Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Cascades
It's about 8:20 a.m. on Tuesday, February 5, 2002, and we've just arrived at Union Station in Portland, Oregon, where we will be boarding the Amtrak Cascades Train #750 on our way to Seattle, Washington, and then to Spokane and back to Portland. This was a trip that I had planned for some tine with my friends Chris Fussell and Matt Melzer. For me, the Seattle-Spokane segment would be new mileage, and that is one reason that I had decided to come along on this trip.
I flew in from Dallas-Fort Worth last night on Frontier Airlines, via Denver. Chris met me at the airport, and we took the new Red Line Airport MAX back to his apartment at the Yards at Union Station - right opposite the historic Union Station, with an excellent view of the station from his window and balcony.
Although Matt would be accompanying us for the last two legs of the trip, he took yesterday's Coast Starlight all the way to Seattle and would be joining us there. For this morning's trip to Seattle, Chris and I would be accompanied by Chris's friend Dustin, who would return this evening to Portland on a Cascades train by himself. Dustin arrived at Chris' apartment about 7:15 a.m., and about 8:10 a.m., we walked down to the station, stopping on the way to purchase some snacks at a store across the street. While walking down the street, we observed our train, which had come from Eugene, Oregon, pulling into the station. It arrived at 8:15 a.m., five minutes early. As the train went by, I used the opportunity to record the consist.
We then walked over the pedestrian bridge and into the station. Since we had Business Class tickets, we were told to check in at the ticket counter (coach passengers checked in at a desk near the entrance to the tracks). We were each assigned seats in Row 1 (the last row) of the first Business Class car of the train. By this time, almost everyone else had boarded. We went out to the train and found our seats, where we left our belongings, then went back out to the platform to take some pictures. After reboarding, I walked through the entire train. There were passengers in each car, but only the rear car - which had been assigned to a tour group - was full. Our departure from Portland Union Station was precisely on time at 8:45 a.m.
I watched from my very comfortable single seat on the left side of the train as we passed through the Lake Yard and crossed the Willamette River and then the Columbia River into the State of Washington. This is the first time that I've traveled in Business Class on the Cascades, and the seats are really very comfortable! The atmosphere in the car is quiet and relaxing, and it is truly a delightful way to travel.
When we arrived in Vancouver, Washington at 9:01 a.m., two minutes early, the doors to the Business Class car were opened, although no Business Class passengers boarded here. This afforded Chris and me the opportunity to step off the train and take some pictures of the beautiful station, which was recently restored. Then I returned to my seat and started writing these memoirs.
Soon, I was getting a little hungry, so I walked down to the Bistro car to get something to eat. I purchased a cup of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, and used a $3.00 voucher that comes with every Business Class ticket to pay all but 25 cents of the cost of the meal. Then I sat down in the interesting trapezoidal-shaped seat at the corner of the car to eat. Although there is an adjacent car with spacious tables, I find the seats in that car, with their low backs, to be rather uncomfortable, so I decided to sit in the café car instead.
We made a brief stop at Kelso-Longview at 9:35 a.m. The classic brick station here has been restored, and one feature added was a fence which prevents passengers from stepping out onto the platform until the train is in the station. I did not step off here, since I was in the middle of eating. About 15 passengers boarded, and we left on time at 9:36 a.m. At 9:49 a.m., we passed the southbound Cascades Train #751, scheduled to arrive at Kelso-Longview at 9:57 a.m.
Soon, I returned to my Business Class seat, where I sat back and observed the passing scenery. A very interesting feature of the Cascades trains is their video monitors. Their primary function is to show movies (sound is provided only via headsets, so passengers - like me - who find these on-board movies an annoyance are not disturbed), but they also are used to inform the passengers of the location of the train by means of GPS receivers that pinpoint the train's location. Not only major destinations, but even minor communities and river crossings are shown on these monitors as the train passes through, making it very easy to follow the route on a map (such as the SPV Pacific Northwest rail atlas that I had brought along). Route Guides are also provided which list many features of interest along the route, and I had brought along copies of pages from Rail Ventures that mentioned some other noteworthy features. Although for the most part not spectacular, the scenery along the route is pleasant and peaceful - quite a contrast from the industrial blight and suburban sprawl that is characteristic of the Northeast Corridor.
One feature of interest was passed at Winlock, where the "world's largest egg" is displayed in the center of town. The Route Guide says that the egg is white, but it was recently painted red, white and blue, presumably in response to the events of September 11th.
When we arrived at Centralia at 10:14 a.m., three minutes early, I stepped off the train to take a picture of the classic brick station, which is in the process of being restored. About a minute later, the conductor gave the "all aboard" signal, and I reboarded the train. Then, noting that we still had over a minute before our scheduled departure time, she apologized for ordering me back onto the train, and told me that I could step off again to take another picture if I wished. I had already taken two pictures, and it had started to rain, so I had no reason to get off the train again. But I was very impressed with the conductor's attitude. There have been many times when conductors have refused me permission to step off a train at an intermediate stop, even if there were several minutes remaining before our scheduled departure. And here not only did this conductor have no problem with my stepping off the train, but she even took the trouble to apologize for requesting me to board the train a minute before our scheduled departure!
Now the rain was getting heavier, so I did not step off the train at Olympia-Lacey, our next stop. There is an attractive new station here, but the appearance of the area is marred by an ugly chain-link fence around the platform. We left here on-time at 10:37 a.m.
After walking through the train again, I returned to my seat to observe the beautiful scenery along Puget Sound. Even though the weather was not the greatest, I still enjoyed watching this really outstanding scenery from my window on the left side of the train. Soon, I heard on the scanner a message that we would be passing Train #11, the southbound Coast Starlight, at Pioneer, a control point a short distance south of the Tacoma-Narrows bridge. When we arrived at Pioneer at 10:57 a.m., we came to a halt, and the conductor announced the reason for the delay. We waited until 11:11 a.m. for the southbound Coast Starlight to arrive, and then we continued on our way. The cause of our delay soon became apparent. There is a short stretch of single track around the Nelson-Bennett Tunnels, just west of Tacoma. Ordinarily, the meet between our train and the southbound Coast Starlight would occur near the tunnel. Today, though, there was work being done on the southbound track between Pioneer and the tunnels, so all trains had to use the northbound track between these points. As a result, we had to wait 24 minutes for the southbound train.
I watched as we passed underneath the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge, one of the scenic highlights of the trip, and then through the tunnels. We then proceeded into the City of Tacoma, and I consulted the route guides to check out several interesting features. Most significant to me was the old Tacoma Union Station, visible to the right. This landmark building features a large dome as its centerpiece, but unfortunately is no longer used as a railroad station. It was converted several years ago to a United States Courthouse, and is now separated by an interstate highway from the rail line that we follow.
We arrived at the non-descript Amtrak station in Tacoma at 11:32 a.m., fifteen minutes late. It was now raining hard, so I did not step off the train during our two-minute stop. From here to Seattle, we would be following an inland route.
Although the route from Tacoma to Seattle is not particularly scenic, this trip was my first on this line since the Sounder commuter service to Seattle was started a year or so ago. To accommodate this service, several new stations have been constructed between Tacoma and Seattle that were not there when I last traversed this route. The first of these stations, Pullayup, is situated in the middle of the community and features several platform shelters constructed in a traditional style, with high chain-link fencing installed between the two tracks. A similar station was built at Sumner, where Chris pointed out a model Amtrak train on a building to the right. Sounder stations are also located in Auburn and Kent.
Our next stop was Tukwila, 15 miles south of Seattle. This is also a stop for the Sounder, but unlike the other new Sounder stations, it is situated in the middle of nowhere, with only some industrial buildings visible in the distance. The station itself consists of nothing more than a wooden shelter and a platform. It appeared to be a rather unlikely place to put a station, and I can only assume that it was designed to be a suburban station for south Seattle. We made a brief stop here at 12:04 p.m., and when we departed, we were 17 minutes late.
I now gathered my belongings together and prepared to detrain. At 12:21 p.m., we pulled into Track 5 at the King Street Station in Seattle. We were only six minutes late, as there is a schedule pad at the end of the run. Chris, Dustin and I detrained and walked down the platform, where Matt Melzer was waiting for us.
My trip this morning on the Cascades was thoroughly enjoyable, despite the less-than-ideal weather. I plan to cover this route again on Wednesday evening, when I return to Seattle in preparation for my trip to Vancouver, B.C. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to my trip this evening on the Empire Builder to Spokane.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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