Trip Report: Inauguration of Upgraded Empire Builder Service
The inaugural ceremonies for the new Empire Builder service were to be conducted simultaneously at Portland, OR and Seattle, WA on Sunday, Aug. 21. (The train consists of sections originating in both cities, which are joined in Spokane.) I was to attend the ceremonies in Portland and Chris Guenzler would continue to Seattle, where he would cover the ceremonies there, and then travel on the Empire Builder to Whitefish, MT, where there were to be additional ceremonies on August 22. The Empire Builder was named for James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway. The first Empire Builder departed Chicago on June 10, 1929. Amtrak celebrated the train's 75th anniversary in 2004, having taken over the Empire Builder in 1971. The changes and upgrades kick off a major initiative at Amtrak to improve passenger's long-distance travel experience and improve the train's financial performance.
By Thursday evening, I had my tickets in hand, motel reservations made, and was packed and ready to go. Since I posted a recent report on a trip that my wife and I made to Portland on the Coast Starlight last May, I have tried to avoid being repetitive in this report.
Friday, August 19
I left home at 6:45 a.m. in order to insure that I would be able to obtain a parking space in the long term parking area (top floor) of the Fullerton Transportation Center parking structure. I then proceeded to the Santa Fe Café at the Fullerton Station to kill some time while waiting for Amtrak 763, which departs Fullerton at 8:16 a.m. Several of the early morning rail fans were there to keep me company.
Train 763 arrived a few minutes late, and Chris Guenzler, who had boarded the train in Santa Ana, spotted me waiting on the platform and came to the door to meet me. We departed Fullerton and arrived in LAUPT at 8:57. We proceeded to Track 10 to await the arrival of our train, the Coast Starlight, which is scheduled to depart at 10:15 a.m.
By 10:15 our train had not yet arrived in the station, finally pulling into the platform at 10:45 a.m. We were later told that the delay was due to a problem with one of the locomotives. The consist was as follows:
P42 Genesis #118, #116, #57
We boarded our sleeper (1432, South Dakota), met our friendly car attendant, Brandi Mclev, and got settled in our bedroom (B). The train pulled out at 11:16, one hour late.
Chris and I went to the Pacific Parlor car shortly after pulling out of LAUPT. We both had a continental breakfast in the Parlor car, as we had decided to skip lunch in the diner. The Parlor car attendant was Jose, the same attendant that my wife and I had on our trip on #14 in May. Chris and I stayed in the Parlor Car for the next several hours to view our journey out of the LA area and up the coast.
We left Van Nuys, which replaced the Glendale stop on the new timetable, at 11:51 a.m. (schedule departure 10:42 a.m.). We remained about one hour behind schedule traveling up the coast.
Approaching Santa Barbara, we could see an aircraft carrier anchored off the coast. I knew that it was the USS Ronald Regan, because my daughter, who lives and works in Santa Barbara, was on the carrier as we passed, visiting as a representative of Raytheon Company, where she works.
Shortly after passing Jalama Beach Park, we entered Vandenberg AFB, where several launch pads were visible from the train.
We departed San Luis Obispo at 5:02 p.m. (schedule 3:43 p.m.), and Chris and I went to the dining car at 5:30 p.m. for an early dinner (since we had skipped lunch). I ordered catfish, and asked for it blackened (a menu option). My idea of blackened seafood is cooked on a very hot pan with spices so that the outside of the fish is seared (blackened). I ordered this same dish on our trip to Portland in May, and the fish came out baked, with a tomato Creole sauce on it. I thought that the waiter or cook had screwed up, since that was not my idea of blackened catfish. I ordered the same thing this time, and since we had a very friendly and competent waiter, Richard Williams, I figured I would get what I was expecting this time. But it was not to be. Apparently Amtrak's idea of blackened seafood differs from mine. But it was good anyway. Chris ordered the New York Steak, and said that it was good. For dessert, I had the key lime pie and Chris had the chocolate sundae.
At 7:25 p.m., over two hours North of SLO, we passed Southbound #11, which apparently was over 7 hours behind schedule. We then followed a slow freight for several miles before the freight went into a siding and we passed it. We picked up the freight conductor who threw the switch at the siding and brought him back to the front of his train. We departed Salinas at about 8:40 p.m., two hours behind schedule. We departed San Jose at 10:21 p.m. (schedule 8:39 p.m.).
Chris and I flipped a coin to see who got the lower bunk. I won. Chris and I both turned in after leaving San Jose.
Saturday, August 20
I woke up around 6:15 a.m., and looking out the window, it appeared that we were in the Redding area, meaning that we were about 3 hours behind schedule. We passed #11 at 6:49 a.m., apparently about 5 hours behind schedule. I showered and then went to breakfast, having the Tuscan Omelet made with Eggbeaters, bacon, grits, biscuit, juice and coffee. I figured with all that, I should be able to skip lunch again.
We traveled along the Sacramento River for several miles, and on one of the curves, I noticed that a private car had been added to the rear of our train. I recognized it as the Sierra Hotel, and learned from a passenger who was awake at the time, that it had been attached in Oakland. At 8:05, we pulled into Conant siding South of Dunsmuir to wait for a freight train to pass. At 8:20 a.m., the freight passed, but we remained in the siding. At 8:31, what looked like a UP track geometry car passed, and within a minute, we were moving again.
As we approached Dunsmuir, I was on the lookout for the turntable, which I had seen on our previous trip. Mt. Shasta was visible from the rail yards approaching Dunsmuir.
We departed Dunsmuir about 9:00 a.m., putting us about 4 hours behind schedule.
At Klamath Falls, the passengers connecting with the Empire Builder were taken off the train to be bussed to meet the Empire Builder, presumably at Pasco, WA. We departed Klamath Falls at 12:33 p.m., (schedule 8:25 a.m.). After leaving Klamath Falls, we passed Upper Klamath Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Rockies.
We departed Chemult at 2:05 p.m. (schedule 9:40 a.m.). We passed O'Dell Lake before reaching Cascade Summit of Willamette Pass, and then began our decent into Eugene- Springfield.
Our Pacific Parlor Car attendant began the wine tasting sometime after 4:00 p.m., as we were descending Willamette Pass. We were just finishing up the wine tasting when we pulled into Eugene-Springfield, around 5:15.
After leaving Eugene at 5:24 p.m. (schedule 12:44p.m.), Chris and I went to the Pacific Parlor Car to wait for our 6:00 p.m. dinner reservation to be called. For dinner, I had New York steak, mashed potatoes, corn, carrots, salad, roll, and iced tea. I passed on dessert, because I had pigged out on cheese and crackers during the wine tasting, and then had the large dinner. As we were eating dinner, #11 passed us at 6:05 p.m. in a siding just before Albany. This would make it around two hours behind schedule. We departed Albany at 6:15 p.m. (schedule 1:30 p.m.), and departed Salem at 7:05 p.m. (schedule 2:03 p.m.). We finally arrived PDX at 8:20 p.m., 4 hr., 40 min. behind schedule.
I said farewell to Chris, who I don't think was looking forward to another 4 hours on the train before reaching his destination of Seattle. I headed to SW 5th Ave. to catch the free downtown bus to my hotel, the Days Inn at SW 5th Ave. and Columbus St.
Sunday, August 21
Since the Empire Builder Ceremony was not scheduled to start until 3:00 p.m., I was able to spend the morning at leisure. I walked down SW 6th Ave to McDonalds and had a sausage McMuffin with egg for breakfast. I then walked around downtown for about an hour, stopping at Camera World of Oregon to buy a new case for my camera, before returning to my hotel.
Around 1:15 p.m., I left the hotel and took the bus to Union Station. The weather was clear, warm, and humid (by California standards).
On entering the station, I noticed that several organizations had set up exhibitor tables for the Empire Builder ceremony. Participants included:
Looking out on the platform, I noticed the private car Sierra Hotel, which had been uncoupled from #14 last night. At 2:27, #11 arrived, about 20 minutes behind schedule.
By 2:45 the passengers boarding #11 had cleared out of the station, and the Empire Builder festivities began, with ragtime/swing music and serving of cake, cookies and sparkling cider.
One of the Amtrak representative said that they had an artist who was doing free cartoons of people, and she coaxed me into being the first subject. The artist was Peter X. O'Brien, and he was providing his services at the Amtrak event in exchange for Amtrak travel. I have to compliment his skill in making me look much younger than my actual age.
I met Vernae Graham, Amtrak Manager of Media Relations, and she escorted me and the other three press representatives (camera men from CBS and NBC and a reporter from NBC) out to the platform to view the Empire Builder equipment. There we were introduced to Mike Dwyer of Amtrak, who gave us a tour through the cars.
The features of the enhanced equipment include the following:
In addition to the enhanced equipment, the Empire Builder service includes passenger amenities such as available meal service at the passenger's seat, and 30-minute pre- boarding in Chicago, Portland or Seattle to visit the lounge car. Additionally, sleeping car passengers enjoy a wine and cheese event, along with a nightly fresh-baked sweet.
The Portland section of the Empire Builder consists of a lounge car, a coach, a coach/baggage car and a sleeper. The Portland section will join with the Seattle section in Spokane. The Seattle section typically includes a baggage car, transition sleeper, dining car, two sleepers and three coaches.
Upon completion of our tour, we returned to the station, where the speakers were being introduced by Tony Buscemi of Amtrak. Speakers were:
At 4:15, the ribbon cutting ceremony was held, opening the platform to the Empire Builder passengers. The musical trio (banjo, tuba, trumpet) serenaded the passengers with ragtime/swing music as they walked out to the train.
Following the ceremony, I took the bus back to the Day's Inn, where I had a beer in the hotel bar, and then walked to a Chinese restaurant, the August Moon, on SW Clay St. between 1st and 2nd Avenues, where I had an enjoyable dinner of chicken with snow peas. I then went back to my hotel room, took out my laptop, and began writing my trip report. I watched the 11:00 news on NBC, where I saw a short segment on the Empire Builder events filmed earlier in the day. The segment lasted 30 seconds at most.
Monday, August 22
Vernae Graham of Amtrak had told me yesterday afternoon that #14 due in Portland and Seattle that evening was 14 hours behind schedule. Since that is the same equipment that I would be returning on today, I figured that #11 would be several hours late leaving Portland. I stayed in my hotel until checkout time (noon), and then figured that I would go to the station, leave my bags at the Metropolitan Lounge, and spend several hours walking around Portland. Much to my surprise, when I called Amtrak at noon to find out about the status of #11, I was told that it would be departing on time. Apparently the train was terminated in Portland when it finally arrived at 5:30 a.m. and the Washington passengers were bussed the rest of the way.
I arrived at Union Station about 12:30 p.m., and spent the next hour walking around the station area.
Boarding for our train was announced at 1:55 p.m. Train consist is as follows:
P42 Genesis #159
The hodge-podge of engines was apparently related to yesterdays 14 hour delay of #14, where one or more engines broke down somewhere around San Luis Obispo and replacements had to be found.
I boarded my sleeper (1132, Oklahoma), met my car attendant, Jamie, and went to my bedroom, #9. Our train departed Union Station at 2:46 p.m. (schedule 2:25 p.m.). I waited in my room until the dining car steward came by to take dinner reservations, which I made for 6:00 p.m., and I then proceeded to the Pacific Parlor car, where I spent the next few hours before dinner.
The Pacific Parlor car attendant began wine tasting at 4:30 p.m., and her approach was different than I had seen on previous trips. She put out the cheese and crackers as usual, but instead of coming through the car and serving each of the participants a small sample of each of the three wines, she opened about six varieties of wine at the bar, and had people come up and choose whatever wine they wanted to sample. At first, I did not like the idea of having to go to the bar rather than being served, but I later came to appreciate the fact that I could choose the wines that I wanted to sample. I prefer dry white wines to red or dessert wines, so I was able to sample the chardonnay, the sauvignon blanc, and the Riesling, all wines that I enjoy. I decided that I favor this approach.
We departed Eugene-Springfield at 5:34 p.m., 24 minutes behind schedule.
I went to dinner at 6:00 p.m. and had the salmon, with rice, corn and green beans. The salmon was excellent. I skipped dessert. After dinner, I went back to the Pacific Parlor car and rejoined the couple that I had been talking to during the wine tasting, Audrey and Nash from San Jose. This was their first long distance train trip, and they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. They had traveled North on #14 on Friday/Saturday, the same train that I was on, and they didn't seem at all upset about the 5 hour delay arriving in Portland.
We passed Northbound #14 at 7:05 p.m., apparently about 8 hours behind schedule. At 7:15 p.m. we were stopped in a siding waiting for two freights to pass. We started moving again at 8:26 p.m. At about 8:50 p.m., we stopped again for another freight. We were moving again at 9:11 p.m.
We departed Chemult at 10:33 p.m., (schedule 8:05 p.m.). I then put away my computer and went to bed.
Tuesday, August 23
I woke up at 6:30 a.m. and we were stopped at what looked like Redding (schedule 2:21 a.m.). I showered and then went to breakfast, having the Mediterranean omelet, grits, bacon, croissant juice and coffee. I guess I will again skip lunch.
We departed Chico at 7:58 a.m. (schedule 3:50 a.m.). As we were passing through the Marysville area, I walked to the rear of the train to watch the scenery through the window of the rear door.
We arrived in Sacramento at 10:00 a.m., where the locomotives took on fuel and the passenger cars took on water. Our train departed Sacramento at 10:26 a.m. (schedule 6:35 a.m.). We passed train #6, the California Zephyr, just before pulling into Davis at 10:45 a.m.
Our train departed Martinez at 11:37 a.m.(schedule 7:34 a.m.), continuing on to Emeryville, arriving at 12:18 p.m. We departed Emeryville at 12:27 p.m. (schedule 8:10 a.m.).
At 12:30 p.m., as we were approaching Oakland, I was waiting in the vestibule with our car attendant, Jamie, when the train went into emergency braking, and came to a sudden stop. Our first thought was that we had hit someone, and that turned out to be the case. Apparently a transient was walking down the tracks, and even though the engineer blew the horn, he got hit. When Jamie looked out the widow, the transient was lying on the ground and the conductor was talking to him. Apparently he was not seriously hurt, because within a few minutes he told the conductor "I'm outa here", and he was up and walking away. However the police were called, and we remained at the location until 1:03 p.m., at which time we resumed our journey of the remaining few blocks into the Oakland Station. We finally departed Oakland at 1:29 p.m., 4 hours, 40 minutes behind schedule.
The afternoon wine tasting began around 2:45 p.m., shortly before our arrival in San Jose. The attendance at the wine tasting was significantly reduced from yesterday's crowd. We departed San Jose at 2:54 p.m. (schedule 10:07 a.m.). I stayed in the Pacific Parlor car and sampled a few wines, and then went back to my room to work on my trip report until my 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation was called.
For dinner, I ordered tonight's special, which was chicken marsala, but when my dinner arrived, it was the roast half chicken, not the chicken marsala. I didn't feel like complaining, so I ate the roast chicken, and had a piece of apple pie for dessert. As I was finishing dinner, we passed #14 at 7:03 p.m., apparently about two hours behind schedule.
We departed Paso Robles at 7:33 p.m. (schedule 1:38 p.m.), and San Luis Obispo at 8:50 p.m. (schedule 3:20 p.m.) Anyone who read my report on my Portland trip of May, 2005, may remember that I said that if I made this trip again, I would get off in San Luis Obispo, and spend the night there, returning home the next day on the bus/Surfliner. As I approached SLO at 8:45 p.m., however, the idea of getting off the train and looking for a motel didn't seem like a very attractive alternative, so I ignored my own advice and decided to stick it out on the train.
After leaving SLO, I configured my bedroom seats into the bed position, and went to sleep, waking up at 1:30 a.m. when they announced the Van Nuys stop (schedule 8:08 p.m.). We finally arrived at LAUPT at 1:57 a.m., about 5 hours behind schedule. I gathered my bags and stepped off the train, giving Jamie, who had been a very helpful and attentive car attendant, a well-deserved tip. I proceeded to the Amtrak bus to make my connection to Fullerton. The bus left the terminal at 2:33 a.m., arriving in Fullerton at 3:06 a.m., and I finally arrived home around 3:15 a.m.
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