Riding through the Rockies on a silver Zephyr

Its name is the "Rio Grande Zephyr," a smart-looking passenger train pulled by four powerful orange-yellow diesel locomotives behind which follow shiny, fluted, stainless steel vista-dome coaches with names like "Silver Bronco" and "Silver Mustang"; "Silver Banquet," the dining car; and "Silver Sky."

Once, The Official Guide of the Railways was overflowing with crack trains that gave Americans a unique way to see the country no other means of transportation ever could. Today, the "Zephyr" is the last long-distance passenger train under private ownership; all others are operated by Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad is proud of its one train, and it shows.

On a Monday, Thursday, or Saturday morning, go down to Denver's old Union Station before 7:30 a.m. and buy a ticket for any station on the line, or all the way to the terminus, 570 mountainous miles and 14 hours to Salt LAke City. You will not be disappointed.

A second-level seat in any one of the several dome cars will give the rider an unobstructed view in all directions of some of the best scenery in the nation. The excitement of entering the Rocky Mountains begins within 20 minutes of leaving downtown Denver. The single track winds its way into the foothills seeking a path of least resistance. The climb is a struggle for the diesel engines, with a rise of 4,000 feet in 40 miles.

The granite nature of the Colorado Rockies posed tremendous engineering difficulties for the builders of this last major tanscontinental line, in the 1920s. Thirty tunnels were bored through solid rock, with the last one, the 6.2 -mile Moffat Tunnel, being the longest by far. The last view back and below of the Great Plains comes just minutes before crossing the Continental Divide in the middle of the tunnel. The change in the engine's pitch indicates that the Great Divide has been surmounted, at an elevation of 9,100 feet.

Once again in the daylight, the ski resort of Winter Park appear directly on the left. The D&RGW runs special ski trains from Denver on winter weekends using wonderful heavyweight coaches dating back to 1915. A half hour later the "Zephyr" begins its long run in the canyon of the Colorado, mostly at water level. There are no parallel interstates to mar the view; the train has his country to itself. The mighty Colorado Rockies rise all around the train, with the river and the railway barely finding enough room for the narrow passage west. Where the width of the valleys allows it, long freights will be waiting on a siding to pass in the opposite direction. The "Zephyr" usually keeps to its schedule, albeit a leisurely one, with an average speed over the whole route of just over 40 miles an hour. The grades, curves, and single track simply do not allow a faster time. But then most of the passengers on the "Zephyr" are not in any particular hurry. They tend to be people who have chosen the train for the ride.

In the dining car at any of the three meals that are served during the day, passengers have a chance to sample some of the best cooking found of any train the world. The sevenman dining car staff prepares and serves what the traveling public expects from a fine dining car -- breakfasts with freshly baked bran muffins and country sausage, hot open turkey sandwiches, or a large chef's salad bowl for lunch and, at dinnertime, the best beef and chops or broiled trout from the Colorado River.

In an atmosphere of good food, or later in the club car at the rear of the train, the camaraderie for which rail travel is well known has an opportunity to develop.Locals and out-of-staters, professionals and working class people of all generations, meet on a common ground for a few hours and exchange stories and ideas. The friendliness and anonymity in this unique setting engender good feelings and promote better understanding.

At Glenwood Springs, just after 1 p.m., roughly half the passengers will leave the train, either for this famous spa or for a nearby resort area such as Aspen. The "Zephyr" gently rocks along the welded rail, crossing the Colorado-Utah border in midafternoon and leaving the Colorado River Valley behind. The country is more open and drier now. Buttes and plateaus predominate and take on soft colors as the sun declines directly ahead. The view is far-reaching, with the Uinta Mountains some distance away from the train. There are few towns on the line, so it may be several hours before the train makes any regular stops. Then comes the last assault of the day, Soldier Summit, just west of a town called Helper, where in the days of steam trains extra power was needed to help the heavy consists over the pass.

When evening arrives, the darkened dome car is even a more peaceful place to view the outside world. The sky is generally clear in eastern Utah, and the stars give enough light to be able to make out the weird natural shapes in the hills. Ahead is the glow of Salt Lake City, and for the final two hours the "Zephyr" picks up speed on a fast, straight track for a 9:30 p.m. arrival at its terminal station.

For further information contact the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, Passenger Department, Box 5482, Denver, CO 80217.

Contact Amtrak if connecting to or from the "Zephyr" on an Amtrak train. The oneway fare to Glenwood Springs is $13.75; to Salt Lake City, $39. Westbound travel is recommended, as eastbound travel has the train entering the rockies at dusk with an arrival at Denver at 9 p.m.

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