Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales
The Coast Starlight, May /June 2002
May 30-31 - Southbound: June 4-5
This tale begins in early May when I decided to go north to visit my mother and sister Liz in Salem, and my niece, Barbara, in Portland. As with last year, my wife, Mrs. Toy, was unable to travel with me due to local obligations.
I timed this trip to take advantage of Amtrak's spring 30% off sale. I expected I would travel coach, because sleepers are usually not cost-effective if I am traveling alone. With two in a sleeper the cost per person is about the same or lower than flying from Monterey.
I was originally thinking of going Memorial Day weekend, but fares were higher on the holiday. I also reasoned that the following week the trains would be less crowded, making it more likely that I would get two seats to myself.
I checked out fares on-line and found I could make the round trip in coach for only $140. Meals in the diner would run me another $60-70. I originally planned to go on Thursday May 30th and leave Salem on Monday June 3rd. However, my mother persuaded me to stay an extra day. This proved to be a good decision. When I went on-line to make my reservation I discovered that I could get a sleeper on Tuesday for $50 less than on Monday (about 25% off). I decided to take the sleeper for the return trip, and ride coach northbound. This would give me a chance to try out the Starlight's famous Pacific Parlor Car, which is available only to first-class (sleeping car) passengers.
A few days after I made my reservation an Amtrak agent phoned me and asked if I wanted to upgrade my northbound leg to a sleeper as well, for the same $50 discount. Since sleeping fares also include meals, I thought that would be a good deal, and grabbed it. While I ended up spending much more than originally planned, I estimate that with all of the discounts I saved about $180 off the normal sleeper fare. The tickets arrived by Fed-Ex six days before my departure.
But enough about the bookings, it's time to climb aboard the train!
Thursday May 30, 2002
At 4:55pm my wife and left home for the Monterey Transit Plaza where I would meet the little mini bus which would take me over to the Salinas Amtrak station. We arrived there at 5:05, beating the bus by five minutes. Once it arrived we unloaded my bags from the car and walked over. The driver, the same one I had last year, loaded my largest bag into the rear. The bus wasn't scheduled to depart for another eight minutes, so Mrs. Toy and I walked around the transit plaza for a bit.
The Coast Starlight Connection
At 5:18 I was ready to board, but I noticed the bus was leaking coolant. I pointed it out to the driver. He looked underneath than said he had just added water at Carmel and "it was just overflow." Uh-huh.
I gave Mrs. Toy a kiss and a hug and took a seat. The only other passengers were a middle aged Asian couple, and they weren't speaking English. We were off at precisely 5:20pm as scheduled. We made a brief stop at the Hyatt Regency before heading to Salinas via Reservation Road through Marina. As I learned last year, the ride in this little bus was a bit rough. Fortunately the seats were well padded.
Bouncin' down the highway!
We were at the station at 6:05pm. I complimented the driver but added that he needed a more comfortable vehicle. He said his company (contracted by Amtrak) gave him one of the older vehicles in their inventory.
Inside the station the sign over the ticket window indicated that the 6:36 train was late and could be expected at 7:00pm. Normally I would have checked my large suitcase, but Amtrak recently cut back some services here. The station is now closed on Sunday and Monday, and checked baggage service is no longer available. So I just talked to attendant for a few minutes. He was much friendlier than the guy who was there last year.
The Salinas Station
Then I went outside in the fresh air and await the train. There were quite a few people waiting in the depot, but I was the only one who waited outdoors. Although the station was in the sun, there was a fog bank a mile or so north, and a chilly breeze was blowing.
At 6:54 there was an announcement over the PA system that the train was now expected at 7:20pm. Since it was getting chilly, I decided to go in and warm up. However, I wanted to be sure to get outside before the train arrived so I could get a photo.
Although our train was not expected for another 10 minutes, at 7:10 I suddenly felt compelled to go outside. I did, and as I looked down the tracks I saw the signal had turned yellow, then red. This meant the train was just moments away. I began walking to the north end of the platform, where I knew the sleeping cars would be. From there I would be able to get a photo of the locomotive and the station together.
My train arrives
The train , Amtrak's #14, arrived 7:12. On the point was an Amtrak California F59PH locomotive, followed by two Genesis units, one in the new Phase V "Shamu" paint scheme, and one in the "Phase III" red, white and blue stripes.
Into the fog bank
I was assigned to room #2 in car #1432. (The sleepers are numbered 1430, 1431 and 1432). I expected them to be numbered front to back, as are the coaches, but in fact they are numbered from the middle of the train, so 1432 was actually closest to the locomotive, which meant I had to walk 170 feet farther than I expected. Its funny, that same distance on-board doesn't seem very far, but when walking down the platform it seems like a long way.
The sleeping car attendants were lined up in a row, each in front of his car. At 1432 Dave greeted me. Before I even boarded he impressed with his service. He indicated that since dinner was already under way, he had taken the liberty of making me a reservation for 7:00pm. He took my ticket right there so I wouldn't have to wait for the conductor before I went to dinner.
On board at last
I climbed aboard and found my room while Dave put my large suitcase on the rack. Room #2 is located at the top of the stairs, next to the complimentary beverage station, which had a coffee pot, sodas, juice and bottled water.
At 7:23 we were moving. Before I went to eat, I wanted to get a photo of a barn north of Castroville, where I had photographed the train passing a couple months before. We passed it at 7:32, I got my shot, then I went to dinner.
I showed the steward my 7:00pm reservation ticket, and explained that I had not boarded until 7:15. I was seated by the window on the left side, facing forward. There was nobody else at the table. My server handed me a menu and indicated that the fish selection was salmon in a dill sauce. She said it had been well received by other diners this evening.
I was skeptical of ordering fish. Last year I ordered the fish and didn't taste very fresh, and I actually traded it in for chicken. But I love salmon, and her recommendation tempted me. I decided to order it, and take my chances.
Meanwhile, I was having my salad. This was the one item that was noticeably affected by the new national standardized menu. Last year's salad contained a variety of mixed greens and other things. This year's salad was just iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and red cabbage. It was very much like the packaged salads you get at the store, though it tasted fresher.
Soon I was joined by a man named Ken who sat across from me. Ken also ordered the salmon, and it arrived a few minutes later for both of us. I must say it was wonderful. It was perfectly prepared, and I would put it up against the best salmon served in Monterey Peninsula restaurants. The only difference was that Amtrak didn't go to any great lengths to make it look fancy. But when it tasted so good it didn't matter that the plate wasn't arranged like a modern art sculpture.
Ken was pretty quiet at first, but once he got going there wasn't much that could stop him. We talked about families and homes, jobs and things of that nature.
At 7:53 stopped briefly next to Pajaro River, just before the Granite Rock quarry. We were soon joined by a bearded young man from coach. He had the misfortune of being recently laid off from an internet company.
I noted the time at 8:09 we met highway 101 near Gilroy and began speeding up. As we the crossed farmland between there and Morgan Hill it was time for dessert. Cheesecake was on the menu, and I wanted to see if the recent cutbacks had affected the quality of the product. I have a tendency to judge a lot of restaurants by the quality of the cheesecake. On my first Amtrak trip in 1974, I had great cheesecake. On the California Zephyr in 2000, the cheesecake was flavorless. On the Starlight last year the key-lime cheesecake was one of the best I ever had. Cheesecake is important.
This piece came with a bit of whipped cream and a cherry sauce on the side. I am sorry to report that this one was not up to my standards. It was passable, but somewhat bland, not unlike the food served in some of the retirement homes I have visited. But it wasn't so bad that I couldn't justify finishing it.
As we approached San Jose I left the diner. I stopped at the Parlor Car to peek into the downstairs movie theater. I was a little disappointed that the sound was hard to hear at the rear of the little auditorium over the sound of the wheels.
I returned to my room, then suddenly realized I had forgotten to tip my server. I went back and handed her a few gold dollars, and complimented her on the salmon.
As I returned to my room I noted the names of the sleeping cars were Illinois (1430), Indiana (1431), and Delaware (1432). All Superliner II sleeping cars are named after states, and the Coast Starlight only uses Superliner II sleepers, as they are considered superior, or at least newer. However, in my experience, Superliner I models have a roomier upstairs rest room, which makes them superior in my view. Otherwise, the differences in I and II models are mostly superficial to the casual observer.
The rest rooms themselves are worthy of further comment. They are just too darn small for comfort. There has also been a frequent problem with the water faucets being under too much pressure, causing them to splatter. Our upstairs unit was under less pressure than those downstairs. In car 1430 however, I found the pressure was just right, on the one occasion I had to use it.
Our upstairs rest room had one nice amenity, a small vase of flowers on the counter. Missing, however, was the can of Lysol which I had grown accustomed to on recent Amtrak trips. Evidently this was another one of the recent cutbacks. We could have used that a couple of times. But as far as cutbacks go, there really weren't many that were noticeable. First-timers probably wouldn't know anything was missing.
At 8:38 I was in my room. Last Christmas I received a scanner radio for listening to things like police and fire calls, air traffic control, and trains. This was my first trip where I was able to use it on-board and follow the action as we traveled. I am still not familiar with all of the lingo, but it is interesting to see what information I can glean from the transmissions. Approaching San Jose I heard "Amtrak 14 you have a pair of tens coming up." I have no idea what that meant, but it sounded important.
Another interesting thing one can hear on the radio are devices known as detectors. These are placed at various intervals along the rails, and they electronically inspect the train for things like overheated wheel bearings and such. They transmit the information to the train's crew over the radio using a synthesized voice, giving the milepost, any physical defects, the number of axles, and the train's speed.
Into the Bay Area
I heard my first detector at 8:48: "UP detector, milepost 51.6, no defects, axles 60 [given as 'six-zero'], speed 41. " According to my reference sheet, the San Jose station was at milepost 47.5, a little over four miles away.
Four minutes later we stopped just south of San Jose to wait for a Caltrain. At about that time I took a moment to look over some of the room's extra amenities, which appeared to be Coast Starlight exclusives. On the step to the upper bunk was a small square basket, shrink wrapped, which contained two small washcloths (these in addition to the regular ones stored above the seats), two bars of soap, a small bottle of shampoo and another bottle with lotion. I never bothered to open it because I didn't need anything. I just set it aside for the next passengers.
Stashed in the rack above the pull-out table was a safety card, route guide, a current timetable, and another shrink-wrapped thing. It was a folder containing Coast Starlight logo stationery, an outdated April 2001 timetable, a card giving a schedule of on-board events (meal times, service hours of the snack bar and Parlor Car bar, movie schedules, etc.), and a pair of eye shades with the old Amtrak logo, for daytime snoozing.
At 9:00 I heard instructions telling train #14 to creep ahead, and we did about 30 seconds later. Soon there were a lot of other trains outside my window, including an Amtrak California train, and two out of service Caltrain consists. I went down to the door with my camera to get a shot of the platform. It looked like we were indoors. A bi-level Caltrain on one side of the platform formed one wall, and my train formed the other. Above us a long canopy formed a ceiling. Since the sky between the canopy and the trains was dark, the illusion of being indoors was almost perfect.
We left San Jose at 9:18pm about 30 minutes late. I looked out the window and decided to turn off the light, close my hallway curtain, and look outside at the city lights reflecting off of San Francisco Bay waters as we progressed towards our next stop at Oakland.
10:05pm: "UP detector, milepost 12.4, Track 2, No Defects, Axles 60, speed 59."
At about that time we passed the Oakland Coliseum, ran alongside a freeway, and as we entered Jack London Square where we stopped at 10:12pm.
Oakland's modern grand station at Jack London Square. Twenty trains stop here every day.
I got off the train and took a few photos on the platform. I noticed a man about my age holding about four suitcases belonging to him and his elderly parents, trying to get them aboard. Dave took care of the bags, so the man could take care of the parents.
I went back to my room and listened to the scanner. At 10:20 I heard a transmission to the dispatcher indicating that locomotive #117 was now on point. The Amtrak California locomotive was removed when I wasn't looking. Meanwhile I was also hearing from an Amtrak California train which was outside my window on the platform to our left.
At 10:30 we were moving out of Oakland. As we passed the front of the other train I noticed it had had an Express boxcar between the locomotive and first passenger car. That seemed unusual for a regional train. Those boxcars are usually attached to long-haul trains to transport express packages across the country.
As the train passes through Jack London Square the train actually runs right down the middle of the street. I am hoping to get a photo from the rear of the train on the southbound trip during daylight hours.
At 10:35 we passed through the Oakland yard where many Amtrak trains are assembled. We passed what looked like the California Zephyr consist, still pointing south (or west, since that is an east-west train). By morning it will be headed in the opposite direction on its return trip to Chicago.
Five minutes later we were in Emeryville, 35 minutes late. The Emeryville station is located right near a switch. The train must clear the switch before it can stop. That leaves my car a long way down the platform north of the station.
I wanted to get a photo of the station, which has a nice neon sign, so I walked through the Parlor Car, diner, lounge, and four coaches to the end of the train.
The coaches were numbered 1411 through 1414. The first and last ones were Superliner I models with the original blue upholstery. The middle two were Superliner II cars. One way you can tell the difference is by the car numbers just inside the doors. Superliner I cars have white numbers on a black background. Superliner II car numbers are red LED displays.
Having seen all of the cars, I can now list the entire consist, from front to rear:
This is the standard configuration for the Coast Starlight. During heavier traffic periods they may add one or two coaches to meet demand. Each car is 85 feet long, and there were a total of nine cars between mine and the rear, plus half of a car length in my own car. That meant the distance from my room to the end of the train was over 800 feet, so the round trip was more than a quarter of a mile!
I went to the vestibule of car 1414, and got my photo, and took another out the rear door. As I walked through the coaches, I felt like I should have been among these people, and would have been if I hadn't gotten such a good price on my ticket. The seats were fairly full, save for the last car which was more sparsely populated. But it appeared that most single riders were placed by themselves in two seats, giving them more room to sleep.
We left Emeryville at 10:51, 36 minutes late. As I returned to my car I stopped in the Sightseer Lounge to get a muffin and a bottle of apple juice. I told the attendant I was a sleeping car passenger, and I asked if I had any special privileges. He asked me to write down my room and car number then sign, and my little snack was free.
Relaxing in the Pacific Parlor Car
At 11:12pm I looked around for Dave so could have him make up my bed while I went to the Parlor Car to find some late night company. He wasn't nearby, so I just went to the Parlor Car, where I found him. He asked if I was ready for bed. I told him I would be hanging out in the Parlor car for awhile, but he could make it up anytime.
The Parlor Car is not a Superliner, but a refurbished Santa Fe Hi-Level car from the 1950s. Santa Fe designed these for the Chicago-Los Angeles El Capitan route, and they became the basis for the design of the Superliners. However, they are not identical. They are in fact slightly shorter than a Superliner, visibly so on the outside, and when you walk in from another car you must step down about three or four inches.
The lounge was laid out with a bar at the rear end, then four table booths, like those in the diner. In the middle were two bench seats facing inward, much like I used to see in the lounge cars of Amtrak's early years. Next to these was the stairway down to the movie theater, a newspaper rack, and a small buffet table. Finally at the front end of the car were five oversized swivel armchairs.
I sat in one of the armchairs closest to the end. Some conversations were happening across the aisle, but most everyone had their backs to me. As I sat there I noticed power outlets along the wall for laptops. As we moved along I also noticed that this car seemed to be a bit bouncier than the Superliners.
After a few minutes, a jolly grey-bearded man happened to sit in the chair across the aisle. I greeted him and before long a conversation progressed. His name was Don (though I did not learn that until the next day). He was from Knoxville Tennessee, on his way to visit an old friend in Corvallis, Oregon.
After a brief stop in Martinez, we were on the incline to the bridge over the Suisun Bay, but at 11:35 we stopped short of the bridge to wait for a southbound freight train. Over Don's shoulder we saw the sparkling lights of an oil refinery, and a fluttering, ghostlike blue flame of gas burnoff.
At 11:45 the freight passed and Don was asking what body of water we were crossing. I couldn't remember the name at the time, but a man in an adjacent chair said it was part of the Sacramento River Delta. It turned out to be the fellow who I saw boarding in Oakland with his parents. His name was John, and he lived near Watsonville. He was taking his folks to Seattle to investigate a retirement home, where they could be close to his brother.
As we traveled between the bridge and Davis it seemed we were moving quite fast. Though it was difficult to determine our speed at night, it seemed to be faster than anything I had experienced in a long time on a train.
Don was curious about some of the sights we would encounter on our trip. I told him that if we were running late we might be able to see the upper Sacramento River in the early morning light, as I had the privilege of seeing last year. He seemed eager to see it, based on my description. The topic led to more topics and the three of us engaged in a lively discussion until well after midnight.
I returned to my room just before we stopped in Davis at 12:28, 52 minutes late. I found Dave had left two chocolate mints on my bed. They were a nice touch, but unfortunately they weren’t very good mints. I settled into the covers and turned out the light as we progressed towards our next stop. I left the curtains open so I could watch things go by.
We rolled in gently alongside the Sacramento platform, and I looked down to see a fair sized crowd passing under my window, new passengers waiting to board. Among them, a young couple engaged in a passionate kiss, just like in the movies.
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