Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales
The Coast Starlight
October 30-November 4, 2006
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|I checked in with Donna at the ticket window. She had me show photo ID
and sign my tickets before she would check my one suitcase. I must tell you
that Donna is the sweetest Amtrak ticket agent I've ever met. She works in
a rough area of town, and has to deal with all sorts of vagrants, a building
in need of a good restoration, and other unpleasantries. Yet she manages
to keep a smile on her face and looks out for the needs of her customers
as if she worked in a five star hotel.
I try to keep the station stocked with membership flyers for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and I dropped a couple hundred more in the rack, saving a few to hand out on the train. Then I gave one to a lady I met on the bus, who traveled by train with some regularity. She told me her father and grandfather were Pullman porters back in the day. She was not familiar with NARP, though, and she thanked me for bringing it to her attention.
I decided to wait outside. It was a little chilly, but not bad, and I like the fresh air. A couple of owls screeched as they flew over. A freight train slowly lumbered by, stopping a few minutes for the engineer to visit the UP office in the depot.
A UP freight stopped briefly in front of the station.
The train came in about 50 minutes late. Shortly before it came in Donna came out, and I told her that I appreciated her good work. She thanked me for the compliment, and asked me which sleeper I was in. I told her 1430, and she then offered me a ride in her baggage cart to my car. Such service!
At 7:30 I was on board. My attendant, George, said I could get dinner at the last call, which he expected around 8:00. In fact, it came just as I was walking into my room. I also asked George if there was a parlour car. (I forgot to look when I was outside!) He said indeed there was. Great news!
At 7:37 I was seated in the diner, sharing a table with a middle aged gentleman with a pony tail, mustache, white shirt and a leather vest. I thought perhaps he worked on a ranch or some sort of outdoor job. But appearances can be deceiving. It turns out he was a computer technology salesman from Grants Pass, Oregon, traveling home from LA on business. There are some people who claim that Amtrak long distance trains are not suited to business travel, but this man was living proof to the contrary. He said he rides the train to LA on business about four times a year, all expenses paid. His practice was to ride coach down and a sleeper home. But he said sleepers were all sold out so he was doing coach both ways.
Something could be finer
I wanted to order chicken, but they were out. Based on the server's recommendation I took salmon instead. Previous salmon dinners on this train were as good as anything served on the Monterey Peninsula, in taste if not appearance. This time, however, it was a huge disappointment. It tasted like it came out of an old box. There wasn't even a slice of lemon to perk it up. Two stalks of tough broccoli and OK mashed potatoes finished the plate. This was actually worse than the Amtrak TV dinners of the 1980s. I would have sent it back for something else, but my companion, who had chicken fried steak, wasn't too thrilled with his meal, either. Thus my first experience with simplified dining service was a huge disappointment and I feared for the rest of my journey.
As for the parlour car, I met the attendant Lonnie as I passed through to return to my room. I asked him what the future was to bring. He said they were busy writing letters and trying to keep the parlour cars running. But Lonnie didn't necessarily have the definitive answer. Among this one train crew parlour car rumors were amazingly diverse. They included:
The correct answer will be revealed as the story progresses.
Meanwhile, back at the sleeper....
From 8:52 until 9:05 we were stopped in San Jose, where we were allowed out to stretch our legs and breath some Silicon Valley air. I made a couple of night photos of the train and showed them to George. He seemed to like them and we talked a little about photography, a hobby his wife indulges in.
We departed San Jose 25 minutes late, evidently we made up a little time since Salinas. Back in my room I had a passing thought about an upcoming stop at Emeryville. Suddenly I thought "Doras!"
Doras Briggs is a tireless Amtrak advocate who I met on the California Zephyr in 2000. At the time she served on Amtrak's customer advisory committee and as a member of the NARP board of directors. Since then we've kept in touch. She lives right next to the Emeryville station, so I decided to giver her a call and see if she was able to come out and say hi. She seemed receptive, and asked me to call her again after the Oakland stop.
Meanwhile, we were making good speed. At 9:40 a detector at milepost 23.1 clocked us at 81 miles per hour, as did the next one at milepost 12.4 nine minutes later. For those unfamiliar, a detector is a track based sensor that examines passing trains for things like dragging objects, overheated wheel bearings and the like. It also counts our axles. We had 56. It then relays the information over the railroad radio with a synthesized voice, which I could hear with my radio scanner. So the report would come over the radio like this: "UP detector, milepost one-two point four, no defects, total axles five-six, train speed eight-one MPH, detector out." In California, on this route anyway, the detectors all have female voices, but in Oregon some have male voices. Detectors in the mountains also give the outside temperature.
We were at Oakland, Jack London Square station for ten minutes, departing at 10:05.
The station platform at Oakland's Jack London Square
Immediately north of the station the tracks run right down the middle of the street.
A friendly face
I called Doras and told her we were almost there. I checked with George to make sure he would open the door so I could get off.
George and I stepped off the train. I looked down the platform and saw petite Doras riding shotgun on the baggage cart, wearing her favorite Amtrak stewardess cap. I gave her a hug, we engaged in some small talk. She handed me some literature relating to the volunteer station host program she set up several years ago to assist travelers in Oakland, Emeryville, Martinez and Sacramento. I showed her one of the sweatshirts I have for sale on line to help promote passenger rail. That's about all we had time for before the “all aboard” was called. George and I hopped back on the train and we were on our way at 10:29, 17 minutes late.
Two ways of lounging
I grabbed my scanner and headphones and took them to the Parlour Car for a little lounging in the hopes I might find someone to talk to. I sat in a chair and listened. At 10:39 came a detector report at milepost 14.1, track #1, 78 mph. Oakland is at milepost 0, so we were 14 miles out of Oakland.
Next to me was a man named Bob. After several minutes we managed to break the ice. He was a writer from Florence, a town on the Oregon coast directly west of Eugene. I remember the town well from childhood visits to the nearby Honeyman state park, famous for its miles of spectacular sand dunes. Bob told me about his first book, I was not a hero, wherein he related his WWII experiences. He said he was on a cruiser that did some time in drydock at Vallejo, which was nearby as we spoke. He currently writes a newspaper column back home. But what he seemed to enjoy most at the moment was just watching the lights of the passing cities, and I was happy to enjoy the scene with him. He especially enjoyed the illuminated cables of the new Carquinez suspension bridge, which is particularly spectacular passing below it at night.
After Bob retired I thought I'd take a walk to the Sightseer Lounge. To my delight I found it was a refurbished Superliner I lounge, with tables as well as viewing chairs. I have long felt that sightseer lounges should have a variety of seating styles to encourage a wider variety of functions as the parlour cars do. The original Sightseer Lounge design faces people away from each other and discourages socialization.
Downstairs I met another sleeping car arttendant and the cafe attendant. We had a nice chat about the car, I heard a few more rumours about the parlour cars, about the improved timekeeping, and Amtrak's new president who rode the train the previous week. A young man stepped in and asked them where he might apply to work for Amtrak as a conductor. He was given conflicting advice by the two attendents. Though a little bewildered, he thanked them and went on his way.
Tom, the 1431 car attendant went back to work, while Aaron stayed at his post while we chatted about the early days of Amtrak which I experienced but he did not. I told him about the old cars which had spacious rest rooms you could actually turn around in, not these blasted cubbyholes they have on the Superliners. I mentioned I had seen photos of some rebuilt Superliners with better rest rooms and he said "We've got one on this train, the 32 car." He said I must check it out in the morning. Indeed I would.
Into the night
Back in my room at 11:54, six minutes past Davis, a detector at milepost 78.7 reported our speed at 80 mph. Nine minutes later we stopped in Sacramento. Our timekeeping was so good that this was the first time I was there without being in bed. George was helping someone board, and as I stepped off a bewildered couple bundled up in winter clothing approached me and asked "Is this the train to Seattle?" I said it is. "How do we find our car?" I said I was pretty good at reading Amtrak tickets and asked them to show me theirs. They were assigned to car 1431, room 12 on the lower level. I directed them to the next car over.
In Sacramento a Capitol Corridor train shares the platform
Meanwhile, several others had stepped off for their choice of clean air or tobacco. I was talking to George who had returned. I looked across the platform and saw an Amtrak California car with the name "Pebble Beach" on the side. I said "Hey, that's my territory." George took an interest in that from the famous classic car shows they have at Pebble Beach every year. I noted that the events were so overpriced that most locals can't afford to attend.
At 12:20 we were rolling again. George made up my bed, I retired to my room for a little reading, then put the lights out at 12:40.
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