SUMMER 1997 AMTRAK TRAVELOGUE
PART III - AMTRAK COAST STARLIGHT
by Carol Larsen
SATURDAY, JUNE 21, 1997
This was my first ride on the northern leg of the Coast Starlight, my
previous trips having been between Oakland and Los Angeles. This would also
be my first encounter with all the new amenities instituted since my last
ride in 1994. Since I make a point of trying to experience as many aspects
of Amtrak travel as possible, I was especially looking forward to the Pacific
Parlor Car and the Superliner II sleeper. With all of Amtrak's hype about
the Coast Starlight, I was prepared for something special. I only regretted
that I wouldn't be on board for the entire route from Seattle to Los Angeles
or San Diego.
As 2:00 PM approached, the Portland Metropolitan Lounge began to be more
crowded. Just as we were expecting our train at any minute, the sky filled
with clouds again, followed by a driving rain. Betty (one of the Seattle
Misconnects) and I went to our suitcases to dig out rain jackets. I no
sooner had mine on and the hood released from the collar than the rain
stopped and the sun returned. Oh well, whatever it takes! It was a little
cool outside anyway.
A conductor, Alfonso, had been through the lounge, taking our tickets and
issuing boarding passes. The train pulled in at 2:25 PM (1/2 hour late) and
we were told that our sleeper was at the head of the train. Unlike boarding
in Chicago, our boarding passes were collected when we boarded by our sleeper
attendant, Paula. Aaron, a trainee assisting her, lifted my suitcase on
board and positioned it in the luggage area. The Superliner II luggage area
has a space designed specifically for upright cases like mine.
While I don't mind the orange, red, and gold decor of the Superliner I cars,
blue is my favorite color. The blue, lavender, and grey decor of the
Superliner II cars is much more soothing and gives the room a more spacious
appearance. I also liked the new room configuration. In addition to the
usual flowers (these were pink and white carnations with fern and baby's
breath), I found a number of items unique to the Coast Starlight. A "Welcome
Aboard" message card beside the vase described the services available in the
Pacific Parlor Car. Two foil-wrapped Ghirardelli chocolate mint squares were
on the table as a regional delicacy. There was also a folder containing
Coast Starlight stationery and a plastic-wrapped toiletries kit in a wicker
basket with a washcloth, two bars of soap, lotion, and shampoo. A full-color
multi-fold Route Guide described the history of the route, services provided,
amenities, technical information about the locomotives and cars, plus the
usual photo tips, maps, and stop descriptions. Mine said "southbound," which
I assume means another one says "northbound," to eliminate having to read the
route guide backwards. As I began to settle in, Paula and Aaron came around
to introduce themselves.
I noticed something strange about the drinking water in this sleeping car.
There was a clear plastic cover screwed to the serving area, precluding
access to the water. Commercial drinking water was provided in plastic
bottles of the "sport bottle" type. This was the only time I encountered
this type of water arrangement in a sleeper, which caused me to wonder if the
regular drinking water system had become contaminated.
We were stopped in the station until almost 3:00 and had no sooner started to
move when there came an announcement by Chief of On-Board Services T. J.
Howard that all First Class passengers should proceed to the Pacific Parlor
Car for wine tasting. Coleen (another of the Seattle Misconnects) was behind
me, so we decided to sit together. The upper level of the Parlor Car was
packed, with a long line by the cheese and fruit buffet. An announcement was
made of additional seating and buffet items in the lower level. We found
Betty and Bob there and joined them. Betty and Bob are from Indiana and
would be spending time in Los Angeles, where they hoped to be picked for a TV
game show. Coleen was headed home, near San Bernardino, after attending a
glass collectors' convention in Pennsylvania.
Wine and champagne tasting take place on alternate afternoons in the Pacific
Parlor Car. The next day there would be champagne tasting, but my plans were
to be off at Sacramento and on the California Zephyr by then. Paula served
the wine while the car steward gave a commentary on each variety. We sampled
three types of wine while eating berries, melon cubes, and a variety of
cheeses and crackers. The first was a dry white wine, next a Riesling, and
third was a red Carrignon wine. I like most wines, but most wines make me
feel almost instantly sleepy. Thus, I usually order White Zinfandel or some
type of blush wine which is lighter and doesn't seem to have that effect. We
concurred that we liked the Riesling best and also that we felt ready for nap
The dining car steward, Tom Cardona, had taken our dinner reservations, but
there wasn't room left for more than one or two at the most choice seatings.
Bob and Betty chose 6:30 and Coleen and I decided to dine together at 5:45.
That gave me about 1-3/4 hours to wake up! In what seemed like no time at
all, they began calling the 5:00, 5:15, and then 5:30 reservations. When
Coleen and I were seated in the diner, we were placed at a table with Milton
and Esther, two other Seattle Misconnects. According to her name tag, our
waitress was I. Felton. Esther and Coleen selected the Columbia Valley
Chicken Breast and Milton and I had the Crater Lake Beef Tenderloin. For
dessert I really splurged with Carmel Turtle Ice Cream Cake! That's
"Carmel," not "caramel." These dishes are all named for locations along the
route. However, it did have caramel in it, along with chocolate, nuts, ice
cream, frosting, whipped cream, etc.
Coleen and I spent the rest of the evening in the Pacific Parlor Car,
visiting and watching the beautiful Oregon scenery unfolding in the waning
hours of daylight. The perimeter of the ceiling in the car was decorated
with small white lights much like Christmas tree lights, which increased the
ambiance and gave the entire car a festive appearance.
Since the train was due to arrive at Sacramento, my planned departure point,
at 6:30 AM the next morning, I thought I should turn in early. However, I
decided to wait until after our service stop at Klamath Falls, OR where I
could walk the platform. We were running slightly late, so this wasn't until
10:30 PM. I didn't take the time to walk the entire length of the platform
in the dark, but copied this much of the consist:
Baggage car 1241
Transition Sleeper 39024
Superliner II Sleepers
New Hampshire 32097
Pacific Parlor Car 39971
Sightseer Lounge Car
5 more cars including coaches and possibly some MHC's (HBD axle count had
indicated 60 axles)
SUNDAY, JUNE 22, 1997
I awoke at 3:20 AM and found that the train was stopped, not at a station but
in a forested area. I had the feeling that I might have awakened due to the
train being stopped for some time, since the gentle rocking of a moving train
was now my usual sleeping mode. I wondered if we were on a siding, waiting
for a freight train to pass, and thought it unusual that I hadn't heard some
amount of chat on my radio. Checking the radio to see if I might have bumped
it and caused the scanning to stop, I noted that the battery pack had become
discharged during the night. Pulling out my accessories bag, I changed packs
and the radio came to life.
We were stopped in the middle of nowhere due to a bridge problem near Gibson,
CA. On Saturday, an excursion train had crossed, at which time they thought
they detected a swaying motion in the bridge. Officials had examined it,
feeling it was not advisable to let further trains cross until the bridge
inspectors could determine the reliability of the structure. This being the
weekend, it could be Monday before the inspectors might arrive. Since all
this had taken place during the day, it was unclear to me why Amtrak hadn't
been notified by the host railroad before the Coast Starlight was almost to
the bridge. Be that as it may, I was glad that they had questioned the
condition of the bridge before it might have been too late!
It was determined that the train would be backed up to Dunsmuir, CA. From
there our passengers would be bussed to Redding, CA, the next stop south of
the offending bridge. We would continue south on the previously northbound
train which was stopped there. The northbound Coast Starlight passengers
would be bussed from Redding to our train, where they would continue their
trip north on our previously southbound train.
Here was a perfect example of why I sleep with my radio earphone plugged into
my ear! I knew what was taking place, instead of just wondering, and
possibly before any other passenger on the train. Having been previously
employed in the transportation industry, monitoring rail communications
serves to satisfy my interest in the mechanics of the trip: passenger
relations, resolving of situations, and the events that contribute to varying
from the schedule.
I have always considered being on a late train as providing me with "bonus
time" on the train. I never plan my trips with close connections that might
be cause for worry. On trips when my train was running late, I never before
had the opportunity to witness arrangement changes. Either I was detraining
before the point where the connections were to have been made or I was in
Chicago, hurrying to catch the next Hiawatha (which makes several round trips
a day) without time to see how the delayed passengers with once a day
connections were directed in the station. I recall detraining in Columbus,
WI once when the eastbound Empire Builder was over five hours late. At
Milwaukee, Amtrak officials were to board the train and instruct passengers
as to what arrangements were being made regarding their being late for
connections. I wished I could have stayed on board to see how this was
While all the decisions about bussing were being made, I decided I should get
up. I had planned on rising around 5:00 AM anyway to allow time for packing
up my gear and possibly having some sweet rolls from the Pacific Parlor Car
before my scheduled 6:30 AM stop at Sacramento. I could see now that this
wasn't going to happen and that I would most likely not have enough time to
revisit the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento before catching
the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City at 1:20 PM. Well, I had been to the
museum before and would have another opportunity to see it, maybe even as
soon as next year. Instead I would have the opportunity to experience first
hand how passengers are handled and situations are resolved when there's a
major problem with the route and/or schedule.
About the time the train began backing up, an earlier than normal
announcement was made on the P.A. as to what was happening and advising the
passengers to be up and ready to detrain when we reached Dunsmuir. We
arrived there at around 5:30 AM. At that point it was decided that chartered
buses would be more readily available if we continued north to the next city,
Klamath Falls, OR, where we were at 10:30 PM on Saturday night! Now I began
to wonder about the status of my Zephyr connection if this procedure took too
long. Oh well, there was still plenty of time. I was having bonus time on
the train and the opportunity to have breakfast with Coleen, Betty, and Bob.
Sometime between 8:45 and 9:00 AM, we arrived at the station in Klamath Falls
where I saw a couple of charter buses parked. I had heard on my radio
earlier that we had 112 First Class passengers and 146 passengers in coach, a
total of 258. I did some quick figuring. Based on an average charter bus
capacity of 46 passengers, that would require six buses.
While we waited for the next move, various members of the service crew were
milling about. Apparently the entertainer on this run had been a young woman
in western attire wearing a name tag that said "Susie Rainbow." I hadn't seen
her performing in any part of the train where I had been. The only clue I
had was that a lot of children were sporting painted faces later in the day.
Perhaps the entertainment was geared to the children only.
It took until 10:20 to unload all the luggage and decide which passengers
would board the first buses until more would arrive. I believe all those on
the first buses were First Class passengers. The service crew was staying
with the train, so we would have a new service crew when we reached Redding.
I hoped that everyone would remember to tip their attendants before we left.
By now I was certain that I wouldn't make my Zephyr connection. However, I
settled down in my seat on the bus, satisfied that once at Redding, Amtrak
would bus all the Zephyr passengers to another point where we could still
catch our train. This strategy is used frequently. I pulled out my
schedules and map, selecting Reno, NV as the likely place to which we would
be bussed. If we reached Redding around 12:30 as Northstar bus driver Mike
Thompson estimated, we would have over five hours to reach Reno before the
Zephyr's scheduled 5:45 PM departure, a trip that should take less than four
Even with a rest stop at a McDonald's in Weed, CA, we arrived in Redding at
12:40 PM. Three of the six buses were now there. Our drivers told us we
could leave the buses while waiting to receive our instructions. An Amtrak
representative, Scott, was there to supervise the arrangements. He said that
we would shortly be told to return to the buses so each person could be
contacted individually about their connections.
Nothing was happening very quickly. Knowing from my experience in
transportation that Scott had a lot to deal with, I didn't want to make a
pest of myself like some of the people were already doing. However, I
approached him long enough to ask if they planned to bus the Zephyr
passengers to Reno to meet the train. He said the Zephyr had left Sacramento
on time at 1:20 and that it was still being decided what to do about the
Zephyr passengers. He didn't know how many Zephyr Misconnects there were,
although he estimated around a dozen. He also didn't know who they were
since he didn't have the passenger data that the train crew would normally
have had. He did say that they were going to bus the San Joaquin passengers
to make their connections. Whether they were to be bussed from Redding or
from Sacramento, I don't know. So now I was officially a Misconnect like my
other friends on the train had been.
By then it was about 1:30 PM, the buses were still there, and we would yet
have had time to reach the train in Reno or else the service stop in Sparks,
NV. However, the train crew instructed us to board the train and take the
same room assignments in the same car numbers as we had on the other train.
We never were directed to return to our buses for instructions or contacted
individually (or even as a group) about our connections, as Scott had said we
would be. I looked around for Scott, who had disappeared in the meantime,
because I didn't think the Zephyr Misconnects should be boarding the train.
I was the last person to board, since I was certain that the only logical
course would be to bus the Zephyr passengers from Redding.
Consist of the new southbound train (not necessarily in this order):
Sightseer Lounge Car
Pacific Parlor Car
Superliner II Sleepers
I asked my sleeper attendant, Michael Duran, a couple of other attendants,
and the Chief of On-Board Services, Matt, if they knew what provisions were
being made for the Zephyr passengers. They hadn't been informed, other than
for all the passengers to board, and no conductors were in sight. One of the
other attendants I spoke to was Marvin James, who had been my car attendant
on the Southwest Chief a few years ago. In all my Amtrak travels, Marvin is
the only service or operating crew member I have met more than once, other
than when I made a round trip on the same train route a week or so apart.
Lunch was announced, so I joined Coleen on her way to the diner. Betsy
Blair, the steward, seated us in waiter Vincent Smith's section where we had
a delicious curried chicken salad. I wanted to enjoy the fact that I was
having a bonus meal as well as bonus time on the train, but I had an uneasy
The train didn't leave Redding until 3:45. During all this time, I wasn't
able to learn anything from listening to my radio. The communications of
which I was aware were taking place on cellular phones. I thought perhaps
Amtrak intended to have any Zephyr passengers with western destinations
bussed from Sacramento to our destinations. Even though the Zephyr, if on
time, would have brought me to Salt Lake City at 4:50 AM on Monday, I didn't
care what time I arrived there as long as it was before late Monday
afternoon. There were still some extra hours to work with, although those
hours would have been my only free time during the convention week when I
could take a Grayline tour of the city.
In my quest for answers, I entered the Pacific Parlor Car where attendant
Robert Martin was holding an afternoon wine, fruit, and cheese buffet, while
Jack Davis, a magician, performed some clever tricks. It was rather noisy in
the Parlor Car, with a number of children running about. I stayed there only
because I wanted to be in a public area where I might find someone who could
answer some questions. Matt was spending quite a bit of time there and I
thought he might be given information when it was available.
As I was sitting in the Parlor Car with Coleen, Scott came through. I asked
him if they had decided how to transport the Zephyr passengers. He still
didn't know how many of us there were or who they were, but said that we
would be put up in a motel in Sacramento overnight and sent on the Zephyr the
following day. I told him that wouldn't work for me, that I needed to arrive
in Salt Lake City on Monday, not Tuesday. I had already paid for a hotel
room in Salt Lake City starting Monday night and was registered for pre-paid
convention activities that I didn't want to miss. After all my Amtrak
travels over the past several years, I guess I was overdue for a glitch in my
plans and my luck finally ran out.
I asked Scott why they hadn't bussed us from Redding to the Zephyr, but never
received an answer. I can only assume that was a major "snafu" upon which he
wasn't about to comment. He hadn't followed through on talking with us
individually as he had said he was going to do. At no time in the station at
Redding or on the train was any attempt made to locate or group the
California Zephyr passengers to discuss plans for reconciling our misconnect
problem. The decision that we could all wait until the next day had been
made without asking us or informing us.
Scott then asked what convention I was to attend. When I told him it was the
National Railway Historical Society, his mouth fell open (whatever that
indicated). I thought I might be getting someplace when he called his
headquarters on his cell phone and explained that I couldn't wait until the
next day. He said they were going to call him back and he would let me know
before we arrived in Sacramento. That never happened; I didn't see him again
for the rest of the trip.
Dinner serving began much later than normal, so my meal was interrupted by
our impending arrival in Sacramento around 8:30 PM. Michael, my sleeper
attendant, came to look for me. I hurried back to my room to gather my
luggage and prepare to detrain. Michael helped me with my luggage and
directed me to the ramp to the station. I tipped him for his efforts and
proceeded into the station, 14 hours later than scheduled.
As I questioned some of the other Misconnects, most of them didn't mind
taking the Zephyr the following day. Maybe they didn't have appointments to
keep and thought a free night in a motel and a day in Sacramento would be
fun. One couple admitted they had some plans that were being disrupted, but
they were just going to accept it. Another couple who needed to be in Denver
on Monday were told that Amtrak would fly them there. I wondered if Amtrak
would fly me to Salt Lake City. Flying is not my favorite pastime, but I was
beginning to become concerned over how I could arrive at the convention on
I have flown both commercially and in a private plane, and am not afraid of
flying. However, when it comes to choosing a mode of transportation which is
enjoyable and which I feel will be most likely to transport both myself and
my luggage safely to the desired destination, flying is not that mode! I am
constantly hearing from people of all ages that they find flying boring,
uncomfortable, and unreliable.
Then Scott showed up at the counter, about to go home for the day. When he
turned around and saw me standing next to him, his face said, "Oh no, her
again!" When I asked him if he had found out how they planned to transport
me to Salt Lake City in time for the convention, he said he had forgotten
about it! He then told the agents at the counter that I was a preferred
customer and to do anything for me that I wanted in order to get me there.
It sounded good, but as soon as Scott left I was to decide that he only said
those things to temporarily placate me until he could leave.
Each of us Misconnects were given $77 cash to pay for motel rooms at the
Vagabond Inn where the Amtrak crews stay. While airline reservations were
being made for the couple going to Denver, I learned that it wouldn't be a
direct flight to either Denver or Salt Lake City. We would have to change
planes in Phoenix, AZ--all the more opportunity for luggage to be lost or
damaged! The agent, who had supposedly checked Delta, United, and America
West, said there was no direct flight and that was the way the airline routed
the trip. I later learned that Delta had direct flights. There would be no
plans for Amtrak to bus me or two men going to Reno to our destinations, so I
asked the agent to check Greyhound for me. Despite losing a day, the men
decided to wait until the next day's Zephyr rather than ride Greyhound.
There were drawbacks to all three available options:
- I could stay overnight in the motel. There the motel van would take me
to the airport in the morning for a 6:50 AM America West flight to
Phoenix and another to Salt Lake City, arriving in mid-afternoon.
However, my luggage wasn't packed for flying. I had too many pieces of
carry-on, my suitcase contained breakable items (my Pioneer wine
glasses), and I had 25 rolls of film (some exposed) with no provisions
for protecting them. I would be taking a chance on damage to my film and
other belongings. Amtrak would pay $77.00 for the motel and I later
found out the airline tickets were $127.00. The total expense to Amtrak
would be $204.
- I could take Greyhound to Salt Lake City, but I would be on my own as far
as getting myself on the bus safely. I would have to pay for my $55 bus
ticket and cab fare to the bus depot out of the $77 motel money. The
evening bus was about to leave Sacramento at 8:55 PM, not allowing me
enough time to reach the depot. The next bus left at 2:50 AM, scheduled
to arrive in Salt Lake City at 5:15 PM Monday afternoon. The timing
would have worked, but there were other problems with that plan. The
Amtrak station was closing by midnight, so I couldn't wait there until
bus time. I didn't know if the Greyhound depot was open all night or
not. I grew up in Chicago and am leery of putting myself into
potentially dangerous situations. I felt waiting in a Greyhound case to be checked, one carry-on
(the shoulder tote), and my purse. I would just have to take a chance where
the film and the wine glasses were concerned and hope that the airline
wouldn't lose or ruin my best luggage and all the contents. It was well
after midnight by that time.
Since I had been separated in the Amtrak station from the couple going to
Denver, I didn't know what time they planned to take the van to the airport
in the morning. As we would all be on the same flight to Phoenix, it made
sense that we should go to the airport together. I didn't know how long it
would take to reach the airport, so I set my alarm for 4:30 AM to be ready to
go by 5:00 AM. If we had to be there an hour before the flight, that would
be by 5:50 AM.
After having very little sleep, that morning I wasn't my usual sunny self and
was unprepared for further surprises. When I asked the motel desk clerk when
the van would be transporting us to the airport, he informed me that the van
didn't operate before 6:30 AM. We wouldn't be able to take the van, although
the Amtrak ticket agent had told us we would. The couple had arranged for a
cab to pick them up at 5:30 AM, so I shared the cab. The cab fare came to
over $25.00 with the tip. The husband paid the cab driver and I gave him
$15.00 for my half of the fare. I carry very little cash when traveling and
those were the only denominations of bills I had, since I hadn't expected to
be taking a cab.
When we checked in with the America West agents, I was in for another
surprise. When the agent asked me how I was going to pay for the flight, I
responded that Amtrak had made the reservation and they were paying for it.
The agent replied that her list showed the reservation, but no payment
arrangements. I said that the couple going to Denver checking in at the next
agent had the same arrangements and they were already getting their tickets.
Unbeknownst to me, the Amtrak ticket agent had given them cash with which to
pay for their tickets. I had assumed that Amtrak had an account with the
airline to which the fares were being charged. Whether it was an oversight
or why he hadn't given me cash, I have no idea.
The America West agent waiting on me called Amtrak to find out about the
payment arrangements. After much being put on hold, transferring, and
conferencing, someone finally told her that I should pay for my ticket and
write to Amtrak to be reimbursed. The America West agents were extremely
nice and agreed that I should have this fare fiasco resolved then, not
carried out any longer. The agent decided to tell Amtrak that I didn't have
enough available credit left on my credit card! She was finally able to
arrange that someone from the Amtrak station would bring the cash fare to the
airport later that morning. I was now the last person yet to receive tickets
and board the plane. She gave me my tickets and personally escorted me to
the plane, even though the fare had yet to be paid. I thought that was
service above and beyond what anyone could hope to expect.
The flight took off shortly after I was in my window seat for the hour and
54-minute trip to Phoenix. When the flight attendant served beverages and
nuts, I took a diet cola and then slept for the rest of the time. That's my
standard way of coping with being in a cramped airplane seat and the boredom
of the flight. When we left the plane in Phoenix, the couple and I wished
each other good luck with the rest of our journeys. They headed for their
flight to Denver which was almost ready to begin boarding. I had nearly a 3-
hour wait before my flight to Salt Lake City would take off. Having been in
the Phoenix airport before, I knew how to find my way to the opposite side of
the terminal building to the waiting area for that hour and a half flight.
This time I had an aisle seat, so I couldn't see out the window even if I
wanted to. I passed up the refreshments and slept during the entire flight.
Upon arrival in the Salt Lake City airport, I quickly located the baggage
carousels so I would be there to grab my suitcase as soon as it (hopefully)
came out. When it finally did, I was relieved to find it intact except for
dust and one missing padlock. Proceeding to the entrance, I soon boarded the
hotel shuttle which delivered me and a load of other conventioneers and
miscellaneous travelers to the Little America Towers where I would be staying
for the next week.
Once in my room, I anxiously unpacked my suitcase to check on the wine
glasses. Whew! They were still whole! Later in the week, I shipped
them home by UPS, along with some other souvenirs and convention literature,
to lighten the load in my suitcase and eliminate the need for the extra tote.
The Pioneer wine glasses have now joined my Empire Builder wine glasses on
display in my dining room.
As to my photos, the film wasn't damaged. The first time I was going to fly
commercially several years ago, a Kodak representative told me I should carry
my camera and film cannisters in a clear plastic zip-lock bag to show the
security person at the airport. Seeing that it was only camera equipment,
security would allow the bag to go without passing through the x-ray
equipment. He said they wouldn't insist on examining each individual film
cannister. It worked for me just the way he said it would. Since then,
however, security is much more strict. For lack of any other means to
protect my camera and film this time, I tried the zip-lock bag routine again.
Security said it would have to go through the x-ray equipment anyway. When
the rules changed, the airports supposedly upgraded their x-ray equipment so
it would no longer be a risk to film. Perhaps this is true or perhaps I was
just lucky. At any rate, I wouldn't count on it if given a chance to make
safety provisions, especially in foreign countries.
Looking back on this segment of my trip, I have nothing but praise for the
regular operating and service crews on both Coast Starlight trains. They
provided exemplary service despite the additional services they were called
upon to perform in connection with disruption of their normal run, making up
rooms, meals, etc. and being deluged with hundreds of passengers whose
expected travel time had been delayed by over half a day. I can't say the
same for Scott and other Amtrak staff members who, for whatever reasons,
didn't pursue better public relations practices and arrangements that would
have been more satisfactory for all the passengers involved. As for me,
despite all the glitches, I was ultimately able to reach Salt Lake City,
while not on the California Zephyr as I was ticketed, but still in time for
the start of the convention, safely, and with my luggage more or less intact.
Nevertheless, as the convention week drew to a close, I was looking forward
to having a more uneventful ride on the next leg of my train travels.
Copyright © 1997 by Carol Larsen
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