Snowy views from Amtrak’s Hiawatha
Snowy views from Amtrak’s Hiawatha

Kev’s Traveling: November 2019 trip

Back to Nebraska

As you might remember, I brought my mom to Nebraska last month. She came to stay with my sister and niece while my brother-in-law was away at job training. Well, this trip is the back half of that trip. I came to hang out with them for a week before bringing her home. For a recap on the situation, click here.

This trip is about traveling on Amtrak’s Hiawatha and California Zephyr.

At the start of the trip

Snowy roads
Driving to Sturtevant Depot (SVT)

In the past, when I left for Nebraska, it was on Sundays after my postlude was over. This Sunday was different; not only did I play the organ for my church, but another one as well. The second service started when I needed to leave for the train station. That makes going leaving a little challenging. Since I was leaving on Monday instead, I attended a theatre organ concert with my dad. A talented young organist, Nick Renkosik, performed a fantastic show at the Carmex Wearhouse during a Dairyland Theatre Organ Society event.

Nick is playing the organ.

The night before I was to leave, it began to snow and continued to snow the next day. Because of the storm, I went earlier on Monday than planned because I did not know the conditions of the roads to the Sturtevant Depot. Instead of taking my car, I drove my mom’s Ford Escape, and I am glad I did because it has an all-wheel drive. Although the snow diminished the further west you went, I was happy I decided not to drive to my sister’s for this trip.

Sturtevant Depot

SVT Bridge
The Sturtevant (WI) Depot bridge lets you go from one set of tracks to the other side.

When I arrived at the depot, I paid the $7 parking fee (for up to 30 days), found a spot, and relaxed before heading there. After walking into the depot, I printed out tickets for an upcoming trip.

Before returning to my bag, a lady started questioning me about Hiawatha travel and beyond. I am unsure if I have a look of confidence or my Amtrak winter hat, but I often get asked about what’s happening at that depot.

Helping the traveler

The Sturtevant Depot is unstaffed, so she doesn’t have anyone to help her. Her inquiries went beyond Amtrak, including a transfer to a BNSF Metra train. Her journey went from Sturtevant, WI, to Arura, IL. To make things easier for her in the future, set up the Venta App to purchase Metra tickets on her phone ahead of time.

The ironic part of the story is that my train caught up with hers at Naperville, and we passed it after Aurora.

The Hiawatha: Boarding and heading to Chicago

Flame track heater
The infamous Metra track heaters, as seen from the Hiawatha.

Helping her made the time fly by, and the next thing we heard was Ben, one of my favorite Amtrak conductors, announcing it was time to head up and over the bridge. We left the warm station to brave the snowy element for our train. Once we got on the east platform, we walked to the south end of the platform to wait. Soon the Hiawatha pulled into the depot, and we climbed aboard, but before we got on, my temporary travel buddy asked me if I was sure it was the right train.

I never understood why people who ask for help doubt me when the train arrives. Aren’t we going to the same place; why would I lie to you? Besides, there was only one train at the station; the conductor announced the train destination as Chicago, so yes, I am sure. People are nervous, which might be why they doubt, but it makes me chuckle.

After boarding, I led us to the lead car, a recently refurbished Horizon car, to enjoy the snowy vistas as we rolled along. I took the cover photo for this article on this train. As we approached downtown Chicago, we saw the infamous switch heaters that looked like the tracks were on fire. As we pulled into the station, we prepared to leave the train and head into the station.

At Chicago Union Station

Jersey Mikes and PBR
My Jersey Mikes sub and PBR Tall Boy for lunch

After my temporary travel companion and I arrived in Chicago, we checked the departure boards to see where and when her next train was leaving. We followed that activity by walking past her train’s location before heading upstairs to Jersey Mike’s, a new addition to the food court. As we waited in line, I found out she was a vegetarian who ate fish; I found that interesting. It appears she follows Ron Swanson’s idea of fish:

Fish, for sport only, not for meat. Fish meat is practically a vegetable.

~Ron Swanson
CUS Great Hall
The recently restored Great Hall at Chicago Union Station

After gathering our food, we went downstairs to see if she could load her train. After asking if this was the correct train, she climbed aboard, and we parted ways. My next stop was the Great Hall, where I waited for my train.

I purchased a few PBRs to wash down my meal on my way to find a seat and eat.

After consuming my sandwich, I made a pit stop and stretched my legs. After the Texas Eagle passengers left, I knew the California Zephyr would be next. Not long after those passengers were gone, they called for Zephyr passengers to line up, and soon we walked to our waiting train.

On The Califonia Zephyr

Amtrak Chicago yard
The view from the California Zephyr as we left Chicago Union Station headed west.

Those of us riding to Omaha sat in the train’s last car. I was assigned a window seat on the left side; I sat on the right on past trips. Not long after settling in, a seatmate came along.

The Burlington, IA, bound seatmate was not outgoing, so I was nice but did not engage much. I am glad I brought my over-the-ear headphones; they helped block out the seatmate’s Facetime and speakerphone conversations. I always felt that headphones with a mic work better when using a speakerphone and Facetiming while sitting beside someone inconsiderate. They could have gone to the observation car as well. After the seatmate departed from the train, I had both seats.

Because of the snow and cold, we experienced a mechanical problem that caused an issue twice. There was an issue with a frozen air hose. We stopped before Mendota, IL, while at the Ottumwa (IA) station for the crew to address the problem. After that, we didn’t have issues with it again, at least not for the remaining time I was on the train,

I spent most of my time in my seat, watching the scenery and entertainment on my iPad.

When the Zephyr arrives in Omaha, there are two stops to let the sleeper passengers off, load and unload the baggage car, and refuel locomotives. Then they pull the train forward for the second stop, allowing the coach passengers on and off. The reason for this is simple; they are in the process of replacing part of the platform. The train does not fit on the platform; thus, the two stops.

After the Zephry pulled into Omaha

CA Zephyr
The California Zephyr stopped in Omaha, NE.

Due to a disabled BNSF freight train ahead of the Zephyr, they could not move the train to make the second stop. Eventually, the coach car attendant escorted us through the train to the first sleeper car to exit. Two people had huge issues with waiting; apparently, they were unaware that others wanted off the train and had people waiting for them.

My sister graciously waited for me to get off the train.

After we returned to my sister’s house, the big fluffy puppy was excited to see me. Abby, the Newfie, greeted me at the door for some ear and butt scratches. That night, she was the only one excited to see me. Little Mackenzie was also happy to see me the following day; she crawled on the blow-up mattress and snuggled.

Safe Travel’s


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Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them with support and information. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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