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Daniel Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's Coast Starlight
Portland-Martinez, June 27, 2000
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2000f26/2000f27.html

It's 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27, 2000, and I've just arrived at Union Station in Portland, Oregon, where I will be boarding the Coast Starlight on my way to Martinez, California (and then to San Francisco).

I've spent the last day with my on-line friend Christopher Lee, staying at his studio apartment in The Yards at Union Station -- a new housing development constructed on the site of the former rail yards adjacent to Union Station. The balcony of Chris' apartment directly overlooks Union Station, and you can see all trains passing through the station from it. Like me, Chris is a railfan, and he is thrilled about his being able to live in a such a nice apartment overlooking this beautiful and historic station.

Yesterday, we traveled the entire MAX Light Rail line, from Gresham to Hillsboro, stopping at Washington Park and the Tualatin Hills Nature Park to do some hiking. I was very impressed both with the City of Portland itself and with the MAX trains, which seemed to be quite heavily used. On the way out to Gresham, we met a young man who was coming back from downtown Portland. He told us that he lived about four miles east of Gresham, and that he rode his bike to the MAX station in Gresham, locked it in an attachment designed for bike storage, and then rode the MAX to downtown. This, indeed, is exactly what a light- rail system such as the MAX is designed to do -- allow people to get where they want to go without having to use a car. I also observed a number of handicapped people using wheelchairs boarding the MAX trains, whose low floors make it possible to accommodate wheelchairs with little or no delay to the other passengers. Interestingly, despite the fact that we rode the entire line twice, with our journey split among five different trains, we did not see a fare inspector at any point in our trip. But I did take the precaution of purchasing an all-day pass for $3.60.

Another interesting feature of my visit with Chris was a walk along the waterfront and through the downtown area of Portland, beginning at about 11:30 p.m. and ending about 1:00 a.m. I was amazed how pleasant and safe the downtown area appeared to be at this late hour of the night!

This morning, I took video pictures of the northbound Talgo train proceeding from Eugene to Seattle, and then walked over to the station to check out this historic building more thoroughly. Portland Union Station was built in 1896 and seems to have changed little since then. Like the King Street Station in Seattle, it is a brick building (actually, brick-and-stucco) which features a tall clock tower. But here the similarity ends, as Portland Union Station retains its original decorative plaster ceiling and marble walls. It is a real beauty of a station!

Later in the morning, we went downtown to pick up an extra tape for my video camera. We took a bus from Union Station for the short ride to downtown. This route has very frequent service, and all trips within the downtown area are free. Shortly before we reached our final destination, the bus pulled over to the curb and stopped. I inquired of the driver why we stopped, and he replied by showing me how the bus was equipped with a GPS receiver that indicated to him that we had arrived at a scheduled stop 13 seconds early. Therefore, we had to wait for 13 seconds until the GPS receiver gave the okay to proceed! I was really amazed at this feature, and it's the first time that I've seen GPS used in this manner. It was also explained to me that the GPS receiver will transmit an alarm to the dispatcher if the bus deviates from its assigned route. It is truly amazing what modern technology can do!

When we arrived back at Chris' apartment about 12:45 p.m., Chris' friend Dustin had arrived. We talked for a while, and I checked the status of my Coast Starlight on Amtrak's Internet web site, where I found out that it was about half an hour late. The train was supposed to arrive Portland at 1:55 p.m. and leave at 2:33 p.m., but there was no rush to get to the station as we were right across from it and could observe all the trains as they pulled into the station. Finally, at about 2:25 p.m., I decided that we should proceed over to the station, as my train should soon be arriving. Chris and Dustin accompanied me, helping me to carry my luggage. And, indeed, at 2:29 p.m., as we were crossing the bridge over the tracks, the Coast Starlight arrived at the Portland station.

Since the train was already at the station -- and I had already spent some time inside -- we proceeded around the station and directly to the train. My sleeping car #32110, named Tennessee, was positioned right by the walkway leading over from the station. I boarded the train and, with Chris and Dustin accompanying me, proceeded up to my Room #8. I explained to them the features of the room, with Chris videotaping my explanation. Since the train was scheduled to depart at 2:33 p.m., and Chris and Dustin did not want to take any chances on being aboard the train when it pulled out of the station, they soon decided to get off.

But when we went down to the platform, the attendant confirmed that we would be in the station for some additional time. So, at my suggestion, we reboarded and walked down through the Pacific Parlour Car, the dining car and the Sightseer Lounge car, and then detrained at the first coach. This took some time, since we had to wait for quite a number of people who were boarding, but I assured Chris that he had nothing to worry about, since we could not depart until all passengers had gotten on the train. Once were able to step off, I walked with Chris and Dustin to the last coach, where the assistant conductor was waiting on the platform. He indicated that the "all-aboard" call had not yet been announced, so I remained there, talking to my friends. The conductor indicated that we would probably be losing some more time on our way south, since the abnormally high temperatures (it was over 90 outside) had resulted in some speed restrictions. Finally, at 2:51 p.m. the "all-aboard" call was made. I said goodbye to Chris and Dustin, reboarded at the last coach, and made my way back to my room, where I took out my computer and started writing these memoirs.

Today's Coast Starlight is pulled by Genesis engine #119, with F-59 engine #463 trailing. This is an interesting combination of motive power, as the F-59 engines are higher than the Genesis engines, and it looks a little strange for a high engine to stick up in the middle. The consist includes a baggage car, three Superliner II sleepers, a Pacific Parlour Car, a dining car, a Sightseer Lounge car and five coaches. Four of the five coaches (including the "kiddie car") are Superliner II coaches; one car is a Superliner I coach that has been reconditioned, with light-colored seats of the same type as are found on Superliner II equipment, and with two electric outlets at each pair of seats. This is the first time that I've seen a Superliner coach retrofitted in this manner, and it is certainly encouraging to see that Amtrak is adding electric outlets to Superliner coaches as they go through reconditioning. There are no express cars on today's train.

Ordinarily, once I got settled, I would have headed straight to the Pacific Parlour Car, but the wine tasting was beginning, and just about every seat was filled. Moreover, the air conditioning in that car was not working properly, and it was pretty hot inside, while my car was nice and cool. So I remained in my room for a while. The attendant came by with fresh fruit and cookies, and I took some apple juice from the supply in the center of the car. The scenery leaving Portland is not exceptionally outstanding, but there are some nice views when we parallel the Willamette River from Oregon City south. So for that portion of the ride, I went to the Sightseer Lounge car. We proceeded quite slowly, and at 3:36 p.m. an announcement was made that we would be stopping on a siding to permit the northbound Coast Starlight, Train #14, to pass us. The northbound train passed us six minutes later, and we continued our southward trek.

At 4:29 p.m., we arrived at the very attractive yellow-brick station in Salem. The last time that I was here, in November 1998, the station was under renovation and surrounded by a chain- link fence. But the renovation has now been completed, and the station seems to be really magnificent. Salem is not a smoking stop, and an announcement was made that passengers who are not detraining here should remain on the train, but the attendant and conductor did not object to my stepping off the train briefly to take a few pictures. When we left, after a four-minute stop, we were 47 minutes late, having lost about another half an hour since we left Portland.

I also stepped off the train briefly at our next stop, Albany, Oregon. This station has a decorative masonry-block station which I wasn't able to observe too closely. During the station stop, I heard a coach attendant talking to the conductor about the fact that a couple who boarded here wanted to sit together, but no unoccupied pair of seats could be found. He mentioned that he had suggested that they temporarily sit in the lounge car until additional seats become available at Eugene. When we departed Albany at 5:16 p.m., I walked to the rear coach and went down to the lower level. It was occupied by a woman who was traveling to Glendale. She commented that she was the only one sitting in the lower level of her car, and I related the story I had just heard about the couple for whom two seats could not be found together. I suspect that the explanation for this might be that everyone in the rear coach was headed to Los Angeles (or some other stop not far away), so the crew did not want to seat anyone there who was bound for an intermediate stop. I noticed on a copy of the manifest that about 300 coach passengers were onboard leaving Albany, with the total capacity of the train being about 340. Clearly, all five of the coaches on the train are required to accommodate today's passenger load. Although it was still fairly hot there, I spent some time in the Pacific Parlour Car, which was somewhat less crowded once the wine tasting was over. One of the passengers had brought along a guitar and played a number of tunes -- including Arlo Guthrie's famous City of New Orleans -- to the delight of his fellow passengers. I also walked to the back of the train and looked out the rear window for a little while -- something that cannot often be done today on an Amtrak long-distance train.

We arrived at our next stop, Eugene, at 6:12 p.m. This was our first scheduled "smoking stop," at which all passengers were encouraged to detrain for a few minutes. I walked towards the front of the train to get some pictures and also went inside the classic brick station. Although the station is quite attractive on the outside, the inside features a non-descript dropped ceiling and modern seating. At 6:20 p.m., the engine whistle sounded the "all-aboard" warning. I stepped aboard, and as soon as I walked upstairs and reached my room, we started moving ahead. We were now an hour and five minutes late.

The most scenic part of the trip -- our climb up to Cascade Summit -- would soon begin. I had my new Pacific Northwest SPV Atlas with me so that I could follow the route. But for the first part of our climb, I would be sitting in the dining car eating dinner.

After I boarded the train in Portland, I made a 6:30 p.m. reservation for dinner. The dinner call was made precisely on time, and I proceeded to the dining car, where I was seated opposite a woman and her daughter who had just boarded the train in Eugene and were headed for Los Angeles, where they lived. They had gone to Eugene to visit her sister and to attend a wedding of a friend. For health-related reasons, she cannot fly, and she very much enjoys traveling by train, provided that she has a sleeper. Next to me sat a woman formerly from California, but who presently resides in Eugene. She was on her way to Oxnard to visit her son, who unfortunately was ill. She mentioned that her trip was planned rather suddenly, and when she called Amtrak today, there was only one lower-level bedroom remaining for sale on the train. She considered herself quite fortunate to obtain this room, even though she felt that the upper-level accommodations are quieter and more restful. Like the woman opposite me, she indicated that, for health reasons, she could not fly.

Our meal was served quickly and efficiently. As soon as we arrived in the dining car, we were each given a green salad, and all the entrees were served no more than 15 minutes later. My meal was very good, and my seatmates also seemed quite pleased with their choices of entrees. In 45 minutes -- after a relatively leisurely meal -- we were ready to return to our accommodations.

At the end of the meal, I went over to the steward and complimented him on his excellent service. He pointed out to me that instead of having the entire dining car cleared out and then filled up for specific seatings, he arranged seatings every 15 minutes or so, with the result that not everyone was being served at the same time. This, he pointed out, resulted in less pressure on the chefs and a smoother operation.

I returned to my room, and spent the next hour watching our train gain over 4,000 feet of altitude (from Eugene) as we climbed to Cascade Summit. The most interesting part of the climb is the last part, where the rail line goes through 22 tunnels and makes two hairpin turns. I spent some of the time in my room and most of the remainder in the Pacific Parlour car. (I might have spent some of the time in the Sightseer Lounge car, but they were showing a movie at this point, which represents a significant distraction.) The line is very scenic and interesting, but vegetation obscures most of the views. I did manage get some good video shots of our train going around sharp curves, but this line would really be perfect for a dome car! (Interestingly, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which owned this line, never had any dome cars.) Shortly before we reached the final tunnel at Cascade Summit, I walked to the rear of the train and spent some time looking out of the last car.

We had passed a number of freight trains and light engines on the way up to Cascade Summit, but in each case we had the right-of-way. However, when we arrived at the Crescent Lake siding at 8:53 p.m., we pulled onto the siding and came to a halt. The conductor promptly announced that we would be waiting for a freight train to pass. After a few minutes, a very long northbound Union Pacific freight train, pulled by no fewer than eight engines, passed us to the left, and we finally started moving forward again at 9:03 p.m. It was now getting dark, and little could be seen out of the windows from this point on.

We stopped briefly at Chemult at 9:29 p.m. and left a minute later. Chemult was not announced as a stop, and I did not get off the train here. It features little more than a simple, small wooden platform. We were now one hour and 15 minutes late, and had lost an additional ten minutes since we left Eugene -- precisely the amount of time that we lost by waiting for the freight train at Crescent Lake.

Having gotten relatively little sleep during the last few nights, I started getting rather drowsy, but I decided to remain awake through our station stop in Klamath Falls. After a while, I walked down to the Sightseer Lounge car, then returned to the Pacific Parlour Car, where I obtained a cup of herb tea. While sitting there, my attendant came over to me and asked if I wanted him to make up my room. Since I planned on going to sleep right after our stop at Klamath Falls, I decided to take him up on his offer. I stowed away some items and brought my computer to the Pacific Parlour Car, where I continued to work on these memoirs.

We finally arrived at Klamath Falls at 10:54 p.m. I detrained and walked over to the classic stone station, which is more impressive outside than inside. I reboarded at the coaches and walked back to my sleeper. The "all-aboard" call was made at 11:04 p.m., and we soon departed, now only 49 minutes late.

My bed had been made up by the attendant, so I climbed and went to sleep. I fell asleep pretty quickly, and although I woke up a few times, I slept rather soundly for over five hours, sleeping through our stops in Dunsmuir and Redding. I did wake up when we arrived in Chico at 4:42 a.m., and I didn't fall asleep again after that, although I remained in bed for another hour. I watched as we passed through Marysville at 5:30 a.m. Marysville was formerly a stop on the Coast Starlight, but about a year ago, it was eliminated, since Amtrak will sometimes take the ex-Western Pacific route from Marysville to Sacramento, and this route does not go by the station formerly used by Amtrak. But today we took the ex-SP route through Roseville.

Soon after the sun rose at 5:50 a.m., I got out of bed, made up my room for day occupancy, and went downstairs to take a shower. Then I got returned to my room and got dressed. When we arrived at the Sacramento station at 6:43 a.m., I stepped off the train and walked into the majestic station. I had just been here in February, but since then the entire interior of the station has been repainted and slightly refurbished, with an interesting neon sign above the ticket window having been removed. Our stop in Sacramento lasted for 24 minutes, and we departed at 7:07 a.m.

I had reboarded the train at the next-to-last coach and walked back to my room, passing the dining car on the way. The dining car was completely full, and the steward advised me to proceed to the Pacific Parlour Car, where reservations were being taken for breakfast. I gave my name to the attendant there, and then proceeded to obtain some food in that car. The attendant served me cranberry juice, cold cereal with milk, and coffee, and I obtained a selection of fresh fruit from platters in the rear of the car. I soon realized that I already had plenty to eat, and that there was no reason to go into the dining car for breakfast -- especially since I would be detraining soon in Martinez. So I went back to the attendant and told him to take my name off the waiting list.

I stepped off the train briefly at our next stop, Davis, which features a very beautifully restored stucco station and an adjacent historic tower. I then returned to the Pacific Parlour Car, and I was just about finished with breakfast when my attendant came by to remind me that we would be reaching Martinez in about five minutes. So I returned to my room, quickly packed up my belongings, and went downstairs to the lower level.

When we arrived in Martinez at 8:06 a.m., I was met at the platform by Jim Salvador, a member of the All-Aboard List. We stored my luggage at the station, and he showed me the construction in progress for the new station being built. When I compared the two buildings, I began to understand why a new station is needed. The existing station -- originally built in 1877 but extensively remodeled since -- is long and narrow, with a small, cramped waiting room which is inadequate for the 24 trains that serve this station daily. It has little or no architectural significance. (Indeed, Jim commented to me that in those days, the railroad built cheap wooden buildings, expecting them to burn down in a few years. Somehow, this one has survived for over 120 years!) By contrast, the new station will feature a large, high-ceilinged waiting room, an expanded parking lot, space for connecting buses to board passengers, and two additional tracks (thereby permitting freight trains to pass while passenger trains are using the station). The new station is attractively designed (unlike the Amshacks constructed in the 1970s), and it is hoped that the old station will be converted into a museum (although funding for this conversion is uncertain). The only disadvantage to the new station is that it is located a block or two further from downtown, but that is hardly a concern, as it takes only two minutes or so to walk the added distance.

We then proceeded to a local restaurant for a light breakfast, and returned to Jim's office, extensively decorated with railroad memorabilia. Jim mentioned to me that he took his first train trip only about five years ago, but loved it so much that he now travels whenever he can by train -- especially on the Coast Starlight. After spending over two hours talking about Amtrak, we retrieved my luggage from the station, and Jim drove me to the North Concord BART station, stopping at several locations along the way to point out points of railroad interest. I thanked him for his hospitality, and went over to purchase a BART ticket for my journey to San Francisco.

I immediately encountered an unexpected problem. The smallest bill that I had with me was a $20 bill. Jim had assured me that these bills would be accepted by the ticket machines, and that the machines also accept credit cards. But what he did not tell me was that credit cards are accepted only for a minimum purchase of $20.00, and that although $20 bills are accepted, the maximum change that is given is only $4.95 -- in quarters! This presented a problem to me, since the fare to San Francisco is only $4.00, and I had no intention of taking any other rides on BART on this trip. So I decided to put the $20 bill into the machine, receiving a farecard worth $15.05, and $4.95 in quarters for change. (By contrast, both NJ Transit and Metrolink ticket machines accept credit cards for any amount, and change is given with dollar coins in any amount up to $20.00). When I finished my trip, I would have a farecard worth about $11.00 that would be useless to me. (Luckily, that evening I had dinner with Laura Balderree, another member of the All-Aboard List and a regular user of BART, and she gladly offered to purchase my farecard for its remaining value.)

The first train that came in was going to West Pittsburg, the end of the line, so I boarded that train and then took the next train back to San Francisco. I was pleasantly surprised with the comfort and efficiency of the BART service. The cars are carpeted and have comfortable cushioned seats, and my train ran exactly on time. I got off at the Embarcadero station and transferred to the N-Judah Muni streetcar line, which took me within several blocks of the home where I would be staying.

This was my third trip on the Coast Starlight, and once again it proved to be a delightful way to travel. I thought that, as a whole, this was the best crew that I had encountered to date on this train, although it was a little disappointing that the Pacific Parlour Car's air conditioning failed to keep the car cool for most of the trip. My journey was enhanced by having the opportunity to meet Jim Salvador and sharing our mutual interest in trains. Now I'm looking forward to exploring San Francisco and taking the San Joaquin to Bakersfield tomorrow.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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