Amtrak Coast Starlight
Travelogue and Photos by Steve Grande
Wednesday & Thursday, August 28 & 29, 1996
Those of you that have read many of my travelogues know that I am singing the praises of Amtrak and rail travel in 90% of those writings. I have even been accused of overlooking the failings of Amtrak. That really is a fair criticism of my writing.
Click here for photos & more info about Coast Starlight.
Even if no service or help was provided to me on the train, I would still enjoy the trip because I just love travel by rail. The ammenities and services provided by Amtrak are just frosting on the cake for me. However, I do realize that these "extras" are what make rail travel a special experience for many train travelers.
Thus, I must warn you that parts of this particular trip were disappointing. There wasn't any disaster. There wasn't a major delay that ruined any plans. There weren't any outright rude Amtrak employees. I think my disappointment lies in that the service on the Coast Starlight did not live up to the Superior Quality Service that the Coast Starlight boasts about and that I had become accustomed from about a dozen trips over the year.
I found out on short notice that I would need to make a quick trip to San Luis Obispo for business. Last Sunday I read in the newspaper about a couple that took the Coast Starlight just up to San Luis Obispo. Since I like traveling in the Coast Starlight, I decided to see if any Economy Rooms were available for the next day. To my surprise, there was at least one available. It was Room #3, usually one of the first rooms that gets assigned by Amtrak reservations. This probably was available because of a last minute cancellation.
I set up my reservations to take the San Diegan Express which featured the California Cars from Fullerton to Los Angeles, then go by Economy Room on the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. If on-time, I'd arrive there about 2:50 in the afternoon. That would give me enough daylight to complete my task and return on train #776, the Central Coast San Diegan, that left the following morning at 7 A.M. and would bring me all the way back to Fullerton by 1:13 P.M.
I made advance reservations to rent a car from Thrifty Car Rental. They have a curtosy phone right in the station and a van that comes down to pick you up. Their office is only 1/2 mile from the station so the wait isn't very long. You can rent their smallest car for about $33 per day. I rented a Neon and found that it had plenty of room for my needs. For an extra $10, you can drop the rented car off at the train station. This is really helpful if you are taking the 7 A.M. train since the Thrifty office doesn't open that early!
Usually I have been making these business trips with one of my associates. We usually hit several cities on each trip. Since this was going to be a "one city" trip, I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to handle by myself. Also, my associate was on a train trip vacation to San Diego for a couple of days. He was scheduled to return from San Diego on the same day that I was scheduled to return from San Luis Obispo. Some urgent items had come up while he was away, including this trip to San Luis Obispo. We would both have plenty to keep us busy when we got back!
I got to the Fullerton Station about 7:30 A.M. and parked my car almost at the top of the long-term parking garage. If you ever park there, don't panic if you can't find a space on the lower levels. Those lower levels are always filled by commuters and you are not likely to find any spaces until you get almost to the top of the garage. If you take a train trip that lasts more than 3 days (72 hours), get a special pass from the Amtrak ticket agent to place on the window of your car. Without it, you are likely to get a ticket or towed away! You can park in the garage overnight, but do not park in the lot overnight! The city of Fullerton tows all the cars away that are still in the lot between 2 A.M and 5 A.M.
I purchased my ticket and watched a couple of Metrolink trains go by before my train arrived. I got on and immediately went upstairs in search of one of the single seats at the rear of each California Car. I was surprised to find that I had no problems obtaining one. I sat on the north side of the train facing the main platform of Fullerton Station.
When I looked out the window, I was shocked to see my business associate getting off that same train with his family! I later found out that he had cut his vacation one day short because of all the urgent work that he knew had just arrived. He planned to drop his family off at home and get right to the office to get an early start on that work with me!
He didn't see me on the train, but I used my cellular phone to immediately leave him a voice-mail message about what had just happened. I explained that I was making this trip since I hadn't expected him back yet and had no expectation that we would be able to work together today. He was quite surprised to find I was heading out, especially on the same train that he just came in on! As can be expected, he was also disappointed that we would not be able to work together that day after he had cut his vacation short by a day. He was able to catch up on a lot of that urgent work that day anyway, some of the items that we don't work on together. So returning early from his vacation really wasn't a wasted sacrifice.
Back to the train trip . . .
I was surprised to pass a Coast Starlight consist on the way to Los Angeles Union Station. I know they only have 4 Pacific Parlor Cars and all are needed at all times since it takes 4 trains to operate the Coast Starlight route. I wonder what they are using in place of the Pacific Parlor Car on the one missing it?
When I arrived in Los Angeles Union Station, my Coast Starlight was waiting in the station. I like it when it is already there for my connection. I can just get off the San Diegan, cross the platform, and board the Coast Starlight.
The Conductor on the San Diegan had announced that passengers transferring to the Coast Starlight would find the sleepers at the front of the train and the coaches to the rear. I wondered if the Conductor knew what he was talking about since I had been on the Coast Starlight more than a dozen times in the last year and the sleepers were always at the rear of the train.
When I arrived in Los Angeles Union Station, sure enough, the sleepers were at the front of the train! This is evidently a policy change and not a one-time event. There are signs mounted along the L.A. Union Station platform showing the position of each sleeping car. These have been remounted to show the position of each sleeping car at the front of the train instead of at the rear of the train. We later passed the southbound Coast Starlight in San Luis Obispo and its sleepers were also at the front on that train.
At first, I thought I might have lucked out in getting a room with an ocean view. To get an ocean view, I've always used the rule-of-thumb "even up, odd down." An even number room gets you an ocean view when heading north on the Coast Starlight. An odd number room gets you an ocean view when heading south on the Coast Starlight. I figured that rule might have gotten reversed since the sleepers and coaches were reversed. I had room #3 and a reversal of the car orientation would give me an ocean view! No such luck. The order of the cars had been changed to put the sleepers up front, but the orientation of the cars remained the same. In a way, I guess that is good. At least the "even up, odd down" rule still works!
I asked my Car Attendant about the change in the order of the cars. He was new with the Coast Starlight and had no knowledge of the previous order.
The first thing I always look for when I board the train is my first cup of coffee. To my disappointment, none of the Attendants in the 3 Sleeping Cars was preparing any. I don't know why this is. Coffee used to always be ready when I boarded the Coast Starlight, but now I seldom find it available in the Sleeping Cars at the start of the journey in Los Angeles.
Thus, being in the very last Sleeping Car, I started my long journey to the Pacific Parlor Car. There is usually coffee and some muffins available there. To my surprise, the Pacific Parlor Car was filled to capacity with Amtrak staff! They must have some sort of training session going on. Every seat was taken! I figured I better wait till that training session was over.
On the way back through the 1431 car, there was a strong stench of cigarette smoke. The Coast Starlight is a non-smoking train. I didn't see anyone smoking, but someone must have been smoking quite a bit before anyone told them of the policy.
The Car Attendant and Chief of Onboard Services introduced themselves to me. I didn't catch their last names, but I think their first names were Fred and Bob. Both seemed very friendly and expressed their desire to see to my needs.
Although the train seemed pretty full, there were a few empty Economy and Deluxe bedrooms when leaving Los Angeles.
Lunch started to be served by 11:45 A.M. At that time I wasn't very hungry. Around 9:45 A.M., I had gone down to the Pacific Parlor Car and had a couple of mini-muffins and a cup of coffee. I also asked the Pacific Parlor Car Attendant for an empty "take-out" cup & lid and I brought a second cup of coffee back to my room.
Around 12:30 P.M., I went down to the Dining Car just to put my name in. It was over an hour before my name was called. That was fine with me as I wasn't hungry till then. They do call your name for lunch over the P.A. system that is heard throughout the train. Thus, you can go back to your room or the Pacific Parlor Car without worrying about missing your call to lunch.
At lunch, I sat with a couple originally from Germany. They came to the United States about 40 years ago just after World War II. The man had been with the German army on the Russian front. Unfortunately, he had lost much of his hearing during the war, most of it in the ear on my side. That made conversation with him a bit difficult.
They had boarded the train in Glendale and were going to visit one of thier sons in Eugene, Oregon. He would rather be flying or driving, but the wife was much happier on the train. They had gone by train once before, over 4 years ago. On that trip, they couldn't get sleeping accommodations going up, nor even get seats together. I don't think Amtrak would ever keep a couple apart on such a long trip today. Except on short commuter runs, you can almost always find seats together for two people. They were able to get a large bedroom on the way back on that previous trip. They did enjoy that part of the trip and is what inspired the wife to take the train again.
They were very surprised by the excellent quality of the food in the Dining Car. They had assumed the food would be similar to that served on airplanes. I explained to them that there is a full galley downstairs in the Dining Car and that the chefs are trained in cullinery school. They acknowledged that would explain the high quality of the food.
After lunch, I went to my room to relax and enjoy the short remainder of the trip.
The end of the journey also proved to be interesting. I went downstairs to the door just as the train arrived into San Luis Obispo. The Conductor had announced this would be a smoking stop and that all doors would be open. A few other people from my car had also lined up to get off. I think they all just wanted to smoke or stretch their legs.
We waited for a few minutes, but the Car Attendant never came to open the door. Soon, we saw people from other cars of the the train walking by. Not wanting to violate any Amtrak rules, we decided to obey the warning on the door and not open it ourselves. Instead, we all went upstairs and to the next car to disembark.
This was one of those very few times that I have not left a tip for my Car Attendant. I could not see how any tip was earned in any manner at all on this trip. I understand that Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo is a fairly short trip compared to the complete Los Angeles to Seattle route, but lets look at what service could have been rendered . . .
I'm always very pleased when coffee is ready in my sleeping car when I board the train. That gets me off to a great start and makes me feel really welcome on board, much more so than the Car Attendant coming through to shake my hand after the train is 30 minutes enroute. I did ask the Car Attendant about the availability of coffee anywhere on the train. He just said "Not Yet", and I did not see any evidence of any brewing all the way to San Luis Obispo except in the Pacific Parlor Car. In the past, Car Attendants usually have a pot ready when I board, and in a couple cases when the coffee wasn't ready, offered to bring some to my room from the Pacific Parlor Car.
Normally, the Car Attendant will come to your room about 20 to 30 minutes before your stop and check to see if you have any bags that they can help you with. If you wish, they will carry your things downstairs and then take them off the train when the train stops. Except for the one required greeting in the morning, I did not see my Car Attendant for the rest of the trip except to occassionally see him walk up and down the corridor or sitting in his room. There was no offer to see if I needed any help with my bags. I didn't, but it would be nice just to see that he was concerned.
On every trip I have ever taken, the Car Attendant has always handed out a souvenier at the end of the trip. The souveniers on the Coast Starlight are quality items emblazened with the logo of the Coast Starlight. These are not cheap 25 cent souveniers that they give away. I've gotten several bottles of champagne, each with 2 glasses during the holiday season. At other times I've gotten pocket flashlights, pens and keychains. I have purchased promotional souveniers for my own company and I can tell that the Coast Starlight purchases top of the line quality souveniers to give out. I think this was the first trip ever that I have not received a souvenier on the Coast Starlight.
I think to culmination of my disappointment with the service on this trip was the Car Attendant not even showing up to open the door to let me off at San Luis Obispo! I may have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he suddenly became ill before we got to the station and didn't have enough time to let another staff member know to cover for him. In any case, he wasn't there at the door when I got off to accept a tip even if I had intended to give him one! As a side note, the Conductor never even showed up to my room and my ticket never got collected. Sometimes it is possible to miss the Conductor on the trip and not get your ticket collected, but usually the Car Attendant will take care of that when you get off. But this time, no Car Attendant and no collected ticket.
Once again, I'd like to summarize that I found the service on this particular trip on the Coast Starlight so disappointing because it is usually so Superior! The Superior Service is the claim to fame of the Coast Starlight and I have found that the Coast Starlight usually lives up to that reputation. But when Superior becomes the norm, anything less becomes a disappointment.
Right after I left the northbound train, the southbound Coast Starlight pulled into San Luis Obispo. This was an interesting situation. Passangers that were smoking or stretching their legs, had to make sure they stayed real close to the train. The southbound Coast Starlight became a barrier between the station and the northbound Coast Starlight! They did warn everyone about this. If anyone wasn't listening, they would soon find it just about impossible to get around the southbound Coast Starlight to get back onto the northbound Coast Starlight.
Picking up the rented car from Thrifty went like clockwork. San Luis Obispo is a small tourist and college town. It didn't take too long for me to figure out the layout of the whole town. I was able to complete my task before dusk.
In the evening, I picked up some fast food and went by the station to wait for the northbound Central Coast San Diegan to arrive. I was very surprised to see the number of people emerging from the traintracks at the north end of the station just out for an evening stroll. I also saw a lot of bicycle riders zooming out of from the train tracks on that side of the station. I was wondering if there was some trail along the tracks. I'm going to have to investigate some time. I'd be very surprised if these pedestrians and bicyclists are just going up and down along the side of the tracks. That would seem to be a bit dangerous and I had never seen that many people walking or riding along the tracks in my area.
The train arrived pretty much on time. It was a really long train with locomotives at both ends. I took a few pictures of the train. The train looked eeire just lit up by the lights of the station platform at night. There was another railfan at the station with a radio and a 35mm camera on a tripod taking lots of pictures.
At night, they lock the whole train up in a special fenced area. I made note of the position of the Custom Class car which I would be taking in the morning.
The morning train left at 7 A.M. on time. I slept much of the way even though I had a seat on the ocean view side. I was pretty tired and have never gotten used to enjoying the view from the tiny windows on the Amfleet cars. I really wish they would run the California Cars all the way up to San Luis Obispo. With the big California Car windows in coach and the special Observation Lounge, it would make for a very scenic ride.
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