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 a mostly business crowd waited for my train, #751 to Portland OR, departing at 7:30am.
I'd skipped breakfast and even coffee at the hotel, convinced that in Seattle, where espresso bars and carts are found on every corner, I'd be able to score my much-needed caffeine fix at the station before boarding my train. How very wrong I was.
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 ticket selling 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 agent 10 minutes fighting with a ticket printer before I bought my Custom Class ticket and departed, convinced that there would still be people in line when the train left.
How can Amtrak offer such over-staffed yet poor service? Why can't those with reservations buy their tickets from a machine? Why not one line and one agent for Custom Class, as First Class passengers are served at airports? Why then a separate line, 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 roundtrip 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 you'll see.)
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 triple-crown of European trainsets on US tracks (not counting the French built Turbo's which run NYP to Albany).
I was not disappointed. The new Talgo sets were wonderful. In attractive brown and green, the trains are in permanent 12 car consists with wheel sets over the articulated 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 car-level 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 platforms.
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 Class was 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 keep) And there was a free movie shown from four overhead, roof mounted monitors, two pointed in 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 speed), outside temperature and commentary on the itinerary. This was a terrestrial version of "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 Pyuallup WA"). This service was great... well thought out and information rich without being obtrusive.
Idea: why not a synched audio channel telling more about the route... history, commentary, etc.?
There were individual, adjustable reading lights at each seat. Free newspapers were 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 at Seattle. 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 Seattle. Custom Class passengers received a chit with their ticket which was good for a free beverage (non-alcoholic) and "goodie bag" as the conductor described it. Contents: fruit cup, biscotti and chocolate.
The Bistro Car opened late, with many excuses. And on our return ride to Seattle (scheduled arrival 12:15pm, actual arrival 12:30pm) the Bistro Car announced at 10:50am that it would close on leaving Tacoma at 11:20am. Why would the car cease 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 amenity was 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. Quite the opposite, they were so effusive, familiar and overbearing that any modicum of graciousness and quiet dignity was lost.
For example, as we left Seattle the morning calm was broken when a pair of conductors 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 made sense). These two conductors joked and guffawed their way thru the car, taking tickets, making comments about destinations and reminding us to use our chits to get our "goodie bags".
In Europe this act of collecting tickets would have been done with graciousness and attentive silence, but not here. Whatever charm and panache Custom Class had afforded the business traveler on this first train of the day, was lost.
Two other business-suited staffers wearing Talgo nametags kept moving thru the consist, 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 or Chief Pursers, answering questions or explaining on-board services.
The Talgo ride seemed rough at slow speeds with considerable rock and sway. ("The slower we go, the worse it gets" explained the Bistro car attendant) But at track speeds (70+mph) on the excellent welded rail roadbed, the ride was smooth and comfortable. 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 scenery was spectacular.
I detrained at Olympia - Lacey WA, fully expecting to be center city. Imagine my 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 the rail 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 the automobile. 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 Amtrak's increasingly improving site offers this orientation and planning tool.
To their credit, the city fathers (and mothers) of Olympia have built themselves a wonderful little station to replace the traditional AmShack which doubtless serviced this 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 to the 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 only 12 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 sandwich" was 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.
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