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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 I noticed that one of the seats was removed from his room and had been replaced by cabinets.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 to Oakland.

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 evening.

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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