Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 6 - Vancouver, BC to Seattle, WA
July 2, 1999
AMTRAK Cascade # 761
It was cold and rainy for my day in Vancouver, so I decided to take a sightseeing tour of the City. I asked about tours at the information desk of the VIA station and found that I could take a trolley tour, which boards approximately 2 blocks away from the station. When the VIA baggage room finally opened, I checked my 2 suitcases inside and took only the video camera and case for the day. I found the trolley boarding location and took the 2-hour trip, which was interesting. 2 hours later I was returned to the same location, and found out on the way back that I actually could have boarded the trolley right at the VIA station, since that was one of the scheduled stops on the route. Still having a couple hours to spare, I walked down the street to the Science Center, which I thought was a museum, but it was actually more of a "hands-on" activity center, designed primarily for kids. Their "solve the UFO sighting mystery" and "design a mining prospect" activities were rather unique and could be quite challenging for younger people. Not wanting to spend the time thinking, I walked through the exhibits but did not participate. Back at the VIA station, I decided to cash in $100 worth of my Canadian money, since I had purchased much more than I actually used in Canada, and this next leg of the trip would take me back into the USA. I also had a late lunch at the McDonald's restaurant in the VIA station.
There are signs in the Vancouver VIA station informing Cascade customers that we need to complete our customs declaration forms prior to boarding, then board the train through the "customs inspection" and get a seat assignment. I got my form and filled it out, then took one more walk outside to the platform to video the green and brown Spanish Talgo train. I could not get to the Talgo track from the platform, but walked past a bus boarding area and was able to video the train through a fence between the bus area and the tracks. I then went back inside and got in line for "customs." I was the first one in line, and the conductor assigned me Seat 1 in Car 4 before I proceeded through the customs area and talked to the customs agents -- the agents do not ask any questions or inspect baggage -- in fact, they don't even take the customs declaration forms! Just show the agent your declaration form and ticket and board the train -- easy. I've never gotten back into the U.S. so easily through customs! I found car 4 easily, but there were no car attendants, no conductors, and no AMTRAK staff of any kind on the train! (The Cascades are operated completely by AMTRAK, and are not "jointly run with VIA," like the International was at the other end of the country). I set my suitcases and map books in first seat on the right hand side in the back of the car, then walked around outside to take one more outdoor video before departure. I was a bit confused, since I had seen an engine at the station end of the train, so figured that either this is a "push-pull" train which will run backwards all the way to Seattle, or we back out of the station, then reverse a couple miles out. If we ran backwards all the way to Seattle, I would be sitting on the wrong side of the train to see Puget Sound. Hmmmm. I walked the length of the train, and the cold wet rain continued. At the head end of the train was another engine unit! I finally figures out that yes, this is a "push-pull" trainset, but we will be traveling "forward" in reference to the orientation of the seats, and I would in fact be on the right side of the train to see Puget Sound. Ahead of the train, across the tracks, was a locked gate, which had not yet been opened when I made my car walk! Interesting -- is AMTRAK afraid that someone might steal this sleek new Talgo trainset?
Back into the train, and I was joined by my seatmate, a quiet young lady who apparently used this train frequently to travel between Seattle and Vancouver. All the Talgo trains in the Pacific Northwest are now collectively known as AMTRAK Cascade service; however, this train was previously "officially" (and still officially to me!) known as the Mt. Baker International. The Talgo trains are very nicely furnished and comfortable, and they ride smooth. I had never been in the Talgos before. Each trainset has 6 cars, I believe -- 4 coaches, a "Bistro" car, and a diner, I believe. I did not use the diner on this trip, so cannot confirm that. I did go into the Bistro car a couple times for drinks -- it is a very nice, but different car. The Bistro car has an eye-appealing curved "lunch counter" along the length of one side of the car, with the service attendant behind it, and small tables along the other side of the car. The most unique feature of the Bistro car was the ceiling, however! I looked up, and there is a large colored relief map of the Puget Sound region on the ceiling, with small lights showing the locations of all towns and settlements in the area. The most unique feature of the coach cars is the GPS monitors which are mounted from the ceiling. The monitors contain a map of the Puget Sound region, plus the current time and temperature, and the estimated time of arrival at the final destination (Seattle on this train). In addition, on the bottom of the monitor, the name of the next station appears, and on the map on the left hand side, the route of the train is shown, as well as the present geographic position of the train. Of course, during the 4-hour trip to Seattle, a movie was shown, which overrides the GPS monitor system. I don't care to watch movies in the train, and I wish the GPS monitor were always available.
It was finally time to leave, and, in keeping with the spirit of the rest of this trip, the Cascade train left 5 minutes late! The conductors finally showed up and came by to collect tickets, but I realized I had already lost my yellow "seat check" I was given when I got my seat assignment in the station. It turned up later that evening, after I had left the train -- stuck in the binding of my map book! It was evening and getting dark, but fortunately, even through the rain, it was light enough to get some good video along Puget Sound and of the trip through the southern suburbs of Vancouver. The GPS monitor showed we would arrive in Seattle between 10:05 and 10:15 PM, which would be 15 or 20 minutes late -- not bad, considering the on-time performance of the other trains I had been on this trip! Shortly before crossing the U.S. border at Blaine, Washington, an announcement was made that we would be stopping momentarily in Blaine to pick up the U.S. customs agents. Huh???? I thought we went through customs in Vancouver??? Apparently not. I then thought we would be stopped in Blaine for as long as it took the customs agents to go through the train and do their thing, but, instead, the agents boarded in Blaine, rode the train to Bellingham, the next stop, and did their inspection enroute -- a good idea!! The "customs inspection" in Vancouver, I guess, was just an "initial screening," and if any problems were found, I imagine the problem passengers would not even be allowed to board. This rolling customs stop between Blaine and Bellingham was a formality, I guess, and the customs agents came through the train, collected the declaration forms finally, and had very few other questions -- again, no passport or birth certificate needed to be shown.
The first stop was Bellingham, Washington, and the customs agents left the train. As we departed Bellingham, the last call for dinner in the diner was made. As stated above, I chose not to have a meal on this segment of the trip, since I had eaten at McDonald's only an hour or so before boarding in Vancouver, and was more interested in getting good video of this route (which I have never been on before!) in the growing darkness. The rain continued all the way to Seattle. The route traverses Puget Sound for much of the route between Vancouver and Seattle. We departed the Mount Vernon/Burlington station 14 minutes late, and by now, the movie was being shown, so I did not have the up-to-date "real time" GPS monitor information available concerning our progress or estimated arrival in Seattle. In the town of Marysville, we had a freight delay for a few minutes. Between Marysville and Everett, I again noticed that my map book showed the wrong route. I had thought the route would be on the BN line which makes a sharp westerly bend after crossing the Snohomish River just north of Everett; however, the route used does not make the sharp right angle bend, but continues south a few miles, then bends to the west to connect with the main BN route which is used by the Empire Builder.
Shortly after we departed Everett (I did not record how late we left), another announcement was made that there had just been an earthquake somewhere south of Tacoma! Because of this earthquake, the Burlington Northern had to inspect all its bridges and tracks in the area, and because of that, we would be restricted to 20 mph between Edmonds, the next stop, and Seattle. Oh well -- I again had confirmed hotel reservations in Seattle for the evening, so it would not matter if we were even an hour or two late. No more than 10 minutes after the first announcement, another announcement was made that Burlington Northern had completed all their track inspections after the earthquake (wow! fast work!!), and we were now able to continue the last leg of the trip into Seattle at normal track speed. We arrived in Seattle only about 20 minutes late, and it was still cold and rainy!
From Seattle, I immediately found a taxicab to take me to the Pioneer Square Motel, which was recommended by Steve Grande of Train Web! The Pioneer Square area is only a few blocks from King Street Station, and the motel is a quaint little "bed and breakfast" type establishment. It was very nice, and I soon checked in and turned on the TV for all the up-to-date news on the earthquake -- and there was plenty of it! No injuries or significant damage anywhere; it just scared a lot of people, since earthquakes are rather rare in the Pacific Northwest. Apparently there had been 2 or 3 small earthquakes over the last couple days. I was now hoping that this earthquake wouldn't affect the schedule or operation of the Coast Starlight in the morning, and hoped there would be no aftershocks that night. There weren't.
Web page by Matthew J. Melzer.
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