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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight

It's 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday, February 6, 2002, and I've just arrived at Portland Union Station where I am about to board Train #14, the Coast Starlight, on my way to Seattle. This is the beginning of the second part of my Pacific Northwest rail trip. The first part, which I did with my friends Chris Fussell and Matt Melzer, involved traveling in a 24-hour period from Portland to Seattle, Seattle to Spokane, and then Spokane back to Portland. We completed that triangle this morning, when we arrived back at Portland Union Station at about 10:00 a.m.

After spending a little time at Chris' apartment, the three of us went out to ride the Airport MAX Red Line and the Portland Streetcar. This would be Matt's first time on the MAX, and although I had ridden the Airport Line on Monday night, when I arrived by plane from Dallas, it was dark then, and I wanted to see the line by daylight. We walked to the Old Town station, and almost immediately a Red Line train came along. We took this one-car train all the way to the airport, with Chris pointing out the various features of interest along the way. Most notable is a very sharp loop this line makes at the Gateway Transit Center, where it curves back north and crosses under itself! Upon arrival at the airport, we went inside the terminal and then reboarded the same train, which we took back to downtown. There, we transferred to a bus, which took us south several blocks to the layover terminus of the Portland Streetcar. A car was waiting there for us, we boarded it, and it left several minutes later.

Riding the Portland Streetcar was a very interesting experience. The name "streetcar" is quite apt, as it functions far more like a traditional streetcar line than as a modern light-rail system. Unlike the MAX, which shares a right-of-way with cars only briefly over the Steel Bridge, nearly the entire route of the Portland Streetcar is along streets that are open to vehicular traffic. As Chris pointed out, the vehicular traffic and the streetcars seem to interact quite well. During our ride, I noticed only one problem that arose: a car had stopped for a red light too far forward, thus blocking the streetcar, which had to make a sharp turn in its path. The situation was quickly rectified when the car backed up a sufficient distance to permit the streetcar to pass by.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Portland Streetcar system is its running in the middle of the street, rather than along the outside lanes. While this is the way streetcar lines traditionally were built, such an arrangement poses accessibility problems, as even the new, low-floor cars require platforms that must be several inches high. As a result, some new streetcar lines have been built with the tracks in the outside lanes, adjacent to the sidewalks. But this poses its own problem - no parking is possible on streets where streetcar tracks are in the outer lanes.

The solution adopted by the Portland Streetcar was to put the tracks in the middle of the street, allow parking along the outer lanes, and then build platforms for stations in the parking lanes, as required. This solution seemed to work very well, and the streetcar is meeting with an enthusiastic reception by the citizens of Portland - so much so, that an additional two cars are on order!

I also observed a handicapped person in a scooter board and detrain from the streetcar. The entire procedure went very smoothly, requiring little or no intervention by the driver, and resulting in a delay of only a few seconds. I was very pleased to see that the streetcar is actually meeting with the acceptance of those who require the use of mobility devices. I also talked to an elderly woman who boarded the streetcar for a short ride, and she remarked how fortunate she was to live in a neighborhood served not only by the streetcar, but by the #77 bus (which covers part of the same route as the streetcar and stops at the streetcar platforms).

After riding along most of the streetcar's loop, at about 1:00 p.m. we detrained and walked a few blocks to Union Station, stopping along the way to obtain some food at the nearby Greyhound bus station. Matt had booked a sleeper on the southbound Coast Starlight, scheduled to arrive at 1:55 p.m. and depart at 2:15 p.m. As a first-class passenger, he was entitled to wait in the Metropolitan Lounge, and the attendant permitted the two of us to accompany him into the lounge. We had waited only a few minutes when, at 1:37 p.m., the Coast Starlight pulled into the station - eighteen minutes early! A few minutes later, a boarding call was made, so we said goodbye to Matt and returned to Chris' apartment, just across from the station.

While at the station, I checked the status of this evening's northbound Coast Starlight which I would be taking to Seattle. It was scheduled to depart Portland at 4:00 p.m., after a 20-minute station stop, but the video monitor indicated that it was running late and expected to arrive at 5:20 p.m. and leave ten minutes later.

I used the time at Chris' apartment to check my e-mail, make a few phone calls, and pack up my belongings. I kept on checking the status of Train #14 on the Internet and found that it was running one hour and 50 minutes late, but I knew that there was make-up time built into the schedule before its arrival at Portland. So I decided that I should play safe and proceed down to the station no later than about 5:00 p.m.

At about 4:55 p.m., while monitoring Channel 45 on the scanner, I heard that #14 was five minutes out of the station. Knowing that its station stop could be quite brief, Chris and I immediately left and crossed the pedestrian bridge leading from his apartment complex to the station. As we got to the bottom of the steps, we observed the headlights of the train coming around the curve from the Steel Bridge. At Chris' suggestion, I walked towards the tracks and recorded the consist as the train passed by.

Today's northbound Coast Starlight, Train #14, is pulled by two Genesis P-42 engines, #114 and #119 (both of which, I was informed earlier in the day by Matt, are part of the pool of engines regularly assigned to the Coast Starlight) and includes a baggage car, a transition/crew dorm car, two Superliner II sleepers, a Pacific Parlour Car, a dining car, a Sightseer Lounge car and three Superliner II coaches (one with a "kiddie" playroom on the lower level), with an express car tacked onto the rear.

Rather than just walking over to the train, Chris recommended that I go back around to the front of the station and pass through the check-in counter. By the time I had done so, just about all the passengers getting on in Portland (there weren't very many of them) had already boarded. The conductor collected my ticket, issued me a seat check, and instructed me to sit in the last coach. This coach was far from full, and I found an unoccupied pair of seats (they had just been vacated by passengers who had detrained in Portland) on the left side of the train right behind an electric outlet. I went downstairs again to say goodbye to Chris and, before I knew it, we pulled out of the station at 5:13 p.m. Our stop in Portland had lasted for only nine minutes, and we were now one hour and 13 minutes late.

I had just covered this very route yesterday morning on the Cascades Talgo train. Then, I paid close attention to the scenery and the stations along the way. But tonight, it would be dark for almost the entire ride, and it was raining, to boot. So I would be paying little attention to the scenery and instead would be using the time to update the memoirs of my trips and do some other work.

After we departed Vancouver, Washington, at 5:30 p.m., I walked through the three coaches and the Sightseer Lounge car. Much to my surprise, none of the coaches were anywhere near full. Counting seat checks rather than passengers (many passengers were already at dinner, and some were in the lounge car), I arrived at a total of only about 70 passengers, spread out among the three coaches. I don't think I've ever seen a Coast Starlight so empty. Of course, there could be quite a number of sleeping car passengers aboard, but I had expected to find a greater number of passengers in the coaches.

Nearly all of the intermediate stops we made were very brief, generally to detrain and/or board only a handful of passengers. I did not try to step off the train at any stop except Tacoma, where we made a three-minute stop after it had already stopped raining. I spent most of the ride at my very comfortable seat. Although dinner was announced as being served in the dining car, I had brought with me some food that I had purchased in Dallas, and decided to eat that for dinner. So, about 6:30 p.m., I took my food down to the lower level of the lounge car, which was entirely deserted, since the attendant was on his break. Although this Superliner II lounge car has the awkward handicapped-accessible tables in the rear section of the car, there are two "normal" tables in the front, so I sat down at one of those tables to eat.

After our stop in Tacoma, I rested for a few minutes and then gathered my belongings in preparation for detraining. We really crawled for the last few miles into the King Street Station in Seattle, but we finally arrived at 9:13 p.m. - precisely four hours after our departure from Portland. We were 48 minutes late, but due to the schedule pad, the train had made up over an hour from the time I had checked it on the Internet. I detrained and walked around the station and out to King Street, and then followed local streets over to the Best Western Pioneer Square Hotel, which had been highly recommended to me by Matt Melzer. I checked in and headed to my very attractive room, where I checked my e-mail and got ready for bed.

On the way to the hotel, I noticed a couple following me. They, too, had been on the Coast Starlight and, like me, were headed to the Best Western for the night and would be continuing on to Vancouver, B.C. tomorrow morning. But they had taken the Coast Starlight all the way from Los Angeles in a sleeper, and would be going back the same way!

Tonight's trip on the Coast Starlight was very pleasant, but essentially uneventful. It was dark for the whole way and, as a coach passenger, it didn't really feel like the classy first-class Coast Starlight that I am used to. But it did get me to Seattle in comfort, and I'm looking forward to covering some more new mileage on my trip to Vancouver tomorrow.

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

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