Amtrak's Pacific Parlour Cars WERE (Ugh... we can't believe we are using the 'past tense' here!) one of the nicest amenities that Amtrak offered. The first ride Robert remembers doing was about two years after their re-launch, when he got a trip on the Coast Starlight as part of a high school graduation gift (during the summer of 1997). Sure, he was only 17 years old -- and not ‘of age’ to partake in the wine tasting -- but there was just something special about the cars none-the-less. Maybe it was the fact only sleeping car passengers could use them? Maybe it was the fact they made the Coast Starlight truly stand out among the all-Superliner equipped western long distance trains that all looked the same? Maybe it was the fact the Pacific Parlour Cars were as close as you could get to riding aboard a private railroad car without paying a private car price? Maybe it was the last whispers of Amtrak that Robert remembered in the 1980’s during his childhood... when trivia games and fun afternoon activities for passengers were still offered in the lounge.
Robert really fell back in love with the Coast Starlight's Pacific Parlour Cars during the spring of 2009. In February 2009, he was laid off from his long-time job as a television news producer in Milwaukee (as a result of the economic downturn that was happening). He had another job lined up almost right away, but couldn’t start that position until July 2009 due to some contractual issues with his previous employer. What better way to pass the five months of unemployment than to put a serious dent into the 400,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points that he had managed to amass over the years? Robert's best friend from high school was a bachelor too at this point and had an apartment Robert could crash at in Los Angeles – so he pretty much saw how many times he could ride between Milwaukee and Los Angeles that spring via the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight. It was a pretty sweet deal. Amtrak Guest Rewards points provided transportation, meals, and lodging when no income was coming in! Looking back at his pictures, it looks like Robert did at least eight round-trips during that period. He literally became recognizable among the Pacific Parlour Car attendants that spring. His three favorite all-time attendants were Richard, Nanette, and Jane. We are not sure what happened to Nanette, but we later ran into Richard and Jane on the Southwest Chief a few years ago.... they are now working in the dining car and lounge car. They were great Parlour Car attendants though! Yes, Robert rode so much that he even had their trivia questions at the wine tasting memorized and would win whatever prize he wanted. Down in our basement we have about three Coast Starlight teddy bears sitting in our Amtrak memorabilia collection!
years after the repeated Pacific Parlour Car rides, Robert's first
girlfriend from college (Kandace), came back into his life – and we got
engaged and married in 2012. Over the past five or six years, we were
lucky enough to take several rides together as a couple on the Pacific
Parlour Cars. We would make a point to head out to the West Coast and
ride the Coast Starlight at least twice a year – just for the Pacific
Parlours. Sometimes on a long holiday weekend we would plan a trip just
to ride from Los Angeles to Seattle. Other times, like when we were
going to Hawaii or Alaska for a longer trip, we would incorporate a
ride to enjoy the Pacific Parlours, too. We were pretty envious though
of our West Coast friends who could pretty much hop aboard them anytime
they wanted to. Every time we stepped aboard and sat in one of the
comfy purple chairs brought Robert back the feelings of his first ride
in 1997… a feeling of luxury and "Superior Service" as the etched glass
in the cars read… without having to pay an extreme upgrade price.
Anyway, on Wednesday, January 17, 2018, we came across an internal employee advisory that had just been issued. Robert was at work when the message came across. At first, he just skimmed it. He thought it was just the advisory that had been issued months earlier reading the Pacific Parlour Cars would be off of the Coast Starlight through the first part of March 2018 for "routine maintenance". Robert then took time to read it further – and it was actually a notice saying the cars were going to be permanently removed from the Coast Starlight in just a little over two weeks. Robert quickly shared it with Kandace -- and we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was surprising because earlier announcements by Amtrak had come out saying the cars would be pulled off for "service" during the winter months, but would be running one round trip during the winter, and full Parlour Car service would be restored come March 1, 2018. We guess it wasn’t to be!?
As soon as Robert read the notice, he got on the phone and called Kandace who was at work. Robert told Kandace what was going on – and wondered if there was any way we could possibly get to the West Coast in the next two weeks to take one last ride on the cars together. We also sent the advisory out to some friends who also enjoyed the Pacific Parlour Cars as much as we did – and polled them to see how many people might try the same last-minute booking.
first, it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make it out there.
While Robert's employer is a little more flexible with time off,
Kandace's employer requires her to put any time off requests in about
four weeks out. That is just how it is. With Amtrak’s less-than-stellar
"two week notice" for the removal of the Pacific Parlour Cars – taking
any actual vacation time to ride an entire leg wasn’t going to be
possible. It kept buzzing through our heads that night – could we
really make it from the Chicago area to the West Coast for just a
two-day weekend and actually ride the Parlour Cars? We both felt
that even a short ride would be better than nothing. If we couldn't be
part of the historic last trip there would definitely be some regret.
We did have Saturday, February 3, 2018 and Sunday, February 4, 2018 off
– so we could do this – but would just have to go out and back and only
ride a small portion of the route. The next stumbling block were flight
prices. Booking a flight with such a short notice would cost a pretty
penny. We were looking at almost $750.00 for both of us to fly to
Portland on Saturday and fly back the following day from Seattle.
Luckily, we did have enough Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points,
which would make it possible to do the trip for free. Next, we checked
Amtrak and the rate for a roomette on the Coast Starlight wasn’t that
bad from Portland to Seattle. Of course, to be able to ride on the
Pacific Parlour Cars, you needed to be in a sleeper – even though we
had no intention of actually spending any time outside of the Pacific
Several of our friends also confirmed they would be booking too, which really sealed the deal on going. When booking, we even decided that if we could hustle, there would be time to ride the Cascades south from Portland to Salem, OR, and catch the Coast Starlight there. This would mean Kandace would get her first ride on a Talgo train and we would have an extra hour of time on the Pacific Parlour Car, too! Plus, we would be on the train already for the "fresh air stop" at Portland, which would lead to an additional photo-taking opportunity on the platform.
One of our friends, Robert M. from Chicago, was able to get some vacation time off from his job and got on the train in Los Angeles on Friday, February 2. He sent us a text message as he was walking up the ramp in Los Angeles that was quite a shock -- not only was there ONE Pacific Parlour Car on our train -- there were actually going to be TWO! More on this later further down in our trip report... but this was definitely a nice surprise. Given the fact we had rode several times in the past when mechanical problems forced a Superliner Cross Country Cafe car to be substituted for a Pacific Parlour Car, we were more expecting to hear from Robert M. that NO Pacific Parlour Cars were going to be on the last run; but it was the total opposite... we would have two cars.
Fast forward to the next day... Saturday, February 3, 2018. We got up at 3:00am to make the early morning flight out to Denver, Colorado. Using Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points we were able to make the flight situation work, but had to connect – in Denver going west – and then in St. Louis going east. The direct flight options to Portland and back from Seattle cost too many points unfortunately. Everything had to work out perfect too, because we had tight connections all-around between our two flights, light rail, and Talgo and Coast Starlight. Luckily, the weather across the country was pretty tame that weekend (rare for February!) and we were able to pull it off.
After the tight connection in Denver, we arrived at the Portland International Airport around 10:00am and caught the MAX Light Rail between the airport and Portland Union Station. We got a little nervous because there was some construction going on that weekend and not all departures of the MAX Red Line were running. We experience a little delay at the airport station and had to transfer earlier than we planned to the Green MAX Line, but made it work. We made it Portland Union Station by 11:45am... even with the delays. Our Talgo train to Salem didn't board for another 30 minutes so we were good.
Since Kandace had never ridden on a train with Talgo equipment before, we decided a few days beforehand to book Train #513 on the Cascades between Portland and Salem, OR. We would have an hour on the Talgo train, be able to get lunch aboard, and have one hour more than we had originally planned on the Pacific Parlour Cars. Upon arriving at the Portland Station, we checked in with the ticket agent, who gave us a $3 coupon each to use in the cafe/bistro car. It had been many years since Robert rode the Cascades, too, and he forgot that you got a coupon instead of a free beverage like you do on Business Class here in the Midwest. We personally prefer the $3 coupons because you can use them forever you want, instead of being forced to use it on a beverage.
We were led out to the train by the Metropolitan Lounge attendant around 12:30pm. We thought that was cutting it pretty close for the 12:45pm departure, until we realized there were just a few dozen people on the train – and there was only one other person in the entire business class section! The conductors explained that Train #513 only runs on Saturdays and is really more of a positioning move than anything to get the equipment down to Eugene to run it back northbound later in the day.
We were excited to learn that we would be riding on one of the new Talgo sets that was built in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We are sure you know the whole saga involving the Talgos and Wisconsin -- but in case you don’t -- two new Talgo train sets were ordered in 2009 to be built for the Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee --- and an extension from Milwaukee to Madison. The contracts were signed between Talgo and the previous governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle. When Wisconsin’s current governor (Scott Walker) got elected in November 2010, he refused to accept delivery of the trains. They were absolutely beautiful – in fact – we got a chance to tour them in Milwaukee before they were taken down to Beech Grove, Indiana where they have remained in long-term unused storage. Besides the two Wisconsin sets, the states of Oregon and Washington also ordered two sets – these were built in Wisconsin too and are actually in use on the Cascades. We could tell by the interesting-looking cab car (that many people have called "ugly") that we got one of the new Milwaukee-built Talgo train sets. The conductor and Talgo mechanic who was riding aboard also confirmed that we were on the new Talgo sets built in Wisconsin.
We arrived into Salem almost right on-time and headed into the station to check things out. We had passed through Salem countless times on the Coast Starlight, but had never gotten off there. Our connection time in Salem would have normally been just a mere 25 minutes, but we learned from the station agent, the northbound Coast Starlight lost about 30 minutes since leaving Eugene. This gave us about 50 minutes of waiting time -- which was fine. We noted about 10 passengers were waiting to get on the train. In addition, there were maybe five or six rail fans who came out to photograph the occasion, but would not be riding. Around 2:20pm we could hear the whistle of the northbound Coast Starlight in the distance. The moment really hit us – in a just a few minutes the last northbound trip with a Pacific Parlour Car would be rolling through town. Robert went down the south end of the platform to get video of the train coming in with the two Pacific Parlours #39970 and #39972 in the consist; Kandace stayed with the luggage farther north on the platform. We purposely booked a roomette in Car #1430, which was situated right ahead of the Pacific Parlour Cars. We learned this trick after several trips -- booking in car #1430 meant the shortest walk to the Pacific Parlours. Like we mentioned earlier, even though we planned to spend every minute possible in the Parlour Cars, we had to book a roomette in order to have access to the car. Kind of a waste, but those were the rules and part of what made these cars so special (no coach passengers allowed!).
We had just about one hour aboard the Coast Starlight before we would be back in Portland. One of the most scenic spots between Salem and Portland is Oregon City, Oregon, and “the end” of the Oregon Trail. Thousands of pioneers set out for a "better life" in the west using this trail in the 1840's; it began way "back east" in Independence, Missouri. On the right side of the train (if you are going north) is a museum to mark the end of the trail – keep your eyes out and you can see several large-scale wagons. Several of the passengers in the Pacific Parlour Car were interested in history so Robert did a quick five minute history lesson/narration about the Oregon Trail. On the left side was the beautiful waterfall on the river. Of course, everyone remembered the popular 1980's computer game, "Oregon Trail". Who didn't die of diphtheria or a snake bit -- and who didn't enjoy hunting for food? Everyone had a good chuckle over this. Just like the 1980's computer Oregon Trail game, the Pacific Parlour would be a distant memory too someday.
We were soon back at Portland Union Station, where we had started about two-and-a-half hours earlier. Most everyone who were riding the Pacific Parlour Cars got off during the “fresh air” stop in Portland to get some last pictures. Not only is Portland the last point where you can get off the northbound Coast Starlight for photos (or a smoke if you prefer), in less than an hour it would be getting dark unfortunately. Due to the early sunset times in February we would not actually be able to see the running through Tacoma on the "old route", post the accident of Train #501 a few months before. Besides having more time on the Parlour Cars, part of the reason we decided to get on in Salem vs. Portland was to have the time to get photos of ourselves with the Parlour Cars. Salem is a quick stop so we knew we would not really have the time there. And by the time we got to Seattle it would be too dark to get any daylight photos. Portland was really the one and only opportunity for us. We maybe could have gotten photos if we got on in Portland, however often times the conductors don’t board the new northbound passengers in Portland until the last minute. Maybe this was because not a lot of people ride the Coast Starlight to Seattle, opting for perhaps the more on-time Talgo trains? This was the case again with our train. In fact, our friend Anthony R., who was boarding in Portland, barely made it out in time after hearing the first boarding call. He came all the way from Atlanta to ride! There wasn’t much dwell time in Portland because the conductors were trying to make up the 20-30 minutes that we were down at that point. We were still able to snap a few decent photos (see below!)
The Pacific Parlour Car attendants noticed on the manifest that four passengers were getting on in Portland (including our friends Anthony R. and Charlie) and decided to delay the final northbound wine tasting until they got aboard. Usually the wine tasting was done around 2:30pm or so (just after Salem), but it took place around 4:00pm this afternoon so the four passengers who got on in Portland could join... which was great.
In honor of the “last run”, the wine tasting was free for all sleeping car passengers on both days of the final northbound and the final southbound. For those of you who remember, the wine tasting (including tasty artisan cheese!) was originally free to all sleeping car passengers on the Coast Starlight. About four or five years ago, some members of the U.S. Congress began to complain that passengers were getting “free wine and cheese” on a government-sponsored train… basically implying the government was buying people free wine and cheese on Amtrak. This is far from the truth because the wine tasting was factored into the sleeping car fares. Anyway, Amtrak caved for awhile and totally eliminated the signature wine tasting in the Pacific Parlours! It was brought back a few months later – but passengers had to pay for the tasting and go in the lounge car and buy a cheese tray. We believe it was $5.00 and then raised to $7.50 for the tasting. On this particular run, the wine was free, but we still had to make the trek to the Superliner Sightseer lounge car to buy the cheese tray. We were discussing it aboard, and one of our favorite cheeses on the Parlour Cars over the years was offered back in 2009 and 2010 and was called purple moon (here's a link in case you want to try some!). The cheese trays on the Coast Starlight are the same sold elsewhere on the Amtrak system -- so nothing too exotic beyond your cheddar and gouda. The two of us -- and our friends Anthony and Robert M. -- did one final toast to the Pacific Parlour Cars. Two reds and one white wine were offered. The attendants were very nice and did a tasting in BOTH Pacific Parlour Cars -- something that had probably never happened before up until this point since you were lucky to normally get one car on the train.
Let the record show that the final Pacific Parlour Car attendants were named C.J. and Darren. The latter, we gathered, was supposed to be the LSA in the Superliner dining car, but wound up becoming the second Parlour Car LSA (with someone else in the diner serving as LSA), though we don't know if we have that 100% accurate or not. They would be on both the final northbound run, as well as the final southbound run since they were based in Los Angeles. There was enough demand of people wanting to eat and have the wine tasting in the Parlour Cars to warrant staffing both.
We would say the majority of passengers riding, at least in the segment between Salem, Oregon and Seattle, were riding because of the Parlour Cars. Many passengers came to say their goodbyes on the trip (a few on our northbound planned to head right back southbound the next day; we probably would have done that too if it fit in with our work schedule). Some folks, both passengers and crew, did become a bit emotional when discussing the end of Pacific Parlour Car service, which is understandable given that some of the younger passengers on the train basically grew up with the cars, and some of the crew spent most (or all) of their careers working on or around the Parlour cars. A special treat was when our friend Rick brought brochures and a ticket receipt from the Santa Fe El Capitan in 1969, which was the last time he had ridden in one of those cars. Another person who we had met aboard the car was a younger journalism student. We are not sure what organization he was with, but he ended up talking to crew and passengers and taking lots of photos and video to document the final northbound run.
The farewell letter left in each sleeper room pointed out that these particular cars spent more time in service as the Pacific Parlour Car (23 years) than they did with the Santa Fe (15 years). If you are interested in learning more about the history of these cars, we did a separate article that can be accessed HERE.
We, and our group of close friends (Robert M. and Anthony), ended up with the unintended distinction of being the LAST table served a meal on a northbound Pacific Parlour Car run. In our past experience of riding, the Parlour Car attendants will take reservations for lunch and dinner in the Parlour beginning that morning. Definitely wanting to eat in the Parlour Car for dinner (since that was the only meal we would be aboard the train!), we asked Robert M. to secure us reservations for the Parlour. Typically there is not enough seating for everyone to have dinner in the Parlour Car, and once reservations are full, you are forced to eat in the standard Superliner dining car. C.J. and Darren mentioned that they would make sure everyone who wanted to eat in the Parlour Car would be able to eat in them -- even if they had to serve meals in both cars. So, no reservations were taken until around 4:30pm. When the attendant walked through the train, we asked for the latest time possible since we had a late lunch on the Cascades. We were given the 6:10pm seating time. Soon after making our reservation -- we realized by asking for the last seating -- we would be part of history -- with getting served the last northbound meal ever in a Pacific Parlour. Our seating with two pasta dinners and two lamb shank dinners was the last meal that came out! The Pacific Parlour Car history books should note that Kandace was technically the last one to get served her dinner. We had a nice conversation amongst the four of us – and with several other members of the “Amtrak Unlimited” forum who sat across from us, including another friend Charlie, who was from the local area.
Overall, one couldn't have asked for a better Coast Starlight trip, with excellent crews and an on-time arrival into Seattle (though the train was a bit late at some of the Northern California stops before we had gotten on). Many people were griping about the relative suddenness of their elimination and lack of time to prepare for a proper send-off. Others lamented not so much the elimination of that specific equipment, but more the fact that there will no longer be a dedicated sleeper lounge on the train.
We spent about 15 minutes after the train’s arrival into Seattle taking pictures of the cars out of the platform and documenting the end of the final northbound run. About ten people were doing the same. In fact, finally all of the crew got off the train and a security guard came out to give us a “okay, that’s enough” look.
We parted ways with our friends and headed down to the Seattle Airport on the light rail station. We overnighted at our usual hotel at Sea-Tac (the Clarion) and flew home the following day.
In the end, we are glad we spent our weekend doing this trip. Again, it was very last minute and would have been costly if we weren't using points for the flights and the train, but there would have been a lot of regrets if we didn't get to ride on these cars one last time. Many of our friends got a good laugh that we would fly two-thirds of the way across the country just to ride on a historic 1950’s observation car for about five hours. We guess if you aren’t into trains, maybe spending more time flying than riding the Pacific Parlour Car was silly… but it’s fun to be able to be apart of history… and to actually say “goodbye” to these cars that we had enjoyed for so many years.
On the flight home – we didn’t know what we
were more sad about. The fact that unless someone buys these cars and puts a
lot of money into them, we will probably never ride on these pieces of Santa Fe
history again… or the fact that the quality of Amtrak and passenger rail in the
United States had dropped so low that (perhaps?) the last real bastion of premium service on a
scheduled passenger train is gone.
A few weeks after our trip, word came down that the Pacific Parlour Cars would be
riding their ex-Santa Fe “home rails” one last time to dead-head (without passengers) to
Chicago, and then down to Amtrak’s shops in Beech Grove, Indiana. The original
plan called for all four cars to be put on the back end of Amtrak’s eastbound
Southwest Chief in Los Angeles on Thursday, February 15, 2018. Some mechanical problems
with one of the cars delayed this move at the last minute. After whatever repairs
were needed, two cars were put on the back of the Southwest Chief that left Los
Angeles on Saturday, February 17, 2018, and two more were put on the
back of the Southwest Chief that left Los Angeles on Sunday, February 18, 2018. The trains rolled through La Plata, Missouri (the headquarters city of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation) on
Monday, February 19 and Tuesday, February 20. Our organization's president got some photos despite the foggy and rainy weather.
Fellow rail fan Coby Potischman was lucky enough to get photographs (outside and inside!) the Pacific Parlour Cars on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 when they were down in the yard south of Chicago Union Station. From Coby's photos, everything on the interior appears to be in-tact on the cars, including the chairs, bar, and Coast Starlight etched glass. The future of the cars remain unknown at the time of this article... rumor has it they will be taken down to Beech Grove, Indiana to be either sold off or possibly even scrapped.
Goodbye, old friends! May we ride you again someday!
In a few weeks, we will have another TrainWeb article that will
focus on the sold-off Pacific Parlour Car, #39971! Stay tuned!
If you enjoyed our writing, we would also encourage you to check out
the 11 "Outside the Rails" railroad route guidebooks that we published
for the various Amtrak passenger rail routes through the Upper Midwest.
They are available on our website, www.MidwestRails.com. We also
feature the guidebooks written by Eva Hoffman for various Amtrak
railroad lines in the west and east!