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TrainWeb Visitor Travelogue
www.trainweb.com/travelogues/multiple/1999d26.html

Mike and Tzena Smith's May, 1999 Amtrak Trip

Travelogue
Austin, TX - Sturtevant, WI - Seattle - Los Angeles - Austin
6410 Amtrak Miles

Prologue
Section 1: Austin to Sturtevant, April 29 & 30
Section 2: Sturtevant to Seattle, May 3 to May 5
Section 3: Seattle to Los Angeles, May 8 & 9
Section 4: Los Angeles to Austin, May 9 to May 11

Prologue:

I booked this trip on January 27, 1999, through 1-800-USA-Rail. I had attempted to use HYPERLINK http://www.amtrak.com www.amtrak.com , but for some reason the server couldn't handle the reservation. While booking this trip, the reservations person attempted to book me into room 1 on the LA to Austin segment. I mentioned that this was the car attendant's room. She did not know this and questioned me about room 1, stating that her computer showed it to be available. I told her the story behind room 1 and requested room 6. I intend on checking this out when I board the Texas Eagle in LA.

I noticed that the Texas Eagle to Chicago had sold out all the coach seats prior to me booking this trip. I thought that was unusual to have all the coach seats sold out 4 months in advance. It was. As of this date (March 30, 1999), they are not sold out.

My wife and I have taken 3 previous Amtrak trips.

Our first was in May 1997. I wanted to go to Paintball Sam's Big Game in Racine, WI and my wife wanted to visit Karen and Cleveland in Milwaukee. She also wanted to see mountains. After stumbling on to trainweb.com and one of Steve Grand's travelogues, we decided to try Amtrak. We left from Houston (via bus to Longview, TX), through Chicago to Milwaukee on the Texas Eagle. After a 3-day visit, we headed out on the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City. We had never been there and the pictures we saw on the ‘net looked like there is plenty of mountains in the area. Salt Lake City is wonderful! We spent 2 days there and left for Oakland. We stayed overnight in Oakland and caught the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles and the Sunset Limited back to Houston. We are hooked on train travel! It was the most relaxing, enjoyable vacation we have taken in our 47 years on this planet. I wish we had been in the sleepers on the Coast Starlight segment (like the rest of our trip), but we will make up for that error this year. We call our 1997 trip our Big Game / Big Mountain trip.

Our second trip was May 1998 from Houston to Racine to the Grand Canyon. We were supposed to visit a friend that lives near San Diego, but I got confused about daylight savings time and Flagstaff time and missed the “on-time” Southwest Chief out of Flagstaff by 15 minutes. We spent an extra night in Flagstaff and a night in Phoenix (unplanned, of course) while we headed for the east bound Sunset Limited and Houston. By the way, no picture does the Grand Canyon justice. You have to see it for yourself with your own eyeballs! It is awesome! This was our Big Game / Big Ditch trip.
(Grand Canyon = Big Ditch in Texan talk)

Our third trip was a business/ pleasure trip to Vancouver, BC in July 1998. We did the fly/ride Amtrak Vacation deal, flying to Seattle, busing to and from Vancouver, and train tripping from Seattle to Longview, TX, and busing to Houston. The bus to and from Vancouver had no AC and we were there during a “heat wave” (up to 84 F, HA!! That's our night-time low in Houston!!) so almost everyone complained about the heat on the bus. Our waitress on the Empire Builder almost fell down in the aisle when my wife asked for some ra-yunch dressin' for her salad, in her best Texan accent. After the “ranch dressing” statement, any time my wife wanted something extra in the diner, all she had to do was say ra-yunch dressin' and she got it. I got stuck paying the larger than normal tips, though. It was worth it. This trip is called our Vancouver trip.

We are leaving from Austin this year because we do not like the 5 hour bus ride to Longview, and the time change on the Texas Eagle route puts us in Longview at 8:00pm instead of 6:00pm. Austin has a number of free long-term parking spaces and it's only 3 hours from our house. Besides, we get to see the hill country of Texas from a train, we spend 9 more hours on the train, and there is no additional train cost.

I bought a Gateway laptop, partly for these trips and partly for work, so I could type up the interesting stuff we do and see. Do not expect too much emphasis on time performance and no emphasis on scanning rail frequencies. I don't own a scanner, yet. Most of this travelogue will be written in the early morning while I'm waiting for the coffee to percolate, or after the sun goes down, while I'm waiting to go to sleep, or when I'm bored at the motel or at my parent's house in Boise. I have a day's worth of work in Seattle on my birthday, May 7, and we are visiting my parents and sister in Boise, May 5 & 6. We're flying to and from Boise via Southwest Airlines.


Segment 1: Houston to Sturtevant, WI

My wife and I left Houston at 5:30 am, Thursday April 29, 1999, heading for Austin. We had planned on leaving at 5:00 am to give us a 2 & 1/2 hour pad in case we had car trouble. We didn't need it and had a relaxing breakfast at IHOP in Austin. The Texas Eagle was on time into Austin and they had an upgrade to a deluxe sleeper available for $86.00. We took it. We were booked into room 6 of the 2230 car (Superliner II), but they were going to move us to another room, anyway, due to someone else being in room 6. We moved to room B in the 2220 car (Superliner I), right behind the transition sleeper. When the train was moving slow, it was very noisy and squeaky. (Mainly truck noise, we were right over the wheels)

The consist is:
P32-8 engine #511
P32-8 engine #505
Baggage car #1212
Transition sleeper #39008
Superliner I sleeper #32062 (We were in room B)
Diner #38033

Sightseer car #33020

Coach, smoking #31523

Coach #34045

Coach #34075
Superliner II sleeper #32070 (Alabama)
Added in Dallas, 2 MHC's

Lunch was good. I had the veggie enchiladas; Tzena had the chicken fajitas. We talked with a couple on their first train ride (Tucson to St. Louis) They were enjoying the trip, except for the derailment. (What!!) They said a freighter derailed about 50 miles west of San Antonio, blocking the route, and causing Amtrak to bus the people to San Antonio. Train 2 became train 1 and vise-versa. I'm amazed that the Eagle was on time, after all of that. Later, I talked with the Chief of Onboard Services, Linda Butkus. She was still recovering from the hassle of moving everyone at 3:30 am. She said the transfer was completed just in time for the Eagle's departure from San Antonio. The Sunset Limited in both directions was going to be way late, but she was relieved that the freight derailed and not her train.

We stayed on time through Fort Worth. Between Ft. Worth and Dallas, we had to pull into a siding to allow a freight train to pass. We were stopped about 15 minutes, putting us late into Dallas. At Dallas, we picked up 150 high school band members, filling up the coaches, and delaying us another 20 minutes. Our car attendant, Mike Newton, said they had 400 bags to put in the baggage car. We were almost an hour late through Mineola, TX and we flew through there without stopping. I'm not sure how we made up all but 8 minutes of that time before Longview, TX, but we did it. We saw the Houston bus parked at Longview while we were having a leisurely supper in the Diner. I had chicken kiev and Tzena had the melt-in-your-mouth veggy lasagna.

During the night, I woke up twice. My impression at 2:30 am was how smooth the track was and how fast we were moving, and my 4:00 am thoughts were how rough the track was, and why did we stop so fast. We started moving again within seconds. A scanner would have been handy. The full moon made visibility pretty darn good.

We arrived in St. Louis 40 minutes early. The 150 band members started eating breakfast at 6:00 am and didn't finish until 8:15 am. We had been sitting in the station for 55 minutes at that time. The rest of the train was able to start being served breakfast at 8:30 am. For 150 teenagers, they were well behaved. The 15 chaperones may have had something to do with that.

We stopped north of St Louis and sat there for a while. The conductor announced that the Gateway dispatcher couldn't get us lined up properly to get around a stuck switch. After a back-up move, we started rolling again. We lost 30 minutes. I hope we make Chicago in time for us to make the 3:15 Hiawatha out of Chicago. Enterprise car rental closes at 6:00 in Racine, WI, so the 5:08 pm Hyawatha gets us there 15 minutes after they close.

Well, after sitting around on the tracks coming into Chicago, thanks to Illinois Central dispatching (or lack thereof), we missed the 3:15 Hiawatha by 2 minutes! Our car attendant, Mike, had us set to blast off as soon as we stopped, we arrived engines first (best scenario for us), and I did a run to the end of the track and then a fast walk to the north side of the Chicago station. (I gave our attendant $10 as I flew out of the Eagle's door) I had planned on holding the train until Tzena could catch up. The first Amtrak official I saw on the north tracks informed me that the Hiawatha had left 2 minutes ago. (my watch had 3:16:40) Close, but no cigar. (not a Bill Clinton joke) We checked into the Metropolitan Lounge, had some orange juice and pastries, and called Enterprise Rental Cars in Racine. They agreed to meet us at Sturtevant at 6:15. I'm contemplating a “nasty-gram” to Illinois Central about this. (48 year olds shouldn't have to run, for any reason!)

I'm typing this on the only kitchen-style table in the lounge. It's not crowded at all right now because the Southwest Chief just left. I could break out the power cord and plug into the outlet by this table, but my luggage is packed to the max, and I don't feel like disassembling the “stack”. (2 bags on top of my rolling carry-on) BTW, the commercial that says wider is better is correct! My carry-on wheels are 2 & 1/2 inches wide. They kept up with my run down the arrival ramp with a 100-pound load (estimated) on top of them. Thank you, Wal-Mart and Travelers Club luggage!


Segment 2: Sturtevant to Seattle

We had a great time in the Racine area and were packed and ready to go Monday at noon. Enterprise gave us a pleasant surprise when we returned our rental car. They said the rate was misquoted on our contract. It wasn't $32.99 per day, it was $9.99 a day!!! (Their new weekend special) Thank you, Enterprise (1-800-rent-a-car). They dropped us off at the Sturtevant station and we caught the Hiawatha to Milwaukee. The Empire Builder was on-time. We had car 730 room 4. We asked for an upgrade, but all deluxes were sold. The conductor said Amtrak was adding another sleeper car to this train next week (two sleepers to Seattle, one to Portland). Looks like we spend the trip in this standard Superliner 1 room. ( We've been on-time throughout the trip. I've filmed the flatlands of North Dacota and the slight hills of Montana. The most scenic areas before Havre, MT are Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, WI, and Winona, MN. Have your cameras ready to go. After Havre, get to the Sightseer car. The mountains are about 45 minutes away (viewing-wise).

George Oslin, our car attendant, has been excellent. The coffee's been on all day, he's been joking around with the customers, and he looks for things to do instead of being asked. (Making beds, volunteering info and scenic stuff, letting everyone know when there will be enough time to exit the train, when dinner reservations will be made, etc.) George and the woman car attendant we had on our 1998 Southwest Chief trip have been the best to date. Besides, George has no problem with me plugging in the coffee pot at 4:45 am. If all Amtrak attendants could be as personable, entertaining, and informative as George, this would be a great railroad!

Cynthia, the Chief of Onboard Services was excellent, also. We watched her handle an Amtrak reservations screw-up. She made the customer happy and handled the situation the same way I would want it handled. She was always accessable to the customers and was always friendly and informative. Great job!

After Cut Bank, MT, we were in the mountains. As we approached East Glacier Park, it started to snow. Have plenty of film for this segment, the scenory is awesome! We stayed glued to the windows of the Sightseer car until it was time to eat supper. (hint; westbound, get the latest possible sitting or the earliest if the train is on-time) I spent most of supper filming the snow, mountains, waterfalls, and the river. I went to bed shortly after dark (9:15 pm). I awoke in Spokane, WA at 1:40 am, mountain time. I didn't think I had time to go into the station, so I got dressed, purchased a real Coke from the vending machine just inside the door to the station, and went back to bed. After lying in bed until 2:35 am with no train movement, I checked the schedule. It did say we were scheduled to leave at 2:05 am (pacific time!) DUH!!! I didn't feel like getting dressed again, so I just laid there until the train left at exactly 2:05:01 am (PT) according to my watch.

I awoke at 4:20 am and plugged in the coffee. I went back to bed expecting to get up at 4:55 am, when the coffee should be ready. Oops, I got up at 5:40. Most of the sleeper passengers were already up and waiting for the diner to open. Fortunately, the coffee pot wasn't empty. We were right in the middle of the Cascades, with a fresh snow on the ground. It was beautiful. I filmed until my batteries gave out. We arrived in Seattle ahead of schedule and had to wait on the Coast Starlight to leave before entering the station.

At every service stop and station I could get into, I tried to find an Empire Builder travel mug. (none on the train) I have a Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Southwest Chief mug. I want a Coast Starlight and a California Zephyr mug. These 3 would complete my collection of mugs for every long distance train we have been on. What happened to these mugs?

P40 #816 Portland
P40 #803
P40 #814
Baggage # 1705
Transition #39038
Superliner I sleeper #32036 (We were in room 4)
Diner #38007
Coach #34044
Coach/Smoker #31535
Sightseer #33007 Portland
Coach #34091 Portland
Coach/Baggage #31012 Portland
Superliner I sleeper #32000 Portland
1 MHC To Portland
3 MHC Dropped during the first night


Segment 3 Seattle to Los Angeles:

I haven't been keeping up with this travelogue during this trip, due to the fabulous service and scenery on the Coast Starlight. We are sitting in Oakland as I type this. We arrived 35 minutes early. We've been through rain, sunshine, snow, fog, below freezing temperatures, and overcast skies. Our car attendant, Elizabeth DeBiasi, has made this trip remarkable. She always had coffee and drinks available and waits for us to leave to take care of the room (Deluxe room C, car 1132). No asking necessary! She has stopped by our room several times informing us of sights, meal times, station smoke breaks, left-over wine from the wine tastings, and left a nice mother's day corsage for Tzena. I understand why this is considered the premeir Amtrak train.

The run through the Cascades had snow and fog and elk and awesome scenery. Washington had lots of water and tall trees. Right after Portland we had the wine tasting. I didn't particularly like any of them, but they weren't bad. I just prefer German Mosel region wines. Our Chief of Onboard Services is Jerry Griffo, and he is a character. He had some very hoaky jokes about the scenery around Washington state that he credited to the train engineer and he created a total eclipse of the sun just for the train's passengers. (train tunnel, nicely set up) I had a chuckle over them. Jerry is all over the train chatting with passengers, asking if they need anything, and in general, making sure everyone is having an enjoyable train trip. (I like it!) He even had senior moments. I've had them. (same as a brain fart)

The Coast Starlight is a fabulous ride. Jerry Griffo, Chief of Onboard Services, Elizabeth DeBiasi, our Car Attendant, and Tuan Do, our Dining Car Steward, are the best we have encountered in our 18,000 plus Amtrak miles. David, the Parlour Car Attendant, was excellent. These people know their job, are personable, entertaining, informative, efficient, and appear to enjoy their jobs immensely. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Coast Starlight.

Tuan Do ran over 300 people through his diner smooth as silk. We had fast service, minimal waits when we were on the waiting list, and excellent food (except for the Halibut, it was dry, but tasty). Tuan Do was extremely organized and had his staff rolling right along.

The parlour car is nice. All trains should have one for the first class passengers. David (English, not Australian!!) is very attentive to everyone. He's keeping the snacks and drinks coming and informing us about the basketball scores as we travel. We are moving out of Oakland right on time. Time to get back to enjoying this train ride! David had the Coast Starlight travel mug I wanted ($6.00)! I'm a happy camper.

We met the north-bound Starlight at San Luis Obispo and I got video of Jerry and the other Chief bartering supplies back and forth. For a small fee, I'll burn that tape.(heh heh heh) The north-bound had a new F59 engine in the lead (#456) with 2 P42's (#116 & #114) behind it. I wonder why they needed 3 engines when we only had 2?

We saw some huge surf at Pismo beach and had some heavy wind throughout the southern part of California. The ocean down south of San Luis Obispo and on towards Santa Barbara had straight off-shore winds with some very pretty surf. (lots of spray off of the tops of the waves just before they broke) We saw some dolphin, but didn't see any whales this trip. We arrived early throughout the southern part, so we had time to explore the largest fig tree in Santa Barbara and check out several stations along the way. We arrived into LA early, so we had to roll our luggage into the station from track 11 and then, 30 minutes later, roll it back to track 13 for the Limited. It would have been nice to exit the other side of the Coast Starlight and right into the Sunset Limited. (Our sleepers were side by side)

I and my wife talked with several customers (7+) on the Starlight that stated this was their first train ride and that they never knew it could be this great and were looking forward to their next trip. I did state that the Starlight was the premier Amtrak train. The other trains were good, but not to these standards. We don't know if we can wait another year to do this ride again. Maybe if we ride Houston to LA to Seattle and fly home.(Hello www.amtrak.com!!)

We have two minor complaints about this segment. I smoke cigarettes and my wife enjoys the occasional cigar. The Starlight is a non-smoking train. I have a solution. If you have ever opened the vestibule window downstairs, you noticed that the wind really exits the train through that window if the train is moving. If there was a vent (similar to the old wing vents in cars) built into that window, we could smoke in the vestibule area and not bother anyone. The three rules for smokers would be:
The train must be moving.
The vent must be open.
All smoke must be directed to the vent and expelled outside of the train.

While I'm on this smoking thing, the Coach/Smoking car area used by smokers on other long distance trains should vent outside. Do not recirculate the air; dump it outside. That coach stinks!

The second issue is the toilet. We hate having to close the lid to flush the toilet. In order to keep the odor at a minimum, we tend to flush 2 to 3 times during our daily constitutional. It's not convenient to stand up, close and open the lid, and then sit back down. Bring back the push button.


P42 #115
P42 #117
Baggage #1730
Transition #39022
Superliner II sleeper #32096 Nevada (We were in room C)
Superliner II sleeper #32081 Illinois
Superliner II sleeper #32106 Pennsylvania
Pacific Parlour Car #39973
Diner #38062
Sightseer #33042
Coach #34107
Family Coach #34515
Coach #34117
Coach #34116


Segment 4 Los Angeles to Austin:

What a culture shock! Going from the premier Amtrak train to the Sunset Limited. We were all boarded and ready to depart LA when the head end power dropped off. An announcement was made that there was a mechanical problem. Didn't someone check this train before it pulled into the station? Our start was delayed 25 minutes while the problem was solved. Tzena and I were in car 2230 room 6 at the end of the passenger cars. (There were 6 freight cars behind our car.) The car was clean, but old and worn. I wonder when Amtrak will transfer their Starlight philosophy to all of their long distance trains. I'm composing a long letter about the need for capital improvements to the entire Amtrak fleet, to be sent to all of my congressional representatives.

The Chief started his announcements about what was not permitted on this train and that all rules were strictly enforced. His announcement went on for about 15 – 20 minutes. Every time I thought he was finished (paused for several seconds), he would add something else. I don't know if he was having problems following a script, or if he was trying to do this from memory. It was being done at 10:20pm, so that may have been the problem.

Breakfast was interesting. Tzena and I arrived for the first sitting, was served coffee right away, and waited for 15 minutes for the waitress to take our order. After the order, we waited about 25 minutes for the food. I received undercooked bacon, luke-warm hash browns, and a piece of gray silicone caulk (about 2" long) hanging out of the end of my omelet. (must have dropped off of something in the kitchen) Tzena received her grits, but not her hash browns. The waitress offered to get me another omelet, but I know a thing or two about caulk, so I just cut off about 1/3 of the omelet and ate. I didn't want to wait another 25 minutes for chow. This incident did get me free bottled water from the diner for the entire trip, but it seriously grossed out the other people at our table. Lunch went better, but there is no comparison to Tuan Do's diner on the Starlight.

Room 1 had been booked to a couple now in room 3. They had used a travel agent to book their trip. Tony Westfield, our Car Attendant, moved them to room 3 so he could have #1. He actually did sleep in that room.

I filmed the train at El Paso, TX so I could add the consist to this article. I had planned on doing it at Tucson, but we were behind schedule and I didn't have the time. After El Paso, we were close to on-time and headed into the West Texas desert. Roughly half-way to Alpine, we went into emergency stop right in the middle of nowhere. The conductors and a crewman (??) came back to our car so I went downstairs to listen in. They couldn't find any problems with the train. A conductor explained that they could have hit something that knocked the air hoses up, causing the stop, or someone could have pulled the handle in the vestibule. They didn't know.

I typed a letter to George Warrington (President and CEO of Amtrak) while we were traversing the west Texas desert. The letter was primarily about why Amtrak didn't pattern all their trains like the Coast Starlight. I need to write my congressmen about Amtrak capital improvements. Everyone deserves a Starlight experience.


P40 #817
P40 #800
Baggage #1721
Transition #39013
Superliner I sleeper #32049
Superliner I sleeper #32016
Diner #38008
Sightseer #33005
Coach/Smoker #31510
Coach #34078
Coach #34000
Coach #34038 Texas Eagle
Superliner I sleeper #32063 (We were in room 6)
2 MHC (stayed with the Texas Eagle)
4 MHC (stayed with the east-bound Limited)

I woke up around 5:00am in San Antonio, TX. Tony had the coffee pot on, so I grabbed a cup and explored the station area. I overheard a passenger state that the station had just opened. I believe it. It was neat, clean, and functional with a southwest motif. I filmed the old, fully renovated station that's now a bar and food court looking thing. And I got the perfunctory shots of the steam engine that was on display. Every station has one, right?

The train crew seemed personable. While we were hanging around, they were chatting with us. We left right on time; backwards. I was wondering why we had the DJPX engine still attached to the last Material Handling Car. It pulled us an estimated 3 miles backwards to a rail junction and disengaged. We started forward towards Austin. Breakfast was excellent. The omelet was cooked perfectly, the bacon was crisp, the hash browns were warm and tasty, and my wife got her grits and hash browns on the first try. Outstanding!! (Cheese grits!! She loved them!) This diner rivaled the Starlight's diner. I didn't think that was possible on another train.


P32-8 #510

P32-8 #514
Baggage #1710
Transition #39042
Superliner I sleeper #32050
Diner #38055
Sightseer #33039
Coach/Smoker #31500
Coach #34024
Coach #34038
Superliner I sleeper #32063 (We were in room 6)
2 MHC
DJPX engine #18 (Detached after back-up move in San Antonio)

Next year's vacation may be New Orleans-Washington, DC-Boston-Sturtevant-Houston. We've never been to Washington or Boston, we've never been in a Viewliner, and we've never been on the Metroliners/Acela. I wonder if these trains have travel mugs? Is it May, yet?


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