Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales
The Coast Starlight
My Birthday Trip
|2006 had been a difficult year in Toyland. A string of
medical issues and associated expenses, an ailing kitty who required
weeks of tender loving care before she passed away this summer, and
busy, busy work schedules made me very pessimistic that we'd be able to
fit a train trip into the calendar or budget this year. On top of that,
Amtrak's Coast Starlight had been experiencing
horrific timekeeping this summer due to track work being done by Union
Pacific, making a train trip look much less attractive than normal.
But by fall a series of events conspired to get me on a train after all. UP wrapped up the track work and the Starlight's timekeeping was the best I'd seen in years. Then a September trip to Sacramento's railroad museum prompted me to start thinking again about the possibilities for rail travel. It occurred to me that I should visit my oldest sister who was about to celebrate her 60th birthday on November 1st, just two days before my 47th. The gift I picked out for her all but demanded that I present it to her in person. Then I learned that I could get double Amtrak Guest Rewards points (the rail equivalent of frequent flier miles) if I booked a trip this fall. Most importantly, our health was back to normal. Clearly, it was time to go!
But there was a snag. I had no trouble getting a few days off work, even though it was a busy time. But Mrs. Toy faced the opposite situation. Her employer didn't want to let her go, even though it was a slow period, because they were stretched too thin. Cripes! They're always stretched too thin, largely due to employees who get fed up and quit because they can't get time off. Its a vicious cycle. My wife has bailed out her employer many, many times on short notice, but when SHE needs something its usually a NO GO! Why doesn't she quit, too? Because right now she can't afford to lose her health insurance. So, sadly, I was forced to go solo so she could keep her job.
In early October I did some price checking and saw that Roomettes on the Coast Starlight were going between $168 and $226 each way, depending on the travel dates, plus rail fare of about $75 per person each way. That would be OK for two people but seemed excessive for one because the room charge is the same no matter how many people are traveling. Thus when I actually made my reservation two weeks later I thought it might help the household budget if I traveled northbound in coach, and only took a sleeper coming home. Much to my delight, the Roomette prices had actually gone down! I was able to get a Roomette northbound for only $126, and southbound for $168. Add in the $73 rail fare each way, and the total came to $440 plus a few coins. I grabbed it.
So now I had tickets for departure on Train #14 from Salinas on the evening of Monday October 30th for arrival in Salem on Halloween. I was assigned to car 1430, room 6. I would get back on Train #11 for the return trip on the afternoon of my birthday, November 3rd, taking room 7 on car 1131.
I was a little concerned about the fate of on board amenities. Last year some overzealous Republicans snuck one of those last minute provisions that nobody reads, much less debates, into an appropriations bill which required Amtrak to drastically cut its food service costs. Some 25 years ago Amtrak learned the hard way that reducing food quality to save money also reduced ticket sales to the point where the lost revenue exceeded the cost savings. Amtrak dumped its experiment with what were essentially TV dinners and went back to having real chefs on board.
This year Amtrak was forced by law to once again do away with freshly cooked meals and go to pre-cooked foods that are reheated on board. This time the reheating would be done in convection ovens, not microwaves, to preserve flavor and freshness. Theoretically, given new food preparation techniques, the food is supposed to be indistinguishable from freshly cooked. Also, kitchen staff has been cut down to one, and servers have been cut from four down to two. The program is officially known as “Simplified Dining Service” or SDS. A lot of people, including myself, have been wondering if this was going to be a repeat of the 1980s fiasco.
I was also hearing rumors through the Internet that the famous Pacific Parlour Car, a special first class lounge car exclusive to the Coast Starlight, was to be discontinued on November 1st, again to please the bean counters in Washington DC. This was just a rumor, but other problems were certain. Amtrak has five parlour pars, four of which are usually on the road at any given time. However, at least two, maybe three, were out for repair and not all trains had them. It was a tossup as to whether I would see one this trip or not.
OK, enough of the background information. Its time to climb aboard....
...the bus. The first leg of my journey begins with the bone rattling Amtrak shuttle bus which takes me from the downtown Monterey Transit Plaza to the Salinas Amtrak station. I noticed it was a little different from the bus we had in previous years, but it still looked old and creaky. I mentioned this to the driver and he said “Yea, its old. But when I see the drivers of the new busses they say theirs always break down! This one doesn't!”
At 5:20 pm the bus was rolling and we were following right behind my darlin' wife, who had just dropped me off. We parted ways at the Hyatt where the bus made a brief stop before heading on to Salinas. On the freeway the bus bounced on every single seam in the concrete and made my teeth rattle. By the time we got to the station at 6:09, I was more than ready for the comfort of my little Roomette.
The back door, Salinas Amtrak station