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Amtrak Pioneer &
Desert Wind Travelogues
From Pat Casey

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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