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Posts Tagged ‘amtrak’

So far, Amtrak had exceeded my expectations. I had slept well, eaten reasonably well, enjoyed some great scenery, and even arrived pretty much on time. The service had been good, too. So, since I had read that it was one of Amtrak’s best trains, I had high hopes for the Coast Starlight. The train runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, although I would just take it from San Francisco to Portland.

Unfortunately, since the train starts out from LA in the morning, you don’t leave San Francisco until 10:00pm. Another time I’ll try to arrange things so that I take the train on a day when the Kabuki spa is open for women, then I could have a late afternoon massage and soak, eat in Japantown, and then board the bus. As it was, I just had dinner in Japantown, a reasonable version of the okonomiyaki I had liked so much in Japan.

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Things started out well enough, with the bus from the Ferry Building to Emeryville leaving pretty much on time, but when we got to Emeryville there was no train in the station, and no solid information about it’s arrival. It finally crawled in at 11:00, already an hour late.

My attendant showed up to turn my chairs into a bed as I was in the middle of getting my boots off, but I was glad enough to lie down after spending an hour in the cheerless and comfortless waiting room. Sleep, however, proved elusive, as I kept waiting for the train to start moving, and it remained obstinately motionless. We finally left at 1:00 am, three hours late. i talked the next morning to a couple of unfortunates who had boarded in Sacramento, and spent three hours in the waiting room there.

The problem? Turned out that one of the locomotives wasn’t working right and they had to find a substitute. We made the rest of the trip with the sleek Amtrak coaches headed by a freight loco. And we stayed three hours late.

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Since I only ate breakfast and lunch on the train, and they aren’t up to the standard of Amtrak’s dinners, and my attendant effectively disappeared for the rest of the trip, I was not impressed by the Coast Starlight. Aside from the scenery….

Running late turned out to have one big advantage. On a normal schedule, regardless of direction, passengers see Mt. Shasta by moonlight or starlight. We saw it by daylight, for hours, and very nice it looked, too. Although you only see the coast on the run south of San Francisco, the views were arguably even better than those from the California Zephyr, although even harder to photograph without intrusive trees and telegraph poles.

I was doubly excited to finally arrive in Portland, which had, after all, been the goal of the trip. Maybe this would turn out to be the place I moved to? Plus, I was staying with my eldest ex-step-daughter, KC. She even picked me up at the station, a rare luxury.

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The California Zephyr

I arrived at Chicago’s Union Station with half an hour to spare, to find quite a crowd waiting to board. We all fit into two sleeping cars and four coach cars, with the classes separated by an observation car and a dining car. This time I was in a Superliner sleeper – about the same size as the sleeper on the Lake Shore Limited, but without the upper window and the sink and toilet. The double-decker Superliner carriage was showing its age a little, and the attendant said that it was slated for the scrap heap, but I found it comfortable enough. I slept well, and the water in the shower on the lower level was hot.

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As I was a sleeping class passenger, all my meals were included in the fare. The big half-chicken I had enjoyed on the previous leg wasn’t offered, but the crab cakes were excellent and filling. After an experiment with the market special for lunch the first day, I discovered that the veggie burger was quite good.

I met some interesting people at meals, and in the observation car. One couple was getting off at Glenwood Springs, near their previous home, and boarding the next train through. The woman across the corridor from me was taking a train vacation: she would sleep in Emeryville and then board the California Zephyr again in the morning to head back east. One man who lived in California was returning from a a lengthy trip that included a visit to the mining area in South America where he had been born. The only sour note was a dining companion who seemed to attract disasters, including dumping my water all over my roll.

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Still, the main attraction wasn’t the people, or the food, or the “roomette”, but the scenery. And the trip delivered. East of the Mississippi the fields were still flat, but as soon as we crossed the river I started seeing more variety. I went to sleep in Iowa, missed Nebraska altogether, and woke up in Denver, where the windows were cleaned. This made photography a bit better, but shooting from a moving train still tends to be an exercise in frustration, as trees and telegraph poles wind up in the middle of otherwise stellar shots, and there’s always a problem with reflections. I camped out in the observation car for most of the morning, but got some great views from my roomette, as well.

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The afternoon highlight was Ruby Canyon, bringing back memories of the red rock country I had enjoyed exploring twenty years ago. Darkness fell as we crossed Utah, although I caught sight of the angel Moroni atop the great temple in Salt Lake City before I fell asleep. Next morning I woke up in Nevada, but it was California that delivered the day’s best scenery, including the infamous Donner Pass and some beautiful lakes and mountains, before we hit the flat lands of the Central Valley. Rather to my surprise, the train had mostly run to time, if not ahead of schedule, but the second afternoon we were slowed by a “minor” derailment ahead of us. (By “minor”, it appeared, the railway workers meant that just one car had jumped the tracks, and only one line was blocked.) Still, we pulled into Emeryville only ten minutes late, 2,438 miles and 50 hours after we left Chicago.

The bus ride over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco was a bit of an anticlimax.

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The Lake Shore Limited

I’ve seen a lot of train stations over the last few years, but although the Indian stations are easily the worst, Penn Station is near the bottom. First, there’s the difficulty of getting from the subway into the main part of the station, especially with a case. The case won’t easily fit through the barriers, and the elevators are hard to find. Then there’s the route march past a lot of places you don’t want, to find the Amtrak section. Then the whole place is gloomy and cavernous and the opposite of welcoming.

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Finally, I advise against arriving at the First Class lounge right before a Washington bound Acela is due to leave – it was mobbed. Even boarding the train, underground, is less than inspiring. So my roomette was a welcome surprise. I was riding the Lake Shore Limited out of New York, rather than the Capitol Limited out of Washington, because I wanted to try a Viewliner roomette, newer than the Superliner roomettes, and with a toilet and sink.

The roomette is supposed to be for two people, but while it’s cosy for one, I think it would be tough fitting in two people. I had room for my case, but you couldn’t fit two. I wasn’t much impressed with the small sink, but the toilet worked fine. I slept in the upper bunk, which had it’s own window, so I could leave stuff on the seats below, and found it comfortable enough, although I did worry about getting thrown out, despite the restraining straps.

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I enjoyed dinner, sharing a table with a father and daughter going to New Orleans. The salad and veggies were undistinguished, but my chicken was good, and more than I could eat, and the wine drinkable. I woke several times during the night, but quickly went back to sleep. When darkness had fallen we had been rolling through New England woodland, but I woke to see flat Indiana cornfields, decorated with immaculate red barns.

Breakfast was edible, but not up to the standard of dinner,although again I enjoyed talking with the couple sharing my table. More to the point the train, which had left on time, also arrived on time.

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OK, I’m not flying to Portland. I still have faint but fond memories of long distance flights in the ’70s, before flying became an endurance test, and I also have a yen to see the country between here and there – especially the mountains. The only method I can think of that would be worse than flying would be long distance buses, so Greyhound et al are out, too.

No doubt the All-American thing to do would be a road trip, but I’ve done a good bit of that already. Back in the early ’90s, for my second honeymoon, my then husband and I took his 1960s Avion travel trailer on a five week odyssey. From North Carolina we drove a big triangle: south to Texas, north to Utah and then back home, stopping off in most of the National Parks and Monuments in the south-west on the way. I don’t feel a need to do that again, especially as I’d be traveling alone this time.

Heading west, 1992

That means I’ll be going European. I’m sure that any readers who remember my 17,000 mile Eurasian train trip from 2004 won’t be surprised to hear that I’m taking the train. I’ll cross the USA westward with Amtrak, and then come back east across Canada with Via Rail. I’ve been wanting to take the train across Canada for years, so this seemed like a great opportunity.

I could actually start the train trip from my home town, riding the Carolinian or the Silver Star to Washington, and the Capitol Limited on to Chicago, but I decided to fly to New York and start there instead. I’ve ridden the rails between here and Washington several times already, and the day-long trip has gotten a bit boring. Plus the Capitol Limited uses the same style sleepers as the trains further west, and I want to check out the Amfleet cars on the Lake Shore Limited.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, 1992

I will, therefore, be flying to and from New York, but those are short flights, on my favorite (at present) domestic airline, Jet Blue. One free checked bag. Good sized seats with reasonable leg room. Admirable staff. Just a couple of nights in the city before I head up the Hudson River valley on the Lake Shore Limited, tucked into a Viewliner Roomette. Another couple of nights in Chicago, and then I’ll have a Superliner Roomette on the California Zephyr  to San Francisco, followed by the Coast Starlight to Portland.

The bad news: unlike train companies in Europe and Asia, Amtrak and Via Rail don’t allow unrelated people to share sleepers, which puts the cost way up. The somewhat good news: I booked my tickets with Amtrak right before the last of the cheapest rates disappeared, and I caught Via Rail on sale. Otherwise I might have wound up on a plane after all!

Bryce Canyon National Park, 1992

I was taken by surprise by the speed with which the ticket prices on Amtrak went up: I had planned to wait until January to book, but when I checked in December I found only two dates between mid-April and mid-May that still had the cheapest rates. That’s why I’m only spending two nights in Chicago. I’d like to stay longer, and I’ve only visited once on a long-ago business trip, but even at the cheapest rate those Amtrak sleepers are expensive for a solo traveler.

I will spend longer in San Francisco, another place I only dimly remember from a business trip, and longer still in Portland, where I’m lucky enough to be staying with my eldest ex-step-daughter. I finish the US leg of the trip with a day train to Seattle.

Amazing what turns up - this was me in Saguaro NP in 1992. Neither I nor my camera look like that any more!

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