TrainWeb Visitor Travelogue
RIDE REPORT: Amtrak Trains #751, 750 Cascades Service - Talgo
Seattle - Olympia - Seattle
April 30, 1999
By Jim Cameron / firstname.lastname@example.org
CT Metro-North Commuter Rail Council
Seattle's King St. Station was already buzzing with bluehairs when I
arrived at 6:45am.
The tour crowds were gathering for #760 to Vancouver (leaving at 7:45am) as
business crowd waited for my train, #751 to Portland OR, departing at
I'd skipped breakfast and even coffee at the hotel, convinced that in
espresso bars and carts are found on every corner, I'd be able to score my
caffeine fix at the station before boarding my train. How very wrong I
King St. Station is a dump. I've seen Greyhound terminals that looked
better. The only
food to be found was being dispensed by vending machines, and there wasn't
a latte in
sight. What there was was a very long line at the ticket window… and no
machines as you'd find at even smaller stations in the East.
Strangely, each of the ticket agents was being shadowed by another staffer.
Yep, it took
four people to run two windows. While the line of buyers grew to 5, then
12, then 16, an
adjacent line for Custom Class kept getting served first. This was really
pissing off the
coach passengers. At 15 minutes before departure another pair of staffers
showed up to
open one more window, while two other terminals sat empty. It took my
minutes fighting with a ticket printer before I bought my Custom Class
departed, convinced that there would still be people in line when the train
How can Amtrak offer such over-staffed yet poor service? Why can't those
reservations buy their tickets from a machine? Why not one line and one
Custom Class, as First Class passengers are served at airports? Why then a
after ticket purchase, for assigning seats to coach riders.
I'd planned a joy-riding daytrip just to experience Talgo, the
Spanish-designed tilt train
which has proven so popular on its unique Northwest runs from Eugene OR to
Vancouver BC. Perusing the schedule on the Amtrak website it seemed that a
to Olympia WA would allow the most ride time with minimal wait time. And
I'd have a
chance to see Washington's capital, to boot. (What a mistake that was, as
Having ridden the Swedish X2000 and German ICE trains on their earlier
tests on the
Northeast Corridor, Talgo was a much anticipated conclusion to my
European trainsets on US tracks (not counting the French built Turbo's
which run NYP to
I was not disappointed. The new Talgo sets were wonderful. In attractive
green, the trains are in permanent 12 car consists with wheel sets over the
meeting points between the rather short (at least by Amfleet standards)
cars. Built for
high level platforms, its quite a climb from platform to conductor stool to
height, especially for the elderly or handicapped. Despite their
investment in rolling
stock, the stations serving the Talgo fleet seem as modern as the 1950's,
i.e. low level
Inside the cars the most obvious difference was the silence. Even at full
speed, these cars
were quiet, reminding me of The Eurostar or Thalys trains I'd ridden last
year where you
could hear a whisper four seats ahead. The two and one seating in Custom
comfy with seats that scooted down to recline rather than tilted back.
There was an audio
jack and a few channels of banal music. (Headphones were $3 and yours to
there was a free movie shown from four overhead, roof mounted monitors, two
each direction of travel.
The TV's also showed a passenger orientation video with a vivacious
Am-babe, the likes
of which I have never seen in actual service. And best of all, throughout
the trip, the
TV's displayed a map of exactly where the train was on its journey,
estimated arrival time
at end-destination (which would creep upward or downward depending on track
outside temperature and commentary on the itinerary. This was a terrestrial
"Air Show", the in-flight, GPS-synched video service I've seen on several
flights. Even as
the movie showed an occasional caption would pop-up ("Now passing through
WA"). This service was great… well thought out and information rich
Idea: why not a synched audio channel telling more about the route…
There were individual, adjustable reading lights at each seat. Free
racked at the front of the car. The lavatory was roomy by Amfleet
standards, clean and
functioned well though it did seem to be discharging water as we boarded
Passage between each car was accomplished via sliding glass doors activated
by a handle.
There were onboard telephones… and a Bistro car and dining car.
Now, I love traveling by train… but not with a bunch of drunks. Is there
any reason to
serve bloody mary's at 7:30am except to feed someone's disease and/or make
a buck for
the commissary? I saw more alcohol than coffee dispensed as we left
Class passengers received a chit with their ticket which was good for a
(non-alcoholic) and "goodie bag" as the conductor described it. Contents:
biscotti and chocolate.
The Bistro Car opened late, with many excuses. And on our return ride to
(scheduled arrival 12:15pm, actual arrival 12:30pm) the Bistro Car
10:50am that it would close on leaving Tacoma at 11:20am. Why would the
service for the last hour of the trip? To allow the Amstaffer to clean up,
bank out and be
ready to detrain on arrival in Seattle. Passenger service be damned, this
going to stop serving lunch at 11:20am for her convenience. This is the
sort of stupidity
that Amtrak has got to address if it hopes to survive. If the train is
rolling, keep service
going! Goodness knows the alcoholics will cover any incremental cost.
As you can sense, while I found the Talgo equipment wonderful, it's the
human side of
the Amtrak story that was most disappointing. Nobody was surly or rude.
opposite, they were so effusive, familiar and overbearing that any modicum
graciousness and quiet dignity was lost.
For example, as we left Seattle the morning calm was broken when a pair of
entered the Custom Class car. (Like the ticket agents, every Amstaffer
seemed to operate
in pairs except the attendant in the Bistro where more staffing would've
These two conductors joked and guffawed their way thru the car, taking
comments about destinations and reminding us to use our chits to get our
In Europe this act of collecting tickets would have been done with
attentive silence, but not here. Whatever charm and panache Custom Class
the business traveler on this first train of the day, was lost.
Two other business-suited staffers wearing Talgo nametags kept moving thru
never identifying themselves but constantly carrying bags and bottles to
and fro. I
assume these were tech's of some sort to keep the train's amenities
operating, but they
could have played a more gracious role as well, serving as Chef de Service
Pursers, answering questions or explaining on-board services.
The Talgo ride seemed rough at slow speeds with considerable rock and sway.
slower we go, the worse it gets" explained the Bistro car attendant) But at
(70+mph) on the excellent welded rail roadbed, the ride was smooth and
Tilt action wasn't as noticable as on the Swedish X2000, but seemed
effortless on the
many curves along the coastline. Needless to say, from Tacoma south the
I detrained at Olympia - Lacey WA, fully expecting to be center city.
surprise when I found myself in the middle of nowhere with 'nary a map to
tell me where
I was. I had searched weeks in advance to find out more about Olympia on
the web. But
every site I visited, from Amtrak to the Washington DOT
(www.amtrakcascades.com) to the
Olympia Chamber of Commerce, I could find no map or description of where
station was located.
Arrive in any European city, large or small, and there's a map at the
station to orient you
to where you are vs. hotels, businesses, etc. Arrive in any US city, even
by air, and
you're on your own. Search out maps online and they are all oriented to
Try looking for a location like "Amtrak station" on a service like
Mapquest, and you'll
find nothing. The maps show roads, but not railroad tracks. Not even
increasingly improving site offers this orientation and planning tool.
To their credit, the city fathers (and mothers) of Olympia have built
wonderful little station to replace the traditional AmShack which doubtless
state capital. Staffed by a ticket agent and a volunteer Station Master,
there were helpful
brochures, vending machines and plenty of seats. Two bus routes connected
station but with insufficient signage and schedule information to reassure
me it was safe
to venture downtown.
Returning to Seattle on Amtrak #750 we were 15 min. late out of Olympia but
min. late into Seattle after a confusing back-up move into King St.
station. Opting for
coach on the way back, the seats were comfortable and the crowd convivial.
In the Bistro
car the drunks were really pounding them back. My AmFood "meatloaf
served cold and tasted like dogfood. And the coffee was as weak as before.
I wish Talgo was available on other Amtrak corridors. But if the
forthcoming Acela is
going to learn anything from Talgo it is this: a great train experience
means more than a
great trainset, it means great service from a trained staff as well.
If you're visiting Seattle don't miss the Underground Tour of Pioneer
Appreciating all things old and subterranean (especially subways
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