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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 time!

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:

P40    800
F40PH  254
Baggage car  1241
Transition Sleeper  39024
Superliner II Sleepers
     Texas          32111
     New Hampshire  32097
     Indiana        32082
Pacific Parlor Car  39971
Diner
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 managed.

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 hours.

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):

P40   801
P40
Coaches
Sightseer Lounge Car
Diner
Pacific Parlor Car
Superliner II Sleepers
     Georgia
     Tennessee
     Ohio

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 feeling.

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 time.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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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