Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Wednesday & Thursday, August 28 & 29, 1996
Those of you that have read many of my travelogues know that I am singing
the praises of Amtrak and rail travel in 90% of those writings. I have
even been accused of overlooking the failings of Amtrak. That really is a
fair criticism of my writing.
Click here for photos & more info about Coast Starlight.
Even if no service or help was provided to me on the train, I would still
enjoy the trip because I just love travel by rail. The ammenities and
services provided by Amtrak are just frosting on the cake for me. However,
I do realize that these "extras" are what make rail travel a special
experience for many train travelers.
Thus, I must warn you that parts of this particular trip were disappointing.
There wasn't any disaster. There wasn't a major delay that ruined any plans.
There weren't any outright rude Amtrak employees. I think my disappointment
lies in that the service on the Coast Starlight did not live up to the
Superior Quality Service that the Coast Starlight boasts about and
that I had become accustomed from about a dozen trips over the year.
I found out on short notice that I would need to make a quick trip to
San Luis Obispo for business. Last Sunday I read in the newspaper about
a couple that took the Coast Starlight just up to San Luis Obispo. Since
I like traveling in the Coast Starlight, I decided to see if any Economy
Rooms were available for the next day. To my surprise, there was at least
one available. It was Room #3, usually one of the first rooms that gets
assigned by Amtrak reservations. This probably was available because of
a last minute cancellation.
I set up my reservations to take the San Diegan Express which featured the
California Cars from Fullerton to Los Angeles, then go by Economy Room on
the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. If on-time, I'd
arrive there about 2:50 in the afternoon. That would give me enough
daylight to complete my task and return on train #776, the Central Coast
San Diegan, that left the following morning at 7 A.M. and would bring me
all the way back to Fullerton by 1:13 P.M.
I made advance reservations to rent a car from Thrifty Car Rental. They
have a curtosy phone right in the station and a van that comes down to pick
you up. Their office is only 1/2 mile from the station so the wait isn't
very long. You can rent their smallest car for about $33 per day. I
rented a Neon and found that it had plenty of room for my needs. For an
extra $10, you can drop the rented car off at the train station. This is
really helpful if you are taking the 7 A.M. train since the Thrifty office
doesn't open that early!
Usually I have been making these business trips with one of my associates.
We usually hit several cities on each trip. Since this was going to be a
"one city" trip, I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to handle by myself.
Also, my associate was on a train trip vacation to San Diego for a couple
of days. He was scheduled to return from San Diego on the same day that I
was scheduled to return from San Luis Obispo. Some urgent items had come
up while he was away, including this trip to San Luis Obispo. We would both
have plenty to keep us busy when we got back!
I got to the Fullerton Station about 7:30 A.M. and parked my car almost at
the top of the long-term parking garage. If you ever park there, don't
panic if you can't find a space on the lower levels. Those lower levels
are always filled by commuters and you are not likely to find any spaces
until you get almost to the top of the garage. If you take a train trip
that lasts more than 3 days (72 hours), get a special pass from the Amtrak
ticket agent to place on the window of your car. Without it, you are likely
to get a ticket or towed away! You can park in the garage overnight, but
do not park in the lot overnight! The city of Fullerton tows all the cars
away that are still in the lot between 2 A.M and 5 A.M.
I purchased my ticket and watched a couple of Metrolink trains go by before
my train arrived. I got on and immediately went upstairs in search of one
of the single seats at the rear of each California Car. I was surprised to
find that I had no problems obtaining one. I sat on the north side of the
train facing the main platform of Fullerton Station.
When I looked out the window, I was shocked to see my business associate
getting off that same train with his family! I later found out that he
had cut his vacation one day short because of all the urgent work that he
knew had just arrived. He planned to drop his family off at home and get
right to the office to get an early start on that work with me!
He didn't see me on the train, but I used my cellular phone to immediately
leave him a voice-mail message about what had just happened. I explained
that I was making this trip since I hadn't expected him back yet and had no
expectation that we would be able to work together today. He was quite
surprised to find I was heading out, especially on the same train that he
just came in on! As can be expected, he was also disappointed that we would
not be able to work together that day after he had cut his vacation short by
a day. He was able to catch up on a lot of that urgent work that day anyway,
some of the items that we don't work on together. So returning early from
his vacation really wasn't a wasted sacrifice.
Back to the train trip . . .
I was surprised to pass a Coast Starlight consist on the way to Los Angeles
Union Station. I know they only have 4 Pacific Parlor Cars and all are
needed at all times since it takes 4 trains to operate the Coast Starlight
route. I wonder what they are using in place of the Pacific Parlor Car on
the one missing it?
When I arrived in Los Angeles Union Station, my Coast Starlight was waiting
in the station. I like it when it is already there for my connection. I can
just get off the San Diegan, cross the platform, and board the Coast
The Conductor on the San Diegan had announced that passengers transferring
to the Coast Starlight would find the sleepers at the front of the train
and the coaches to the rear. I wondered if the Conductor knew what he was
talking about since I had been on the Coast Starlight more than a dozen times
in the last year and the sleepers were always at the rear of the train.
When I arrived in Los Angeles Union Station, sure enough, the sleepers were
at the front of the train! This is evidently a policy change and not a
one-time event. There are signs mounted along the L.A. Union Station
platform showing the position of each sleeping car. These have been
remounted to show the position of each sleeping car at the front of the
train instead of at the rear of the train. We later passed the southbound
Coast Starlight in San Luis Obispo and its sleepers were also at the front
on that train.
At first, I thought I might have lucked out in getting a room with an ocean
view. To get an ocean view, I've always used the rule-of-thumb "even up,
odd down." An even number room gets you an ocean view when heading north
on the Coast Starlight. An odd number room gets you an ocean view when
heading south on the Coast Starlight. I figured that rule might have gotten
reversed since the sleepers and coaches were reversed. I had room #3 and
a reversal of the car orientation would give me an ocean view! No such luck.
The order of the cars had been changed to put the sleepers up front, but the
orientation of the cars remained the same. In a way, I guess that is good.
At least the "even up, odd down" rule still works!
I asked my Car Attendant about the change in the order of the cars. He was
new with the Coast Starlight and had no knowledge of the previous order.
The first thing I always look for when I board the train is my first cup of
coffee. To my disappointment, none of the Attendants in the 3 Sleeping Cars
was preparing any. I don't know why this is. Coffee used to always be
ready when I boarded the Coast Starlight, but now I seldom find it available
in the Sleeping Cars at the start of the journey in Los Angeles.
Thus, being in the very last Sleeping Car, I started my long journey to the
Pacific Parlor Car. There is usually coffee and some muffins available there.
To my surprise, the Pacific Parlor Car was filled to capacity with Amtrak
staff! They must have some sort of training session going on. Every seat
was taken! I figured I better wait till that training session was over.
On the way back through the 1431 car, there was a strong stench of cigarette
smoke. The Coast Starlight is a non-smoking train. I didn't see anyone
smoking, but someone must have been smoking quite a bit before anyone told
them of the policy.
The Car Attendant and Chief of Onboard Services introduced themselves to me.
I didn't catch their last names, but I think their first names were Fred and
Bob. Both seemed very friendly and expressed their desire to see to my needs.
Although the train seemed pretty full, there were a few empty Economy and
Deluxe bedrooms when leaving Los Angeles.
Lunch started to be served by 11:45 A.M. At that time I wasn't very hungry.
Around 9:45 A.M., I had gone down to the Pacific Parlor Car and had a couple
of mini-muffins and a cup of coffee. I also asked the Pacific Parlor Car
Attendant for an empty "take-out" cup & lid and I brought a second cup of
coffee back to my room.
Around 12:30 P.M., I went down to the Dining Car just to put my name in.
It was over an hour before my name was called. That was fine with me as
I wasn't hungry till then. They do call your name for lunch over the P.A.
system that is heard throughout the train. Thus, you can go back to your
room or the Pacific Parlor Car without worrying about missing your call
At lunch, I sat with a couple originally from Germany. They came to the
United States about 40 years ago just after World War II. The man had been
with the German army on the Russian front. Unfortunately, he had lost much
of his hearing during the war, most of it in the ear on my side. That made
conversation with him a bit difficult.
They had boarded the train in Glendale and were going to visit one of thier
sons in Eugene, Oregon. He would rather be flying or driving, but the wife
was much happier on the train. They had gone by train once before, over 4
years ago. On that trip, they couldn't get sleeping accommodations going up,
nor even get seats together. I don't think Amtrak would ever keep a couple
apart on such a long trip today. Except on short commuter runs, you can
almost always find seats together for two people. They were able to get a
large bedroom on the way back on that previous trip. They did enjoy that
part of the trip and is what inspired the wife to take the train again.
They were very surprised by the excellent quality of the food in the
Dining Car. They had assumed the food would be similar to that served on
airplanes. I explained to them that there is a full galley downstairs in
the Dining Car and that the chefs are trained in cullinery school. They
acknowledged that would explain the high quality of the food.
After lunch, I went to my room to relax and enjoy the short remainder of
The end of the journey also proved to be interesting. I went downstairs
to the door just as the train arrived into San Luis Obispo. The Conductor
had announced this would be a smoking stop and that all doors would be open.
A few other people from my car had also lined up to get off. I think they
all just wanted to smoke or stretch their legs.
We waited for a few minutes, but the Car Attendant never came to open the
door. Soon, we saw people from other cars of the the train walking by.
Not wanting to violate any Amtrak rules, we decided to obey the warning
on the door and not open it ourselves. Instead, we all went upstairs and
to the next car to disembark.
This was one of those very few times that I have not left a tip for my
Car Attendant. I could not see how any tip was earned in any manner at all
on this trip. I understand that Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo is a fairly
short trip compared to the complete Los Angeles to Seattle route, but lets
look at what service could have been rendered . . .
I'm always very pleased when coffee is ready in my sleeping car when I
board the train. That gets me off to a great start and makes me feel
really welcome on board, much more so than the Car Attendant coming through
to shake my hand after the train is 30 minutes enroute. I did ask the Car
Attendant about the availability of coffee anywhere on the train. He just
said "Not Yet", and I did not see any evidence of any brewing all the way
to San Luis Obispo except in the Pacific Parlor Car. In the past, Car
Attendants usually have a pot ready when I board, and in a couple cases
when the coffee wasn't ready, offered to bring some to my room from the
Pacific Parlor Car.
Normally, the Car Attendant will come to your room about 20 to 30 minutes
before your stop and check to see if you have any bags that they can help
you with. If you wish, they will carry your things downstairs and then
take them off the train when the train stops. Except for the one required
greeting in the morning, I did not see my Car Attendant for the rest of the
trip except to occassionally see him walk up and down the corridor or sitting
in his room. There was no offer to see if I needed any help with my bags.
I didn't, but it would be nice just to see that he was concerned.
On every trip I have ever taken, the Car Attendant has always handed out
a souvenier at the end of the trip. The souveniers on the Coast Starlight
are quality items emblazened with the logo of the Coast Starlight. These
are not cheap 25 cent souveniers that they give away. I've gotten several
bottles of champagne, each with 2 glasses during the holiday season. At
other times I've gotten pocket flashlights, pens and keychains. I have
purchased promotional souveniers for my own company and I can tell that the
Coast Starlight purchases top of the line quality souveniers to give out.
I think this was the first trip ever that I have not received a souvenier
on the Coast Starlight.
I think to culmination of my disappointment with the service on this trip
was the Car Attendant not even showing up to open the door to let me off
at San Luis Obispo! I may have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe he suddenly became ill before we got to the station and didn't have
enough time to let another staff member know to cover for him. In any
case, he wasn't there at the door when I got off to accept a tip even if
I had intended to give him one! As a side note, the Conductor never even
showed up to my room and my ticket never got collected. Sometimes it is
possible to miss the Conductor on the trip and not get your ticket collected,
but usually the Car Attendant will take care of that when you get off. But
this time, no Car Attendant and no collected ticket.
Once again, I'd like to summarize that I found the service on this particular
trip on the Coast Starlight so disappointing because it is usually so
Superior! The Superior Service is the claim to fame of the Coast
Starlight and I have found that the Coast Starlight usually lives up to
that reputation. But when Superior becomes the norm, anything less becomes
Right after I left the northbound train, the southbound Coast Starlight
pulled into San Luis Obispo. This was an interesting situation. Passangers
that were smoking or stretching their legs, had to make sure they stayed
real close to the train. The southbound Coast Starlight became a barrier
between the station and the northbound Coast Starlight! They did warn
everyone about this. If anyone wasn't listening, they would soon find
it just about impossible to get around the southbound Coast Starlight to
get back onto the northbound Coast Starlight.
Picking up the rented car from Thrifty went like clockwork. San Luis Obispo
is a small tourist and college town. It didn't take too long for me to
figure out the layout of the whole town. I was able to complete my task
In the evening, I picked up some fast food and went by the station to wait
for the northbound Central Coast San Diegan to arrive. I was very surprised
to see the number of people emerging from the traintracks at the north end
of the station just out for an evening stroll. I also saw a lot of bicycle
riders zooming out of from the train tracks on that side of the
station. I was wondering if there was some trail along the tracks. I'm
going to have to investigate some time. I'd be very surprised if these
pedestrians and bicyclists are just going up and down along the side of
the tracks. That would seem to be a bit dangerous and I had never seen that
many people walking or riding along the tracks in my area.
The train arrived pretty much on time. It was a really long train with
locomotives at both ends. I took a few pictures of the train. The train
looked eeire just lit up by the lights of the station platform at night.
There was another railfan at the station with a radio and a 35mm camera
on a tripod taking lots of pictures.
At night, they lock the whole train up in a special fenced area. I made
note of the position of the Custom Class car which I would be taking in
The morning train left at 7 A.M. on time. I slept much of the way even
though I had a seat on the ocean view side. I was pretty tired and have
never gotten used to enjoying the view from the tiny windows on the Amfleet
cars. I really wish they would run the California Cars all the way up to
San Luis Obispo. With the big California Car windows in coach and the
special Observation Lounge, it would make for a very scenic ride.
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