Coast Starlight Revisited
November 16, 2003
During mid-November I traveled to the Bay Area to attend a conference. The program would conclude in Sacramento and I planned to take Amtrak from there to Portland in order to ride the new light rail operations there. My last trips on the Coast Starlight had been several years earlier when I had ridden as a coach passenger from Los Angeles to Oakland and, several days later, from there to Portland. This trip would enable me to revisit the train and the service as well as to enjoy the Pacific Parlour Car.
After finishing the formal activities in Sacramento, I rode the entire light rail system and returned to the Amtrak station in time for the 5:40 Capitol Corridor train. Five members of our group were heading for Portland on #14, the Coast Starlight, that night. We had tickets from SAC but upon learning that it was running over 2 hours late, thought of returning to Emeryville to board so as to get a better night's sleep. I had asked one of the agents if it would be necessary to change the tickets; he replied "No, just get on at Emeryville and tell them you changed your mind." While in SAC I suddenly remembered that I have relatives in Davis so used the opportunity to visit with them. To do that I rode Amtrak #747 at 5:40 which was delayed with the single track on the Yolo Causeway and reached Davis at 6:05 (5:57). It carried a good load and about 20 were waiting to board at Davis.
After the visit I was driven back to the station about 10 minutes before train time so had some time to explore the facility. The historic SP mission style station had been nicely restored along with a former signal tower at this location. The agent mentioned that #14 now was 2 hours 10 minutes late and might be turned at Eugene, OR, because of a big freight derailment somewhere north. Oh joys-I might be lucky enough to ride a bus between Eugene and Portland. Amtrak #751, the last Capitol departure of the day, reached Davis on time at 8:57, departed at 9:00 and reached Emeryville at 10:28 (10:25). Train 14 now was said to be 2 hours, 30 minutes late so it would be a long wait. Heading west to board at Emeryville certainly was a good move and provided about 2 1/2 hours' additional sleep.
Train 14 pulled in to Emeryville about 12:15 am (10:12) and consisted of 2 Genesis units pulling a baggage car, transition Superliner sleeper, 3 Superliner sleepers, a Pacific Parlour Car, diner, Sightseer lounge car and four Superliner coaches. The attendant was freshening up my room as the previous occupant had just detrained at EMY. "I wasn't expecting you until Sacramento!" He mentioned the delay was attributable to long waits for Union Pacific freight trains. "I hope we don't see any more of them this trip."
The train departed at 12:20 and I soon was off to sleep after washing up and seeking out the conductor to turn in my ticket so he wouldn't awake me after SAC! Sunday morning I awoke to a scene of pine trees and snow; we were between Dunsmuir and Klamath Falls and moving at what seemed like a slow pace but probably normal for this area in the mountains. Breakfast in the diner was excellent and provided a partial view of Mount Shasta. We had made up a little time and were running about 1-3/4 hours late. After breakfast I explored the train and then joined my friends in the overstuffed swivel chairs of the Pacific Parlour Car. What a delightful experience! The car has about 6 chairs, 4 tables, numerous other configurations of seating, a bar with attendant and a library. Downstairs is a theater with about 15 seats; videos can be borrowed from the attendant. These cars had been Santa Fe high-level lounge cars built for El Capitan and have been beautifully refurbished with wood paneling and other elegant features.
Lunch in the diner was most enjoyable. The food was good, five friends were talking trains and the crew was outstanding! Eventually we learned that the train would run at least as far as Portland since the derailment was north of there at Kelso, WA. Indeed, pictures of it were shown on the 11 pm TV news the following two nights and it was quite spectacular with about 60 cars all over the place. It was no mere derailment, but actually a collision between two trains. Because of our lateness, passengers transferring to #28, Empire Builder at Portland were taken off at Eugene to be bussed somewhere to intercept their train.
We were nearly 2 hours late at Eugene, a crew change, smoking and photo stop. Shortly after leaving there the wine tasting was announced to take place in the Pacific Parlour Car. Many of the sleeping car passengers joined the activity and nearly all the car's seats were occupied. China plates and several varieties of cheese and crackers were placed on a counter. Then the attendant together with one of the sleeper attendants handed out genuine wine glasses and began pouring. The parlour car attendant read a description of each of the three wines just before it was distributed. His French wasn't so good but we got the message. Overall the wine tasting was an interesting diversion enjoyed by many. If only we could have something like this on the "Silver Service" trains to and from Florida. Announcements also had been made regarding availability of the "Kiddy Room," a children's playroom located on the lower level of one of the coaches.
Unfortunately the rain and fog marred the view of some of the magnificent scenery. We continued making up and then losing time, being 2 ½ hours late at Salem with the hope of making a little up. The Union Pacific, however, had other ideas and hit us with some rather long delays en route. In one instance a freight train had hit a tree and its remnants had to be removed from the underside. So while the train continued on through the rain at its slow pace, the five of us enjoyed the amenities of the Pacific Parlour Car while devouring a large bottle of wine one of us had purchased from the attendant. How can you complain while relaxing in the large chairs, watching America pass by, enjoying conversation and the wine served in real glasses? Closer to Portland the attendant apologized and I told him not to--the trip was delightful and we had a longer train ride for the same money!
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Around 3:30 after we had left Albany, OR, the diner's Lead Service Attendant, a very lively young man from the UK, entered the Parlour Car to explain that because of the lateness all sleeping car passengers--even those headed only for Portland--would be given box dinners. They had about 175 total guests on board and there would not be sufficient food to feed the coach passengers but those headed for north of Portland would be taken care of, presumably on the buses. Anyway, each of the three car attendants was asked to obtain the passengers' choices of beef, chicken or pasta. I had opted for beef but there wasn't enough to go around so changed to lamb. After awhile the crew left shopping bags with the meals in each room. The five of us took them back to the Pacific Parlor Car and enjoyed eating around a table. I must say that the lamb, baked potato and veggies were quite good; the crew had done an excellent job of putting this together.
Further freight delays were encountered about 10 miles south of Portland and we reached Union Station there at 6:30 pm, exactly 2 hours, 50 minutes late. Four buses were waiting out front handle those headed further north. While contemplating whether to grab a cab, call the hotel for possible pickup or take MAX, a man I had earlier seen in one of the coaches asked if I knew how to get to the airport. "Just follow me to the MAX light rail," and the decision for mode of transport was instantly made. I led him on a zig zag walk through the drizzle a few blocks east and south to the MAX station at First & Everett. A Gresham car soon arrived which I rode to the Convention Center station, a few short blocks from my hotel.
I had enjoyed the trip and was glad to see the train continues to maintain its high standard of service. The only problem-and a serious one for some travelers-is the really bad on time performance.
Consist: Amtrak #14, Emeryville, CA to Portland, OR, AM of Nov. 16, 2003
118 - Genesis unit 115 - Genesis unit 1235 - Baggage 39021 - Transition Sleeper 32082 - Indiana Sleeper 32083 - Iowa Sleeper 32081 - Illinois Sleeper 39973 - Pacific Parlour Car 38059 - Dining Car 33027 - Sightseeing Lounge 34114 - Coach 34512 - Coach 34103 - Coach 34049 - Coach