April 10, 2003, Thursday
The TrainWeb staff was invited to travel onboard the Holland America McKenley Explorer Domecars on the next segment of their journey. The next segment would be from Santa Barbara to San Jose, California. Because this was such a unique experience, we decided to accept the invitation. We made reservations on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to travel from Fullerton to Santa Barbara on Thursday morning. Since we expected to arrive in San Jose a bit after midnight, we made return reservations on the Amtrak Coast Starlight for Friday, April 11, 2003 and then on the Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to Fullerton. Using the Amtrak 1-2-Free promotional offer, the tickets were only $215 for Ray Burns, Shivam and I to travel from San Jose to Los Angeles in a Deluxe Sleeper on the Coast Starlight.
Around 7:30 A.M., just before we left our office on Thursday morning, Jack Shaw of Holland America let us know there might be a problem in departing from Santa Barbara that day. The Union Pacific railroad wasn't sure these extra tall dome cars would make it through the tunnels! There was a possibility that the cars would be rerouted back through Fullerton and up the San Joaquin valley along the inland route. We asked Jack if there was any chance that the cars would be leaving before 2 P.M. He assured us that the cars would definitely not leave before 2 P.M. So, we told Jack that we would go ahead and follow through on our plans to take the Pacific Surfliner up to Santa Barbara as we already had the tickets and the train would be leaving in just a few minutes at 8:16 A.M. If the train was detoured to go up the inland route, we would not mind riding through the detour. As long as we ended up in San Jose before the Coast Starlight left San Jose just after 10 A.M. the next morning, we wouldn't mind.
Carl Morrison, a new writer for TrainWeb, also joined us on this journey. To our surprise, Richard Elgenson joined our group in Los Angeles! The last we had heard from Richard was that he would not be able to make this trip as he had another event that he needed to attend.
Jack Shaw had mentioned that the McKenley Explorer Domecars hadn't been fueled up yet. Thus, the refrigerator was not running and there was no food on the train. I had already purchased a couple of fruit and vegetable platters, crackers, and some wine as snack food to enjoy on the trip. When we arrived into Santa Barbara, we stopped into the Subway on State Street and purchased a number of foot-long sandwiches to be saved for supper that evening. We even bought a couple of extra for Jack and his wife as we did not know if they would have any food for supper without working refrigerators.
We then walked down to the railcars which were quite a distance south of the Amtrak Santa Barbara Station. They were in the siding just south of the park near the Fess Parker Inn. Even though the refrigerators were not running, Charlotte (Jack Shaw's wife) put the perishable food in the refrigerators. It was still cold in the refrigerators and the food would last longer there than out in the car.
Dan Ainsworth, the webmaster of Web Lurker's DOMEmain web site, was already onboard the McKinley Explorer dome cars. Dan had come down on the southbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and was planning to ride the dome cars from Santa Barbara back up to San Luis Obispo near where he lives. If you want photos or information about dome cars, click here to visit WebLurker's DOMEmain web site. That web site is hosted on the TrainWeb servers and is the most extensive source for dome cars on the web!
Jack had already gotten word from the Union Pacific that the cars would fit through the tunnels. The Engineer and Conductor for the train were supposed to be sent up deadhead from Los Angeles on the northbound Coast Starlight. Unfortunately, Amtrak did not get word in time from the Union Pacific to place this crew onto the Coast Starlight. Thus, our crew was not on the Coast Starlight when it arrived into Santa Barbara at around 1 P.M. The next time a crew could be sent up would be on the next Amtrak Pacific Surfliner that would arrive later that afternoon. Also unfortunately, there wasn't a slot in the dispatching schedule to send these cars north later that day. Thus, it was decided to delay the entire move until the next day!
Dan Ainsworth and Richard Elgenson were not able to accommodate this 24 hour delay. Both had to head home. Dan had to leave pretty quickly to purchase a ticket to head north on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. Richard stayed with us until after lunch, but eventually had to head over to the Amtrak station to purchase a ticket to head south on the Amtrak thruway bus heading back to Los Angeles. Ray, Shivam and I decided to stay in Santa Barbara for this 24 hour delay so that we would still be able to take this very unique journey on these dome cars from Santa Barbara to San Jose.
We easily moved our San Jose hotel reservation to the next day and found a hotel where we could stay in Santa Barbara that night. We stayed at the Best Western Encina at 2220 Bath Street, just a couple of miles from the Santa Barbara Amtrak Station. Then, we tried to move our Amtrak Coast Starlight reservation to the next day. That proved to be a much bigger problem! As mentioned above, we paid only $215 for our Deluxe Room reservation for 3 people using Amtrak's 1-2-Free promotion. But, when we called 1-800-USA-RAIL to move the reservation, they said we no longer qualified for the 1-2-Free promotion since it was now less than 3 days before our travel. There didn't seem to be any option in Amtrak to just move a reservation that was already made to 24 hours in the future. The changed our ticket to the next day, but they raised the price of our ticket from $215 to $477, way more than twice the price of our original ticket! The 1-2-Free saved us $75 off the original price, but this new price we would have to pay for this changed reservation was way more than $75 above the 1-2-Free price!
I could understand the problem if there wasn't any Deluxe Sleeping Car space available on the train the next day, but there was plenty of space available on the train the next day. Amtrak needs to take a lesson from the hotel industry and some of the better airlines that are able to handle these types of changes in the travel plans of their customers. As long as space was available, Amtrak should have just moved our reservations to the next day at the same price. If Amtrak said that no space was available on the train, I could understand that and would not complain. But, I don't think that there should be such a severe penalty if space is available on the next train.
We made some calls to our contacts at Amtrak and explained how the delay in movement of the private cars pushed up our travel plans for the Coast Starlight. Our Amtrak contacts let us know that they would probably be able to fix this problem for us. We certainly appreciated that, but feel there should be some policy changes that would allow Amtrak to better accommodate the traveling public when they have the space to do so.
The fuel truck arrived at the siding and filled up the cars. Jack was then able to run the refrigerators to keep the food fresh. He said they now had enough fuel to provide electricity to the cars and run the refrigerators and air conditioning until the end of their display in Santa Clara.
Jack locked up the cars and we all walked through a beautiful park in Santa Barbara to head for lunch. We ended up at the Santa Barbara Fish House at 101 E. Cabrillo Blvd. It wasn't a fancy place, but the atmosphere was fine, the prices were right, and the food was quite good! After lunch, Jack and his wife headed back to the railcars while the rest of us, Ray, Shivam, Carl and I, headed over to the Amtrak Station.
The Best Western Encina Hotel sent a van over to pick us up at the station. The van driver was happy to stop by the dome cars so that we could pick up our luggage before heading over to the hotel. We directed him on how to get to the dome cars and drive down the narrow access road used by the fuel truck to get close to the dome cars. While we got our luggage off the dome cars, we invited the van driver to come onboard and take a tour of the dome cars.
Much of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the hotel following the progress of "Iraqi Operation Freedom" on the Fox Channel while catching up on my e-mail and working on this travelogue. We went to dinner around 6 P.M. at "Victoria's Restaurant" at the hotel. The restaurant featured a small aviary with dozens of finches that you could watch while you ate in the outdoor patio as we did. The aviary could also be observed from the parking lot outside the restaurant. The prices at the restaurant were reasonable and the food was good.
After diner, we returned to the hotel for a little more relaxation and catching up on computer work.
April 11, 2003, Friday
We spent much of the morning in our hotel room watching fox news and keeping up with the status of "Operation Iraqi Freedom". I was able to get online and catch up on my e-mail. Thinking originally that this trip would only be for two days, I didn't take along a charger for my cell phone batteries. Our current cell phone batteries would not last for the extra day, especially considering all the extra calls we had to make to change our train and hotel reservations and to let our families know of our change in plans.
Not wanting to travel without enough power for our cell phones, I used the internet to locate stores in Santa Barbara that cell Nextel accesories. Using MapQuest, I found that there was a Nextel store about a block from the mall in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, I did not know there were two shopping malls on State Street! I thought the Nextel store was about half way between our hotel and the trains station, so Ray and I headed out on foot to the Nextel store. Meanwhile, Shivam and Carl had the hotel van drive them back to the dome cars with all of the luggage.
After Ray and I walked down to State Street and started tracking the addresses, we realized that the Nextel store was very far away in the opposite direction from the train station and the hotel! Since I had also located a Staples that sells Nextel accessories that was near the train station, we decided to continue our walk in that direction. While we were standing on a street corner looking at maps, a couple came over to us and were kind enough to make sure we were heading in the right direction. When we were still about 5 blocks from Staples, Shivam called our cell phone. Shivam, Carl, Jack and his wife were already at the restaurant where we planned to have lunch!
We hiked a bit faster and made it to the Staples in record time. But, they did not have a very large selection of Nextel accessories and did not carry the battery charger that we needed. Fortunately, the Enterprise Fish Company where everyone was waiting for us was just across the street under the 101 Freeway. While we didn't accomplish our goal of getting the Nextel charger, we certainly did manage to get a very healthy walk!
The lunch was great and I would strongly recommend that anyone that finds their way to Santa Barbara stop in for lunch or dinner at the Engerprise Fish Company! From there we all took a taxi back to the dome cars. We arrived at about 2 P.M. and were just about in time for the people from Amtrak to arrive and start getting everything ready to add the engine to our two cars. The cars were parked on a siding behind the Fess Parker Ranch Inn, but the 511 locomotive was being kept up in an Amtrak siding in Goleta.
When the Amtrak locomotive did show up, it came down on the wrong track! It was on the second track and there was no way to switch from the center track into the siding where we were located. The dispatcher had the locomotive go all the way back past the Santa Barbara station to a place where the locomotive could switch over to the mainline nearest to our siding.
The locomotive finally came back on the mainlline closest to our siding and was able to switch over. Within a few minutes, they had the locomotive hooked up to the dome cars and we were ready to depart!
While waiting to depart, a northbound Amtrak Surfliner and a log train passed by.
A bit later, the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight passed us. That was the train that we were supposed to be on if the northbound movement of these cars had not been delayed 24 hours!
There were two places in the dome cars that were my favorite: (1) out on the open platform at the rear of the train, and (2) upstairs at the front of the forward dome car. The open platform was great because, without the obstruction of glass windows, I could see, hear and smell everything along the route of the train. I could even feel the wind and the cold against my face and my arms! When the wind got to be too much, I just moved to the center of the open platform away from the blowing cold air and could still continue to ejoy the sights, sounds and smells of the journey. Standing at the front of the upper level in the forward dome car was great because I could see right over the top of our locomotive! I could see the locomotive directly ahead and below me and watch it moving down the tracks! From this vantage point, watching the train go across bridges was also pretty unique.
In San Luis Obispo there was a crew change and we got a chance to step of the train for a few minutes.
Shortly after departing from San Luis Obispo, we climbed through the horseshoe curve.
Heading through tunnels while standing outside on the open platform was one of many unique experiences provided by this trip.
Because of various delays, we ended up in San Jose pretty close to the original scheduled arrival time of about 30 minutes after minight. Our train went quite a ways beyond the San Jose Station. We started to wonder how we were going to catch a taxi in the middle of nowhere. But then the conductor came to the rear of the train and we started a reverse move back towards the station. Instead of heading into a station track, we backed into the CalTrain yard. As we slowly backed through the switches in the yard, the Conductor spotted a building sitting on our track! There actually was a small portable building sitting on our track in the CalTrain yard! I noticed there was nothing to stop the train from hitting the building if the locomotive did not stop in time. The first thing we would have hit was the air-conditioner on the side of the building. The Conductor guided the Engineer to slowly ease up the track and we stopped a few feet short of the building on our track.
We had to cross several tracks in the San Jose Caltrain yard to get to the furthest passenger platform. As we crossed the tracks, the last southbound Caltrain arrived into the station. We headed through the station tunnels and found our way out to the side of the station where a couple of taxis were waiting. We grabbed the first of those cabs and took it to the Embassy Suites in Santa Clara. That was the end of a pretty long and very unique day for all of us!