It's 8:22 a.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2000, and I've just arrived at the Ferry Building in San Francisco where I will be boarding an Amtrak Thruway bus to Oakland, to connect with the Coast Starlight. After arriving at my hotel last night, I received a call from an on-line friend, Duncan Watry, who is a transportation planner with the San Francisco Municipal Railway. We agreed to meet at the corner of Market and Powell at 7:45 p.m. From there, we took the historic Market Street trolley line down to its terminus at the Transbay Terminal, a former terminal for interurban rail lines crossing the Bay Bridge, and now a rather unattractive bus terminal. Then we went downstairs and took the light-rail subway for a few stops, got off, and eventually transferred to a surface light-rail line that took us to Duncan's neighborhood. After spending some time talking at a nearby bar, we walked back to the light-rail line, which I took back to the center of town. Duncan explained to me how all of these light- rail lines used to go down the center of Market Street into downtown San Francisco, but this surface line was replaced by a tunnel about ten years ago. Nevertheless, the surface tracks on Market Street were retained as an "historic" trolley route, and today are served largely by PCC cars, which exist elsewhere, as far as I know, only in Newark (where they are soon to be replaced) and Boston. At present, the light-rail vehicles are under the operator's manual control when operating on the streets, but when in the subway, they are switched to automatic control. It was interesting to watch the operator press a button to implement this switch as he entered the subway section on the way back. I might add, in addition, that I managed to ride on all four light-rail vehicles for a single fare of $1 (for which I received a transfer, which was accepted on the other three trains that I rode).
This morning, following Duncan's advice, I left my hotel at 7:37 a.m. and walked down to Post Street, where I would take the #2 bus to the Ferry Building. I arrived at the bus stop at 7:42 a.m., and just missed one bus, which was shrink-wrapped in red. Then a trolley-bus came by, but I didn't take it. Over ten minutes passed, and no other bus or trolley-bus came by. Finally, at 7:55 a.m. another trolley-bus approached. But it was so crowded that it didn't even stop. Two minutes later, two more trolley-buses came. The first one was also quite full, but the second one was not, and I decided to take it, since I had to be at the Ferry Building by 8:35 a.m., when my Amtrak Thruway bus would depart. Of course, when I boarded, I asked for a transfer. When I asked the driver how far the trolley-bus would be going, several passengers said to me that I would have to get off at Grant Street, the next stop, and take the #2 bus. So I followed their advice. Of course, once I got off, the #2 bus was nowhere to be seen.
Well, I had an 8:35 a.m. bus to make. It was now after 8:00 a.m., and I had no idea when -- or whether -- a #2 bus would ever arrive. I had expected that during rush hour, this bus would run every 5 or 10 minutes. Over 20 minutes had elapsed, and still no bus had appeared. So I decided that I better take some alternative means of transportation. I walked down to Market Street, where I boarded the light-rail subway at the Montgomery station, my transfer being accepted as payment for the ride. Of course, an inbound train came almost immediately, and I took it one stop to its terminus at Embarcadero. As I walked up the stairs to Market Street, about 8:15 a.m., I noticed a #2 bus, shrink-wrapped in blue, going east towards the Ferry Building. I guess the bus finally came after all! (I was subsequently informed by Duncan that the #2 bus runs on 20-minute headways, even during rush hour.) But it was too late for me to take advantage of it. There were only about another two blocks to walk until the plaza in front of the Ferry Building, and although I had some heavy luggage, I could manage to carry it that far.
I finally arrived at the Ferry Building at 8:22 a.m. An Amtrak Thruway bus, painted in the beautiful yellow-and-black colors of Amtrak California, was parked in front, but it turned out to be bound for Emeryville and a connection with a Capitol train. So I walked inside and checked out the Amtrak station, which occupies the northerly part of the Ferry Building. It is a very attractive facility, with the original arches from the historic building adding to the decor. Two agents were on duty. I also walked down to the bay, where you get a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge. The Ferry Building is no longer used for ferries, since the construction of the various bridges across the bay has eliminated the need for most ferry service, but a few commuter ferries still arrive and depart from a pier adjacent to the building.
At 8:30 a.m., our Thruway bus arrived. After stowing my luggage beneath the bus, I boarded, and we were soon on our way. Unlike the previous bus, this one was painted plain white and had no Amtrak identification other than a small sign in the window. It took us over ten minutes to get out of San Francisco, due to traffic congestion, but we arrived at the Amtrak station in Jack London Square about 9:05 a.m.
Although it is at the fringe of an unattractive light industrial area, the Amtrak station also borders Jack London Square, an upscale collection of "unique shops and restaurants" along the waterfront. It is a new station, having opened just a few years ago, and it replaced a classic Southern Pacific depot a few blocks further north that had been damaged in an earthquake. This station may well be the most attractive modern station that Amtrak has ever built. It features a high-ceilinged waiting room, with a steel-arched roof and many windows, reminiscent of the design of the old Penn Station. It is truly an architectural masterpiece, and is a welcome change from the "Amshack-type" architecture that characterizes most new Amtrak stations. Inside, there are both modern, padded seats and two of the old wooden benches from the original station. There is a footbridge of unusual and very attractive design that spans the tracks here, but it leads only to Jack London Square, and not to any station platforms.
I walked into the station, where monitors indicated that our train would be departing on time at 9:30 a.m. Then, at 9:17 a.m., approaching lights indicated that a train was arriving. But it turned out to be nothing more than a local freight train, with two Southern Pacific engines and five cars. At 9:20 a.m., an announcement was made that our train has just departed from Emeryville, and that it is expected to arrive at Oakland at 9:22 a.m. and to depart on time at 9:30 a.m. This seemed rather specious to me; although the distance from Emeryville to Oakland is only five miles, it includes some street running, and cannot possibly be covered in only two minutes.
At 9:35 a.m., the video monitor outside the station was still saying that our train -- which was nowhere in sight -- would be departing on time at 9:30 a.m.! I went back inside the station, where the agent informed me that our train was sitting just eight blocks to the north of the station, having been held there by the dispatcher. But no attempt was made to update the video monitor or to inform the waiting passengers that our train would be delayed in arrival.
Then, at 9:44 a.m., an Amtrak train pulled into the station. But it was not our train. Rather, it was Capitol Train #725 from Colfax. That train had arrived a few minutes early, but it was given priority by the dispatcher since it would be pulling in on the track not adjacent to the station, while our train would be arriving on the station track. Had the Coast Starlight come in first, it would have blocked access to the station from the Capitol train.
I understood all of this, and it was obvious to me that a four-car train of California cars could not possibly be the Coast Starlight. But a number of other passengers who are not as knowledgeable as I am started crossing the station track onto the far platform, thinking that this was their train! I was surprised that the station agent did not at least make an announcement informing the waiting passengers that this was not the Coast Starlight.
Finally, at 9:48 a.m., the Coast Starlight pulled into the station. The rear of the train was just opposite the station itself, so I had to walk down the entire length of the train to get to my sleeper, which was the first passenger car. On the way, I was met by the On-Board Chief and then by my attendant, who assisted me with my luggage. I boarded my car #32076, named Delaware (although I doubt that it has ever been in its namesake state), and went up to my Room #3. This is the third consecutive time on this trip that I've been assigned Room #3 in my sleeper! I guess the computer likes this number! The folding table in my room was covered with a white cloth, there was a vase of flowers on the table, and there was a gift basket with a small bottle of champagne and a few mints.
This is the first time that I've ever booked a sleeper for day travel. I chose to do it for this trip primarily because of the presence on this train of the Pacific Parlour Car, a special lounge car exclusively for sleeping car passengers. This car is a special amenity of this train, and I wanted to have the opportunity of experiencing it once again.
Today's train is pulled by two Genesis P-42 engines, #114 and #120, and includes a baggage car, a transition/crew dorm car, two sleepers, a Pacific Parlour Car, a dining car, a Sightseer Lounge car, three coaches (including one with a "kiddie room" in the lower level), and one express car -- just enough to block the view from the back of the train! Interestingly, the Pacific Parlour Car is the same one that was on the Coast Starlight when I took it for the first time a year ago November. The consist is not as long as it was on my trip last year -- then, there were three sleepers and five coaches on the train. But not all the rooms are occupied today, and there are plenty of empty coach seats.
As soon as I boarded, my attendant, Ron, asked me to proceed to the dining car for breakfast. After briefly detraining to record the numbers of the engines, I did so, and was promptly served my requested selection of orange juice, cold cereal and coffee. In fact, I was already eating my breakfast by the time we departed Oakland at 10:00 a.m., half an hour late. I was just about the only one in the dining car, and soon an announcement was made that the dining car was closed. The attendant soon came around to refill my coffee.
After finishing breakfast, I returned to my room, where I followed our route on my SPV atlas, and started working on these memoirs. Soon, we approached the San Jose station, and an announcement was made that we will be here for five minutes, and that passengers could get off the train and were welcome to smoke on the platform. As far as I can tell, the Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak long-distance train that still prohibits smoking entirely on board. Every other long-distance train is equipped with some kind of a smoking lounge, but the Coast Starlight instead has a "kiddie lounge" on the lower level of one of the coaches. So on this train, the only opportunity for passengers to smoke is at the various stops that we make.
We pulled into the beautifully restored Mission-style station at San Jose at 11:00 a.m. I got off and walked into the station building, and then reboarded at the rear coach just before we departed six minutes later. After returning to my room, I took my computer and went to the Pacific Parlour Car, where I sat down at a table and continued working on these memoirs, after taking some fruit from the selection available. Soon the attendant came by and brought me a cup of herbal tea.
At 11:40 a.m., we passed through Gilroy. The beautifully restored Mission-style station was visible to our right. Gilroy is the terminus of CalTrans trains to San Francisco, and the parking lot adjacent to the station seemed quite full. South of Gilroy, the route began twisting as we passed through green- covered hills on which cattle were grazing. Although I had traversed this area on my last trip on the Coast Starlight, this would be the first time that I would have the opportunity to see it in daylight. We crept by a rock quarry that had its own engine and hopper cars, labeled "Granite Rock." On the scanner, I heard us being given permission to pass through a work area, and soon a Union Pacific track crew was visible to our left, working on the track immediately adjacent to the train. It took us about 20 minutes to pass through this work area at a very slow rate of speed.
My computer's batteries began to run low, and there did not appear to be any outlets next to the tables in the Pacific Parlour Car, so I moved over to the plush armchair seats at the end of the car, where there are several plugs. I started talking to Bill and Mary, a couple from Canton, Ohio who were sitting opposite me. They had come out to visit the wife's brother in Seattle, taking the Three Rivers and Empire Builder, and were now going from Seattle to Los Angeles, and then to Las Vegas. They enjoyed their trip on the Empire Builder very much, and thought that the Coast Starlight was even better (they were particularly pleased that they had been assigned to the sleeper Ohio, named after their home state!). But they had only negative things to say about their trip to the Chicago on the Three Rivers, noting that they had to wait outside the Akron station for two hours in freezing weather because their train was late.
We soon passed through Castroville, the "artichoke capitol of the world," with artichoke fields visible on either side of the train. Then, at 12:47 p.m., we arrived in Salinas. Somewhat to my surprise, this was announced as a five-minute smoking stop, so I stepped outside, where I noticed a large number of boxes, labeled "Salinas Orchids," being driven in a cart down to the baggage car. Apparently, Amtrak does a good business shipping these orchids to Los Angeles, and it took quite a while to load everything on the train. The outside of the station is stucco and brick, with a rather modern appearance. But inside, the station is a real gem, with a mural on the wall and a high, timber-truss ceiling. Our stop here lasted for 14 minutes, and when we departed at 1:01 p.m., we were nearly an hour late.
We now proceeded south through the Salinas Valley, a flat valley in between two mountain ranges. This area is ideal for growing vegetables, and fields were visible on both sides of the train for the entire valley.
About 1:20 p.m., right before the final call was made for lunch, I went to the dining car for lunch. After a brief wait, I was seated at a table opposite a young Chinese man, who was going to Los Angeles. He did not speak English well, so we hardly spoke during the meal. I ordered a salad for lunch.
A few minutes later I was served a beautiful and attractive salad, consisting of lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes, cucumbers and onions, and garnished with cantaloupe, grapes and strawberries. It was one of the nicest salads I have ever been served on an Amtrak train.
When I finished lunch, I returned to my room and then went back to the Pacific Parlour Car, where I again sat down on one of the armchairs and continued working on these memoirs. At 2:28 p.m., at the tiny village of Bradley, we came to a stop. Listening to the scanner, it was apparent that we would be meeting another train here. We waited here for nine minutes, and then a local freight train, pulled by two UP and SP engines, and consisting of only two or three cars, passed us to the left. We then proceeded ahead, but I was a little surprised that we had been put onto a siding for this dinky local train. We started moving again, but soon stopped for another five minutes while the engineer received clearance from the dispatcher to proceed. All in all, we probably lost another 15 minutes here.
At 3:00 p.m., the wine tasting was announced. It consisted of nothing more than the attendant coming around and giving everyone who requested it complimentary glasses of two kinds of wine. There were also platters of wine, cheese and fruit put out for all "guests," and I helped myself to some of the fruit. Somewhat to my surprise, there were only about a dozen passengers in the car at this point.
We made a very brief stop at Paso Robles at 3:09 p.m. Last time, I hadn't been able to catch a glimpse of the station here, and I was very surprised to see a new but very attractive station in a classic design recently constructed here. Paso Robles is not a manned station, and only a handful of passengers boarded here, so it seemed odd to me that such a beautiful station would be constructed in this locality. Subsequently, though, I was informed by a passenger who boarded there that in addition to being a railroad station, the building is also a bus station and houses the local chamber of commerce and a rental car agency. The old yellow-painted frame station just to the south is also being restored, and a large addition is being constructed. When we departed Paso Robles, we were an hour and 17 minutes late.
At 3:35 p.m., prior to reaching the scenic Cuesta Grade, leading down to our next stop, San Luis Obispo, we stopped again, and then proceeded very slowly onto a siding. From communications on the scanner and a glance at the timetable, it was apparent that we would be passing the northbound Coast Starlight, which we did at 3:54 p.m. From what I could see, the northbound train had two Genesis P-42 engines, but for some reason it was headed by an F-40. Even once we passed the northbound train, we still crawled along for another eight minutes until we finally crossed back onto the main track.
Now we were approaching the Cuesta Grade, one of the most scenic features on the route. Here the line goes through several tunnels, then curves back on two switchbacks, one of which is particularly spectacular. To best see the views, I went to the Sightseer Lounge car, whose windows afford the most expansive views of the scenery. Unfortunately, just at this point it started raining rather steadily, and although I could still see the views out the window, the rain made it impossible to get any pictures. Ironically, it had also just begun to rain when we approached the Cuesta Grade last year. Hopefully, I'll have better luck next time!
I sat down in the Sightseer Lounge car next to Ryan, a college student who had boarded the train early this morning in Chico and would be getting off at San Luis Obispo. He had done this trip several times previously. Ryan was also a hiker, and he gave me his e-mail address so that we could keep in touch. Across from us sat a woman who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and was traveling just from Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo. She mentioned that this was the first time she's taken the train on this route, and I replied that she'd have to do it again on a day with more favorable weather!
We finally arrived at the beautiful San Luis Obispo station at 4:35 p.m. Ordinarily, I would have gotten off here and walked into the station, since this was another "smoking stop," but it was raining out, and I already visited this station on my last Coast Starlight trip. So, instead, I just briefly stepped off the train. Our stop here lasted for 12 minutes, and when we departed at 4:47 p.m., we were still one hour and 17 minutes late, not having made up any time since our last stop, despite the fact that there is half an hour of make-up time built into the schedule.
I returned to the Pacific Parlour Car and, on Ryan's recommendation, I purchased a bottle of ale made by a small brewery in Seattle, which was very good. I also got some more fruit, and continued working on these memoirs. Then I took another walk through the coaches, where I found that most pairs of seats were still occupied by at least one person. On the way, I noticed that a fruit platter had also been placed in the Sightseer Lounge Car, where coach passengers could take advantage of it. This seemed to be a very nice touch.
About 5:55 p.m., we came to a stop on a bridge crossing the Santa Ynez River, right by the ocean. We were at Surf, the beginning of our 100-mile stretch where we run directly along the ocean. I joked with one of the passengers that the purpose of the stop was to permit people to jump off the train into the river and go swimming, but, of course, the real reason was that we were about to meet another freight train, which came by about five minutes later. This time, we pulled into a siding and then backed out again onto the main line. We started moving again about 6:07 p.m. This was the third time on this trip that we had stopped to permit an opposing train to pass, and we had lost about another 15 minutes as a result.
Not only was it still raining, but it was now almost completely dark. Unfortunately, our late running meant that we would be covering this extremely scenic portion of the trip in the darkness. But I did see this stretch of scenery last time, when it got dark just north of San Luis Obispo. So the two trips basically complement each other -- what I didn't see last time, I saw this time, and vice versa.
I returned to my room, where I had spent very little time since boarding the train this morning in Oakland. Actually, I hadn't really expected to spend all that much time there, since the main reason for my deciding to take the sleeper was to permit me to spend time in the Pacific Parlour Car.
Precisely at 6:35 p.m., the time for which I had made my dinner reservation, we were called to the dining car. I was seated next to a doctor from Klamath Falls who was traveling to Los Angeles (and who occupied the room across from me), and opposite a man from Scotland who boarded the train in Eugene and was also going to Los Angeles. Both of these people were traveling in sleepers, and the Scottish man had upgraded to a deluxe bedroom. We were all served salads, and about ten minutes later, our entrees -- pot roast and fish -- arrived. We all were quite pleased with the food. I found it remarkable that everyone desiring dinner could be served in four sittings beginning at 5:00 p.m. and ending at 6:35 p.m. It would seem that this is due largely to the efficiency of the crew and the fact that, unlike the situation on the California Zephyr, both sides of the dining car are being used tonight. (Of course, the speedy dining car service could also be attributed to the fact that the crew wanted to get everything cleaned up before our arrival at Los Angeles. But the important point is that everyone who wanted dinner had the opportunity to be served a meal at a reasonable and appropriate hour.)
During dinner, at about 6:50 p.m., we stopped once more for a meet with a northbound train. This time, it was with the San Diegan #779, the other Amtrak train that goes as far north as San Luis Obispo. Train #779 is scheduled to leave Santa Barbara at 5:25 p.m. and to arrive in San Luis Obispo at 8:35 p.m. About ten minutes later, the train, made up of Amfleet or Horizon equipment, passed us to the left, and we resumed moving about five minutes later. This was the fourth meet of the day, and we had lost another 15 minutes or so as a result.
After dinner, I returned to my room, but stepped off the train once again when we arrived in Santa Barbara at 7:42 p.m. Although it was announced that, because of our lateness, we would be making a short stop here, passengers were permitted to get off the train if they wished. When I was here last year, the station was in the process of being restored, and there was a temporary Amshack, consisting of a trailer to the north of the station. Now, though, the restoration was complete, so I walked into the station to check it out. I was quite impressed by the beautifully restored interior. Santa Barbara is a much smaller station than some of the other ones along this route. It contains two relatively small waiting rooms, one with standard wooden benches, and the other one with an unusual circular wooden bench. At 7:48 p.m., an "all-aboard" call was made, and we left a minute later. We were now just over an hour and a half late.
After spending a little more time in my room, I walked back to the coaches and sat for a while in an empty pair of seats in the second coach. I did some reading, and before I knew it we were arriving at our next stop, Oxnard. I stepped off the train very briefly here, and after a two-minute stop, we departed at 8:37 p.m.
On the way back to my room, I stopped at the Pacific Parlour Car, where I purchased a green Coast Starlight cap, obtained a cup of herb tea, and sat down at the semi-circular couch in the middle of the car. The car was nearly deserted, and I started talking to the couple sitting opposite me. They had started their trip in Seattle on Monday, then spent two nights in San Francisco, and reboarded the train this morning in Oakland. This was their first train trip, and they were traveling in an economy bedroom for the entire trip -- including today's Oakland-Los Angeles segment. The husband related to me how, this morning, they had missed the connecting bus from San Francisco to Oakland (it seems that they didn't know where to go to get the bus), and had to take a cab instead. Then I returned to my room.
Soon the attendant in my car announced that we would be arriving in Los Angeles in about 45 minutes, and that he would be coming by to collect pillows and used towels. I starting packing up my belongings. When I went downstairs to stow away some items in the two pieces of luggage that I had left downstairs, I noticed that the attendant had already taken all the luggage out the storage area and stacked it up in the vestibule, against one of the doors.
We arrived at our next-to-last stop, Glendale, which features an historic stucco station, at 9:38 p.m., and left two minutes later. It took only ten minutes to get from Glendale to Los Angeles, a distance of six miles, although the timetable allows 45 minutes for this trip. Before I knew it, we had arrived on Track 10 of Los Angeles Union Station. It was 9:50 p.m., and we were only 35 minutes late, having made up nearly an hour since we left Santa Barbara -- much more time than I thought was possible. The connecting train to San Diego, scheduled to depart at 9:50 p.m., was across the platform on Track 9, and it was, of course, held for a few minutes so that passengers on our train could transfer to it.
After putting away the rest of my belongings, I detrained, and gave a minimal tip to my attendant, Ron, commensurate with the minimal services that he had provided to me. I then walked down to the station and made my way out to the open courtyard where the buses and vans arrive. My online friend Matt Meltzer had recommended that I take the Metropolitan Express van, which meets all trains, to my hotel, and I found the van in its assigned location. There ended up being seven of us in the van, and the first stop was Pasadena -- completely out of the way for me.
The couple traveling to Pasadena, like everyone else in the van, had arrived on the Coast Starlight. They were from Cleveland, and were coming to Los Angeles to attend a music store owner's convention. They flew to Seattle earlier in the week, took the Coast Starlight to Sacramento, spent a few days there, and now were taking the train to Los Angeles. They mentioned that although they had an economy bedroom for the Seattle-Los Angeles leg of the trip, they traveled by coach for today's daytime trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and they were surprised to find that the coach seats were far more comfortable than the seats in their sleeping car room. I pointed out the fact that sleeping car passengers always have the option of sitting for part of the trip in coach seats if they prefer (as long as empty seats are available), and remarked that if I were traveling with another person in an economy bedroom, I would probably spend relatively little time in my room during daytime hours, since these small rooms barely have enough room for two people to sit.
We finally arrived at my hotel in Beverly Hills at about 10:45 p.m. The fare for the trip was $19, which did not seem unreasonable, despite the out-of-the-way detour that I had to endure.
This concluded my week-long transcontinental rail trip. For seven out of the last eight days, I've been on an Amtrak train for at least part of the day. And much of the remaining time has been spent traveling on commuter and light-rail trains and visiting a railroad museum. It's been a pretty intense rail week, but I've enjoyed it very much. Everything went just about as planned and, amazingly, every train I took arrived at my destination reasonably on time. Indeed, today's Coast Starlight, which arrived 35 minutes late, had the latest arrival of all five Amtrak trains that I took. I did not meet a single obnoxious or disagreeable Amtrak crew member on any leg of the trip, and several conductors and attendants were particularly nice and helpful. It's been a really wonderful experience, and today's ride on the Coast Starlight was a fitting climax to the trip.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers