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Coast Starlight 2015

The Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland

All text and photos by Tim Helmuth

Part 3 of a 3 part jaunt across America on Amtrak

The first two installments since leaving Central Illinois can be found here:

Cuesta Grade

Our Amtrak #14 Coast Starlight pulling the Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo September 30th, 2015

Leaving Anaheim

Inside the ARTIC with escalators to all trains.

September 30th, 2016

6:30 AM came with a jolt, warning me to leave the La Quinta and order an Uber to the ARTIC for the 8:04 AM arrival of the 763 Surfliner to LAUS. The train arrived about 10 minutes behind schedule.  With my booking a Roomette on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak gave me a Business Class seat on the Surfliner, which provided access to some light breakfast food including juice, coffee, pastry and a newspaper.  We arrived in Los Angeles the same 10 minutes late at 8:56 AM.  I quickly checked into the Metropolitan Lounge and left my bags to explore the station before our boarding call.  I was able to view the well-known Traxx restaurant and lounge from the Great hall, but it was not open.

Left:  The LA River as we approach Union Station. Right:  A Surfliner preparing to leave LAUS

Checking in at the Metropolitan Lounge. Red Cap assistance was offered out the door behind the lamp pole.

Shots of City Hall on the left and the clock tower at Union Station on the right.

Fountain garden in courtyard

Left:  Covered walkway from courtyard to station Right:  Example Art Deco tile in station.

Above:  interior pictures of the Great Hall and waiting areas

The Coast Starlight boarding call came around 9:40 AM. Red Cap assistance was provided for those who needed it.  The rest of the passengers formed a large contingent, walking out of the lounge and back through the station to the tunnel, stopping at track 10A.  We waited shortly for the train to back into the station and boarded quickly for an on time departure.

Pacific Parlour Car as the Coast Starlight #14 backs into Los Angeles Union Station

Boarding was an orderly event.  There was definitely excitement and anticipation in the air as Sleeper car passengers became acquainted with their neighbors. I enjoyed seeing the smiling surprise of those who were not aware of the Parlour car and its features, including private dining.

Once tickets were lifted, sleeper car passengers began to gather in the Parlour car and enjoy gliding past Bob Hope Airport, Van Nuys and ultimately leaving the LA basin behind in our approach to Simi Valley.  All stops were on time.  After departing Oxnard only 3 minutes late, we began to draw near the coast towards Ventura where we would be treated to our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.

Scenery along the way was highlighted by the Channel Islands between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  Later there were views of picturesque beach parks with cars and RVs parked at the water's edge.

Left:  Pacific Parlour Car facing forward in the direction of travel Right:  RV parked at ocean near Faria Beach State Park

Pacific Ocean at Faria Beach State Park

At lunch time, the Parlour car offered dining options that included the choice of an Italian submarine sandwich or a Greek salad.  I was holding 12:30 PM reservations for the dining car so that I might enjoy the Angus beef burger again.  I was seated with a man and his mother & aunt who were traveling to Spokane.  As it turns out, he was an Engineer for Amtrak who worked on the Surfliners between Los Angeles and San Diego.  I had a great conversation with them, asking and receiving the inside scoop on employee travel discounts and other interesting facts.  I was so engrossed in the talk that I did not notice that I was eating the Black Bean burger until almost all the way through - it had been mistakenly delivered. However, it was very tasty and satisfying.  As we were eating, we had a station stop at Santa Barbara and then continued northward. Rolling along, we hug the shoreline through Gaviota, passing El Capitan State Beach and then Point Conception. We passed Vandenberg Air Force Base which is home to a runway built to provide an alternative landing for the Space Shuttle program.  Glimpses of various launch buildings are also visible.

Migrant workers in the fields

Station stop at San Luis Obispo

Left:  Train #14 being led by a P42 and a GE P32-8WH & crew change Right:  Stenner Creek Trestle and track that we just covered

Our next station stop was San Louis Obispo at 3:38 PM, still running only a few minutes late. After SLO, a wine tasting was offered in the Pacific Parlour Car for sleeper car and business class passengers.  Two California wines were offered including a Wente Cabernet, a Chardonnay, and an Argentinian Trapiche Malbec.  The reds were nice, but I find Chardonnay to be too oaked.  Amtrak charges $7.50 for each participant for the three samples (served in glass glasses) and then offered a cheese and cracker plate for $5.00 or $5.50 - I did not purchase one.

Your author standing next to his sleeper car at SLO.

After San Louis Obispo, we start climbing the Cuesta Grade, gaining 1000 feet in 11 miles

Oil wells after Paso Robles

Sunset from Parlour Car. The light smear is a reflection of the wall sconce behind me.

Lamb Shank

Braised Lamb Shank

I was holding dinner reservations for 6:30 in the Parlour car as the lamb shank was featured on the menu.  I caught a quick nap before cleaning up for dinner - all this lounging around the Parlour car and swapping stories was hard work.  Dinner arrived and the lamb shank proved to be the *best* meal I experienced on the entire trip.  Try to visualize a lamb Popsicle the size of a turkey drumstick - this was a nice hunk of meat. Braised until it was fall-off-the-bone tender and served on a bed of rice with mixed vegetables.  I was able to find a version of the recipe here, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. It was followed by a reasonable facsimile of Tiramisu and coffee.  Bedtime came after a station stop at Jack London Square at Oakland.  Here we had a chance to get out and stretch and take note of the change in climate since leaving the LA basin.  Cooler air and gathering clouds were noticed.

One of the strange (read dumb) events of the trip occurred as we were leaving the Oakland stop.  One of the passengers had not heard the train whistle or the ubiquitous "All Aboard!" called out by the conductorAs we glided out of the station, our passenger began running with his walking cane and was pulled into the sleeper car door by two other passengers as the conductor screamed "Stop, don't even try it".  The train stopped, allowing the conductor to board our car and signal that the train could proceed.  I called it a night at this point.

Oakland station stop at Jack London Square

Daylight at Dunsmuir

5 AM Thursday, October 1st

We are not moving.  I fire up the phone and locate us just short of the Dunsmuir station by 1/4 mile.  I boost the scanner into action and hear chatter about a talking defect detector not counting enough axles.  This is some new insight for me - I later googled "talking defect detector" and learned that they are devices that help spot and alert the train to issues and allowed the elimination of the caboose from the trains.  Back to the issue at hand, we were stuck behind a disabled freight train caught on the single track incline leaving Dunsmuir and approaching the Cascade Range.  We sat for almost 3 hours until the local Union Pacific crew was able to resolve the issue and get the air brakes on the freight to safely release.  We left Dunsmuir 3 hours and 30 minutes behind in a light drizzle that stayed with us past Mt Shasta.  For me, the delay brought several gifts.  One of them was being able to pass Mt Shasta in the daylight.  The second one was being on the train long enough to have dinner that evening.  We were scheduled to arrive in Portland around 4:00 PM, but did not make the station stop until 7:38 PM. 

Left:  Crossing the Sacramento River.  Right:  S curves as we begin our ascent into the Cascade Range

A misty photo of where Mt Shasta sits in the clouds.

Those passengers with connections to the Empire Builder in Portland were starting to chew their nails before our arrival at Klamath Falls. Once we were 30 minutes out of our station stop, the conductor announced that all ticketed passengers with connection on the Empire Builder would (wait for it) receive a complementary bus ride across Oregon and Washington to Pasco, WA to intercept the Empire Builder at that point.

Klamath Falls station stop

Lava flows


Views from Diner car during lunch

I enjoyed lunch in the dining car, seated with two individuals.  One had left LA in his car which broke down in Sacramento, leaving him enough cash from the salvage to ride Amtrak Business Class home.  The other was a Portland resident returning from a weekend trip to San Francisco.  I sampled the Angus burger for the last time and a side salad with it.  Dessert was skipped in favor of a short nap due to my early morning.

Eugene, OR station stop

That afternoon, a second wine tasting was hosted offered for Business Class and Sleeper Car passengers in the Pacific Parlour Car.  Another $7.50 rewarded the purchaser with a sample of three wines:  A Columbia Crest merlot, which was nice - not quite jammy or fruit forward but subtle butter and fruit. The Trapiche Malbec from the previous day was repeated, which was bold and tasty.  The third was a Pacific Rim Riesling.  Dang that stuff was sweet.  Imagine rainbows and unicorns flavored with Jolly Ranchers.  Those who enjoy their vino sweet are sure to find it appealing.

Because of our expected late arrival in Portland, I was able to have the benefit of a bonus meal in the Pacific Parlour Car.  This time I enjoyed the smoky mac n cheese with a side salad and iced tea.  I was seated with a couple from Berkeley as they traveled to visit friends in Portland.  The mac was very good - my guess was smoked Gouda and Swiss were the key ingredients.  After dinner I had an hour to pack and get ready for arrival at PDX. 

We roll into Portland along the Willamette River

Portland Union Station - Go By Train

At 7:38 PM I disembarked the Coast Starlight and strolled through the station.  I headed southeast to the MAX rail station stop at NW 6th & Hoyt to wait for the Green line to take me east towards Clackamas Town Center.  I changed trains at Gateway to board a Red train for the airport and got off at the Cascades Station stop. The Trimet MAX light rail system is spotless - I did not see any graffiti anywhere on the cars.  I had another overnight booked with La Quinta, and their courtesy van had me picked up and delivered to La Quinta Inn Portland Airport by before 8:30 PM.  I finished watching Transsiberiean and dropped off to sleep before 10 PM.

October 2

Looking towards Portland International Airport from La Quinta Friday morning

I slept 8 hours straight for the first time in days.  Not that sleep on the train was difficult, but that there was a pattern of early morning rising and then a time change to shorten your overnight.  Picking up the pace in this report, I checked out of La Quinta and rode the hotel van to the Airport at 11:30 AM to get ready for a 1:15 PM flight.  I got through a long TSA screening line and was able to order some lunch in the airport prior to boarding.  My total airfare of $166.23 included the base fare, 1 checked bag, group 1 boarding (to guarantee that I would be able to stow my backpack) plus the insult of paying for the privilege to choose a seat ahead of time.  And the government's cut of $26.27 in taxes.  We took off early and landed early at O'Hare with zero incidents.  Our early arrival to Chicago earned us a taxiing tour around the airport runways for 15 minutes as our gate was still in use by an outbound flight.

Sunset over the Chicago suburbs as we descend into O'Hare

By 8:00 PM I had retrieved my bag, walked through the underground tunnel in Terminal 3 to the O'Hare Hilton and had checked into my room.  Dinner was a $15 pizza from the attached sports bar and water out of the tap.  A bottle of water at the lobby shop was $5.  Wow. 

October 3

View from room at O'Hare Hilton Saturday, October 3, 2015

I woke up Saturday morning feeling rested.  I packed my bag and headed out to the Transportation Center, directly across the street from the Hilton and boarded a Peoria Charter Coach for Bloomington-Normal.  We made the distance in 2 1/4 hours and I was home sorting laundry by 3 PM.

This trip segment was fantastic.  You leave the train wishing that the Coast Starlight would continue on for days with its expansive views of the ocean, mountains, rivers and pines.  It was like we just got settled into a rhythm and then was over way too quickly.  This train is a definitely a do over in the future.

My SCA John was always close, but never intrusive.  He always had ice when needed, coffee during all times of the day and extra blankets for the asking.  The restrooms and shower were kept clean and clear of towels.  He never did ask when I wanted by bed made or put away, so that skill was acquired, but not a bother to perform.

Obviously, the Coast Starlight is a unique pony in the Amtrak stable.  It is the only train with a Parlour Car and that offers some distinction.  Greg, the bar man and car attendant on our northbound Pacific Parlour Car was a pleasure to meet and a perfect example of service, dedication and subtle humor. This was the only car on the trains ridden that served in glass glasses, china plates and cloth table coverings.  This is the last vestige of elegance on the rail in the Amtrak experience (unless you are privy to a private car to tour in).  This ride shall always be remembered for the food, company and sheer enjoyment.

My roomette was in a Superliner named George M. Pullman.  It appeared to have been refurbished.  The only thing to note was that my door rattled constantly - even when shut and locked.  The solution was to slam a washrag in the door and then apply some duct tape to it to hold it still.  The room was held to a comfortable temperature and we never lost HEP (head end power). 

But wait....There's more!  This just in...

I received an email from two of the passengers who were Ambused from Klamath Falls to Pasco as a result of our delay in Dunsmuir.  Read their account of that experience here! Use your browsers Back button to return to this travelogue.

Grade for my journey on the Coast Starlight:  A

Budget for ANA-LAX-PDX segment:  $732.63

Rail Fare and Expenses:

Retail value of included meals (before tips)

ANA-PDX $105.30 AAA Coach+$232.00 roomette supplement
Wednesday:  Black Bean Burger+Cheese+Bacon Salad Iced Tea $20 (Pricing of dinner in Parlour Car is not published. Assume $24.75 for meat entre, $3 Salad $6.25 Dessert, $2 drink $30)
LQ Portland $113.14 Thursday: Railroad French Toast, Sausage & Juice $15
Angus Burger, Salad, Ice Tea $16.50
(Dinner in Parlour Car Assume $15.75 for pasta $3 salad, $2 drink $20.75)
AA flight PDX-ORD $188.50
Lunch @ PDX $10.69 Total value of included food:  $108.25
Pizza @ Hilton $17.00 with tip Sleeper car fare net of food:  $123.75 for 1 night in a bed.  A little more than a decent hotel.
Tip for SCA $15.00 Coach plus dining:  $213.55
Sodas and snacks on train $16.00 including tips  
Peoria Charter Coach to BNL $35.00  Would I have spent $108.25 in food if traveling in Coach?  Probably not.  I would have gone without desserts and paid beverages.  Water is served gratis upon request.  The cafe car offers more affordable option, or you are allowed to carry on your own food for consumption at your seat.
Total for this segment $732.63  
Total for Southwest Chief $698.54 Cost to see America in the only civilized manner that remains:  $1431.17

AGR Rewards for this segment:

Anaheim to Los Angeles:  100+100 Double Days=200
Los Angeles to Portland: 634+634 Double Days=1268
(Waiting on points for La Quinta PDX)
Hilton O'Hare:  94
Total:  1562
AGR points from Southwest Chief and Anaheim:  3326
Trip Total Points:  4888

Other AGR awards:
eBags:  360
Vinesse:  2000

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Amtrak | Coast Starlight Schedule & Route Guide | Coast Starlight Dining Car Menu | Coast Starlight Parlour Car Northbound Menu | Coast Starlight Parlour Car Southbound Menu
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Updated 11/06/2015