If, like me, you are a fan of Vancouver and of rail travel, the announcement last year that passenger service would resume on the Seattle - Vancouver route after more than a decade was good news indeed. In addition, the new service, called the Mt. Baker International, uses Amtrak's brand new Talgo "Pendular" equipment, manufactured in Spain and designed to tilt on its carriages when going around corners. That allows faster travel on existing rails -- other high speed systems, such as France's TGV trains, require their own roadbeds with attendant astronomical construction costs. The Talgo's manufacturer claims speeds of upwards of 150 mph in European trials on existing roadbeds, but that of course is on their better-maintained roads. In this country Amtrak limits the Talgos to something like 79 mph, but the potential is there for higher speeds in the future.
The new service is part of a promising development in this region spearheaded by the State of Washington's Department of Transportation. That perceptive agency is pushing a "Cascade Corridor" of enhanced passenger rail service between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, a 470 mile-long corridor where the bulk of Oregon's, Washington's, and British Columbia's population lives. So far Oregon and the Province of British Columbia have signed on to the idea, but the lion's share of spending on roadbed, rail crossing and rolling stock upgrades has been from Washington. In addition, that state is underwriting the service to Vancouver and is ordering its own Talgo equipment for future use! As a citizen of Oregon, a generally progressive state, I hope we get on board with more funding soon. Like so many other parts of the nation, our highway system is increasingly congested and comparatively little room for expansion is available in the airports. Passenger rail enhancements make perfect sense -- luckily Washington's D.O.T. sees the logic in increasing traffic in an underused mode.
One annoyance with the new Seattle - Vancouver service is that it does not connect with any other trains into or out of Seattle. Since Washington is underwriting the cost they have a major--and completely justified-- say in scheduling, but it seems ridership might be even higher if one could connect more conveniently at Seattle. As it stands now, the Mt. Baker International leaves Seattle at 7:45 am, arriving Vancouver at 11:40, and then leaves Vancouver at 6:00 pm arriving Seattle at 9:55. If you're a Seattlite wishing to spend a few hours in Canada it's wonderful; the rest of us have to spend a night in The Emerald City if we wish to make the entire journey by rail. Amtrak does have thruway bus service that connects with the Coast Starlight right at Seattle's King Street Station, so it is possible to reach Vancouver fairly easily. I hope that at some point in the future Washington state will see fit to make rail connections just as convenient.
Anyhow, I had a pleasant choice of trains between Portland and Seattle. We have a number of options: another Talgo, called the Mt. Adams, leaves at 6 pm and arrives at 9:50; the thrice-weekly Pioneer leaves at 3:05 pm arriving at 7 pm; the all-coach (and lounge/cafe) Cascadia leaves at 8:05 am arriving at 12:45; and the famous Coast Starlight leaves at 3:40 and arrives at 8:10. Since I hadn't ridden that train since its recent upgrade, that was my choice. I looked forward to enjoying dinner aboard, then would stay at a modest motel in Seattle and head to Canada the next day. My excietment increased when my travel buddy and I picked up our tickets at Portland's Union Station the agent told us she had made the Vancouver trip a short time earlier and it had been gorgeous.
The Starlight arrived on time in Portland and discharged at least a hundred passengers; a similar number boarded for the trip north. Once on board my buddy and I headed for the diner to make our dinner reservation and then settled in the lounge car to watch the departure from Portland, which involves crossing two rivers and traversing "The Cut," a 70 foot-deep bit of civil engineering through North Portland dating from the late 19th century. We were delighted to find the car nearly empty, so we stayed put to enjoy the panoramic views. The only diner space available was at 4:30, was a bit early for our tastes, but we both preferred to eat aboard rather than in Seattle. Our table companion was a construction worker heading home to Tacoma for the weekend from a job in Portland. He said he much preferred relaxing and eating dinner on his way home rather than fighting traffic most of the way up Interstate 5 on a Friday evening. This is only a tiny anecdote, but it is an elegant rebuttal to the notion that only retired folks and hopelessly nostalgic rail buffs frequent passenger rail service in the U.S!
We both ordered steak and found it quite good. The servers were friendly and efficient, even taking time to keep our iced teas replenished in spite of a nearly full diner. After dinner it was back to the lounge which was still nearly empty. The scenery is unremarkable until the train reaches Puget Sound north of Olympia. You also get views of Tacoma's soaring Narrows Bridge, the Tacoma Dome, and finally the Seattle skyline. King Street Station is at the south edge of downtown, and the skyline makes a dramatic backdrop as you disembark. An aesthetic problem is that station's ugly drop ceiling, added in 1962 for the World's Fair in an attempt to make the grand old station look "space age." Plans are afoot to restore the structure and make it a ground transportation hub; perhaps in time it will resemble Portland's stately Union Station _ (a bit of civic boosterism: our station, built in 1896, is the oldest continually-used rail terminal west of St. Louis and was recently restored. It also has the only Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge on the West Coast.)
When we arrived back at King St. Station the next morning, we discovered at least 100 fellow travelers heading for Vancouver or northern Washington. When the departure was called, a Washington Department of Transportation official took our tickets and also told us of an interesting offer: it seems the Talgo people sent along a sleeper with the coaches and buffet cars Amtrak and Washington had ordered. Because of contractual and union rules Amtrak was unwilling to use the car as a sleeper but it was interested in renting the compartments out strictly as day rooms for a $40 surcharge. The ticket taker said we didn't have to decide until we were aboard; a conductor would gladly show us the rooms first. He then asked where we wished to sit on the train. We asked for seats on the left-hand side, which would give us views of Puget Sound. The Talgo cars appear a bit narrower than standard U.S. passenger cars, so the seats are only three abreast arranged as doubles (on the right side) or as singles. That seems very sensible; when traveling alone having a seat all to oneself is quite pleasant. My friend and I gave up sitting together to enjoy the view, but the seats were close enough that we could converse easily.
The Talgo has a distinct "Euro" feel compared to Superliner equipment; each car carries an electric sign displaying its destination and glass partitions separate the vestibules. Both the Seattle-Portland and the Seattle-Vancouver Talgo runs carry diners, called bistro/diners in the Continental tradition. These are very logically laid out cars: one half is a counter with five or six stools, bench seats along the walls, and small cocktail tables -- reminiscent of the snack cars I remember the Great Northern using when it ran the Empire Builder. The other half of the car is tables, although again because of the narrower cars they were two-person on one side and four-person on the other. Amtrak has equipped them with cloth table coverings, metal flatware and a fairly good quality plastic plates. Breakfast offered three options: a frittata, French toast, and an oatmeal/muffin combo. We both went with the French toast, which was fine, although it seemed our orders were microwaved rather than grilled. Perhaps the bistro/diner kitchen is tiny, or perhaps Amtrak is trying to keep costs under control by not carrying a full kitchen staff. But when you realize that most Amtrak four-hour daylight runs only carry a lounge car where you can buy sandwiches and burgers and hotdogs, having to endure microwaved food seemed worth the price to enjoy a full sit-down diner.
After breakfast we asked the conductor to show us the sleeper, called a "Gran Class" sleeping car consisting of five compartments complete with toilet and shower. The compartments were very reminiscent of Superliner Delux Bedrooms, although none of the Gran Class rooms can be combined into a suite. The Gran Class bathrooms seemed larger than those on a Superliner -- it seemed like a normal-size adult could easily use the shower! My friend is as avid a rail buff as I am so we decided to splurge and paid $20 each for the room. If I were travelling alone I don't think the $40 surcharge would be worth it, although if a person wanted to get some paperwork done it might make sense. Having your own room is always fun of course, but the regular Talgo seats are comfortable and noise in the coaches is well damped. As it stands any fares Amtrak takes in on the sleeper are gravy, since it costs them nearly nothing to operate the car. (It carries no attendant nor does it require any additional staff) The conductor told us it makes just as much sense to use the car as to store it somewhere. In my opinion they would get more use out of it if the surcharge were something like $25 for a day room, but then Amtrak has operated for twenty-five years without my advice so perhaps they have their reasons.
The Mt. Baker's route is scenic for nearly its entire run. Immediately after leaving King Street Station it enters a mile-long tunnel and emerges at the north end of downtown running parallel to the Puget Sound waterfront. It hugs the Sound through the cities of Edmonds, Everett, Mt. Vernon, and Bellingham, and then turns inland a bit for the final run into Vancouver. The Bellingham station is very well designed and looks to be part of a transportation hub, since it appears like a bus station is nearby and it is steps from a large ferry dock where boats for Alaska depart daily.
We pulled into Vancouver's Pacific Central station right on time and cleared customs and immigration quickly. This station is Via Rail's western terminus as well as that of a private company that runs 1950s-vintage coaches from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies. The station is south and east of downtown, but is only 200 feet (or should I say 65 meters) from a station of Vancouver's excellent Skytrain, a heavy rail system that runs underground in town and on elevated tracks in the burbs.
All in all Amtrak has a winner with the Talgo equipment and with the Mt. Baker International. The run is scenic and makes an excellent alternative to a generally boring 150 mile drive from Seattle. The equipment is posh and the diner/bistro car is a definite step up from Amtrak's Lounge/Cafe cars. Now if they could find a way to let those of us from beyond Seattle or Vancouver make better connections to the train. . . _ Pat Casey