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Daniel Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's Cascades
Seattle-Portland, June 26, 2000
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2000f26/2000f26.html

It's about 7:15 a.m. on Monday, June 26, 2000, and I've just arrived at the King Street Station in Seattle where I will be boarding Talgo train #751 for Portland. Yesterday, I flew from Newark, N.J. to Seattle, and took a bus from the airport to downtown. The fare for this ride, which took me within two blocks from my hotel, was only $2.00, and that entitled me to an all-day pass allowing me to use all Seattle buses and trolleys for the entire day for no additional charge! I took advantage of this unexpected benefit, and rode quite a few buses and trolleys to various places of interest, including Discovery Park -- a magnificent nature preserve to the northwest of downtown, which features trails with dense, tropical-like vegetation and outstanding views of the Puget Sound. Although Seattle has many trolley-buses (buses with rubber tires that operate on electricity, with overhead wires and trolley poles), it has only one actual trolley line which runs on rails. This Waterfront Line is not an historic trolley route, but rather a tourist attraction which features restored streetcars from Melbourne, Australia, but I did make a point of riding it (for free, of course, with my $2.00 pass!). The line primarily runs along an abandoned freight right-of-way paralleling the waterfront, which has now become an entertainment complex.

About 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, I took a bus down to the King Street Station. This is a grand brick station with a high clock tower, built around the turn of the century by the Great Northern Railway. The magnificent exterior of the building remains pretty much untouched, but the large waiting room has been "modernized" with the addition of a very unattractive dropped ceiling (which itself is now grimy from age). It reminds me of the story of how Penn Station, New York was destroyed -- a false ceiling was erected above the concourse, and the magnificent architectural details of the station above the false ceiling were then demolished. But there is one crucial difference. In the case of the King Street Station, nothing has been demolished. Rather, the original plaster ceiling with all the ornamentation is still there, covered up by the ugly attempt at "improving" the station. Pictures on the wall show the station in its former glory, and signs proclaim that the dropped ceiling will soon be removed and the waiting room restored to its original beauty! This is quite heartening to hear, and the signs also predict that usage of the station will increase significantly as both corridor and commuter service are expanded.

Yesterday, when I arrived at the station, the place was packed. The Empire Builder was already loaded and about ready to depart to Spokane and Chicago, and behind it was a very long Talgo train scheduled to depart for Portland at 5:20 p;m. Passengers were required to check in at a desk where they were assigned specific seats in a particular car, each car on the train being identified with illuminated numbers on the exterior. This is the first time that I've seen this done for coach passengers on a Amtrak train. Other passengers were waiting for the 5:30 p.m. departure to Bellingham. There was a "gay pride" parade held yesterday in Seattle, which might explain the large number of people on these trains. The area of the station is currently under construction, with additional tracks being added for the Sounder commuter service between Seattle and Tacoma, scheduled to commence this fall.

This morning, I decided to travel to the station via a trolley-bus that uses a special Metro Tunnel under Third Street. This tunnel is closed on Sundays, but on weekday commuter hours, there is very frequent service provided. The tunnel is equipped with rails, to be used in the future by light-rail vehicles, but for now, all trolleys using the tunnel are rubber-tired vehicles. I took the trolley for two stops, and got off right next to the old Union Station, located on the opposite side of the street from the King Street Station. Due to the topography of the City of Seattle, all rail lines serving the city follow one corridor running south to north, and therefore Union Station -- used by the Milwaukee Road and the Union Pacific Railroad until the advent of Amtrak in 1971 -- is right next to the King Street Station, formerly used by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads. Union Station no longer serves as a railroad station, and the tracks leading to it have been removed and replaced by office buildings, but the station building itself now serves as the headquarters of the local transit agency, and the magnificent arched concourse -- even nicer, in my opinion, than the King Street Station (as originally built) -- is now beautifully restored and open to the public during regular business hours. Although it was a little early, an employee of the agency let me in to take a brief look. Then I walked around the block and into the King Street Station.

Like yesterday, the station was packed, with people waiting not only for my train to Portland, scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m., but also for the train to Vancouver scheduled to depart at 7:45 a.m. Neither train was being boarded yet, however. Passengers for the Vancouver train were being asked to check-in and get seating assignments, but the conductor informed me that our train would have what he called "festival seating" -- meaning that everyone was free to choose his own seat. Business class passengers were allowed to board at 7:25 a.m., with boarding for coach passengers beginning at 7:28 a.m. An announcement was made that passengers traveling to stations within the State of Washington should board cars 3 and 4, while those going to Portland should board cars 7 and 8, which were at the front of the train. I boarded car 8, but then turned to the right and ended up sitting in car 9, which was nearly empty.

The Talgo train cars are much shorter than most Amtrak cars, and the train is articulated, with a single two-wheel axle resting between each pair of cars. No other Amtrak equipment that I'm aware of has such an arrangement. (Interestingly, defect detectors reported the total number of axles on this 13- car train, with two engines, as only 22!) The Talgo equipment is probably the newest Amtrak equipment now in service, having been built by Talgo as recently as 1998. My coach -- the standard type of Talgo coach -- has only 36 seats, with 2-and-2 seating, and with pairs of facing seats at each end. The seating pairs at one end have a table with folding leaves between them, and I appropriated to myself one of these tables. Since my car was the first passenger car on the train, and cars 7, 8 and 9 were not opened to passengers at any intermediate stop, my car was nearly deserted for the entire trip, and I had no problem keeping all four seats for myself. The arrangement reminded me of the trains I rode with Lee Bronsnick during our trip to Scotland two years ago. It was comfortable and delightful!

We departed Seattle five minutes late at 7:35 a.m. After we were on our way and my ticket was collected by the conductor, I walked down towards the other end of the train to see the rest of the equipment. Our train today is led by "cabbage car" 90253 (a depowered F-40 engine) and includes a baggage car, five 36-seat coaches, a 25-seat coach with a large handicapped restroom, another 19-seat coach with 2-and-1 seating and a handicapped restroom (apparently, the 2-and-1 seating is designed to permit a wheelchair to get through the aisle of this car), a "bistro" car (where snacks and beverages are sold), a lounge car with tables, two business class cars, and a power car, with F-59 engine #470 pushing the train from the rear. Each car has a sliding door at each end, operated electronically by pulling a knob.

While walking through the train, I heard an announcement that the HEP to the bistro car had gone off. A Talgo representative was aboard the train, and he was called to fix the problem. (It seems that every Talgo train has a representative of the manufacturer aboard to deal with any equipment problems that might arise.) I was walking toward the bistro car at this point, and I could not open the door leading into the car. It appears that when the power is off, these doors cannot be opened! In any event, the power was restored in less than a minute, and I was able to continue into the car. There was a long line at the counter, so I decided to return to my seat, where I took out my computer and started writing these memoirs.

Each coach on the Talgo train is equipped with video monitors which show the route of the train and identify our precise location, apparently using GPS technology. They also show the current time, the estimated arrival time at our final destination, the current temperature, and the next stop. These monitors are also used to show movies, and on this trip, the movie began once we left Tacoma. You need a headset to watch the movie (you can either bring your own or purchase one onboard, in which case it is yours to keep). Even during the movie, announcements will appear in a small box on the lower right-hand corner of the screen. This arrangement makes it possible for those who wish to see the movie to do so without disturbing other passengers (like me) who find movies to be an annoyance that detracts from the experience of train travel. (I wish that a similar method could be adopted for movies shown in the Sightseer Lounge cars of Superliner-equipped trains!)

Leaving Seattle, the train passes through an industrial area, but the scenery soon becomes more attractive. After making a sharp bend to the west, we arrived at Tacoma at 8:26 a.m. There is a modern boxy-looking brick station here, and I briefly stepped off the train during our two-minute stop.

Now the train goes through the best scenery on the entire trip. For about 20 minutes, it runs right along the Puget Sound, with the beautiful body of water to the right of the train. We pass directly underneath the famous Tacoma-Narrows Bridge, a replacement for the poorly-designed span that swayed in the wind and finally, in 1940, twisted in a windstorm so violently that it collapsed into the water (where it still remains!). My seat on the right side of the train provided an excellent vantage point, and the large windows add to one's viewing pleasure. (The windows are equipped with curtains, which came in handy at times when I wanted to shield my computer screen from the glare of the sun.)

Our next stop, at 9:04 a.m., was Olympia. Here is there is an attractive station (apparently new, but built in a traditional style) which is separated from the tracks by an ugly chain-link fence, with passengers allowed onto the platform only once the train has arrived in the station. The following stop, Centralia, features a large historic brick station, accompanied with a brick platform.

After we departed Centralia at 9:29 a.m., I went back to the bistro car, where I purchased a cup of mint tea and a bag of potato chips. The seating in the bistro car itself is very limited, so I took my food to the adjacent lounge car and sat down at a table. I found the seating in this car to be particularly uncomfortable, with the seat backs only about a foot high. Presumably, they were intentionally designed this way, so as to discourage people from occupying these tables for long periods of time. (There were several people, though, who did use the tables to spread out their papers). There are also no outlets for laptops in this car (in the coaches, there is an outlet next to every seat). I sat in the lounge car for only a few minutes and then moved to the bistro car, which has one semi- circular table in a corner. This table was, ironically, much more comfortable! (It also was much smaller than the tables in the lounge car -- presumably too small for people who want to use it to spread out papers, and perhaps that is the reason that it has a higher back and is more comfortable.) In any event, I soon returned to my table in coach car #9, where I had spread out all my papers and equipment.

I stepped off the train briefly during our stop in Kelso- Longview, where we left at 10:11 a.m., fourteen minutes late. Kelso also features an attractive historic brick station on the left side of the tracks. Here, too, there is a fence to prevent people from approaching the tracks before the train is in the station, but this fence is of an attractive, decorative design. Soon afterwards, we begin to parallel the Columbia River on the right, which also offers attractive scenery.

Our last stop before Portland -- Vancouver, Washington -- features a beautifully restored stucco-and-brick station. Located in the middle of a wye, this station has two platforms, with the easterly one serving the Empire Builder and the westerly one serving all the trains that run between Seattle and Portland. I did not get off the train here, but I took a picture of the station from my car. We left Vancouver at 10:48 a.m., eighteen minutes late, and proceeded across the Columbia River into Oregon. We next crossed the Willamette River and came to a brief stop at Willbridge Junction, on the other side. The conductor announced that we were stopped because a freight train was ahead of us, but the delay lasted for only a minute or so, and we were soon moving again. (I was impressed, though, with the diligence of the conductor in making the announcement.) We crawled ahead through BNSF freight yards at a rather slow speed, and I used the time to get some of my belongings together.

Finally, at 11:17 a.m. -- 17 minutes late -- we pulled into Union Station in Portland. It had taken us nearly half an hour to cover the ten miles from Vancouver to Portland! I detrained, walked to the back of the train to record the numbers of a few cars and the engine, and went over to the station, where my friend Chris Lee was waiting for me. He had invited me to stay with him, and I gladly accepted his offer. We walked over a footbridge to his apartment, which is situated right across the tracks from the station and overlooks it! For a railbuff, the location could not be more ideal!

My trip from Seattle to Portland was very pleasant and enjoyable. I was quite impressed with the Talgo equipment, finding it very comfortable and well designed (with the exception of the lounge car). I hope that we will soon see this equipment on other Amtrak routes!

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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