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Amtrak Pioneer & Desert Wind Travelogues
From Pat Casey
http://www.trainweb.com/travel/travelog/log_pc01.htm

From:    horst@europa.com
Date:    5/18/97  9:02:13PM
To:      Stephen Grande
Subject: A Desert Wind/Pioneer Travelogue

Steve -- As always, I wish to compliment you on your excellent page. It
is the first thing I check every day when logging on! I am sending along
an account of a trip I took in March on our late friends, The Desert
Wind and The Pioneer. I've also thrown in a copy of something I sent to
you a few months ago, but I remember you mentioned you had lost some
files from correspondents with a hardware or software problem back in
March. If you're interested, I have photos from my Pioneer trip as well
as photos of one of the last Pioneers passing Multnomah Falls, a 600'
waterfall about 30 minutes east of Portland.

    I sent you a long e-mail shortly after you visited Portland Union
Station's first class lounge in March. I'm glad you enjoyed the facility
-- we are lucky to have an excellent Amtrak staff here. I understand
that lounge was the result of one of those staffers who saw some space
going unusued and asked if a lounge could be installed. "Why not?" came
the reply and he oversaw the work. This same guy is also known for
helping restock dining cars when they come through Portland. Amtrak does
not maintain any sort of commesary here, so this guy apparently rushes
out to a local market when he gets the call!

    Good luck in your efforts with the Amtrak Historical Society. If
you're at all interested, I have photos from a 1969 journey on the Great
Northern "Western Star" between Portland and Glacier Park, a 1971 trip
on Amtrak's Empire Builder to Glacier, and three trips in the mid-70s
between Portland and Chicago.

    Keep up the good work!   --- Pat Casey

>From Los Angeles to Portland via the Desert Wind and The Pioneer

    In March my family and I headed from our native Portland to Los
Angeles for a short holiday. My wife and her sister are fine art
aficionados, so they concentrated on the Getty, the L.A. County Museum of
Art, and the Huntington. While they bettered themselves I checked out the
air museum in Santa Monica, the Peterson Auto Museum, and I also spent some
time in Malibu comparing Southern California's beaches with those in my
native Northwest. We also did the classics: Universal City, Warner Bro's
studio tour, lunch at the Polo Lounge, and so on and so on.

    For a passenger rail fan there is the obvious attraction of making
either part or all the journey by rail; the Coast Starlight makes an
overnight run from Portland to L.A. and I have yet to ride a sleeper aboard
that train since its upgrade a couple of years ago. But a longer look at
Amtrak's national schedule showed I could make the same journey aboard two
doomed runs: the Desert Wind and the Pioneer. I had ridden the Pioneer last
December and back in the 1970s when it was first introduced, but now it was
on borrowed time scheduled for termination in May. I had never ridden the
Desert Wind and it too was scheduled for a May demise, plus it traveled
through areas of the California and Nevada deserts that I had never
visited. My family would have been happy to take the Starlight between L.A.
and Portland but the Desert Wind/Pioneer route would add an extra day to
the trip, and it required a less than restful stopover along the way so
they elected to fly both ways. My wife and I find the standard bedroom
slightly cramped for two (we both find the upper bunk a bit narrow and,
unless you sleep on your side, the ceiling seems slightly too close for
comfort), so if I made the journey alone at least I'd save a bit of money
over the cost for a delux bedroom.

    Making this journey required a less than convenient layover in Salt
Lake City, but for the sake of doing something that would soon be
impossible I decided to give it a go. The Desert Wind departed L.A. at
10:45 am and got to Salt Lake around 3:20 the next morning. On certain days
an Amtrak bus would leave Salt Lake at 8:10 pm that same day to connect
with the westbound Pioneer, which arrived in Ogden around 9:30. The Pioneer
traveled overnight through Boise and Eastern Oregon (along the route of
Union Pacific's superliner The City of Portland) and then arrived in
Portland at 2:30 pm or so the next day. The two runs only coincided on
certain days, so to make this trip work we had to fly south and then I
would take the two trains home.

    I set up in January and, as is my usual experience with Amtrak
reservations people, everything went smoothly. I had a bit of trouble
trying to reserve a room in Salt Lake, though. I was looking for something
modest and close to the station, since I wouldn't be in town long enough to
enjoy more posh accommodations. A look at the AAA Guide showed a couple of
chain motels within a few blocks of the station. I called the national
reservations numbers for each asking if it were possible to reserve a room
with the ungodly check-in time of 3:30 am. For some reason both reservation
agents were stumped by this; they suggested I call the properties directly.
This I did, to encounter the Catch-22 response from one that while I could
check in at that hour, I would have to make such a reservation through the
national reservation number! I assume I was dealing with inexperienced
people rather than incompetent policy, but this episode demonstrates the
importance of training telephone people -- they are in many cases a
business's first and at times only contact with customers. The other motel
was able to take a reservation for me so needless to say I stayed there.

    When the day for my trip arrived we had breakfast in downtown L.A.
at The Original Pantry -- as much for the ambiance as the food -- and then
got to Union Station about an hour before my train left. As amateur
architecture fans we enjoyed walking around the station and as history
buffs we enjoyed the old photos on display near the main entrance. It was
interesting to find, or example, that the station was located at what was
perceived in the 1930s to be the up-and-coming part of town that would
evolve into a downtown core area like in Eastern cities, but in 1941 the
city council decided L.A. would remain a low-density, spread-out city and
continued zoning accordingly. As a result the station remained somewhat on
the periphery of downtown rather than in the center of things as in other
major cities. Now though that is changing with construction of L.A.'s
subway system, which makes Union Station one of its major hubs. It does
make you wonder, though, if L.A. would have developed any differently if
the city council had begun zoning differently back in the 40s.

    Being L.A., it was also not much of a surprise to find a film
company at work in the station. After watching for a few minutes we
realized they had dressed part of the station to look, ironically, like an
airport! That explained why a sign near the entrance to the gate area said
"International Passengers Only." At first I wondered if there were some new
rail service from L.A. to Mexico, but then I realized that sign was the
film company's doing. I wasn't able to ask any of the crew what the
production was, but it looked like a television movie -- I'll keep my eyes
peeled for the next few months.

    When my train was called I made my way to my sleeper. The car
attendant didn't leave much of an impression -- he was pleasant enough, but
there was a standoffish edge to him. I found my room, put my coat on the
hanger in the skinny closet, and settled in. The attendant never officially
greeted me or had much to say at all, although he seemed helpful for other
passengers who needed his assistance. My family had taken  most of our
luggage with them so I had the luxury of just taking an overnight bag,
along with my video and still cameras. We pulled out right on time and I
found the views of the L.A. River and the industrial areas of East L.A.
more interesting than I had expected. By midday we were clearly in desert
country, which I find very interesting since it is such a glaring contrast
from my native Northwest.

    The diner was right next to my sleeper so I didn't have far to go
for lunch. One of my table mates was a fellow passenger rail fan from L.A.
so we were soon yakking away comparing various rail journeys, both via
Amtrak and the private rail companies. I am just old enough and lucky
enough to have ridden the Empire Builder back when it was still run by the
Great Northern, which unlike many of the Eastern roads had kept its
passenger service in fairly good shape through the 60s. My table mate was a
special fan of the Southern Pacific -- he even had a book on that road's
diners with him -- so it was great fun comparing notes. I've found that
many railfans have their own favorite roads; mine are the G.N. and a short
line it and the Northern Pacific used to own called the Spokane, Portland,
& Seattle. Those three roads merged in the 70s with the Burlington Route to
form Burlington Northern., which of course has recently bought out the
Santa Fe. In its day the S.P. & S. was noted for such friendly gestures as
taking fishermen along on freight runs into Central Oregon and dropping
them off along at otherwise inaccessible stretches of the Deschutes River!

    My new friend pointed out that the S.P. used to do a tremendous
business between L.A. and Las Vegas, so it seemed sad that Amtrak was
pulling completely out of that route. One of the train crew mentioned he'd
heard rumors that an L.A. -- Las Vegas run might be instituted in the near
future, since it a wonderful alternative to a long drive through the desert
and it is potentially much more convenient than air travel because of the
congestion at all the L.A.-area airports. This of course would be
wonderful, but it's still a shame that Southern Nevada would be cut off
from the Chicago and points east.

    When we got to Barstow my friend noted a pleasant sight: that
town's old Santa Fe station was in the midst of a complete renovation, and
it was looking very nice indeed. He told me that Bartstow's station was
home to one of the famous Fred Harvey restaurants, which were an early
chain located in railroad depots around the country in the years before
diners became common on passenger trains. Back in the 1880s diners were
just coming into use. Most trains had scheduled meal stops of 30 - 40
minutes, which made for less than fine dining. If the stop was at a Fred
Harvey restaurant, however, the train staff would pass out menus to
passengers roughly an hour before the meal stop. Those wishing to eat would
fill out forms with their orders, which would be telegraphed ahead when the
train was roughly a half hour from its meal stop. Lunch or dinner would
then be waiting at the meal stop!

    The Fred Harvey restaurants remained in the stations after dining
cars became common and often evolved into the finest place to eat in town,
especially smaller cities such as Barstow. The Harvey restaurant facilities
and fixtures at L.A.'s Union Station are still there, although the room is
closed to the public and is only available, I understand, as a rental. I
had known of the Harvey chain but I didn't realize they had a branch in
Barstow or at Union Station -- one more example of how getting to know
local folks can enrich a journey!

    The approach to Las Vegas was interesting because as the train
approached it you could see the casino structures -- such as the Egyptian
pyramids and the recreation of Manhattan -- off in the distance rising from
the otherwise deserted desert floor. This was my new friend's destination,
so I got off to bid him adieu and take a quick look at the fabled gambler's
oasis. We left right on time and I headed into my room to take a few photos
and then read until dinner. My dining companions that evening were two
women who had taken vacations in Las Vegas and were now returning to
Detroit. I had the fish option and I found it a bit dry and tasteless. I
had the apple pie for dessert and it was fine, so dinner wasn't a
completely dull experience.

    Since I had such a bracing arrival time at my destination I turned
in early. Several revelers had boarded the sleeper in Las Vegas so I feared
I'd have a noisy evening, although once I slid my door closed the noise was
not a problem. As expected the attendant was nowhere to be found, so I put
the bed down myself. I actually don't mind this a bit, but I do appreciate
it if the attendant at least drops by and sees if I need anything. Because
I didn't want to fuss with getting dressed in the dead of night I took off
my shoes but kept the rest of my clothes on and slept on top of the covers
on my berth. Ordinarily when going to bed in an Amtrak sleeper I change
into gym shorts and a t-shirt, since sleeping in a real bed with real
sheets is one of the delights of first class rail travel. I tend to awaken
once or twice per night anyway, so I wasn't too worried about sleeping
through my stop. The attendant, obviously, is supposed to ensure you are up
and at em before your stop but I was just concerned enough about this guy
that I didn't want to rely upon him. On top of that Salt Lake is a
scheduled 50 minute stop, so even if I awoke after our arrival I'd have
time to get my stuff together and detrain.

    As it happened I did awaken about 20 minutes out of Salt Lake, so I
got my stuff together and put the bed up. The attendant did happen by a bit
later and sounded a buzzer in my room and yelled "Salt lake!" -- I hadn't
realized Amtrak sleepers had a buzzer system, but it makes sense for
situations like this, when the attendant may have to rouse one passenger in
the middle of the night. The buzzer allows him or her to do this without
bothering other passengers. We arrived in Salt Lake right on time. About
then I discovered I had no bills in my wallet smaller than a ten and I
didn't think the attendant had earned such a tip. I ended up not tipping
him at all, which made me feel a bit cheap but then the guy had not
provided very good service. I detrained, headed to the station and hoped
I'd be able to find a cab at that hour. Luckily one was waiting; I got to
my motel a few minutes later, took a quick shower, and crashed.

    The next morning I had breakfast near the motel and walked around
Temple Square, which was a block away, and an adjacent shopping
center/Marriott Hotel complex. I had not been to Salt Lake for a number of
years and I did not realize what truly huge city blocks they have. My
three-block journey seemed like a couple of miles! I dropped in to the
Mormon Genealogical Library which is an impressive archive and well worth a
visit to any with an interest in their predecessors. I had to check out of
my room at midday but the motel let me store my bag until my bus left for
Ogden. I caught a movie at the shopping center and had a bite at the
Marriott's casual dining spot, and then made my way to Salt Lake's station.
Our Pioneer conductor and about ten Pioneer-bound passengers boarded the
Amtrak bus for the short run to Ogden, where we would meet the train. It
was due early at Ogden, so I didn't have long to investigate that city's
station, which appears to be a clever combination of rail station, U.S.
Forest Service office and information center, and restaurant. The eatery
looked like a very nice prime rib/steak house kind of place, and it was
packed.

    As promised the Pioneer arrived about ten minutes early (schedule
padding strikes again; but I think I understand why Amtrak finds it
necessary). What a difference a good sleeping car attendant makes! She was
on the platform to greet us and was thus able to take care of a minor
problem: a family had reserved two economy bedrooms but were not able to
get two rooms adjoining each other. The attendant looked at her list and
discovered the room reserved for me was right next to one they held; would
I be willing to switch? I was happy to oblige. They were on the same side
of the car as I was, so I would not be giving up any view to make the
switch. After I got to my room and settled in the attendant asked if I'd
like some wine. Yes, said I so she brought a split of special Empire
Builder chardonnay and two Pioneer glasses. We chatted for a bit and she
asked when I'd like my bed put down; I told her I'd be happy to do it
myself when the time came which was just fine by her. I drank the wine to
help my sleep, put down the bed, and climbed in under the sheets to read a
bit. After reading I put out all the lights, even the small blue "night
light," because as other travelogue writers have noted, you can see a
surprising amount of scenery by moonlight. This was the case, so I drifted
off watching Utah glide by.

    I woke up about dawn the next day, in time to watch the train's
journey along the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho. We were right on
time into Ontario and then Baker City, Oregon. From that point the train
begins climbing to get through the Blue Mountains, which makes for a scenic
run. At about 6:30 I made my way to the diner, which was just opening up. I
shared a table with two railfans who happened to be across the hall from me
in the sleeping car. They pointed out something I hadn't realized before:
our train was something of an odd consist (at least as far as I was aware)
because our sleeper was the first car after the head end and baggage car.
Ordinarily sleepers are at the end of a consist. Perhaps our arrangement
was because the Pioneer was combined with the California Zephyr between
Chicago and Denver. Anyhow, the upshot was the rare forward view you saw
from the window in the sleeper's "front"door. After breakfast we headed for
that window and spent the next hour or so exchanging places with other
passengers wishing to shoot photos of the scenery directly ahead. The true
railfans among us delighted in seeing the signals change color at our
approach.

    In that vestibule I met a charming couple on something of a
sentimental journey: they had met back in 1971 on one of the final runs of
the City of Portland, one of the Pioneer's ancestors, back when it was
still run by Union Pacific. Both were avid passenger rail fans and they
were trying to get in one more ride along this route. They were planning a
ride across Canada this summer aboard Via Rail's famous Vancouver-Toronto
"Canadian." That is something I want to do both for the incomparable
mountain scenery and the recently refurbished equipment. The Canadian's
cars are 1950s-era streamliner equipment, including three dome cars and an
absolutely classic car which crack passenger trains from the late 30s on
often carried at the end of a consist: an observation car, instantly
recognizable by of the rounded-off end.

    I had enjoyed riding similar cars on my first rail journey in 1969
and then again in the 70s before Amtrak phased in the Superliner equipment.
That brings up a slight disappointment about Amtrak's sightseer lounges:
you have wonderful views off to the sides, but you can't see directly ahead
or behind like the old domes. Another disappointment, although minor: I
wish all the seats were swivel chairs. I find the bench seats fine, but the
seats at end of each bench, the ones at a 45-degree angle, strike me as
almost unusable unless you have tiny legs. If it were possible to replace
those angled built-in seats with seats that somehow adjusted, I suspect it
would be more comfortable. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if the current
seat arrangement is a budgetary issue -- swivel chairs probably cost more
in the beginning and cost more to maintain.

    We had sunny weather for the run through Eastern Oregon, but clouds
started rolling in when we reached the Columbia Gorge at The Dalles. The
scenery of that area is spectacular, but from a moving train it is only at
its best for fairly short glimpses. Still, it is enough to hold your
interest. It was always a major disappointment that Amtrak did not provide
a Sightseer Lounge on the Pioneer west of Denver (it went with the Zephyr
to Oakland or the Desert Wind to Los Angeles, I believe). The nature of the
Gorge's scenery, and the location of the tracks very close to a sheer rock
wall which made views out of one side of the train dramatically superior to
the other side were designed for the Lounge car, with its superior
visibility.

    Between Hood River and Multnomah Falls we pulled off to a siding. I
assumed we were making room for a freight, but one of the train crew
announced we were pulling over to make way for our "sister train,"the
eastbound Pioneer. It was running late and we were ahead of schedule, so we
were meeting at an unusual location. For the sake of an historical picture
I wandered down to my sleeping car's first level vestibule and opened the
window in the door -- something Amtrak strongly suggests you avoid. They
are concerned that someone hanging out that window may be injured by flying
debris, but I felt that was a minor problem since we were stopped. On top
of that, this would be one of the last times the two trains met (perhaps
the last time they would meet at this particular point), and the curve of
the track ahead would make an excellent photo of the two trains together.
Nobody hassled me and I got some wonderful photos of the meeting.

    We continued on schedule for the rest of our run into Portland. I
got my stuff together and stayed in my room as long as possible, to enjoy
the scenery. The last few miles into Portland are nothing spectacular (the
track hugs I-84 and parallels the local light rail line), but this would
possibly be the last time I would be viewing these sights from a sleeping
car. We pulled into Portland's Union Station right on time and with no
little disappointment and sadness I detrained. I tipped the car attendant
$20, perhaps a bit steep for a journey of only one night, but she deserved
it. Contrary to what had been written elsewhere the discontinuation of the
Pioneer in May was not the first time passenger service had been disrupted
along the Union Pacific main line from Denver to Portland -- there was no
service from the beginning of Amtrak in 1971 until the Pioneer debuted in
1977 -- but still it seems like we've broken a link with the past and we're
cutting off our noses to spite our face by throttling Amtrak's share of
federal funding. In spite of that, my journey was delightful; I find it a
major disappointment that I won't be able to retrace my steps by rail
anytime soon. --- Pat Casey


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