The route that the Central Coast Pacific takes is the same as the Coast Starlight, only it makes all the Surfliner stops. We also had to take a few sidings thanks to Union Pacific (more on them later). Near Santa Barbara, we met the Coast Starlight, running way late with what appeared to be two private cars or perhaps commuter cars attached. They were purple and white and if I did not know better, I would have thought they were West Coast Express Bombardier commuter cars from Vancouver. Perhaps they were--going back north after some servicing.
After we stopped at Santa Barbara, business class was near full up and I had to again shake my head at Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta's recent comment about "nobody" riding intercity trains.
At Goleta, we passed an Amtrak washing facility and I got my first sight of an Amtrak West F59PHI locomotive with Surfliner cars attached. The view got less interesting once we reached Ventura though I saw occasional Metrolink commuter rolling stock as we approached LA. As much as I was eager to ride a train, I have t confess by this point I was looking forward to getting to Union Station and getting off. It had been a long day sitting down.
We reached Los Angeles under smoggy skies. I wanted to take some photos of the train but the Amtrak staff were ushering everyone down the ramp and away from the platform--more London residue perhaps.
I then decided to see if there was anything else to go photograph. I found two Surfliners up on another platform but no passengers around and Amtrak staff in number. I figured taking photos after what had happened recently was probably not a good idea so I gave up on the idea. As I left Union Station, I saw some private security (who did not inspire much confidence in me) and a group of LA Sheriffs.
My hotel, the Days Inn Downtown, was supposedly "next door" to Union Station. But it was next door in the same way that Washington State is next door to California--two blocks down and one block over. That's not a big deal in sunlight but this part of town is not Bel Air so any future traveler should keep that in mind. That said, the hotel was decent enough and the closest one to the station.
-The Main Event-
I got up the next morning and called "Julie" who said once again that train 14, the northbound Coast Starlight, was scheduled to depart on time at 10:15. So I checked out and walked down to Union Station. I checked the Arrivals/Departure board and found that departure was delayed 30 minutes. I sat down on one of the unique individual leather seats in the main waiting hall only to find my iPod battery had nearly drained all the way down. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze some life out of it.
When I next got up to check the board, departure was now delayed to 11:45! The station agent in San Jose had been right all along. I could have slept in--thanks a lot Julie.
Inside the station, there were more of the private security guards, two Amtrak Police officers, and three LAPD officers. There were also two LAPD on motorized Segueway scooters. A police helicopter flew overhead but this being LA, might have been on other business.
After reading in the outside courtyard, around 11:20, I went back inside only to find that the "Coast Starlate" as a friend called it, was now delayed until 12:10. Was it *ever* going to leave?
I expect Amtrak intercity trains to be late. Their terminal lateness is one thing that prompted my parents never to ride them long-distance again. So I accepted this fact of life. But to be late before even departing is disastrous from a public relations standpoint. I would get on Amtrak more about this but my last two airline flights have also been late an hour in departing.
At least I hoped that LA Union Station would tell us what track the train would depart from so I could go out there and get away from the crowded, warm waiting areas. But the departure board remained blank for "Trk." Finally, I saw red caps--the old caps now replaced by baseball caps--taking older people out on carts. I realized this had to be for the Starlight so I took my bags and rushed after them on foot.
With people now out on Track 9, I figured the security forces would not be so anal about someone taking photos and I was happy to see a Surfliner consist and a Metrolink F59PH.
I then saw the unmistakable shape of the back of a bilevel Superliner backing into the platform. The Starlight had finally arrived.
Even better, backing in made my job of collecting its consist that much easier. I wanted to go up front to take a photo of the locomotives but it was mostly Amtrak staff and I figured I should not press my luck. The consist for train 14 on July 10, 2005 was:
P42DC 121 Phase V P42DC 114 Phase V Heritage Baggage 1213 Phase III Superliner II Transition Dorm/Sleeper 39022 Phase IV Superliner I Sleeper 32032 Phase IVb Superliner I Sleeper 32019 Phase IVb* Superliner II Sleeper 32084 "Kansas" Phase IV Pacific Parlour 39975 Phase IV Superliner I Diner 38016 Phase IV Superliner II Sightseer Lounge 33032 Phase IV Superliner I Coach 34037 Phase IVb Superliner II Family Coach 34504 Phase ? Superliner I Coach 34033 Phase IV Superliner I (former) Coach-Baggage 31000 Phase IV
I found my Superliner sleeper, car 1431 (#32019). My sleeping car attendant, Fred, was waiting outside. I handed him my ticket and he checked me off on a computer printout. He directed me to roomette #8 and I was off like a rocket. I bounded those stairs in world record time.
I found my roomette. It was about eight feet long by about four feet wide. Two seats faced each other. I think these fold out into one bed while another comes down from the top. At the roomette entrance, there is a side closet. This is apparently only featured in Superliner I sleepers. You can shut off the roomette by a blue curtain and a glass sliding door. The entire sleeping car was very cool from the air conditioning but you can modify your individual roomette temperature.
On a stand near the window was a Coast Starlight timetable (current), a Coast Starlight route guide (more on that later), an Amtrak postcard, an Amtrak Skymall (sic) catalog, and a card that explained sleeping card services. There were two small bottles of water and a plastic cup with two butterscotch candies. Twenty-two years later and I was back in a Superliner! I felt like a Kid on Christmas day.
Fred came up and introduced himself and we shook hands. I tried telling him it had been 22 years since I had been in a Superliner but he did not quite understand me.
We got underway and soon Fred was telling those of us in his car that that the Diner was open and we could go for lunch. I was content just to leave my stuff in my roomette and march off but Fred stopped me. Seeing my camera and high-tech binoculars, he cautioned me to shut the curtain and close the door. I had read on the On Track On Line website that generally you did not have to worry about theft on board but I guess I could not be that lax. It was the last time I left my roomette that day without sealing it off.
Of course, this was the part of the journey, out of the yard, where there could be interesting train watching. But hunger took over. I was certain that the first come/first serve had filled up and I would have go to on the waiting list.
But as myself and other sleeping car passengers walked through the train, including the Pacific Parlour (more on that later), we found there was still room in the diner.
Being alone, I was sat down with three others from Seal Beach. One woman was a Methodist minister. She was traveling with her young niece and her mother. They were off on a grand train trip that would take them to Vancouver and on to Toronto on VIA's signature The Canadian. In a way, their trip mirrored my upcoming trip, only in reverse. The two women had ridden Amtrak several times before. I do not think you could call them railfans but the younger woman knew all her train names and was a very experienced rail traveler.
She also talked about train delays. When I told her that Union Pacific was partly to blame as they were the "most anti-passenger railroad in America" (sorry UP employees), she shook her head in fierce agreement. The mother asked if I was a train fan. Considering I was wearing a BNSF polo shirt and baseball cap, I am not sure where she got that idea.
When I had eaten in the dining car with my parents many years ago, we had to order by checking off items on our meal ticket with stubbie pencils and received poor microwave offerings on that same sort of styrofoam you get for McDonald's breakfasts. Later in those journeys, I was eating every meal from the Lounge-Cafe car snack bar.
With that in mind, I am happy to report that 22 years has brought a lot of change. First of all, the table had a white tablecloth. Light jazz played on the speaker system. A waiter took our order. As sleeping car passengers eat for free, we just had to sign our car and room number. Having your choice of any entree and dessert is a huge plus for sleeping car passengers.
The one snafu was that we were given the wrong menus and Ira, the dining car attendant, had to correct our waiter. Either menu had my choice--the Angus burger. Our food arrived in short order. The burger was essentially the same kind as I had on the Central Coast Pacific, only properly cooked. Amtrak still has not found a way to fry foods in the dining car so I had to settle for ruffled potato chips not french fries. I topped this off with very good piece of key lime pie.
I then had to relieve myself. I do not mean to gross anyone out but if you want to be prepared for a long distance train journey, you need to know this. The Horizon cars feature a huge, ADA-compliant bathroom whose only strangeness is a lock latch that resembles a big metal plunger. The Superliner Is, by comparison, feature a bathroom upstairs and four more downstairs (one is a handicapped bathroom). The non-handicapped bathrooms did nothing for me. They are smaller than airline ones and as soon as you close the door you are nearly on top of the toilet. The sink is like an airline one (i.e., you have to press down on levers to get the water to come out). The cold water flowed out in a pathetic stream while the hot water came out like Niagara Falls, squirting everything in sight. Amtrak provides that liquid cream soap which is not the best to rinse off when you have a weak water flow.
That misadventure over, I decided to check out the shower. Superliner sleeper rooms and deluxe rooms have toilets and sinks, and the deluxe rooms have showers. My lunch companions said the room showers were not that great but were at least something to wash with.
The communal shower next to the downstairs lavatories was very big. There is a mirror and stand on one side with a stack of bar soaps and towels. The shower itself is on the other side with a curtain. I tried to turn on the water to see what the flow was like but I could not get it to work. It is possible you have to have the curtain totally closed but I doubt it is that high tech. I was not looking to take a shower, but if I had been, I would have found this very frustrating. I thought to ask Fred but did not bother with it.
Later, I used the upstairs bathroom. These were retrofitted onto Superliner I sleepers to mirror the more recent Superliner II sleepers which had them. These retrofits are lined up so that when you enter the sink and toilet are side by side, not perpendicular. There's more room and even a window. The sink is still the same but this was a much better setup.
That bit of investigation over, I headed to the Pacific Parlour car. This is another historic car. Originally built for Santa Fe as a Budd Hi-Level Lounge, Amtrak has refurbished six of these cars for service on the Coast Starlight. The Pacific Parlour offers wine tasting, free beverages, a downstairs theater, a library, and board games. Despite all the marketing and naming, it is essentially a lounge car for sleeping car passengers. This makes the Coast Starlight a throwback to the days when passenger trains had separate lounge cars for sleeper and coach passengers.
The Budd Hi-Levels (i.e., bilevel) are the inspiration for the Superliners but they are slightly shorter so when you enter this car you have to walk down a slight ramp and I saw a few passengers caught out by this a bit, especially if the train was weaving.
Amtrak has done a great job with these cars. Unlike the full dome lounge, it is clean and modern looking. One end has plush swivel chairs (though one would not swivel). There are then several tables with tablecloths--which annoyingly kept sliding off. The other end features a bar. The opposite end has a cabinet with a few books (nothing all that exciting) and some board games for kids. Downstairs, there is a neat looking theater--sort of a mini home-entertainment system.
Jose was the Pacific Parlour car attendant. Most times I walked through, he offered me wine. I turned him down as I do not drink. The first time, I asked him if he had soft drinks. He told me he did not. That seemed lame, so I asked him, no 7-Up or Sprite? He shook his head, no. He then proceeded to pour me a glass of Sierra Mist. I guess Jose wanted specificity.
To understand the value of the Pacific Parlour car, I have to take you to the Sightseer Lounge, which I visited to get a snack. First, as a sleeping car passenger, you have to walk through the Diner. If it's during lunch or dinner, that is not impossible, but you are getting in their way. Second, though the Sightseer Lounge has bigger side and upper windows to look out of than the Pacific Parlour, it was always full of coach passengers. I almost never saw a vacant seat at any time during my journey. The Sightseer Lounge also shows movies at night, but passengers there have to watch on several small TVs upstairs and one downstairs.
With a sold out train like the one I was on (Again Mr. Mineta, what are you talking about?), there simply is not enough lounge seating. So at the risk of sounding elitist, having one lounge car for each fare class is worth it. Amtrak never has enough money but it should give some thought to putting two Sightseer Lounges on all Superliner trains (there aren't enough Hi-Levels left to make more Pacific Parlours).
That said, the Pacific Parlour's smaller windows were a bit of a drag. But seeing as Amtrak has retired most of the remainder of the Hi-Level fleet, those with an interest in these trend-setting cars (like me) will surely relish riding in one. The Pacific Parlour supposedly features hors d'oeuves (I never saw any) but should sell snack items like the Sightseer Lounge.
The Superliner I Lounge-Cafe that I remembered as a kid had a guy behind a counter and some table seating downstairs. The Superliner II Sightseer Lounge that we had has that same downstairs seating but the snack bar is a walk-in affair like a mini 7-11. You can pick out what you want--if it's microwavable, the attendant does it for you. It's okay but it can get very crowded if you have a lookie-lou in there.
Our Sightseer Lounge attendant, "T," was a bit flaky. She kept going on meal or other breaks and the worst time was when she AND Jose went on break, meaning there was nowhere to get something to drink. As I waited to buy some cheese and crackers, she talked to another customer about how she was tempted to get off in Santa Barbara. I handed her my purchases and she said "Hurry up! We're almost in Santa Barbara!"
I was not sure if she was joking--her delivery was a bit deadpan--or what so I smiled along with her. Later that night, I had to laugh when "T" announced over the train intercom "Does anyone know how to make the movie sound go?"
The passengers on this train were a cross-section of America. The sleeping car passengers appeared to me to be mostly middle to upper-middle class or families. The coach passengers, from what I saw, looked to be younger, student types, your REI aficionados, or, I am sorry to say, some questionable characters.
The latter reared their ugly heads several time on this trip. The first incident occurred when I was sitting with my cheese and crackers in the Pacific Parlour. Ira called out on the intercom for the conductor to come immediately. Later, from what I overheard, it seems that a drunken woman had not approved of some sauce. She became belligerent and threatened a dining car staffer with her fork.
The conductor called back on the intercom "Did someone call for me?"
Ira responded he needed him to come immediately.
The conductor once again called out "Did someone call for me?"
It was starting to sound like Keystone Kops and there was laughter in the Pacific Parlour. Finally, the conductor, who looked to be just a kid, came through. A few minutes later, he and his assistant (also very young) were talking about a "form" needed to throw someone off the train. The conductor asked his assistant if he had the form. The assistant replied very annoyed that he did. One might say that this drunken woman was ultimately harmless in comparison to someone like Richard Reid the "shoe bomber." Yet if someone did this on an airplane, the plane would be diverted and the FBI would be waiting at the gate in huge numbers. I hope that for the sake of train decorum, if not security, that she was tossed.
I heard this "come immediately" call to the Diner or Sightseer Lounge twice more during the trip. Later, our new conductor made an announcement that no smoking was allowed on the train, even in the bathrooms, and that no alcohol purchased outside the train was allowed to be consumed. These two offenses would result in removal from the train.
Some of the sleeping car passengers seemed a bit too fond of their wine as well. One guy I talked with seemed a bit sloshed but was harmless. Another guy carried a wine bottle and a cup on top of it the entire evening I saw him. Not sure if he had it open or not but they way he held onto it like a security blanket was rather odd.
During the "fork" incident, I saw the conductor talking with a big guy in a t-shirt and jeans. He had an Amtrak ID badge around his neck. To me, he seemed like he could be Amtrak Police or some sort of law enforcement. Another passenger told me later that Federal marshals had been put on Amtrak trains after London but seeing as Amtrak has its own police force, that did not make as much sense.
As we cruised from Santa Barbara up to Vandenberg, I sat in my roomette, fortunately located sea-side and used my digital camera and binoculars. The conductor, puzzled at first by the latter bit of gear with its appendage that looks like an infrared sight, really thought my digital camera binoculars were cool. During this portion of the journey, a man and woman from Santa Barbara's local rail and history societies chimed in on the intercom about local point of interest. Their program was called "Rails & Trails." They gave a presentation on local Native American history in the Sightseer Lounge but I did not attend.
I checked out the Coast Starlight Route Guide. This fold-out pamphlet had brief snippets for each stop or point of interest along the way. It had to have been recent as it had the new Amtrak logo. But when I read that Vandenberg belonged to the Strategic Air Command, I rolled my eyes. As a former USAF space historian, I can tell you that SAC has not existed since 1992 and Vandenberg was firmly a Space Command base even before SAC was disestablished. Worse, Moffett Field was listed on the route. True, you can see it off in the distance from the East Bay tracks on a clear day but it's not as if the Starlight is rolling on through it.
Around 4 p.m., Ira came through the sleeping cars to take reservations for dinner. Unlike lunch, all seatings were by reservation. Another benefit of being in sleeper class was having first pick of dinner timings. I told Ira I wanted 7. He tried to shunt me to 6:30 but I held firm and he did not press the point. As we had left late and eaten lunch late, no one wanted the first seating at 5. This was left to the coach passengers who had the choice of taking that or leaving it.
The view was spectacular. With no fog like the day before, I could see the Southern California coastline in its full glory. At some points on this coastal run, you are perhaps only yards away from the water. This portion is a large reason why Amtrak considers this train its signature run.
I asked Fred why the Starlight had been so Starlate. He said that there was track work up in Oregon so the southbound trains were getting in late to LA. He said the southbound train had not arrived into LA until 4 in the morning on Sunday morning (that would have made it seven hours late!). Worse, our Superliner sleeper needed a new wheel axle so that had to be swapped out.
Back on-board, I waited for dinner. When called forward, I was sat at the front of the dining car with an older woman and a guy a few years older than me.
The woman was on her way from Texas to Vancouver, Washington. She said she had broken her ribs and could not fly. She claimed to have taken the Southwest Chief to LA but it became apparent from her story that she had taken the Texas Eagle which has a section that attaches to the Sunset Limited. She told stories of her previous trains being woefully late and that confirmed that it indeed she had to have been riding the Sunset Limited! She did not seem that eager to ride Amtrak again.
The guy was on his way from LA to a semiconductor trade show in San Francisco. He said he wanted to take the train as an adventure. He seemed happy he had done it, but said that unless his girlfriend came next time, he probably would not take the Coast Starlight again. For him, it was a matter of having already done it. He seemed more excited about the idea of a train one-day running from LA to Las Vegas.
A second woman was seated with us later. She was from Whittier and was going somewhere in Oregon or Washington State. She was not all that keen on the delays but seemed more excited about the trip than the other two.
Our waitress was fantastic. The menus were wrong again but she had memorized all the correct items. Sadly, this removed the prime rib we all wanted. I settled for cheese ravioli. The roll and salad were excellent. The ravioli were small bite size ones and were okay--nothing great. It came with southwestern corn and boiled carrots, which was a bit odd for a pasta dish. When I asked if they had root beer, our waitress went into the Pacific Parlour to get me one.
I cannot stress how impressed I was with Ira and his dining car crew. They were efficient and quick and had that car running as a fine-tuned engine. It was light years away from the experience my family had in the early 80s.
After dinner, I sat in one of the Pacific Parlour's chairs. The tables were normally open but these plush chairs were usually taken. The sun was now setting as we headed into the farming communities north of Paso Robles.
When the sun finally went down, I headed back to my room and coaxed the remaining life out of my iPod. Fred made an announcement about turning down beds. He came by and I told him not to bother as I was getting off in San Jose.
Had I been on the CZ later this year, this would be the time I would have brought out my laptop or read a book. But I had my laptop packed away (I did not have the correct power cord).
I got hungry and though it was now around 10, I hoped the Sightseer Lounge snack bar was open. I passed through the Diner and told Ira what a great job his crew had done. He just nodded. It was not rudeness on his part--he was just exhausted.
The snack bar was open, though the downstairs was jammed with people watching Will Smith in "Hitch" (The Pacific Parlour had shown "Phantom of the Opera" earlier and then "Hitch"--I passed on both.).
I snagged another of the Firenza brand cheeseburgers and headed back. It was not the immortal stuffed cheese pretzel but it was starting to make a claim of its own.
Now, I found myself getting very sleepy. I nodded in and out of sleep but I knew that despite being a sleeping car passenger, I could not go to sleep. How nice it would have been though to call Fred up and say, I changed my mind: book me through to Seattle.
We were now running way late. The original two hours and ten minute delay had grown to nearly three hours and forty-five minutes thanks to UP putting us into a siding whenever ANYTHING came down the single track (we were even bumped for a Surfliner down south).
I understand that the National Rail Passenger Act of 1971 obligates UP to host Amtrak. But did no one in the Department of Transportation think to insist that the act give first priority to Amtrak trains--at least the major intercity runs?
We had another extended stop in Salinas. I asked Fred some about his profession. He had been working for Amtrak over 21 years. He told me that car attendants started out on the "Extra Board," which meant they filled in whenever needed. Then, as Fred put it, "people retire, die" and you build up seniority and then you "begin to get a life." As you gain seniority, you can begin picking what routes you want. Fred told me that for the Western intercity routes, the most popular was the Starlight because it was "four days on, six days off." Trains like the California Zephyr were six days on, five days off. The problem was that the Starlight involved "four long days"--each 20 hours. Had I had more time, I would have liked to have asked Fred why he did this job. It surely did not pay much, nearly every year Amtrak's very existence is under threat, and the working conditions were demanding to say the least.
We now ran under an open sky up to San Jose and the second part of the train's name came into effect. It was beautiful and we must have approached the coast once more as I could see patches of water among sandy hills near Watsonville. We came through the Pajaro Gap--which I have never been through in despite all my years living in California.
When I began to recognize things in San Jose, I gathered my things and reluctantly went downstairs. We slowly eased into the station around 12:10 a.m., almost four hours late.
I gave Fred a 10 dollar tip and then headed up front so I could see the locomotives. The conductor was up on the baggage car and asked me what I needed. I took this to mean: "Get away from here." So I mumbled a lame excuse about wanting to see the serial number of the Transition Dorm/Sleeper. This was disappointing--I've walked down that end of the platform many times in San Jose when #14 arrived and never have been challenged. But thanks to the terrorists, railfanning is not what it used to be.
I noticed San Jose Police Department's "Air One" helicopter overhead with its spotlight flashing down near us. I am not sure if it was there for the train or it was just a coincidence.
Any fantasies I had about going on to Seattle were dashed when a woman and her young daughter boarded Fred's car and went directed right up to roomette #8. I walked back to Fred and told him I was just going to watch them leave like I have always done.
I asked him if he was going to get some sleep. He shook his head. He had to be up for Sacramento and that was at least three hours away at this rate. He might be lucky to get one or two hours that night. And he had been up since 4 a.m. the previous morning. He said once in Oregon, he could cat nap.
A woman came down to ask him when they would reach Sacramento. "I don't know," Fred replied. When she had gone, he told me, "I'm not trying to be rude...I just don't know."
I told him again that UP had not helped us with all the sidings. "Yes, they treat us like the lowest thing," he added.
He saw the San Jose Arena across the street and asked me about the NHL labor problem. I told him my opinion on the matter. He had no sympathies for the league or its players. "Here I am trying to just scrape a living and they are arguing over millions. I'd be happy with one million."
"I would be happy with half a million!," I replied.
Finally, after another crew change, the conductor gave the All Aboard cry. Fred put his footstool up on board and then walked over to me and we shook hands. He went back into his car, closed up the open window in it. I yelled to him to have a good trip.
I watched as the Superliners rolled past me. There went 1431 and Fred. Then came the Pacific Parlour--no longer an object of mystery. There went the Diner with Ira and his outstanding crew. The coaches rolled on by until the last one had passed with its rear red lights. I began to walk down the platform to the station, watching the Starlight disappear off toward Oakland like the countless other times I have done since being a teenager.
It was an amazing weekend and gave me all the preparation I need for my two week circumnavigation of North America. The moral of the story? With enough credit limit on your Visa, you too can ride one of America's premier trains...in style.
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