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Domes Over Donner
Domes Over Donner Pass

Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA

May 24-26, 2008

Story and photographs by Richard Elgenson
RailNews Network writer

Imagine this, you have just returned from a 9 day vacation, covering 2600 miles, mostly on long distance Amtrak trains.  Not being home 12 hours, I receive an email offer to ride the Domes Over Donner tour for beginning in the East San Francisco Bay Area to Reno Nevada with two nights in Sin City north. gave me the option of taking the Coast Starlight train to and from Oakland for this Domes trip which gave me an opportunity to learn more of the Coast Starlight route to Northern CA.  The Domes tickets were to be FedEx'ed to me, however, I was already on my way to Oakland. Not to worry, all I had to do was check in with Bill Parks, the Trains Unlimited, Tours (TUT) tour guide in Emeryville, the western terminal of the California Zephyr.  The Domes Over Donner tour cars are two private railcars which are authentic 1940's California Zephyr alumni.  OK, I have been aboard the Silver Lariat and Silver Solarium before, but mostly in a working environment.  This promised to be different, very different. Now in the hands of California Zephyr Railcar Charters, a Southern California based company, the dome cars are luxurious in every way compared to Amtrak passenger cars.  Each of these cars has a vista dome, useful for viewing the surrounding countryside, and a kitchen or galley, useful for nourishment.  The dome arrangement is superior to the Amtrak sightseer lounge, which has windows that wrap up the ceiling. After spending a short night in the City of San Francisco, I took an Amtrak bus to Emeryville. This particular Saturday morning, Emeryville was crowded with many passengers going in different directions on various trains such as the local Amtrak Capitol and the long distance CA Zephyr.  Out tour was only to Reno Nevada, 239 railroad miles taking about 7-1/2 hours, with the private cars laying over in Sparks Nevada for two days.  Did you know that Reno is so close to hell that you can see Sparks?  For me, a major draw of the Domes Over Donner tour is the traverse of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, famous for the ill fated Donner Party, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the wintertime stranding of the City of San Francisco train in 1952.  This being late spring, there was little chance of weather related problems

At Emeryville, I checked in with Bill Parks, the TUT tour guide.  The Emeryville Amtrak Station is busy, even on a Saturday morning, with several Capitol trains picking up many passengers.  The rest got onto the Amtrak California Zephry train, which was ON TIME into the station and left one minute late by my watch.  It was not your typical late May California day since it was overcast and rainy.  This has been a crazy weathcr week since exactly seven days ago it was extremely hot, then mild and cool, with two tornados in Southern CA two days ago.  About 20 passengers boarded the Domes over Donner PV cars at Emeryville.

Bill Parks, TUT tour guide shown at Davis California.
In the distance, California's capitol, Sacramento.
This bridge carries vehicular traffic on top and rail traffic on the lower level.
Other Domes over Donner passengers boarded at stations up the line.  There was plenty of on board staff to wait on us.  According to the press release from Trains Unlimited, Tours, California Zephyr Railcar Charters, the owners of Silver Lariat and Silver Rapids (sleeper car) and lesees of the Silver Solarium, "staff their cars with professionals from railroad executive business car departments, as well as from fine hotels and restaurants."  The private car staff for this Domes over Donner trip was top notch, quick and efficient wtih service and great mixed drinks.  Not being much of a hard liquor drinker, I opted for an early morning Black Russian, mixed by William. 
Above, the former Southern Pacific Railroad Sacramento Locomotive Works facility.  This site has been slated for redevelopment.
After the Sacramento stop, I happened to visit the Silver Solarium car and noticed something being set up in a small drawing room.  Moments later, a woman guest was led into the room and her husband and staff sang happy birthday to her.  The tour operator Chris Skow and his wife also boarded at Sacramento.  I was interested in meeting Mr. Skow since we had emailed and spoken via phone during the week before the trip.  Chris is a retired conductor from Western Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads and operator of Trains Umlimited, Tours for over 25 years.
Meeting new friends in the Silver Solarium lounge and inside the Silver Lariat dome.
Chef Jeffrey MacRill in the Silver Lariat kitchen/galley.  That looks like, hmmm, um, that smells like, um, it tasted good.  Jeffrey was assisted by Chef Lela Janushkowsky.  During the morning run from Emeryville to Sacramento, staff brought us any drink we desired, then fresh fruit, chicken sausages, and coffee cake.  Having become hooked on bratwurst, I viewed chicken as something to be eaten with rice.  They had 4 different clean and healthy flavors of sausages.  Knowing the Silver Lariat philosophy of the best quality food, this was also premium foodstuff.

Above, passing through Roseville, car owner Bert Hermey told me to watch out for the "fire train" which had stood ready with three tank cars to put out fires.  Colfax Station stands at 2,421 feet above mean sea level.  Just another 4,600 feet to go vertically.  This location is also 144 miles railroad east of  San Francisco and 642 railroad miles west of Ogden Utah.
In the distance between Sacramento and Colfax, passengers became aquiented with one another.  Sitting with two fellows from Oakland and Sacramento, the conversation turned to mass transit.  Ken from Oakland said he uses BART for work in San Francisco.  At $3.00 per boarding this is reasonable compared to expensive gasoline and extremely expensive parking in the City.  While walking around SFO on my way to meet the tour, I spotted a parking "special" for $17 per day.  On top of that, bridge tolls are around $4.00 per trip.  Basic SFO parking can run $10-20 per day and $20-30 per day in areas such as the financial district.  Bob from Sacramento said he sometimes drives to Oakland and takes BART over to the city.  I asked him if he uses the CA Amtrak Capitols trains which run from Sacramento to San Jose which he occasionally does.
An old North Western Pacific caboose in Colfax.  It was just a bit rainy heading east towards Donner Summit.  Nature was hiding the Sierra Nevada from us.

Domes Through Donner Continued