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Steve's Winter Wonderland Rail Journey
Those of you that have read many of my reviews of the Amtrak Coast Starlight know that many travelers, including myself, believe the Coast Starlight has the best service, food, accommodations and ammenities of any Amtrak train, and ranks right near the top for scenery. However, you would also be aware that I think I found the one Coast Starlight from hell. Now, I'm happy to report that I have found the Coast Starlight from heaven!
Wednesday, 11:06 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, Oxnard, California
So far, so good! We are right on time, right to the very minute leaving Oxnard, California. I think this is going to be a really good trip. I've already met several of the onboard crew members and they have all been very friendly and helpfull. Ooops! Spoke too soon! An announcement was just made that we will be pausing in Santa Barbara for 2 hours because of a freight train derailment further up the line. I don't mind. As long as I get into Seattle on time to board the Empire Builder, that is my only goal. Being behind schedule is always bad for Amtrak's reputation because there are people onboard trying to get to places on time or trying to make tighter connections.
So where shall I start? Before I started this journey I was trying to decide how to get to the Amtrak station in Fullerton, California. I could take a taxi, but that would cost me about $60 round-trip. There isn't any parking for more than 3 days in Fullerton, so I can't park my car there. I decided to park my car at the Anaheim station which offers unlimited free parking. Thus, I would be able to park my car there for a week with no charge. My only concern then was about theft or vandalism. I've had cars broken into twice at airports. Cars left at airports and train stations are an easy target. Criminals know that you will be gone for several days and that the crime probably won't even be reported until you return and discover the incident. I had Teletrac installed in my car when I purchased it knowing that my car might be left at train stations frequently for long periods. Teletrac immediately notifies the police of the location of my car if anyone tries to steal it. I don't even have to report the theft for the police to get right on it! Teletrac doesn't do much for vandalism though, but I have a friend that is an Amtrak Ticket Agent in the Anaheim Station and he can keep an eye on my car and at least let me know if anything does happen to it. So far, I've never had my car stolen or vandalized when I have left it at any Amtrak station and I hope to maintain that track record!
My problems of transport aren't solved by just leaving my car at the Anaheim station. There is no Amtrak train from Anaheim in the early morning! There is an Amtrak San Diegan Train that carries the Amtrak Coast Starlight through-coaches from San Diego in the morning, but that is an express train that does not stop in Anaheim! However, there are several Metrolink trains on weekday mornings. I decided to take the Metrolink, but do I take it just to Fullerton and transfer to the San Diegan or take the Metrolink all the way to Los Angeles? Going from Anaheim to Fullerton costs $3.50 while going from Anaheim to Los Angeles costs $5.50. I decide to take the Metrolink all the way to Los Angeles for the extra $2.00 and save my $8.00 Fullerton to Los Angeles Amtrak ticket for a future time. It was an unreserved ticket and is good for about the next 6 months anyway.
The next item to consider is how I am going to get back to my car when I have finished my journey. If the Amtrak Desert Wind is right on time, I'll be into Fullerton at about 2:28 p.m. I can then take an Amtrak San Diegan from Fullerton to Anaheim at 3:02 p.m. If the Desert Wind is running late, but no more than about 2 hours late, I can get off in San Bernardino and take the Metrolink Inland Empire-Orange County Line at 3:12 P.M. to Anaheim Canyon. That is just around the corner from my office and I can have someone pick me up and drive me to my car over on the other side of Anaheim. Changing trains in San Bernardino would also give a final enjoyable twist to the end of my journey. If the Desert Wind is more than 2 hours late arriving into Fullerton, there are a number of Metrolinks and Amtrak San Diegans that can get me from Fullerton down to Anaheim or I can take a cab for about $5. A bit complicated, but it is about the only way I can figure out how to leave my car somewhere that I can get it on my return without driving all the way to Los Angeles and parking it there for several dollars per day.
Back to carrying out my plan. I woke up just after 5:30 A.M. That was too close to the planned wake up time of 6:00 A.M. to go back to sleep. Rain was forecasted for most of the day along with heavy traffic conditions. I left my house at 6:30 A.M. and arrived at the Anaheim station at 7:00 A.M., just in time to see the 7:00 A.M Metrolink pull into the station. I didn't need to catch that train. The 7:30 A.M. train would be early enough for my purposes. In worst case, I could always take the very last morning Metrolink which leaves Anaheim at 7:49 A.M. but I didn't want to take any chances. If anything were to go wrong with the 7:49 A.M. Metrolink, the only way I could get to Los Angeles would be to drive to Fullerton, leave my car in a 3 day parking zone and catch the 8:08 A.M. Amtrak San Diegan or just try to drive all the way to Los Angeles in the morning rush hour! Thus, the 7:30 A.M. Metrolink would get me there in plenty of time and leave me some safety margin with another Metrolink available after that one.
I had an uneventful ride from Anaheim to Los Angeles on the Metrolink. There were plenty of seats when I boarded, but almost none once everyone was on. I sat in the seat closest to the door where there were no windows. That spot gave me room for my suitcase and I could still see out the windows in the door across from me. It also kept my suitcase out of the aisle and out of the way of other commuters. Since most people are just going to work on the Metrolink and not taking a cross-country trip, most people do not have luggage with them.
The Conductor came through the train between Fullerton and Los Angeles to make sure everyone had purchased a ticket. I guess that means that one could ride from Anaheim to Fullerton without a ticket since the tickets aren't usually checked between those stations, but I wouldn't suggest it. I think the fine is $250 if you don't have a ticket to show when asked. One person on our train had a ticket for disabled passengers and it was dated from the previous day. The Conductor warned him that the ticket was not valid since the rider was not disabled and that the ticket is only good on the date purchased, but the passenger was not fined or asked to pay for a valid ticket. On other Metrolink trains I have seen the County Sheriffs go through the train checking tickets and they did write a citation to a person that was traveling without a ticket.
I waited till everyone got off the train in Los Angeles Union Station before I got off. Most people were rushing to work, but I had an hour to kill and wasn't in any particular hurry. I started to wonder if I had locked the doors to my car. This is one of those days that I'm happy that I have Teletrac. I just went to a payphone in the station, called an 800 number, and sent a signal to my car to remotely lock the doors of my car!
The Arrivals/Departures Board in the Los Angeles Union Station showed train #14, the Coast Starlight, arriving at 8:50 A.M. and departing at 9:30 A.M. I sat down and relaxed in the waiting room. At 8:50 A.M., without waiting for any announcements, I headed down the ramp to the track where I knew the Coast Starlight would be waiting. The Car Attendant of the 1430 car was already boarding some passengers that had been shuttled to the train by a Red Cap on one of those little electric carts. I boarded right after them and went direct to my Economy Room and settled in.
At first, I was afraid things were going to get off to a bad start. There was no coffee brewing at the coffee station in my Sleeping Car and there was no juice available. Those of you familiar with my reviews know that is one of my pet peeves. I like to have coffee available as soon as I board my car in the morning.
The next surprise was to find that my Sleeping Car was reversed! This is the first reversed Sleeping Car I have ever found on the Coast Starlight! That means that my rule for room numbers with an ocean view doesn't work for my Sleeping Car (even up, odd down - even going north to Seattle and odd going south to Los Angeles). The other Sleeping Car on the Coast Starlight was oriented correctly. I wonder if this one got mixed up because of all the interruption in service over the last few weeks and the turning of trains in unexpected locations?
Richard Talmy, my Sleeping Car Attendant, came by my room and the room of every passenger. He understood that his Sleeping Car was the reverse of the normal orientation and that many passengers that expected an ocean view were not going to get it. The Coast Starlight didn't have many passengers on this journey and Richard told everyone they could go over to the other side of the train to watch the ocean. He personally told me to go across the aisle any time that I want to view the sights from the bedroom across from me. This is just like I have one great big room on the train with the small inconvenience of a public aisle running down the middle. I was very impressed that Richard was aware of the problem and concerned about his passengers. Most Car Attendants would not have even known the configuration of their car was unusual and wouldn't have been concerned about passenger views of the ocean. They would have tried to resolve problems one by one if some passengers complained about not having an ocean view.
A minor item, but one that impressed me, was fresh flowers in all the restrooms! Car Attendants always put a vase of fresh flowers in each bedroom, but in the restrooms by the mirror is unusual and shows attention to detail that is appreciated. Also in the category of minor miracles would be the sound system. This time it was working close to perfect, though I think the channel numbers may be mixed up. Music played on Channels 1 and 2 (is supposed to be on 2 and 3) and all announcements from everyone on the train came through loud and clear!
Once I told Richard of my interest in passenger rail travel and why I was taking this trip, he lent me his copy of the latest NARP newsletter and "Rail Travel News". I didn't look at what he had handed me until I got back to my room. Then I realized they were publications that I already had, but that was O.K. since I hadn't had a chance to read them yet! I had plenty of time to read them now and that is just what I did! Later I returned them to him and thanked him. I explained that I did subscribe to them but appreciated the time to read them on the train. I showed him the ad for my old web page "Liberty's Amtrak Page" that was printed in the inside front cover of "Rail Travel News".
From the date of the last time that I tried to make this trip on December 29th, 1996 right up until last Friday, January 17th, 1997, the Coast Starlight has not traveled any further north than Oakland, California. The reservation system blocked out all attempts to book reservations north of Oakland on the Coast Starlight. Not many people take the Coast Starlight just for that segment of the route and almost nobody takes a sleeper on that day trip. Thus, the Coast Starlight has been almost empty all this month. Even though the Coast Starlight is once again going all the way to Seattle, there are very few passengers since it has been blocked out of the reservation system until just the last few days. Richard said he expects the Coast Starlight to remain pretty empty at least until early February when travel agents and others start to realize they can once again book on the Coast Starlight. We both agreed that January is going to be devastating to the ridership and earnings of the Coast Starlight for this year.
Being so empty does make for an interesting train. I feel like I'm on a privately chartered train for a small party! There is one or two other Economy Sleepers with passengers out of 13 available in my Sleeping Car, though I think 4 out of 5 of the Deluxe Bedrooms are in use. Neither the Family Room nor the Handicap has anyone in them. The advantages are that there is no waiting for seating at lunch time, no reservations needed for dinner, no crowds in the Parlour Car for the Wine Tasting, and instant, courteous and friendly service from all personnel on board since they are not being overtaxed by demanding passengers. The disadvantage is that this places Amtrak in an even worse financial situation than what they were already in!
The Chief of OnBoard Services, Dave Jones, stopped by my room and we chatted for a few minutes. I told him of the disaster of my last attempt of this trip because of the weather. Dave then told me that he thought the Empire Builder was still not operating out of Seattle, but he wasn't sure. He said that on his previous trip into Seattle just a couple of days ago, the Coast Starlight had to pick up Empire Builder passengers from Seattle and bring them down to Portland so they could board Train 28, the Portland-Spokane segment of the Empire Builder, because the Empire Builder was still not operating between Seattle and Spokane.
Even though I checked with Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL last night and they assured me that Train #8, the Empire Builder, was operating out of Seattle, Dave was skeptical and said he would look into it for me. I wasn't too happy with the information that Dave reported to me and it got me a bit worried.
Wednesday, 11:30 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, Almost Santa Barbara, California
I went to the Dining Car for an early lunch. I sat with three other people that had started their trip in the midwest on the Southwest Chief, were taking the Coast Starlight to San Francisco for a convention, and then would be flying home. They said they were enjoying their trip very much. There had been some delays, but they didn't mind since they weren't in a hurry to get anywhere. We ended up talking about rail travel in Canada, a subject with which I am not very familiar but would certainly like to learn a lot more about.
I had the Gardenburger and it was delicious as usual! I was tempted by the Tofu noodles item, but I like a lot of Soy Sauce on it and the Coast Starlight doesn't have bottles of Soy Sauce for diners. I'm very tempted to bring my own bottle along on my next trip! Everyone thought their food was excellent.
While we were eating, a film crew from Korea came by and filmed close ups of the people eating at my table. I found it a bit disconcerting to have a big commercial quality video camera aimed at me while eating! I wonder what will become of what they are taping? I'm going to try and find them later on the train and find out who they are producing this tape for. I guess Korea doesn't require release forms to be signed or else they would have had to get a lot of release forms from a lot of people on the train. I've seen the film crew wandering up and down the train all day always looking like they were in a hurry to get somewhere. I don't know much about video equipment, but I've always wondered what those huge commercial cameras do that the compact home video cameras don't do.
We arrived into Santa Barbara while we were finishing up our lunch
Wednesday, 1:50 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, Santa Barbara, California
We got into Santa Barbara on time at 12:05 P.M., but then had to sit here for almost 2 hours waiting for a freight train derailment ahead of us to be resolved. There was an announcement that there would be plenty of time to get off the train and stretch our legs in Santa Barbara, but they wanted us back on the train by 12:45 P.M. I'm not sure why they wanted us back on so early if we weren't going anywhere for 2 hours. I just got back for lunch at about 12:30 and was ready to step out for a few minutes when the train started moving. The train moved far far ahead. I'm familiar with Santa Barbara and knew the train would be blocking State Street, a very main street in Santa Barbara, while it was in the station. Thus, the train was moving far up beyond the station so the street would not be blocked.
It is almost 2 P.M. now and we are finally under way again! Before we started going, the train first backed all the way back into the Santa Barbara station. Probably to pick up the people that had gotten off to stretch their legs and those people probably wondered why their train had left the station without them!
I called 1-800-USA-RAIL using my cellular phone and asked them if the Empire Builder had left out of Seattle and Portland late yesterday afternoon. This time they told me that the Empire Builder Train #28 had left out of Portland, but Empire Builder Train #8 had not left out of Seattle. They also told me there was a note on the record that said that passengers booked on the Empire Builder Train #8 out of Seattle would probably be bussed from Seattle to Spokane for the next several weeks!
So, the suspicions of Dave Jones, Chief of Onboard Services, were correct! There would be no Empire Builder Train #8 out of Seattle. I immediately called Amtrak Vacations and told them that I wanted to get off in Portland and catch the Empire Builder from there. Their first response was to tell me that such a change was impossible and that I would have to take the train to Seattle and then a bus to Spokane! They didn't seem to have a concept that Train #28 out of Spokane joined up with Train #8 out of Spokane.
I tried to explain further and they transferred me to Customer Service in Operations. After much further discussion and explanation, I was finally able to get them to issue me a reservation in a Coach Car between Portland and Spokane. That isn't too bad. I won't be getting a free meal on the train since free dining service is only included with Sleeping Car accommodations, but I might get to buy one of those tuna sandwiches that I really love from the Cafe Lounge Car! I never get a chance to have them since I'd have to give up a free full meal in the Dining Car. The tuna sandwiches are good, but not that good!
Out of curiosity, I did call 1-800-USA-RAIL to find out if any Economy Rooms were available on either Thursday or Friday between Portland and Spokane. There were none. Suddenly, an awful thought occurred to me! Is it possible that Amtrak Vacations booked me on the Thursday train instead of the Friday train between Portland and Spokane? That wouldn't make any sense since I was supposed to be on the train #28 that would be linking up with the train #8 on which I already had a reserved Economy Room. Just to double check, I asked the reservation agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL to read to me what the computer listed as my itinerary.
Sure enough! Amtrak Vacations had booked me a Coach Seat on the Train #28 that leaves Portland on Thursday instead of Friday which would mean spending a day in Spokane instead of Portland. Worse was still to come! There was only 1 hour and 40 minutes between the arrival of the Coast Starlight into Portland and when the Empire Builder would leave out of Portland and our train was already over 2 hours late! Later, however, Richard, my Sleeping Car Attendant said that there was a good chance that our train would make up some of the time and that the Empire Builder is usually held for a while since so many people transfer from the Coast Starlight.
I decided to plan for either contingency. If the Coast Starlight did connect with the Empire Builder in Portland on Thursday, I could take that train and then spend a day in Spokane. I wasn't looking forward to that since I would have to find something to keep me busy in Spokane from the time I checked out of a hotel all the way until the train leaves at 1:15 in the morning! I suppose I could get a hotel room for 2 days and just check out at about midnight anyway.
The other thing I could do is to stay with the Coast Starlight all the way to Seattle and then take the Mt. Adams Talgo train back to Portland in the morning. Then, I could take the the Empire Builder on Friday from Portland that merges in Spokane with the one on which I already have an Economy Room reservation. That option would give me more time on the Coast Starlight, give me the opportunity to ride the Talgo, a train I have not yet experienced, and would allow me to arrive into Spokane at the right time to transfer into my Sleeping Car Room! I like this solution better. I called 1-800-USA-RAIL and made reservation for the Mt. Adams Talgo ($26) and the #28 Empire Builder Coach Seat from Portland to Spokane ($67). I don't have to pay for those reservations unless I pick them up.
Tomorrow should be an interesting day. If we arrive into Portland too late, then Amtrak will probably bus the Coast Starlight passengers to meet the Empire Builder somewhere between Portland and Spokane. In that case, I will definitely stay with the Coast Starlight to Seattle and then come back to Portland in the morning on the Mt. Adams Talgo. If the Coast Starlight does make the connection with the Empire Builder tomorrow, then I have to decide if I want to immediately head for Spokane or stay with the Coast Starlight to Seattle. I'll just have to play this one by ear!
There is some risk in what I am doing. By going from Seattle to Spokane on Friday instead of Thursday, there is the possibility that something could delay one of those trains and make me miss my connection to the Empire Builder in Spokane. Would my "Trip Protection Option" apply if I was supposed to be on the bus from Seattle to Spokane on Friday or on the train from Portland to Spokane on the previous day? Even if everything goes perfectly, is there a chance that I will get marked as a "no show" before I get to Spokane and have my Sleeping Car Room sold to another passenger? I don't think this would happen since everyone will be boarding the Sleeping Cars in Spokane, but the possibility does exist.
We will all have to wait until Thursday and Friday to see what the future will hold.
Wednesday, 3:00 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, North of Santa Barbara, California
Of all the Coast Starlight trips I have taken, this is the first where they announced the exact time of the wine tasting. Usually the announced time is "sometime in the afternoon". With such a vague time, some people wait for hours in the Pacific Parlour Car so they can be sure to have a seat when it starts. Most people just come rushing in on the first announcement over the Public Address system. Knowing the exact time allowed me to continue to work in my room right up to 3:50 P.M. before I felt the need to go to the Parlour Car to make sure I got a seat.
Richard Talmy, my Sleeping Car Attendant, served as the "Master of Ceremonies" for the wine tasting event. Richard explained that all the bottles of wine were donated to the Coast Starlight by fine wineries throughout the route of the Coast Starlight. I didn't know that. I just thought they were wines that were selected by Brian Rosenwald, the Product Manager of the Coast Starlight and an avid wine fancier, and purchased by Amtrak.
Sometimes a leaflet is distributed before the wine tasting which lists all the informaiton about each wine to be tasted. That was missing this time, but instead we had something much better than anything I've had on any of the previous Wine Tastings I've experienced on the Coast Starlight: a running commentary of each wine. Before each wine was served, Richard Talmy expounded on the wine while Robert Martin, the Parlour Car Attendant, showed the label of the bottle to each person. Only after completing the rounds of showing the bottle to every person and providing information on each wine was it actually served.
In previous wine tastings, the wine was usually just poured with little regard to which was which and no explanation about the wine was given beyond the leaflet available at each table. The leaflet wasn't a lot of help since you usually didn't know which of the wines you were drinking at the moment! Nobody, including the staff, seemed to care. The event was just treated as a happy hour with free wine.
I think the way that Richard Talmy and Robert Martin presented this wine tasting was what Brian Rosenwald had in mind when he came up with the concept. This was the first time I really enjoyed myself at the Wine Tasting. A number of different types of cheese, crackers, melons and other fruit were also served at the wine tasting.
After the Wine Tasting, the Onboard Entertainer put on a magic show in the Pacific Parlour Car.
During most of the afternoon, Richard Talmy gave a running commentary on the sights out the windows. This definitely enhanced the train journey. I asked him how he know so much about the area and its history. He told me about some of the books that he had read to learn more about the route of the Coast Starlight. I think most of his passengers appreciate his efforts to learn about the route so that he is able to entertain and educate them about what is seen along the route. His information went well beyond what is listed in the Amtrak Route Guide and other rail books.
Wednesday, 5:00 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, San Luis Obispo, California
First call for dinner was made at 5:00 P.M. Since there are so few people on the train, there was no need to go through the train and give out reservations. I always like to eat early. I feel it gives me time to work it off and not feel as sluggish as I feel when I eat later at night.
I went down to the diner and there was nobody there except for the staff! I was the first one to arrive and continued to remain the only person in the dining car for at least 30 minutes. I was done with my salad and had made a good start into the main course before anyone else arrived. By the time I had finished, half of the dining car was lightly filled. I say "lightly filled" because it appears the Steward was only placing parties at tables together that entered the dining car together. Out of necessity, 2 couples will usually be placed at a table for 4 and a party of 1 will be placed with a party of 3, etc. Since there were so few people dining, there was no need to place strangers together at the same table.
Wednesday, 8:20 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/22/97, Salinas, California
For the first time on this entire trip I finally got a chance to step outside for a few minutes. The weather is cold and windy, but at least it isn't freezing. Weather forecasts had called for a lot of rain. Fortunately it is not raining. I was worried that some track might wash out again and it would be a repeat of last month's disastrous trip all over again!
The Pacific Parlour Car is dimly lit with the usual accent lights around the edge of the ceiling and the candle-lights on each table. Yes, they are real candles with real flames! Robert Martin, the Parlour Car Attendant, has done everything perfect to set just the right romantic atmosphere that I believe was intended. Unfortunately, I am traveling alone this time without my wife. On one of the few occasions that my wife has traveled with me, I did take her to the Parlour car for a romantic evening of talking over a couple of glasses of wine. The Parlour Attendant was in there with maximum overhead lights on so that he could read the newspaper! I wish Robert Martin had been the Parlour Car Attendant on that trip or my wife was along on this trip!
All during the day, Robert had a large assortment of beverages on one of the tables in the Parlour Car along with cups and a bucket of ice. That was great! Anytime you wanted something to drink, you could just go pick it up. It didn't matter if Robert was on break or busy with another passenger or busy with his other duties. You could still just walk up and take whatever beverage you wanted. The most common problem I have encountered with the Parlour Car in the past is walking all the way down to it just to discover that the Attendant wasn't there at the moment! Robert's way of setting it up solves that problem.
I decided to head for bed early so that I would be wide awake in the morning to view the scenery. I went to bed a bit after 10:00 P.M. I noticed that something was making a lot of mechanical squeaking noises as the train rocked. I tried to find it and it seemed to be coming from the middle of the mirror! I couldn't imagine what could be mechanical around the mirror. I went out of my room to the one next to mine on the other side of the wall. As I should have suspected, it was the sliding door to the next room. I slid that door closed (nobody was using that room) and that ended the noise!
Thursday, 4:30 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Marysville, California
I just woke up a few minutes ago and decided to see where we are. I'm probably going to head back to sleep shortly. The train just arrived into Marysville which is 52 miles north of Sacramento. Just prior to Marysville the train was moving extremely slow through what looked like a great flooded area in the dark. The schedule lists Marysville for an arrival of 12:46 A.M. That means we've lost more time and are now running 3 hours and 44 minutes behind schedule. Personally, that isn't a problem for me. Running late means that it will be daylight by the time we get to Redding and I'll be able to see some beautiful scenery in the mountains that we usually pass in the middle of the night. Being this late also makes it more unlikely that I will be able to connect in Portland to the Empire Builder today and favors the plan that I prefer, which is to meet up with the Empire Builder on Friday.
Thursday, 7:52 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Redding, California
We are actually a bit beyond Redding and traveling through the Sacramento River Canyon to the source of the river at Mt. Shasta. This part of the trip is normally in the dark since it is in the middle of the night in both directions for the Coast Starlight. But, since we are running about four hours late, we get to see some spectacular scenery seldom seen on this route!
I awoke at about 7:30 A.M. and went to the Parlour Car to get a couple of miniature muffins and some melon. Robert Martin, the Parlour Car Attendant, was out and about. He had set out the muffins, fruit, danish, coffee, tea and juice for the Continental Breakfast. A full breakfast is also available in the Dining Car, but this was enough for me! Robert greeted me in his usual upbeat manner as I stepped through the car. I brought the food back to my room and also grabbed some coffee and juice from the coffee service area in my Sleeping Car. I wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity of going through this area during daylight to take some photographs. There is more flexibility for taking photos from the Sleeping Car than from the Parlour or Dining Cars.
While taking some photos of the front of the train while the train was going through some sharp curves, I noticed there is a Metrolink engine in the consist. Richard, my Sleeping Car Attendant, said we are deadheading that engine to Seattle, but he didn't know why. I mentioned that the recent issue of "Moving People" was just about devoted to the new bond measures that Seattle passed to put in a Light Rail Vehicle transit system and also a heavy rail system like Metrolink. Perhaps they were borrowing an engine from Metrolink to do some testing and timing runs? I showed Richard my issue of "Moving People". He said that he also subscribed to it but hadn't seen that latest issue. Richard asked to borrow it and I gladly lent it to him.
Thursday, 8:50 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Dunsmuir, California
I've been getting many glimpses of Mt. Shasta and it is pretty impressive all covered in white snow. I've tried to take a few photos of it but I'm not sure if they will come out well. The train is heading almost directly toward Mt. Shasta which means the angle of the photographs is pretty acute. Hopefully I'll be able to get some shots of it at a better angle as we get closer. We are pretty high up in the mountains and the ground and the trees are all covered in snow. This is the "Winter Wonderland" that I wanted my family to see on our previous trip, but we passed through this section of the trip in darkness and fog.
The best views heading north all through this mountain area of northern California are on the right side of the train. That is the opposite side of the train that had the great ocean views in southern California.
What's that smell?
Do you ever smell something electrical, usually when the train comes to a stop? It smells like insulation on wires burning. I don't know the exact cause of it, but it is a frequent odor on a lot of trains when they come to a stop. I think it is related to their braking system. I know that the engines are powered by diesel engines which run generators that make electricity and the electricity is then fed to electric motors to operate the train. I think there is something called "dynamic braking" where they can feed current in reverse to the electric motor to stop the train more quickly. My guess would be that the smell is coming from the heat generated by the process of the axles continuing to turn in a direction opposite of the electric driving force. But wouldn't the heat have to be hot enough to be melting or burning the wire insulation to cause that smell? Of course, this entire description of how this process works is pure speculation. I welcome contributions on this topic from people that know how this really works!
To enjoy a rail vacation, you need to start out with a certain frame of mind. First, make your plans. However, assume that these plans are only approximate and tentative. Things can happen during a rail trip to alter the best laid plans and they usually do happen! If you assume your rail vacation is a journey into the unknown and are willing to accept and enjoy whatever adventures come your way, then you will enjoy yourself!
A rail vacation is no place for a "control freak" or someone who can't adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. A rail vacation is fluid and you must be able to accept changes to your plans as your journey progresses.
Because of weather, flooding, mud slides, avalanche dangers, freight derailments, automobile and pedestrian collisions, defective equipment and track and other delays, you could experience changes to your plans unexpectedly at any time. Don't despair! This seldom results in an early termination of your rail journey. Amtrak will usually try to accommodate you and help you make alternate arrangements.
The most common change in your plans that you are likely to experience is "the delay". This means that everything goes as planned, but you get to your destination much later than expected. Frequently this will be 2 to 4 hours later, but seldom more than 8 hours later. "The delay" seldom interferes with my plans. Although Amtrak guarantees most connections where there is at least one hour between the arrival of one train and the departure of the next, I never play it that close! The closest connection I'll accept is the early morning arrival of one train and a late afternoon departure of the next train. Usually I make sure I have an overnight stay in a hotel between trains. Placing that much time between trains pretty much guarantees that you will always make your connection. This planning also allows you to sit back, relax, and enjoy your trip without worry of how late the train will be. This even allows me to enjoy "the delay" since I get to spend more time on the train! Planning this much time between trains also assures you that your rail vacation will remain a rail vacation. The way Amtrak fixes the problem of a missed "guaranteed" connection is to take you off your train early and send you on a bus to meet your next train further down the line. Thus, you miss a lot of train travel on both trains and instead get a lot of "bus" travel! To avoid the bus, make sure you leave plenty of hours between train connections and preferably an overnight stay in a hotel.
The next likely problem that you might encounter is the "cancelled train". This is only done when Amtrak is forced to take this action due to extreme weather or track conditions. Usually Amtrak will send you by bus around the section of the route that is not operational and you will be able to start the next segment of your rail journey from the point to where they bus you. If you do not want to take this segment by bus, you can check with Amtrak and find out if they know when that train will be running again. Amtrak will usually accommodate you by changing your reservation to the next date that the train will be running if you are willing to pay for yourself to stay in a hotel until that time. If you have Coach Car accommodations, changing your reservation usually won't be a problem. If you have Sleeping Car reservations, there might not be any bedrooms available on the new date. Amtrak will refund the money you paid for your Sleeping Car Room, but you may have to travel in the Coach Car to continue your journey on a heavily booked train. Sometimes there will be "no shows" for bedrooms on the train and you can have the Conductor upgrade you to a Sleeping Car. You will have to pay on the train for the upgrade.
Thursday, 11:22 A.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Klamath Falls, Oregon
Very cold and everything is covered in snow, but it is very picturesque. I got a chance to step off the train for a few minutes. For the first time I felt it was necessary to put on my big winter coat. If I was going to be standing outside any longer than I did, I would have also put on my gloves. I took a few pictures of the station and the train in the station as well as the surrounding rail yards and some homes near the station.
The Car Attendants picked up "The Oregonian" newspapers at this stop and delivered them to each room. We've just been informed that a truck hit a railroad bridge up ahead and shook it pretty bad. The bridge inspectors are about 5 minutes away. We are going to wait here until they examine the bridge. Hopefully everything will be O.K. and we will be on our way again. The train is already running 4 hours late. For the people connecting to today's Empire Builder out of Portland, Amtrak is going to fly those passengers to Spokane at Amtrak's cost. For those passengers that do not want to fly, Amtrak will put them up in a hotel and accommodate them on the Empire Builder leaving out of Portland tomorrow.
12:15 P.M.: Another Garden Burger for lunch! But this time along with a really good bowl of clam chowder with crackers.
Thursday, 1:15 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Chemult, Oregon
Still running about 4 hours behind schedule. Once we went through the tunnel at Cascade Summit and over Willamette Pass, the scenery became absolutely breathtaking! If you are heading north all the way to at least Portland, I'd suggest that you forget about having a room on the ocean view west side of the train and try and get a mountain and canyon view on the east side of the train! We are slowly descending down the steep sides of Salt Creek Canyon and the view down into the canyon along with the towering mountains on the sides is spectacular! The train hugs the walls of the canyon as it descends. There are many short tunnels and occasional bridges to get the train along the walls where the ledge isn't wide enough for the train. There are also several snow sheds to protect the train and the tracks from snow sliding down the sides of the mountains.
Thursday, 4:15 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Eugene, Oregon
Just got back from the Champagne tasting. Usually they just keep pouring Champagne until they run out without telling you anything about the brands. This time, however, Richard told the history of Champagne, how it is made, and explained in detail the Champagnes that we would be tasting and where they were came from. We got to examine each bottle carefully before the tasting began. Richard Talmy and Robert Martin established the right atmosphere for this Champagne Tasting party before getting started with pouring of the Champagne. Once again, Dave, the magician, entertained after the Champagne tasting. Richard was also sure to interrupt and tell us of any unusual scenery that we encountered while this event was going on, such as the last covered bridge in Oregon.
Good news! The Conductor came by and told me that my tickets on the Empire Builder for tomorrow from Seattle to Spokane will be honored from Portland to Spokane! I called the Amtrak 800 number and cancelled the Coach reservation that I had made for $67. Even better news, everyone believes that the entire Empire Builder is running to Portland, including the Sleeping Cars that normally only go to Seattle. That makes sense. If they can't run the cars into Seattle because of track problems, then why bother divide the train in Spokane? Why not just take the entire train to Portland and save the trouble of separating and joining the train each time it gets into Spokane? It also gives Amtrak more flexibiliy in getting passengers from both Seattle and Portland onto the Empire Builder than just leaving half the train in Spokane.
About 40 minutes after we set out from from Eugene, the air hose broke in the last car and the train had to stop for a few more minutes to check the hose and fix the problem. Another announcement just came over that we should be getting into Seattle around 11:30 P.M., or to be on the safe side, just about midnight. I called the Pioneer Square Hotel and let them know that I would be sleeping there tonight after all! They reinstated the reservation that I had cancelled yesterday.
Thursday, 5:04 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Albany, Oregon
Thursday, 5:39 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Salem, Oregon
Amtrak provided a free dinner entree to everyone in the Coach Cars tonight since we were running so late. It was the Chicken and Rice entree along with a beverage. They weren't given a choice of entrees. They were allowed to have coffee, decaf, tea, milk, or juice. Then, the Sleeping Car passengers got to have dinner at about 6:15 P.M. They were out of the Black Bean Enchilada so I had the Chicken Breast again. It was very good, even better than last night! There were a lot of pearl onions and a different sauce. I selected the same menu item as last night, but they prepared it different and better today. They gave free wine with the dinner to Sleeping Car passengers, I guess to help make up for the late train.
I spoke to Dave, the OnBoard Entertainer Magician. I had been sitting way in the back during each of his performances because I really didn't want to participate. I let Dave know that I often travel with my kids, and when I do that, the entertainer goes right for us! They always go for the kids because they make an easy built-in audience. Every time the entertainer sees me with my kids in the Parlour Car, they immediately come over and start doing magic or making balloons. Since I am traveling alone on this trip, I thought it would be nice to skip the magic for just once.
Dave couldn't let me go without showing me at least one trick. He let me shuffled the deck of cards and then return it to him. He then fanned it out in his hand facing just to me. He told me to pick any card by just looking at it. He didn't ask me to take it out of the deck and put it back. He just wanted me to look at the deck he had in his hand and pick one of the cards without touching the cards. He said I could not pick the bottom of the deck. He said: "I don't know why anyone would want to pick the 2 of Spades anyway." Of course, the bottom of the deck was the 2 of Spades and I don't know how he did that. Then he asked me: "Is your card a black card?" I said: "Yes." Then he asked me: "Is it a spade?" and I said "Yes" again. Then he asked: "Is it the 7 of Spades" and it was! I don't know exactly how he did that, but I do think it was a really neat trick!
Thursday, 7:10 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Portland, Oregon
We stopped in Portland for about 15 minutes. The Empire Builder that I am supposed to take tomorrow is already sitting in the Portland station. I walked up and down the train. I found that it did have several cars from the Seattle section of the Empire Builder, including one Sleeping Car. Unfortunately, it wasn't the number of my Sleeping Car. I would feel more comfortable if the one Sleeping Car from the Empire Builder Seattle section in the station was my Sleeping Car number, but at least everyone was right about them running the Seattle section down to Portland. I'm sure one Sleeping Car is enough for any Seattle Sleeping Car passengers that will be getting on at Portland tomorrow. I guess I won't know for sure how everything will work out until I board the Empire Builder tomorrow.
Thursday, 7:28 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/23/97, Vancouver, Washington
Finally made it into Washington state! Looks like we are only running 3 hours and 10 minutes behind. I think some slack was built into the schedule going into Portland and that helped us make up a little more than an hour.
I'm going to sign off for now. I probably won't get to the hotel until 1:30 in the morning tomorrow. I've then got to set up my computer, check my e-mail, pack up my computer, and then get some sleep before waking up at 6 A.M. to check out and get back down to the Seattle Amtrak Station! That won't give me too much sleep tonight. Thus, I'm going to try and catch a little sleep in the 3 hours still remaining before we get into Seattle. Hopefully, the next thing I'll be writing is my log of travel on the Mt. Adams Talgo and the Empire Builder tomorrow!
Friday, 1:08 P.M. (Pacific Time), 01/24/97, Portland, Oregon
Prologue: I got into Seattle last night around 11:30 P.M. (Pacific Time). The station ticket area was all closed up as I had expected it to be, so I would have to arrive early to pick up my Talgo tickets in the morning. There were several taxis waiting and I grabbed the second one. I feel sorry for the driver that gets me since the Pioneer Square Hotel is almost around the corner from the station and is only a $3.00 fare. The taxi drivers probably assume that most riders will be going at least to downtown Seattle. I think this driver pretended not to know where the Pioneer Square Hotel was or where Yessler Street is, one of the major streets in Pioneer Square. He drove me "the long way" and boosted the fare by almost another $2. I would have given him directions, but because of one way streets, the walking directions don't work for cars. The fare is usually $3 and I give the driver a $2 tip to help make up for the short ride. An ambitious driver should have no problem quickly returning to the train station and picking up another rider from the station. I should have just given this driver $5 too, which would have hardly left him any tip at all. But, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and gave him an extra $1 beyond the tip included in the change from the $5. If the driver knew his streets or didn't try to pull a fast one, he would have gotten a full $2 (66% tip on a $3 fare!). By taking the long way, the driver mostly shifted the amount that I paid away from the tip and into the taxi company's portion of the fare.
Right after I arrived at the Pioneer Square Hotel, the lady I had met on the train who was looking for a hotel in Seattle arrived! I guess she took my advice to stay at the Pioneer Square Hotel. She was with her husband. I asked if the taxi driver knew where the hotel was. I was curious if I just picked an unknowledgable or devious driver, or if most of them pulled this scam. The husband must have thought I was asking if the taxi driver recommended this hotel. He said: "No, the Chief on the train recommended it." Of course, I was disappointed right there in front of the manager they didn't say that I recommended the hotel, but the wife spoke right up and said: "This is the man who told me about this hotel when I was in the Parlour Car!" Evidently, the wife got the recommendation from me and the husband got it from the Chief of Onboard Operations. They couldn't ignore 2 recommendations and decided to follow through. I don't know if the husband listened at all to what his wife relayed to him.
The hotel didn't have my favorite 415 room for me because the people that had been staying in that room the previous night didn't check out. To make up for the inconvenience, they gave me a full suite, room 210! I didn't mind not getting my favorite room since I was hardly going to be in it. I got in at almost midnight and would be checking out around 6:30 A.M. Actually, I'm glad I got displaced. The suite was huge! I don't know what the cost of the suite is (there is a discount for Amtrak travelers), but the suite gives you a lot of room and a huge bed if you want to pay a bit more money. They just charged me the usual $99 Amtrak discount fare for a regular room. I cleared out my e-mail and posted what I had of this travelogue to the web before going to sleep. I was in bed and just about to sleep at around 1:30 A.M. I was glad I had caught a bit of sleep on the Coast Starlight between Portland and Seattle!
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