Daniel Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's Cascades
Seattle-Portland, June 26, 2000
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
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
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 /
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