I called 1-800-USA-RAIL before leaving the house and got the status of #11 (22). According to the information I received, #11 was running about 40 minutes behind schedule. I wanted to see my train roll by at top speed to get a look at it way in advance and I found a another great place to watch trains near my house. In Rio Linda, just 9 miles west of my house lies the Sacramento Subdivision and I parked my car at 6 AM by the tracks off the road (Elvirta Rd) which is right next to the detector at MP 148.0. There is quite a bit of schedule padding between Chico and Sacramento, so perhaps I missed it already? If that was the case, I figured I had better high-tail it over to Davis so I don't miss the train! I called Amtrak on my cell phone for an update. #11 had lost another 50 minutes, leaving Chico 1 hour 30 minutes late. There are about 40 minutes of padding built into the schedule between Chico and Sacramento, so I figured it would roll by my location at about 6:50 AM. I decided to slowly go over to Davis and wait for it there because I don't like sitting beside a busy road near the tracks. I didn't want a Highway Patrol officer to question me or think something suspicious was happening. I sat there until about 6:30 AM and still no sign of #11, not even on the scanner, so I started towards Davis.
Just as I was crossing the tracks, I looked north and saw a headlight way off in the distance. I thought that might have been a freight train, but wanted to see what it was since I had plenty of time to kill. The location where I was waiting for my #11 is about 10 miles from the Sacramento depot and if it was my train, I would still have plenty of time to get to Davis ahead of it. I had already crossed the tracks and there was nowhere to turn around. I know this area quite well and I knew of a nearby road that parallels the main line. I turned south and proceeded to Elkhorn Blvd. which also crosses the tracks approximately 3 miles down the line. I turned left to backtrack towards the RR crossing just a mile ahead. As I approached the tracks, I pulled over to wait for whatever was coming along. The gates came down about 10 seconds after I got stopped and it was my #11! It zoomed by at 70 MPH and had engine #52 on the point and F40 #281 trailing elephant style. Wow, I haven't seen an F40 in phase III paint in ages! With #11 gone, I knew I had to hit the road to Davis, so I flipped a quick U-turn and drove west to highway 99 south. From there, I caught I-5 south towards Sacramento and then I-80 west towards San Francisco. Davis is only 10 miles from Sacramento so I beat #11 there by half an hour.
At Davis, I went inside the depot and obtained a daily parking permit for my car and the new Amtrak National Timetable. I sat in my car for a few minutes and heard a whistle off in the distance. I got out to see it was an eastbound freight train rolling through very slowly because there was track work to the east of nthe depot. Five minutes later, another eastbound freight rolled through! The signal at the west end of the platform turned green so I knew #11 was fairly close by. Being in CTC country, they can turn the lights green hours in advance of an approaching train so that didn't mean anything to me that it was green.
Since I left the house at 5:40 AM, I had been dictating notes into my micro cassette recorder so I could write this travelogue later on and not to have to take notes on paper. I wanted to play back some of my notes I had taken earlier and there was NOTHING ON THE TAPE!!!! I fiddled around with the recorder, tapped on the built-in microphone and there was no voice audio recording onto the tape, just my physical tapping of the outside of the microphone. If I yelled into the microphone, I could barely hear myself on the tape so something was seriously wrong with the machine. Frustrated, I turned it off and tossed it on the floor of my car and would not even take it on my trip. Why carry dead weight? I was very upset and would have to take notes by hand. It's so much easier to just talk into a recorder that fits in your pocket and later on, write the travelog later from those notes to recall the trip memories.
At 7:28 AM, #11 pulled into the depot and I boarded my coach which was directly behind the sightseer lounge car. I was assigned seat #17 which was next to the window. The car attendant took my ticket, gave me a hat check and said to place it above my seat number. Since I didn't have to wait for the conductor to come along to take my ticket and place the hat check above my seat for me, I was able to head off to the dining car for breakfast immediately after I put my backpack in my seat and my hat check above the seat number alerting anybody that this seat was taken.
I love eating in the dining car! It doesn't matter which meal, so I was really looking forward to this. Upon entering the dining car, I was greeted by the dining car chief and he asked for my name and how many were in my party. I looked around and saw only half the dining car in use, the half towards the Pacific Parlor Car. Uh oh, this is not good because when they only use half of the dining car, that means they are understaffed due to financial cutbacks. This was the case on the Empire builder when I traveled from Portland to Chicago in 1997. On that train, Amtrak had cut funding to it and there was a skeleton crew in the dining car: only two waiters, one dining car chief and one cook. I was saddened to see this on the Coast Starlight.
I went back into the sightseer lounge car and took in the beautiful scenery, mainly lush green fields of corn zooming by. While waiting for my name to be called, I needed something out of my backpack, so I went back to my seat. When I got to my seat with my backpack, I noticed it had been MOVED three rows back! I was just looking for the backpack and not paying any attention to the seat numbers! I was horrified and checked to make sure everything was still there, everything fine. I walked back to my original seat #17 and placed my backpack in the seat once again like I had done when I first boarded the train. Sitting across from me was a woman sound asleep with two kids who were also sleeping. I would have asked the woman sitting across the aisle if she had seen anybody move my backpack, but obviously she didn't if she was asleep. Had anything been missing, I would have sought out the conductor to file a theft report. After heading back to the lounge car, the dining car steward called me, along with a lot of other parties, to the dining car. When I entered, all tables were set and being filled with hungry passengers! I also saw two more waiters on my end of the dining car. What a relief to see that!
I had the new Coast Starlight Breakfast Special, which consisted of eggs, sausage home fries and two hot cakes. This is a new addition to the menu which was fairly priced at $7.50. I glanced through the rest of the menu and noticed that all entrees had been raised in price by at least $2 each from the last trip I took on the Starlight a year ago. I had juice and coffee to drink and all was superb, including the service. Sitting across from me was an elderly couple from Oakland returning home from seeing their children living in Seattle. Sitting next to me was a woman traveling alone in a standard sleeper bedroom from Seattle to Emeryville. The discussion was about trains and the future of Amtrak and we all got along very well. The woman in the sleeper had been traveling by train for a month and had seen family and friends from all over the country! She knew every route that Amtrak had and we could have gone on for hours swapping war stories on the various routes we both had traveled on. We exchanged email addresses at the conclusion of breakfast
After breakfast I walked back to my original seat #17 once again my backpack was gone again, moved back 3 rows! In my seat, there was a middle-aged Hispanic woman sprawled out across both seats with her stuff on the floor in front of her. There was also no hat check ticket of her own, just mine remained above seat #17, so she was not supposed to be there in the first place. Once again, I would have asked the woman sitting across the aisle if the Hispanic woman was moving my stuff around, but she was, you guessed it, still asleep. I rifled through my backpack once again and everything was accounted for. Not trusting anybody now, I slung it over my shoulder and headed to the sightseer lounge car where I remained for the duration of the trip. I have never been robbed on Amtrak but with only one car attendant responsible for 1.5 coaches now, security is much less for one's personal belongings and it makes it much easier for thieves to take advantage.
#11 was put in the coach yard for removal of our two road railers. It seemed to take forever to get this done.
After departing Oakland, I learned why both Coast Starlights were so late all the time. There is an enormous amount of slow orders along this stretch of track. I would say that there were at least five or six places with a 10 mph slow order in place. One or two slow orders won't hurt us that much but with that many between stations, it will hurt us significantly. Also, we had to copy a track warrant before leaving Jack London which took awhile because the dispatcher was not answering when the engineer called.
Lunch time in the dining car at last! I was hungry again and I had my backpack with me this time. The dining car steward told me to place it under the table out of the aisle so it wouldn't be in the way. I was placed with an Oriental family who knew very little English so there was no conversation between me and the family, just amongst themselves. They smiled at me and nodded but we didn't converse. For lunch I had the 14/11 burger with cheese, fries and a diet Pepsi to drink. This was the BEST 14/11 burger I have ever had! What really made the difference was that the bun was much lighter and was not so think that you taste more bread than hamburger. The fries were real thick potato cuts seasoned with garlic and cheese. For desert, there was no apple pie a la mode which has been a long-time favorite of mine on all Amtrak trains, so I settled for the Turtle Cake. It had chocolate crumbly crust with vanilla ice cream in the middle of it! Absolutely fabulous!
I returned to my coach car and found that there was plenty of empty seats together with no hat checks above them so, I found my car attendant and asked permission if I could change seats. The Hispanic woman was still in my seat (still no hat check of her own above...she could have been a stow-away!). I grabbed my hat check ticket and went to a pair of empty seats near the back of the car on the left hand side out of the sun. I listened to my scanner and even tried to find a radio station to listen to. I used my GPS unit to give me an ETA of our arrival into Paso Robles and how far we were away from the station. When I saw we were about a mile from the station, I headed down the vestibule to detrain. I have EVERY Amtrak station marked on my GPS unit between Redding and San Diego along the routes of the Coast Starlight and Surfliner.
Who turned on the furnace? It was very hot in Paso Robles today, around 100 degrees! It reminded me of being back in Sacramento since it had been just like that all week. Being 2 hours late into Paso Robles, it would cut down on my waiting time for #14, the northbound Coast Starlight. I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to go to this nice coffee shop which is about 1/2 mile away on the frontage road that parallels the US-101 freeway. I called 1-800-USA-RAIL and #14 was only about 7 minutes late leaving San Luis Obispo so I would not have time run down to the coffee shop and back. It was too hot anyway so I made a few phone calls on my cell phone. Apparently, Paso Robles is in an area without AT&T cellular coverage because my phone displays ROAM. On the train about 5 miles north of Paso Robles, AT&T is displayed. Some small or other cellular outfit (I'll bet it's GTE) has the market in that little area. Fortunately my phone calls were very brief.
My friends Mike and Les stepped off the very coach car that I would be boarding for my return trip to Davis! I wasn't sure whether to try to board at the sleeping car they were in, or just board my coach car and tell the conductor I was a guest of a sleeping car passenger. I had nothing to worry about now. Mike, Les and I went upstairs and claimed two pairs of seats for us to talk and catch up on how we all were doing. Mike showed me photos on his new digital pocket camera which were absolutely amazing!
We all relocated to the sightseer lounge car and took all our gear with us. I was still a little paranoid of the lack of car attendants around which would make it easier for thieves to strike.
We wanted to eat dinner together, but there was not enough room for all of us at one table. Mike was traveling up to Portland with his wife and two children to visit his brother-in-law, had the family room in the 1430 sleeper. Les was traveling to San Jose and also wanted to eat dinner but he wasn't sure if there would be enough time before arriving in San Jose. Les put in his name to the dining car chief for Les and I to eat together and hopefully, Mike and his family would be able to sit at the table across from us. We didn't have dinner reservations but were put on a waiting list in case anybody with a reservation didn't show. At 7:20 PM, we got lucky. Mike, Les and I were in the sightseer lounge when they called Les to come to the dining car. Les and I were seated across from two elderly gentleman, one of which was an employee for the British railway system! He didn't tell us what his position was, but he had worked on the "Chunnel" train from London to Paris! He was quite miffed at Amtrak's and American railroad practices and how "archaic" they were. He was almost in a tirade about how inefficient we were. He was confused to why the engineer's track warrants and contacts with the dispatcher had to be copied down by the conductor and repeated by the conductor as well. The gentleman kept saying: "What's the use, the conductor can't do anything about it anyway?" I told him it was a rule that Union Pacific has in place for all trains that operate on their tracks. He kept asking: "Why is this so?" He was like a 3 year-old child asking: "Why this was so? I had no answer but I did tell him that "what if" the engineer was killed, his notes destroyed/lost in the event we crashed, the conductor would have a copy of all the orders given to the engineer before the fact. He ate it right up and understood!
At this point, Mike and his wife Dorie, sons Nathan (4) and Anderw (2) joined us at the table across the aisle. Les and I talked to the gentleman and were fascinated at that feat of engineering that took place to build the tunnel under the English Channel like that. I think he told us that the tunnel is 25 miles long and it was drilled 30 feet below the rock barrier of the ocean floor. I had wondered if there were any leaks and he said it was as dry as the desert inside the tunnel to which he got a tour of outside the train!
For dinner I had the breaded chicken selection which was in a delicious wine sauce accompanied by vegetables and rice. A salad preceded the main entree. For desert, I had the turtle cake once again. I tried to talk Les into having the same desert, but he wanted his "to go" in fear we were very close to his stop of San Jose. I honestly don't remember what Les had for dinner. I didn't take notes on dinner and it was the fact that I had to borrow a pen off of the lounge car attendant on my #11 on the way down, was I able to jot notes down at all. I offered to pay the car attendant for the pen but he said to take it free. Silly me, there were pens in cups at the end of the tables now at every table in the dining car and I didn't take one! All my notes were taken on a copy of a Coast Starlight timetable that they had in the coach cars. Oh, I surely missed my tape recorder to take notes! Got a bit off topic there. The rest of dinner was fabulous, both food and service.
In San Jose, all of us got off the train to walk around, take photos and say goodbye to Les. When it was time to board the train again, I boarded in Mike's sleeping car and was able to take a look at the family size bedroom they had. It didn't look very big when I first entered it but it does take up the entire width of the car, providing ample seating and sleeping space. On the San Jose platform, Mike noticed that he couldn't close the camera lens cover. He had his camera in his pocket while in the dining car and even took a photo of Les and me. The camera was working fine then but I think the camera lens cover may have become jammed or the camera "confused" due to a mechanical failure of some kind. The SmartMedia stick containing the photos was covered by the camera lens cover so removing it for photo retrieval would not be possible. The cover would not close over the lens because the lense was protruding out. Every attempt to close the cover or reset the camera was unsuccessful. The previous photos that Mike took were still stored in memory but the memory stick couldn't be removed. When Mike arrived in Oregon, he had to download the photos using the built-in serial port on the camera to his laptop computer and then ship back the camera to the mail-order outfit that he bought it from for a new one upon his return home. What a shame as he got it just before this trip. I had a borrowed laptop computer act up on me in Sacramento on my New York rail trip the evening before I took the California Zephyr eastbound to Denver. I nearly shipped it back home so I wouldn't have to lug around dead weight the entire trip. I was able to fiddle with it to get it to work so I could write my travelogue on the fly. The micro cassette recorder is good for short overnight trips but on a week-long rail trip like that, I need to write it as I go so I could post it immediately upon my return home.
Underway again, Mike, Nathan and I went downstairs in the Pacific Parlour car to see what movie was playing. It was Space Cowboys, which was a great movie, but had some swearing in it. After the first bit of undesirable language was heard, Mike took Nathan out of the theatre and told him: "This movie is for adults only, we have to go now." Mike had never seen Space Cowboys and was not sure of the language in it before bringing Nathan down there. I got up to leave with them and then realized that with a small child, you have to be so careful of what they listen to. Mike got him out of there ASAP. The language was not severe, but it was inappropriate for a 4-year-old. That was great parenting on Mike's part and I didn't catch on for a few minutes. I don't have children yet but plan to in the next two years. It made me realize you have to be on the lookout for so much to protect your children. I was amazed at Mike's parenting but it really opened my eyes and was a good educational experience for me.
In Oakland, Mike and I sat in the Pacific Parlour car for awhile. It was there he said his good byes to me so he could settle in for the night with his family before they went to sleep. I spent the next hour there talking with the Pacific Parlour Car attendant about the future of Amtrak. The attendant was quite informative and was not shy about telling me how Amtrak was doing financially. I didn't catch his name but he advised me that Amtrak had made some bad decisions that hurt the company terribly. There was some new ticketing system that Amtrak tried to use which resulted in $70 million in losses. I do not remember the pecifics of the deal, but Amtrak has had to cut their staff, including the on-board services chief of all inter city Amtrak trains. There used to be one car attendant per coach car. Now two car attendants must service 5 coaches which makes the crew spread pretty thin. Only one engineer in the cab on a long-haul run so if any track warrants are to be copied, the engineer must stop the train to copy the warrant.
The Parlour car attendant closed down for the night and went to bed, but left out ice, cups and soft drinks. I had a bottle of Pepsi and relaxed for awhile before heading back to my coach seat to see if I could sleep a little.
I barely remember Martinez. I was drifting in and out of consciousness and was awake enough to record the station departure time. After the Suison bridge, I drifted off again and when I awoke, I had no idea where I was. It was pitch black outside with some lights off in the distance, so I figured we were still going by farms and had to be near Davis. Out came my GPS unit again and I got a position fix in about 30 seconds. Yikes, we were TWO miles from the Davis platform, so I had to get downstairs. It looks like nobody would have woken me up had I not been awake yet to see where we were. I went downstairs to the vestibule and a conductor appeared just before we stopped at Davis. Maybe he would have woken me up after all, but I didn't want to chance missing my stop. Had the conductor not come downstairs to open this car, I would have opened the door myself and gotten off.
I had a great time on this trip and it was good seeing Mike, his family and Les again. It wouldn't be long before I take the Coast Starlight again. In just two days I would ride from Roseville to Monterey. Perhaps it would even be the same consist!