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Trip Report

Denver CO to Olympia WA

February 2002



I am 70 years old and my wife is 62. After my retirement in 1995, I have made several train trips throughout the U.S. My wife did not travel with me on these earlier trips because of a bad train trip 30 years ago, but she agreed to try again. On my previous trips, I used the Explore America fare, which permitted several stopovers along the way. This permitted me to spend not more than one overnight on the train. However for this trip, we decided to travel by coach and not to have any stopovers.


About 4 weeks before travel I made my reservations for the trip at the Amtrak web site. I was able to get the reservations for the dates I selected without difficulty. I used a credit card for payment. There was a special companion rides free, so the coach trip for both of us was a total of $279. The tickets arrived in about 2 weeks. At no time during our trip were we asked for an ID. There were signs at the ticket windows of the stations that stated that ID is required to purchase tickets.


Our travel was routed via California Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento and via Coast Starlight from Sacramento to Olympia, WA. There was an option to make the connection to the Coast Starlight at Emeryville/Oakland but I selected Sacramento because this gave us about a 7-hour layover going and a 5-hour layover returning. The schedule called for 2 nights and 3 days each way on the train. The last day in each direction turned out to be very long because of late arrivals.


The conductors, coach attendants and dining car personnel were all friendly and courteous, but most of the Zephyr staff seemed more upbeat. The coach attendant was responsible for two of the coaches. The conductor was only seen at station stops to collect tickets. The train attendant on the Denver to Sacramento portion was visible most of the time, but on the other segments they were only seen occasionally, usually at train stops. There were 2 conductors on departure from Denver. There are crew changes along the way, so I am not sure how many conductors were on the train for the rest of the trip.


All legs were on Superliners, which are 2 level trains. The upper level of the coaches has about 68 seats. The lower level has about half that and the toilets. The lower level was usually used for elderly or handicapped people who would have a problem navigating stairs. The lower level of one of the coach cars was used as a smoking lounge. The smoke could be smelled on the upper level. The coach seats were comfortable and roomier than a first-class airplane seat. Throughout the trip, the temperature in the cars was kept at a comfortable level. On the Zephyr, both ways, only coach cars were assigned. We were able to select our seats on the train. On the Coast Starlight, both ways, the seats were assigned before boarding, small pillows were provided and blankets were for sale in the lounge car lower level. Many passengers brought their own blankets which they used at night when they slept.


Since there is no baggage handling at Olympia, we did not check our bags. There was sufficient storage space for large bags on the lower level as you enter the train. At the seats, there was ample overhead space for small suitcases and coats.


Most of the passengers in the coach cars were either over 60 or under 30. The passengers had various reasons for taking the train. This included fear of flying; enjoying the experience of train travel; needing only one-way travel. In most of the coaches, there was at least one very young infant with mother. For most of the journey, there was not much crying. however for a major portion of one of the segments a mother was unable to control her 2 infants. They cried and screamed most of the time. We moved to another car, as did some others.


There were several toilets, including one for handicapped. Two of the toilets were large and were classified as dressing rooms. There was no problem in finding an empty toilet, but the trains were not very full. The toilets remained in good shape for the entire trip.


A vacant seat was available most of the time, but the trains were not very full. A film was shown at 7 PM. There was a snack bar, called The Café, in the lower level which was open most of the day and evening. It sold sandwiches, drinks, snacks, blankets and other stuff. The prices were a bit higher than you would find at local store.


For dinner reservations, someone came through each of the cars and offered reservation times. For the other meals, no reservations were needed. The food was good and reasonably priced. Meals for sleeping car passengers are included as part of the accommodation cost. Eating in the dining car was one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. The tables seat four and there were always good conversations among the eaters. The meals were leisurely, taking about an hour. Some passengers came aboard with coolers and bags of food, but we preferred the experience of the dining car. The dining car passengers we sat with ranged from retirees to truck drivers to engineers.


These included notification of stops, comments about sights and announcements from the Dining car staff. These were clearly heard on the Denver to Sacramento leg, but on all the others, they were barely audible, except for the dining car announcements which were clearly heard throughout the train. This was not a problem for me because I traveled with a National Geographic map which showed the train route and sights. The attendants came through the cars before a stop to make sure the people who needed to get off at stops were awake.


There is a great deal of wonderful scenery to see along most of the route. The right side of the train seemed to be better for most of the trip going west. Great Scenery leaving Denver, near Glenwood Springs, the deserts and throughout California. We traveled through dozens of tunnels; the longest was the Moffat Tunnel going across the Continental Divide 9200 feet. It is 5 miles long. The train generally followed rivers (Colorado, Sacramento, Willamette, Columbia and several others. We passed by snow-covered peaks, canyons, forests and deserts. There was not as much wildlife as I have seen in other seasons, but we did see many tracks in the snow. The wildlife we did see included antelope and water foul. As we passed over the Columbia River just past Vancouver, WA, we saw a trio of porpoises jumping out of the water. I do not believe they are often seen this far from the mouth of the Columbia River. We did see a cow and her young calf in the middle of the desert. There were no other cows or structures nearby and we assumed they got lost.


The Denver station has a large waiting room, a store for souvenirs and a snack bar. The train left on time, 9AM. It was only about 1/3 full. Breakfast was still being served for about 20 minutes after the departure time. The train consisted of 2 engines, baggage car, 3 coaches, lounge car, dining car, 2 sleeping cars and 3 freight cars. The train arrived at its first stop, Winter Park/Fraser, CO, about 40 minutes early. There is not much to do around the train station at that stop. Except for stops at Grand Junction, Salt Lake City and Sparks, most stops were not long enough for through passengers to get off the train. There is not much at the Sparks and Salt Lake City Stations, but there is a snack counter at Grand Junction. The train remained on schedule from Winter Park to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City to Reno it lost from 15 minutes to one hour between stations. We were told the reason for this was a slow freight train in front of the Amtrak. At Reno a lot of passenger were added so the coaches became about half full. The train arrived at Sacramento on schedule.


There was a scheduled layover of 7 hours before our next train so we temporarily checked our baggage in the baggage room. The fee was $1.50 per bag, but the train agent suggested we tie two bags together so 2 bags can be checked as one item. (On our return trip, we were not charged for checking our bags). The station has a large waiting room, but no food facilities, except for snack machines. The station is only about 2 or 3 blocks from a mostly enclosed shopping mall, Old Sacramento and restaurants. The mall had only fast food, but Old Sacramento and nearby streets had restaurants. We spent some time at the mall, ate dinner in Old Sacramento and went to a movie in the mall. There are other things to do in the area, but that was enough for us. We returned to the station about an hour before departure time. When we went to pick up or checked bags, the Amtrak agent told us that the train would be 2 hours late. Other than that, there was no sign or announcement about the late train.


The train left about 2 hours late. There were 2 engines, baggage car, 5 coach cars, dining car, lounge car, Parlor Car for sleeping room passengers and 3 sleeping cars. The coaches were not very full. When we got to Klamath Falls, OR, the passengers who were scheduled to catch a connection at Portland to the Empire Builder were taken off the train and put on buses to catch the Empire Builder on route. We then learned that there will be at least a 2-hour delay at Klamath Falls because there were 2 freight cars which had derailed ahead of us. It turned out to be more than a 3-hour delay. The station is small and no snacks, but there were phones which passengers used to alert relatives/friends of a very late arrival. The station is less than a mile from the center of town, so many of the passengers went there to eat or purchase snacks.


The train arrived at Olympia 7 hours late. It is a new, small station, operated by volunteers. There is a TV monitor to advise of schedules and snack machines.


Train left on time. There were 2 engines, baggage car, transition sleeper for staff, 3 sleeper cars, parlor car, dining car, lounge car and 4 coaches. The last coach remained empty for the entire trip. Most of the other coaches were less than 2/3 full. In my coach, there were electrical outlets at each seat. The other coaches on this train and the other trains did not have this feature. This was the most jerky and bumpy segment of my trip. The other legs were relatively smooth with only the type of movement one would expect on a train. Train arrived about on time at Sacramento. There was a 5-hour layover before the next train, but there was not much to do because the arrival was before most places opened in the morning. We found a restaurant and ate breakfast and then walked the mall until it opened.


Train left about 20 minutes late. It had 2 engines, 3 coaches, lounge car, dining car, 2 sleepers and 6 freight cars. The coaches were fairly full until we got to Reno, where about half the passengers got off. We got to Salt Lake City almost 2 hours late. It left Salt Lake City about half full. Near Price/Helper, UT, the trained stopped for about 30 minutes. A child on the train was injured and the train waited for paramedics to board the train and treat the child. The train arrived at Grand Junction more than 3 hours late. Between Glenwood Springs and Granby, CO, the train traveled at no more than 20 mph. The signals were not functioning so the train was no permitted to travel faster. The train arrived in Denver almost 4 hours late.


I am prepared to take long trips again by coach. My wife does not wish to go again unless we spend less than one day on the train or maybe book a sleeper. She thinks she needs to shower each day and did not like sleeping in the coach seat.

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