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The Coast Starlight, Fall 2006 -- Page 6

Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales

The Coast Starlight

October 30-November 4, 2006

Page 6
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In the dark Sacramento Valley


The Redding stop

I woke briefly at about 2:45am as we were stopped in Redding, only about 20 minutes late. A crossing signal was ringing outside my window. I woke again at 4:10 when we were stopped somewhere in the valley. A freight train passed, but we stayed put. I thought perhaps we were about due meet #14 here as well, and I was right. It came by just a few minutes later. I noticed it, too, had a Parlour Car. After it passed, we began moving again.

Good morning!

I woke again for our stop in Sacramento at 7:15, put my head back down and didn't know a thing until 8:40.

A foggy scene greets my foggy head

When I awoke I realized I hadn't heard any announcements for breakfast, which usually start around 7:30. I soon realized the intercom was dysfunctional. Once I was awake, I could hear faint voices in my room, the halls, and the rest rooms, but they weren't loud enough to make out what was being said. I later brought it to Rodger's attention, and he fixed the problem.

The Navy's mothball fleet shrouded in fog

A new bridge under construction near Martinez will eventually replace the one we're on.

I entered the diner for breakfast around 9:15. I was directed to sit with my old friends Lydia and Milan. Unfortunately the server seemed to be spread too thin again, and he didn't completely clear the previous diner's dishes. Specifically, I sat through breakfast next to a half drunk glass of orange juice, which was particularly distressing because, again, they were out of OJ when I ordered it.

But otherwise my breakfast was delightful. I ate French toast as we rounded the northern shores of San Pablo Bay, through Richmond and into Emeryville. My meal was hot and tasty, even better than my breakfast going north.

East bay observations


My view of Emeryville as I finish up breakfast

The original Oakland station hides behind an elevated freeway

I was back in my room through the Oakland rail yard, and for the first time in modern travels on this route, I spotted the dilapidated Oakland depot, where I caught this train many times during my school daze.

We were at Oakland, Jack London Square at 9:55, about an hour late. Alexis came by from the diner and asked about lunch reservations. Since we weren't running very late, I felt it was safe to decline and eat when I got home.

Upper and lower level views of the unrefurbished Superliner I Sightseer Lounge
Compare them to the refurbished lounge on page 3.

Around Niles, which is about 30 miles south of Oakland, the views of industrial sites and tract housing briefly gave way to some great photo ops of the east bay hills.

The hill says "NILES" in white

All but a few puffs of morning fog have yielded to California sunshine

We now return you to the industrial section of the east bay area

From 10:23-10:40 we were at San Jose. I noticed the handicapped room had been vacated, so David and I looked it over.

The platform at San Jose

A Caltrain trainset sits alongside ours

Amtrak Superliner accessible bedroom

Amtrak Superliner accessible bedroom toilet

One side of the accessible bedroom has seating and bunks identical to a Roomette, but the window is much smaller.

The other side has a spacious bathroom with a privacy curtain (not shown).

In between the seats and toilet area, there is a wheelchair tie-down.

Upstairs, soon after, David and I found a new Customer Service Manager, who we had picked up in Oakland. We had a number of questions for her about Amtrak's future. She seemed to volunteer plenty of opinions before saying that it really wasn't her place to do so. Her attitude, though, solidified an impression I had gotten from the crews on this trip. Their committment to their customers was as good as or better than any I have ever seen before, but their overall feelings about Amtrak's prospects for the future couldn't have been more bleak. They sincerely want Amtrak to be successful, but they seem to feel that their efforts to provide quality service are constantly being undermined by both Amtrak management and Congress.

At 11:55 I made note of a detector south of Morgan H ill at milepost 66.2 registering 78 mph.

I started thinking about getting myself together as I would be detraining in about an hour, or so I thought. I called my wife to let her know I expected to be at the Monterey Transit Plaza in time for her to pick me up before she went to work. I said I'd call her again when I was on the bus to Monterey.

I wanted to make one more trip to the back of the train for some photos of the Pajaro Valley and the GraniteRock quarry at Aromas at the northern boundary of Monterey County. That was my plan. The tracks wind through a narrow scenic valley from Highway 101 to Aromas. In this area, we skirt the edges of three counties. We enter the valley from the southern tip of Santa Clara county, but quickly enter the lower edge of Santa Cruz county, with Monterey County just a stone's throw away across the river.

Rolling hills and dry grass mark the eastern entry into the Pajaro Valley

I was at the back end 12:13 when the detector at milepost 83.3 recorded 33 mph. Thank god the speed limit through this valley was slow.

Tracks wind gracefully through the hills

I was shooting photos out the back window when I heard an unusual rush of air from the brake lines as a sudden lurch almost knocked me off balance. We quickly came to a stop.

“That was odd.” I thought.

Immediately I heard over the scanner:

“Conductor, we hit a truck.”

I made my way back towards the sleepers, stopping briefly at the parlour car for my first glimpse of the wreck.

My first glimpse of the accident. It appears someone is trying to pull out the driver.

As I tried to pass through car 1130, there was such a crowd gathered at the hallway windows that I could barely squeeze through. As it turned out, the train stopped with my car right next to the toppled truck. And our door was open. I was free to go out and see for myself.

Witnesses and interested parties on the left of the train are anxious about what they can't see on the other side.

It was an all too typical situation. (Case in point: #11 spectacularly plowed through a lettuce truck in much the same fashion just a few weeks earlier near Castroville.) There are many places in this area, and down through the Salinas Valley, where the tracks are close to and parallel to a roadway. Trucks cross the tracks then stop at the intersection, as mother always told us, to look both ways before turning onto the road. What mother didn't tell us is that the back of a truck will hang over the tracks when it stops.

Safety lesson for today: The train always wins.

Three was no way for the engineer to see the truck in time to stop. There was a curve in the tracks less than one train length from this intersection which prevented both driver and engineer from seeing each other until the last minute. And there were no crossing signals.

The point of impact, just a small dent.

CDF Engine 5111 arrives.

We were stopped at milepost 88.5, as noted on a nearby signal pole. The crossing was a private dirt road into a nursery. The truck, and another one just ahead of it, were hauling plants. There was only a minor dent at the very rear of the truck, indicating that the train just grazed it, but there was enough energy to flip it around and knock it on its side. The driver was unhurt, but I was told the train crew had to pull him from his cab.

Fire crew checks for hazards.
Oil leaks under the wheel.

Fire captain interviews the engineer.

There were several people standing on the other side of the train. I surmised that they were either witnesses or they had a financial interest in the truck's cargo, or both. The other door of the vestibule was opened so they could pass through the train to survey the damage and give statements.

I called Heidi to say all bets were off regarding my arrival time. There was still a chance that she could meet me at the transit plaza, then I could drive her to work before going home.

It seemed like quite awhile before the fire department showed up. And a California Highway Patrol officer didn't materialize until 12:50, almost 30 minutes after the fact. Once the police had taken everyone's statements the train was free to go. As we were reboarding the Customer Service Manager told me something both funny and pathetic. The fire captain asked her if she needed to let the passengers off the train to go to the bathroom.

The crew chats as things begin to settle down. Roger waves for the camera.

We got the “highball” at 1:13, a delay of exactly 50 minutes. I heard that the damage to the locomotive was superficial, mostly cosmetic. It didn't occur to me until later that I should have gotten some pictures of the locomotive while we were stopped. Oh, well.

Aromas in northern Monterey County

Egrets are plentiful at Elkhorn Slough. The landmark stacks of the Moss Landing power plant are in the distance.

Farmworkers watch our train between Castroville and Salinas.

Evidently, our delay had affected other rail traffic somewhat, so we ended up going very slowly between Castroville and Salinas. Roger came by and took my carry-on downstairs, and I gave him a token of my appreciation, with extra “points” for having the GPS and his overall high quality of service.

We finally arrived at my stop a little before 2:15. After saying goodbye to Roger I saw Angela on the platform, and complimented her on her good service.

Back on my home platform

I retrieved my bag then went straight to the bus. There were quite a few passengers this time, and a new driver, at least to me. Unlike other drivers, he didn't offer to load my bags, and he seemed to think it unusual when I asked him to. Nor did he assist with unloading bags at the other end, as other drivers do without asking.

I told him my destination was the Monterey Transit Plaza. He said he was going to Carmel first.

What? Carmel is the farthest stop. Well, that kills any possibility that I'll be at the transit plaza in time for Heidi to meet me. I called Heidi and told her the bad news.

Then I looked at the timetable. Carmel is supposed to be last on the route. I brought this to the attention of the driver, but said going to Carmel first was “easier.” That didn't make any sense. If he goes to Carmel first, we'll have to backtrack to get to Monterey, then he'll have to go back to Carmel again to pick up the passengers for Train #14.

Meanwhile I had a nice chat with the couple across the aisle, who lived within walking distance of the Monterey aquarium. As we approached Monterey the driver apparently had second thoughts and took the Monterey stops in proper order, the Hyatt, the transit plaza, the aquarium, etc....

The timing was perfect. I only had to wait ten minutes for the 3:00 transit bus, and I was home 20 minutes later. Shakesbear popped out of the bag and immediately began to tell this story to the rest of the Toys.


A week or so after I returned home my wife was told by her employer, the one who refused to let her go with me, that she had too many hours of vacation time accumulated and she needed to start using some of it. (Insert looney tunes theme here.)

So what was the real story behind the Pacific Parlour Car issue? Recall the rumors I posted on page 2:

  • -All the Parlour Cars are to be taken off on November 1st.

  • -Parlour Cars will continue running but will be unstaffed after November 1st.
  • -Two Parlour Cars are in LA being repaired for return to service.
  • -Two Parlour Cars are in LA being stripped by Amtrak employees for souvenirs.
  • -The new President of Amtrak, Alexander Kummant, rode this train last week and wants to keep them, but there's no money. He will see if he can find the money.

Evidently there was some basis for each one, but some were more off base than others. Here's what I have learned since. There was indeed a possibility that Amtrak was going to remove the parlour cars on November 1, but Mr. Kummant, once he saw one in person, was impressed enough to keep them going. However, there was no money to keep them staffed with a bartender. Sleeping car attendants are now responsible for keeping them clean while dining car crews set out the continental breakfast before opening the diner.

One of five parlour cars was indeed stripped, but not in LA and not for souvenirs. Some months ago a parlour car had a mechanical failure which rendered it inoperable during a run and was taken out of the train at Klamath Falls. There it was severely vandalized before repair crews could retrieve it. It was sent to Amtrak's Beech Grove repair shop. Shop crews, having been told (incorrectly) that no parlour cars would operate after November 1 stripped the car for parts. This means there is no spare when another car is out for inevitable maintenence.

There are other rumors circulating regarding reductions of sleeping car space, which seems absurd considering that sleepers frequently sell out. But knowing how the Amtrak rumor mill works, it is difficult to say how that will play out. Mr. Kummant has stated publicly he has no intention of doing anything radical to Amtrak's long distance trains. He believes, as I do, that they are a valuable national asset. As I write this he seems to be formulating a vision for an expanded, modernized system. With a new Congress more friendly to Amtrak, there is a real possibility that we might finally start making some progress with our nation's passenger railroad.

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Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales

See also the

The Del Monte Club Car

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