All Aboard at the California State Railroad Museum

Unleash your inner train-loving kid at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, California.

I could easily spend another afternoon exploring over 20 restored locomotives and railroad cars, but this is more than just a place about railroads, it tells the story of how trains transformed America.

blog-20120804-img2After purchasing tickets you enter a large room with an impressive exhibit about the Transcontinental Railroad. This is an immersive, life-sized diorama that literally pulls the visitor inside to reflect on the arduous task of building a railroad over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the center of the experience is a beautiful locomotive. In front of the engine is a tunnel – a masterwork of art – that plays on the eye and appears to continue into the snowy and cold mountains.

After this exhibit is a second immense room filled with trains and cars – all restored. Woven between these great machines are smaller exhibits that give glimpses and perspectives of how trains influenced a growing free-society in the United States. The exhibits also look at the daily life of train workmen.

blog-20120804-img3My daughter enjoyed a restored sleeper car, featured as part of the “Golden Age” of rail travel. Inside, the car was darkened, it rocked and swayed, complete with rail noise and passing light signals through the windows. It really did feel like being in a passenger car at night.

The roadhouse is filled with monster-sized locomotives and railcars. Don’t miss out on the postal car, where you can see the organization involved with delivering mail to remote communities along the rail line.

Upstairs is a children’s play area, and a sizable model train layout complete with bridges, tunnels and lots of trains for those who want to be eight year’s old again. Make sure to explore the adjoining area, where you walk over a train trestle and get a bird’s eye view of the entire museum.
blog-20120804-img4Learn more:
http://www.csrmf.org

Exploring the Achensee of Tirol by Train, Trail, and Ship

The Achensee (ah-khen-say) is a beautiful natural lake nestled in the mountains of Tirol, Austria. The lake is sizable being 1 km wide and 9.5 km in length. It was to this lake that we traveled for a day trip.

The Austrian countryside sped past our window as the modern, aerodynamic train shot down rails of seamless steel. After a quiet, thirty minutes ride from Innsbruck, we departed at the Jenbach Bahnhof (Jenbach Train station) and proceeded only a few steps to the waiting Achenseebahn (Achensee train).

AchenseebahnHere stood a mechanized anachronism; an old-time, coal-burning, steam engine. It traveled on a narrow gauge rail, yet the engine was surprisingly large. The engine was oily, smelled of grease and belched and hissed steam. Inside the engineer’s cockpit, a messy pile of coal was sprawled across the metal floor. Along the sides of the machine were giant metallic wheels which supported the steam engine’s carriage. Underneath and between the wheels was a giant gear – a third rail – this was used by the train for traversing steep gradients.

We boarded one of two open-sided passenger cars. An antiquated latch locked a mini-door and kept several of us pinned in our row. A plaque on the wall stated the car was built in 1889 for Kaiser und König (Emperor and King).

The steam engine’s whistle was activated and a long high-pitched wail announced the start of the journey, with a small chug the behemoth came to life. The chugs grew with intensity and the entire train lurched forward as the engine pushed the cars uphill. Just one minute into the trip the tracks became steep and the third rail was activated, a clank-clank-clank of the greased metal gear could be heard.

AchenseebahnGeysers of dark smoke belched from the engine’s stack, the plumes repeated faster and faster as the machine’s power came to full strength. An engineer or an assistant shoveled coal into the engine’s furnace to feed the fiery beast. The burning coal boiled water and produced steam, this in-turn powered gears that moved the locomotive ever further up the hill.

The cars were pushed by the engine about as fast as a person could jog; through forests, past houses, small villages, and fields. Cars would stop at crossing signals and patiently wait for the train to pass, the people inside the autos were smiling just from seeing this historic train. On occasion tourists would run to a fence and start snapping photos, people in the train would wave back. The engineer would blast the whistle to add some zest to the excitement.

Sitting in the passenger car with my arm on the railing, I noticed my outside arm was suddenly covered in ash! The great billow of dark smoke had risen over the cars and the heavier ash particles were softly raining down.

AchenseeAfter the train crossed the highest point the engine was detached from the cars, it then traveled on a parallel track to the front of the train and was re-attached. Now the engine pulled the train. We resumed our trip. After a few minutes the track curved and in the distance was a sheet of blue hidden among the trees – this was the Achensee, a great inland lake, the largest in Austria. The lake rested in a deeply carved valley surrounded by high Alpine mountains.

A jet of steam was released from the side of the engine as the train stopped just meters away from the lake, we had arrived at the Achensee. The engineer jumped out and pulled a large faucet arm over to the engine and released a great flow of water. The steam engine greedily guzzled water to replenish itself for the return trip – a trip this steam engine had made thousands of times over the past hundred years.

The lake was beautiful, and because it was easy accessibility by automobiles and buses, the lake was a tourist haven, especially along the southern and western shore of the lake where we had arrived.

We walked on a lakeside trail for about 5 kilometers before we finally passed the last of the restaurants, tour buses and a multitude of visitors. It seemed odd that so many folks who visited these areas of comfort and relaxation looked unhappy and solemn from behind their sunglasses and wide-brimmed sun hats.

Hiking at the AchenseeThe trail we were on followed the edge of this elegant lake. Once we were past the touristy area the paved pathway narrowed, then became gravel walkway, then smaller again to become a dirt footpath. The lake began to reveal itself as we walked and passed small springs and quiet pebbled beaches. At one point a waterfall burst over the edge of a precipice – from fifty feet above – and tumbled down upon the path. The force of the water was strong but this part of the trail was shielded by a tin-roofed structure that looked all the worse for wear. The falling liquid drummed loudly on the roof as we passed under it.

The trail meandered along the inlets and indented shoreline of the lake. At one point we passed a great disgorgement of stone that had slid off the mountain – the action had created a jumble of rocks that fanned into the lake – we stood at the tip of a giant landslide. The mountain above was scarred like a great wound had been inflicted upon the surface.

We had been walking for two and a half hours since we left the train and were hungry. The plan was to meet several family members at an Alm about halfway up the northwestern side of the lake. They would arrive by ferry. We met them at the Alm and ate lunch, though, afterward we wished we had not eaten, for the meal was industrial in its preparation and it was presented without emotion. The meal was a disservice both in flavor and price paid -it did not represent this beautiful area. Having said that I must add that as I left the restaurant we passed others wolfing down the same meal, they were raving about how good it tasted.

FerryWe went outside and waited for the ferry. Our return trip would be by boat rather than by shoreline.

A large ferry boat out on the lake blurted its horn. It approached and with surprising agility maneuvered up to a small dock; we boarded. Not many people were on the ferry and we had the ship mostly to ourselves. Placards inside the main cabin advertised a nighttime cruise, an attached photo showed a sparkling and illuminated vessel on a dark body of water with a setting sun over a backdrop of mountains.

The ship hugged the shoreline. Now, just offshore I could study the topography of the steep and rugged mountains; from the sharp angle of the land entering the lake, it was obvious our ship traversed over deep waters. Looking overboard and into the lake’s water, the late afternoon sun shot lances of light down into the depths. The visibility was about 9m (27 feet) or so.

The recently eaten lunch sat in my tummy like a brick and I thought that if the vessel was struck by a calamity and sank into the dark waters of the Achensee that I would sink with it, like a stone, all because of that unfortunate meal that weighed so heavily on my stomach.

Ferry on the AchenseeWithin twenty minutes the vessel covered the same distance that I had walked in about 2 and half hours on the shoreline. It was then I realized I had not been so far away from the touristy area as I perceived myself to be, in fact, I had been in the middle of it. We docked near some hotels to gather passengers and the same solemn looking tourists I had seen earlier boarded. I guess they had eaten some terrible food too and that unhappy experience had etched itself on their faces.

In another fifteen minutes, the ship docked again and we disembarked. The Achenseebahn was quietly puffing away, waiting for us and others to board and be returned down the mountain.

The engine growled to life and we enjoyed a pleasant journey back to the train station. Everyone was tired and some of the people on the train slept, which was surprising considering the noise from the engine.

The late afternoon light provided great opportunities for photos as the train descended into the Inn Valley. In the distance, the train station and our final stop. Ten minutes later a modern, electric powered train arrived at the adjoining station and transported us back to Innsbruck in comfort.

Riding Innsbruck’s Hungerburgbahn

Years ago during a visit to Innsbruck, Austria, I had the pleasure of riding a quaint and antiquated one-hundred year old funicular railway, called the Hungerburgbahn. A funicular railway is designed to climb steep slopes. The old Hungerburgbahn (shown in a photo from the early 1900’s) squeaked, clicked and creaked up the mountain making the ride an adventure in itself. The route was a simple straight track that traversed over a bridge Hungerburgbahn - source Wikipediaspanning the Inn river, then up the mountainside, past the Alpenzoo and beyond to the Hungerburg cable car station. The track was less than one kilometer in length, but riding it was like stepping back in time. Sadly, this funicular railway was closed in 2005. It was replaced in 2007 with a modern, safer and more expedient railway.

The new Hungerburgbahn is step forward in time. A futuristic building with rounded and sweeping architecture identifies the Congress station to riders. This underground station is close to Altstadt (Old Town) Innsbruck, the center of shopping and tourism. At the station quiet escalators move passengers below ground to a small waiting area where a polished and modern tram car glides quietly to the boarding area. The doors whisper open and people board. The doors close with computerized efficiency and the tram hums away down a dark tunnel. With a sudden flash the tram bursts into the daylight, making a quick stop at the Löwenhaus station, then crosses an architecturally stylish bridge over the River Inn – treating riders to a postcard view. The train disappears into another Hungerburgbahn - Newtunnel and begins a steep ascent up the mountain. Individual pods on the tram change their angle, keeping the riders comfortably level, but this action is so silent, so normal that people do not observe that any change in the angle has occurred. Now the tram re-emerges into the light, the Alpenzoo station is just ahead. To the passengers, the sights and buildings of Innsbruck begin to appear in miniature as the tram climbs higher. A stop is made at the Alpenzoo and then just beyond is the terminus of our ride at the Hungerburg station. From this station passengers can explore the countryside or catch a gondola to explore the top of the mountain. The Hungerburgbahn travels less than 2 kilometers and climbs 288 meters in elevation in just a few minutes.

Visitors to Innsbruck will appreciate the close to downtown station and the fast travel time up the mountain – especially if you are traveling with kids or the weather is a concern.

Reference: Wikipedia.

Zürich to Innsbruck by Train

A beautiful train ride is from Zürich, Switzerland to Innsbruck, Austria. This three and a half hour trip treats riders to comfortably sit and gaze from large windows onto blue inland lakes, green pastures, and picturesque mountain passes all set among the backdrop of the grand European Alps.

Our trip began at the enormous Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich’s main train station). We had arrived at the main station on a local train and several levels below ground. The escalator brought us to ground level where a number of trains were queued to leave for their respective destinations. A large train schedule board overhead flipped to life every few minutes to update the departure times.

The station was enormous and busy but well maintained and clean. A flurry of people passed; some briskly walked to work, others sprinted by with shopping bags, some people lugged backpacks. Vendors at stalls sold everything from sandwiches to cigarettes.

We found our ride at track #3 and boarded. The train was immaculate and spacious, which at first seemed curious since we were in the in the economy section. We found a moderately empty passenger car, stowed our backpacks and sat down at a table. A digital display over the seat stated our seats were reserved at Salzburg but that was long after we were to depart. The WC (bathroom) was very clean, well stocked with supplies and roomy. An attached Bistro car sold beer and sandwiches.

Exactly at 10:40 A.M. the train left the station. For the entire trip the passenger car gently rocked. There was little if no noise from the tracks.

The passengers on the left of the train enjoyed great views of the Zürichsee, an inland lake that stretches roughly 40 km in length. The shallow waters were blue and emerald and people were seen swimming in several areas. Sailboats were occasionally berthed just offshore. The giant lake ended and soon was replaced by a smaller but equally beautiful Walensee. Here large gray mountains plunged into the steely blue waters. After twenty minutes or so the lake transitioned to gentle fields of green were fat mountain cows grazed.

At the Buchs Station the train stopped and a small number of people transferred. Several lightly armed border police did a walk through of the cars. The train departed and within minutes passed over an emerald mountain river, this was the Rhine, one of Europe’s major rivers. The waters of the Rhine would ultimately empty in the north Atlantic Ocean. At this location the Rhine marked the border between Switzerland and the small country of Lichtenstein. As we crossed over the river we saw lots of trees but soon there were houses and businesses, this soon gave away to green lush woods. After 6 km (roughly 4 miles) or so we quietly passed into Austria.

A few kilometers into Austria the train stopped at Bludenz and the border police we had seen earlier departed the train. From here the train moved further into Austria and climbed higher in elevation. The streams cascaded down the sides of mountains and the valleys became very steep; the train soon left the valley floor and snaked along the edge of the steep and forested mountain. Occasionally the trees would open and flood the car with light and astounding views of the vall

ey below. The train disappeared into a tunnel and for the next five or so minutes only darkness could be seen outside our well lighted passenger cars. The water in a bottle sitting on the table in front of me slowly changed from being slightly angled down at the front of my bottle to that of the back and suggested the train’s ascent had now become a decent. We had just passed under the continental divide of Europe! From here all of the streams and rivers would flow to the Mediterranean.

Shortly after exiting the tunnel the small trickles of water now tumbled in a different direction. Snow still dotted the high peaks. The train raced down the mountain side and the scenery whizzed past. Here the road and the tracks seemed to dance down the valley sometimes sharing the same side of the river. The barren high peaks turned into forests and the small waters of the neighboring stream became the mighty Inn River, another major river of Europe.

Mountains still bordered both sides of the valley and large green pastures opened up as the valley became more wider and more gentle. The valley itself was flanked by peaks that towered 2,427 meters (7400+ feet) overhead. In the distance was Innsbruck. We gathered our belongings as the train pulled into the Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof. We stepped off the train into the historic and beautiful city.

The train is more affordable if you can reserve ahead of time. If you purchase tickets at the Bahnhoff the day of travel the price can double, costing 75 Swiss Franks (or $100 US Dollars). Make reservations online if possible. The trip was from Zürich to Innsbruck was 284 km (176 miles) with only 7 stops. It is a very fast, clean and excellent way to see this amazing countryside.