond Europe Tables – 9290 which covers a huge route across North America.

At 3,936 kilometres long, this route across North America is Amtrak’s second longest but also one of its most scenic. Travelling the entire route between Chicago and San Francisco on The California Zephyr (or “Silver Lady”) would take around two and a half days but there are enough exciting destinations to stop off on the way to make it into an entire vacation.

The current California Zephyr uses Superliner equipment. A typical train consists of two P42 locomotives, a baggage car, a transition sleeper, two sleeping cars, a dining car, a sightseer lounge car, and two or three coaches. Due to the long distances the journey is best enjoyed in a roomette or bedroom, but for budget-conscious travellers, a reclining seat can be just as comfortable. The modern double-decker cars give nearly everybody on the train a bird’s-eye view of the spectacular scenery on the route, including the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas.  For an onboard view of what the train carriages and scenery are like, our friend ‘the Man in Seat 61’ has recorded a video of his travels on this route – watch here:

The Zephyr runs a daily service year-round from Chicago Union station departing at 14.00hrs local time. The route courses through the plains of Nebraska to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, and then through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco (connections into San Francisco station are via bus services at Emeryville)


The starting point for this journey is the magisterial Chicago Union Station, one of Chicago’s most iconic structures. Union Station is the only example in the United States of a “double-stub” station, where the 24 tracks approach from two directions and do not continue under or through the station. Amtrak use it as the hub of its Midwestern routes, with options from virtually every major city it makes Chicago one of the most convenient U.S. cities to visit by train.

Union Station’s “headhouse” occupies an entire city block. At its centre is the Great Hall, considered to be one of the greatest indoor spaces in the United States with its 219-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet over the room. Arranged around the Great Hall through the Corinthian columns are numerous smaller spaces containing restaurants and services and a wide passageway leading to the concourse. The rich history and beauty of the Great Hall has made it a popular location for feature films. The southernmost entrance was used in a memorable scene from “The Untouchables” and still draws tourists from around the world to take their own pictures of the grand staircase, which has been recently restored.


After leaving Chicago Union Station the train stops at a few small farming towns in Illinois including Galesburg a historic railroad town which has a permanent display of a Burlington 4-6-4 Hudson steam engine that can be seen as you enter the station as well as a Rail Museum. The train then crosses the great Mississippi River which marks the border with Iowa. There are several short stops across this state where passengers can get out and stretch their legs before the train crosses another state line at the Missouri River. Overnight, and into the early morning, the train traverses Nebraska and north-eastern Colorado, before making a morning arrival into Denver the “Mile-High City”. Denver’s renovated Union station is now a modern mixed use hub of retail and transport with an open air train hall which is architecturally beautiful.

From Denver the scenery changes dramatically as the train climbs into the Rocky Mountains. After the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel the train follows the Colorado River (popular with rafters, who traditionally ‘moon’ the train as it passes). Many call the trip along the river the most scenic stretch of track in America that can be seen from a scheduled passenger train. The train cuts through spectacular gorges and mountains, passing ski resorts and valleys popular with hikers which can all be viewed from the comfort of the panorama car.


Continuing to look at the route of the California Zephyr we reach the final leg of the journey where the train skirts the shore of San Pablo Bay and then San Francisco Bay. Passing through Berkeley, the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge can be seen to the right across the bay. The terminus of the California Zephyr line is Emeryville station, which also gives onwards access to the “Coast Starlight” line, another scenic route which runs along the east coast between Seattle and Los Angeles (Table 9305).

From Emeryville the free “Emery Go Round” shuttle bus connects passengers to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system for local trains serving 46 stations around the San Francisco area. The bus crosses the Oakland Bay Bridge and affords spectacular views of San Francisco and its famous landmarks Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

One of the nicest things about visiting San Francisco is that, although the city is “big” in terms of attractions and amenities, it is geographically small – only 49 square miles and most of the tourist attractions are in a much smaller area than that. Consequently, it is very easy to see and do a great many things in a short period of time and there are multiple transportation options too with cable cars, taxies, ferries, buses and the historic trolleys to choose from.