Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Cascades
It's 7:25 a.m. on Thursday, February 7, 2002, and I've just returned to the King Street Station in Seattle, where I will be boarding Cascades Train #760 on my way to Vancouver, British Columbia. I spent a restful night at the Best Western Pioneer Square Hotel and, after a complimentary continental breakfast at the hotel, I walked back to the station, stopping on the way to check out the bus stop at Second Avenue and Washington Street, where I hope to catch the #174 bus to the airport this evening. By the time that I arrived at the station, all passengers had boarded Cascades Train #751, which leaves at 7:30 a.m. for Portland, and most of the passengers for the Vancouver train had already checked in at the counter where seats are assigned. Looking around, the waiting room did not look at all full, and Paul Clements, the Product Line Supervisor who was giving out seat assignments, confirmed that today's train would have plenty of empty seats. When I asked for a window seat on the left side of the train, Paul replied that no such seats remained available in the cars which he was assigning seats for. He gave me a boarding pass for Seat 1 in Car 4, a single rear-facing seat, but also mentioned that he would probably be opening another car, and once we were onboard, I could move into that car and take whatever seat I chose.
At 7:30 a.m., just after the departure of the train to Portland, a boarding call was made for our train. I walked down the platform to record the consist of this blue-colored train which, I understand, was intended to be used for the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas service, but has temporarily been diverted to this route. (Actually, the entire set is blue except for the lead "cabbage car" #90253, which is painted green.) Then I boarded the train at the Business Class section and walked through. The Business Class cars were almost completely empty. When I reached the lounge car, I noticed an important difference from the Talgo sets used in the Seattle-Portland service. On those trains, the car with tables serves as a lounge car, with the seating open to all passengers. But on this train, the car is a dining car, with the tables covered with tablecloths and meals served to passengers onboard. I then walked through the coaches, noting that most passengers were seated in Cars 3, 4, 5 and 6. One passenger had sat down at a table at the rear end of Car 7, and Cars 8, 9 and 10 were entirely empty. Interestingly, almost all passengers were seated on the left side of the train, which has the best views. It seems that Paul, knowing that most passengers prefer to sit on this side of the train, and recognizing that this morning's train would not be full, assigned passengers to sit primarily on that side.
I returned to my Car #4. Rather than sitting in my assigned Seat #1, I sat at a vacant group of four seats right behind it. Soon, the conductor came through to collect tickets. I asked him whether I could move to the nearly-empty Car #7, and he replied that since I was going to Vancouver, that would be fine. So I moved into that car and sat down at the table on the left side at the rear of the car. This was a very comfortable arrangement, which I enjoyed just as much as the Business Class seating on Tuesday's train from Portland to Seattle. For the entire trip, the only passengers in this car were me and the man sitting at the other table across the aisle, who also spent the entire ride working with his laptop computer.
We departed Seattle at 7:44 a.m., one minute early. Paul began by making an announcement about the sights to be seen just north of the station. He made other announcements of points of interest throughout the trip, which I found very informative. Indeed, I wished that Paul had made even more announcements!
I watched as we proceeded through the naval base north of town, crossed the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and began our beautiful 15-mile stretch along the shore of the Puget Sound. It was cloudy and rather gloomy out (it even rained a little at times), but it was clear enough to enjoy the beautiful view over the water.
When we arrived at the Everett station at 8:32 a.m., I stepped off the train to take a picture of this modern, non-descript station, soon to be replaced by the new intermodal transportation center. I also discovered why the trains to Vancouver must follow the slightly indirect easterly route rather than the more direct western route along the sound. The westerly route diverges from the easterly route just prior to the station, and the two routes are at different grades, making it impossible for even the existing station to serve the westerly route.
After going through a tunnel, we passed the new intermodal transportation center - a very large and imposing building, several stories tall - which was just opened for buses and should be used by Amtrak trains as early as this summer. Then we curved to the north, diverging from the Empire Builder route that I had traversed two days ago. Soon, we rejoined the easterly route and proceeded north, crossing a series of drawbridges over the Snohomish River. We then encountered a stretch of slow running, probably due to temporary speed restrictions.
From Everett until shortly past Mount Vernon, the train follows an inland route, proceeding through a largely agricultural area. Since the scenery was less interesting, I used the opportunity to walk down to the Bistro car and obtain a cup of coffee, which I brought back to my table.
We arrived at Mount Vernon at 9:30 a.m. and departed a minute later. The station is located in an isolated area well northeast of the center of town and consists of nothing more than a platform and a plastic shelter (Amshack). The Route Guide states that a new intermodal station is being constructed in the downtown area, but I didn't see any evidence of such a station along the route, and the conductor indicated that it has only been proposed. When we left Mount Vernon, we were ten minutes late.
At 9:43 a.m., as the defect detector for milepost 81.9 went off, we began our second stretch of running along the Puget Sound. Here, there were steep, forested slopes to our right, and we passed through several tunnels where rock outcrops extended out into the bay. And, unlike the more southerly stretch, there were often trees between us and the shoreline. This was a more pristine and even more interesting stretch than the route between Seattle and Everett. For part of the way, we followed a shelf about 20 feet above the sound, with the right-of-way blasted out of rock in places, and at one location, just before a tunnel, we cut across a bay, with water on both sides of the tracks. This stretch of the route reminded me of the route of the Adirondack along Lake Champlain.
At 10:00 a.m., we pulled into the Bellingham station. This station is actually located in Fairhaven, a few miles south of Bellingham, adjacent to a ferry terminal. I stepped off the train and took a picture of the attractive brick station. About ten people got off the train here, and one passenger boarded. However, the waiting room was quite full of people waiting to board the southbound Cascades Train #761, which originates in Bellingham and is scheduled to depart at 10:20 a.m. We departed at 10:02 a.m., still ten minutes late.
As we passed through an industrial area just north of the station, I saw on a siding the equipment that would become the southbound Cascades train, waiting for us to clear the track so that it could proceed south to the station. We soon passed through the center of Bellingham, with the original Great Northern brick station - a relatively modern building, now used as BNSF offices - visible to the right of the train. We had another short stretch of running along Puget Sound just north of the station, and then we again proceeded inland.
We began our third and final long stretch of running along Puget Sound at 10:28 a.m. A minute later, we passed the attractive wooden station in Blaine, Washington (now used as BNSF offices) and then, at 10:30 a.m., we crossed into Canada. To our right, at the border, was the Peace Arch, erected to commemorate 100 years of peace between the United States and Canada. The border checkpoint for vehicular traffic is located immediately adjacent to the rail crossing, and there appeared to be a rather long line of cars backed up waiting to cross the border into the United States.
The customs procedure for our train is quite different from that followed by the Adirondack and the International, the two other trains operated by Amtrak which cross the Canadian border into Canada. On those trains, Canadian customs and immigration inspection takes place at a stop just across the border. But on the northbound Cascades, the inspection does not take place until after arrival at Vancouver.
Just north of the border, we encountered a particularly rough stretch of track, with the train rocking back and forth despite our rather slow speed. Here, in the narrow strip between the tracks and the sound, a pedestrian walkway had been installed, with many local citizens taking advantage of the opportunity to stroll along the coast. White Rock, B.C., the town just north of the border, is a very attractive community. It is perched on a hill to the east of the tracks, and the vibrant downtown area at the base of the hill faces the tracks, with the historic frame station now serving as a museum and visitor center. A crew member remarked to me that the town of White Rock would really like Amtrak to stop there, but that this could not be done under the existing Canadian customs and immigration procedures.
North of town, we continued right along the coast, with the land rising up very sharply just to our right. Then, after crossing a short inland stretch, we once again traversed a bay, with water on both sides of the tracks. Finally, we again turned inland, where we would remain for the rest of our journey to Vancouver.
We soon began to run alongside the Fraser River, with Vancouver coming into view in the distance on the left. As we turned right to parallel the river, an unusual cable-stayed bridge crossing the river appeared on our left. Another such bridge, quite similar to the first, soon came into view. There had been some discussion of this type of bridge on the Railroad List recently, and it was interesting to see two modern examples of this technology, which had been first used on the historic Brooklyn Bridge to supplement the support provided by the suspension cables.
Soon, we turned left and crossed a truss bridge across the Fraser River. As we crossed the railroad bridge, Paul announced that the cable-stayed bridge just to our left was for SkyTrain, the automated transit system in Vancouver that I would shortly be riding. And, to my great delight, two trains - one in each direction - crossed the river at the same time that we did.
We went by the frame New Westminster station to our left and then, as we curved to the left, we passed some old railroad cars outside a large building which were covered with blue tarps and appeared to be in the process of being restored.
Paul now announced that there would be a four-step boarding process for tonight's return trip, which begins at 4:30 p.m. for our 6:00 p.m. departure, and includes a check by U.S. Immigration. He advised everyone to get to the station early, stating that those who arrive at the last minute are often unable to travel. However, when I later asked him what time I really needed to arrive at the station for the return trip, he replied that 5:40 p.m. would be fine. He also remarked that there were only about 75 people on today's train, which could hold up to 300 passengers.
Before we arrived at the station, Paul announced that, to avoid long lines at the customs and immigration inspection, not all cars would be opened for detraining at the same time. But soon after we arrived at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver at 11:30 a.m. - ten minutes early - all passengers were permitted to detrain. I took my time getting ready and was one of the last passengers to leave the train when I detrained at 11:38 a.m. As a result, I was just about the last one in line for the inspection, and I had to wait for nearly ten minutes before my turn was reached. I noticed that there were four inspectors, all of whom apparently came to the station solely for the purpose of inspecting passengers from our train.
When I reached the head of the line, I handed over my customs declaration form and my passport. I was immediately asked to produce my return ticket, which I retrieved from my pack. The inspector then carefully examined every page of my passport and asked me a few more questions, after which she asked me to proceed to the next room for a customs inspection.
I had checked my airline case with most of my belongings at the hotel in Seattle, and all I was carrying with me was my backpack, which had my scanner, laptop computer and quite a few papers. I was now asked a whole bunch of questions - what do I do for a living, have I ever been to Canada before, do I have any other passports, have I ever been arrested, have I ever been questioned by the police (to which, of course, I truthfully responded "yes"), etc. In the meantime, my name and passport number were run through a computer, and every piece of paper in my backpack was carefully examined. The customs agent also questioned me about my scanner, asking if I always travel with it. I replied that - as the papers and materials I had brought along plainly demonstrated - I am a railfan, and always take the scanner along when traveling by train.
It seems that the focus of the inspection was who I was, rather than what I was bringing into the country. Interestingly, I was not subjected to a search of my person - not even a cursory one. And my computer was never checked in any way, with the focus of the search being the papers in my backpack. Finally, after about ten minutes, the inspection was completed and I was allowed to proceed.
In all of my travels, I have never been subjected to such an intensive inspection of my belongings upon entering Canada - or, indeed, anywhere else. I'm not sure why I was selected for such a thorough search. Perhaps it was the fact that I was a young-looking person who was traveling alone with little luggage. Perhaps the presence of the scanner, uncovered early in the search, made them suspicious. Perhaps they just had to inspect someone, and as one of the last people in line, I was chosen for the honor. In any event, I didn't have anything that they could have been looking for.
It was now about noon, just ten minutes after the scheduled arrival of our train. I walked into the magnificent concourse of the Pacific Central Station. Although the only trains which leave from this station are the daily Amtrak Cascades train to Seattle and the tri-weekly VIA Canadian to Toronto, there are a number of Amtrak Thruway and other buses which terminate here, and the station appeared to be surprisingly vibrant and active.
I then walked across the park in front of the station and over to the SkyTrain station across the street. SkyTrain is an entirely automated rail transit system that extends from downtown Vancouver to the suburb of Surrey. It is mostly an elevated line, although a few sections (including the core of the downtown area) are in tunnels underground. The original Expo Line has been in service for some time and, just a few weeks ago, part of a new extension to the north, called the Millenium Line, was placed into operation.
Since I would be traveling several routes, I decided to purchase an all-day pass for $7.00 Canadian. But I had with me only a Canadian $5 bill and several $20 bills. The machine would not accept any bill larger than $10, so I decided, for now, to buy a one-way ticket for $1.75 that would take me to the center of town. I boarded the inbound SkyTrain and took it to its final destination, Waterfront, which is located adjacent to the historic Canadian Pacific station on the Vancouver harbor. This impressive brick station, with classic columns, is no longer used as a terminal for Canadian Pacific trains, but its main hall has been beautifully restored and serves as the centerpiece of a shopping mall. And some trains do still terminate here. One platform, with two tracks, serves as the terminus for the West Coast Express, a commuter service recently inaugurated by TransLink, the Vancouver transit agency, which extends east to Mission City. Five trains are operated in each direction, but they are all rush-hour trains oriented to take commuters into the city. Thus, it is not possible to make a single-day round trip starting from Vancouver on this commuter rail line. The equipment used on this service - bi-level cars, similar to those used by Metrolink, Trinity Railway Express, and many other commuter rail lines - was laying over in the yard below.
To get some change, I bought a cup of tea at a Starbucks in the station. I then purchased my $7.00 day pass, which I intended to use primarily to ride the SkyTrain line. However, I decided to try something else first. From a transit map posted at the SkyTrain stations, I discovered that the Vancouver transit system includes a rather unique element - a ferry service between Vancouver and North Vancouver called SeaBus. Ferries run every 15 minutes throughout the day. And this service, operated by TransLink, is included in the price of a day pass!
So I decided that, before taking my journey on the SkyTrain, I would take a ride on the ferry to North Vancouver and back. The boat provides a panoramic view of the entire harbor, the skyscrapers in downtown Vancouver and the picturesque waterfront of North Vancouver. Upon arrival in North Vancouver, I walked around a large food market adjacent to the terminal, where I purchased a tangerine. Then I took the next ferry back to Vancouver and boarded the SkyTrain. The train I boarded was headed to Baird, the second and, for now, last stop on the Millenium Line. Upon arrival there, I took the next train back to Columbia, located at the junction of the two lines, where I intended to transfer to a train headed to King George, the final destination on the original Expo Line to Surrey.
When I detrained at Columbia and walked downstairs to transfer to the Surrey train, I noticed a number of blue-jacketed TransLink employees stationed in key locations. At first, I thought that they were fare inspectors, but they didn't ask me for my ticket, nor did it appear that they were asking anyone else for theirs. Finally, when I went upstairs again, I asked one of these employees why they were there. She responded that the opening of the new line had caused some confusion, and they were there simply to assist passengers. I commented that the system seemed pretty understandable and easy to use. Just then, a train came along, and I boarded it.
The train pulled out of the station and, somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that it was headed to Baird on the Millenium Line rather than King George on the Expo Line! Only then did I understand why these people were stationed at the Columbia station. The SkyTrain equipment, designed for operation on a single-line transit system, does not have any destination indicators. The only way one can tell the destination of the train is by looking at a single small indicator placed above the stairs leading to the platform, and that indicator shows the destination of the train only when it is approaching the station. Obviously, this situation needs to be rectified in some way, and the presence of the TransRail employees at the station represented an attempt - albeit unsuccessful in my case - to do so.
Of course, it was easy enough to get off at the next stop and take the next train back to Columbia, where I finally boarded the correct train. The ride across the cable-stayed bridge over the Fraser River was particularly scenic, with two adjacent bridges - a steel-arch highway bridge and the steel-truss rail drawbridge that the Cascades had crossed on the way into Vancouver this morning - visible just to the left. For the journey back from the King George station, I sat in the "railfan" seat at the very front of the train, which does not have an operator aboard.
I decided to go to Chagall's dairy restaurant for a late lunch. I got off the SkyTrain at the Joyce stop, and immediately boarded the #41 bus, which took me directly to 41st Avenue and Oak Street. For lunch, I had a bowl of Moroccan soup, a slice of pizza and a cup of hot chocolate. The meal was delicious, and I was particularly pleased with the hot chocolate, which was made to order with milk and chocolate syrup, rather than consisting of chocolate powder mixed with water. I also decided to get a tuna sandwich to take back with me on the train for dinner.
It was now about 4:00 p.m., and I decided that I should be heading back downtown towards the Pacific Central station. So I went over to Oak Street and boarded a northbound bus which took me to downtown. Some downtown streets were closed because a movie was being filmed there, and the bus took a detour on a traffic-clogged street. So I got off at the next stop and walked over to the Stadium SkyTrain station. I took the train for one stop to the Main Street station and walked over to the Pacific Central station, where I arrived about 5:05 p.m. After making a phone call and obtaining a VIA timetable from the ticket agent, I went over to the gate to begin the four-step boarding process which had been detailed in an announcement on this morning's train. First, an Amtrak representative inspects your ticket and assigns you a seat. Second, you are instructed to write your name, address and birthdate in a register (which, I am informed, is faxed to the Customs Service at Blaine just prior to the departure of the train). Third, your passport is checked by U.S. Immigration, and finally your luggage is put through an x-ray machine. There was a very short line, and the entire four-step process took only five minutes. By 5:20 p.m., I was ready to board the train.
Tonight, I was assigned Seat 3 in Car #6, the window seat of a two-seat pair on the left side of the train. This was the side that did not overlook the water, but it would be dark out for the entire trip, so I really didn't care. Unlike the situation this morning, when I was permitted to move to an empty table in Car #7, tonight a sign on the door indicated that Cars #7-#10 were closed to passengers. It seems that I wouldn't have a table to myself for this trip, but even the coach seats on the Talgo train are quite comfortable, with plenty of legroom.
We departed Vancouver at 5:58 p.m., two minutes early. On the way out of town, I noticed that, for much of the way, we paralleled the Millenium SkyTrain line, including the part still under construction. In light of the hassle I encountered at Canadian customs entering Canada, I decided to eat my sandwich and tangerine before we got to the United States border, so that I could not be accused of bringing "food" into the United States. I went to the Bistro car and obtained a can of root beer, then returned to my seat, where I ate the tuna sandwich I had purchased at Chagall's restaurant (it was very good!) and started to eat the tangerine. On the way to the Bistro car, I counted (by seat checks) a total of about 60 passengers in the four coach cars that were open. At one point, Paul Clements, the Product Line Supervisor, walked by, and I commented to him that Cars #7-#10 appear to have been closed for our return trip. He assured me that, despite the sign, I was welcome to go into those cars if I chose to. I decided, though, that I should remain in my assigned seat for now, rather than attracting special attention by U.S. Customs by being the only passenger in an otherwise empty car.
We crossed the border from White Rock, B.C. to Blaine, Washington at 6:56 p.m., and one minute later we stopped at the Blaine station to pick up the U.S. Customs inspectors. (Only the U.S. Immigration agents are stationed at the Vancouver terminal, and the U.S. Customs inspection does not take place until the train crosses the border.) I was asked a few questions about the purpose of my trip to Canada and requested to show my passport, but my backpack was not searched, and I did not observe any other passengers' luggage being searched, either. The entire inspection of my car (including the questioning of one passenger who lived in Chile) took only five minutes, and by 7:10 p.m., the entire train had been inspected, the inspectors detrained, and we proceeded on our way. I was just as surprised by what appeared to be a very cursory inspection of the train by the U.S. Customs as I was by the intensive inspection I was subjected to by the Canadian Customs and Immigration. Perhaps the answer is that any suspicious passengers would already have been identified by the U.S. Immigration inspection at the Vancouver station, and the U.S. Customs is certainly not focusing its efforts on ferreting out generally law-abiding citizens who might be bringing a little more into the country than they are entitled to under customs regulations.
Now that the customs inspection was completed, I decided to move back to Car #7 and sit down at the nice table that I had occupied on this morning's trip. A few minutes later, at 7:37 p.m., we arrived in Bellingham. Seven passengers boarded here, and they were all directed to Car #7 (although a sign stating "this car not in service" was still posted on the door). I was a little surprised at this, since all seats in this car (except, of course, those at the tables) were facing backwards. Apparently, the crew had not anticipated using this car for the return trip to the U.S., and the seats had not been turned around after we arrived in Vancouver. But none of the passengers seemed to care. One couple boarded the train without a reservation and were sold tickets by the conductor. He explained that he had to charge them the full fare to Seattle ($27) rather than the discounted senior citizen rate, since they had boarded without a reservation.
Paul Clements soon walked by, and I questioned him on the procedure followed by the U.S. Customs inspectors at Blaine. They did the entire inspection during our stop at Blaine, while the Route Guide provided by Amtrak states that the inspection takes place while the train is proceeding from Blaine to Bellingham. Paul explained that the latter was, indeed, the procedure prior to September 11th, but that, since then, the customs service has stated that it cannot afford to waste the time required to transport the inspectors back to Blaine from Bellingham (they used to return by taxi, at Amtrak's expense). He stated, though, that there have been complaints about the delays that are caused by this changed procedure, and that he anticipates that the old method may be reinstated in the near future. I mentioned to him the procedure now in effect on the International and commented that, whatever the limitations of the procedure now followed by the Cascades might be, it is far superior to busing the passengers over the border and stopping at the border for an inspection where passengers are required to step out of the bus and into a building. Paul also mentioned that, due to the necessity to check-in passengers well in advance at Vancouver, a Product Line Supervisor (formerly known as On-Board Chief) rides this train every day, and that he will help out whenever needed, such as with the preparation of food for dinner (I observed him doing this when I visited the Bistro car earlier in the ride).
An announcement was made that the Bistro car would be closing after our stop in Everett, so I went down there and obtained a cup of mint tea. Then I returned to my table in Car #7 and continued working on these memoirs. Since it was dark out, I paid little attention to the scenery and just relaxed and worked with my computer. When we arrived in Everett at 8:53 p.m., it was raining rather hard. A few people got off here, and when we left a minute later, we were 11 minutes late.
The remainder of our trip was uneventful. I fell asleep for a while and, after we departed Edmonds at 9:15 p.m., returned to my seat in Car #6 to pack up my belongings, and prepared for our arrival at the King Street Station.
To my surprise, though, when we reached the station at 9:42 p.m., we proceeded south, past the station, then reversed our direction and pulled into Track 5 - a stub-end track that faces south - at 9:46 p.m. The conductor explained that Cascades Train #754 from Portland, scheduled to arrive at 9:45 p.m., had arrived before us, and that train was put on Track 3, the through track in front of the station normally used for long-distance trains and for all trains departing to or arriving from the north. As a result, we were relegated to Track 5 and had to reverse our direction to get there.
I was somewhat puzzled by these track assignments. It would have been much simpler to place the Portland train on the stub track, from which it normally leaves on its morning trip back to Portland anyway, and let us arrive on the main track. But the back-up maneuver was accomplished with remarkable speed, and we ended up arriving nine minutes early - despite the 13 minutes lost by the customs inspection at Blaine.
I went into the waiting room, called home to check my messages, and then walked over to the hotel to retrieve my suitcase. Then, I walked a few blocks over to Second Avenue where, after a wait of about 15 minutes, I caught the #174 bus that would take me to the airport for my JetBlue Airlines flight home, scheduled to depart at 12:55 a.m.
Today's round trip to Vancouver was a delightful experience, despite the unexpectedly intrusive inspection by Canadian Customs and Immigration. The ride along the Puget Sound is really beautiful, and Paul, the Product Line Supervisor, was exceptionally nice to me. I enjoyed the spacious and comfortable accommodations on the Cascades train, and even got to see a little of Vancouver - a very interesting city to which I plan to return.
Indeed, just about every aspect of my three-day trip to the Pacific Northwest worked out perfectly. Of the six trains that we took, four arrived at their final destinations early, one arrived a mere six minutes late, and even the "Coast Starlate" arrived less than an hour late. Moreover, I had plenty of room on every train to spread out and relax. I covered two new scenic routes (although one, unfortunately, was traversed after dark) and got to meet several friends again. I have to thank my friends Matt Melzer and Chris Fussell for suggesting this trip, and they made great traveling companions for the first part of the trip. I certainly want to come back soon and ride these beautiful trains again!
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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