Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Fullerton to Oakland, California
November 27 - 30, 1996
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
- Entertainer: Mike Muscat (818)906-3809, Zebra Entertainment (The Best!)
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