Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Aborted Winter Wonderland Trip
We are currently between Chemult and Eugene, Oregon. The vistas are spectacular, but photography is a bit difficult because of the numerous tall trees along the sides of the tracks. The train is hugging the side of the mountains with steep cliffs and valleys off to the right side. Across the valleys are spectacular snow covered mountains. I've taken a few pictures between the passing trees, but the trees, snowsheds, tunnels and overcast weather are making it difficult to get pictures that do justice to this scenery.
The northwest has been hit by the hardest snow, rain and ice storms in the last few days than it has had in many years. We wanted lots of snow on this "Winter Wonderland" trip, but this is rediculous! News reports indicate flooding in Portland, Oregon and most of Seattle, Washington paralyzed by snow.
The latest word that we have is that the Coast Starlight will be terminating in Portland, Oregon and then will have to take buses for the remaining 3 to 4 hours to Seattle, Washington. All the wet weather has made the track bed soft between Portland and Seattle and thus unsafe for the trains to use. I just hope with all the highway closures that the bus won't have problems getting into Seattle!
On this trip is my wife and I, our two daughters, and a friend of theirs. Bringing along a friend was a last minute idea. We didn't decide on it until we were packing the day before our trip. This friend had never been on either a train or a plane and had never been out of California at all! While train travel has become old hat to my kids, the thought of going on this trip was totally exciting to their friend.
The Family Room accommodates 5 people, though some reservation agents will try and tell you it only holds 4. Amtrak's official policy is that the Familty Room can be booked for up to 5 people and include meals for all 5 people. The lower bunk can sleep 2 people as long as both people are well under 200 pounds each. The upper bunk sleeps 1 adult or child. There are 2 bunks on the side which will fit children as they are less than 5 feet long.
On Amtrak, there are two seperate items in the cost of your ticket. One portion of your ticket cost is for "railfare" and the other is for your "accommodation". If you travel in a Coach Car, then you don't have an accommodation on the train and no charge is made for an accommodation. If you have a room in one of the Sleeping Cars, then you have an accommodation and you will be charged for that accommodation. There is one charge for each type of accommodation: Standard Bedroom (formally called "Economy Bedroom"), Deluxe Bedroom, Family Bedroom or Special Bedroom (for mobility impaired travelers). It doesn't matter how many people are in your room up to the maximum that Amtrak allows per room. The charge is for the room and not for each person in the room. For example, if you have a Standard Bedroom, you are allowed up to 2 people in that room. All meals are included for up to 2 people. The charge for the room is the same, regardless of whether you have 1 person or 2 people traveling in your room. One more factor: the railfare for people in the Sleeping Cars is just a bit lower than the railfare for those in Coach. The reason for this is that Sleeping Car passengers do not take up Coach seats. Thus, Sleeping Car passengers are discounted that portion of the railfare that is attributed to occupying a Coach seat.
In our case, we had a Family Room which provides for meals of up to 5 people in the room. Thus, to add the friend of our children to our trip, we would just have to pay an additional Child's railfare ... but nothing extra for the room nor the meals for that person. A Child's Fare for children under 15 years old is usually half the price of adult railfare. Thus, we expected the cost to be between $100 and $200 for their friend. A quick phone call to 1-800-USA-RAIL confirmed the price would be $133 (which included my AAA 10% railfare discount). However, when I went to the station to change my ticket, the computer would not release the ticket without a penalty of $20 per adult and $10 per child for a total of $70!
This penalty to add a person to our ticket doesn't make much sense to me. I can understand if I was making a cancellation and leaving Amtrak with an empty room at the last moment that they were unlikely to book. In this case, however, I was going out of my way to introduce a new person to travel by Amtrak, someone who may never have traveled by train otherwise. Also, Amtrak is getting more money from me by my addition of this person to my room. They don't have to give us any more seats or rooms than what I already had reserved. Except for the cost of meals, the addition of this person to our room would be pure additional profit to Amtrak. Thus, why I should be penalized for adding someone to our room, I have no idea. My guess is that the Amtrak computer just regards a change as a change. The computer does not have programming sophisticated enough to tell when a change is an advantage to Amtrak or a disadvantage to Amtrak and just penalizes all last minute changes. As a result, the cost to add the friend of my children was $203 which was still a reasonable price to pay for so many days and so many meals on the train.
On Saturday night I called up a taxi company to reserve a taxi for 7 A.M. the next morning. We would be traveling with 2 adults, 3 children, 5 small suitcases and 5 backpacks. I let the taxi company know the number of people and amount of luggage we had. They decided they better send a station wagon rather than a regular sedan to make sure everything would fit. I always have to have a backup plan when I travel. Although our train was scheduled to leave Fullerton at 8:08 A.M, I felt that 7 A.M. would be early enough to leave by taxi from our home. I calculated that I could take my own car to either Fullerton or directly to Los Angeles in plenty of time if the taxi did not show up by 7:30 A.M. No problem there. The taxi was at our house before 7 A.M. The taxi driver had already called Amtrak and let us know that the train was running on-time. This was really thoughtful on the part of the taxi driver and I gave him a bit larger than usual tip.
The San Diegan arrived into Fullerton on schedule at 8:08 A.M. and we got into Los Angeles a few minutes earlier than scheduled. The San Deigan was one of the new Amtrak California trains. That is good news. I enjoy those trains more than the old Amfleet trains and they didn't use to run them on the weekends. Because the new Amtrak California Cars are bi-level, we were able to place our luggage on racks downstairs and didn't have to lug it up stairs and into overhead racks as we would have had to do on the older Amfleet cars.
This San Diegan carries the "through coaches" for the Coast Starlight. Coach passengers can get onto the last two cars of this San Diegan anywhere between San Diego and Fullerton and those two cars are transferred directly onto the end of the Coast Starlight. That avoids any transfer for the Coach passengers. Sleeping Car passengers, like us, have to get off in Los Angeles and transfer to the Sleeping Cars on the Coast Starlight.
Usually the San Diegan pulls into a track directly across from a special track reserved for the Coast Starlight in the Los Angeles Union Station. That special track has markings on the platform indicating the location of each Sleeping and Coach Car. The Coast Starlight was assigned to a different track today and to accommodate for this change, the San Diegan also pulled into a different track so it would still be across from where the Coast Starlight would pull in. Uusally the Coast Starlight is already in the station when the San Diegan pulls in, but this time it wasn't. It took quite a while for the Coast Starlight to pull in and when it did leave the station, it left 15 minutes late.
There was an incident on the train that required the Conductor to have the police meet the train in Simi Valley. Best I can guess is that a guy didn't have a ticket and was wandering around the train. He made a nuisance of himself and was eventually caught in the Parlor Car. The Conductor and two Assistant Conductors were all called to the Parlor Car in case physical restraint was required. When the man couldn't produce a ticket, they told him he'd have to purchase a ticket on board. He pulled money out of his pocket, but not enought to cover the cost of a ticket. He then started throwing things around and making obscene gestures. At that point, the Conductor used his radio to have the police meet the train at the next station which would be Simi Valley. When we arrived, the police were not yet at the station. After waiting for a while, the Conductor turned the person over to a security guard and ticket agent at the station and the train proceeded out of Simi Valley after having lost another 15 minutes. We were now running 30 minutes behind schedule.
I got to sleep early last night knowing that there would be good scenery in the morning. However, I woke up several times during the night. We lost 2 more hours in Martinez, California. A chemical truck had a problem near the station and blocked the tracks. Thus, we left Martinez 3 hours late. That wasn't too bad when our main interest on this trip was scenery. It just meant that daylight would arrive earlier on our itinery in the morning.
This "Winder Wonderland" Vacations took a totally unexpected turn of events on the following day, Tuesday, December 30, 1996. Because of the tremendous amount of snow and rain in the northwest, our travel on the Coast Starlight was terminated in Portland, Oregon and we were bused the rest of the way to Seattle, Washington.
That was the last Amtrak train to arrive into Portland, Oregon. Mud slides closed the tracks between Oakland, California and Portland, Oregon. As of this writing on January 14, 1997, the Coast Starlight has not been operating any further north than Oakland, California. The most recent that I have heard is that the track won't be repaired and the Coast Starlight won't be operating any further north than Oakland until at least February 1997.
As soon as I arrived into Seattle, Washington, I received a call from Amtrak telling me that the Empire Builder would not be operating out of Seattle. Avalanches had trapped the Amtrak Pioneer for several hours and the danger of avalanches along the Empire Builder route shut down passenger travel along that route. I waited several days in Seattle for any train: either an Empire Builder to continue on my "Winter Wonderland" or a Coast Starlight to return home. After a few days, it was clear that no trains would be operating from Seattle for many more days. My family flew to Oakland, spent a couple of days in Jack London Square, and then continued on by Amtrak San Joaquins to return home.
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