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Nancy Taylor Travelogue #2

From: Nancy.Taylor
Date: 6 May 97 13:38:14 EDT
Subject: trip report: Coast Starlight/Desert Wind/Pioneer/Coast Starlight

Don't know if you still want travelogues from readers or not - especially not this one as I did have some criticisms to make about Amtrak on this one. Of the 10 trips my husband and I have taken on Amtrak in the last year, this one was the most unpleasant!

Trip Report: Coast Starlight/Desert Wind/Pioneer/Coast Starlight

Day 1, Saturday April 26

Coast Starlight from Oakland to Los Angeles.

The train is was on time. This is one of my absolute favorite trains and I was very excited about getting back on board. Our car attendant was friendly and helpful. Even though we're only on this train for about 12 hours, we like to get a compartment because it's more comfortable plus it isn't that expensive since it gives us access to the parlor car, plus meals in the diner are included. The price works out pretty well. It's just more comfortable and quiet than going coach.

When we first boarded the train in Oakland, since the train was on time we were able to make it to the dining car before last call for breakfast. While we sat in the dining car chatting with the person sharing the table we started to pull out from the Oakland station. Then, several hundred yards out of the station the train came to a stop. Apparently someone had pulled one of the emergency brake cords in one of the cars. The crew had to check each of the two cords in each car, find out which one was pulled, and reset it so that the air brakes could be reset. This took almost a 1/2 hour, but the food was good and we were enjoying just being on the train. The Chief of Onboard Services made an announcement letting us know what was going on plus gave everyone a gentle reminder that pulling the cord when there is no emergency can be considered an act of sabotage and is punishable. We were on our way again shortly.

The food is so goon on this train - in fact I very seldom have a bad meal on any Amtrak train. I usually end up gaining a few pounds every trip. This time, I think I might have found a solution - I've started ordering off the Children's menu when I can. The portions are a lot smaller - in fact just enough food. The dining car staff doesn't seem to mind my ordering from the Children's menu - perhaps it would be different it I were in coach? Perhaps I won't gain as much weight this trip!

The scenery on this trip was fantastic. My favorite portion of the entire trip was from San Louis Obispo south along the coast. It was a sunny day and there was a great deal of wildlife along the coast to watch. I especially enjoyed watching the pelicans diving into the water trying to catch their meals. A great start to our vacation. As an added bonus we got a really neat gift - a Coast Starlight pen - our car attendant gave it to us just before we got to Los Angeles.

Sunday, April 27 - Desert Wind (Los Angeles to Denver)

The 36 hour trip from Los Angeles to Denver was utterly depressing. The trip seemed doomed from the start . We arrived at the train station an hour before our trip. I like to be there early because I'm a worry wart. Union Station is quite an interesting structure and I enjoyed wandering around. When it got close to boarding time a long line for coach passengers had formed. We glanced at the big arrival/departure board and noticed that our train - the Desert Wind was "delayed". The train ended up being delayed almost 1 1/2 hours. We got several explanations for the delay - 'mechanical problems", one person told us the train got in late the night before and they were having a problem getting it cleaned and turned around in time.

Finally we boarded. When we first entered our room - Deluxe Compartment A, there was a "Desert Wind" wine glass - clear bowl with the train's name etched on it and a green stem. There was only 1 and it had obviously been used. Our car attendant stopped by to see how everything was. Before I could even ask about the glass, he noticed the condition of the glass and the fact that there was only 1 - we soon had 2 clean wine glasses and his apologies. Obviously, someone had walked by our unoccupied room and helped themselves to an extra souvenir! When I asked about a route guide he explained that they were all out but that he would see if he could find one in another car. Since the line is ending in a little over a week, they haven't printed any more guides. Our car attendant was helpful and professional, but all through the trip we sensed a feeling of utter dejection from the crew. In talking to the crew we learned that some of them wouldn't have jobs after the 10th of May. Some of them would only have seasonal jobs. The majority of the crew seemed "beaten".

As a portent of what the trip was to be like - somewhere outside of Fullerton - when we were having lunch in the Dining Car we saw the conductor come rushing through with a grim look on his face. Moments later he came back in the other direction looking even grimmer. We commented about the conductor and wondered what was wrong. We learned soon enough - the train came to a stop near Fullerton and was met by an ambulance. We later learned that an elderly gentleman had become ill on the train (heart attack I believe) and later died.

Also adding to the trip was the type of people that were on this particular run. The majority of people that we talked to on the Desert Wind were either on their way to Las Vegas to gamble or were coming home from gambling. At the risk of insulting people, there is (in my opinion), nothing more dull than trying to talk to people whose sole interest is in going to Vegas to gamble. While my husband and I usually enjoy meeting all kinds of people in the dining car and having wonderful conversations, this trip we found meal times excru ciating. We were subjected to discussions of the various benefits/drawbacks of gambling in Las Vegas as compared to Atlantic City and other casinos the people had been to. Perhaps we just had a run of bad luck this time)as the people we had meals with were never interested in discussing other subjects besides gambling, neither did they seem very well informed when off of their pet topic. It was always a relief to finish dinner and return to our compartment.

The Desert Wind also had a new Chief of Onboard Services that seemed to be adding to the mood of the crew. On our second day out we received an invitation that was given to all sleeping car passengers to attend a "get together" in the dining car from 3:00 - 4:00. The serving crew was there to host a wine and cheese party. We have been to these on the Coast Starlight when they are held in the parlor car. But this seemed to really cause the serving crew a great deal of additional work. Here they had been serving meals since 6:30 in the morning - the train was really full. No one was unprofessional, but we sensed that the serving crew was being asked to do a lot more than they usually re. My husband and I were of the opinion that the new Chief was trying something new. It may have been okay for the passengers but it really added to the workload of the crew.

On the plus side, my favorite portion of the Desert Wind was between the Moffitt Tunnel and Denver. The train slowly snaked down the mountain through some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen. The mountains were still snow covered - the river was a breathtakingly steep drop below us. As we neared Denver we had a wonderful night time view of the city lights.

It was a relief to get to Denver. Although it was cold we got in some sightseeing and enjoyed our stay at the Denver Warwick. The Warwick offers a nice service - when we get into the station we can call the hotel and a shuttle will be sent from the hotel free of charge. We spent Wednesday tooling around Denver and Golden. My husband is a graduate of Colorado School of Mines in Golden so we take the #16 bus from Denver to Golden (50 cents each one way!) and Jerry gives me a tour of the campus. I also manage to purchase some turquoise jewelry at a Native American arts/crafts shop before we head back to Denver to meet Jerry's nieces for dinner at the Warwick.

Thursday, May 1 - The Pioneer

I was mentally braced for another "Train of Doom" since the Pioneer is also scheduled to shut down on May 10th. Instead, it was probably the most enjoyable train trip we have taken yet. The crew was upbeat - cheerful, helpful, friendly. They did mention that they would appreciate it if we would write to our congressperson about keeping the trains running, but there was no feeling of depression like we had on the Desert Wind. One of the things that my husband and I didn't like about the Pioneer was the setup of the train. Normally we walk through the sleeping cars to get to the diner, this time we also had to walk through all of the coach cars as well. It was a long walk to the diner. We also had the "A" compartment which was closest to the coach cars and although our car attendant was watchful, we often glanced up during the day to see people from coach staring in at us in our room 'just to see what the room looked like", which I found annoying. We finally closed the curtain and shut the door - not something I like to do because I like to have a bit more air circulation, but I really didn't like having my privacy invaded. On the plus side the sleeper car was the first car behind the baggage car. There was a steady stream of sleeping car passengers walking up to the front of the car where you could look out the window in the (locked) door and see the locomotives pulling the train - I had to get several pictures for my 7 year old nephew who is a big train buff!

The scenery along the route was wonderful. I had never been to this part of the country before. There was a great deal of wildlife - saw bison, antelope and even some elk! The "Devil's Backbone" was quite a sight as well. I wish there was a way that Amtrak could keep this route - what a wonderful section of county this is!

Unlike the Desert Wind, we met several interesting people while on board the Pioneer. My husband and I were very impressed with the crew. Mr. Ralph Reed, the Chief of OnBoard Services was extremely helpful. The dining car crew - Meg Collins and Bryan were great. Last but not least, our Car Attendant, Mr. Ed Forest was the best car attendant we've had on any of our trips. One of our more enjoyable meals was a snack in the lounge portion of the dining car. We met a reporter from the Denver Post who was riding the train and doing a story about it - we had a wonderful time talking about politics and trains.

Our train got into Seatlle about an hour late. This time we stayed at the Seattle Warwick. If you stay at this hotel - try to get a room on the north side. The view was great - we could see Pugit Sound, Lake Washington and the Space Needle from our room on the 17th floor! Like the Warwick in Denver, there is a towncar that will take us to destinations in Seattle free of charge.

Friday, May 2 - The Coast Starlight.

After 7 days and 3 trains I found that I was hitting my 'train limit'. I was also suffering from 'grandeur overload'. We had been viewing some of the most spectacular scenery in the country the last few days, and it was getting to the point that it was becoming hard to appreciate. I was looking forward to getting on the Starlight and going home.

The Starlight is probably the best train that Amtrak runs - they bill it as Superior Service and it is. however, we had a problem this trip (this was the 6th time on the Starlight and we have never had any problems at all). My husband went down to the parlor car and asked the attendant for 2 bottles of water (neither of us can stand the taste of tap water on the train). First, my husband Jerry asked the Chief of onboard services if he could get some bottled water and the chief pointed out the Parlor Car attendant who was standing only a few feet away. My husband asked her for the water and was instructed to ask his car attendant for the water. My husband explained that he couldn't find the car attendant and that he had looked, but couldn't find any bottled water in our car. She told him again that he would have to get the water from the car attendant. My husband was fuming, since she had the bottled water there (we had gotten some earlier from the same parlor car attendant) and since she was standing right by her refrigerator it would only have taken her a moment to pen the door and hand him 2 bottles. My husband came back to our car, looked again but couldn't find the sleeping car attendant, couldn't find the water and even tried the other sleeping car next to ours. He also tried to buy some from the lounge car, but the lounge was closed for the attendants meal break. At this point my husband was rather peeved - not about the water, but about not being able to get anyone to help him!

He finally came back and rang for our attendant. After waiting almost 1/2 hour and not getting any response, my husband began planning the letter he would write to the manger of the Coast Starlight complaining about the service. It was then that I pointed out the flyer in the room with the Coast Starlight's manager's name and phone number printed on it. I handed Jerry the cell phone and figured he would get some voice mail box where he could at least leave a complaint, thinking that it would make him feel better to vent about it. At this point, it wasn't the water - it was the run around and lack of help he was getting. When you're on a train you're pretty much at the mercy of the crew if you need anything. Amazingly, my husband Jerry spoke the manager himself - not a voice mail box. Jerry explained what the problem was and was promised that he (the manager) would look into the problem right away and get it taken care of "in a few minutes". Jerry shut off the cell phone and I looked at my watch. It was 4:06 p.m. by 4:15 p.m. the Chief of On Board Services was at our compartment with our car attendant apologizing for the problem.

In retrospect this probably wasn't the best way to handle the situation. I got the impression that the car attendant and Chief of onboard services, while being very polite were rather peeved off at our handling of the situation. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone to the Chief myself and explained the problem and allowed him to resolve the problem. We got excellent service for the remainder of our trip - but I got the impression that people were going out of their way to make sure that they didn't tick Jerry off again. It was not a comfortable situation. I was utterly relieved when we got to Oakland. On a sad note, we normally get some small parting gift from our attendant when we leave the train - Coast Starlight pens, umbrella's. This time, we didn't get anything. Our attendant didn't even show up to help us with our luggage - a first for us on the Starlight! Jerry did leave her his regular tip and commented that she seemed very suprised when he gave it to her.

All in all, it was an beautiful, but at times dejecting trip.

While Jerry and I both still love train travel, and will continue to ride Amtrak, we both came to the conclusion that Amtrak has to address the problem of how they staff the trains. We have found that while most of the staff do their job, and do it competently, there is also an impression that the staff is working well past capacity. A lot of the trips we have taken for some bizarre reason are with crews that are on their way back home. On the long haul trains this means they may have been working 3 - 6 days straight (or with a short layover before heading home). The crew is exhausted by the end of the trip. We usually do our best to stay out of their way, ask for as little as possible and try to make things as easy as possible for them. Considering what our deluxe compartment costs us when we travel, this is ridiculous. I did some quick calculations on our costs and our deluxe compartment averaged $233.00 per night! There is no way we would pay that kind of cost in a hotel room and accept the level of service we got. Yet we accept it on the trains. Amtrak has to look at a way to shorten the workload of their workers or I fear that they are never going to get the repeat ridership they are hoping for. I am not saying any of this to complain about Amtrak's crews. I have a great deal of respect for the hard work that they do and do well. However, I think management needs to change the way that crews work.

My husband and I love traveling by train. We will continue to travel by Amtrak (we have the tickets for our next two trips already!) We want to see Amtrak succeed, but we also want to enjoy our trips.

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