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Toy's Train Travel Tales

The Coast Starlight

March 2003

Monterey, California
Salem, Oregon

Northbound: March 5-6 - Southbound: March 9-10


Mrs. Toy and I celebrated our 20th anniversary in early January. We had thought about taking a train trip to somewhere for that event, but several things got in our way. A big family trip to Hawaii last November, coupled with hectic holidays left us feeling that it was best to stay home and recover.

But then Amtrak came out with a "Buy One, Get One" (BOGO) sale. If we booked before February 15th, one of us could ride free. We couldn't pass that up. We decided to go North to visit family. But when? Local obligations left us with few options. Finally it was decided that we could take a few days in early March, as long as we were not away on a Tuedsay. It would be a short and sweet trip.

We set March 5th as our departure date, and we would return home on the 10th. Destination: my mother's house in Salem, Oregon. Not exactly our dream anniversary vacation, but we would have some valuable time with my family.

I got my fare quote on line at Prices were surprisingly low, and we decided we could afford to get a Deluxe bedroom for the return trip. We also decided that for the northbound Standard Bedroom, we would like to be downstairs because it is a little more private. For this special request I couldn't book on-line, but needed to talk to an agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL. He accommodated our request with room #14. For the return trip, we would have Deluxe Bedroom E, near the center of the car on the upper level. This would be the first time we have taken a Deluxe room since our honeymoon in 1983, so we were able to give this trip a bit of an anniversary theme. (For a diagram of room locations, see: Amtrak sleeping car diagrams.)

I later calculated that with the BOGO sale, coupled with good deals on the sleeping accomodations, we saved almost $250 over the regular fare. This first-class trip on Amtrak cost about the same as flying coach from Monterey to Portland. And because Salem has no real airline service, the train took us much closer to my mother's house, in far greater comfort, than flying could have.

Wednesday. March 5, 2003

Public transportation would be our only conveyance from the moment we stepped out our door at 4:25pm. We caught a Monterey Salinas Transit bus, having waited at the corner where one finally came by a bit later than expected. We arrived at the Monterey Transit Plaza just before 5:00, where, under the Amtrak sign a small group of mostly college age folks was already clustered.

The Amtrak bus to Salinas

The Amtrak Thruway minibus at the Monterey Transit Plaza

Within five minutes the little mini-bus arrived and we loaded our bags. We had another 15 minutes or so to wait before the scheduled departure, so I went looking for a rest room. The "official" transit plaza facility was at the nearby Exxon station. I shouldn't have bothered, as it was absolutely filthy. I went back to the bus where Mrs. Toy had grabbed the frontmost seats. Five others were also aboard, more than I have seen on this bus before, and far more than I expected for off-season weekday travel. We struck up a conversation with Todd, the driver, who remembered me from last year. He was cheerily talkative all the way to Salinas.

At 5:22pm on our way as scheduled. We made our brief stop at the Hyatt Regency before heading to the Salinas station where we arrived at precisely 6:00pm. According to the sign above the ticket counter, the train was almost on schedule. Mrs. Toy and I passed the time by talking to another passenger, who was going all the way to Berkeley.

I put on my headphones and turned on my scanner radio to listen for clues as to when the train might actually arrive. About 6:30 I heard the distinctive modem-like signal from an end of train device, which indicated it was probably just a few miles away. Or it could be just a freight train.

I decided I wanted to be outside and get ready to take a photo. Since it was after dark, I knew I wouldn't be able to get a nice sharp image, so I opted to lean against the station wall and shoot a long exposure to blur the train as it came in. I found my vantage point, and as it wasn't very cold out, we just enjoyed the night air for a bit. I showed Mrs. Toy the signal down the tracks that indicated whether a train was coming.

At 6:40 the lady behind the counter made an announcement about how the train could be along at any time, but we really couldn't be entirely certain. Things do happen that are beyond Amtrak's control, she said. But, she said, "If you go outside and look down the tracks to your right you will see a green signal. When that signal turns yellow, it means the train is about 10 minutes away. If it turns red, the train is less than 2 minutes away."

As she spoke, we saw the signal had turned yellow, so I went to the door. When I made eye contact with her I said "It's yellow." Everyone in the lobby cheered, until she added. "But sometimes we get fooled and its just a freight train. You never really know until it gets here." Its not often you hear dark humor over a loudspeaker.

Train #14 rolls into Salinas

The train pulled in, I got my photos, and we walked towards our sleeper. The first thing I noticed was that the train did not have a Pacific Parlor Car, a special lounge for sleeping car passengers. In its place was a second Sightseer Lounge, which does not have all the comforts and amenities of the Parlor Car. This was a disappointment because I was looking forward to introducing Mrs. Toy to this popular piece of Coast Starlight equipment.

On the platform a conductor greeted us and helped us with our bags. He was extremely friendly, and I must say, unintentionally amusing. His thick accent and high pitched voice were the perfect stereotype of an old German train conductor. It felt like we had walked into a B grade movie. Before he let us board he had us sign our tickets, then he punched them. Our car attendant, Jerome, was at the door and he had a dinner reservation for us, set for 7:30. That gave us plenty of time to settle in and wash up.

We found room 14, right where is should be. I was delighted to find it was on the right side of the train, where we would have the best views of the Cascades. If we were running late, Mrs. Toy would also be able to see the Sacramento River gorge near Dunsmuir from her bed. At 6:55 we began rolling, but soon we heard an announcement that someone was "chasing the train" and we stopped again for a couple minutes. But we had gone at least half a mile, maybe more, so I don't know how they caught up so fast.

We closed our door and turned on the scanner. We soon heard our first detector. These are devices placed on the tracks that monitor the train's performance and transmit a synthetic voice to relay the information to the train's crew. "UP detector, milepost 111.9, no defects, total axles 52, speed 69 MPH." The mileposts are measured south and north from Oakland. Salinas is at milepost 114.9, so we had only gone three miles.

At 7:11 we were passing Elkhorn Slough. We closed the door curtain and turned out the lights to see better. I recognized Kirby Park, which is at milepost 101, in the dark. This area has been a favorite place of mine to get photos of this train when I have a free afternoon to kill. In the sky we saw the Big Dipper hanging from its handle just above the hills.

Another detector was just around the bend and we came upon it at 7:14: "UP detector, milepost 99.1, total axles, 52, speed 50 MPH." (On the detectors transmissions, numbers are given as "five-zero" not "fifty".) The detectors in our area have a female voice. Detectors farther north have a male voice. It is comforting to know that in this modern age the Union Pacific Railroad has an gender diversified electronic workforce.

At 7:25 we washed up and went to the lounge car to await our dinner call. There is some very rough track in North Monterey County, and Mrs. Toy did not have her "train legs" yet, so she was having a bit of an awkward time moving about.

We sat down and were looking out into the dark as we passed through the Graniterock quarry at Aromas. This is the largest granite quarry west of the Mississippi. Every year they put on a big 4th of July show called "Pops and Rocks," complete with fairly big name entertainment, a symphony orchestra, and fireworks, right among the enormous piles of gravel. We attended for the first time last year with my mother and had a grand time.


We hadn't heard any announcements, so I was wondering if the intercom was working in the lounge. We watched what appeared to be (according to Mrs. Toy) a Mennonite couple walk straight through the car to the diner and they were immediately seated. I thought we should see if they were seating for 7:30 reservations, as it was now 7:35. Sure enough we went right in and were seated at the same table as the couple that preceded us.

Our server brought four glasses of water, and took our orders. He forgot to ask us about beverages, but we were all perfectly happy with water. We had only two choices for salad dressing, and it was served in a cup. On previous trips we had a choice of dressings from little packages on the table. I imagine this system helps cut costs in these tough economic times.

I ordered salmon with mashed potatoes. The ladies at the table both ordered chicken, while the other gentleman had the pork. The food was served promptly, proved to be delicious and filling for everyone. Our companions were also delightful. They lived in Montana, he worked in a furniture manufacturing shop. They were returning home from a vacation in Florida. They had been on one train or another since Sunday, and had another day or two to go. I'm not sure, but I think the more conservative Mennonites, like the Amish, do not fly.

At 7:47 we were passing Gilroy. As we approached San Jose we moved on to dessert. I ordered cheesecake, and later discovered I was to share. Ah, the joys of married life. The woman across from us ordered the apple/cherry cobbler. It was served with ice cream, and she reported was that it was delicious. As for the cheesecake, it was the same institutional concoction I had last year. Adequate, but not quite up to the standards of this cheesecake connoisseur.

Evening Relaxation

We made our stop in San Jose at 8:30, as we were just finishing up dinner. On our way back to our room I took Mrs. Toy to the lower level of the first-class lounge to show her what was available. We talked with the attendant a bit about the car substitution. He said the Parlor Car had a bad wheel which couldn't be fixed in time. He was as disappointed as I was, because he said he helped design the Parlor Cars.

By 8:40 we were back in our room, having just left San Jose. I called my sister in Salem to let her know we were safely on our way. My cell phone worked just fine despite the fact that we were surrounded by steel. Meanwhile, Mrs. Toy returned to the lounge to watch the city lights as we skirted the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. I joined her at 9:00, with my scanner headphones over my ears to keep up with the action.

I heard some things that I did not understand, but sounded important. For example, at 9:07 I heard "Amtrak 14 yellow flag 30." A similar message was repeated again at 9:20, about the time the San Mateo bridge came into view just north of us. Next we passed a lot filled with Berkeley Farms trucks, the dairy made famous by the slogan "Farms in Berkeley?"

By 9:30 the San Mateo bridge was directly in front of us. I was just getting over a cold, so I stepped downstairs for some juice to help my ticklish throat. On the way I met Jerome and he said our beds had been made up for the night.

Mrs. Toy and I enjoyed watching the world go by, and we talked about this and that. Then at 9:38 came an interesting transmission from the dispatcher: "Amtrak 14, 114 North we have an unforeseen at milepost 7.66. The 5th avenue crossing signal is out. Slow to 15 MPH. No stop required unless signaled by work crew." (I'm not quoting this exactly here, it is an approximation based on my notes and memory.)

I should mention that our train number was 14, the Amtrak equivalent of an airline flight number. Our lead locomotive was #114 (the "114 North"). Unlike air traffic control, where controllers refer to planes by their flight numbers, rail dispatchers identify trains by the number of their lead locomotive. In this case it was just a coincidence that the locomotive number was similar to the train number. I'm not entirely sure of the protocol, but from my observations, dispatchers will call "Amtrak 14" for more general messages, but when giving specific instructions such as this they refer to the locomotive number and direction, in this case "Amtrak 114 North."

At 9:42 we were passing the Oakland A's stadium where I heard "UP Detector, milepost 12.4, Track 2, no defects, total axles 52, speed 54 MPH." The next thing to come into view was a colorful ferris wheel, which was a pleasant contrast to the sea of industrial parking lot lights.

Soon after we were running alongside Highway 17, "racing" the cars as we approached Jack London Square. Tonight the cars were winning by a small margin. I heard on the scanner that a car on our train is to be removed at Oakland. That is not unusual, as Oakland is a hub for several Amtrak operations, but it piqued my curiosity.

My curiosity soon got the best of me, and I excused myself to walk to the rear of the train to see what sort of car was being dropped off. It was a third Sightseer Lounge. My guess it was brought up for use on the California Zephyr, which originates here for its journey across the country to Chicago. To see it, I had walked through the diner, the other lounge car, and three coaches. I was pleased to see that the coaches were all quite full on what is traditionally a slow travel day.

At 9:55 we stopped and went to our car so we could get off and Mrs. Toy could see the beautiful glass station at Oakland. She was impressed. Then she was ready for bed.

At precisely 10:00 I heard the car had been detached. I went to the vestibule to see if it might pass by on the next track. I didn't see it, but out on the platform I saw a little Amtrak truck with some sort of a tank on it. A few minutes later its purpose was revealed on the scanner when I heard "They're working on the toilets. The honey wagon is here."

A Foamer? Moi????

Meanwhile, Jerome saw me hanging out in the vestibule with my scanner and headphones. He said "Looks like we got a foamer here." I wasn't sure if I appreciated that. For those not familiar, "foamer" is a derogatory term for a "railfan," a person who likes to watch trains. It derives from the phrase "foaming at the mouth" as many railfans get pretty worked up over the hobby.

I consider myself to be more of a rail advocate than a fan, but there have been times when I have exhibited railfan-like behavior. This was one of them. But a true railfan can identify almost any type of locomotive or rolling stock, follows the intricacies of railroad operations, and knows every bit of obscure jargon. Personally, I don't care about much of that. My interest is pretty much limited to Amtrak. I just enjoy riding the trains and when I can't ride I like to photograph them now and then. Maybe I'm a "railfan lite."

However, I have picked up a fair amount of railroad knowledge while en route to learning about the topic that interests me most: the bewildering politics surrounding passenger trains in this country. This subject is quite fascinating in its own right. More to the point, it is infuriating to see how Amtrak has been maligned in Congress and the news media by the endless repetition of popular misconceptions. My passion is directed towards educating my fellow citizens on the raw deal that passenger trains, and the people who rely on them, have gotten from the politicians in Washington DC. The popular pseudo-conservative sport of Amtrak bashing is, to those who really understands the issues, blaming the victim rather than facing up to the shortcomings of our national rail transportation policies.

But I digress. I never did see that detached lounge car go by, but at 10:10 an Amtrak Dash-8 locomotive (in "Phase IV" colors, for those who are interested) came alongside, pulling an Amtrak California train. In the consist was a black sheep, a Superliner coach, like those used on interstate trains such as ours. The Superliner stopped opposite our vestibule, and I was able to see inside. Since it was in commuter service its seats were turned so that every other row was facing backwards. When the train reverses direction, half of the seats would still face forward. On the lower level, where more seats would normally be, I was shocked to see the space was filled with junk! How odd.

We departed Oakland at 10:21pm, 35 minutes late. Since Mrs. Toy was tucked in bed, and I was not quite ready for it, I ambled up to the lounge to do some reading. I found a pile of periodicals, and I chose a computer magazine which kept me occupied all the way to Martinez.

After a stop in Emeryville we traveled along the shores of the bay. I saw that the new Carquinez bridge, a suspension bridge still under construction, was all lit up in glorious splendor. I watched it through the lounge car's wrap-around windows as we rumbled beneath it at 11:05.

A minute later I heard the first of two detector reports from milepost 27.8. One for track 1, and one for track 2. I wasn't sure which was for us and which was for another train. One of us was going 28 mph, the other 39 mph.

Martinez came beneath our wheels at 11:13, where a male detector voice, at milepost 31.1, Track 3, informed us we had no defects. Period. Soon another automated voice came on and said "brake recovery complete, consist ready, out." A true railfan would have known exactly what that meant. I could only guess.

We departed Martinez at 11:18, exactly 24 minutes late. Looks like we made up a bit of time since Oakland.

We proceeded up the grade towards the bridge over the straight. Outside a brightly lit refinery offered a good deal of visual stimulation. The huge ghost-like blue flame of gas burnoff was still dancing at the top of a tall stack, as it was last year about this time of night. We then proceeded across the bridge which would take us into the Sacramento Valley.

11:26pm "UP detector, milepost 37.1, no defects." Boring, but reassuring. I prefer the ones that give speed. Then came that "yellow flag 60" message again. Perhaps someone will enlighten me on the meaning of these transmissions.

Good Night

I went back to the lower level of car 1430, and climbed into my upper bunk at 11:50pm. The upper bunk though not huge, wasn't as cramped as I remembered it. I laid my head down and tried to sleep. I might have slept better, but I kept having a tickle in my throat from a recent cold. It kept me from drifting off to sleep as quickly as I would have liked.

The upper bunk does not have a window, so I was closed off from the outside world for the first time since boarding. The experience reminded me of a scene from the movie "Sneakers" wherein Robert Redford was thrown into the trunk of a car and taken to a mysterious location. He and his friends, one of whom was a blind man, were later able to retrace his journey by identifying the sounds along the way. Being fairly familiar with the route I was able, not unlike Redford, to track our progress with my ears.

I had planned to be asleep by Sacramento, but the unmistakable sound of crossing a bridge told me we had just gone over the Sacramento River, which is right near the station. Sure enough, we made our stop just seconds later.

I was also quite awake for our departure from Sacramento. I finally managed to drift off to sleep somewhere north of there, but that darn tickle kept waking me up. At one point we made a stop. I looked at my watch and given the time, I was pretty sure it was Chico.

I went back to sleep and the next thing I heard was the sound of two tunnels. That could only mean that we were north of Redding, and were into the mountains near Lake Shasta. That was around 3:00am, so we were making good time. Mrs. Toy wouldn't be able to see the Sacramento River gorge after all. On my last two trips we hit Lake Shasta closer to 6:00. That we were at Lake Shasta was confirmed a few minutes later as I heard the sound of another bridge, a fairly long one, followed almost immediately by a tunnel. No question, that was the bridge over Lake Shasta, the same one that carries Interstate 5 on the upper deck. And that was the last thing I remember before morning.

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