This is the travelogue of my rail trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight for a "Behind The Scenes Tour" of the California State Railroad Museum. I went up on the northbound Coast Starlight on Saturday, August 8, 1998, attended the "Behind The Scenes Tour" on Sunday, August 9, 1998, and returned on the southbound Coast Starlight on Monday, August 10, 1998.
For the first time since I started traveling by Amtrak, I had the photos of my travel posted to the web before I had my travelogue ready to post!
There are two reasons for this. I am using a digital camera for the very first time on my rail travel. This camera instantly creates a .jpg image file onto a diskette in the camera that I can transfer to my PC and post to the web as soon as I get to a modem! Second, I've written a CGI Perl routine that automatically creates an index web page for all the photos in a particular location on the web without me having to manually code the index page for the photographs. Thus, I was able to post all the photographs of my northbound rail journey before I even returned home!
The follow method of displaying the photographs from my rail travel is an experiment and still under development. I do not have descriptions for any of the photos yet. I would suggest that you select the "thumbnail" options rather than the "quarter page" options. There are a lot of photographs posted and it could take a very long time to display the "quarter page" photo index! Using either the thumbnail index or the quarter page index, you can click on any photo in the index to bring up a full size image of the photo.
The photographs are posted in the same sequence as the order in which they were taken. The first set was taken on the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight and shows the scenery from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Actually, the last photo was taken in San Jose as it had become too dark in the evening to take any further photos. The second set was taken at the "1998 Behind The Scenes Tour" of the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. The third set was taken on the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight and shows the scenery from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Keep in mind that the order of each set of photos reflects the sequence in which these scenes were observed out the window of the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
Select one of the following sets of photographs:
I want to thank Sam Pottinger of Sam's Steel Rails West (www.trainweb.com/samssrw) for having lent me his digital camera to test on this trip. Sam has a great variety of unusual railfan photos at his web site, including several photos of interest to railfans that were taken from a helicopter! Sam has all sorts of maps, guides, T-shirts, caps, photos, videos and other merchandise of interest to railfans available on his web site. Sam also posts a monthly update of interest to railfans along with a monthly addition to the "Mechanic's Corner", a technical perspective on rail equipment. A visit to www.trainweb.com/samssrw from time to time would be worth your while!
If your southbound Coast Starlight is running on time and you want to see it arrive into the station in Sacramento, this is a good time to get up! That is, a good time if you are staying right across the street from the station at either the Vagabond Inn or Holiday Inn and can jump out of bed and head right to the station! Actually, if the train is REALLY on time, you will still miss seeing its arrival.
I know the schedule shows 6:30 AM for Sacramento, but remember that is the departure time and not the arrival time! If the train is running on time, then it will pull into Sacramento at 5:30 AM! How do I know this? Look at the northbound Coast Starlight schedule. It only takes the train one hour and seven minutes to get from Sacramento to the next stop, Marysville. The southbound schedule shows the train leaving Marysville at 4:23 AM. Add one hour and seven minutes to 4:23 AM and you get 5:30 AM!
I went to bed last night at about 1:00 AM. Just before turning in, I went to the Amtrak web site at http://reservations.amtrak.com to check the status of the southbound Coast Starlight. At that point it was running just 20 minutes late. I knew it could make that time up in Sacramento if it was still running late in the morning. Since it was running close to "on time" at 1:00 AM, then it would likely still be close to "on time" into Sacramento less than five hours later. If I had found that the train was already four or five hours late, I probably would have called down to the front desk to find out what time the Amtrak crew wanted their wake-up call. They also stay at the Vagabond Inn. Since the train won't be leaving without them, then I can also put in a later wake-up call and get a little more sleep when the train is running late.
I think I found a shorter route from the Vagabond Inn (and the Holiday Inn next door) over to the station. Both hotels are right across from the station, but there is a highway entrance ramp right between them and the access to the street is all fenced in. There used to be a hole that someone had cut in the fence, but I could not find it this time when I arrived into Sacramento. To get across the street, you have to walk out of the parking lot the same way that the cars leave. Don't do like I did and try to walk diagonally to the traffic lights where the parking lot exit meets the street. I got boxed into an area of the parking lot and had to walk quite a way back to the station to get around the fence and finally walk out the same way that the cars drive out!
If you are staying at one of these hotels, don't head for the station at all. Instead, go to the train platform nearest the station if you aren't already there. Head south along the platform, toward the freeways that go over the tracks. When you get to the end of the platform, you will see a sign that says: "To Oldtown Sacramento." Just follow that path. You will see at least one more sign "To Oldtown Sacramento" above as you follow the path. After you go under the freeways, you will see the California State Railroad Museum on your right and a historic frontier town further down the street. Just stay on the sidewalk to your left and keep on walking, right under the freeway again. When you come out from under the freeway, you will see the Vagabond Inn directly across the street and the Holiday Inn right after that.
I did the reverse to get back to the station in the morning. This route seemed much shorter than going the other way, especially since I was in the lead Sleeping Car right up at the end of the station where this path ends.
The train must have lost a few more minutes during the night as it didn't arrive until about 6:15 AM. Last time I went to Sacramento, the train was already in the station when I left my hotel about the same time in the morning!
I noticed that the refueling truck was one track over, so I crossed over to the next track assuming that would have to be the track on which the Coast Starlight was expected! Soon, a Station Agent came out driving a truck full of baggage. He stopped almost where I was standing, so I figured I must be too close to where the front end of the train will stop. I moved a couple of car lengths north along the platform and found myself just about exactly at the door to my Sleeping Car when it arrived!
Once again, the train was pretty full, though I don't think quite as full as when I went north. The people that got off from my Sleeping Car in Sacramento were the ones that were in the room that was to become mine. Since it would take the Car Attendant a few minutes to get the room ready, he put me in Deluxe Bedroom B for now. But, he also said that I could have this room for the rest of the trip if I wished and if it didn't get sold along the way. He also mentioned that it is extremely unlikely that it would be sold to anyone boarding further south than Oakland and that it was not too likely that it would be sold by then. On second thought, he realized that Deluxe Room A was getting off in Oakland, so there would be 2 Deluxe Rooms available for the journey south. He said I could move to that room if this room did get sold.
I was somewhat looking forward to my room on the ocean side of the train. Since I don't ride in a Deluxe Room very often, I think I'll forgo my ocean view Standard Bedroom and enjoy this unusual opportunity!
This may be a good time to review sides of the train, room numbers, and ocean views on the Coast Starlight. Many agents will tell you that there is no way to predict which rooms will be on the coast, but that is pure nonsense! Yes, there is no way to guarantee it. But, the odds are far from 50/50 as to which rooms end up with the ocean view. Actually, if you follow my suggestions, the chances are about 95% that you will end up with an ocean view! Keep in mind that I have traveled the Coast Starlight dozens of times over the last 3 years and I have rarely found a Sleeping Car on the train oriented other than the way I'm about to describe.
Keep this simple jingle in mind: "Even Up, Odd Down." That is, get an even numbered Standard Bedroom on your trip north out of Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight and an odd numbered Standard Bedroom on your trip south on the Coast Starlight. That will give you about a 95% chance of being on the side with the view of the ocean between San Luis Obispo and Oxnard!
If you have a Deluxe Bedroom, you will be on the ocean side while heading north and on the in-land side while heading south. That isn't all bad as you can just open your curtain and look out the window across the corridor without obstructions. If you are in the Family Room or the Special (Handicapped) Bedroom, it doesn't matter as you have windows on both sides of the train!
Why are the Sleeping Cars always oriented this way? I don't know, but it may be intentional. This orientation gives the Deluxe Bedroom passengers the ocean view while going north. Of the two directions, the ocean view is best on the northbound trip as it is in the morning. During the southbound journey, the train is sometimes in darkness by the time it gets to the ocean, especially in the shorter daylight hours of winter or even if the train runs late in other seasons. Thus, if you want to make sure your top paying passengers get the best view of the ocean, then you will want them on that side of the train during the northbound journey.
Conversely, in my own opinion, the best views from the train between Seattle and Oakland on the southbound journey are on the in-land side of the train. Once again, the Deluxe Bedrooms are on the in-land side of the train for the southbound journey giving them the best view in that direction again! But, it does place the Deluxe Bedrooms on the wrong side of the train for the ocean view south of San Luis Obispo.
Once in a great while, but not often, I will see Sleeping Car #1432 (north) or #1132 (south) oriented backwards. I've been told it has something to do with it being connected to the Transition Sleeper, but I haven't figure out why that would change anything. Sleeping Cars #1432 and #1132 are usually oriented correctly even when connected to a Transition Sleeper, just as it is in this train today. The other times I have seen Sleeping Cars disoriented is when there has been a disruption in rail service and the Coast Starlight is not making the entire run. That is rare, but it does sometimes happen when the tracks get flooded (or washed out!) during the rainy month of January. During that time and for a few days after service is restored, the Sleeping Cars can be oriented any which way. But, shortly after full service resumes, it doesn't seem to take Amtrak long to put all the cars back into their usual orientation!
While we are on the topic, the usual consist of the Coast Starlight is two Genesis Locomotives in the lead, a baggage car, a Transition Sleeper (Car Loading #10), 3 Superliner II Sleeping Cars (Car Loading Numbers 32, 31 and 30), the Pacific Parlor Car (First Class Lounge Car), the Dining Car, the Sightseer Lounge Car, and then from 3 to 5 Superliner Coach Cars (mostly, if not all, Superliner II Coach Cars with Car Loading Numbers 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15). You will find the Car Loading Numbers right by the outside of the entrance door on each side of the car and also inside the car up on the wall on each end where you go through the door to the next car. The Car Loading number is a four digit number. The first two digits are the train number. For example, they will be "14" on the northbound Coast Starlight and "11" on the southbound Coast Starlight. The next two digits will be the number that I have mentioned above. It is easy to tell a new Superliner II Coach or Sleeper from an older Superliner I Coach or Sleeper. In the new Superliner II Cars, the Car Loading Numbers are all electronic and appear as an LCD display with black digits on a white background. In the older Superliner I Cars, the Car Loading Numbers are white digits on a black background mounted on mechanical rollers. There are many other differences between the new and old Superliner Cars, but this is one of the easiest ways to tell the vintage of the car that you are about to board!
I went to the Pacific Parlour Car shortly after boarding the train. It was one of the newly refurbished Pacific Parlour Cars. The time was about 7:00 AM. From the state of the tables, I could see that a lot of people were probably in the Parlour Car just a short while ago and they probably moved into the Dining Car for a full breakfast when it opened up. The Parlour Car Attendant was pretty busy cleaning up all the tables.
Another woman in the car stepped up to the bar. The Car Attendant wasn't there, but the Conductor was standing there having his morning cup of coffee. The Conductor asked the woman if she'd like some coffee and filled her cup. She then sat at the table next to my table. I turned over my cup so the Car Attendant would know that I'd like to have it filled with some coffee when he got a chance. To my embarassment, the woman turned around and said to the Conductor: "This gentleman would also like a cup of coffee!" I certainly know that pouring coffee is not a duty of the Conductor, who is the #1 person in charge of the operation and safety of the train! The Conductor called over to me: "Would you like decaf or the regular blend?" I said that I take regular, but don't mind waiting for the Car Attendant. The Conductor poured me a cup of coffee and jokingly said: "I hope you realize this is probably the high point of your trip, being served coffee by the Conductor!" I told him that I realized that and certainly did appreciate it!
125 people got off the train in Emeryville to connect to buses going to San Francisco, mostly from the Coach Cars. Since the station and buses were ahead of the train and I was in the lead Sleeping Car, #1132, everyone had to pass where I was standing outside the door of the car. The line of people seemed to go on forever! The Car Attendant said that we would be having a large crowd of people boarding in Oakland that were bused in from San Francisco.
Right on time into Oakland! I got off the train and was able to walk all the way to the front and take a few pictures of the Genesis locomotives and then walk all the way to the back of the train getting the numbers of the consist for those of you that are interested in that. On the train going north, one of the Coach Cars was a Superliner I. This train is 100% Superliner II Cars in Coach and Sleeping.
Well, nobody has purchased this room yet. So, I guess I can stay in Deluxe Bedroom B for the rest of my journey!
Just south of Soledad Prison the train went into "emergency stop." I jumped to get my scanner to see why we stopped so suddenly. Ron Carpenter, a friend who is traveling with me on this trip, wanted to know what I was getting so excited about. Trains stop so slowly, even in "emergency stop," that you might not realize it unless you know what it feels like. An "emergency stop," which is as fast as a train can stop, is slow enough that even stemmed wine glasses generally do not spill. Ron said that the emergency stop felt like the way a Caltrain Commuter Train will make a normal stop sometimes. I don't ride those very often, so I can't attest to that.
I didn't get much more information from the scanner other than they were now getting pressure back up in the brakes. The Conductor did make an announcement over the P.A. that the reason that we stopped so suddenly was that a car had pulled in front of the train and that we had narrowly missed hitting the car. If you are wondering if this is a common occurrence, it is unfortunately not as uncommon as it should be. However, I've only seen a train go into emergency stop 3 times in over 100,000 miles of Amtrak travel. If you are concerned about the safety of rail travel, don't be. In one of those 3 emergency stops, the train actually did hit a car. The people in the car were killed, but just like this "emergency stop", most of the people on the train didn't even know that we had made an emergency stop and were wondering what we were waiting for. Unless the train were to hit a cement truck or some other extremely heavy object, you are unlikely to even know that the train hit something until you are told!
Still in the Pacific Parlour Car, I decided to look for that electrical outlet that I had found in a previously refurbished Pacific Parlour Car under the second table from the bar on the west side of the train. It wasn't there! I checked under every table and could not find an outlet under any of them! I had thought that the outlets were part of the original car, but according to the Car Attendant, the outlets were put in as part of the refurbishing. The Car Attendant said that the Pacific Parlour Cars are not all identical even though they look that way to passengers. As each one was completed and placed into service, some problems were found that were corrected before additional cars were refurbished. One such correction was placing a drain and electrical outlet into the bar service area. Evidently another such correction was placing an outlet under one of the tables, probably to make it convenient for the people that need to vacuum the floors. I like the outlet under the tables as it allows me to work on my notebook computer in the Pacific Parlour Car without having to worry about batteries.
Tonight we had dinner in our Deluxe Room. While we were eating, there was a tremendous crashing like noise that came from our car and then all the power went out. It took about 15 minutes before the crew was able to attempt to restore the power. When they did, there was another big crashing noise accompanied by sparks and a big puff of smoke out of our car!
I know someone that is going to get a kick out of this: Gene Poon, who writes for the Rail Travel News (www.trainweb.com/rtn). This Superliner Car is the "Arkansas". It was one of the cars used on the inaugural "thru" Texas Eagle last February. Gene was telling me about all the problems with this car. This is certainly another one of those problems! It also isn't the first problem that this car encountered on this trip. Somewhere south of San Jose, the door on the east side of this train jammed and would not open! I can't think of any connection between the stuck door and the electrical problem, which is on the other side of the train near the connection to the next car, the Transition Sleeping Car, but who knows?
I don't remember all the problems that Gene pointed out about this car. When I used the upstairs toilet, I was reminded that this car may have one of the only Superliner II toilets with a "Push To Flush" button. All the other Superliner II cars have toilets that automatically flush when you close the toilet lid.
The crew made a third attempt to bypass some electrical and reset the system. I was standing outside my door of Deluxe Bedroom B by the window when they did that. There was another great crashing noise followed by a lot of big sparks and a very big puff of smoke! At this point they gave up trying to fix electrical. The crew was very good about keeping everyone informed over the P.A. system about the problem as they attempted to fix it. Now, they just decided to head into Los Angeles without the Head End Power (HEP). I've never been in such a quiet train before! It is getting a bit warm without the air conditioning, but it certainly is quiet without the air blowing around! Of course, the other problem is that I only brought this one battery for my notebook computer. When it goes, that will be it for the rest of this travelogue until another day!
I'm back in my office at TrainWeb, upstairs in the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot, putting the final touches on this travelogue. We traveled all the way from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, in total darkness! Eventually it got so dark that you could not see the nose in front of your face! Even the battery to power the emergency lights in our car eventually died. The battery to power emergency lights in most of the other cars lasted all the way to Los Angeles, but not in our car. The Car Attendant obtained a box of stick lights from the emergency supplies and handed one to each passenger. These were tubes of liquid that glowed bright green once activated. Several of these were also taped to the walls to provide some lighting in the hallways and stairs.
When I first went to the Pacific Parlour Car in the morning, I heard some passengers questioning why the Sleeping Cars were at the head of the train instead of the tail of the train. They were complaining that they could not sleep with all the noise from the locomotives. I was a bit surprised when I heard their discussion as I don't remember ever hearing the locomotives from inside my room. I think the ride from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles confirmed my observation about the noise. Without the electricity, the train was very quiet! All that could be heard was the wheels on the tracks, and that was not very noisy. We could not hear the locomotives at all. What the other people thought was the sound of the locomotives was probably the sound of the air conditioning in each car and the sound of air moving through the vents. I don't think the sound of that is disturbingly loud, but it is certainly loud enough to drown out any engine sounds that might be able to be heard from the locomotives! If they were referring to the horn on the locomotive, I can certainly believe they heard that as it can be heard for miles away from the train! I don't think that sound is very loud inside the train and I regard it as one of the more pleasing sounds that is all part of the rail travel experience. In any case, this was certainly the quietest train ride that I have ever been on!
About 9 PM the Conductor announced that the Texas Eagle would wait for the connecting passengers, but the southbound San Diegan would not. He said that we would all be bused to our destination. At that point we were in Simi Valley, just 36 miles out of Los Angeles. I knew that we would arrive pretty close to the departure time of the San Diegan at 9:45 PM. If we were late, we would only be about 15 or 20 minutes late. It seemed odd to me that they would not hold the train for us for such a short period.
My guess is that they were not sure that there would not be further delays because of the condition of the train. So, to be on the safe side, they called in the buses to take us. Just as I had predicted, we arrived into Los Angeles at about 9:10 PM, about 25 minutes after the departure of the last southbound San Diegan. Thus, we completed the final segment of our journey to Fullerton in a bus.
As far as the test of the digital camera goes, I'll let you be the judge of that. The quality of the photographs seem to be just as good as any of the past photographs that I have posted to the web. I think the quality is acceptable for photographs that are to be posted to the web. I tried both "standard" and "fine" mode. Both modes create a ".jpg" file that is 640 x 480. The difference seems to be that the "fine" file is larger than the "standard" file, but I had difficulty seeing much difference in the quality of the photograph. To make a comparison for yourself, look at the first two photos of the Northbound Coast Starlight set. Those were the only photos taken in "standard" quality. All the rest were taken in "fine" quality mode. "Standard" quality files seem to be about 25K to 35K bytes in size while the "Fine" quality files seem to be about 35K to 50K bytes in size.
If you plan to take photographs and expect to sell them or submit them to rail magazines, I don't think this particular digital camera will meet your needs. Some people who shoot photographs professionally who have been looking for a digital camera to meet their needs have told me that they have been unable to find one that can take the same quality pictures as a 35mm camera, regardless of the cost of the camera.
Some of the good features: This particular camera stores the photographs into ".jpg" files directly onto a standard 3-1/2" computer diskette that you load into the camera. This diskette can be read by a standard IBM compatible computer without any special software. The files are ready to be uploaded to be copied to your hard drive and viewed by any standard image viewing program, or can be immediately transferred to the web. Diskettes are very inexpensive, usually well under $1 per diskette. Thus, you can just about take an unlimited number of photographs at almost no cost. Plus, diskettes can be erased are reused! Another great feature is that you can just take a photo, even if you are not sure you want to keep the photograph. Without any cost for developing, you can just delete any images that you do not wish to save.
Some of the problems: The biggest problem is the quality. As mentioned above, I don't think the qualities of these photos are adequate to submit them to a rail magazine nor adequate for making reproductions and selling them. The other major drawback is that you just get a "DISK FULL" error when there is not enough room remaining on the diskette. The photo is not saved. Thus, if you want to make sure you get the shot, you need to change the diskette as it gets near being full and not wait until it is completely full. You just have to guess about when it is getting near being full. The other major drawback is that you cannot take two photos in rapid succession as you can with many 35mm cameras. After you take each shot, the image is recorded to disk and this recording process takes a few seconds. That can be a problem if you want to take 2 or 3 photos of the scenery while the train is crossing a bridge, and in any other situation where the target of your photo changes quickly.
Here is the model of this particular digital camera: Sony Digital 10x Mavica Digital Still Camera MVC-FD7