Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Friday, May 10, 1996
Before I forget, let me give credit where credit is due. The upgraded
service, unique menus, the Pacific Parlor Car, the afternoon wine &
cheese tasting, the onboard entertainment, and all the effort to make
the Coast Starlight truly a cruise on land is the brainchild of
Brian Rosenwald, the Product Manager for the Coast Starlight.
I took the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles up to Jack London Square
in Oakland, California just so that I could get onto the California
Zephyr at the start of its route. My destination was Denver, Colorado,
but that was irrelevant. My purpose was to ride the California Zephyr
through the Sierra-Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.
I've taken the Coast Starlight many times since my first train trip,
but this was the best yet! Since I had booked this trip pretty far in
advance, I had Economy Sleeper number 2. From my experience, Amtrak seems
to book the Economy Sleepers starting with the lowest room number and work
their way up. Since Economy Rooms 1 through 10 are on the upper level and
11 through 14 on the lower level, the lower level can seem like a ghost
town when you ride on a fairly empty train. Don't worry about that on the
Coast Starlight! Ever since the upgrades they made to service and
the increased marketing effort, the Coast Starlight runs as a pretty
full train, especially on weekends.
I'm always pretty please to get an even room number when heading north on
the Coast Starlight or an odd number when heading south. That means
that I've got the coastal side of the train and will be able to view the
beautiful scenery of the Pacific coast for hours right from my room! But
having room number 2 also meant that I'd be right across from the Car
Attendant who always has room number 1.
My Car Attendant on this trip was John Etz, but he just called himself
"Jay". On and off between his duties on the train we got to talk about a
number of things. I noticed that one of the seats was removed from his
room and had been replaced by cabinets. I didn't remember seeing this
on my previous trips on the Coast Starlight. Jay said that several
of the Superliner Cars had been built this way, but it was done without
getting any input from the Car Attendants themselves. Most didn't like
it because it meant that they would then have to sleep on the upper bunk
instead of the lower bunk during their rest period. This made it more
difficult for them to get out of bed during the middle of the night when
called by a passenger. It also cut down significantly on their work
space. If I understood Jay correctly, Amtrak was starting to take out
the cabinets and put the seats back into some of the Car Attendant rooms.
If so, that could explain why I hadn't noticed such an arrangement in
room 1 of other Superliner cars.
I asked Jay if he was a regular on the Coast Starlight. He said that he
wasn't because and was on the "extra board" out of Los Angeles. That means
that they assign him wherever they need him. When Amtrak service staff
attains their seniority, they are usually able to bid for a train of their
choice and are able to work that train if there is an opening and their
seniority is ahead of others that are seeking the same position. Jay
didn't have enough seniority yet, so he pretty much has to work where needed.
I asked if he would pick the Coast Starlight if he could. He said
that he liked the Coast Starlight, but would rather work the
Southwest Chief because he preferred Chicago over Seattle. I was
a little bit disappointed. The Coast Starlight has assembled some
of the finest staff to be found anywhere in Amtrak and Jay would certainly
fit in with the type of people sought by the Coast Starlight
management. But then again, all Amtrak lines could certainly use more
people like Jay!
Not everything that happens on a train is wonderful. The experience I
am about to relate is not really bad, but could have been better. I know
that when I travel alone, seating at every meal is like playing the
lottery. I'm definitely going to be sitting with 3 other strangers.
When I'm seated, it may be in the middle of a conversation. If so, I don't
have any problems finding somewhere to join right in. Sometimes I'm the
first at a table. When I am, I generally make some small talk with others
as they arrive. At a table of 4, usually 1, 2 or all 3 other people are
"talkers" and the whole dinner and after-dinner conversation gets to be
quite interesting. Even if I sit at a table that has 3 stone-dead silent
people, I'm pretty good at getting some conversation going in short order.
This time, at lunch, I lost the seating lottery. I was placed as the 8th
person into a party of 7 Chinese travelers that stretched across 2 tables.
When I heard even the younger children only talking in Chinese, I suspected
I was in trouble. When the adults had problems ordering from the menu, I
knew I was at a table where very little or no English was spoken! One of
the talents that I definitely lack is the ability to communicate with
people that don't speak English. I even have problems communicating with
people with strong accents! The only accents that I don't seem to have
problems with are Indians from India. After taking 2 years of French and
3 years of Latin which resulted in no ability to speak or read any of it,
I discovered long ago that linguistics was not my forte! At any rate, that
turned out to be one of the quietest meals I've ever had on a train.
Dinner turned out much better. I was seated with 3 other interesting
people and we chatted on and off through most of the meal. But let me
tell you about the meal! I ordered the beef tenderloin. That was the
best steak I have ever had on a train! Actually, it was the best steak
I've ever had anywhere! I don't know what was in the juices, but the
blue-cheese sprinkled on top added a really interesting twist to the
flavor. It was served with peas and carrots. I was so impressed with
the beef tenderloin that I got thi name of the chef, which was Armando
Prado. Everyone at my table also commented on the food and each had
something different. So, if you ever find yourself on the Coast
Starlight with Armando Prado in the galley downstairs, be prepared
for one of the best meals you have ever had on a train!
This trip was a bit different for me than most of my other trips on the
Coast Starlight. I usually got off at San Jose, California and
transferred to a CalTrain to get up to our office in Mountain View.
This time I was going right past San Jose and all the way up to Oakland,
about another 40 minutes away. I had been telling one of my friends all
about Amtrak who had never been on a Superliner before. I arranged for
him to join me in my Economy Room in San Jose and ride the train just up
He got on in San Jose and we embarked on a quick end-to-end tour of the
entire train. We quickly worked our way down to the Coach section of
the train and then slowly worked out way back. To the rear of coach is
the Sightseer Lounge Car with the Bar and Cafe downstairs. Next, to the
rear of that is the Dining Car. We moved through there pretty quick as
I knew he wouldn't have time to pause and eat and also tour the train
all in just 40 minutes! We next moved to the Pacific Parlor Car. We
did pause there and get 2 bottles of the feature beer of the month. This
month it was "Red Wolf Ale". I'm glad we did that. The only beer I usually
ever drink is light beer. I don't usually like dark beer, but the
"Red Wold Ale" was pretty good and I actually bought some after returning
home from my trip. We then moved on to my Economy Room.
If you have read all of my web pages, you have come across my discussion
of people that are "Train People" and people that are not "Train People".
Unfortunately, my friend is not a "Train Person". Oh, he thought the
train was O.K., but he didn't understand what my enthusiasm about trains
was all about. An excitement about train travel is not something that
needs to be explained or can even be explained. Either you ride on a train
and suddenly understand what the excitement is all about, or you just aren't
a train person. No amount of explaining in the world will make you one.
Some people can't stand trains and you'll never get them on another one
after their first ride. Those people are pretty rare. Some people fall
in love with trains after their first ride and you will have difficulty
getting them to travel any other way again. They will even take every
opportunity they can to find reason to travel, and to do that travel by
train. I'm one of those. Most people, however, won't love or hate a
train after their first ride. Most will find their accomodations far
superior to airline travel, regardless of whether they are traveling
coach or first-class. You don't feel like cattle or a sardine on a train,
two common complaints heard of airline travel. But in the rush pace of
today's modern world, most people just can't stand the time it takes to
get from one place to another by train.
I'll take spending time on the train any day instead of the massive hours
that Americans waste sitting in front of the television. Time is valuable
to me also. To avoid time away for the office, I try and schedule as much
of my journey as possible to overlap the weekend. Where that is not
possible, I flip my schedule around. I watch the scenery during the daylight
hours and set up my computer once the sun sets ... or even do my work while
passing endless desert or farmland. All I've really traded for my time on
the train is the time other people would be watching television in the
For now, I've also wrapped my vacations and the school breakes with train
travel. Our vacations start and end with travel by train to get to and
from our vacation location. This gives my wife and I a large amount of
stress free time and a lot of quality time with our children. When we are
all traveling together as a family, there isn't much else to do but to be
a family during that travel time!
At any rate, I think I have digressed a bit from my Coast Starlight
review. I want to just sum things up at this point for now by once again
encouraging you to try and make the Coast Starlight part of your
plans to travel by Amtrak. It is the top of the line in service, cuisine,
and only second to the California Zephyr for the breathtaking beauty
along the way. If you travel on the Coast Starlight, you will know
what all of Amtrak could be and what the future of Amtrak should become.
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