Rich Kimmel's 2002 Train Trip
Part 5 - Los Angeles, CA to Seattle, WA
July 4-5, 2002
Train #14 Coast Starlight
The Coast Starlight was pulled into Los Angeles Union Station within 5 minutes after Pacific Surfliner Train #765 backed out to head north. The consist of the train was a dorm sleeper, 2 Superliner II sleepers, Pacific Parlour Car, diner, Sightseer lounge, and 5 coaches. I found my sleeper, Superliner II sleeper Utah, and boarded immediately. I was in room 2 of the sleeper, and the first thing I noticed was that my room was not on the “ocean” side of the train. I met the car attendant “Julio,” then I placed my 2 suitcases on one of the seats in my room, and left the train for a few minutes. I took some video of the train at the station, then I walked through the boarding tunnel into the station and out the front to take some video of the station from across the street, since I had not had time to take that video when I arrived on the Sunset Ltd the previous day. It was still cold and cloudy on this 4th of July. I walked back into the station and eventually to the train, after buying a cinnamon roll at the pastry place inside Los Angeles station. I ate my pastry on the train, then walked back one car to the Pacific Parlour Car, which was open for first class passengers already. Several continental breakfast items were out and available, so I didn’t really need to buy the pastry in the station! But it looked good!! I found some wall plugs for the camcorder in the Parlour Car, located at the front of the car adjacent to the large plush chairs. I would check that out later, but chose to begin the trip in my room, at least until the conductor collected my ticket.
Unlike the last time I rode the Starlight, there was no on-board entertainer any more, and no on-board service chief (none of the trains have chiefs any more) -- this, of course, is a result of recent AMTRAK cost cutting, but I believe this kind of cost-cutting detracted a lot from this train. They still have the Parlour Car for first class passengers, and still have the daily wine tasting parties, however. So I pulled down the upper bunk in my room for a place to put my suitcases, and got ready for the next leg of this trip. The conductor soon came around to get my ticket; however, I stayed in my room for quite a while initially. We departed Los Angeles on time, and were at the first station, Glendale, in about 5 minutes, where we also departed on time. I took some video of the San Fernando Valley from my room, hoping it would clear up and get sunnier later. As we climbed up the Santa Susana Mountains north of Chatsworth, and went through the Santa Susana Tunnel, it began to clear up as we passed through the Simi Valley to the Simi Valley station. I went to the Parlour Car at that time, and met the car attendant/bartender “Aaron.” I spent most of this trip in the Parlour Car, and did no go into the Sightseer lounge once!! I don’t know which I prefer, Parlour Cars or Sightseer lounges -- they both have advantages. In the Sightseer lounge, there is a larger capacity, and most of the seats face the windows, or can be turned to face the windows -- Sightseer lounges are more designed for sightseeing. The Parlour Cars hold fewer people, but there is less possibility that the car will be terrorized by small children running up and down the aisles! The seats do not face the windows, however; they are more designed for socializing than for sightseeing. The Parlour Car has 6 tables at the end closest to the bar, then there are inward facing seats with small tables in the center of the car, and 4 large plush chairs at the other end, which also do not face the windows. In the center of the car, there is also a service table where continental breakfast is put out, and where the cheese for the wine & cheese parties is set out. Like the Sightseer lounge cars, the Parlour Car also shows movies, BUT they are shown in the lower level of the car, and the people in the upper level do not have to suffer through a loud movie when they are trying to hold a conversation or narrate a video! That is a big plus for me!! Complimentary soft drinks are available all the time at the bar in the Parlour Car for first class passengers, as well as some snacks.
When I got to the Parlour Car, at the Simi Valley stop, all the plush chairs with the wall outlets were taken, so I sat at a table, thinking I would get a chair with an outlet when people began leaving for lunch. I enjoy sitting at the tables, since I can spread out my map books and video equipment (battery packs, etc.); however, the triangular table braces beneath the table tend to always be right where my leg is, and since I typically wear shorts on my train trips, the metal table brace brushes against my leg constantly, which is not very comfortable.
Lunch began at 11:30, and the dining car steward, a British fellow named “Tony,” made the announcement early. He was in the Parlour Car talking to Aaron for a while, and I asked if there would be a last call for lunch, since I wasn’t quite ready for lunch yet. I mentioned earlier that I usually go to the first lunch call on my train trips; however, I would make an exception on this train, since I wanted to video the route along the Pacific Ocean, which we would be starting to see right at the beginning of lunch. Tony said there may or may not be a last call for lunch, depending on how busy the diner was, but, if I wasn’t ready to eat now, I should give Aaron my name, and he would put it on a “wait list” for lunch, which probably wouldn’t be called for an hour or more. So I gave Aaron my name a few minutes later, and he put me on the wait list. Meanwhile, the passengers sitting in the plush seats with the wall plugs went to the first lunch call, as we stopped at the Oxnard station. I went to one of the plush seats and plugged my camcorder into the wall socket, thinking I would sit there most of the time, but the plush chairs were comfortable, but were too low for me to be able to see much out the window from the seat without standing up. I am not a short person, but when sitting in the chair, the bottom of the window is at about eye level, and I can’t see the ground outside the window. So this was unfortunately not going to work -- I would have to rely on my rechargeable camcorder battery packs except when I was in my room and able to sit at a higher level by the window. As stated earlier, the Pacific Parlour Cars are beautiful comfortable cars, but they are designed more for socializing than for sightseeing. I would spend my time in the Parlour Car at the tables, where I could see all the way to the ground out the windows while sitting.
We were soon approaching the Pacific Ocean at Ventura, and, as I had seen all day, all the beaches, beach parking lots, and every other paved spot along the ocean was full of campers in RV’s and motor homes hoping for a warm sunny day at the beach. It had cleared up a little in Simi Valley, but by the time the train got along the coast, it was cloudy again. As we were speeding along the beach, some of my fellow passengers in the Parlour Car saw some dolphins out in the ocean. I saw several also, and tried to video them, but I don’t think they came out very clear on my video. At one point, I overheard a conductor tell someone that he thought we were going slower than we should; however, we had been on time at every station all morning so far. As the lunch hour continued, many of my fellow passengers opted to have their lunches brought to them in the Parlour Car, and Aaron was more than happy to being menus and provide that service. We arrived in Santa Barbara early, and left on time.
Shortly after we had departed Santa Barbara, Tony the dining car steward has started to call people off the wait list for lunch. I still wasn’t ready to go into the diner, so I told Aaron to take my name off the wait list and that I would go ahead and have my lunch in the Parlour Car. He brought me a menu and I soon ordered, just as Tony had announced that the table for “Rich - party of 1” was now available in the diner. I told Aaron that was me, and that I should have been taken off the list. When Tony came back into the Parlour Car a few minutes later, Aaron told him that I was eating in the Parlour Car, and my name was finally removed from the wait list. So I had lunch at the table in the Parlour Car, and was still able to take video of the Pacific coast. I ordered the Reuben sandwich today, and a beer. My on-board lunches were alternating on this trip - steakburger one day, Reuben the next, then a steakburger, etc. As stated earlier, the lunch choice on AMTRAK is very limited. Aaron told me that there wasn’t any cold beer yet, however, and would I take a glass of juice instead. I said yes, so I had a glass of apple juice with my lunch in the Parlour Car. After lunch, I continued my video of the coast and photographed many of my favorite scenes, such as Gaviota Beach, where the train crosses high on a trestle above the beach looking down on all the beachgoers and the pier. I then reassessed my videotape situation -- I was almost ready to change tape cassettes again. So far I had gone through 8 hours of videotape in 6½ days -- it’s a good thing I bought the extra tapes in Philadelphia, since I may need them after all. I cannot get by on just one hour of videotape per day, which was my original intention.
We soon began the turn inland, away from the ocean, after passing Points Arguello and Conception. Passing through the town of Casmalia, we had a short delay to allow a southbound Pacific Surfliner to pass. While we were stopped, some of my fellow passengers saw some deer near the train, but I did not see them. And, the further we got inland, the sunnier it became, which is typical for southern California.
The Starlight arrived in San Luis Obispo approximately one half hour early, and the daily wine and cheese party began as we were stopped. The wine and cheese party is provided complimentary for all first class passengers, in the Pacific Parlour Car. On this trip it was conducted by Aaron, with some help from Tony the dining car steward. The cheese was set out in the center of the Parlour Car, and an announcement was made that all first class passengers who are interested should report to the Parlour Car. The party was supposed to begin at 3, but it began about 3:30 on this day. The first wine was a chardonnay, and it was served by Aaron. The wine party seemed to go on for quite a long time, and it was quite a long time between the wine selections. I was enjoying a couple glasses of chardonnay as we traveled up Cuesta Pass just north of San Luis Obispo, one of the scenic highlights of this route. As we were negotiating the steep grades and hairpin turns, we saw a few scared deer running across the hillside from the train. Aaron offered several servings of the chardonnay wine to people in the Parlour Car, before he introduced the second wine, which was a fumé blanc. Again, he offered several servings to the passengers in the car. Approximately one half hour later, the wine party was still going on, and I don’t remember Aaron offering a third kind of wine; however, Tony came in from the diner and began the wine party over again as he re-introduced the chardonnay, and told a little about the wine and where it was from before serving. After the chardonnay was served the second time, Tony offered the fumé blanc a second time! Again, no third wine was served. I had a couple glasses of each kind, then continued my video as we entered the Salinas Valley.
Since my rechargeable battery packs were running down, I went back to the room for a while after the wine party, and used the AC adapter from the camcorder as a power source. We departed Paso Robles on time, then began our travel through the agricultural-rich Salinas Valley as the afternoon went on. Until now, we had very few delays on this route; however, in the Valley, we were delayed by several freight trains ahead of us. During my time in the room, I also made reservations for dinner at 8:15 PM, which would be the latest sitting this day. I got off the train for a few minutes at the Salinas stop, where it was still cold, but at least it was clear and sunny. It had been cold all day. I walked around the Salinas station and took some more video of the train, then went back into the room until dinner. We departed Salinas 49 minutes behind schedule, so were late for the first time all day. I took some video through the Watsonville area and through the pass between Watsonville and the Santa Clara Valley. I was having focusing problems with the camcorder for some reason. My camcorder is very sensitive to focusing, and often it takes it a few seconds to come into focus when I activate the “record” button. I did not know what the problem this evening was -- possibly the polarizing filter was smudged. All the video I took after Salinas on this day was consequently out of focus. I used to live in the Santa Clara Valley, in the mid-1980’s, so was interested in getting some good video coverage of the area.
My dinner call came at 8:15, so I went to the diner and sat with a mixed-race couple and their child. Today was the day for the New York strip, since I had not had that for a couple days, and, of course, my traditional glass of wine for dinner. It was beginning to get dark, but I did notice a changed San Jose station. It looked like they had added a few new tracks since I lived in the area, and, of course, by now, the Santa Clara Valley light rail system was in place. This system was just being built when I lived in the area. We departed San Jose only 15 minutes late, so I went back to my room to watch the darkening scenery. I then got off the train in Oakland at the Jack London Square station. Since today was the 4th of July, there was very heavy traffic visible from the train at Oakland, and the last of the evening’s fireworks being set off nearby. I got off the train at Jack London Square, and tried to take some video, but I was still having focusing problems, and the darkness punctuated by station lights and traffic lights did not help the focusing, so most of my Jack London video is blurred. And it was still very cold!! I had never known California to be so cold in July as it was tonight! The Starlight was again delayed, since apparently the new crew who started in Oakland couldn’t get to the station on time because of traffic. I did not record how late our departure was, but went to bed after we left Oakland.
On Friday morning, I awoke as we were following the Sacramento River south of Dunsmuir. We were a little behind schedule, apparently. I soon made my way to the Pacific Parlour Car, and continued my video. I was still having problems with the focus on my camcorder, but eventually my scenes cleared up. It was a clear sunny morning, and the passengers in the train had some excellent views of Mount Shasta. Our first stop of the morning was Klamath Falls, Oregon. The conductor announced that we would be stopped for a few minutes, so people could get off the train to stretch, but they were warned not to go very far from the train, since there wouldn’t be another northbound train for 24 hours, and it would be a $100 taxicab ride to Chemult to catch up with the train. I was planning on sitting in my room for a while, but Julio hadn’t made my bed up yet, so I stayed in the Parlour Car until the station stop. I got off the train at Klamath Falls, and again it was very cold, but sunny. I took some video of the train at the station, then got back inside and sat in the Parlour Car again. We departed Klamath Falls 35 minutes behind schedule. There was a family in the Parlour Car who were traveling to Chemult, where they would catch the AMTRAK Thruway bus to Bend, Oregon. I was asking them about some of the mountains which are visible to the west of the train. Of course, Mount Shasta remains visible to the south until past Klamath Falls. The other prominent peak visible to the west is Mt. McLoughlin, which is located near Crater Lake. As we continued north, the family going to Bend told me that one of the mountains I have been unable to identify in the past is likely Mount Bachelor, and to its north, the Three Sisters are visible. Although it was July 5, all the high Cascade peaks still had plenty of snow on them. We soon got to Chemult, and I watched the family I had been talking to get off the train and climb into a 12-passenger van which was marked on the side “Oregon Thruway Bus.” We departed Chemult 45 minutes late, and I went back in the room for a while, since my room was on the right side of the train to see the beautiful Odell Lake, Willamette Pass, and the Cascades for the first part of the long climb down from the summit. As the Starlight climbs down the Cascades, it follows a winding 5-mile route through several tunnels, then makes a hairpin turn in a tunnel, and doubles back for another 5 miles parallel to the track it was on before, only lower on the mountainside. At the bottom of that segment, the train crosses a creek and a highway in one final U-shaped turn and follows the highway through Oakridge, Westfir, and on into the Eugene area. And by now, it was approaching lunchtime again, and I had the dilemma of wanting to take video of the Cascades, but also wanting lunch.
After the hairpin turn in the tunnel I returned to the Pacific Parlour Car, since my room was now on the wrong side of the train to see across the valley. I found a table again, and told Aaron that I would again like to have lunch in the Parlour Car. Tony was again announcing to first class passengers that, if they weren’t ready for lunch yet, to give Aaron their name for his wait list. I didn’t even bother putting my name on the wait list today; I just ate in the Parlour Car as we made our way through Oakridge and Westfir, past the red covered bridge at Westfir, and past Lookout Point Reservoir and Dexter Lake into the Eugene area. I again wanted to get off the train for a few minutes in Eugene and walk around, and, figuring it would still be as cold as it had been for the last 1½ days, I donned a sweatshirt before I got off. But at Eugene it was warm! Very strange weather -- the further north we got, the warmer it got! I took some video, and got back on the train. We departed Eugene 55 minutes late, and an announcement was made that there would be another wine and cheese party in the Parlour Car at 3 PM.
Heading up the Willamette Valley, we had a few freight delays, and consequently departed Albany 58 minutes late and Salem 1 hour 2 minutes late. Tony made a final announcement that the wine party would begin in 5 minutes, and after the Salem stop, the Parlour Car began to fill up. The wine party seemed to be as disorganized as it had been on the day before. Tony announced that if people didn’t like wine, they also had cheese, so they should come anyway. The party finally began, and Tony said, “OK, now here are the rules -- we are not wine connoisseurs, but AMTRAK employees…” The first wine was a Riesling, and, like the day before, several servings were served to whoever wanted them, and Aaron and Tony pronounced the name of the wine as a “Rise-ling.” I had a couple glasses, and continued my video, as good views of Mt. Hood were now coming into view. They only had 2 wines at today’s wine tasting, and I don’t remember what the second wine was, but it was again a long drawn-out wine tasting.
We arrived in Portland shortly, and got to the station only 45 minutes behind schedule. Again I got off the train for a few minutes and it was still warm. On the adjacent track was Train #28, the eastbound Empire Builder preparing for its 4:40 PM departure for Chicago. Our servicing stop at Portland was completed in less than the 20-minute allotted time in the schedule, so we departed only 32 minutes late. I was talking about mountains with some people in the Parlour Car, and told them there is a great view of Mt. Hood from the bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver. They in turn told me that there is a point between Winlock and Chehalis, Washington, where you could see Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier all at once. I made a note of that, since I had never found the right spot to see Mt. St. Helens from this route since 1980, when it erupted. At about that time, however, it would be time for dinner. Since the Starlight has an evening arrival into Seattle, there are only two dinner sittings, the latest one being at 6:30. I normally do not eat that early on my trips, but I had no choice on this train, so I took a 6:30 reservation.
The Starlight departed Vancouver, Washington, 27 minutes late, and Kelso-Longview 21 minutes late. There is some padding in the schedule between Portland and Seattle. Sure enough, the 6:30 dinner reservations were called before we had passed through the town of Winlock, but I was lucky enough to get seated on the east side of the train, so I could see Mt. St. Helens. I was seated with a British couple who had never ridden trains in the States before, and they were enjoying their trip. I did not record what I ordered, but it was likely either the chicken l’orange or the pasta selection, since I had the New York strip the night before, and of course, the traditional glass of wine for dinner. While in the dining car, we passed the spot where Mt. St. Helens is visible, so I pointed it out to my British tablemates, who had only faint recollections of hearing about the eruption back in 1980. I too got some good video of the snow-capped peak. I was not able to see Mt. Adams, but, as we traveled further north, some good views of Mt. Rainier were visible. After dinner, I went back to the Parlour Car for the last leg into Seattle. We departed Centralia 16 minutes late and Olympia-Lacey 18 minutes late. North of Olympia-Lacey, the Starlight again runs along Puget Sound, with good views of the Olympic Mountains off to the west. There were many people on the beaches this evening, but, unlike California, no surfers, since there aren’t very many surfing-compatible waves in the Sound! I continued my video, and got some good views of Mt. Rainier from the Tacoma area. I then went back into my room to pack up and prepare for arrival into Seattle.
Arriving into Seattle, the Starlight goes forward, past the station and into the tunnel beneath downtown Seattle, then backs up and switches onto the proper arrival track at King Street Station. Thanks to more “padding” in the schedule, we arrived 15 minutes early! On the adjacent track was one of the Cascade Talgo trains. The sleeper attendant Julio did not volunteer to take my suitcases to the platform for me, so he did not get a full tip…….sorry about that! I disembarked, but instead of going into the station, I walked right to the front of the station to the taxicab area to get a cab to take me to Pioneer Square Hotel, http://www.pioneersquare.com,as recommended by the folks here at Train Web! Again, I could have walked to the hotel, but with the heavy suitcases, I again went the taxicab route. I found a taxi, and, for the second time in 2 days, the cab driver told me he didn’t know where Pioneer Square Hotel was, since “they never take anyone there from AMTRAK.” I don’t think that is quite true….. he drove around Pioneer Square for a few minutes, as I was looking for the hotel, since I had forgotten exactly where it was in relation to the station and to the main part of Pioneer Square. As we were driving down the street, the cabbie said “Is it somewhere near here?” I said yes it was, and soon I saw it down the street, and said “There it is -- right down there.” he took me to the front door an dropped me off, and again probably got a couple dollars higher fare than what it really cost. Again, he did not get a tip, and as I walked inside the hotel, I am quite sure I heard the cabbie laugh at me as he drove away, as if saying “Ha-ha! I got another one!”
I checked into the Pioneer Square Hotel and got my room, then got settled, watched a little TV, and for the first time, heard the news about the guy at Los Angeles Airport who shot some people on July 4th. I was tired, so went to bed early. The next day, I had reservations on the 4:45 PM Empire Builder, but had most of the day on my own, to sightsee for once. I slept in some, then had breakfast at the “J & J” Café at Pioneer Square Hotel (“Juice & Java”), then was planning on either going to the Seattle Zoo or to the Seattle Center. I inquired about city busses at the front desk, and was told that Bus line #1 goes to the zoo and #16 goes to Seattle Center. I was told where to catch the busses, and soon decided to go to Seattle Center, since I hadn’t been there for several years. I checked out, and stored my suitcases with the bellman, then grabbed the video camera case and walked down Yesler Way past Pioneer Square to 3rd Street to catch the bus. I wasn’t sure which bus to take, as there are several, but one kind lady heard me asking the driver of the wrong bus, and told me to get in the same bus she did and she would tell me where to get off. I took her advice and took the bus to the closest stop to Seattle Center, then walked into the Center. It was early Saturday morning, so there weren’t very many people around. I was impressed by Seattle Center -- there is a lot there, including a little “amusement park” with quite a few rides. The entire complex, of course, was built for Expo ‘74, including the Space Needle. I was one of the first people of the day to ride up the Space Needle, and I spent about half an hour there taking video. Quite a nice view from up there! At one point, it was clear enough to see Mt. Baker, which is on the Canadian border 100 miles to the north. I went back down to the bottom then, and ventured into the Pacific Science Center, which is much bigger than it looks at first. They have a great collection of “animatronics” dinosaurs in the dinosaur exhibit, plus a planetarium, a “butterfly garden” with live butterflies flitting about, and many “hands-on” interactive exhibits. I had lunch at the Fountain Café at the Science Center, then eventually left the Science Center and rode the Monorail from the Science Center to Westlake Center, a multi-story downtown shopping mall. Seattle Center was much busier when I left than it was when I first arrived, this being a nice Saturday. The amusement park rides were operating, and all the on-street concession stands were now open. At the other end of the Monorail (which carries quite a few passengers) was Westlake Center. I went to the street level and soon found the bus stop, after listening to a musical act by a couple who were performing in the street. I found the correct bus to get me back to Pioneer Square, had a beer in the outdoor café area at the “Old Timer,” pub, then walked across the street back to Pioneer Square Hotel. It was chilly in the morning, so I wore my blue jeans, but I changed back into shorts when I returned, and soon got a taxi back to King Street Station to catch the Empire Builder.