10th Year Celebration Trip
Sep 23, 2005, Friday
As mentioned in the title of this travelogue, the purpose of this trip is to celebrate my tenth year of riding Amtrak. This coming Monday, September 26, 2005, I will board the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight. Exactly ten years ago on that date, September 26, 1995, I took my very first trip on Amtrak, and it was on the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles. I had no idea that trip would have such a significant impact on my life, on my career, and on many of the people around me. I certainly had no idea that I would travel more than 200,000 miles over just about every Amtrak route over the next ten years.
A bit more than ten years ago, I was looking for something interesting for my two young daughters to do during part of their school vacation. I heard an ad on the radio about travel on Amtrak and thought that might be interesting. I had never traveled on a long-distance train before. In 1970, I traveled all the way from Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon and back by Greyhound bus. It didn't even cross my mind that it would have been possible to do this trip by rail. That was one year before Amtrak was created and at the lowest point of passenger rail operations by the private freight railroads. I guess it had been so long since the railroads had advertised nationally passenger rail travel that I forgot that option even existed. From my experiences over the past ten years, most people still don't know that they have the option to travel by rail to a lot of places throughout the nation.
Somewhere I had heard it mentioned that when you travel by rail, it is possible to travel in your own private compartment. I don't know where I got that idea. It might just have been from watching old movies. Talking with some of my friends, they were under the same impression, even though none of them had ever traveled long-distance on a train either.
I called the 800 phone number that was given in the radio ad and was put in touch with "Amtrak Vacations." I told them the dates we wanted to travel. They suggested that we do an air-rail trip to Seattle. We could get from Orange County in just a couple of hours by plane, spend some time in Seattle, and then take the two day trip back from Seattle to Los Angeles on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. So that was the trip that we booked! Amtrak Vacations booked us in a hotel near the airport at SeaTac. I remember that because I had to drive a long way every day in heavy traffic to get to Seattle so that we could explore the sites in the city. On all future trips, I did my own hotel bookings and always made sure we stayed in the heart of Seattle where we didn't even need to rent a car. On most future trips, I usually stayed at the Pioneer Square Hotel which is within walking distance of the station and the historic Pioneer Square district. On this very first trip to Seattle, my daughters were 9 and 10 years old. They are now 19 and 20 years old and attending UCLA and UCI. I can't remember all the places that we visited, but I do know that we went to the zoo and ate in the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle.
After returning the rented car, we had a rather expensive taxi ride from SeaTac to the Seattle Amtrak Train Station. Seattle is one of the few Amtrak Stations where they do not allow passengers out on the platform until they board the train. Thus, we didn't see anything of the train beyond what we could see going by the station window. I remember being very impressed by the sound of the train and seeing this huge double-decker train pass by the window in the waiting room. I was further impressed as we walked down the platform to board the train. The train was much taller and longer than anything I had ever imagined.
It wasn't until I boarded the train and was shown to our room that I finally figured out how the Family Room can have a window on both sides of the train. I had gone over and over this in my mind before boarding and I could not figure out how a private room on the train could stretch from one side to the other without blocking passengers from being able to walk through the train. I had no concept that the train would be on two levels and that passengers would only walk from car to car on the upper level. Though, I did learn from experience that if the door is left unlocked, passengers would sometimes mistakenly attempt to walk through the family room to get to another car. It is not possible to get from car to car on the lower level of a Superliner Car at all. The Family Room to this day is still my favorite room on the train. Though it doesn't have its own private shower / toilet, it has a feel to it like no other room on the train. I like being able to look out either side of the train anytime I want by just turning my head from one side to the other, or getting closer to the window on either side if I want a better look. There is no other room with such a long sofa stretching all the way from one side of the room to the other, and it is also the only room with two pull-out tables, one under each window on each side of the room. The Family Room comfortably sleeps 2 adults and 2 small children, but we have often traveled with 2 adults and 3 children in the room. It is also the only room on the train with a real door on hinges. All other rooms have sliding doors with latches. There also seems to be more walking space in the room than in any other room. The handicap room probably has more actual walking space, but I don't like the layout of that room at all. I'm sure it is very functional for someone in a wheelchair with lots of room to maneuver, but I just like the overall feel of the Family Room more than any other room on the train. Since my children are now adults and I seldom travel on the train with them anymore, my days of travel in the Family Room are probably over.
Those two days were the start of my love for rail travel that has lasted to this day and will probably continue indefinitely into the future. After that trip, I looked for every excuse I could find to travel by Amtrak. For several years, we went round-trip by the Amtrak Coast Starlight to attend Thanksgiving Dinner at my wife's sister's house who lives in the San Jose area. My wife and I have another company that had offices in the San Jose and Chicago areas. Whenever I needed to make a business trip to these offices, I went by Amtrak. While my children were still young, I took them twice to Disneyworld in Florida round-trip by Amtrak. Those Los Angeles to Florida round-trips were the longest Amtrak trips I have ever made, spending 3 nights on the train each way! Prior to my involvement with TrainWeb.com, I operated an Internet Service Provider (ISP) business that provided local dial-up access throughout much of California. I would take the train along with the special equipment needed to set up dial-up access points in various locations throughout the state. After starting up TrainWeb.com, I made it my goal to travel on every mile of track where Amtrak provided service. Before the turn of the century, I did manage to ride every mile of every Amtrak route. Since that time, however, Amtrak created a couple of new routes that I have never taken and one of them has already been eliminated. The only Amtrak route that is currently in existence that I have never taken is the Heartland Flyer. As mentioned before, I don't get to ride the trains as much now as I did in the 1990s, so I do try to appreciate more the times that I do get to travel on the rails
But, let's get back and talk about the trip that I am on now. Originally, the plan for this trip was for my wife and me to travel round-trip in a deluxe bedroom on the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle and back, with the return leg of this trip to be on the exact dates as my original Amtrak trip. Unfortunately, because of some minor surgery that my older daughter had done on her foot, she will not be able to drive herself to school for the next few weeks. Either my wife or I will have to drive her to school for the next few weeks. I've volunteered to do this until she is able to drive herself. However, knowing the importance of this travel anniversary trip to me, my wife volunteered to drive her for the first three days of school that overlap with this trip. The problem with this is that my wife won't be able to make this entire trip with me. However, she came up with a good compromise so that we could at least celebrate part of this trip together. She will be flying up this evening from Orange County to Oakland and will board the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight in Oakland. She will then fly back to Orange County from Seattle late Sunday afternoon so that she will be able to drive our daughter to school on Monday and Tuesday.
Checking the airlines, we found an Alaska Airlines flight that left Orange County around 7 PM and arrived into Oakland around 8:15 PM. I made a reservation for my wife to take that flight. She would then take a taxi to the Oakland/Jack London Square Amtrak Station and board the train. On the rare chance that her flight might be late, that really wouldn't be a problem, even if the Coast Starlight was running on time. The Amtrak Coast Starlight is not scheduled to depart from the Oakland Station until 9:47 PM, about 90 minutes after the scheduled arrival of her flight. But, if she missed that connection, she would just continue 5 more miles down the road by taxi to the Amtrak Emeryville Station where the Coast Starlight wasn't scheduled to depart until 10:12 PM, almost 2 hours after the scheduled arrival of her flight. On the outside chance of a missed connection there, she would still be able to get to the Amtrak Martinez Station before the train as the train has to make a great sweeping arc as the tracks follow the waterfront. Even beyond that, hope wouldn't be lost as there is still the Amtrak Davis and Sacramento Stations, though the taxi fare would start to rise dramatically at that point! But knowing the history of Amtrak arrival times, there was very little risk at all. It is usually Amtrak and not the airlines that run hours behind schedule. My guess is that my wife would arrive at the Amtrak Oakland / Jack London Square Station long before the train and would have a long wait.
The photographs in this travelogue are almost of random items that caught my attention. The photos are pretty much in the order that I shot them. I've tried to place them in the appropriate places in the travelogue to match up with the date and time when they were taken, but I could be off by quite a bit on some of the time placements. If you are looking for a more comprehensive photo essay of what you will see along the way when you travel on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, take a look at the 2005 travelogue by Fred Dunn at: www.trainweb.org/dunn/2005h21a/. Another place you can try would be my personal collection of Amtrak Coast Starlight travelogues and photos at: http://www.trainweb.com/travel/sgcslogs.html orTrainWeb's extensive collection of other Amtrak Coast Starlight travelogues at: www.trainweb.com/routes/route_11/tl_11.htm.
This is a bit early for me to wake up for most mornings, but I figured that I should be on the road by 7:30 AM to make sure that I get into Los Angeles in time for the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight that departs at 10:15 AM. The traffic from Orange County into Los Angeles is horrendous on weekday mornings. When there isn't any traffic, it would normally be about a 45 minute drive from my house to Los Angeles. With traffic, it can easily take 90 minutes. If there are any accidents or other delays, it could easily take more than 2 hours. So, even leaving at 7:30 AM does not provide a lot, but usually enough, margin for traffic delays.
This morning there was just the usual heavy traffic. So, it took me a just a bit more than 90 minutes to get from my home to Los Angeles Union Station. There are actually many Amtrak stations closer to my home. I usually depart from the Fullerton Amtrak Station. I'd really rather leave my car there and take the 8:16 AM train from Fullerton to Los Angeles. That train only takes about 35 minutes to get from Fullerton to Los Angeles. The reason I am driving is to eliminate problems from my return trip. The southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight usually arrives far behind schedule into Los Angeles. When that happens, there are no trains for southbound passengers to connect to out of Los Angeles. Thus, Amtrak substitutes buses for those passengers heading south. The problem with the buses is that it usually takes at least an hour from the arrival of the Amtrak Coast Starlight until the buses are ready to depart. Then, it takes another 45 minutes before the bus arrives at the Fullerton Amtrak Station. From there, it takes me about 20 minutes to drive home. So, when Amtrak substitutes buses for the remainder of the trip south of Los Angeles, I usually arrive home about 2 hours or more after the arrival of the Amtrak Coast Starlight into Los Angeles. If my car is at the Los Angeles station waiting for me, it only takes me about 45 minutes to drive home at that late hour. So, I'm home more than an hour earlier than going by AmBus and I avoid all the hassle of the transfers and the waiting.
Am I sorry that I have my car at the station on those rare occasions that the Amtrak Coast Starlight arrives on time? Not at all! When the train does arrive on time, it arrives at 9:00 PM. There is still a one hour and ten minute wait before the last Amtrak Pacific Surfliner departs south for Fullerton. I'll be in bed before that train even leaves Los Angeles! Actually, when the train runs on time, it doesn't end up in Los Angeles on time. It ends up in Los Angeles almost 30 minutes early because of the padding built into the end of the schedule. When I have been on those rare southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight trains that stayed on schedule right up to the end of the trip, they have arrived about a half-hour early into Los Angeles. Then I had to wait more than an hour and a half before the departure of my southbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner! Driving my car, I'm at home before 9:30 PM. Taking the connecting train, I'm still at Los Angeles Union Station with another 40 minutes of waiting to do before the train departs at 10:10 PM, if it departs on time. So, it is likely that I'll often drive rather than take the train to Los Angeles Union Station when I'm taking a round-trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
Parking in the garage under Los Angeles Union Station always seems challenging to me, but seemed even more so this morning. Orbiting around the filled isles of the underground garage, I finally found a "compact" spot on the third level down. I've never really figured out if any of the cars I've driven over the past few years is a "compact" car. Back in the 1970s, when compact cars first started to become popular with the growing imports of Toyota and Datsun, it was easy to figure out which cars were compact. Pretty much all cars were full-size except for these new imports. Nowadays, I'd classify just about every car as a "compact" car by 1970's standards, except for SUVs. Generally, if I can fit my car into a "compact" spot without touching the painted lines on either side, then I figure it must be OK for me to park in the "compact" spot. Though, it can still be a challenge to squeeze out the door once I have parked. Since I'm now driving a Toyota Sienna Minivan, I figure I could always enter the car through the rear hatch if when I return to the car I find I've been squeezed in too tight by adjacent cars to enter through any of the regular passenger doors. I was able to get into this compact space just fine and if there were more passengers in my car, they all would have been able to get out their doors just fine. However, as I rolled my luggage toward the elevator, I did notice a number of other cars in compact parking stalls that were of questionable compact size. This even included a number of cars that overflowed their parking stalls making the adjacent stalls unusable.
Often, I'll leave from the parking garage through the first exit that I can find. This would usually leave me out on the sidewalk very far from the entrance to the station. If you're not familiar with Los Angeles Union Station, it can be quite a walk with luggage to any station entrance if you come out the wrong side of the garage. Fortunately, I found that I had parked just a few steps from the elevator to the East Portal of the station. I pushed the button to go up in the elevator, but something didn't feel right. I felt I should have gotten some sort of feedback from pushing the elevator call button, but I really had to think about what was missing. What usually happens when you push an elevator call button? Is there usually a "ding" to acknowledge your button push? Does some light go on? Or maybe you just start hearing mechanical noises coming from the elevator shaft. In any case, I didn't get any acknowledgement of my button push. So, I pushed it a few more times. Still nothing. I did notice there is a small LED in the center of the button. I think that was the feedback that was missing. That LED should light up after I push the button. I tried pushing the "down" elevator button. Sure enough, the LED on the "down" button lit up! But still, there wasn't any noise coming from the elevator shaft. I checked the time. It was 9:27 AM. I decided I would wait 3 minutes until 9:30 AM before diverting to a stairway.
I remember hearing an alternating buzzing shortly after entering the parking garage. I just assumed it was set off by someone entering the garage without taking a parking ticket. But my thoughts about that changed as I saw one set of lights after another turn off in the garage! This was like some scary movie. All the lights didn't go off at once, they went off in sets one after another with the lights in the room where I was standing going off last. I was left in 100% darkness! There isn't any light from the outside at all when you are three floors below ground level in a parking garage. It was surprising that there weren't any emergency lights. I thought emergency lights were on a totally different system, or ran on a battery backup. But there was absolutely no light at all. Well, now it wasn't so surprising as to why the elevator never came!
These days, I think terrorism is the first thing that would come to mind for most people, especially with this being a train station. I didn't seriously think terrorism would turn out to be the cause of this, but it did enter my mind. Just yesterday I had placed a key ring flashlight in my pocket. I don't usually carry one, but I was relieved that I had one on me now. If necessary, I would be able to use it to find my way out of the building. As I was reaching for my flashlight, one set of lights after another started to turn back on. The total darkness had probably lasted for no more than 30 seconds. I pushed the button for the elevator again, but I quickly changed my mind and decided not to take the elevator, even if it showed up right away. If the power in the building is not reliable right now, then I don't want to me stuck in an elevator if it were to fail again. So, I lifted my relatively heavy luggage and started up the stairs. Since I was on the P3 parking level, I had to climb up 4 floors of stairs to get to the street level. This time, I was right outside the East Portal of the station when I exited the staircase.
The East Portal is the Metrorail (subway) side of the station, about as far as you can get from the Amtrak end of the station. But, it is an easy walk through the tunnel under the tracks to the Amtrak side of the station. I would have gone up the ramp to the boarding platform for the Coast Starlight, but there weren't any signs posted showing which would be the boarding track. There are also several changeable lighted signs through the tunnel that indicate which track every train is boarding on. None of them mentioned the Coast Starlight. The Coast Starlight often boards on Track 10, but not always. Also, I thought I should go down into the station to check on the status of the train just in case there is a delay. Once I reached the station, the departure board did indicate that the departure of the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight has been delayed.
There were long lines at both the coach and sleeping car passenger check-in desks with the coach line, as always, being quite a bit longer than the line for sleeping car passengers. Security personnel were standing close to the end of the lines near the Amtrak information desk. People would frequently ask the security personnel about where they should board the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The security personnel would just direct them to the two lines at the check-in desk. The Conductors had not yet arrived to issue boarding passes. At first, I went to the end of the line for check-in for Sleeping Car Passengers. Realizing that it might be quite a wait, I decided to go sit in the waiting area and start working on my travelogue. I figured I'd notice when the Conductors showed up and stared issuing boarding passes.
I looked up from my seat and noticed that the check-in lines were almost totally empty. Since 10:15 AM is the departure time for my train, I almost went into a panic. Even though they had announced the train was delayed, my first thought was they might have resolved the delay and the train would be leaving close to on-time. I shut down my computer and walked up to the check-in podium. As I was walking, I noticed that the entire seating area of the station was filled with passengers. It was then that I realized that people were probably being told to find a seat in the station after they checked in and got their boarding pass. Sure enough, that was the story!
A person in the coach check-in line asked the Conductor how long the delay would be. The Conductor replied that the delay would be about an hour or so. The person then asked if he should go to the ticket counter to get a refund and rebook on a different train. The Conductor asked the person where they were going. After finding out they were traveling to San Luis Obispo, the Conductor said the best bet for the person would not be to change their ticket. The next train to San Luis Obispo would not be leaving until some time after the departure of the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
I had to explain to the Conductor that my wife would not be boarding until Oakland. He seemed just a little unsure how to handle that, but quickly made a decision of what to do. He just processed them as he would have if my wife was with me. He took both tickets, leaving me with the two ticket stubs, and issued me a boarding pass for 2 people for our sleeping car room. He also asked me if I was an Amtrak employee. At first, I didn't understand why he was asking me that. Maybe he thought I looked familiar? So I replied that I am not an Amtrak employee, but that I do ride the trains a lot (or at least I used to). From his next question, I realized why he asked me if I was an Amtrak employee. The next question was: "Did you win these tickets in a contest?" I knew right away why he asked that. The total amount charged listed on the ticket was "$0.00." I explained that I had used my Alaska Air Miles to obtain this free ticket. The other Conductor that was also checking-in passengers mentioned to the first Conductor that he will see those from time to time. The Conductor then told me to take a seat in the waiting area and that my train will be boarding on Track 10 down the tunnel when a boarding announcement is made. One of the Conductors then gave the other his cell phone number and said that he was going to get something to eat at a nearby Denny's. The other Conductor said he would be going back to the office for a while. I then headed back to the waiting area. Since someone had already taken my previous seat in the waiting area, I hunted down a new seat that would still have a good vantage point for watching the check-in area and entrance to the tunnel to the tracks. It was now about 10:20 AM.
I heard someone near me mention that they had overhead an Amtrak staff person say that the Amtrak Coast Starlight would be boarding in a few minutes. My notebook computer was giving me a low battery warning anyway, so I decided to pack up and wait by the tunnel for the boarding call. Within a few minutes, red caps started boarding passengers that were awaiting assistance. But, it wasn't until about 11:30 AM that they started the general boarding of the train. Since I was so close to the entrance of the tunnel, I was one of the first to head down to the boarding track. The Amtrak Coast Starlight was boarding on Track 9 rather than the Track 10 that I was told. But, that didn't really matter as Track 9 and Track 10 share the same ramp and platform. After I walked down the tunnel to Track 9, I saw a sign indicating that Sleeping Car Passengers were to go up the ramp on the left and Coach Passengers up the ramp on the right. I headed up the ramp on my left. As I came out onto the platform, the Amtrak Coast Starlight was boarding on Track 9 on my left. Track 10 on my right was empty.
Other than the Car Attendants waiting at their doors, the platform was pretty empty. Most of the other passengers were still behind me heading up the tunnel to Track 9. Since I was ticketed for Car Number 1432, I knew that would be the last Sleeping Car and would be pretty far down. By "last" Sleeping Car, I mean that it is the furthest away from the Dining Car. The lowest "loading numbers" on Amtrak trains are on the cars closest to the Dining Car. Thus, on the northbound Coast Starlight, the Sleeping Car closest to the Dining Car is always 1430, the next is 1431, and the last is 1432. The crew dorm car, also known as the Transition Sleeper is usually numbered 1410 and is positioned between the highest numbered Sleeping Car and the baggage car. It is called a Transition Sleeper because it is the only Superliner Car where you can "transition" between the double-level Superliner Cars and traditional single level cars. The Transition Sleeper has a pass-through door at one end that is on the upper level just like all other Superliner Cars. But, on the other end, the Transition Sleeper has a pass-through door that matches the level of single level passenger cars. A baggage car is always connected to this end of the Transition Sleeper and it allows the train crew the ability to enter the baggage car at any time even when the train is moving. The Amtrak Coast Starlight usually has 2 or 3 Genesis locomotives at the front of the train. The locomotives are followed by a single baggage car and the baggage car is directly connected to the Transition Superliner Crew Sleeping Car with loading number 1410. That is then followed by the highest numbered Superliner Sleeping Car which usually has the loading number 1432. That is followed by Superliner Sleeping Cars 1431 and 1430 and then by the Pacific Palour Car. After that is the Dining Car and the Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car. Next comes the Superliner Coach Cars. There are usually 4 or 5 of those on each train. They start with the number 1411 and work their way up: 1412, 1413, 1414, etc. If their are any privately owned cars on the Coast Starlight, they will be at the end of the train after the last Superliner Coach Car. Because all privately owned cars have pass-through doors of single level cars, there usually isn't any way for passengers to move between the private cars and the rest of the Amtrak Coast Starlight train while the train is moving. By the way, the "14" at the start of each car "loading" number is the train number of the northbound Coast Starlight, Train Number "14". When this train is turned around in Seattle and heads south, it becomes Train Number "11" and the loading numbers of all the cars are changed to start with an "11". This has to all be done manually. So, if you ever see a car on a northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight that starts with "11" instead of "14", it just means someone forgot to change the loading number when the train was turned.
My Sleeping Car attendant was waiting at the Sleeping Car Door. After giving him my name, he gave me a big friendly: "We've been expecting you, Mr. Grande." I asked why he had been expecting me, and he replied: "Because you're on my list!"
I lugged my heavy roller suitcase up the stairs to Deluxe Room D. I was wondering if the weight of my luggage exceeded the Amtrak limit of 50 pounds for any single item of luggage. It probably did. For the last year or so, I've been traveling lighter than normal on my Amtrak trips. A big factor in that decision is that my last two trips involved air travel one way and rail travel the other way. I like to travel as light as I can when I travel by air so I don't have a big hassle with suitcases going through security, and so that I don't have to worry about things being stolen from checked luggage. But, I knew in advance that I'd be writing a travelogue for this Amtrak travel. Thus, I brought my entire toolbox with me: notebook computer, GPS, camera, radio scanner, cell phone, DVD player, iPod and MP3, plus all the batteries, power supplies and surge protectors that I would need to run everything. Also, I probably brought along more books than I'll ever get the chance to read, which is something I always do unless I'm working real hard at traveling light. I also brought along a set of bottles of single wine servings for my wife and I. Those single serving bottles are a tremendous savings over what they charge in the cafe car. I don't mind so much paying the extra to keep the Cafe Car in business, but I really like the convenience of being able to open up a bottle when I want without having to navigate to the Parlour or Cafe Car, often to find the Attendant on break when I arrive.
When I entered my room, it appeared the Car Attendant hadn't quite finished setting it up, but that was OK. He had certainly provided me with enough of everything! There was a big stack of towels and washcloths on the chair. There were 4 pillows spread out across the couch. There were also 2 blankets folded neatly on the couch. Two bars of soap and an extra roll of toilet paper as well as a fresh box of tissues were on the sink counter. Inside the sink cabinets were more washcloths, toilet paper, soap and extra drinking cups. On the ledge under the window there was a route guide, an Amtrak Coast Starlight schedule, safety information and other travel information. The first thing I did was to open up the upper bed from the wall and place 3 of the pillows and both blankets on that bed, and then I closed it up. I put the extra soap and some washcloths into the sink cabinet, and finding that the extra toilet paper wouldn't fit there, put that in the shelf above the combo shower/toilet where additional towels are normally located. I then moved all the paperwork from under the window to the top of the closet by the entrance door to the room. I would need the ledge under the window for my GPS and radio scanner. Another thing that I did right away was to plug in my surge protector and plug my computer into that so I could begin to charge up the drained battery in my notebook computer.
The Car Attendant already had a pot of coffee brewed and had creamer, sweetener, cups, napkins and stirrers all laid out. I made myself a cup of coffee and brought it back to my room before other passengers started to board. If you want an early cup of coffee, it is a good idea to get it right away and head off to your room before you end up in the way of other passengers coming up the stairs trying to make it to their rooms.
Here we are, arriving into Oxnard, already almost 90 minutes late! The scheduled departure time from Oxnard is 11:55 AM. Fortunately, I don't have a clock to punch, so it really doesn't matter how late the train gets. My only concern is, the later the train becomes, the longer my wife will have to wait in the Oakland Amtrak Station before boarding. I'm not worried about the safety of the station, but rather that she not have to wait for so many hours for the arrival of the train. At least it doesn't matter what time we get into Seattle. The hotel is so close to the station that we usually walk. Maybe we should take a taxi if the train arrives really late and it is the middle of the night. We'll probably wait to get there before we decide.
01:30 PMWe've just made it to the edge of the ocean, about 15 minutes north of Oxnard. The train will be traveling right along the shoreline for most of the next 3 hours or so. The amount of writing that I'll do while we travel along this beautiful relaxing stretch of scenery is questionable!
The Dining Car Steward made her way through the train giving out Dinner Reservations. Since I had skipped lunch, I wanted an early reservation. I made mine for 5:00 PM. I believe she was giving out reservations for 5, 6, 6:30, 7 and 7:30 PM. Generally, the Stewards start giving out Dinner Reservations first in the Parlour Car, then the Sleeping Cars, then the Coach Cars, and finally to people that are in the Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car if there are any left. They normally warn you that if your traveling party is in the Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car, you should have one member of your party return to your seat so they will be able to make a Dinner Reservation before they all run out. Actually, she also had 4:30 PM Dinner Reservations available, but she didn't mention that. She may have been saving those for passengers who were getting off the train about 5:30 to 6:00 PM and were concerned that they would not have time for dinner on the train. Sometimes they will have a "last call" for Dinner if you didn't get a Reservation or didn't hear your reservation called, but don't bet on it. They don't always have a "last call" and they often run out of a lot of menu options for the later seatings.
The wine tasting was held at 3:30 PM, somewhere half way between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Cheese and crackers were provided to go with the wine. Amtrak stopped serving fresh fruit at the wine tastings at least a couple of years ago. I heard that it was just too expensive. That means that I usually don't eat anything with my wine. I tend to eat pretty healthy most of the time. Thus, I rarely eat cheese and crackers but totally welcome an offering of fruits or veggies. Guess I'm out of luck. Other passengers seem perfectly happy as the cheese and crackers are very popular and consumed "heartily" in significant quantities by almost everyone.
I waited until 5:09 PM before going into the Dining Car. I guess I never heard the call for 5 o'clock dinner reservations. I was sitting patiently in the Pacific Parlour Car waiting for the announcement, but never heard it. I guess I was the only one that missed it as everyone else with 5 o'clock dinner reservations was already seated and eating their salads. I didn't want to barge in on the Dining Car just because it was already after 5 PM. Sometimes the Dining Car runs behind schedule (what else is new at Amtrak), and they often get upset when people start coming into the Dining Car before their reservation is called. I've often heard over the P.A.: "Please don't come to the Dining Car until your reservation time is called. We are running a little late and will call your reservation time when we are ready for you to come to the Dining Car. So, please don't come to the Dining Car until your reservation time is called." It isn't at all unusual for a reservation time to come and go without those holding reservations for that time to be called. But, if they don't call your reservation time within 10 minutes of the scheduled reservation, then it probably was called and you just didn't hear it (just like I just missed it). Sometimes the P.A. system is not working properly in all of the cars. But in this case, the Pacific Parlour Car Attendant did say that he heard the 5 o'clock Dinner Reservations called.
I probably would have skipped dinner if I hadn't already skipped lunch. If they have the same items on the menu tomorrow, which they probably will, I'll most likely find something more desirable in the Cafe Car. I don't tend to eat any kind of red meat at all except in very unusual circumstances. My entire life, I have never liked any kind of meat or fish that is served on the bone. That basically eliminated all of the menu items except the pasta. The quality of the pasta is pretty much the same as what you would dump out of a can and heat, which I would not be surprised if that is what it is.
This is quite a let down from the heyday of the Amtrak Coast Starlight in the late 1990s when it featured some of the best cuisine anywhere on the Amtrak system and would even hold a candle to many fine restaurants. Back in the days when I used to eat red meat more frequently, I had the best steak in my entire life served to me on the Coast Starlight. I've always tended to go more for vegetarian dishes and it was the Coast Starlight menu that taught me that vegetarian meals can be very appealing. I had my first Portobello burger on the Coast Starlight and have been seeking them out in other restaurants ever since. In the past, the Coast Starlight has offered vegetarian versions of various Mexican meals for both lunch and dinner that were excellent. Salmon, the only fish that I'll eat, seemed to be on the menu at least every other day and was prepared superbly! I'd order it every time I found it on the menu! Pasta entrees were also often featured as the vegetarian alternative for either lunch or dinner, but it was always a well prepared and seasoned unique dish, not a meal poured from a can. The side vegetables varied and were also well seasoned and flavorful, not like the corn that was served with the pasta. I grew up in an Italian home and I don't ever remember being served a starchy vegetable such as corn or potatoes along with the pasta. The pasta was the starch for the meal. You don't need a meal to be all starch! (Except for gnocchi which is pasta stuffed with potatoes. But that could be the entree itself and some other vegetable would be served with that which was not starchy.).
I'm not a culinary expert, but I do eat out at restaurants a lot. If a restaurant doesn't have a large selection of fish, they will usually offer salmon as the only fish option because it is something that almost everyone that eats fish will eat, even if it is not their favorite fish. Catfish doesn't seem like a good candidate for the only fish option, especially considering that Amtrak uses a small number of menus over and over again system wide. The same thing goes for chicken. When there is only one chicken option on a menu (which is often what you will find if you eat at a restaurant that specializes in fish or steak), they usually offer an item made out of a boneless breast of chicken. There are a lot of people that will not eat chicken on the bone, but almost everyone that will eat chicken on the bone will also eat a boneless chicken breast, even if they would rather have it on the bone. That is why restaurants that only have one chicken option will make that option something based on a boneless breast of chicken.
06:50 PMThe train just departed Paso Robles. When the train was arriving into the station, I had one of the few hallucinations I've ever had in my life. Must have been too much wine at the Parlour Car Wine Tasting. A friend of mine that lives in San Jose was thinking of boarding the train and riding with my wife and I as far as Sacramento and then taking a return train in the morning. As of 6:50 PM, he hadn't decided if he was going to do that or not. But, as the train pulled into Paso Robles and I was looking out the window, there he was standing on the platform! I didn't have any doubt that it was him, but was curious why he was boarding in Paso Robles instead of San Jose, which is another 160 miles down the road. I started to leave my room to go meet my friend, but then I realized that there is no way it could have been him. A few minutes later, he called and said he would not be able to make the trip on the train, which is actually what I was expecting. Maybe I'll go wander through the train later and see if I can see if there is now someone on the train that is the body-double of my friend!
My wife just called to let me know they are boarding her flight in Orange County. I told her that the train is now running about 2 hours late, so she will probably be waiting a good 2 to 3 hours in the Oakland Station. Once my wife does board the train, you probably won't find me writing much at all until I start my southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight trip home alone. One thing that I have discovered is that it is very difficult for me to write onboard the train unless I am traveling alone. Writing this travelogue is obviously my substitution for not having anyone in the room to talk with. Thus, it really helps for me to be traveling alone if a major goal of my travel is to write a travelogue.
Listening to the railroad radio scanner, I just heard a crew member mention that it was embarrassing that an Amtrak bus going down the highway parallel to the tracks just passed us.
My wife just called to let me know that her flight has arrived into the Oakland Airport. She is going to go ahead and take a taxi over to the Amtrak Oakland / Jack London Square Station. The station isn't very far from the airport and she will probably be there around 9 PM. She will probably have to wait at least 2 and a half hours before our train gets into Oakland. Right now we are about 2 hours behind schedule which should put us into Oakland at 11:32 PM. It is possible that there is some padding in the schedule between Salinas and San Jose and Oakland which means we could arrive into Oakland a bit before 11:32 PM. It is hard to figure out if there is any padding and how much since it appears they have some padding built into the schedule in both directions between these three stations. Usually, you can tell there is padding if the time allocated for one direction is much longer than the time allocated for travel in the other direction. In this case, the schedule shows the train taking longer to get from Oakland to San Jose than from San Jose to Oakland. Since the train is scheduled to make extended stops in San Jose, Oakland and Emeryville, that would lead me to believe that some padding has been built in to accommodate these extended stops. A late train can also reduce the time of the extended stop if all of the allocated time is not needed to board passengers and handle the baggage.
The Conductor said that we would be arriving into the Oakland Amtrak Station about one hour after departing the San Jose Station. The train departed the San Jose Station at about 10:15 PM, so I called my wife who had already been waiting in Oakland for quite some time, and told her that the train would be into Oakland about 11:15 PM. She said that they had made an announcement in the station that the train was on its way and almost everyone was already out on the platform. I told her there was no rush to go outside as the train had just departed San Jose.
Just north of San Jose, the train stopped for quite some time. My curiosity got me to turn on my railroad radio scanner. Evidently there was quite a bit of track work going on just north of San Jose and it was really going to slow down our progress over the next several miles. The train slowly crawled and made frequent prolonged stops over the next few miles. Outside the window I saw a great number of work crews in orange helmets and vests along with a lot of Maintenance of Way equipment. In a few places we passed old sets of railroad tracks piled up. The crossing gates at most of the crossings in these areas were not working. Instead, the track work crews were directing the traffic at these intersections. Watching the GPS I was a bit concerned as we were heading due east instead of northwest towards Oakland. I also noticed that we switched from one set of tracks to another at a point where the GPS didn't show any connecting tracks. I was wondering if part of the track work was installing a new connection between these two sets of tracks that wasn't on my GPS map. So, it seemed like we traveled slowly for quite some time due east not making any progress in getting closer to Oakland. Finally, we did turn and started heading northwest to Oakland and picked up speed. By then it was already around 11:45 PM. I called my wife and let her know that it would still be about another 20 minutes or so before we arrived into Oakland.
My wife said that it was colder than she expected in Oakland, that the station wasn't very well heated, and that she really hadn't brought along a jacket warm enough to cope with this weather. I felt bad that there was nothing that I could do. I had plenty of extra blankets and a warm jacket, but they were with me on the train. At least I'd have them ready for her when she boarded the train. Until now, I had the temperature setting turned as far as it would go to "Cooler". I changed that to as far as I could set it on the "Warmer" setting. The temperature controls on the train are odd and not terribly effective. This temperature dial controls what appears to be a radiant electric heater inside the wall below the window. Turning the dial to "Warmer" usually causes the wall right under the window and by the floor under the window to warm up. But sometimes, like this time, turning the dial doesn't seem to do anything at all. Nothing got warm after I turned the dial. Turning the dial to "Cooler" never seems to do anything other than turn off these radiant electric heaters. On the ceiling of each room there is an air vent. The temperature dial has no control over the temperature of the air flowing in through this vent. The temperature of the air flowing in through that vent is controlled by the Car Attendant, but there is probably just one setting for the entire car. The only effect that you can have in your individual room over this air is that you can open or close the vent, or adjust four little deflectors around the vent to somewhat set the direction of the airflow. Closing the vent never seems to stop the air 100% from coming into the room, but it does cause the vent to become a lot noisier.
So, when you really come down to it, the way you attempt to control the temperature in the room is to strike a balance between the wall heater and the air vent. The air vent might be blowing in cool air, but you can close the vent and set the temperature dial to "Warmer" to do battle with the cold air leaking into the room from the vent. If you are hot and the vent is pouring in warm air, the temperature dial isn't going to let you do much other than stop additional heat from coming into the room from the wall heater. Sometimes, you'll find the temperature in the hallways much cooler or warmer than in your room. I've often found that the best way to achieve the temperature that I want in the room is to just leave the door open and let some of that cooler or warmer air into my room. You can pull the curtain closed if you want to maintain more privacy in the room, but that will cut down on some of the airflow into the room. Historically, the curtain across the doorway has been a full length curtain reaching almost to the floor. For the first time since I've been riding Amtrak, the doorway curtain in my room only extends to the bottom of the window. Thus, if I open the door to my room and close the curtain, there is a huge open space below the curtain that would allow quite a bit of air to be exchanged between my room and the outside corridor. Maybe this new half curtain length is a good idea. It doesn't seem to reduce the amount of privacy in the room at all.
I had told my wife that I am in the very first Sleeping Car near the front of the train, Car 1432, and that the only passenger car in front of it would be the crew dorm. I told her that when she went out the doors of the station, she should turn right and head toward the front of the train until she got to the 1432 Sleeping Car. When we pulled into the Oakland Amtrak Station, my Sleeping Car didn't stop as far up as I had expected. We were right in front of the door of the station. Our train has three locomotives. Maybe that accounts for why my Sleeping Car didn't stop further up the platform. Anyway, I had to step out on the platform and call to my wife who was already walking up toward the front of the train past the crew dorm car. As soon as she boarded, we went to the room where she could get under the covers and I was able to add 2 additional blankets that the Sleeping Car Attendant had left in our room. So, that pretty much brought the day to a close!
September 24, 2005, Saturday
When I awoke around 7:30 AM, the first thing I did was to check the GPS which I had left running all night. The GPS showed that the train was still in California and a long distance before the Oregon border. Using the GPS to figure out how far we were from various Amtrak cities, I found that the train was still about 40 miles south of Redding, California. Roughly, we were running about 5 hours behind schedule and probably would arrive into the Redding Amtrak Station around 8:15 AM. If we don't lose anymore time, we'll probably get into Seattle, Washington, around 1:30 AM instead of 8:30 PM.
The night was very restful. Neither my wife nor I had any problem sleeping. When the Car Attendant set up the room last night, I had him arrange the mattress so that the head of the mattress was by the door and the foot of the mattress by the window. In that way, I can fall asleep while facing the window and watching the world roll by. If I wake up during the night, I just watch the scenery going by and will fall right back to sleep pretty quickly. Then, in the morning, I get to wake up to the world passing by. Watching the scenery from bed is so restful that I'll usually relax in bed longer than usual until I can break myself away from that state and get up.
Fortunately, neither my wife nor I need total darkness to sleep. I like sleeping with the curtains wide open to bring the full view of the world into our room. Even at home and hotels, I like to sleep with the curtains wide open as long as people outside can't see inside. I sleep best with the natural level of light from outside. My wife seems to be able to sleep just fine with any level of lighting. We almost never use an alarm clock to wake us up. When we wake up in the morning, we can generally tell if it is about time to get up based on the amount of daylight in the room depending on the time of year. I suppose this works best in an area like California that is mostly sunny year round. I don't know if this would work well in areas that are often heavily overcast. I also like to sleep with the windows wide open to let the fresh air in at night. We don't sleep on the first floor at home and are seldom near the ground level when we stay in hotels, so security isn't a big concern for keeping the windows open at night. It is just too bad it isn't possible to open the windows on the train!
My wife slept until pretty late and didn't get up until around 11 AM, which was OK since she was up so late after her usual bedtime waiting for the Amtrak Coast Starlight to arrive into Oakland. Neither of us felt like going to the Dining Car for lunch. Instead, I went to the Cafe Car and purchased two tuna sandwiches. I've always liked the tuna sandwiches on Amtrak trains. I'm not sure what is different about them. Maybe they make them out of dark tuna. They remind me of the tuna sandwiches that I used to buy when I was in high school. I always like those also and could never duplicate them at home no matter how I prepared my tuna sandwiches. In my opinion, the tuna sandwiches are often the best item Amtrak has to offer for lunch, even above everything offered in the Dining Car.
Chris Guenzler (See: www.trainweb.org/chris) left a message on my voice mail about the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight that I will be boarding on Monday. Chris started a trip from Los Angeles to Sacramento this morning on the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight. That trainset and crew will reach Seattle on Sunday night, so it will become the same trainset and crew that I will have on my southbound trip on Monday. Earlier I had mentioned to Chris that I hardly recognized any of the staff on this train. Back in the heyday of my Amtrak Coast Starlight travels, I was traveling on this train at least once every month. It got to the point where I would almost always recognize most of the onboard staff and Conductors every time I boarded the train. And even better, most of them would recognize me! This would often result in extra benefits that I have described in previous travelogues. On this trip, I hardly recognized any of the staff. One Sleeping Car Attendant, one Dining Car Attendant and one Conductor looked familiar, but I really didn't know them by name and they certainly didn't know me by name. Chris said the same was true on his northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight. He saw very few staff members on the train that he recognized or that knew him. Chris has traveled more than 800,000 miles by train, so if there is any passenger that should be familiar to the onboard staff and crew, it should be Chris Guenzler! So, if he wasn't familiar with the staff on his train, it is highly doubtful that they were going to be familiar to me either when I board that train on Monday morning.
One thing that Chris didn't mention in his voice-mail message that I was hoping he would have mentioned, is whether his train had a real Pacific Parlour Car or not. Chris had checked on his prior trainset the day before and found that it came into Los Angeles using an extra Sightseer Lounge Car as a substitute for a missing Pacific Parlour Car. We were both hoping that Amtrak would swap in a real Pacific Parlour Car before that trainset departed northbound on Saturday morning. Since he didn't mention anything about that trainset having a real Pacific Parlour Car, I'll have to assume for now that Amtrak was not able to rectify that problem and is still running with an extra Sightseer Lounge Car in place of a real Pacific Parlour Car.
The train is now running about 5 and one half hours late. At one point there was a disabled freight train ahead of us. We couldn't move until they were able to check out that train and move it into a siding. The wine tasting was held rather late today, at about 4 PM. The wine selections were better today than they were yesterday. They did provide a sheet describing each of the wines in detail, including the wines that were served yesterday. Today they served three different wines. My wife and I ended up purchasing a bottle of Symphony and bringing it to dinner with us. We had a 5 PM Dinner Reservation.
I like the earlier Dinner Reservation Times rather than the later ones. The earliest Reservation Times are the least popular and the Dining Car is about as least crowded as it is going to get. The staff is fresh and hasn't had a chance to get frustrated by dealing with serving passengers for several hours. At the earlier seatings, passengers haven't been waiting for hours to eat and aren't anxious to be served quickly. All of the menu choices are available at the earlier seatings. Thus, there tends to be a friendlier attitude from the Dining Car staff to the passengers and a friendlier attitude from the passengers to the Dining Car staff.
Unfortunately, "Today's Special" changed from turkey to fried steak. There was no way I was going to order the pasta again. My wife suggested that I try the Strip Steak which could be blackened to provide a more Cajon Style flavoring. As mentioned above, I rarely eat red meat, but given the limited options, this seemed the only thing to try. I ordered the strip steak prepared medium along with a baked potato and carrots. My wife ordered the baked half-chicken, a baked potato and corn. My wife had made an excellent suggestion! I didn't eat much of the strip steak, but what I did eat was excellent! I think having it blackened to add the Cajon Style flavoring really made the difference. I did finish all of my baked potato and carrots. My wife also gave me a bit of her baked chicken that she had removed from the bone. It also tasted quite good. The chicken seemed a little dry, but a bit of steak sauce solved that minor deficiency. If it wasn't for my general aversion to red meat, I'm sure I would have eaten all of the strip steak. It tasted that good!
For dessert, I ordered the Chocolate Bomb a la mode and my wife ordered the New York Cheesecake, plus we each ordered a regular cup of coffee. When the deserts came, we split them and had half of each others so that we both could try each dessert. The desserts were excellent! We pretty much feasted today and may have to limit ourselves over the next few days for having eaten so much today.
I'm not sure of the exact time our train arrived into Seattle, but it was well after 2:00 AM. It took my wife and me less than 15 minutes to walk from the Seattle Amtrak Station to the Pioneer Square Hotel and check-in went pretty fast. It was 3:00 AM when we stepped into the room. I've walked between the Seattle Amtrak Station and the Pioneer Square Hotel many times in the past both in the morning and late at night, but I don't think I'd recommend the walk to anyone at 2 in the morning. Every year there seem to be more unsavory characters loitering around Pioneer Square, especially at night. I know a number of people that have made many trips to Pioneer Square in Seattle over the years and none of them have ever personally known anyone to be assaulted in the area. However, I am keeping in mind that Pioneer Square is where two American veterans that had just returned from Iraq were beaten and left in the street while dozens looked on. There has been a growing population of homeless people in Pioneer Square over the ten years that I have been visiting. I just hope that isn't being compounded with an increase of gang activity. There are numerous restaurants and bars in Pioneer Square and it is an extremely popular destination for tourists because of its historic relationship with Seattle. Unfortunately, the crowd attracted by the late night bars might eventually reduce the tourism to this area.
September 25, 2005, Sunday
Needless to say, we slept in most of the morning. We woke sometime around 10 or 11 AM. I was disappointed to learn that most of my favorite Italian easting places are either closed or open very late in the afternoon on Sundays. Since my wife had to catch a 6:55 PM flight out of SeaTac, we could not go to any of the restaurants that opened at 4:30 or later. Our older daughter had asked us to bring back some of the famous Seattle "Cow Chip Cookies." Unfortunately, that shop is also closed on Sundays and won't open on Monday until after the time that I have to catch my train. There are a lot of people, especially tourists, walking around the streets of Pioneer Square on Sunday. It is kind of surprising that so many businesses are closed while there are so many potential customers walking by their doors.
Since our favorite Italian restaurants were closed, we decided to try an Indian lunch buffet that was right around the corner from the hotel. Indian is one of my very favorite cuisines. I have another website at www.IndianRestaurants.us where I keep track of all the Indian Restaurants I have found and tried around the nation. So, when there is an Indian restaurant near a hotel where I am staying, I usually like to give it a try. This particular Indian restaurant is called Flavor of India. www.IndianRestaurants.us is a list of restaurants along with my personal rating of each. When the food is good, I'll generally give the restaurant a "Recommended" rating. If the food is outstanding, I'll say so. It is very rare that I give a restaurant a "Not Recommended" rating. Unfortunately, I had to give this restaurant one of those rare "Not Recommended" ratings. There were very few items in the lunch buffet and the food itself was practically tasteless. That is pretty bad when you consider that most Indian foods are full of spice and flavor. I thought it ironic that the name of the restaurant had the word "Flavor" in it! Maybe the restaurant was just having a bad day. If they didn't put much effort into the preparation of the food or provide a good variety because they don't expect too many patrons on Sunday, then they would be better off staying closed on Sunday. Some people don't think it is fair to judge restaurants based on their lunch buffet. Those people do have a point as customers are not given the option of how spicy they want their food prepared. Most Indian Restaurants error on the side of caution. They know that a lot of Americans don't like spicy food and so they put much less spice in the buffet than you would request in an individually prepared dish. Over the years, however, I have personally found that the Indian restaurants that have the most diversity and flavor in their buffets also tend to be the ones that prepare the best individually ordered menu items. There are some exceptions, but they have been few and far between.
There are a number of transportation options between Seattle and the airport at SeaTac. Since we weren't going to have a lot of time to spend in the area, we decided to take the option that would allow my wife the latest departure time. That was to arrange for a town car to take my wife to the airport for $35. They recommended that they pick her up at 5:00 PM to make her 6:55 PM flight. Other options included Airport Shuttle services and the Seattle Metro Bus Services, but those options would require that my wife leave much earlier to insure that she got to the airport in time to make her flight. So, earlier in the day we made a reservation to take the town car to the airport. At the Pioneer Square Hotel, you just dial extension 100 to arrange for airport transportation.
I decided to go with my wife and see her flight off at the airport. Or, in this post 9/11 era, at least see her head off through the security check. Gone are the days when you could walk with someone right up to the boarding gate. Nowadays, you can barely get beyond the front door of the airport without a boarding pass. That is another reason why I still like train travel a lot more than air travel. The town car will take up to 4 people for the $35 fare, so it didn't cost any extra for me to travel to the airport with my wife. Since I wouldn't be in any rush to get back to the hotel, I went on the web and figured out which Seattle Metro Bus to take to get from the airport back to Pioneer Square. I found that there were two buses that went from the airport to Pioneer Square: 174 and 194, and I found out that they run roughly every 30 minutes. Since their schedules are a little offset from each other, I shouldn't have to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes at the airport for the bus when I'm ready to head back.
Once we got to the airport, my wife did the electronic check-in for her paperless ticket at Alaska Airlines. We spent a few minutes at the only shop by the gate that we were near. I purchased a street map of Seattle. I already have a lot of them at home, but didn't bother to dig any up to bring with me on this trip. I thought it might be interesting to follow the route of the bus from SeaTac back to Pioneer Square. We then went over to the screening area for the gate and said our goodbyes. I have no idea how far her actual gate was from the screening point. The sign just said that the screening point was for all gates, so she still might have had to walk quite a ways once she went through security.
I started to follow the signs for Ground Transportation, but soon found myself going the wrong way. The only reason I turned around was because I heard an announcement repeating over and over again saying that: "Metro Buses can be found at the curb at the south end of Baggage Claim" or words to that effect. The "Ground Transportation" signs were evidently for all ground transportation other than the Metro Buses. Walking back to the terminal and going down one more floor to the ground level, I found a sign directing me to "Public Transportation." I kept following the signs and it was a long walk to the south end of Baggage Claim! It was all the way to one end of the airport. Either I must have started out all the way from the north end of the terminal or this is one heck of a long terminal!
If you ever fly into SeaTac and need to get to Seattle, make sure you are at the right Bay. As best as I could determine, the southbound 174 and 194 stop at Bay 1 heading for Tacoma and the northbound 174 and 194 stop at Bay 2 heading for Seattle. The 194 bus only takes 25 minutes to get from SeaTac to Pioneer Square whereas the 174 bus takes about 32 minutes. The 174 bus came along first so I boarded that bus. The bus requires exact fare of $1.25 which I made sure I had on me before I left the hotel. The driver handed me a slip of paper that I think was a transfer. I didn't know what I would need it for, but I took it anyway. I started following the bus route once it turned onto 4th Avenue. I knew right where I was once it started going by the sports stadiums and stopped at 4th and Jackson right in front of the Seattle Amtrak Station. The next stop would be 4th and James, my stop. Normally, this would be a stop in the Bus Tunnel, but I think the Bus Tunnel is going to remain closed for the next couple of years for some refurbishing. From 4th and James, I just headed down the hill on James until I got to Yesler. The Pioneer Square Hotel was just another block or two once I got to Yesler. So, now I know I can take either the 174 or 194 bus to or from Pioneer Square to SeaTac if I ever need to fly in or out of Seattle! These bus routes will also work if you are staying in Downtown Seattle as they both go all the way downtown. I believe these routes will also work if you are going to Tacoma, but I have no idea where they go in that city. Tacoma is one of those cities I keep meaning to visit one day but never seem to get around to it.
Having slept so late Sunday morning, my schedule was a bit off and I wasn't tired enough to head to bed until quite late. Instead, I worked on the web for several hours catching up on some of the items I had fallen behind on since being away from the office. The Pioneer Square Hotel provides excellent free high speed wireless internet service. When I first turned on my computer, I was surprised to find so many wireless access points show up in my connection list. There were about a dozen of them! It took me a minute to figure out which one had a name that matched the wireless company that provided the free wireless service for the hotel. I had to call down to the front desk to get the Login-ID and Password that I was supposed to use. Later, I found a different Login-ID and Password provided in the Guide with all the information about the hotel. I didn't try the access codes in the Hotel Guide, but I imagine they probably would also have worked. The only slow process was getting the wireless connection authorized. The signal strength was only listed as "Good". Since the authorization process took so long, I thought I was going to have a very slow internet connection. However, once I got past the authorization screen, the speed was blazing fast! I was very surprised to be getting such good speed out of a connection that was only listed as "Good". When I went to TrainWeb.com, it came up instantly, as did my web based e-mail and other online services that I use. I was quite pleased with the free wireless high speed internet access provided by the Pioneer Square Hotel. This is quite a leap from my travels by train ten years ago! I used to bring along a phone jack and tools with me wherever I went. Many hotels used to have their phone hard wired into the wall and didn't even have phone jacks. I would often have to take the phone box apart and temporarily install a jack so I could plug in my dial-up modem!
September 26, 2005, Monday
Departure was right on time!
"Dirty Harry" is the Car Attendant in the Pacific Parlour Car. He is the only familiar face that I have seen in the onboard staff so far, and I have seen most of the Sleeping Car, Dining Car, and Cafe Car Attendants already. Actually, it really isn't a Pacific Parlour Car on this train. As I had mentioned earlier, Chris Guenzler had said that they were using an extra Sightseer Lounge Car to substitute for the Pacific Parlour Car that is probably out for service. I did speak to Chris yesterday and he did confirm that the substitute car was still being used on this trainset, so I already knew what to expect. "Dirty Harry" mentioned that he liked working the substitute Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car, mostly because the temperature is much more even throughout the car. Some people wandered into the downstairs Cafe part of the car looking for a restroom and mentioned that this is a totally different trainset than the one they traveled north on. The only real difference is this extra Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car instead of the Pacific Parlour Car, but that much of a change can make it seem like a totally different trainset.
If you hunt through some of my older travelogues, you will find one or more where I did comment on the substitution of Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Cars or Dining Cars for Pacific Parlour Cars when they are out for servicing. You might be surprised, but I don't find the substitution to be a disappointment at all. I'm sure many people do, but I'm not one of them. I really like the restoration that Amtrak has done with the 1950's era Pacific Parlour Car, especially with the big swivel chairs and the 18 seat movie theater downstairs. The decor is also reminiscent of an earlier time of more relaxed cross country train travel. However, from the viewpoint of practicality, I think both the Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car and the Dining Car make a better gathering spot for Sleeping Car passengers to escape their rooms. Both of those more modern Amtrak cars have much more seating capacity than the Pacific Parlour Car. The Dining Car offers a huge amount of table seating, with tables that seem to be much larger and more comfortable than the six that you will find in the Pacific Parlour Car. When my children were smaller, it was a lot more comfortable spending hours playing games with them at these tables when a Dining Car was substituted for the Pacific Parlour Car. The Dining Car also provides a lot more seating for the afternoon wine tasting, which is the time when the most number of people attempt to find seating in the Pacific Parlour Car. The Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car also offers far more seating than the Pacific Parlour Car, especially when you include both the upstairs and downstairs seating. Everyone in the Sleeping Cars can have a nice seat facing the large windows that run from the height of your shins to way above your head. The seating isn't as comfy as the big swivel chairs in the Pacific Parlour Car, but only 6 people get to sit in those at a time anyway. There are several big tables downstairs ideal for playing cars or games with your children in addition to the large amount of seats upstairs. So, it also has plenty of capacity to handle the afternoon wine tasting crowd. A drawback of both cars, however, is that neither has the wonderful 18 seat theater that is only found in the Pacific Parlour Car. The Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car is equipped to show movies on small screen TVs upstairs and downstairs, but I don't believe the substitute Dining Car is equipped to show movies at all.
I hope Amtrak can keep the Pacific Parlour Cars in good repair for as long as possible. But, if the day came that they had to retire the cars and replace them with either a Dining Car or Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car, I would not be too upset about it. On the brighter side, this does mean that Amtrak could add this "Parlour Car" feature for Sleeping Car Passengers for some of their other routes if they could just come up with a few more spare Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Cars or Dining Cars. Some have even suggested that the Dining Cars be turned into lounge cars for Sleeping Car passengers since they get very little use between each meal period and after the end of dinner service in the evening. I think this could be a wonderful enhancement to the services that Sleeping Car Passengers receive with very little additional cost to Amtrak. Ideally, it would be nice if Sleeping Car passengers on all routes had a lounge available to them all day and not just outside of meal times. Who knows? If the Department of Transportation (DOT) gets its way and eliminates Dining Car service, there may be a lot of available spare Dining Cars for this purpose. Unfortunately, DOT is also suggesting the elimination of Sleeping Cars all together, so there might not be anyone to enjoy any Dining Cars that are freed up for this purpose.
11:30 AMDownstairs in the Cafe part of the Sightseer Lounge / Cafe Car, I purchased 3 tuna sandwiches and a bag of smoked almonds, all for me since I'm traveling all by myself on this leg of my trip! As mentioned earlier, I really like the tuna sandwiches on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. Where the lunch and dinner menu is always a gamble nowadays, the tuna sandwiches are always winners with me! Off the train, I seldom ever eat them. But I am going to have one right now for lunch and I'll have the option of having the other two for lunch or dinner today or tomorrow. The sandwiches are sealed pretty tightly, so I figure they should at least keep for one day. The Cafe Car Attendant said that I purchased the very last 3 that she had. That seems a bit odd. She just opened the Cafe Car. These are probably the ONLY 3 that she had to start with. Do they not restock this train in Seattle? Maybe all she has is whatever is left from the stock they give her in Los Angeles. If so, that seems sad. Hopefully, I'm the only one that likes Amtrak tuna sandwiches. Otherwise, this train is woefully short on supply!
Departure from Olympia-Lacey, Washington, was just 11 minutes behind the scheduled departure time of 11:39 AM.
Let me get up on my soap box for a few minutes.
Looking back over the last 10 years, it is a shame that Amtrak has been on the verge of extinction in every one of those years. For those of you that have been following Amtrak since its inception in 1971, you know that it has been on the verge of extinction in just about every one of those years. Something has always appealed to me as being very illogical about this situation. I'm a very big supporter of free economics and the free market. Logically, it is hard to see why traveling by Amtrak should not be the least expensive way to get from point A to point B. The cost of transporting several hundred people from point A to point B with the fuel used by one or two locomotives should be far less expensive than the fuel used by hundreds of automobiles (and SUVs) to move the same number of people. The cost to maintain the rails between point A and point B should also be far less than what it costs to maintain and service massive multi-lane highways between point A and point B. By free market standards, it should be much more cost effective to take a train than to drive and this should result in a profitable operation of transporting people by rail.
I've seen analysis that shows that it is much cheaper to move hundreds of people between any two points in this nation by rail than by automobile. The problem is, many of the costs associated with driving across the nation are hidden and don't play a part in the comparison of driving your car vs. taking a train. When you take the interstate long-distances, how much do you factor in the cost to maintain that interstate? Even though this cost is extremely high, especially when you hear reports in the media of how our roads and bridges are deteriorating, none of us worries how much it is going to cost to maintain the interstate when we drive instead of take the train. That is because the cost to maintain the interstates is a hidden cost to us, but it is a cost anyway. We pay it every time we fill up with a gallon of gas, and we also pay it every time our employer withholds federal and state taxes and even every time we pay property taxes to our county or rent to our landlord (a portion of which goes to county property taxes). Through gas, payroll and property taxes, we pay for the maintenance of the interstates without regard to how much or how little we use them. These costs are all hidden. We don't figure them in when we are calculating how much it will cost to drive from point A to point B vs. taking the train. And we are right to not consider them since we won't save any of that portion of the cost whether we take the train or not. But, these hidden costs do destroy the free market comparison of the cost to go by car vs. the cost to go by train between point A and point B. If you had to pay all the costs to take the trip by auto vs. taking the trip by train up front before each trip, the tremendous savings of traveling by train would be obvious right up front. Once you knew the premium it cost to drive your own car, you'd have to determine if it was really worth the convenience of traveling in your own car. In most cases, it might be a lot less expensive to rent a car once you arrived at your destination.
I am frustrated about even getting started in comparing airfares to railfares. The amount of infrastructure required to make commercial air passenger transportation possible is huge and the cost would boggle the mind. Just about all airports are subsidized at the federal, state, county and city level. So, once again, a portion of your federal and state withholding taxes as well as your property taxes helps to keep the airports open. Airplanes can't fly without the FAA, the worldwide network of air traffic control and ground controllers at every airport. The airports also need terminals to operate from at each airport. The airlines pay part of the cost of this infrastructure, but only a very tiny part of the cost. Most of this cost is covered by your tax dollars. On top of that is the worldwide weather service. You maybe thought all these weather satellites were launched into orbit and huge staffs of meteorologists were employed throughout the world so you would know whether or not to bring an umbrella to work this morning. There would be little justification for spending billions of dollars annually to track the weather so carefully if it wasn't for commercial aviation. This expensive part of the aviation infrastructure that commercial air passenger travel could not survive without is provided to the airlines at little or no charge to them. Then, we have the issue of the recently federalized Homeland Security that screens every person and bag boarding every airline at every airport throughout the nation. There is no way that your $35 Southwest Airlines ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or $120 JetBlue ticket from Los Angeles to New York covers all these hidden infrastructure costs. What you pay for your airline ticket is heavily subsidized by federal, state, county and other local taxes.
At least we didn't directly pay the airlines to operate their planes, at least not until post 9/11. Since then, the government has been giving direct subsidies to a number of airlines just to keep those companies alive. The government has also been allowing several of the older airlines to use bankruptcy laws to avoid payments of their obligations and keep them from being put out of business in the face of competing with several new more efficient airlines.
This all puts Amtrak at a huge disadvantage. Their subsidy from the federal government is pretty obvious at about one billion dollars per year. Compare this to the hundreds of billions of dollars that subsidize the roads and airways in our nation. Because the subsidizing of the roads and airways is spread among many levels of government and across many departments at every level of government, it is difficult to point to one budget number that needs to be trimmed. This puts Amtrak at a unique disadvantage when politicians seek a single target they can cut. There are also dozens of powerful lobbies at every level of government that want to see our tax dollars continue to be spent on roads and airways. Amtrak has almost nobody but rail passengers and the passenger rail advocacy groups to speak for them. Even most of the freight railroads would like to see Amtrak off their tracks and out of their hair!
I am strongly adverse to socialist government programs. Thus, I really have to swallow hard when I advocate for the continued subsidization of Amtrak. My gut tells me that I should support the movements to end government spending on Amtrak. However, I would first like to see the government end their subsidization of the interstates and the airway. Rather that single out Amtrak for the termination of subsidies, I think we should terminate transportation subsidies across the board. How would the interstates and airways be maintained if we did that? For interstates, there would have to be a toll on each road high enough to cover 100% the entire cost of maintenance and servicing of that road. For airways, there would have to be a surcharge high enough on every ticket to cover the cost of the terminal usage, nationwide traffic control, ground control, Homeland Security screening, and an appropriate portion of the national weather service. You'd probably be surprised how much the price of airline tickets would jump. It would not surprise me if they jumped 300% to 500% just to cover these hidden cost that are currently born by every taxpayer. Naturally, I'd also require these hidden costs to taxpayers be removed. Federal and state gasoline taxes should be eliminated since the taxes charged on gasoline would now only need to cover the maintenance of local roads. Similarly, all federal and state income taxes that are now being used to subsidize both state and interstate routes should be eliminated as well as all taxes that are used to subsidize the infrastructures used by airways.
Passenger rail transportation isn't the only railroad business sector being hurt by massive government subsidization of other transportation modes. Back in the 1950s, the freight railroads almost went out of business. As the new federal interstates started stretching across the nation, it became cheaper to ship by truck than by train. This nearly meant the end of freight railroads since shippers no longer needed to build their facilities near railroad tracks. As more shipping and storage facilities were build near highways instead of near freight lines, the freight railroads would lose more and more customers. Actually, one of the few huge railroad customers at that time was the federal highway project itself that would use the railroads to ship the massive quantities of cement, rocks, asphalt and other supplies needed to build the interstate highways.
It really doesn't make a lot of sense that shipping by truck would be able to economically compete with shipping by train over long distances. Two hundred trucks with two hundred drivers pulling two hundred trailers should not be able to economically compete with a single train that can carry the same load in a single trip with a minimal number of locomotives and crew members. Yet it did. All because of the hidden subsidies to build and maintain the highways the trucks need to carry their goods. Sometimes you see signs on the back of tractor trailers indicating how much they pay in road taxes every year. Don't let those figures fool you. Studies have been done that show the wear in tear those heavy trucks place on the roads far exceeds all the road taxes that they pay. The difference in costs to keep the roads repaired comes from the taxes that you and I pay at the pump and into every level of government. If trucks had to pay their fair share of using the roads, there would be very few trucks on the road other than those delivering trailers from the nearest intermodal terminal to and from points of origin and destination.
The biggest technique that probably saved the freight railroads at that time was the increased use of intermodal shipping. With the ability to move trailers between ships, trains and trucks without having to unload and reload their contents, freight trains were back in the game. Trains could be used to ship goods, even if the storage and distributions facilities weren't anywhere near a railroad spur. Trucks could be used to transport the trailers the short distance between manufacturing or distribution facilities and the train yards, and the freight trains could be used to haul the trailers over the long distances. This is the only way the economics of shipping by rail could compete with the economics of shipping by truck. Because the government subsidization of roads artificially gave trucking an economic advantage over rails, it took some quick thinking to squeeze out some economic efficiencies to get railroads back in a position where they could economically compete with trucking.
As consumers, if we had to pay the true cost of each mode of transportation each time we made our travel plans, I honestly believe that Amtrak would not have any solvency problems at all. They would be the least expensive mode of transportation for almost every trip, regardless of whether you were traveling alone, with a family of four, or with an entire group of people. You wouldn't be able to get on the interstate without paying a toll that fairly covered your full portion of maintaining that interstate. Even a basic toll that just barely covered the maintenance of each interstate would have to be so high that a rail ticket would look like a bargain in comparison. The fully revealed cost to travel by car or plane from point A to point B would be so much more than by rail, you would have to make a serious financial decision each time you traveled to determine if it was worth the time savings or convenience to use a travel mode other than rail. Government subsidies of Amtrak would no longer be needed and there is a very good possibility that either the private freight railroads or other private operators would be interested in taking over passenger rail operations for the profit that could be made in the business. Once profit is possible, then the expansion of routes and services becomes likely.
Unfortunately, I don't see the elimination of government subsidies to highways and airways happening in my lifetime. It is also unfortunate that Amtrak has to continue their life and death battle every year for the pittance they receive compared to the other transportation sectors. One year, they may lose their battle and we may eventually lose passenger rail in this nation. Or, as has been proposed by some factors this year, that services be cut so severely that Amtrak would become little more than a glorified bus service on rails serving few communities.
On the flip side of the coin, Amtrak and its employees also need to do more to reduce the cost of providing passenger rail service. I've run across many examples over my ten years of riding Amtrak of what seems to me to be unnecessary expenditures on the part of Amtrak. Let's look at how Amtrak handles on board crews at the turning point for each trainset. When I refer to the "on board crew", I'm talking about the Car Attendants and Cooks. I'm not talking about the Conductors and Engineers. The Conductors and Engineers work no more than 8 to 12 hours per day. Let's take for example the Amtrak Coast Starlight on board crew. Those crews are based out of Los Angeles. Each crew will serve on the same train for 4 days straight, then I believe they get 5 straight days off from work. They will stay with the trainset for the entire 2 days that it takes to get from Los Angeles to Seattle so that the passengers are served by the same on board Car Attendants (including Coach Car, Sleeping Car, Dining Car and Cafe Car Attendants as well as Cooks) for their entire journey from Los Angeles to Seattle. The Car Attendants will usually stay up as late and rise as early as needed to meet the reasonable needs of passengers. Various Coach and Sleeping Car Attendants will often trade off with each other or with Conductors in helping passengers on and off the train during the middle of the night so each Car Attendant can get some sleep during the night in turn.
So far, so good. The part I don't understand is how Amtrak deals with the crew when the train reaches Seattle and needs to be turned to head back from Seattle to Los Angeles. This same crew will again serve the train the entire distance from Seattle to Los Angeles. The question is: where does this crew go while the trainset lays over in Seattle for the evening? Believe it or not, all of these crew members are transported off to a nearby hotel. Though a number of crew members will share the same taxi, this still generally results in a small fleet of taxis transporting Amtrak crew members off to a hotel in the evening and back to the train in the morning. I could be wrong, but I'm just assuming that Amtrak pays for all these taxis. I know in some locations Amtrak uses chartered vans (they call them "limos," which if you check the dictionary is technically correct. A limo is any vehicle for hire). Either way, Amtrak is paying the tab to get all these people from the train to a hotel and then back again in the morning. On top of that, Amtrak is paying for a night in a hotel for all these crew members. I have no idea whether crew members share rooms or everyone gets their own room, but Amtrak is picking up the tab for a lot of hotel rooms every night for the onboard crew. I can only estimate the total number of crew members, but there are at least 3 Sleeping Car Attendants, 2 Coach Attendants, 3 Dining Car Attendants, 1 Parlour Car Attendant, 1 Cafe Car Attendant, 1 Cook and 1 Assistant Cook. I'm probably missing some people, but that is at least 12 people that need to be transported to and from a hotel and put up for the night. Back when I started riding Amtrak, they used to put crew members up at the Pioneer Square Hotel where I usually stay when I am in Seattle. Amtrak hasn't used that for their crew hotel in years. I would assume that is because the price of rooms have become so expensive at the Pioneer Square Hotel. I think a small room could be obtained at the Pioneer Square Hotel for about $70 per night with the Amtrak discount back in 1996. Currently, it is difficult to find any rooms in the Pioneer Square Hotel for under $110 per night regardless of what discounts you might find. Hopefully, Amtrak has a much less expensive place for their crew to stay overnight in Seattle.
Covering the cost of the crew to stay somewhere off the train for one night and transportation costs back and forth between the train and the hotel has to be a significant impact on trying to limit the cost of operating the train. I'm just assuming that they are NOT given any meal allowance to purchase food while they are off the train. I'm not even sure when they would get time to eat while they are off the train. Even when the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight arrives on time into Seattle at 8:30 PM, they probably could not get to the hotel any sooner than 9:30 PM. Then, with the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight departing at 10 AM, you would think they would have to leave the hotel no later than 8:30 AM to have time to get things ready on the train for boarding passengers. When you consider that the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight usually arrives late into Seattle, sometimes many hours late, there is often hardly any time to get to and from the hotel, never mind trying to find time to sleep!
I really can't understand why Amtrak just doesn't have their onboard crews stay onboard the train as it lays over for just that one night at the turning point for each route. Not only would this save the cost of hotels and transportation of 12 or more crew members between the train and hotel, but it would also save a lot of time for the crew. They would not be losing valuable time going back and forth between the train and the hotel that could be better spent getting rested up for the next set of passengers that will board the train in the morning. I guess I just don't see what a hotel has that the train doesn't have. Each crew member has their own bedroom on the train and there are showers on the train. There is electricity if that is needed for shavers and hair dryers. I do understand that some servicing needs to be done to the train that might require that the power be turned off for brief periods. However, this is the layover point for the train and not the main service location. All the heavy servicing on the train is done in Los Angeles, where the crew is based and gets off to go home anyway.
I've heard some people say the crew really needs the break of getting off the train. The question is really one of cost savings. Would it be that hard to just spend one more night on the train out of the entire four day round trip? Relative to the 4 days round-trip on the Coast Starlight, I don't see how just a few extra hours on the train would be that hard to tolerate, especially if it would be a significant cost savings for Amtrak. Keep in mind that every night of the year there are dozens of Amtrak trains laying over for the evening with hundreds of onboard Amtrak crew members being transported back and forth and staying in hotels. It might not be a huge savings in the overall cost of things for Amtrak, but it does seem to me that it would make a significant impact on the bottom line operating costs for each trip of each individual trainset. If I'm missing something here, please do let me know!
Another area that has always bothered me is the food service on the Amtrak trains. If you include the Cafe Car Attendant, the Pacific Parlour Car Attendant, Three Dining Car Attendants and the two Cooks, then there are 7 on board staff members on the Amtrak Coast Starlight dedicated full-time to providing beverage and food service to passengers. It has just always seemed to me there must be a better way to allocate 7 full-time employees to provide a better food and beverage experience for passengers.
The way things are structured now, there is a massive flurry of activity 3 times each day: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. All the food is being cooked and served within 3 time intervals each day. Strangers are squished into tables together and rushed through their meals to make room for the people coming in for the next scheduled seating. Well, it might not really be that bad, but the way everything seems rushed at meals stands out in contrast to the way time normally seems to slowly flow by on the train. Then, for the rest of the day outside these 3 hectic time intervals, the Dining Car remains empty and the crew is on break. That has always seemed a great underutilization of the Dining Car to me. It just seems that there must be a better way to rearrange the 7 person beverage and dining staff so that the Dining Car could remain open and serving all day at a much more reasonable pace. I've never been in the food service business, so I can't say for sure if that would be possible, but it sure is desirable.
If I had my way, I definitely would separate the Dining Car food services out from the price of the Sleeping Car reservations. As I mentioned above, I'm a great believer in free markets. I think whoever is in charge of Dining Car services should have to woo the Sleeping Car passengers to want to come into the Dining Car to purchase their meals, rather than automatically getting them as paid customers regardless of how passengers feel about what they are getting for their money. When a portion of every Sleeping Car Ticket goes to pay for "free" meals in the Dining Car, it makes it very difficult to determine if there is anything wrong with the services provided and what needs to be done to make things better. Some people say that not enough Sleeping Car passengers would buy meals in the Dining Car if it wasn't included in the ticket price to keep the Dining Cars in business. If that is truly the case, then I feel Dining Cars should be eliminated. Personally, I believe it would just make the Dining Car services more responsive to passenger desires and you would see the type of services and food that passengers really want start to be offered. That would attract enough passengers to purchase food in the Dining Car to make the services profitable. Anyway, that is my view of things.
As if someone was reading my mind, the following appeared in my e-mail inbox when I was able to get online from the train:
The traditional railroad dining car is an endangered species at Amtrak; and Amtrak's Chefs, Food Specialists, LSAs-Dining Car, and Service Attendants may not have very good job security right now:
Amtrak has disclosed that the Amfleet II Lounge cars, their smoking lounges now useless since no smoking is permitted on any Amtrak train save AutoTrain, are being converted to full Dinettes with enhanced food preparation facilities, informally referred to as "Diner-Lite." These cars are intended to replace the dining cars on most Eastern long distance trains. On these trains, the Diner-Lite will be the only food service car. Beverages, snack bar items and a choice of prepackaged meals heated in conventional ovens prior to being served, will be available for purchase.
A basic change in the on board services on Amtrak trains may coincide with a new food and beverage commissary contract; the current one with GateGourmet ends in November 2005. Reports, subject to change, about a service plan being formulated for the long distance trains, appear to involve trains of two quality levels. "Premium" trains would continue to have First Class Sleeping Cars, traditional dining cars and lounges, and standard baggage service. "Basic" trains would have economy Sleeping Cars without complimentary meals in their fare structure, the Diner-Lite, and limited baggage service using storage space within the passenger consist, not separate baggage cars. In the East, the "Premium" Service trains are rumored to be the Lake Shore Limited and one of the Florida Silver Service trains. The other Florida train (Pewter Service?), the Crescent and the Cardinal would be "Basic", the Cardinal already being partway there with its Diner-Lounge. I don't know about the Capitol Limited, nor as to whether it will remain Superliner. Out West, the classification of the existing longhaul Superliner trains is less clear; it is speculated that the City of New Orleans, Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle would likely be "Basic" Service, based on their performance statistics; the Coast Starlight, California Zephyr and Empire Builder would be "Premium."
Unfortunately, nobody has any confidence about the Sunset Limited even surviving long enough to be affected by this change in onboard services.
As mentioned...all is subject to change, being in the planning stages right now.
That doesn't quite sound like the changes that I was hoping that Amtrak might make with their food and beverage service, but obviously Amtrak is thinking quite seriously about taking their food and beverage service in a new direction. I don't know if that is good or bad. We'll just have to wait and see.
I'll step off my soapbox for now.
The train just pulled into Eugene, right on time for immediate departure! However, we are not departing immediately. We'll probably depart in 5 minutes or so, but that does pretty much make us on time so far. We've been arriving and departing from every station pretty close to on time. I'm not going to bet the farm that it is going to stay that way with all the track work that I know we will be running into as we head further south.
I had the second tuna sandwich for dinner. I'm not really in the mood for socializing. Plus, I don't think I could again face the choice between canned pasta and strip steak. The strip steak was great, but that was about enough steak for me for this year. As usual, the tuna sandwich didn't fail to deliver and it made for a very satisfying dinner!
Sometimes as we pass though dense forests in remote mountain areas, I wonder what it would be like standing outside the train. Once the train passed, I'd be standing in pretty remote woods with nothing around for miles. The perception of everything around seems so different from the safe quarters of the train. I can faintly here the voices of other people all around me in other compartments, and I know that I would run into dozens, probably hundreds of people if I walked from one end of the train to the other. Yet, if I was standing in this same spot outside the train, I'd be pretty far away from anyone! That is one of the things about the train that I really like. It lets me visit remote isolated areas that are usually quite beautiful, from the safety of my private room with all of my resources around me. A small piece of civilization just travels along with me as we wind our way through the vast remote forests and mountains that own the spaces between the populated towns.
At about this time I was supposed to call Carl Morrison's (see: www.trainweb.org/carl) cell phone. Tonight was the monthly meeting of the Train Travel Meetup Group (see: www.trainweb.org/rtmeetup). Carl was going to be at the meeting as well as Chris Guenzler, a number of regulars and some new people. I was going to call and let them know how the trip was going. Unfortunately, from about 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM, we were heading through forests and mountains out in the middle of nowhere and I had absolutely no cell signal at all. Hopefully, everyone will assume that is why I didn't call until I can confirm that in person when I next see everyone.
I had the Car Attendant turn down the bed. This time, I didn't mention which way I wanted the bed arranged just so I could see which way he would arrange it by default. Sure enough, he put the head of the bed under the windows! I'm not sure why they all seem to do that by default. Maybe they are trained to do it that way. I really don't see why people would want to sleep with their head under the windows facing the interior of the room. After the Car Attendant left the room, I switched it around. There were three pillows in my room which I proceeded to prop up on the end of the bed by the closet and door. Now I would be able to lay comfortably in bed looking out the windows. I do see a number of advantages in the way I like to set up the bed. Number one, of course, is the ability to look out the windows while lying in bed. The second advantage is that you can turn the sink light on if you need more light for reading. With your head up by the door, the sink light is right up by your head. That seems more useful than illuminating your feet. Naturally it can be turned off when you want the room dark. If you like the room a bit cooler and less stuffy, the vent is also directly over your head and provides a cool breeze to that end of the room without actually blowing right on you. You can also close the vent if you don't want air blowing near your end of the room. Since my head is not by the window, then it is also not by the fold out table that is under the window. Thus, I am able to open up the table and keep my notebook computer set up all night without it cramping my head space, or having to worry about banging my head into it during the night. There is still plenty of room for my feet at that end of the bed even with the table open, but it would be very awkward to have my head at that end of the bed while the table is open. Also, with your head up by the door, there is plenty of space to place things on shelves or in cabinets at night. The box of tissues provided by Amtrak is on the sink counter within arms reach while lying in bed. There is room on the shelf for a bottle of water or soda that you can reach from the bed. If you have eyeglasses or other items that you don't want to fall on the floor during the night, you can just open the cabinet under the sink and place them on one of the shelves, also all within arms reach. I'm trying to think what the advantages might be to have the bed oriented the other way with your head under the windows, but I can't think of any offhand.
New voice mail just came into my cell phone and it was a message left by Carl Morrison at 7 PM. He said they had a very successful and enjoyable meeting with 12 people showing up, including at least 3 new people. They were just closing up the meeting and would be heading across the street to watch the departure of the Amtrak Southwest Chief from the Fullerton Amtrak Depot. He said that everyone hoped I was having a good trip and he'll see me sometime after my return.
The train just departed Klamath Falls, Oregon, just 19 minutes behind schedule. That isn't bad at all for this train. There is enough padding in the southbound schedule for an on time arrival into Los Angeles if we don't lose any further time. Though, I don't have much hope of that with all the track work we ran into on our northbound trip.
September 27, 2005, Tuesday
The train just departed the Sacramento Amtrak Station, running 1 hour and 35 minutes late. I woke up about 7:30 AM and was surprised to find that we had not yet reached Sacramento. The train must have lost some time during the night. The train was delayed a little further from departing from Sacramento as there was a broken rail just a bit south of the station and all rail traffic was confined to the one remaining track. A northbound Amtrak Capitol had to get by the single track area and arrive into the Sacramento Station before we could proceed south.
While the train was in the Sacramento Amtrak Station and being serviced, a tremendous squealing noise started coming from the sink in my room. Then, all of a sudden, the water started to run from the faucet all by itself! I tried pushing each of the faucet levers to see what they would do. The cold water lever didn't seem to affect the flow at all. The hot water lever made the water flow out faster, but nothing I did to either lever would stop the flow. I looked out the window and saw a water supply hose all rolled up on the poll at the platform. That hose was not connected to the train at all. As best as I could, I looked up and down the platform from my window and I could not see any other hose connected to my car or even any hose running across the platform within sight. So, I'm not sure what was causing the funny behavior of the faucets unless the Car Attendant was adjusting the water pressure for the car. As soon as the water stopped running by itself, I tried each of the sink levers again. This time, neither one produced any water. I decided to not use the toilet until the water was working reliably again. After a few minutes, the water faucet started running by itself again. It just did this for about a minute or so. I still couldn't see any hose connected to our car. I could understand the water acting weird if they were refilling the water tank in the car. They normally do refill the water tanks in Sacramento. I had to assume that was the cause of the strange behavior of the faucets even though I could not see any hose connected to our car from the platform. As soon as the faucet stopped running by itself, I tried the levers again. This time, they both worked fine with plenty of pressure. So, they must have been refilling the tank and causing the faucet to run by itself. This is something that I had never seen before in my ten years of riding Amtrak. But, I'm also often out walking around the platform on the longer service stops and might not have been in my room to notice prior oddities like this.
The train just departed the Oakland / Jack London Square Amtrak Station, running 2 hours and 13 minutes late. A friend of mine was thinking about purchasing a coach ticket and joining me on the rest of the ride from San Jose to Los Angeles. In the old days, he could have just boarded the train and shared my room with me since I already had 2 tickets for people in my room. He could just have used my wife's ticket and been entitled to travel to Los Angeles in my room as well as all meals and other privileges accorded to Sleeping Car Passengers. At TrainWeb, we had often substituted people on reservations at the last minute, or even while the train was enroot. Ever since 9/11, this has no longer been possible. Now, the person on the ticket and the person listed on the manifest of passengers must match the person riding, and the Conductor can ask for proof of identity at any time. So, we figured the safest bet would be for him to purchase a Coach ticket from San Jose to Los Angeles and then I would ask my Sleeping Car Attendant or Conductor with help obtaining permission or an upgrade for him to spend the trip in my room. The Sleeping Car Attendant said that it would be OK if he just came into my room with the Coach ticket, but that he would have to pay for his own meals in the Dining Car.
After checking his schedule, my friend found that he would not be able to ride with me from San Jose to Los Angeles, but he did offer to do me the favor of stopping by one of our favorite Indian Restaurants and bringing some food to the train. There is a place in San Jose called "Spice Hut" that makes wonderful India food. It isn't a fancy place, more of a take-out joint, but the food is excellent. The only problem was, we were running out of time! San Jose is only about an hour from Oakland by train. Having departed from Oakland at 11:03 AM, we could be into San Jose as early as Noon. "Spice Hut" doesn't even open until 11:30 AM. I set up my GPS so I could keep track of how close we were getting to San Jose. I called my friend at about 11:40 AM to let him know we were 15 miles from the San Jose Amtrak Station, and at that moment, the train was crawling along at about 5 miles per hour. He was just about leaving the restaurant with the order, so it seemed he should be able to make it in time. Once the train arrives into San Jose, it usually stays there for at least 10 to 15 minutes. San Jose isn't a service stop, but a lot of passengers get on and off the train at that station and there is a lot of baggage to handle. So, even if my friend doesn't arrive by the time the train arrives, he will hopefully get to the platform before the train departs. I guess the race is on and we'll see how it works out!
I just talked to my friend on his cell phone. He is parking his car in the San Jose Amtrak Station and heading to the platform. The train is just 5 miles north of the station and moving along at about 30 or 40 miles per hour. Without further delay, we should be in the station just about noontime. Looks like this meet up is going to work out! I better shut down the computer and get ready to head downstairs to meet my friend at the door. To make it easier for him to find me, I let him know that I was in the third double level car from the front of the train.
When we got to San Jose, my friend wasn't anywhere to be seen. I called him on his cell phone and he said that he would be out on the platform in a minute or two. Although my Car Attendant had gone into the station, I was worried that the Engineer would blow the horn at any minute to signal everyone to board the train. Finally, he did show up and he had brought quite a feast! He had purchased the 4-item combo plate for $5.99, 2 12 oz. single items for $5.00 and 2 Veg. Cutlet for $4.50 for a total of $15.49. With tax, it came to $16.77. I had told him on the cell phone that he was more than welcome to take some of it before he brought it to me on the train. When I opened it, there was so much food that I didn't notice that any of it had been taken, but he did say that he had taken about 10% to 15% of each item. With the amount of food that I eat at each meal, he had brought enough Indian food to me for at least 2 or 3 more meals! This was a real treat! There is nothing in the Dining Car or Cafe Car that can compare to the food that he brought to me. The flavor and quality of the food definitely puts the "Flavor of India" restaurant in Seattle to shame. Of all the Indian restaurants that I have ever tried, I don't know whether Swagat is better or Spice Hut is better. It is a pretty close call. One thing Swagat has going for them is that their restaurants are real restaurants inside and not like just fast food or take-out places. After having my fill for lunch, there was more than enough food left over for dinner this evening!
The train is stopped somewhere just a little south of Salinas. The Conductor got on the P.A. and said that we would be here for a little while waiting for new "Train Orders."
A few years ago, I remember commenting to myself that the day will come when I will only travel in the Deluxe Sleeping Rooms and no longer travel in the Economy Sleeping Rooms. I figured one day I would be able to afford to always travel in the Deluxe Rooms rather than the Economy Rooms. My wish eventually came true, but for two reasons that I did not foresee. First, I don't have the time to travel even a fraction of the Amtrak travel that I did in the mid-1990s. Thus, my annual cost of travel would be far lower than it was in the 1990's even if I did always travel in Deluxe Rooms. Second, Amtrak came up with two different rewards programs. One is the Alaska Airlines rewards program that is only good for west coast trains such as the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The other is the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program that is good for all Amtrak trains across the nation. The Alaska Airlines Program was introduced first. I started racking up points on that program earning 4000 points for every round trip on the Coast Starlight plus earning points by using my Alaska Airlines VISA card for almost all of my expenditures. When Amtrak introduced the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program and then started Code Sharing with Continental Airlines, I found that I could move my American Express Rewards Points over to my Amtrak Guest Rewards Program. I had been a member of the American Express Rewards Program since its inception in the early 1970s and had hardly spent any of the points I had earned over 35 years! Thus, I had a war chest of rewards points to use for Amtrak travel. So, for the past three years, what little Amtrak travel I have done has all been done in Deluxe Sleeping Car Rooms and I haven't paid for any of it. I've just been using my rewards points and still have enough points left for a few more years of Amtrak travel at my present rate of drawing down on my rewards. All the years while I was accumulating my American Express Rewards points I just felt I would someday be able to put them to good use. I can't think of a more enjoyable way to spend the points than on Amtrak travel.
While I'm on the topic, I feel compelled to mention how Amtrak has changed the names of their Sleeping Accommodations just over the brief 10 years that I have been riding Amtrak. When I first started riding Amtrak in 1995, they called the small rooms "Economy Rooms" and the large rooms "Deluxe Rooms." Till this day, I still think that was the best set of names for the rooms that Amtrak has come up with. Why? Think about what you expect to be getting when you rent an "Economy Car" as compared to a "Full-Size Car." Or, how about an "Economy Suite" vs. a "Deluxe Suite." You know you are going to be sacrificing size for the cost savings. Thus, you are not too surprised if the car or hotel suite that you get looks a bit small. Calling the smaller bedroom on the train the "Economy Room" was perfect as it helped buffer the shock of some people when they saw the size of the room. The "Economy Room" is about the size of 3 phone booths or maybe not even quite that big. Both in the Superliner and Viewliner Sleeping Cars, the Economy Room has two wide seats that recline only by sliding the seat cushion about 2" forward. The seats in the Coach Cars can actually recline far more and give you a lot more comfort than the seats in the Sleeping Cars, but then the Coach Seats can't be turned into horizontal beds as can the ones in the Sleeping Car. The Economy Room in the Superliner Sleeper does not have its own private toilet or shower but rather shares three lower level toilets and one upper level toilet as well as one lower level shower room with all other Economy Room passengers in that same Sleeping Car. The "Deluxe Room" is only "Deluxe" in comparison to the "Economy" Room. The actual size of the room itself is smaller than the bathroom of a luxury suite in most hotels. The room appears to be a bit more than twice the size of the Economy Room. In the sections of the Sleeping Car where you find the Economy Rooms, there are two Economy Rooms all down the aisle, one on each side of the aisle. There are ten Economy Rooms upstairs (Rooms 1 to 10) and four Economy Rooms downstairs (Rooms 11 to 13). Room 1 is always reserved for the Car Attendant. It has a few special features to aid the Car Attendant with his job, including having a panel on the wall that indicates when the "Call" button is pushed in any of the rooms. However, Car Attendants will often sleep or take their breaks in the Crew Dorm Transition Sleeper rather than in Room 1. That might account for why it might be difficult to locate your Car Attendant at times. There are only 5 Deluxe Rooms in each Sleeping Car labeled A through E and they are all on the upper level. Keep in mind the exception to these rules which are the Sleeping Cars on the AutoTrain and the Crew Dorm, where Amtrak does sell passenger space on some trains. There are Sleeping Cars on the Auto Train that are 100% Deluxe Rooms whereas the Crew Dorm is 100% Economy Rooms. The Deluxe Room stretches all the way from one side of the train to the other with the exception of an aisle by the window. In both the Economy and Deluxe Rooms, you do have the ability to close your curtain and / or your door for privacy. However, you can only lock your door while you are in the room. The doors can not be locked from the outside which means you cannot lock your room when you leave it vacant. That seems to be quite a concern to some passengers, but I personally have never heard of anything being stolen from a room. The Deluxe Rooms have a sofa that could probably seat 3 or 4 people comfortably, plus there is a separate stand alone seat with arms on the other side of the fold out table below the window. However, I believe the maximum number of people that Amtrak will book into a Deluxe Room is 3.
Back in 1995, Amtrak was promoting the Economy Room as being appropriate for 2 people and the Deluxe Room as being appropriate for 3 people. Today, Amtrak shows both room options as only being appropriate for 2 people. I'm not sure, but I think it is still possible to book 3 people into the Deluxe Room if you attempt to do so. In 1997, my wife and I traveled from Fullerton to Chicago on the Amtrak Southwest Chief, from Chicago to Seattle on the Amtrak Pioneer, and from Seattle to Los Angeles on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. We went the entire way in an Economy Room. We kept the upper berth open the entire way, but just used it as a shelf for our luggage. We slept together in just the lower berth in the Economy Room, and we were not uncomfortable doing so. To this day, I still wonder how we did that. Most people would find the lower berth barely wide enough for one person, never mind trying to fit two people! If you and your spouse weight less than 120 pounds each, you can probably sleep together on the lower berth. I know my wife and I didn't weigh that little, but somehow we managed. My wife and I don't weight that much more than we did in 1996, but both of us looked at the much wider bed in the Deluxe Room and were wondering how we could manage to fit into that bed together! Let's just say that both my wife and I are each somewhere in the 150 pound range. I would say that is about the maximum people can weigh and sleep "comfortably" together in the lower berth. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there that would disagree with me and say that the lower berth is NOT enough space for two people our size to fit in the lower berth. As I'm sure we all know, there are a lot of couples that take up a bit more space than my wife and I. Amtrak must have gotten a lot of complaints from threesomes that booked the Deluxe Sleeper and attempted to sleep comfortably in the Deluxe Room with great difficulty. I have a feeling that listing the room as appropriate for 3 people wasn't so much Amtrak's error as it was the growing waist size of the average American over the last few decades. In any case, Amtrak now suggests that both the Economy Room and the Deluxe Room as being appropriate for 2 people. However, if you're an experienced Amtrak traveler and you know 3 of you can fit in the Deluxe Room, I don't think that Amtrak will bar you from doing so and I believe they will still provide full meal benefits to all 3 people booked into a single Deluxe Room.
Another problem crops up with a lot of older Americans traveling by train. Actually, having looked around during my 10 years of Amtrak travel, I would say that the average age of Amtrak travelers is probably well above the average age of the American population in general, especially in the Sleeping Cars. That is one of the reasons I am so disappointed in how little the powerful AARP lobby does to help Amtrak. They have the political muscle to really help in this area and their members probably make up the largest segment of Amtrak ridership, yet they do very little lobbying on behalf of Amtrak. AARP is too busy preserving the status quo by bankrupting our grandchildren's future to worry about helping Amtrak. Don't get me started on that one! Anyway, a lot of these older Americans have a great deal of difficulty trying to climb in and out of the upper berths, especially in the Economy Sleepers. It is very common for an older couple that has booked an Economy Room to ask the Conductor if they could book a second Economy Room so they can both sleep in the bottom berth. So, if you are an older American and would have difficulty climbing in and out of an upper birth, it might be best if you book two Economy Rooms across from each other rather than a single Economy or Deluxe Room.
Before I get you all confused, I need to still tell you about how Amtrak changed the names of these rooms over the last ten years. After being called an Economy Room and Deluxe Room for several years, the names were changed to a Standard Room and a Deluxe Room. In my opinion, that was a BIG mistake! Without the tag "Economy" in front of the room, many passengers were once again shocked at how tiny their "Standard" Room was and couldn't understand how a "Standard" Room wouldn't even have its own toilet. Given the choice between "Economy" and "Deluxe", a lot of people would select "Deluxe" knowing that some significant features would probably be missing from the "Economy" version. But, given the choice between "Standard" and "Deluxe", a lot of people would go for the "Standard" figuring the average accommodation would be good enough and they wouldn't want to spend twice as much splurging on extra features. Unless they asked, they would not realize that the "Deluxe" features are things like a toilet, a shower, and a bit more room than 3 phone booths. I don't know whose idea it was to change the name from "Economy" to "Standard", but it sounds like an idea that came out of marketing to make the room not sound so bad. I think it was better when Amtrak used the more truthful "Economy" adjective that certainly implied that passengers would definitely find the room to be less than "standard".
Amtrak is now using another terminology for the bedrooms. These terms revert to terms used for rooms in older Sleepers before my days of riding Amtrak. They are back to using the terms "Roomettes" and "Rooms". The name of the "Deluxe Room" had been demoted to just a "Room" and the "Standard Room" has been demoted to something that sounds less than a full room, a "Roomette." This is certainly better than the "Standard Room" and "Deluxe Room" labels, but I don't think it is as accurate a description as the "Economy Room" label. I think the labels that would deliver the most accurate picture of Amtrak Accommodations would be to call the small room "Economy Room" and the larger room just a "Room." Once again, Amtrak is confusing the term "Roomette" for older riders. In the old days, most "Roomettes" still had their own private toilet. That is fine for the smaller bedrooms on the Viewliner Sleeper, but the small rooms on the Superliner Sleepers do not have their own toilets. Maybe Amtrak will eventually get some sense and rename the "Roomettes" back to "Economy Rooms", but they can leave the large rooms just being called "Rooms."
I don't think I'll be forgetting this 10th Anniversary Amtrak Trip anytime soon! A lot of other events have been going on in my life unrelated to this travel experience while I've been on this trip. I've had to spend quite a bit of time on the phone and have been able to check and reply to e-mail from time to time along the way. I was able to get online briefly while in Oakland, Salinas and San Luis Obispo. Every time I take the train, there seem to be more and more wireless hot spots along the rails that I can connect to. As I mentioned before, my older daughter's Fall term at college started last Friday and my wife has been dealing with getting her to and from the school while my daughter's foot is still in a cast. I've been on the phone with my wife from time to time helping with directions. During this trip, three of my sisters contacted me. Two of them that I usually communicate with by e-mail and letters called me on the phone. Weeks go between the times that I communicate with my third sister, but I found that she had left an e-mail for me one of the times I was able to get online from the train. There usually aren't ever any important issues going on with either my mother or father that I need to get involved in, but it seems right now is one of the few times where my input might be wanted. So, I think there are going to be a number of things in my life that when I think back on them, I'll also be thinking back on my 10th Year Amtrak Anniversary Trip.
The train seems to have stopped again about 20 minutes south of San Luis Obispo. The Conductor may have announced why we stopped, but I would have missed it. Earlier, I turned off the speaker in my room because I was having a difficult time talking on my cell phone with all the announcements. I forgot to turn it back on again after I got off my cell phone.
A bit earlier, Chris Guenzler had called to see how my train was doing and to let me know about the successful Train Travel Meetup yesterday evening. He confirmed what Morrison had told me about 12 people having been at the meeting which makes that the largest attendance we have had so far! If you live in Southern California and would like to talk about your train travel experiences, or at least listen to others talk about theirs, try to come to the next meeting. For more information about time and location, see: www.trainweb.org/rtmeetup/. Chris also let me know that he will have his own travelogue ready to be posted by tomorrow (See: www.trainweb.org/chris/oaklandcircle.html ). That is where Chris traveled northbound last Saturday on the very same Amtrak Coast Starlight trainset that I'm now riding southbound. He went from Orange County to Oakland along the coast, stayed overnight, and then came south on the Amtrak San Joaquin inland route.
Finally, the train started to move again. The Conductor did come over the P.A. system and announce that we were pretty much at the mercy of the Union Pacific. He explained that this is an old single track railroading area, that switches had to be thrown by hand, and that we had to wait for northbound trains to get through the single track area before we could proceed. The northbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Train #775 eventually passed us on its way to San Luis Obispo and that is when we started to move.
This reminds me of the last time that I took a train to San Luis Obispo a couple of months back. I don't think I have previously written about it. There were four of us that departed from Los Angeles at 7:30 AM on the morning Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Train #799 and we arrived into San Luis Obispo pretty close to the scheduled arrival time of 12:45 PM. We planned to visit San Luis Obispo for just a couple of hours and would be coming home on Bill Hatrick's private car, the Overland Trail (See: www.OverlandTrail.com) that would be at the tail end of the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight. However, after calling 1-800-USA-RAIL, we discovered that the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight was running a few hours late. I kept checking on the status of the train about every hour. Every time I checked, the scheduled arrival time into San Luis Obispo got even later! San Luis Obispo has plenty for visitors to see and do, but eventually the town starts closing up. We went to a pizza place and then went to a movie to try to kill a few more hours after everything else had closed. After getting out of the movie, Amtrak was saying the train had still gotten even later and wouldn't be arriving into San Luis Obispo until 1 AM ! At that point, we just took a taxi to the station, laid down on the benches, and took a nap for a couple of hours. We boarded the train around 1 AM. Instead of enjoying our ride in the private car back to Los Angeles, we all laid down and slept through the ride. When we woke up in the morning, the sun was up and the train was just a few miles outside of Los Angeles. Anyway, I think that was the last time that I was on a train from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. I'm sure this train won't be quite as late arriving into Los Angeles ! Now I am really glad that I parked my car at the Los Angeles Amtrak Station. I'll be home in bed less than an hour after this train arrives in the station, instead of still sitting in the AmBus waiting for it to depart from the station.
When the Dining Car Steward came around giving out Dining Car reservations, I took one for 5:00 PM. I don't know why I did that as I knew I was going to make another meal of the Indian food that my friend brought to the train. I guess I just like to always keep my options open. Hopefully, that didn't deprive anyone else of a spot in the Dining Car. It is hard to feel guilty when my room is suppose to include breakfast, lunch and dinner for 2 people for every day that I have been on this train and I've only gone to the Dining Car once on this entire round trip. The only time I've eaten in the Dining Car on the four days I've been on the train is the one time that my wife and I went to dinner on Saturday evening. I hope Amtrak can put all the money I've saved them to good use.
The left over Indian food was so good that I ate most of what was left. I really hope I was overestimating when I said there was still enough food left over from lunch for another 2 or 3 meals! I didn't need all of it, but I just couldn't let such great food go to waste. After sitting unrefrigerated all day, I didn't think it would be safe to keep it for another day and I couldn't bring myself to just throw away anything I didn't eat for dinner. So, I pretty much finished off what was left. Fortunately, I told my friend not to get too much rice and he also didn't have time for them to finish baking the bread. Thus, I didn't have too much rice and bread with my meal. I'm sure the Indian food from Spice Hut will be one more part of this trip that will cement it in my mind forever.
The train just departed from Santa Barbara and the Conductor announced that we should arrive into Los Angeles around 11:45 PM. I heard what sounded like some tapping on my door. I said: "Hello" and went to look, but there was nobody there. It was probably just somebody in the next room tapping something on their table. When the Car Attendant wants your attention, he or she will just usually push the buzzer that is right above the outside of the door to your room. That might be something for you to keep in mind when your traveling companion has locked you out of the room and fallen asleep. Pushing that button to ring the buzzer in the room can be pretty effective at getting the attention of anyone that is in the room. Another item to note is that there is also a signal light right above the door to your room. When you push the "Call Attendant" button in your room, this light turns on as well as a light in the Car Attendant's room and a light in a couple of other locations in the car. When the Car Attendant passes by your room or steps into his room or passes by any of the other signal boards in the car, he can see that you have called for attention. Some passengers think the little "ding" noise that they hear when they push the button is the only signal given to the Car Attendant. If the Car Attendant doesn't come right away, they get concerned that the Car Attendant didn't hear the "ding" and start pushing the "Call Attendant" button in and out several times. If you would like to get your Car Attendant aggravated, this is about the best way to do that! There is no need to push the "Call Attendant" button more than once. The indicator light above your door and in his room and on the other signal panels will remain lit until it is turned off using the button in your room.
The train just departed from Oxnard. Sometimes it seems like it was just yesterday that I took my first trip on Amtrak. But, when I think about all the events that took place in my life over the last ten years, including many that revolve around my involvement with trains, it is sometimes hard to believe that all that happened in just ten years! For one thing, the TrainWeb.com web site wasn't started until December 6, 1996, more than one year after my first train ride. We started the concept of a railroad website shortly after my first train ride, but we just used a subpage under the main page of our old ISP service (www.liberty.com). I think we might have started with something like: www.liberty.com/amtrak . On December 6, 1996, we reserved the TrainWeb.com domain name and started it up as a seperate web site shortly thereafter. We didn't move into the office above the Amtrak Ticket office in the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot until September of 1996. For almost nine years, my work office has been in the train station with a birdseye view of the platform and all the trains going through the station each day. Now, as of June 1 of this year we are no longer in the depot. Instead, we work from the back rooms of our TrainParty.com storefront where we sell party supplies for train theme parties in addition to all the other things that we have always done at TrainWeb. The new storefront is at 400 E. Commonwealth Ave. #7 in Fullerton, just 4 blocks from the old depot. The commercial property where we are located is still adjacent to the railroad tracks so we can still hear the rumble and horn of the trains as well as pick up a real clear radio signal of all the activity at the station.
Amtrak has had many scheduling changes over the ten years I've been riding. For example, the first southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight that I rode ten years ago departed Seattle much earlier and arrived into Los Angeles much earlier. At that time, it was not the last train to depart south from Santa Barbara. I used to make frequent round-trips on the Amtrak Coast Starlight to San Jose during my early days of train riding. I would often get off in Santa Barbara instead of riding the train all the way to Los Angeles. I'd walk to one of the bars on the Santa Barbara pier that featured outdoor seating and relax with a glass of wine while I watched the sun set over the horizon. There was plenty of time to walk back to the Santa Barbara train station and catch the last southbound Amtrak San Diegan. I could ride that San Diegan all the way to Fullerton and avoid the hassle of changing trains in Los Angeles. It was much more pleasant making this change of trains in Santa Barbara than in Los Angeles, so much so that I even looked forward to it on every trip. That all ended when Amtrak changed around the schedule and made the Amtrak Coast Starlight to be the last southbound train out of Santa Barbara.
For a while, Amtrak even tried to use Coast Starlight equipment as the last train southbound out of Los Angeles to San Diego. They started indicating on the schedule "through coach service" to San Diego from Seattle. When the Coast Starlight arrived into Los Angeles, they would attach a locomotive to the end of the train. That engine and the last two coach cars to which it was attached would be pulled off from the rest of the trainset and that became the last Amtrak San Diegan train to depart from Los Angeles. All coach and sleeping car passengers that were heading south would move into those coach cars. In the morning, those coach cars would be part of the northbound Amtrak San Diegan. They would be reattached to the Coast Starlight when they reached Los Angeles. In this manner, coach passengers from south of Los Angeles would not have to change trains and Sleeping Car passengers would just have to move to their sleeping car when they reached Los Angeles. This experiment was also eventually ended, probably for a number of reasons. First, it was difficult to service and clean up the cars overnight in San Diego. Second, everyone trying to take the last southbound train out of Los Angeles, even people originating in Los Angeles, would have to wait for the arrival of the Coast Starlight before their train would depart. That could sometimes be quite a wait when the Coast Starlight was running very late! And the least frequent problem, on rare occassions the coach cars might not be able to reach the Coast Starlight in time for departure. If there was flooding or other problems on the rails, passengers could always be bussed to Los Angeles, but the Coach Cars would be stuck south of Los Angeles waiting for the track problem to be cleared up. This left the Los Angeles yard crew scrambling to ready spare Coach Cars which could sometimes be in short supply.
There was also a time when Amtrak tried a brief experiment of reducing the Amtrak Coast Starlight to just 3 days per week. That was a disaster for me! Many of my trips only required me to be in San Jose overnight or for a day at most. When the train only ran 3 days per week, it would have required me to hang around San Jose for up to 5 days for no good reason. During the time of that awful Amtrak experiment, I just drove or avoided going to San Jose at all if possible. Evidently, the 3 day per week was a problem for many other passengers because ridership on the Coast Starlight dropped dramatically. Amtrak relented and restored daily service on the train and ridership eventually grew to all time highs. Amtrak must have learned how bad it is to have routes that aren't daily. They eventually took steps to bring the Amtrak Empire Builder and Amtrak California Zephyr up to daily service. Since they didn't have enough Superliner Cars to run those trains daily, they discontinued the Amtrak Desert Wind and Amtrak Pioneer. I am glad they went daily on those routes, but it was a real loss to have to sacrifice those other two routes. Fortunately, I did get a chance to ride both of them more than once before they were discontinued.
Time for some more soapbox talk! You are certainly welcome to skip past these soapbox sections if you feel they are not what you came for.
Unfortunately, at some point, we have to face the truth that the Amtrak Coast Starlight reached its peak in the late 1990s and has been going downhill ever since. It is still a wonderful train and probably still stands head and shoulders above all the other Amtrak routes. No other Amtrak train features a Pacific Parlour Car, a Kiddie Car, beautiful oceanside vistas for 3 hours in the south and breathtaking views of mountains and forests in the north. But, the Amtrak Coast Starlight still doesn't compare to what it once was in the late 1990s.
When I first rode the Amtrak Coast Starlight in September of 1995, they had just introduced the Pacific Parlour Car for Sleeping Car Passengers. The Parlour Car had not yet been refurbished, but it still served as a welcome retreat for Sleeping Car Passengers. They had already started featured the Continental Breakfast in the morning and the Wine Tasting in the afternoons. Refurbishing the Pacific Parlour Cars didn't start until at least 1996 and I don't think the refurbishing on all of them was completed until 1998.
At its peak, the Amtrak Coast Starlight had the following which are no longer featured:
All of the above were featured consistently on every Amtrak Coast Starlight trip that I took in the late 1990s, but are not featured on the Coast Starlight at all anymore. These are just the amenities that I remember from the heydays of the Coast Starlight. There may be other amenities that have vanished that I'm just not recalling at the moment.
There are other benefits that are now gone from all of the Amtrak trains, but some of these are more the result of post-9/11 policies rather than budget cuts. Some of these changes are just downright annoying, but I suppose we need to live with them for the sake of security. One is the inability to substitute one person for another on a ticket at the last moment. This is a benefit that the TrainWeb staff would frequently utilize. Sometimes, something would come up at the last moment and one of us couldn't make a planned trip. A different member of our staff would just go in that person's place. Amtrak never has a problem with that. Now, only the person whose name appears on the ticket can use that ticket. Another benefit that we used frequently was to have someone with a coach ticket join a person who was traveling alone in a Sleeping Car Room. Amtrak used to be fine with this also. After all, Amtrak charges the same Sleeping Car Accommodation Fee regardless of whether one person or two people are in that room. Thus, when you travel alone in a Sleeping Car Room and only eat meals for one person, you are still charged the same Accommodation Fee as someone that has two people in their room and is being provided with twice as many meals. So, Amtrak used to be fine with the idea of someone with a coach ticket joining you in that room. Amtrak actually made out better this way. If you originally booked the other person on your Sleeping Car Ticket, the Rail Fare portion of their ticket would actually be lower since they are not taking up a seat in coach. But, because of security, Amtrak no longer wants anyone in the Sleeping Cars that is not specifically listed on one of the Sleeping Car manifests of passengers that belong in the Sleeping Cars. I guess that makes sense in trying to achieve a greater degree of security and accountability.
Re-reading parts of my travelogue, I know that some parts might come off as sounding bitter. Please don't get me wrong. I do miss the "good old days" of travel on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, but I still enjoy train travel very much. Most Amtrak routes have never had the extra features the Amtrak Coast Starlight once had and those trains still don't have the Pacific Parlour Car. Yet, I have always enjoyed traveling those routes and still enjoy my travel on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. It is just as they say, that you don't tend to miss something until it is gone. For me, the core of enjoying my rail travel is being able to retreat to my own private room on the rails whenever I wish and just sit back and watch the scenery roll by. Having the option to wander the train, relax in the Pacific Parlour Car, the Sightseer Lounge Car, grab a snack in the Cafe Car or sit down for a meal with others in the Dining Car is fine. But, as long as I have my home away from home on rails, my own private room on the rails with the greatest changing window view, I'll continue to love riding the rails!
Again, I'll step down from my soapbox and maybe end the travelogue here.
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