Amtrak Cascades Day Trip
February 19, 2003
Well, I'd been getting that urge to travel by train and when Amtrak's 2 for 1 sale appeared I couldn't resist. I wanted to plan a short trip for my girlfriend and I and seeing as that I have already traveled the Seattle to Portland segment decided to see what the trip was like up to Vancouver B.C. On this route Amtrak uses Spanish built Talgo trains which tilt on curves, allowing faster speeds and greater comfort for passengers. The trains have a maximum speed of about 120 mph but track conditions currently limit them to a maximum of about 70 mph. The Eugene - Portland - Seattle - Vancouver B.C. route is considered an example of a successful partnership between Amtrak and the various States (both Oregon and Washington subsidize travel along the corridor). This model is being implemented elsewhere, and, in my opinion, will probably be the future of train travel in the U.S. as Amtrak is struggling to survive on the meager federal funding it receives.
February 19, 2003 - SEA-VAC
I arrived at Amtrak's King Street Station in Seattle at about 7:20 with my ticket in hand (I had bought it online and received it by mail) to find a fairly large line-up at the seating assignment counter. Amtrak does not pre-assign seats on its Cascade route. Going up to the counter, I asked, well begged, for a seat on the left hand (west) side of the train as I have heard that the views are better. Amtrak usually seats people by their destination. For example, everyone traveling from Seattle to Vancouver sits together then in another car there will be people traveling to Bellingham and the pax who load in Bellingham will sit in their seats. The person handing out the seating assignments, however, took pity on me and I did get seats on the left side, although I was in the car with mostly passengers traveling to Bellingham. We boarded promptly at 7:30 after train #501 to Portland had departed.
Walking out to the train, I noticed that it sported a blue and white color scheme with black stripes unlike the Cascades usual forest green, cream and mocha colors. There are five Talgo train-sets on the Cascade route and I believe that ours was the only one with this color scheme. The coach car that I was assigned to was wheelchair accessible meaning that it had 2-1 seating. Seat pitch was about 40 inches, although that is just a guess. The train, I believe, had four normal coach cars (2-2 seating) then two accessible coach cars, a bistro car, a lounge car, and two business class cars (more luxurious 2-1 seating). Settling in to my seat, I filled out a mileage request form for Alaska Airlines (150 miles each way on any Cascades trip) and was pleasantly surprised when the train pulled out of Seattle exactly on-time.
For those of you familiar with the layout of the region, the ride starts with a trip through the antiquated train tunnel that runs under downtown Seattle and then turns north briefly along the shores of Elliott Bay and between the neighborhoods of Magnolia and Queen Anne Hill. It skirts over the train bridge above the Ballard Locks (a high point, in my opinion) and hugs the shores of Puget Sound past Golden Gardens park and all the way north until the first stop in Edmonds. The ride continues with potentially spectacular views (it was overcast, of course, when I traveled, so some of the effect was lost) out towards Whidbey and Bainbridge Islands. After a stop at Everett's beautiful new transit center, the train picks up speed and traverses through fields (perhaps for Tulips?) leading up to the Mount Vernon/Burlington "station," really not much more than a platform. As the train approaches Bellingham the route returns Sound-side and skirts the coastline for several miles with views west to the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Mountains. In my opinion, this is the most scenic part of the voyage and I strongly urge anyone to do as I did and request a seat on the left hand side of the train.
Once we passed the station in Everett, a short informational/safety video was played followed by a feature film. Wanting to talk and not disturb my fellow passengers, I migrated to the Bistro Car to play cards and drink tea. On most Amtrak Cascades trains, the Bistro Car is the main source of food serving light snacks, drinks, and a la carte meals. On the Vancouver B.C. route, the accompanying lounge car (usually just an area where you can sit and eat) is used for full service dinning. I brought my own breakfast aboard the train and would not partake of Amtrak's delicacies until the ride home. The bistro car has a table for four, a table for two and bar type seating for about 10 persons. The lounge car has four (if I remember correctly) four person booths and an equal amount of two person mini-booths.
Past Bellingham it is about a twenty minute ride until the U.S.-Canada border and the Blaine Peace Arch. Once you cross into British Colombia, however, it is a slow hour until you reach the station. I realize that Amtrak in no way controls train traffic in Canada however, in addition to being the least scenic portion of the voyage this segment also seems to be the slowest. We came to a complete stop on a few occasions, probably because of other traffic on the tracks. One of Amtrak's weaknesses is slow times as trains approach cities. Consider, on the Seattle-Edmonds route it takes 28 minutes to go from Seattle to Edmonds but the return is scheduled for 50 minutes. Realizing that Amtrak does not own most of the rails it operates on, work should be done to speed up travel times on these key segments.
Finally arriving in Vancouver, we waited a minute for the conductor to come and open the tour and promptly detrained and headed for Customs and Immigration. Since there is only one Amtrak stop on the Canadian side of the boarder, Canadian Customs and Immigration are done together at the Main Street Station. I cleared quickly and headed out into the city for what would be a whirlwind tour.
February 19, 2003 - VAC-SEA
Amtrak Cascades #517
Before disembarking, we had been told that boarding would begin again at 4:30pm. This seemed ridiculously early for a 6:00 train and I resolved that returning to the station by 5:30 would be sufficient. As things turned out I returned to Vancouver's beautiful Main Street Station (also home to VIA rail and Greyhound) around 5:00 to find a sizeable and very slowly moving line waiting for seat assignments. This time, I was seated in one of the crowded Vancouver-Seattle coaches, which seemed even more full because of the 2-2 seating, unlike the car I had been in that morning.
Since there are many stops on the U.S. side, border measures are different then when traveling northbound. You go through U.S. immigration in Vancouver, hence the need to arrive at the station unusually early to receive seating assignments. Interestingly, the U.S. immigration officials sit at the same desks that their Canadian counterparts did that very morning. I wonder if there is anywhere else in the world that the same room, located wholly within one country, is the exact entry point into two different countries. After my passport was inspected passengers proceed to pass their bags through a x-ray machine before boarding the train. Once on board, I settled into my seat and again filled out the mileage request forms for Alaska, but still had almost an hour to wait before we departed.
I must take a moment now to acknowledge how superb every Amtrak staff member I encountered was. I interacted, or witnessed interactions with six different Amtrak employees (Conductor, assistant Conductor, On-Board Service Coordinator, Bistro Attendant, and the Dinning Car Attendant, and Talgo Engineer) and in every situation all six acted professionally, kindly, and in good humor. The same staff worked both the northbound and southbound trains and never seemed to be tired or unhappy. Amtrak's staff may be their greatest asset. All were undoubtedly aware that Amtrak faces numerous financial difficulties and all seemed determine to put their best face forward for the future of rail travel.
The train obviously takes about the same route southbound as it does north, unfortunately the sun had already set by the time we were underway and there was practically nothing to see out the windows. I suspect that in the summer this is quite a spectacular ride as the sun sets over Puget Sound as the train journey towards Seattle.
The one major difference between the northbound trip was that after crossing into the U.S. at Blaine, the train stops for U.S. customs officials to board and make their inspections. This search delayed us for about 15-20 minutes and set us behind scheduled, time we did not recover until a surprisingly quick travel time between Edmonds and Seattle. From what I have heard, there have been many debates over this customs inspection. If I recall correctly, prior to September 11, the Customs inspections had been done while the train was in motion. Hopefully that in the future that this delay can be eliminated either by returning to "rolling customs" or by carrying out the customs inspections in the station in Vancouver.
After our stop in Bellingham they made an announcement that it was the "last call" for dinner in the dining car and I made my way down and was the last table seated before closing. Amtrak offers four dinner entrees, a Chicken, Vegetable Pasta, Beef Stroganoff, and Salmon ranging in price from $12-18. I had the Chicken which came with a garden salad (they were out of the other option, Clam Chowder) garnished with hazelnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette. The Chicken itself was served with mashed potatoes and an apple/cranberry sauce. While substantially better (or at least more attractively presented) than airplane food the taste of the meal did not live up to the eloquent description in the menu or the professional presentation. It was not bad, but clearly re-heated and of the quality of food that one would re-heat at home.
After dinner I migrated back to the table in the Bistro Car from the morning. The Bistro Car attendant offered me a free refill on my tea I had purchased almost 12 hours before, and I settled into a few last card games before finally returning to my seat was we passed the station in Edmonds. At the time we pulled out of the station in Edmonds we were almost 25 minutes behind schedule however we sped through the final segment of our trip and arrived in Seattle only a few minutes later than expected. I quickly de-trained and headed out into the brisk Northwest night.
Overall, the Amtrak service met my expectations. I must admit however, that the process seemed to be in a limbo between being a commuter rail type operation and a "land cruise," as Amtrak's long distance services are often referred to. The trains were not punctual enough, and the wait to depart in Vancouver too long, and the number of trips daily too few, the travel time too long (driving takes only 3 hours) and a lack of pre-assigned seats make it evident why flying remains the more common means of commuting between the two cities. At the same time, the train was not as luxurious and comfort-oriented as the Superliners that I have been on. The staff was extraordinary, and despite a few kinks, I am optimistic about the future of this essential rail link in the Pacific Northwest and wish it success in years to come.
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