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Trip Report

Columbia SC to Sacramento CA via Jacksonville, Houston, and Los Angeles

August 5-10, 2004


A shorter version of this report was originally posted to an e-mail group.

We finished our round trip from Columbia SC to Sacramento CA and back and I promised y'all a trip report. I intended to write a brief report, but I'm afraid I'm not a good enough writer to achieve brevity, so here it is at full length. This report is the first half of the trip beginning August 5th from Columbia SC and arriving in Sacramento, California on August 10th.

This was my wife's and my first train trip ever on Amtrak. Our planned route was to take the Silver Palmetto #91 (8/5) to Jacksonville, Florida, connect to the Sunset Limited #1 (8/5) to Houston for a three-day layover, take the Sunset Limited #1 (8/9) to Los Angeles, lay over one night there, and continue on the Coast Starlight #14 (8/11) to Sacramento.

The homeward journey a couple of weeks later was via the California Zephyr to Chicago, connecting to the Capitol Limited to Washington DC, connecting to the Silver Palmetto again for home. I'll write up a separate report later on that leg of our journey.

The Palmetto #91 was scheduled to pick up passengers Columbia at 2:48 am, but I kept watching the web site and occasionally phoning Julie, so I knew the train had been delayed until about 4 am, so I let everybody sleep in a little. Unfortunately, Julie didn't know it, but the Palmetto was delayed 5 hours getting to Columbia, so we wound up spending much of the night on the train station benches in our own town. Can't recommend the seats in that station!

We booked deluxe sleepers on the Sunset, Zephyr, and Capitol Limited; standard sleepers on the other trains.

Still, we had a standard sleeper, so the Palmetto being so late gave us time to sample Amtrak's breakfast, get a nap AND order lunch before we got to Jacksonville. Actually lunch was a little tight, but we'd ordered it to eat in the sleeper thinking we had enough time, but pulled into the station earlier than the sleeping car attendant expected (still over 4 hours late though). Anne Marie, our sleeping car attendant rushed the diner to get our lunch ready and delivered it to us on the platform - on the train's china plates!!! We were the envy of the rest of the detraining passengers while we ate our Angus burgers and they had to make do with the vending machines. We didn't know what to do with the plates and silverware afterwards, but we gave them to the station personnel who weren't sure what to do with the dirty dishes either. Hopefully the train got their dishes back somehow.

The Sunset Limited #1(8/5) was delayed from its scheduled 5:30 pm departure to a projected 7:30 pm due to the 15 hour late arrival of #2. The station personnel were very nice and suggested that since we had 6 or 7 hours to wait, perhaps we'd like to go downtown and shop around. There's a city bus stop right outside the station and you can catch a bus downtown every half hour or so. Better yet, the bus is free if you're 60 or over! So we got an expedition together with a couple of other groups of passengers and all went downtown.

Nice downtown and shopping area, but we still ran out of stuff to do there, so we took the bus back to the station around 5:30 pm and found out the Sunset hadn't left Sanford yet. After 4 more hours of sitting around on station seats (Jacksonville's are much more comfortable than Columbia's; some folks actually did sleep on 'em) we finally got on the train at 9:30 pm and moved into our deluxe sleeper for the planned journey to Houston.

We had a great dining car crew; they opened the kitchen for the late boarders at 10pm and were still serving after 11. The menu included breast of chicken stuffed with Brie and green apples - one of the best meals I've had anywhere!

A note here - we were carrying a Garmin eTrex Vista GPS and I would highly recommend taking a similar unit for anyone traveling overnight. You can wake up in the morning and quickly figure out where you are, what station is next, probable arrival times, etc. Or just track the speed of the train as you go along (we saw 83 mph several times on the whole trip). See also this site's GPS train tracking page

The sleeper attendant showed us how to set up our beds and disappeared (we didn't see much of him for the whole trip). We hit the sack and woke up at the Alabama/Florida border.

Morning showers were very quick since there were two temperatures of water in the car, cold and much colder. Passengers in the other sleeper had better luck with hot water, but their AC was marginal. Maybe Sanford rushed that turnaround a little too much?

We got into New Orleans only 3 hours late. Must be a good amount of padding in the schedule on that leg since we would have been only 2 hours late except for time spent on sidings within 10 miles of the station. Anyway, we backed into the station, spent the minimum time there and were on our way again.

No lectures or rangers this trip in despite the schedule's promise of entertainment, but there was plenty of wildlife to see along the way. Lots of birds, a great white heron and a blue heron plus one alligator keeping an eye on us as we passed.

At lunch we overheard the conductor and the assistant conductor discussing the fact that the next Sunset Limited #1 (8/9) had been annulled. Since this was our first train trip, normally I would have had no idea what that meant, but since I'd been hanging around this board asking for advice, I realized this was a major problem and maybe a disaster for our travel plans.

We contacted Julie's helpers by cell phone (another gadget that's just about indispensable for this kind of problem, the train rarely spends enough time at a station to try a landline call), and only option offered was a sleeper on the Sunset following the annulled train. Since the whole point of our trip was to attend a family gathering on the 13th and 14th and even if everything ran to schedule we wouldn't have gotten into Sacramento until the wee hours of the 14th, I asked for alternatives. The only alternative they had was to give us our money back, leave us in Houston and let us get to Sacramento on our own. I should say that the lady on the phone was very nice and really seemed to feel bad about the problem, but apparently her hands were tied.

My wife suggested checking to see if we could stay on the train we were already on. Julie's helper seemed relieved to have any acceptable alternative to offer, said it should be possible, and told us to contact the conductor. Julie's helper even threw in a free upgrade from a standard sleeper to the handicap bedroom on the Coast Starlight as compensation - like I said, she really was trying, just didn't have many options.

We rang for the sleeper (in)attendant to ask for the conductor. After about 45 minutes with no response from the sleeper attendant, we went down to the dining car and asked for the conductor to be paged. The conductor dropped by in a few minutes, arranged for us to stay in our deluxe sleeper, and went on his way. We rescheduled the layover in L.A. and the Coast Starlight leg, and told our friends in Houston we wouldn't be able to stop after all (canceling a planned party :<{ ), and told the family we'd be arriving earlier than expected.

We didn't leave our cabin, but after about 3 hours, we realized that we'd left the attendant call button on and turned it off. The attendant had never showed up, though we did see him at bedtime later.

The conductor came back by and apologized that he couldn't keep us in a deluxe sleeper since apparently several different groups had been selling sleepers and they'd overbooked. Nevertheless, he got us into a downstairs standard bedroom.

At bedtime, we moved down to our new standard bedroom for the second night, figured out how to set up the beds and slept through Houston and our planned visit with Mr. Bingham. Those darn standard bedrooms are too small for a long trip (except on the Starlight - the parlour car and entertainment make a standard bedroom OK there), but at least the luggage rack was close by for extra storage.

We made good time out of San Antonio and saw lots of freight trains on the sidings. At first I thought UP had had a change of heart, but later realized they probably didn't have crews for all the freights and we just got lucky.

We had to stop at Sanderson. A medical student passenger had asked for a thermometer to check her temperature and the conductor decided to stop the train and get her checked out by the local medics. The conductor was reported to have strongly encouraged her to leave the train, but she refused, so the medics boarded the train and pronounced her OK. We stayed in Sanderson for about an hour. Interesting abandoned station there, too snaky for much exploring though.

A hot box detector went off about 10 miles from Alpine. The conductor walked the train and apparently found no problems. I'll bet he was glad it happened when it did though - an hour later it was pitch black and pouring rain; a walk around the train then would have been very unpleasant. The lightning show was spectacular, though the cold shower pouring in between each car discouraged us from traveling to the observation car to watch.

The third day through the desert was spectacular too. Apparently rain had fallen several days ago and the purple sage was in bloom. Red, yellow and orange cactus blossoms were also everywhere, particularly as we crossed the Pecos River and Echo Canyon.

We set up our beds (no sign of the attendant still), went to sleep and woke up in Maricopa, looking at the old California Zephyr dome car out the window. We were running about 10 hours behind at this point. Rumor was that illegals had hopped the train, were noticed by the crew and the train was delayed while the border patrol took them into custody. Personally, I'd bet on Union Pacific having more to do with it.

Since the Sunset was so late, most connections were hopeless. Fortunately we'd heeded the advice we got here and on other boards and scheduled a 1-day layover in Los Angeles. Few of the other passengers were so cautious, and everyone connecting in L.A. was bussed out of Palm Springs. The folks headed for the Coast Starlight were bustituted to Bakersfield, then sent by train to Martinez where they could pick up the Coast Starlight. They missed a lot of pretty country that way. I appreciate the advice we got here to schedule a layover in L.A., since we got to stay on the train all the way to L.A. and got on the Starlight right on schedule the next morning.

The dining crew, Charlie and John, were great the whole way. They were cheerful and willing to do anything to make the trip pleasant, even when they were running out of food and dealing with difficult passengers. They amused the kids by letting them make dining car announcements occasionally. The café car attendant was less thrilled with kids running up and down his stairs and eventually barred unescorted children from his car. These folks have great balance, although my wife did wind up wearing someone else's meal when the train lurched while the attendant was carrying one too many dinners. A little ginger ale was offered to help mitigate the stains and a new dinner gotten, so all was well in spite of the minor mishap. We were the last folks seated at the last meal before we arrived at L.A.; although the menu was by then limited to Angus burgers and salad, the dining car crew was still doing anything they could to please everyone. Great folks! Letter to Amtrak will follow.

The most surprising thing to me was the sense of community that developed on the Sunset Limited. It was very like a small town, with various groups forming and sitting together in the diner and observation car, town gossips making sure we all had the latest rumors (the med student's fever became contagious West Nile fever, delays were attributed to illegal immigrants etc.), and some of the folks that hung around the observation car seeming like they might normally live under bridges). I think we even had a con man aboard, but I'll tell that story over a beer some time.

Incidentally kudos to as well - they took the schedule changes in stride, didn't charge any fees for cancellations/changes etc, and even called me back on the cell phone after sometimes frequent disconnections.

Anyway, we got to L.A. some 10 hours late, found our hotel, slept the night without being rocked to sleep, and got to Union Station a couple of hours early the next morning.

There didn't appear to be much organization in the boarding process for the Coast Starlight. We wandered around for a while (it's a beautiful station), finally waded through the crowd around the Amtrak information booth and found out that the crowd was really two lines, one for the sleepers and one for coach. Coulda fooled me, it looked like one big crowd in a poorly ventilated space with no front or back or even a line visible, but we asked folks what line they were in and eventually found our place. And waited and sweated, and waited and sweated, and eventually the line began to move and we got our boarding passes.

We had the handicap sleeper, courtesy of the Sunset Limited annulment, so we moved our luggage in and started exploring. We were so impressed by the parlour car that we really never got around to exploring the rest of the train. We started chatting with Richard, the attendant, about the parlour car, ate a few snacks, looked at the 21-seat theater downstairs, found out about the planned presentations and wine tastings, met the other passengers, and generally made ourselves at home.

At dinner, we were passing over the horseshoe at Cuesta grade. I only got a glimpse, but it looked like we had 3 engines at the time, 2 standard Amtrak locomotives and one taller one. The third engine wasn't there when we got to Sacramento though, so maybe we lost it in Emeryville?

We lost an hour or so in Paso Robles due to a sick passenger. Interesting collection of shops and restaurants there. And a nice pair of bronze railroad-related statues on the road just before the station (we've got a couple of pictures if nobody knows what I'm talking about).

The Coast Starlight is one long distance train where you can probably save a little money and book a standard sleeper. The prettiest part of the run to Sacramento is in full daylight and between lunch, dinner, breakfast, snacks, movies, lectures and wine tastings, you likely won't spend much time in your room.

Richard gave a fantastic sort of off-the-cuff lecture about the local wildlife, history, ecology, geology, modern social issues and more as we passed along the Goleta coast through Vandenberg. He was obviously very knowledgeable and active in groups attempting to conserve the area. An hour or so later, he started a movie for the kids (Shrek if I remember) and set up for a wine tasting upstairs. Richard proved again to be very knowledgeable about wine tasting in general and the wines he selected for tasting. And generous too, since we got nearly full glasses of each wine to "taste". And after the wine tasting, we watched a 20-minute black and white 1939 film advertising the Southern Pacific Daylight (Los Angeles to San Francisco, 471 miles in 9 hours 45 minutes). 1939 sure was a long cultural leap from today's environmentally sensitive times — the commentator pointed out the seals along the way and said "there's a million dollars worth of fur coats playing in the ocean"!

Richard did a great job. When we ride the Starlight again, I'm going to see if I can figure out how to ride with Richard again. I can't imagine anyone doing it better and he gives another lecture and wine tasting on the second day in the Cascades.

Somebody made chocolate chip cookies for the parlour car, but having eaten our fill over the last few days, we passed and retired to the sleeper. Half an hour later, Hermino, our sleeping car attendant, came by with a fresh batch and insisted that we take at least one. They were great, still hot out of the oven!

We got into Sacramento only 1 hour and 20 minutes late, very relaxed and well fed.

It was a great trip, largely thanks to the advice I got on the boards and the (mostly) fantastic personnel that crewed the trains. My sincere thank you; it would have been a much different trip without your help.

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