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Fun train to Reno

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Fun train to Reno

Postby ERIC » Tue Jan 24, 2006 8:37 am

Fun train to Reno
Enjoy Sierra ride minus snow chains -- or designated driver

Spud Hilton, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

Rolling through the mountains west of Donner Lake.

Reno -- The idea was undeniably romantic: riding a train that snakes leisurely through the treacherous beauty that is the High Sierra in winter, like Bing Crosby's yodeling party clickity-clacking toward Vermont in "White Christmas."

Only with a lot more booze.

Oh, and more dancing, more music, more snow, really bad drinking jokes, better views (sorry, Vermont) and, truthfully, a whole lot more fun.

There is, it turns out, a reason it's called the Reno Fun Train.

Started in 1963 to get gambling hordes up to the ghost town that is Reno in winter, the Fun Train has grown into a mobile tailgater for 680 people, a 15-car block party that attracts Bay Area and Sacramento Valley riders with stunning scenery, plenty of entertainment, cheap drinks (BYOB allowed) and the promise that no one has to get out and put chains on while 18-wheelers thunder by.

I climbed on board at Emeryville for a three-day weekend -- leaving on Friday and returning Sunday -- to indulge in three travel rarities: a journey definitively more important than the destination; a chance to travel overland without the drudgery; and sightseeing in the Sierra with no danger of rear-ending anyone.

The first order of business, once I stowed my luggage above my seat and met Eddie, the affable cabin attendant for Car No. 8, was to explore the train's attractions. Passenger cars are standard, older Amtrak, with airline seating (only with more room in the seats and aisles), but the 1940s-era Piano Lounge Car and the Dance Car are privately owned and leased for the season, nostalgic reminders of rail travel's Golden Age. Navigating presents few dilemmas, being limited to forward or back, and for the most part, the ride is smooth. (There are times, however, when the train is like an airplane with bendable joints -- the turbulence is side to side instead of up and down.)

I spent the first few hours watching Crockett, Martinez, the Sacramento Delta, Suisun and Davis drift by from the Dance Car, where the main attractions are the full bar and the dance floors on either side of the FunAtics, a four-piece dance band that converts to a strolling Dixieland combo during depot stops. With each stop, the cabins began to fill up with riders, large picnic coolers and a festive atmosphere. I asked Eddie, a Fun Train veteran in his seventh season, if riders are generally happier than on other Amtrak routes.

"Most people bring their own liquor and food," he said. "It can get pretty rowdy."

Crossing a flooded Yolo Bypass, we were suddenly engulfed in fog and, with water seemingly right up to the tracks on both sides, we might as well have been sailing on the bay. The six car-choked lanes of the nearby Yolo Causeway were a million miles away.

By the last pickup stop in Roseville, the train was a diesel- and Bud Light-fueled party, with packs of revelers, drinks and shakers in hand, roaming the aisles in search of dancing, views and other partiers. Soon, the windows filled with views of lodgepole and Jeffrey pine on one side and steep, rocky drop-offs on the other. In almost every valley or gorge was a skeletal hulk of a crashed pickup truck clinging to a slope, the surest sign yet we'd entered rural hill country. We had a few thousand feet of altitude gain and drop before Reno, with 400 tons of engines pulling 1,100 tons of cars that were, like some passengers, fully loaded.

When the Southern Pacific and the Reno Chamber of Commerce started the service, the Fun Train was a bit tamer, with sing-alongs and party games. A new operator tried to make it a deluxe private train in 1990 but went bust. Amtrak gave the contract in 1993 to current operator Key Holidays, which added meals, strolling musicians, the dance band and theme trips (Hawaii, Country, Mardi Gras). In 1996, Key Holidays added the Snow Train, a more sedate midweek trip (Tuesday through Thursday) that appeals to seniors and families (see "If you go").

These days, the Fun and Snow trains deliver about 11,000 passengers per season into Reno, where they drop about $6.4 million into the economy. Large groups and repeat customers are the Fun Train's bread and butter, but even as a lone first-timer, I was welcomed and befriended. According to Key Holidays president Jade Chapman, repeat riders typically go through an evolution, riding alone or as a couple the first year, then with neighbors or friends the next, and equipped with margarita mixers and decorations after that.

Based on some of tales I heard on board, there is such a thing as too much fun. The train, apparently, is a bastion for amorous passengers trying for membership in the Clickity-Clack Club, a rail version of the Mile High Club that gives new meaning to the term "train coupling." Some groups have managed to get banished from the Fun Train.

Most of the fun, however, is pretty clean, says Chapman. "We call it the greatest party on wheels. You just can't experience it on any other train."

High in the mountains, I gravitate toward the Piano Lounge Car, where the furniture is comfy and the pianist knows a dizzying array of tunes (who knew there are words to "Begin the Beguine"?), and to the Dome Car. The mood calmed some as we climbed, which I attributed to the tremendous mountain vistas rolling by -- alpenglow on the snow-capped peaks above us -- and fatigue: Serious partiers had been going four hours without a break.

The ride home on Sunday was more of the same, albeit with daylight views of the Sierra's eastern slopes and a slightly quieter mood among those who'd spent Saturday seeing small fortunes won and lost. When we descended into the valley, a summer-camp vibe set in as new friends realized the party was almost over. I figured I'd spent maybe an hour in my seat the entire round trip.

Next time, I thought, I probably wouldn't use it at all -- except maybe to store the margarita mixers and decorations.
If you go


Key Holidays, (800) 783-0783, Leaves Friday, returns Sunday. Must be 21. Light dinner going to Reno, deli lunch on return. Stops at Emeryville, Martinez, Suisun, Roseville and Sacramento. Train only, $199 per person; train and two nights lodging, $229-$369 per person, double occupancy, depending on hotel. Dates: Friday; Feb. 10 and 24; March 3, 10, 17, 24.


Leaves Tuesday, returns Thursday evening; no age restriction. Deli lunch on return train. No stop at Roseville. Train only, $185 per person; train and two nights lodging, $199-$289 per person, double occupancy, depending on hotel. Jan. 31; Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28; March 7, 14, 21.


Most Amtrak parking lots are tiny; get a ride there or take an Amtrak shuttle bus. Make sure the bus driver knows you're on the Fun or Snow Train and not a regular Reno train. (The driver who picked me up in San Francisco insisted I had missed the correct bus and would miss my train -- until a dispatcher cleared up his confusion.)

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