Circumnavigation of the United States
This past summer, I made a second circumnavigation of North America (this time just the United States) by rail. This would involve taking three Amtrak intercity trains, three Amtrak California trains, and two Amtrak California Thruway Buses to complete the circle. The journey would begin in San Jose, California on the Coast Starlight to Seattle. I would remain overnight in Seattle before taking the Empire Builder east to Chicago. After several days in Naperville and the Chicagoland area, I would take the Southwest Chief west to Los Angeles. After a few more days in Fullerton, I would take what I call the "backdoor" method from Los Angeles back to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Whereas my 2005 rail circle was mainly to discover whether intercity trains were worth riding in the year 2005, this trip was about riding two trains--the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief--I had not been on before and seeing parts of the country I had never seen. During my stops, I planned on railfanning various hotspots. A small motivation was also to determine what the level of service was on Amtrak circa 2007.
Below follows my description of my journey. I hope you find it valuable.
Amtrak #14 Coast Starlight 23-24 July 2007
Entrained: San Jose, CA
This was a sentimental journey for me. As a child, I watched the northbound Coast Starlight arrive in San Jose many times and always wished I was going aboard. I have since been on the Starlight several times, but never in the northbound iteration to Seattle.
The Coast Starlight has a recent reputation for being late, mostly because 2/3rds of its route is on the anti-Amtrak Union Pacific Railroad. But I knew from past experience that on weekends, this train is often on time or even early because of the lack of freight traffic on UP's Coast Line.
Sure enough, #14 pulled into San Jose a few minutes early. I was immediately tripped up when I headed forward to get to my sleeping car but found that except for the Transition Dorm/Sleeper, there were no sleepers up front. Instead, like many pre-Amtrak trains, the Sleepers were at the rear of the train.
I would later find out that Amtrak now sells four roomettes aboard the previously crew-only Transition Dorm/Sleeper. One of the coach attendants is handling those passengers so if the consist has a Transition Dorm/Sleeper, the coaches are now forward to facilitate the coach attendant handling that car (in the past, the coach attendant would have had to walk through the Lounge, Diner, and several Sleepers to get to the Transition Dorm/Sleeper).
I made the briefest introductions with my car attendant, whose name I believe was Tim, before asking him if I could still get dinner in the Dining Car. He curiously said that he had not been expecting me--which did not make much sense--but that I should go tell the Dining Car manager that I had just boarded and he had sent me to her. In the Dining Car, I did as Tim suggested and the manager was able to seat me.
The Coast Starlight previously was Amtrak's "flagship" train in that it offered special service to Sleeper passengers not found on other trains. This service revolved around the Pacific Parlour car, which is only found on this route. These cars are rebuilt former Santa Fe Budd Hi-Level Lounges. At one time, they offered a car attendant, magicians, wine tastings, a bookshelf, and movies in the lower level theater. Over time, the magicians were cut but when I rode the Starlight in 2005, the rest had remained.
Sadly, as a result of the recent Congressional appropriation which has targeted meal and sleeper service, the Pacific Parlours were rumored to be cut. They have returned (though it does not seem to be consistently--some recent Coast Starlights have run with two Superliner lounges) but not at the same level of service. My Pacific Parlour did not have an attendant so there were no free soft drinks. Instead, big juice boxes were set out, and sometimes rows of plastic 8 oz cups with juice were set out. The tables did not have white linen tablecloths. The bookcase looked rather barren and included only a few dog-eared family board games. As Amtrak has recently cut movie service in the regular lounge, I was not totally surprised to find there no movie in the lower level theater, which now serves no purpose on the train. The Pacific Parlour overall still serves a useful function as a sleeper passenger-only lounge but perhaps because of its loss of previous service, I never saw it full of passengers like on past trips.
The recent appropriation also affected the dining car menu. Instead of five entrees, there were only three. Instead of four or five desserts, there were three.
The previous Starlights were known for top crews and despite the budget restrictions, the crew on my train remained very good. Tim was professional.
In the Dining Car, I had the Angus burger for dinner and lunch the next day. For the next morning's breakfast, I had a "Tuscan Omelet" which featured Mozzarella cheese and sun dried tomatoes. I would have much preferred a regular omelet. Though the Dining Car staff was good, the service did suffer as there are less of them now thanks to recent budget cutbacks.
Despite having been on time out of San Jose, we ended up delayed almost immediately at Oakland Jack London Square station. The reason was never announced to us because it was later in the evening when the crew did not make PA announcements. I pulled out my Uniden scanner and learned that a car had stalled on the tracks on front of us. We sat for 30-40 minutes waiting for a tow truck to arrive to clear the vehicle.
The scenic highlights of this trip were the California/Oregonian mountains the next morning and the late afternoon skirting of Puget Sound.
The train ran a consistent 40 minutes late the rest of the journey but magically arrived at Seattle's King Street Station on time. This is what we call "timetable padding."
Amtrak #8 Empire Builder 25-27 July 2007
Entrained: Seattle King Street Station, WA (origin)
Two years ago, Amtrak launched an upgraded service on the Empire Builder and with the downgrading of the Starlight, it now serves as Amtrak's Western "flagship." The Empire Builder carries on the legacy of Great Northern's flagship. Unlike the pre-Amtrak Builder, this version does not follow the old CB&Q route down the Mississippi to Chicago, but runs on the old Milwaukee Road/Soo Line (now Canadian Pacific) so that it can serve Milwaukee.
When I arrived at King Street Station on the morning of departure, I had a bit of a wait between checking out of my motel and waiting for the train's afternoon departure. I found that King Street Station still had not been totally renovated but looked to be in better shape than when I found partitioned off in 2005.
A recent addition in the station is a kiosk from "Railway Media" who are providing DigiPlayer viewers to Amtrak passengers. These are home electronic devices about six or seven inches wide. They are programmed with several movies, songs, and music videos. I believe they can accommodate up to two sets of earphones, which Railway Media provide (I tried my Sony headphones on it and could only get sound in one ear). You can rent these devices, which are intended to make up for the budget cancellation of Lounge Car movies. Several stations have Railway Media outlets where you can rent and return, and a few trains, like the Builder, supposedly offer them for rent on board.
These kiosks also offer something long overdue at major Amtrak stations--Amtrak souvenirs. The Seattle kiosk had most offerings in the current Amtrak online store catalog. Some, or course, are in the outdated Amtrak logo or font. But the Empire Builder t-shirts, caps, and travel mugs were very appropriate in Seattle. Of the three kiosks I saw, this one was the best stocked. The one in Chicago had fewer Amtrak souvenirs, with the Los Angeles one falling somewhere in between.
Renting a player for my journey cost $20. I took up the option of returning it my Lounge Car attendant. the Railway Media employee in Seattle told me to make sure he stamped my receipt as "received." I inferred that there were some cases where Railway Media might not otherwise realize you had returned the player and would charge you for it.
I found the audio and music video offerings to be a bit limited and indicative of what you might find on an long distance or international flight--that is, a few months old. I rented the player not so much to be entertained--I had books, my laptop, and outside scenery for that--but just to test it. I only watched two movies the entire journey: The Queen and Rocky Balboa.
The player came with three batteries (one installed), each good for 8-10 hours of use. Every time you powered it on, there was a message from one of Amtrak's VPs in charge of customer service. His message was an optimistic take on Amtrak trying to make improvements in the customer experience. What he did not say was how much Congress' parsimony affected passenger experience.
The waiting room at King Street Station filled up quickly and I had to remind myself it was peak travel season. At King Street Station, the station staff do not want you to wait out on the platform--understandable as the arriving Empire Builder consist is serviced. But as it got crowded, I longed to get outside.
My sleeping car attendant was Cynthia and she was one of the best I have ever had. I was surprised to find that she had a trainee in our car, named Nathaniel. He was younger which made a big change from Amtrak's usual Baby Boom work force. I took this as a positive sign for Amtrak's future that they seemed to be hiring.
Upon boarding, I was offered champagne but I do not drink so Cynthia offered me some orange juice. In my roomette, I found two small airline-style size bags of trail mix like snacks. There were also two small bottles of water, a new Empire Builder timetable, and the standard Amtrak fold out route guide. What really surprised me was a copy of "Empire Builder" magazine--an "in-flight" [sic] magazine that I have not seen on any other Amtrak train. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was on the cover. His interview was rather ironic as the interviewer asked him about his most memorable train rides and Brokaw answered that they were in Tibet and Belgium. His answer prompted the poor interviewer to ask Brokaw if he ever had ridden Amtrak! Another eyebrow raising bit in the magazine was an ad from Daylight Sales (who are a good company, I have bought from them before) offering "official souvenirs" of the Empire Builder. I am not sure about that, but the train on the t-shirt in the ad was the Southwest Chief.
I had expected that the Empire Builder, being "relaunched" would have rebuilt Superliner I sleepers. Let me digress for a moment. If you have a Superliner I or II roomette, you do not have a wash basin, toilet, or shower like those who have the more expensive and larger rooms. There is one communal lavatory on the second level, three more down below, and a communal shower. For both versions of Superliners, the lower lavatories are nearly closets and not for anyone claustrophobic. You can barely turn around in them. Worse, Superliner II toilets can only be flushed by lowering the lid and that is far from sanitary. Both versions have sinks whose water comes out at high pressure and requires that you keep the hot or cold lever down. Thus, washing your hands is not easy, and with Amtrak's liquid soap, difficult to rinse. Superliner I sleepers have an upper level lavatory which was retrofitted to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. These have the toilet on the right side of the sink and are a bit better. Superliner IIs, despite being built later, have the same cramped lavatory on the upper level.
Amtrak has begun rebuilding some Superliner I sleepers with new lavatory modules. These cars also have different interior decoration. They look newer inside because they are. The lavatories, while not as spacious as ADA ones on Horizon, Amfleet, California, or Surfliner cars, still have enough room for you to move about. The sinks also have push buttons that give about 30 seconds water flow before shutting off. They are also brighter and have a cleaner shelf for extra toiletries.
I was chagrined when Cynthia told me that our car was not rebuilt. She said there were no rebuilt Sleepers on this train, but I soon found the Sleeper ahead of me was indeed a rebuilt one. That was great--I did not mind the walk to use its facilities instead.
The Empire Builder does not depart Seattle with its full consist. The Lounge, two Coaches, and one Sleeper depart from Portland as train #28. This is a carryover from pre-Amtrak days. The train links up in Spokane in the early hours of the evening (the joining of our trains woke me up as I was trying to sleep on the upper bunk of my roomette--from later conversations with others I can say I was not alone).
Thus, without a Lounge, the Dining Car provides some snacks and drinks, reserving a few tables for this purpose. This did cut down on seating capacity for dinner.
The Empire Builder seems to be the only Western intercity train to retain a full menu. Thus I could enjoy tri-color tortellini pasta and lemon tort for dessert. I had the steak the next evening--a bit wary from how the crew on the California Zephyr had ruined it two summers ago, but it was outstanding. The diner also had a trainee waiter who got less nervous as the journey went on.
Perhaps the best thing about the Empire Builder is the western leg of the journey. The scenery after the stop in Everett is fabulous--from the Cascade mountains to the Columbia River Gorge to Glacier National Park in Montana the next morning. It's practically non-stop gorgeous viewing outside your window for 19 hours or so.
The early morning ride through Glacier did seem to make this train somewhat different. Normally, when I made first call for breakfast, very few are up on the train at 6:30. But with Glacier, practically the entire train was up and awake.
It was here that our train had its first problem. We came to a stop on a mountain in Montana. The conductor announced that we were having "horsepower" problems getting up the mountain. That sounded inane as Amtrak runs this train on this route 365 days a year--surely they would know how many GE P42DCs it would take to pull the train here. But as the engineer diagnosed the problem, we lost our Head End Power (HEP) and the car went to some form of reserve power. This meant that my early place for the breakfast line was lost since the Diner could not serve anyone. I decided to use the lavatory but did so in low light.
Later, on my Uniden scanner, I could pick up conversations from the engineer suggesting some sort of software problem. Why the conductor could not just tell us that, is beyond me. Claiming we were stuck on the mountain because our "no-so-little engines that could not" was surely going to fluster some first time passengers.
After we passed through Glacier, the scenery changed rather dramatically into grasslands. We had our first significant stop in Havre, Montana, where a BNSF Railway police officer in an unmarked SUV kept passengers from wandering up front near the P42DCs as the BNSF Havre facility is close by.
In the early evening, we had more locomotive problems. We came to a stop again, this time outside of Williston, North Dakota. I pulled out my Uniden scanner and this time I clearly heard the conversations between the engineer and the BNSF dispatcher in Fort Worth, Texas. It seemed the engineer kept getting a "locked axle" warning indicator light on the third axle. But visual inspections revealed that the axle was not locked. Still, the engineer cut off the traction motor to it, which seemed to lower our track speed.
The BNSF dispatcher was of course frustrated that #8 was clogging up the line--a BNSF intermodal train was to our left in a siding at the time. He wanted us to coax the train into Williston where a BNSF mechanic could look things over. The engineer replied that Amtrak policy required him to contact Amtrak first.
Meanwhile, the conductor was only giving us brief updates about the stoppage and not any technical detail to the problem. Cynthia began coming into my roomette to hear what was going on from the scanner! At one point, we began moving and the conductor said the problem was "fixed." I knew from my scanner that it was not and when we came to a stop again shortly thereafter, the conductor had to embarrassingly announce that we were stopped again.
The GE P42DC has a pretty decent reputation but there are recent reports of several breakdowns across the nation. Perhaps these are the result of overuse or shrunken maintenance budgets? Whatever the reason, the stoppages made us late on host railroads known for normally facilitating Amtrak trains, it did not detract from my overall experience. I, for one, wanted to be a little late as I faced the prospect of having to catch a METRA commute to Naperville during rush hour should our train be even close to on time.
On the morning of day 2 of the journey we reached St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, we had another lengthy stop as an old General Electric engine from the short line Minnesota Commercial attached a Superliner I Coach onto our rear. Cynthia told me that this was often done in summer. This car had its own train number--808. Upon the return journey, its westbound equivalent would be cut off here too.
The scenic highlight in the early afternoon was passing over the Mississippi River and then the Wisconsin Dells. This scenery paled in comparison to the western leg.
We arrived at Chicago Union Station in drizzle. I detrained and was able to wave goodbye to Cynthia, who I again want to praise as being excellent.
METRA 27 July 2007
Entrained: Chicago Union Station (origin)
Having arrived in Chicago Union Station at the height of rush hour, I debated whether I should wait out the rush and find some food in the station. But I saw on the METRA BNSF line timetable that an express (train #1283) to Naperville and Route 59 would be departing at 6:12 pm. On my way to baggage claim, I bought a one-way ticket that cost about $4.50. I then impatiently waited for our luggage to come out. With my bags finally retried, I then raced out to the track where the METRA BNSF train was departing. I found the platform swarming with commuters.
Lugging two rollaway suitcases along with me in the crowd, I asked an assistant conductor over the noise of locomotives and cars whether there was luggage space aboard this train. He seemed disinterested in my plight and said there was space in the overhead racks, but I would have to get it up there. I knew those racks were not big enough. Unlike Caltrain where I live, METRA does not seem to have equipped cars with large luggage racks. There are some spaces in the second level above the aisle but these are more appropriate for small carry-ons or briefcases. Frustrated, I moved along hoping in vain to find a less-crowded car where I might wheel my bags aboard. I then found the conductor and asked him where I could put these bags. He suggested I keep them in the center vestibule, moved over the right as all of our station stops would have the platform to the left. As this train would be an express, he told me the ride would be very quick. Thus, I stood with my bags on a train so full that a few riders sat in the vestibule steps.AMTK 3 Southwest Chief 2-4 August 2007
Entrained: Chicago Union Station (origin)
I could have boarded the Southwest Chief in Naperville, for unlike the old Santa Fe Chiefs, Amtrak has routed its version along the former Burlington Northern route to Galesburg. But as I wanted to ride this train from start to finish, I caught another crowded METRA BNSF commute to Chicago Union Station. I planned on standing in the vestibules again--despite this being an all-stops local--but the conductor suggested I sit in the car's lower level handicapped section. This might have been okay except a family was already sitting there with their belongings and a little girl who kept wanting to knock me on my leg.
At least I made it back to Chicago. I had known that crowds would be a fact of life with the lead up to the July 4th weekend and with the Taste of Chicago festival ongoing in the city.
I went to the Amtrak counter to check my largest suitcase but was told that only one agent at the end could check luggage. Thus, I had to wait behind a mother and daughter. Why all the agents could not check baggage was not clear.
I headed for the sleeping car Metropolitan Lounge. Upon entry, I was stunned to see how crowded it was. There was just one open seat in there. I left my other suitcase with a Redcap who manned a luggage storage room. The nice thing about this lounge is that storage room and the ability to come and go. I had lunch in the station's food court and did some shopping in the vicinity of Union Station. Most important on my shopping list was buying some 20 ounce soft drinks. Amtrak's lounge cars charge something like $1.75 for a regular 12 ounce can.
The lounge began to empty out once the California Zephyr and Empire Builder departed. When the time came to board my train, an agent led us out onto the platforms, and then curiously, back inside the station and then out one of the regular gates onto the track where the Southwest Chief awaited.
I had expected that this train would not have any rebuilt Superliner I sleepers. As I took down the train consist, I realized that we would have just two Superliner II sleepers.
My car attendant, whom I will call "Marcus," was a very nice guy with a gift for gab. Sadly, as the journey progressed, he proved not to be a dutiful as Cynthia or Tim. Whereas Cynthia or her trainee dumped my trash twice a day, Marcus only did so as we approached Los Angeles. The dirty towel bag in the shower room got so big that it blocked entry and Marcus did nothing to empty it or remove it. In fact, Marcus did not even provide bath towels in the shower compartment. He claimed they were on the bottom level luggage racks. If they were, they were gone when I got there. I had to make do with some smaller sized towels that were in a plastic bag on the rack.
The old Santa Fe Super Chief whose route we mostly aped was all about getting from Chicago to Los Angeles as fast as possible with the technologies of the time. That meant an approximate 40 hour schedule, which this Chief successor roughly has.
Relative speed is about the only advantage I could find on this route to the West Coast. The train, like all others, had a limited menu in the Dining Car (though its staff was good). The scenery was nothing to get excited about--farmland and plains until New Mexico. There, in the late evening of the second day of the trip, the landscape changed to some pretty desert buttes and mesas. The final morning of the trip saw us go through a dry Cajon Pass.
This train, like the other two, was sold out and that began to show in the communal bathrooms. Toilet paper ran out and the trash bins were full. Not to be rude, but with chemical toilets, toilet paper has to go somewhere. Marcus did not keep on top of this. On any overnight train journey, I bring my own TP and I usually leave it in the bathroom. This trip, I found my rolls being used up by passengers who found the Amtrak toilet paper gone. The hotel-sized soap in the communal shower ran out and on the final morning I had to shower with my foaming hand soap I had brought along. Whether these shortages were the result of a crowded train or lack of attention by Marcus--or both.
This train too had some problems with its P42DCs during the mountain climbs in the Raton and Cajon Passes. We had some short stops as the Conductor explained that components on the P42DCs were overheated. This time, my scanner backed up his explanation.
Our only lengthy stop was in Albuquerque, where it was 103 degrees outside. There, we took on many passengers. A young guy in coach tried to squat in our Sleeper by getting on it and talking to Marcus. Marcus figured out what he was trying to do and sent him along to the front of the train.
At Albuquerque, some vendors sold souvenirs and "Indian" crafts, most of which were probably made in China. I saw nothing of interest--I might have if they had something Santa Fe- or Amtrak-related.
Much of that second afternoon and evening was ruined by stomach discomfort that I think was caused by the Quiche Lorraine I had for breakfast. I do not normally eat quiche but with a limited menu, I wanted some variety.
As we pulled into Los Angeles the next morning, Marcus somewhat redeemed himself by announcing to those of us in the car that "On your left hand side you can see our beautiful county jail."
I love Amtrak and I love going anywhere on sleeper. But the crowded train, Marcus' lack of attention to keeping things stocked and cleaned, and my stomach discomfort made me for the first time wanting to arrive as soon as possible and get off the train. I had a fellow passenger take my picture in front of our car after we arrived. I felt like titling it "I survived the Southwest Chief."
I now had another problem. I wanted to rent a car but none of the agencies at Union Station were open on July 4th. I thus had to take the FlyAway bus from Union Station to Los Angeles World Airport. This bus runs every 30 minutes most of the day and night. It cost $4 for a one-way ticket. I then had to brave holiday crowds at the airport to find my rental car shuttle. As you might imagine, the rental agency was swarmed with customers.
Amtrak Surfliner #565/Thruway Bus #5816/San Joaquin #715/Capitol Corridor #747
"Enbussed": Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal
To save money, rather than riding #14 home to San Jose, I chose the "backdoor" route of Amtrak California Thruway bus and San Joaquin service to Oakland Jack London Square. This left me a very tight--approximately 15 minute--window to catch the last Capitol Corridor to San Jose. As fate would have it, #715 would sit outside of Hanford for nearly an hour while the mess from a BNSF Railway freight collision with a truck at a grade crossing was cleared. To my chagrin, my "rail" circle was broken again as I could not ride a train to end my journey. Instead, I hopped on the last Amtrak California Thruway Bus from Oakland to San Jose. I had taken this bus before, but to my dismay, the route had now changed. Rather than going straight to San Jose, we went across the Bay Bridge to the Ferry Building in San Francisco and had a 20 minute layover there. We finally reached San Jose near midnight--the bus would continue on to Santa Barbara.
This trip reinforced many precepts I already knew. Your experience in a Superliner sleeper depends largely on the train crew and your car attendant. The discrepancy in amenities between the Empire Builder and the other Western intercity trains really calls out for additional Congressional funding so that all trains can be upgraded to the level of the Empire Builder. While the Empire Builder is obviously not the Orient Express, its little amenities make such a big difference.
I would probably think twice about traveling on Amtrak during holiday season unless I was forced to. I am not one for crowds and the Southwest Chief experience showed that 2 1/2 days on a completely sold out train without a diligent sleeping car attendant is not a fun experience.
Still, I remain committed to supporting western intercity trains because with just a little bit of money and effort, they can produce enjoyable trips like that of the Empire Builder