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Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Thanksgiving Visit
Fullerton to Oakland, California
November 27 - 30, 1996

www.trainweb.com/travel/stevelog/sg961127.htm

Wednesday, 9:30 A.M. (Pacific Time), 11/27/96, Los Angeles, California

Not off to a real good start! There was a derailment of a train around Del Mar near San Diego. That has delayed train 571 and 14 for at least an hour. At 7:47 A.M., they decided to let people take the Metrolink to Los Angeles to connect to train 14. Since train 571 now has 2 or 3 coach cars from train 14 on it, they must be substituting some spare coach cars that they already have in Los Angeles. I don't know what they are going to do with the people already on 571/14 coming from San Diego, probably bus them up.

Click here for photos & more info about the Coast Starlight.

This train is a real dissapointment compared to the superlative service on the previous trip I had on the Coast Starlight! That does figure. I was traveling alone on the last trip. This time, I have my whole family with me and I always like to have them pampered and pleased.

First, the train was not ready to be boarded when we arrived in L.A. Union Station on the Metrolink train. We had to wait outside before we could board. Evidently, we arrived at our car before our Car Attendant. Thus, she didn't have time to get the car ready yet. Once we did board, the first thing I wanted to do was hang up our coats. There are always coat hangers on the seats. Not this time!

Those of you that have read my previous travelogues know that the one thing that is really important to me when I board is getting a cup of coffee. There was no coffee or juice set up nor even brewing in our car! I decided to give our Sleeping Car Attendant the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't 9:30 A.M. yet and the train wasn't officially suppose to be underway yet. I waited till 9:30 A.M., but still no coffee available yet and none even brewing yet! Unless this Car Attendant can redeem herself, she is off to a real bad start and the tip she can expect at this point is ZERO! For the four of us in the room for a day, for just minimal service she would have gotten $20 ($5 per person).

This train doesn't have the Pacific Parlor Car that the Coast Starlight is known for. It is either in for service or they are doing the modifications to add a big screen television level one of that car. Instead, there is a regular old extra Dining Car on the train. Thus, there are no ceiling windows on that car. I'll have to wait till later to find out what other ammenities will be missing due to the lack of the Pacific Parlor Car.

The last time I was on the Coast Starlight, I boarded at 9:00 A.M. and was able to go right to the Pacific Parlor Car and was served coffee and muffins. It is now 9:50 A.M. and the Pacific Parlor Car is not yet serving! They aren't set up for service yet.

I have heard that just about every Coast Starlight crew has been trained for excellent service except for one crew. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the Coast Starlight crew from hell. I hope not, but we certainly aren't off to a good start. This is such a dissapointment compared to my last few trips on the Coast Starlight. My recommendation is if you are disappointed by your first trip on the Coast Starlight, don't close the book on it! 90% of the time you will be pampered and served and have one of the best travel experiences of your life. Just try it again and you will probably have a totally different and better experience!

Wednesday, 9:55 A.M. (Pacific Time), 11/27/96, Los Angeles, California

We are still in Los Angeles Union Station. We had to wait for passengers connecting from the Southwest Chief which just arrived late now. Another problem with this particular room in this car is that the audio system doesn't seem to be working well. Usually, you can hear all the announcements very clearly if you just set the audio system to channel 1, 2 or 3 and turn the volume up. I have the volume to maximum and have tried all three channels. I have to put my ear up the the speaker or open my door in order to clearly hear the announcements.

Wednesday, 1:46 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/27/96, Santa Barbara, California

All is forgiven as far as our Car Attendant is concerned! The person that was suppose to be our Car Attendant evidently didn't show up and this gal was called late to cover for that person. Thus, she wasn't given time to get the car ready any sooner. In the morning, she said she would make some coffee and let us know as soon as it was ready. In the meantime, she told us that coffee and danish were available in the Parlor Car. I asked her about the missing Pacific Parlor Car. She said she didn't really know why they had substituted an old diner, but had heard something about the Pacific Parlor Car setting off "hot boxes" and that it was in for repair.

My kids went down and took a look at the "Kiddie Room" and were very dissapointed. They said there were only games for like 2 year olds and used coloring books. They said there was just one small television in the room for entertainment. My kids liked the Parlor Car better because there are a lot more games available there for older kids. I'm going to see if my kids can write up what they think Amtrak can do to improve the kiddie room for older kids.

Wednesday, 8:30 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/27/96, San Jose, California

What can go wrong? Those of you that have read many of my reviews of the Coast Starlight know that most of my travels on this train have been excellent.

I have had the best steak in my entire life in the Dining Car. The Coast Starlight usually has a beef, a chicken, and a meatless entree for both lunch and dinner. I often select the meatless entree and it is usually very very good. I live in southern California and most restaurants offer meatless selections, but they lack any flavor. Northern California, on the other hand, usually has meatless dishes that taste very good. The meatless dishes on the Coast Starlight are usually very very good, just like Northern California.

On this particular trip, everything that my family ate was totally bland. Worst of all, my wife ordered the fish selection at dinner and ended up with terrible stomache cramps! I can't say for sure that it was caused by the food, but it is for certain that the food wasn't very tasty. The steak was very tough and tasteless and I left most of my meals behind. I am just writing to warn you that not every trip on the Coast Starlight is going to be a dream vacation. Most of my travels have been wonderful, but sometimes it just won't work out. If you are unlucky enough to be on one of those trips on the Coast Starlight, I beg of you to try again! Most likely, your trip on the Coast Starlight will be totally wonderful.

Another thing that went wrong on our trip was that the toilet system backed up and created a flood. I didn't consider this a real inconvenience because the flood was over, the toilets were fixed, and there was no smell by the time I found out about the problem.

We arrived almost one and one half hours late into San Jose. That really wasn't bad. All our other relatives had flown in and their flights were all an hour to two hours late. In most cases, their planes left late and they weren't sitting in a nice comfortable Sleeping Car Room for the extra time taken by their journey.

I did end up giving our Sleeping Car Attendant the full $20 tip ($5 per person in our room for the day). Even though we didn't sleep overnight in the room, we did manage to set up all the beds, use the sheets and covers, and pretty much leave the room in a state that would require a bit of clean-up and set-up by her to get it ready for the next occupants. The difficulties that we did have on the train were really beyond her control and she did do everything in her power to serve us.

I've gotten many interesting "gifts" on the Coast Starlight. I've gotten key-chains, pens, flash lights, coasters, and even champaign and glasses sets when we traveled last New Years! This trip, our Car Attendant gave us one of the best Coast Starlight gifts, two fold-up white umbrellas with the Coast Starlight logo! These alone are probably equal to the value of the tip and we were all more than pleased with this particular souvenier!

The one really great thing about his particular trip was the onboard entertainment. The Onboard Entertainer was Mike Muscat from "Zebra Entertainment". He is also available for Company Picnics, Special Events, Singing Telegrams, Children's Characters, Holiday and Theme Parties. Just call (818)906-3809. Be sure to tell Mike Muscat that you heard about him from "Liberty's Amtrak Pages"!

In order to find out who was this Onboard Entertainer, I actually had to seek him out on the train and ask for his card. I tried to get his name earlier, but all his name badge said on it was "Onboard Entertainment"! This is in stark contrast to the person that did the onboard entertainment on my last trip on the Coast Starlight, "T-Bone", The Jester, who I felt was totally void of talent. "T-Bone" is the guy who spent 15 minutes in the Pacific Parlor Car reading a pre-school book out loud to a room full of adults drinking champagne. I think he had everyone board or sleeping by the time he got through reading his children's story. If you are wondering, the story was about a Court Jester who lost his ability to make anyone laugh. How appropriate!

In contrast, Mike Cuscat, was great! He had the talent to entertain adults and children equally. He did a lot of unique magic tricks which I had never seen before. Evidently, he sought them out to make sure his performance would be novel and not old hat. The kids enjoyed just watching the magic. However, while he performed, he also mixed humor with his activities. Much of the humor went over the head of the kids, but the adults found the comedy quite entertaining. Just watching the magic was enough to enterain the kids, and his tricks were enough to baffle both adults and kids equally! I hope they keeping using Mike Muscat on the Coast Starlight and get all the Coast Starlight trains up to this level of entertainment.

Summary:

Brian Rosenwald, the Product Manager for the Coast Starlight, has done a fantastic job of bringing a new level of service to passenger train travel. I thing his goal now needs to be to ensure a consistency of service. The marketing industry know there is tremedous value to "Brand Loyalty". Amtrak doesn't have to worry about people picking another passenger rail service as there are no others in America. But that cetainly doesn't mean that Amtrak doesn't have competitors. Airlines and autos are the competitors to Amtrak. Since a train journey can be a vacation all in itself, Amtrak is even in competition for your other vacation dollars. Eventually, the name "Amtrak" has to evoke a positive image in the minds of travelers. But just starting with today, the flagship of Amtrak service, "The Coast Starlight", needs to immediately become synonymous with the best service that Amtrak has to offer.

"The Coast Starlight" has already achieved that reputation, but has not yet achieved consistency. Sometimes you will be treated to the best in service and food on the Coast Starlight, but once in a while, you will not. Thus, if you or I recommend the Coast Starlight to our friends and relatives, we are taking a risk. This isn't just the risk that you take anytime you recommend a vacation to someone who may not have your same taste in entertainment. The risk that you take is beyond that. The risk is that the people that take your recommendation might not get the same high level of service and food that you have experienced on the "Coast Starlight". Then, all your efforts to expose Amtrak to more people that might have fallen in love with rail travel go right down the drain!

"Consistency" is where I feel the focus of Coast Starlight improvements need to be. If they can take the experience and commitment of their best crews and get all the Coast Starlight crews to adopt that attitude, then I think repeat travelers on the Coast Starlight will soar.

Friday, 10:00 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/29/96, Oakland, California

Today is the day after Thanksgiving. There were about 20 people at our Thanksgiving dinner, but everyone except outselves and our in-laws left that evening.

We had been planning to drive up with two cars from San Jose to Oakland and all spend the day in Jack London Square. We planned for my in-laws to drive back to their place in Saratoga in the evening while my family stayed in Oakland to catch the southbound Coast Starlight in the morning.

I offered a suggestion on how we could avoid taking two cars all the way up to Oakland, about an hour drive each way. I suggested that they drop me and my kids off at the Santa Clara Amtrak station and we take the train to Jack London Square! That way, there would be just 5 people and they would all fit in one car.

We went over the various permutation of who would go in the car and who would drive. In the end, we came to the conclusion that we would all take the train! We decided to pick up the train in San Jose instead of Santa Clara since we knew there was plenty of parking available in San Jose. My in-laws live just about as close to each of those two Amtrak stations.

Having some idea as early as Wednesday that we might end up taking a train from San Jose to Oakland, I checked on the round-trip price in Fullerton. They said that it would normally be $8 one-way for an adult and $9 round-trip from San Jose to Oakland. A child would be half-price. However, if we had decided to travel on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the price would have been $13 or $16. Just like the airlines, Amtrak raises their prices for peak travel times. Friday was not considered a holiday travel day, so the $9 price was the one that would be in effect.

Just before we left their house for the train station, I called Amtrak again to confirm the fare. $9 round-trip was worth it, but much more would not be worth it for 4 adults, 2 seniors and 2 children. When I reached Amtrak by phone, they answered with the usual "May I make a reservation for you today?". I politely declined, but told them I would like some pricing information. The reservation agent told me that their computers were down across the nation and she could not give me an official pricing. However, she did say she would be happy to take a guess!

I told her that I was interested in the round-trip price between San Jose and Oakland. She said it would probably be something like $28 for an adult. I decided that was completely wrong and thanked her for her time.

We got to the San Jose Amtrak station about 30 minutes early. I expected the station to be completely empty. The Capitols have had quite a boost in ridership this year, but this still ran pretty empty most of the time. I thought this would be a good introduction to the new Amtrak California Cars for my in-laws. The station would be empty, the train would be empty, and we'd pretty much have our pick of seats anywhere. I couldn't have been more wrong!

I guess not everyone was waiting until Sunday to return from the holiday. The station was full of people. To make matters worse, since the Amtrak computers were down across the nation, every ticket had to be hand calculated and written! That slowed everything down tremendously and the ticket line was very very long. Even arriving 30 minutes early, we weren't sure they were going to be able to write us a ticket before our Capitol was to leave at 1:05 P.M.

Finally, we got to the front of the line at 1:00 P.M. We handed the ticket agent a 50% companion discount coupon that I had obtained from the Jack London Square brochure on a previous visit and asked for 4 adult, 2 senior, and 2 childrens tickets. This created a major catastrophe! The ticket agent was not equiped to handle an unusual coupon without the computer. Since there was only 3 minutes left before the train departed, the ticket agent told us and everyone else in line to quickly go to the train and buy our tickets onboard. The ticket agent further told us to explain to the Conductor that the computers are down and the Conductor will wave the onboard ticket purchase penalty. So, we did as we were directed and raced to the train!

We got on board and placed our luggage in the downstairs luggage rack. We went upstairs in the train and found it quite full. Thus, we continued on to the next car in the train and kept on walking until we finally did find two empty tables across from each other. The 8 of us filled up those two tables. My wife was very concerned that we were so far from our luggage and nobody would be watching it. I reassured her that luggage theft on these particular trains is pretty rare and everyone else reassured her that we would have plenty of time to get to our luggage long before we arrived at our station.

Then, the fun began! I think my in-laws found the train ride interesting, but they didn't comment much on it. I'm not sure they would consider it again as a travel option, but you never can tell. I feel I have done my part every time my actions lead to people learning where the train station is in their area and that it is an available option for some travel. Once people are familiar with Amtrak and the location of stations, it does become an option where it would not have even been considered at all before.

The Conductor was quite busy on the train collecting tickets and writing up tickets for those that didn't have time to purchase them in the station due to the computer failure. When the Conductor got to my family, we had arrived at the first station, Santa Clara/Great America.

My family presented him with the Jack London Square 50% companion discount coupon and asked for the 4 adult, 2 children, and 2 senior round-trip fares. They also asked about a AAA discount. The Conductor told them that AAA discounts cannot be done onboard the train as they can only be done through computer reservations. That was something that even I didn't know! The Conductor also said he had never seen a coupon like the one we presented in his entire life! I thought the unusual, but really wasn't surprised. That coupon is in the fold-up map-guide to Jack London Square and that guide is distributed free from little holders that are on each side of every directory billboard in Jack London Square, including one right in the Jack London Amtrak Station! The map-guide is also available from every hotel, most stores, and even from inside the Jack London Amtrak Station itself! The coupons are good until March 1997, I believe, and are to encourage people to take either the Capitols, San Joaquins, or even the Coast Starlight to Jack London Square. However, I don't even think there is any restriction on the coupons as to the origination and destination. In other words, you don't even have to use the coupons to go to or from Jack London Square. They can be used for anywhere on those routes. Thus, if you plan to take any of those routes and happen to be in Jack London Square before you go, be sure to get the coupon in that map-guide!

The Conductor did honor that 50% companion coupon. Since we were buying two round-trip adult fares, he gave us the other two adult fares at half price (we had 2 coupons in case we needed both, but the Conductor returned one of the coupons to us). My wife's parents got the senior discount and our two children got the usual half-price children's fare. Thus, the total turned out as follows: $18 (2 adult full round-trip fares) + $9 (2 adult 50% off round-trip fares) + $15.50 (2 senior round-trip fares) + $9 (2 children half-price round-trip fares) = $51.50. The conductor had to write up this ticket by hand and then had to fill out the charge card information.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of explaining all of the above to the Conductor, nobody thought to tell the Conductor that my in-laws would be returning the same day and my family would use the return tickets at a later time. So, when the Conductor handed us 1 ticket for 8 people, my in-laws explained to the Conductor that "they", pointing to my family, would need the return ticket for a later time. The Conductor thought that my in-laws just meant that my wife and I would need a return ticket for a later time. Thus, he re-wrote the entire ticket for 6 people returning that day and 2 at a later date. I couldn't blame the Conductor for getting a bit frustrated when we explained the ticket was suppose to be for 4 people returning today and 4 another day, not 6 today and 2 another day!

Calmly, the Conductor asked: "Exactly how many are returning and how many aren't?". We had planned to by tickets for everyone returning: 4 today for my in-laws and 4 at a later date for my family. That was my suggestion since I knew that a round-trip ticket was only $1 more than a one-way ticket (50 cents more for each child). Thus, I knew I would be only wasting $3 if I never had a chance to use the ticket, but might end up saving as much as $21 if I did get an opportunity to use it. But, hearing that question from the Conductor, my in-laws were prompted to ask: "How much less would it cost if those 4 only go one-way?" I expected the Conductor to answer: "Only $3." Instead, the Conductor fell into the common trap of dividing the round-trip fare in half and saying: "$13.50". My in-laws decided that was a good discount, which it would have been, and said: "Good, we'll take it!".

The Conductor went back to his station to re-write the ticket and double check his calculation agains the fare book. Of course, the Conductor found that doing it that way would only be $3 cheaper. He came back with a ticket written up for $48.50, just as I had expected! My in-laws weren't happy with that after he had just told us we would save $13.50. In total exasperation, the Conductor asked us: "Just what is it that you want?" We repeated our original desire of 8 round-trip tickets, 4 for return today and 4 for return tomorrow. Rather than go back and recalculate, right at our table, the Conductor just divided the $51.50 fare in half, wrote up two round-trip tickets for 4 people each, and wrote a cost of $26.75 on each ticket. Thus, we did end up with the original $51.50 fare that it was suppose to be and we did end up with the right set of tickets. The only difference between this and our original request is that there is no restriction on the return tickets that any of the users must be children. That might be to our benefit, but I certainly wouldn't fault the Conductor for diminishing any income to Amtrak. The Conductor was just about out of time since we were quickly approaching our station! With our convolutions, the Conductor had to spend almost the entire trip from Santa Clara to Oakland producing our ticket! To top it off, the Conductor managed to maintain his composure and even say some entertaining things to my kids when we got off in Jack London Square in Oakland!

That does bring up an interesting side issue. What to do with all these one-way tickets that I seem to accumulate? How do I get these one way tickets? Often, just like described above. I've taken The Capitols one-way when I have gotten a ride the other way. Since the difference is only $1 more for a round-trip instead of a one-way ticket, I usually buy a round-trip ticket. On the San Joaquins, the difference between round-trip and one-way is only about $10 on a $65 ticket. Sometimes a friend will accompany me one way and fly the other way. For the small difference in ticket price, we always get the round-trip rather than the one-way fare. Sometimes I'll buy a round-trip ticket from Fullerton to Los Angeles to connect to the Coast Starlight, only to have someone pick me up in Los Angeles Union Station on my return trip. Thus, I end up with a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Fullerton. As of this writing, I have a number of assorted one-way tickets. Sometimes, I'll end up with another one-way ticket going the other way due to similar circumstances. Once I have two one-way tickets going in opposite directions, I've got a useful round-trip pair that I always find needed in the future! But I've still got some one-way tickets without corresponding return tickets.

Back to the journey of my family and in-laws to Jack London Square in Oakland... My family has pretty flexible eating hours. Since Jack London Square is mostly known for its eating places and gift shops, I just assumed we would have lunch and dinner there. I was a bit surprised when everyone sat down for some turkey soup before we left my sister in-laws house. I guess nobody else had assumed we were going to wait to get to Jack London Square to eat lunch. For my family, waiting until 2 or 3 p.m. for lunch isn't greatly out of the ordinary, but I guess it is for most families. So, my idea of having lunch at the "Happy Belly Deli" and then dinner at one of the more famous restaurants in Jack London Square wasn't to be.

Not having lunch in Jack London Square did cause a bit of a timing problem. I had planned for lunch in Jack London Square to take about 90 minutes. Arriving in Jack London Square at 2 p.m., a light lunch at the Happy Belly Deli would have taken till about 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. Then, we could walk around the shops and museums till about 6:15 p.m. Dinner would then take us to about 7:45 p.m. or so, just in time for my in-laws to catch the 8:12 p.m train from Oakland back to San Jose.

Instead, my in-laws arrived into Jack London Square not hungry for lunch. Thus, we skipped stopping for lunch and were already at the 3:30 p.m slot on my schedule by 2 p.m. My children love the shops in Jack London Square and usually spend a lot of time in each shop which slows everyone down. They love these shops so much that it took us two days to get through all the shops on our first trip! But, since my children were hungry for lunch, they had little immediate interest in the shops. Instead of slowing down to the pace of the children, we rapidly went through all the stores and were finished at a little after 4 p.m. with over 4 hours still ahead before my relatives could catch a return train!

Since the children didn't have lunch, we couldn't take a chance on hoping one of the fancier resturants in Jack London Square would have something they would like. Thus, to make sure we ended up somewhere that we knew had food that everyone liked, we went to T.G.I.Friday's. I've got nothing against Friday's. I even like their food. But, I was rather dissapointed with all the unique restaurants in Jack London Square that we would end up in Friday's for dinner. There are dozens of interesting and unique restaurants in Jack London Square that I have yet to try.

We were done eating in Friday's before 6 p.m. Everyone then went to the Cafe inside the Barnes & Nobles Bookstore. My children had desert there. After that, my wife stayed with her parents and sister's family while I went with my children to go back to explore Jack London Square. They wanted to go back and explore all those stores that they had raced through ealier. We went to a few, but most were closed by the time we got back to them.

Since the Jack London Village part of Jack London Square is really close to the train station, we went direct to the train station from there to see our in-laws off. The Capitols train arrived about 10 minutes early and everyone got on for their trip back to San Jose, except for my family. We had already checked into the Jack London Inn where we would stay until the southbound Coast Starlight arrived the next morning.

The Capitols use the new Amtrak California Cars. This particular train had one of the new California Cafe Cars. I told them to check out this eating area if there was one on their train. I had explained to them about it having both a snack area and table service. Hopefully they did take a look at that. Most people that explore the new California Cafe Cars are pretty impressed.

Saturday, 11:00 P.M. (Pacific Time), 11/30/96, Anaheim, California

Made it back! Just as I expected, this was exactly that same Coast Starlight train that we had going up with exactly the same Car Attendant, Onboard Entertainer, and other staff. I'm sure the Engineer and Conductor were different since they change about every 500 miles anyway, but just about the rest of the crew was the same crew. While we were spending Thursday and Friday in the San Francisco Bay Area, this train had continued up to Seattle and then returned from Seattle to pick us up!

I'm not sure if we had the same Chefs or not on this train. I should have asked. In any case, the food was much much better this time! There was even a different menu than the one that we had on the way up. Two interesting items on this menu was the Pasta dish on the Lunch side of the menu and the Chili dish on the Dinner side. The staff told us these items were printed in the wrong places on the menu. The Chili dish was suppose to be a Lunch item and the Pasta dish was suppose to be a Dinner item! So, I ordered the Chili at lunch time and the Pasta at dinner time. Both were really good! There are many other items on the Lunch and Dinner menus, but these just happened to be the items that I desired the most. It didn't matter much to me which was for dinner and which for lunch.

Once again, they had that extra Dining Car instead of the Pacific Parlor Car. We spent much of our time at the big tables in this car playing board games. The Dining Car isn't as romantic as the Pacific Parlor Car and I do miss the sightseer windows near the roof, but all and all, I think both my children and I prefer the extra Dining Car to having the Pacific Parlor Car. There are a LOT more tables in this car than the regular parlor car so you don't feel like your hoging anyone's space, There are always empty tables even when there are a lot of people in the car. Happy hour, when they serve champagne or wine and cheese, goes much better in this big dining car. Happy hour is usually when the Pacific Parlor Car doesn't have enough seats for everyone that wants to participate.

I think the Coast Starlight is committed to the Pacific Parlor Cars, especially with the big screen TV's that I heard they plan to install. However, if other routes plan to add First Class Parlor Cars, I think they would be very popular even if all they can get are train cars similar to old dining cars. Since it is not the purpose of the Parlor Car to provide hot food service, Amtrak might even be able provide additional creative services in the downstairs portion of this car where there would normally be a full cooking galley. Maybe they could copy the Coast Starlight and run movies on a big-screen television installed downstairs and provide seating like a small movie theatre. And/or they could equip downstairs as a small playroom along with its own specially trained Car Attendant so that children had a place to play while their parents spend a romantic candlelight evening upstairs, like they can in the Coast Starlight!

The trip south from Oakland to San Jose was much better than the trip north. The food was definitely much better. Since this train was already a day out from Seattle, our Car Attendant, the same one we had going up, had a chance to get everything ready. There was even hot coffee and muffins waiting for us when we boarded! One thing still missing, however, was coat hangers. I guess they weren't able to stock up on those enroute. Usually there are two coat hangers waiting in every room. That was just a minor matter and not much of an inconvenience.

At the end of the trip, I think it is time again for some constructive criticism for the Coast Starlight. If you don't already know, the Coast Starlight now runs its coach cars all the way down to San Diego. The Sleepers, Parlor Car, Diner, and Sightseer Lounge Cars DO NOT go any further south than Los Angeles. I assume that is because that is where they are serviced. Usually, they add one more coach car to the end of the train in Los Angeles and then they break the coach cars off the back of the train and run them all the way down to San Diego as the "#511" San Diegan.

I'm not sure exactly why they do this. Maybe somebody could send e-mail to me and explain it. I can only assume it is for political or marketing reasons so that Amtrak can say they have "through service" all the way from Seattle to San Diego. I am very unhappy with this, speaking as someone that always goes by Sleeping Car. Every other person that I spoke to in the Sleeping Cars is also very unhappy with this arrangement. For Sleeping Car passengers, it is very inferior to the old way of just having to change trains to continue south of Los Angeles. This is such a poor way of doing things that I will always drive and leave my car at the Los Angeles station from now on when I am taking a round trip on the Coast Starlight. I would recommend anyone with a Sleeping Car reservation that is coming from any station closer than San Juan Capistrano to do the same.

Old way before through cars: I would board the San Diegan train in Fullerton at 8:22 A.M. and take it and arrive into Los Angeles Union Station at about 9:00 A.M. The Coast Starlight would be waiting directly across the platform. I would step off the San Diegan, walk a few feet, and step into my Sleeping Car on The Coast Starlight. The return trip was the reverse. The Coast Starlight would arrive into Los Angeles Union Station from the north. I would get off with my luggage and wait at the platform across from it. The San Diegan would sometimes already be there waiting for the Coast Starlight, but other times, I would have to wait a while for the San Diegan to pull into the station.

New way with through cars: I admit that this is probably great for coach passengers, but this new way really treats Sleeping Car passengers as second class. The only problem with that is that Sleeping Car passengers have paid a very hefty premium to be treated First-Class! At each station, coach passengers are boarded directly into one of the Coast Starlight coach cars and assigned a seat which will remain their seat for the entire journey, even if they are going all the way to Seattle. Thus, coach passengers can get settled in right at the start of their journey, even if their journey starts at a station south of Los Angeles.

On the other hand, Sleeping Car passengers have "unreserved" status until they get to Los Angeles. They can check baggage they don't want to take onboard, but all other luggage has to be carried in and out of the train. In many cases, that means carrying luggage all the way through the train while you are hunting for a place to sit. Since a Sleeping Car passenger is "unreserved" till he gets to Los Angeles, he has not seat assigned and must just hunt for any empty ones. Most people don't want their baggage in a different car than where their seat is, so they carry their baggage until they find a seat all through the train!

If you are traveling with a family, you may have to split up and sit apart from each other for the entire trip to Los Angeles. That isn't too bad for me since I only have a 40 minute trip, but others are traveling quite a bit more than that to Los Angeles. Children don't like to be seperated from their parents in these situations and I have seen parents either standing or squeezing into seats made for less people just so they can stay with their children. This situation is tolerable and understandable, but not so tolerable and understandable when you have paid a very high premium to go first-class and are having to endure circumstances that have been solved for Coast Starlight coach passengers. Amtrak needs to think this one out. Airlines have figured out how to provide special conveniences to First-Class passengers right from the point of arrival at the airport and Amtrak needs to do the same if they wish to attract people to those higher fare accommodations.

Shall we go on to the nightmare of the return trip? One again, coach passengers have no problem. They just sit tight in their seat and they can continue their comfortable ride all the way from Los Angeles to San Diego or to any station in between.

Sleeping Car passengers have two choices. They can either grab all their baggage, which can be quite a bit for a family, and carry it through every car on the train until they arrive at the last two coach cars. Then they can stand in the aisle until the train finally arrives in Los Angeles. Next, they can hope that enough people will depart in Los Angeles so that a set of seats might open up that is large enough to accomodate their family.

Alternatively, you can depart the Coast Starlight once it arrives into Los Angeles Union Station and carry all of your baggage all the way to the other end of the train. An empty coach car is added to the very end of the train so that Sleeping Car passengers can be accommodated along with other new passengers that are getting on in Los Angeles for the trip south. This is a long way to walk with your family since the Sleeping Cars are at the front of the train and this new coach car is all the way at the other end of the train.

Can you board this new empty coach car as soon as you get to it? No! First, by the time you get down there, train crew will probably still be working on connecting the car to the train and getting all the power turned on. Once it is connected, guess what? All the baggage from the Coast Starlight now has to be transferred to this car. Since everyone knows that baggage is more important than people, especially tired little children, Amtrak must make all the people wait outside in the cold while lots and lots of baggage is loaded onto the train. Only then are people allowed to board the train!

The race is on! Since only one empty car has been added to the train, but you can see all the Sleeping Car passengers and all the new people going south from Los Angeles waiting to board, you know it is going to be a race to find seats where you can keep your family together. If that isn't enough, the Sleeping Car passengers have a handicap in this race for seats. Unlike the people just starting out in Los Angeles, the Sleeping Car passengers all have carry-on baggage to bring onboard!

I don't know how all this sounds to you, but it doesn't sound like any way to attract anyone to pay the premium fares to upgrade from coach to a sleeper! My solution is just to drive from Orange County to Los Angeles from now on and forget about trying to deal with this transfer. Actually, I'll get home a lot quicker that way too! Unless the Coast Starlight experiences delays, it usually gets into Los Angels at about 8:30 P.M. The train cannot leave until the scheduled time of 9:35 P.M. and arrives into Fullerton at 10:08 P.M. That gets me home at about 10:30 P.M. If I drive directly home from Los Angeles, I can easily be home by 9:30 P.M., 5 minutes before the train has even left Los Angeles!

I appologize for sounding so down on these new "through coaches" as I know this is a great improvement for those of you that do travel coach on the Coast Starlight. What has me so critical of it is that I have heard rumors of the Coast Starlight running all the way to San Diego for several months. I was hoping those rumors were true because of the frequency of my use of the Coast Starlight, about 14 times in 1996. I was very happy when I found these rumors were true. I always thought it would be great to just board in Fullerton, grab a cup of coffee, head for the Economy or Family Room, and just watch L.A. Union Station come and go from the convenience of my room! There would be no more hunting for seats on the San Diegan, no more lugging around baggage, no more waiting at the platform in Los Angeles for them to open up the Sleeping Cars and board passengers, no more waiting for the coffee to be ready and waiting for the Pacific Parlor Car to open. With the full Coast Starlight coming up from San Diego, it would mean that my family and I could go to breakfast as soon as we boarded instead of barely enduring the 40 minute commute to Los Angeles! All and all, this change is probably a very good improved to coach passengers but a big let down for me and other Sleeping Car passengers who have paid for a full-day of premium first-class service from Amtrak.

    Staff:
  • Entertainer: Mike Muscat (818)906-3809, Zebra Entertainment (The Best!)

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