Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 7 - Seattle, WA to Sacramento, CA
July 3-4, 1999
By morning it was still cold and cloudy, but at least the rain had stopped. Since I was now heading south, I decided to get back into the shorts and T-shirt for the rest of the trip, knowing that it would get warmer over the next few days. I had a continental breakfast in the Juice & Java ("J & J") restaurant in Pioneer Square Motel, then took a little token video outside my hotel of "downtown Seattle." The bell hop at Pioneer Square Motel got me a taxi cab for another 5-minute ride to King Street Station. The station was already buzzing with activity as I arrived, and there were lines forming at the ticket counter already. Outside the station, passengers could check their baggage at an "express baggage check-in" for the Coast Starlight; however, I have never checked baggage on a train trip -- not that I don't trust the baggage service, I just would prefer to keep my baggage with me. The train had not yet been pulled into the station, so I walked around and looked at all the "station improvement" posters and signs around the station. Apparently King Street Station is about to undergo some major remodeling. I walked outside for a little more video of the downtown skyline, and it had again started raining as I watched a homeless man paw through some garbage cans next to the station in the parking lot.
In due time, the Coast Starlight pulled in and boarding soon began, the sleeper passengers first. As is the usual custom with AMTRAK, sleepers are now generally located at the head end of the train, and, as such, I had to walk past several cars as I exited the station, before I found my car. I was in Room no. 2 again, in the Superliner II sleeper Kentucky. I think I was in this sleeper on one of my trains last year. The sleeper attendant was a very pleasant woman named "Maureen," who preferred going by "Mo." If you read my 1998 Train Web travelogue, you may recall that, on the Coast Starlight portion of that trip, I had a room with a non-working door, and the "Pacific Parlour Car" was way too hot for comfort the first day. I am happy to say that, on the Starlight this year, I had no such problems! Everything in my room worked, including the door, and the "Pacific Parlour Car" was quite comfortable for the entire trip. I got settled in my room, and Maureen came by to introduce herself and ask me if I had any questions about the room. When I first boarded, however, I got a bit confused and sat in the room oriented to what I thought was forward, but as soon as the train left, I realized that I was sitting backwards, so moved to the opposite facing seat in the room. Dumb me.....
The Starlight departed Seattle on time, and within the first 5 minutes of the trip, there were welcoming announcements by the Chief, "Troy" the Dining Car Steward, the Sightseer Lounge Attendant, Maureen, the Conductor, and a woman named "Tiana" who was the on-board "Entertainer." As soon as my ticket was collected, I went to the Pacific Parlour Car, where I sat for most of the day. The car looked a little different than the hot car on the train last year, and I was told later that this was a newer Parlour Car. Today was July 3, but the Parlour Car was decorated for the 4th of July, with red, white, and blue plastic "flowers" at each table in the Parlour Car, and red, white, and blue half-circle "Presidential address" banners hanging from the serving area of the Parlour Car. When I had first arrived in the Parlour Car, it was quite crowded with people eating the continental breakfast which is provided in the car for the first-class passengers. I had a couple rolls and a soft drink, and found a table to sit at on the left side of the car. I had wanted to sit on the right side so I could again video Puget Sound as we passed through Tacoma, but all the tables on the right side were fully occupied. However, most of the tables became free before we had arrived in Tacoma, as people finished eating and returned to their sleepers.
Upon departure from Seattle, we passed one of the Talgo train sets in the yard next to us, which I assumed was the same trainset that I had come into Seattle on the previous evening, but it looked different -- it was blue and white, I believe, and I did not remember that my Talgo had that color scheme. A few minutes later, however, we also passed the brown and green trainset, which I recognized as the Talgo I was on -- apparently there is more than one color scheme for the Talgo fleet.
We departed Tacoma on time, and by now I had moved to a table on the right side of the train so I could video the Sound, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Old Tacoma, and other features. In fact, the Pacific Parlour Car was nearly empty now. Other than me, there was a woman across from me with her son, and a couple other people further up in the car, but that was it. Soon "Tiana," the Entertainer, came through announcing that she would be making funny balloons for the kids in the Sightseer Lounge. I met her for the first time -- she was a young blonde woman, who apparently was trying to embark on a singing career, and did this job part-time. Apparently she also had part-time employment as a singer or entertainer at weddings, banquets, and other events. There were now a few more kids in the Parlour Car, and Tiana told the kids to go back to the Sightseer Lounge in a few minutes to get their balloons. If there was a line there, the kids could give Tiana their name and she would give them a number and call them when it was time for them.
Even before the stop at Olympia-Lacey, the first call for lunch was made, at 11 AM. Too early for me, so I decided to wait until last call. We departed the Olympia-Lacey station on time, but then began losing a little time for unknown reasons, and departed Centralia, Washington, 4 minutes late -- easily made up. Somewhere around Centralia, the first announcement was made by the Chief, I assume, instructing all parents on the train to keep track of their children and not let them race through the train and disrupt people. Two or three more such announcements were made as the day went on. The kids in the Parlour Car were generally well behaved, and a group of 4 teenage boys were sitting across from me -- playing poker! One of the boy's mother was sitting at the next table monitoring the game, however! I was taking note of how much video tape I had left for this trip, since the 1-hour tape I mistakenly brought (and used on the Canadian) kind of messed up my video plans. I would have to conserve tape somewhere if I was to have enough for the entire trip. Since I had taped much of this route between Portland and Sacramento last year, I decided to conserve tape after the Portland stop, and not take much video between Portland, Eugene, and the Cascades, and maybe not even take much in the morning in northern California.
I did not record our departure time from Kelso-Longview, but we were again on time as we departed Vancouver, Washington. Just before Vancouver, the last call for lunch was made by "Troy," the dining car steward, so I went to the diner, which was located behind the Pacific Parlour Car and in front of the Sightseer Lounge. I ate my entire lunch between Vancouver, WA, and Portland, Oregon! (10 rail mile distance), and we arrived in Portland 12 minutes early. Since the Starlight is scheduled for a 30-minute service stop in Portland, I had plenty of time to finish my lunch, then get off the train and walk around for a few minutes. It was still a bit chilly and cloudy, but no more rain. Crossing the Columbia and Willamette Rivers into Portland, it was much too cloudy to see Mt. Hood in the distance to the south, which is normally a spectacular sight from the railroad bridges. While in Portland, I noticed that there is now a new apartment/townhouse complex being built directly across the tracks from the AMTRAK station -- that site was formerly a run-down industrial area. It would be a great place for a railfan to live! We departed Portland on time, and soon after departure, it was announced that the first movie of the trip, "The Prince of Egypt," would be shown in the lower level of the Pacific Parlour Car. I like the idea of having a lower level movie area -- that way, those of us who don't care to watch the movies are not bothered by it. At one point I walked into the lower level of the Parlour Car to the "movie theater." It is set up quite nicely, in a separate room (with a door) with chairs and a movie screen, just like an actual theater.
Shortly after Portland, the traditional wine party began in the Pacific Parlour Car, at about 3 PM. Most of the car was again full, and I had moved back into my table on the right side of the car. The car attendant gave everyone samples of 3 different wines -- I don't remember what wines were served on this day, but, along with the wine, we were all supplied with cards which told about the wines -- what kind of grapes they were made from, where the wine was made, and other interesting information. All three wines were pretty good, and I later bought an extra glass of my favorite (either a Chardonnay or a blush - I don't remember exactly) later. During the wine party, a very nice older lady from Hawaii and her grandson sat with me. They had been at a "Grandparent and Grandchild" experience at an Elder Hostel in the Olympic Mountains. After the wine party, Tiana came into the Parlour Car and had a "music trivia" contest, in which she sang the beginning of, or played a recording of, several songs, and would ask questions such as "Who wrote the song?" or "Who first recorded it?" Each time someone had a correct answer, she would go to that person and place a small red dot from a felt-tip pen on his or her wrist. I believe about 75% of the songs she presented were prefaced with "....This song was recorded by a superstar who just died last year," who of course was Frank Sinatra. Apparently Tiana was a serious fan of Ol' Blue-Eyes. My table partner, Elizabeth from Hawaii, didn't think Tiana was a very good singer, but I thought she sang just fine. After the contest, the people with the most red dots on their wrists could claim prizes ranging from AMTRAK keychains to AMTRAK pins to AMTRAK cups and pillows. I won a suitcase lock. I had kept my commitment to save video, so was not taking any video during this part of the trip. The Chief came through soon to make dinner reservations, and, as usual, I made reservations for the latest seating, 8:15. We then somehow lost a little time, but no one really noticed during the wine party or the music trivia contest, but we departed Eugene 20 minutes late. After Eugene I began taking a little video again, but not very much. However, for the first time in years, I was actually able to get a picture of the beautiful red covered bridge in Westfir -- usually by the time I realize we're at that point, the bridge has passed, but I finally captured it in film this year! Yeeeah!!
We soon climbed the Cascades and enjoyed the beautiful scenery -- there was some snow left along the tracks as we climbed Willamette Pass. I had dinner with an Australian couple in the diner after we had left Chemult a few minutes late (I did not record the exact time of departure). Cruising south through the Cascade Plateau, several beautiful snow-capped peaks were visible in the setting sun to the west, one of which (Mt. McLaughlin?) had quite a bit of snow on it, which my Australian tablemates were quite impressed with. The next stop was Klamath Falls, Oregon, and we arrived early. It was almost time for bed, but I stepped off the train for a few minutes during the stop, and it was cold!!!! No rain -- just cold! I got back on the train and went to bed, as we departed Klamath Falls on time.
Approximately 45 minutes after our departure from Klamath Falls, near a place in northern California called Mount Hebron, the Starlight came to a screeching halt. I figured we were waiting for a freight train, but as I lay in bed, I heard no freight train passing on the other side of the train, and we were stopped for at least half an hour. I got up to investigate and went downstairs in the Superliner and opened up the window in the doorway and looked out. There was absolutely 0 traffic anywhere in sight in either direction on the adjacent track -- just a red light signal ahead. I waited and waited. An hour went by and we still had not moved. It then became 2 hours and we had still not moved. Another check out the window revealed the same thing as before -- nothing! No trains in either direction, and still nothing had passed us. I know from experience that something unusual had happened -- most likely a freight derailment or a bridge washout ahead, since no traffic was passing us. I wandered back into the diner and found the graveyard shift crew sitting at a couple tables -- a male and a female conductor. I asked what was going on, and they told me that a "snowplow" had fallen off a freight train some 20 miles ahead of us, and had to be cleared and the track inspected before anything got through, and that there were freight trains backed up in each direction, as well as the northbound Starlight. I asked if they knew what progress was being made, since it had now been about 3 hours since we stopped, and they said "no one is telling us anything." Okay, I thought, and went back to bed. I had to be curious, however, as to why a train would be carrying a "snowplow" in July. After another half hour, we finally began moving again. I found out the next morning that the reason the snowplow fell off the train was that there had been a rockslide! (Hmmm -- an aftershock of the Tacoma earthquake? No -- too far south). Of course, now I had to think about implementing another "contingency plan", just as I thought I may have to for this train (but not for this reason!), based on recent on-time performance documented in www./reservations.amtrak.com. I really could not get off anywhere before Martinez and make the connection to the San Joaquin, unless I got off at Sacramento and caught a bus to Stockton, which I didn't really want to do, but may have to.
We did make up a little time overnight once we got going again, but were still 2 to 3 hours late in the morning. I was able to resume my video, however, and caught some features which I couldn't even catch last year since we went through the area overnight. There was a good view of the Sutter Buttes, which is one of the features normally passed by at night. By morning, however, we were still too far south to see Mount Shasta. At least the rain and clouds had left us, and we were traveling through the beautiful clear sunny (and warm) California summer weather. I did not keep track of our departure times at Chico or Marysville, but we were 2 to 2 1/2 hours late all morning. As people awoke and gathered back in the Pacific Parlour Car, announcements were made describing the rockslide and why we were so late. Announcements were also made saying that connecting passengers for Trains no. 4, 6, 2, and 22 should get off the Starlight in Sacramento to make their connections (via the San Joaquin); however, the San Joaquin connection was not mentioned in the announcement, and many passengers were under the impression that they were going to be bussed from Sacramento to Los Angeles. I guess I had better do the same. I, of course, had planned on catching the San Joaquin anyway from Martinez or Oakland (if we had actually remained on time!) I asked the crew about the Thruway connecting bus to Stockton, but none of the crew seemed to know much about it. At one point, the female conductor who had told me about the freight delay at midnight told me that I would not have to take a bus at all, that there was a train I could take that left Sacramento at 10:45 and went all the way to Los Angeles. Huuh???????? Sorry to say this, but there is no such animal!!!!!!! It's always embarrassing when I find that I personally know more about the AMTRAK system than the AMTRAK crew, especially the crew on this train (who had been excellent)! In the summer of 1999, AMTRAK was operating one San Joaquin train from Sacramento to Bakersfield, but that train left at 6:20 AM -- it was much later than that already! Upon approaching Sacramento, I was talking with Maureen the car attendant, and she had told me that the crew on the train may be "going dead" before we get to Sacramento -- great! Just what I need! If that were the case, there would be no way to make the connection in Stockton, since I know, from living in the Bay area, that it is about 50 miles from Sacramento to Stockton, and would probably take at least an hour to make the bus connection. The San Joaquin was scheduled to leave Stockton at 11:52 AM, and it was now almost 9 AM and we were not in Sacramento yet. If we had to stop and wait for a relief crew, that could take up to an hour or more. As things turned out, however, the crew did not go dead, and we arrived in Sacramento at 9:15, 2 hours 45 minutes late. Most of the passengers got off the train then, and the line immediately began forming at the ticket window for people wanting to make connections. The Starlight then made a shorter than normal stop, and was moving again by 9:40 or so. I did some quick calculations -- the scheduled running time for the Starlight between Sacramento and Martinez is 1 hour 8 minutes. Leaving at 9:40, the train would have arrived in Martinez approximately 10:48 or 10:50. San Joaquin #714 was scheduled to leave Martinez at 10:53, so I may have been able to make the connection after all. But then again, that is a pretty close connection, even being on a heavily-developed passenger corridor which sees many AMTRAK passenger trains a day. After much confusion, and many AMTRAK staff not being able to tell the passengers how they were getting to Stockton to make the connection, I finally found the bus and was under the impression that it left at 10 AM. I later found out that it actually didn't leave until 10:45. I know AMTRAK has several connecting Thruway busses every day from Sacramento to Stockton, and the 10:45 bus was scheduled to get to Stockton about 5 minutes before San Joaquin #714 pulled through -- kind of a close connection.... What if there was a traffic jam (which California is known for) on Interstate 5?
I stood around outside the bus I would be on, after watching the same bus make about 3 complete circles around the AMTRAK parking lot before it finally pulled into its stall and was ready for boarding. I was talking to a few other passengers outside the bus, who were very confused and had no idea whatsoever what train they were going to, how, or what time they would get to L.A., and even if they would actually make the connections promised by AMTRAK. I, of course, had planned on making the San Joaquin connection anyway, and had to explain several times to some passengers that I was going to make the same connection they were, and that everyone would arrive in L.A. in time to make their connections. One person even thought she was going to have to sit in the Stockton station for several hours before catching her next train -- I don't know how she got that idea.....
The bus soon left, and, as I remembered from my days in California, the bus ride took about 50 minutes to get from the Sacramento AMTRAK station to the Stockton station (the speed limit on Interstate 5 is 70 or 75 mph). On this day, three busloads of connecting passengers pulled into Stockton.
Web page by Matthew J. Melzer.
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