Scottish Thistle Rail Excursion
Los Angeles to Oakland, California
Steve's Travelogue - August 24, 1999
Ray and I rode in The Scottish Thistle private railcar from Los Angeles to Oakland, California on the tail end of the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The Scottish Thistle has an open platform which provided an experience quite different from any of my previous journeys on the Coast Starlight! The luxury and comfort of the private lounge, the personal attention that the crew is able to provide to the small group of passengers, and the excellent dining, makes this one of the most unique and enjoyable ways to travel by rail!
1999 AUG 24 TUE 05:00 AM Pacific Time Anaheim CA
My plan was to get up and get out of the house early enough to take care of a few details at our office in the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot before heading to Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). I managed to get out of my house by 5:15 A.M., but was held up for a short while at a railroad crossing near my house that I cross each morning on my way to the office. The Amtrak Southwest Chief and Orange County - Inland Empire Metrolink trains use these tracks, but the delay was a longer freight train. Actually, the fastest route from my home to the TrainWeb is office parallels the route of the Southwest Chief for almost 10 miles and croses it 3 times!
Unfortunately, about half way to the office, I realized I forgot something that would be needed in the office while I was gone. I went back to the house and didn't get on my way back to the office again until 6 A.M. Whenever I'm heading to the station to catch a train, I usually pad an extra hour into the schedule. This has saved me more than once when I've run into unexpected traffic, had a flat tire, or as in this case, forgotten something at home!
1999 AUG 24 TUE 06:30 AM Pacific Time Fullerton Santa Fe Depot CA
One thing good about arriving early in Fullerton is that there is still plenty of parking space in the garage! The garages are the only place in Fullerton where you can park near the station for up to 72 hours. Parking is not permitted overnight in the lots and many spaces are restricted to 3 hours. You can obtain a permit from the Amtrak Ticket Office to park in a Fullerton garage for more than 72 hours.
Ray Burns arrived at 7 A.M. After taking care of a few last minute details in the office, we purchased tickets to use on the 7:35 A.M. Metrolink train to Los Angeles. We decided to take the 7:35 A.M. Metrolink train instead of the 8:05 AM Amtrak San Diegan Train #769 which makes a guaranteed connection to the Coast Starlight. We wanted to get into the Scottish Thistle to take the 360 x 360 immersion photos before other passengers arrived.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 07:35 AM Pacific Time On-board Metrolink
Quite a few people get on the train in Fullerton, but enough got off to leave a few seats available in the front car that we boarded. I knew the Scottish Thistle, with its open platform, would be at the very end of the Coast Starlight. The Coast Starlight would be facing in the correct direction to head right out. Since all the tracks at LAUS are stub tracks, The Scottish Thistle would be at the end of the track in the station. The Metrolink train pulls all the way forward into the station. Thus, we wanted to be as far forward as we could be in the train to end up as close to the end of the Coast Starlight as possible.
We sat at two seats right by the door in the Metrolink train. These two seats were about the only 2 seats on the train that don't have any windows. The only way we could see out was through the tall window in the door across from us. However, because of the layout of the car, these seats were the only ones that had a lot of space for the 3 pieces of luggage that we brought with us. Being a commuter train, the Metrolink trains were not designed for passengers with luggage and space is at a premium. We were just happy to find seats where we could place our luggage on the floor near us without it being in the way of other passengers.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 08:25 AM Pacific Time Los Angeles Union Staiton (LAUS), CA
We arrived into LAUS about 10 minutes late due to some track work. After getting off the Metrolink train, it was only a few steps to the end of the tracks. There was The Scottish Thistle, just a couple of tracks over, also right at the end of the tracks as I had expected! We took a few photos of the car before boarding.
Ray and I boarded The Scottish Thistle and found Stephen and Meg McCormick, already seated in the lounge watching television. Stephen and Meg, who I believe are 15 and 13 respectively, are the grandchildren of Dean and Mary Helen McCormick, the owners of the Scottish Thistle private railcar. They cooperated and gave us a hand in setting up the lounge so that we could take the 360 x 360 immersion photo.
It was a good thing that we did not arrive any later than we did! No sooner did we start taking the 360 x 360 immersion photos of the car that other passengers started to board! The first two passengers to board were Cameron Beach, Chief Operating Officer of the Sacramento Regional Transit District, and Kevin Shanahan, a distributor of Cummins Diesel products. Doug and Judy Rand arrived on Amtrak San Diegan Train #769 from Santa Ana. Judy did the interior design of The Scottish Thistle. Everything in the Scottish Thistle gave the impression of luxury and comfort without appearing to contrast with the original theme of this retired Canadian National Business Car. Judy obviously has an excellent eye for just what is needed to upgrade a private car interior while preseving the theme of the car.
In addition to the above ten passengers in the private car were the two crew members: Marc Roumiguiere and Kevin Sanders. Marc was the chef on this trip and prepared a delectable lunch and dinner for us that was as appealing to our sensual pleasures as it was to the fulfilling of our appetites! Marc has been a Chef and Steward on a number of private railcar excursions and is available to provide hospitality services for rail charters. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Kevin Sanders has been working onboard for Amtrak for about 13 years and works on private railcars during his time between Amtrak assignments. Kevin provided absolutely first class service to the passengers on this trip!
1999 AUG 24 TUE 09:30 AM Pacific Time Depart LAUS, CA
We departed on time out of Los Angeles! There were five passengers out on the open platform as we departed from the station.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 09:48 AM Pacific Time Glendale, CA
The passengers on the open platform were speaking with a local railfan while the Amtrak Coast Starlight boarded more passengers in Glendale.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 10:00 AM Pacific Time North of Glendale, CA
Ray and I went out on the open platform for the first time since our departure. The train was a bit north of Glendale and not moving.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 10:56 AM Pacific Time North of Simi Valley, CA
The train is running a little late and not quite up to Camarillo yet. If we were running on schedule, we would have been just about up to Oxnard by now.
Dean McCormick explained that this railcar was built in 1959 and spend most of its years in service at Winnipeg for the Canadian National railroad. It was used as a business car for the Vice President of that division. In the spring of 1993 it was taken out of service and placed on the auction block to be awarded by a closed bid. Dean looked over the car for the first time in December of 1993 and won the closed bid auction for the car. He took possession of the car on May 1, 1994. The first private trip for the car was from Chicago to Fondelack behind the 261. It was later taken to San Antonio, Texas to be made Amtrak compatible. This consisted of adding the ability to run on HEP (head end power), MU for push-pull operation, and a 27-Pin cable that is used for the intercom system. It wasn't until July of 1996 that the Scottish Thistle started to be used for regular charter service and rail excursions.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 11:30 AM Pacific Time North of Oxnard, CA
Forward of the Scottish Thistle railcar is the Glacier Park Pullman Sleeping Car, another privately owner railcar. There are two bedrooms in the Scottish Thistle. Dean and his wife, the car owners, slept in the main bedroom last night and the grandchildren slept in the second bedroom. The passengers remaining onboard tonight and those boarding in Emeryville tomorrow will be sleeping in the Glacier Park for the rest of their journey.
The Glacier Park is considered by many to be the best privately owned Pullman Sleeping Car available for charter. I don't remember the exact floorplan, but I do remember there were four of the small bedrooms, one double bedroom, and four or five of some middle size bedrooms. The double bedroom was about twice the size of a deluxe bedroom on a Superliner Sleeper. The beds were stored away during the day and that made for a very sizeable stateroom! Ray and I had our suitcases and the camera case for the 360 x 360 immersion photo camera. There was plenty of room in there to make that our base of operations so that we could set up the camera before we brought it to the other rooms to take photos. There was a very long sofa in the room, a couple of chairs, and even a work table! The room had two windows facing outside, each which were at least as large as the window in the Superliner Sleeper Deluxe Room, plus a large window that faced into the hallway. You could see through the hallway window and out the windows on the other side of the train.
Some of the middle size bedrooms were larger than the Superliner Deluxe Sleepers and some were about the same size. The four small bedrooms were about the same size as the Standard Bedrooms in the Superliner Sleeper, but instead of having two seats, they only had one seat and a toilet and fold down sink. All of the larger rooms had separate walk-in bathrooms with fold down sinks.
The combination of the Scottish Thistle Business Car and the Glacier Park Pullman Sleeping Car made an ideal combination for this multi-day excursion! Although most of the passengers that were on the train were only going as far as Oakland, others would be boarding in Emeryville and Denver to go on to Seattle and eventually back to Los Angeles.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 11:45 AM Pacific Time North of Oxnard, CA
I am standing in the vestibule of the Glacier Park Pullman Sleeping Car. The vestibule windows are wide open on both sides of the car. These windows are not like the smaller door windows in the Superliner Cars which are diligently kept shut. These windows are almost as large as the entire top half of the door! There is a cool breeze as we travel along the Pacific coastline. The train is passing by the ocean and the beach. Sometimes the tracks are right down on the sand of the beach itself and we are just a few feet from the surf breaking on the beach. Other times we will cross a trestle high above the water as our tracks hug the cliffs above the beach. Traveling this route inside the Coast Starlight is scenic and dramatic enough, but having large open windows provides the sea breeze, the sounds of the surf on the beach, the smell of the fresh ocean air, and the sounds of the steel wheels on the rails.
When I was getting ready for this trip, I didn't think I'd be getting a look at any new scenery since I have taken the Coast Starlight route many times. However, I had forgotten that the Scottish Thistle had an open platform and would be right at the tail end of the train! Once we started traveling along some of the more scenic parts of this route, I realized I was seeing this route from a totally new angle! I had never watched the scenery and tracks recede behind the train as we sped along this route.
In the photos and video clips linked to this travelogue you will find photos of many of the familiar Coast Starlight areas, but taken from the back of the open platform instead of out of a side window. In the video clips you can see the tracks receding as we travel north. There are clips of us heading through tunnels, over bridges and under overpasses! There are also a number of still shots of tunnels and tunnel exits as well as other interesting sights along the rails all taken from the back platform at the end of the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
The open platform was not the only place that afforded an excellent view. The lounge area is at the rear of the car with windows facing out both sides of the train and out the rear of the train! Sitting anywhere in the lounge, you can easily see out the back of the train as well as out either side of the train.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 12:40 PM Pacific Time Santa Barbara, CA
There were a tremendous number of people on the platform at Santa Barbara, either boarding the train or saying their good-byes to others that were boarding. You can see the crowd in one of the photographs that I took. I also took a photo of the Santa Barbara Amtrak Station that is being restored. The station is not open yet, but it is already looking quite revitalized!
Because of the length of our train with the two private cars, the train blocked State Street and the traffic was starting to back up. I was surprised that our train was that long. There were no express cars on this train and the train would have even been longer had there been express cars!
Ray told me to look out the window to see another train that was approaching from behind us. I was in the vestibule of the Glacier Park Pullman Sleeping Car at that time. I was expecting to see a train approaching on another track. Instead, what I saw was a northbound Amtrak San Diegan approaching the station on the same track that we were on! That train was getting closer and closer to the rear of our train! I hurried to the rear platform to watch the northbound Amtrak San Diegan continue to approach the rear of our train. It came within about 30 feet of the rear of our train before we started to pull forward. Then, the San Diegan continued to follow us as we started to head out of the station. The distance between us and the San Diegan started to increase again as we picked up speed and the San Diegan came to a stop in the station. I had never seen one train approach another train on the same track that close before unless they were about to couple!
1999 AUG 24 TUE 02:10 PM Pacific Time Near Goleta, CA
We just finished lunch. Lunch was served in a single seating with all ten passengers around the dining room table, 4 on each side and one at each end of the table. That is about the maximum number of people the dining room can serve comfortably at one seating. When there are more passengers onboard, multiple seatings are done to accommodate everyone. There are a number of large windows on both sides of the Dining Room which provides for a wonderful view while dining. One wall of the dining room is totally covered with a floor to ceiling mirror. The other side of the dining room has upper and lower cabinets with a large long mirror between the cabinets. The mirrors on the opposite walls work together in reflecting the room and the windows to the outside making the room appear very large and roomy.
The lunch itself was a deliciously prepared pasta. Vintage red or white wines were served during the meal. The desert was ice cream garnished with blackberries served in a wine glass. Since the McCormick grandchildren were onboard, the chef even baked fresh chocolate cookies! The cookies were offered to everyone and they were delicious!
One item that I found a little disconcerting was that lunch was served during what I consider the best two hours of scenery during this journey: two hours of time that the Coast Starlight hugs the Pacific Coastline while traveling from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. Personally I would rather have spent this time out on the open platform watching that view from outdoors. I suppose it is difficult to come up with a better time to serve lunch. Any earlier and people would not be very hungry, any later and it will be getting too close to dinner time.
After lunch, I went out on the open platform. The train was still traveling by the last bit of Vandenburg Air Force Base and we saw a couple of the satellite launch towers. I am still very impressed by the experience of the open platform. The train ride seems so much more real when you have the wind in your face, can hear the wheels on the rails, and have a totally unobstructed view of everything around the train. You can even see toward the front of the train from the side of the open platform, but you do have to be extremely careful since sometimes there is very little clearance between the side of the train and structures along the side of the tracks.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 03:08 PM Pacific Time San Luis Obispo, CA
We pulled into San Luis Obispo just a bit early and then left just a few minutes late. Everyone got a chance to step off the train and walk about for a few minutes. Ray and I took a number of photographs of the train and the private cars using the new pedestrian bridge and local moutains as a backdrop. Links to these photos can be found at the bottom of this page.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 08:00 PM Pacific Time South of San Jose, CA
The Steward came in and bonged the chimes to call us to dinner. We started dinner with a salad. Wine was served with the opening of dinner. Fresh bread and rolls were served. The main course was a shiskabob with steak, onion, bell peppers which was served on a bed of rice. Bundt chocolate cake with a coffee flavoring and fluffy cream topping was served for desert. Everything served was excellent and all the passengers gave their compliments to our Chef, Marc Roumiguiere.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 09:15 PM Pacific Time San Jose, CA
We had arrived into San Jose during the middle of our dinner. At the end of our dinner, we were still in San Jose. That seemed a bit odd as the Coast Starlight usually doesn't spend much time in San Jose. Near the conclusion of dinner, the Steward came running in announcing: "The train is gone!".
We all sat in bewilderment for the moment as Kevin, our Steward on this trip, elaborated. Evidently the private cars had been disconnected from the Coast Starlight while we were eating dinner and the rest of the Coast Starlight departed for Oakland and points north. We were all curious as to why we did not feel the train disconnect and why we did not hear the air dump as the brakes locked. Kevin said that there was a locomotive backing down the tracks towards our cars.
Our inquiries revealed that the UP did not want a train of our length going into Jack London Square. To solve this problem, Amtrak removed the lead Genesis locomotive from the Coast Starlight, Engine #88, and removed our two private cars from the rear of the train. The Coast Starlight then proceded north with the remaining two locomotives.
Amtrak Genesis locomotive #88 was then backed down the tracks and attached to just our two cars. Two engineers were brought down from Oakland by van to man the locomotive. Thus, with one locomotive and two private cars, our train became Amtrak Special #88 East ! I tried to take some photos of this "private train", but it was too dark where we were positioned south of the San Jose station platform. I was able to take some photos once we reached the Oakland Amtrak Yard where there was better lighting. Links to those photos can be found at the bottom of this page. You can see that our train consisted of just Genesis locomotive #88 and the two private cars.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 09:20 PM Pacific Time Santa Clara, CA
Our three car train headed down the tracks until we got as far as the Santa Clara Caltrain Station and home of the Santa Clara Railroad Club and the South Bay Historical Society. We stopped there for quite some time. A southbound Amtrak Capitol went by and then a southbound Capitol went by that was pulled by an Amtrak F40 locomotive. Someone from the railroad club shouted over asking jokingly if we had any more room onboard! After a while, a few of the members walked over to our open platform and chatted with us.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 09:30 PM Pacific Time North of Santa Clara, CA
The train proceded north to just past where the two routes from San Jose to Oakland split. One branch is the Hayward line that the Amtrak Capitols use. The other branch is often used by the Coast Starlight, but the Coast Starlight can use either branch at the discretion of the Dispatcher.
There was a freight train ahead of us blocking the tracks. There was another freight train heading south from the Hayward line that had waited for us to cross the switch before being able to procede south. The Dispatcher decided that it would be faster for us to let the southbound freight come out of the Hayward line, then have us make a reverse move past the switch again, and then head up the Hayward line to Oakland. That was the plan, but it seemed like we had to wait forever even after the southbound freight had cleared the switch! At first we didn't know what the freight train was doing since it was dark and he was mostly out of view. The road crossing gates remained down for what was probably longer than 30 minutes after the freight train cleared the crossing. Later we found out that the freight train was actually doing some switching and dropping off some cars.
Most of the other people had started to watch a movie in the lounge right after dinner. What did they watch? "Under Siege 2" where a cross-country train is taken over by terrorists! I wonder if they ever played that movie on an Amtrak train? Maybe that would be as unlikely as an airline playing an airline hi-jacking or airline disaster movie as the in-flight movie! The passengers destined for Oakland didn't think they'd be able to see the entire movie before we arrived in Oakland, but they were able to do so with plenty of time to spare!
While waiting for permission to make our reverse move, we were talking to one of the Amtrak engineers who waited with us at the rear of the train. Evidently Amtrak is making plans to modify the crew change points along the Coast Starlight route. Right now, crews run between Klamath Falls and Sacramento, then from Sacramento to Oakland, and then Oakland to Santa Barbara. Finally, the last crew is between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The new arrangement keeps the Klamath Falls to Sacramento section, but the next segment will go from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo and then the last segment from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles.
1999 AUG 24 TUE 10:56 PM Pacific Time North of Santa Clara, CA
We finally started into our reverse move! The reverse move ended at 11:01 P.M. and we started to head forward again north on the Hayward Line at 11:02 P.M. A Genesis can sure move fast when it is only pulling two passenger cars! We soared through the night at an unbelievable speed! Road crossings just zipped by! No sooner would we hear the bells of the crossing gates than they would be going up and vanishing down the tracks behind us! The track inspection spotlight was turned on so that we had a good view out the rear of the open platform even in complete darkness. I don't think a train has ever felt so fast to me, even when I traveled at 135 M.P.H. on the Northeast Corridor! It was a great ride and we all loved it!
1999 AUG 24 TUE 11:30 PM Pacific Time Oakland, CA
I didn't mark the exact time that we arrived at the Amtrak Jack London Square Station in Oakland, but it was around 11:30 P.M. or a little after. Cameron Beach and Kevin Shanahan got off at the Oakland Amtrak Station. Ray and I rode in a private car before, but never in one that was staffed by anyone other than the owners. It suddenly occured to me that it was probably proper etiquette to tip one or both staff members. It definitely seemed it would be proper to tip the Car Attendant just as one does on an Amtrak train, but does one tip the Chef? As you know from reading my travelogues, I usually tip the staff generously for good service. Kevin, the Car Attendant for this trip also got off the train at the Amtrak station. Thus, I didn't even have the opportunity to take the proper action once I worked my way through my perplexity! I'm sure I'll run into Kevin again and will have to make it up to him at that time. I never did figure out whether it was proper to tip the Chef and will have to educate myself more in the etiquette of private car travel!
Everyone except for Dean and his wife would also be getting off in Oakland, but all of the passengers that remained on the train after the Amtrak Oakland stop were going to spend the night on the train and then fly home in the morning. After spending the night in the Oakland Amtrak Yard, the Scottish Thistle would be hooked up to the California Zephyr along with several other private cars to continue on a rail excursion to Denver, Seattle, and then back to Los Angeles. More passengers would be picked up in Emeryville and Denver for other segments of this excursion.
Ray and I decided to ride the Scottish Thistle all the way into the Amtrak Yard so that we could take a few photos of this unique three car train in the light of the yard. You can view those photos by clicking on the links below.
Once we were done with the photos, we headed in the direction that we thought was the exit to the Amtrak Oakland Yard. After a while, we were concerned that we might be going the wrong way and burying outselves deeper into the yard. We asked one of the Amtrak employees how we might be able to get a taxi to pick us up and how to get to the exit of the yard. He did us the favor of looking up the phone number of a taxi company and calling a taxi for us. The Taxi company knew exactly where to go as I guess they are often picking up Amtrak crew from the yard.
The Amtrak person told us that the taxi would pick us up by the crew base which was just past the commissary. He asked if we knew where the crew base was. When he saw our bewilderment, he asked if we knew where the commissary was. Even though we were in this area during the Amtrak Historical Society conference a couple of years ago, we had to plead ignorance. He was kind enough to walk us all the way to where he could clearly point out the crew base building. We waited there and the taxi showed up within a few minutes and took us to the Best Western Inn At The Square.
When I got to the hotel, I realized that my hat and shirt had become filthy from standing out on the open platform at the end of the train! That, however, was a very small price to pay for the very unique experience of riding on an open platform at the end of the train!
After this experience, I am totally sold on excursions in private railcars! I'm sure I'll be making quite a few more such journeys in the future as time permits. The personal attention of travel on a private railcar is something that is impossible to attain even when traveling First Class in an Amtrak Sleeping Car. If you like to travel by rail but have not yet traveled in a private railcar, then it is something worth your time to investigate!
The Scottish Thistle will feature future rail excursions that you can book, or you can even charter the entire car for your own private party and excursions to most anywhere! The links below will provide you with more information about charters and upcoming excursions.