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Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales

The Coast Starlight

February/March 2004

Monterey, California
Salem, Oregon

Northbound: February 25-26 - Southbound: March 1-2

The alien engineer can be seen behind the ticket counter at the Salinas Amtrak station.
When I asked the station agent if I could photograph the alien, he said he'd never noticed it before!


This tale begins with the announcement last year that our youngest niece, Barbara, would be getting married on February 28th. Readers of previous Train Travel Tales may recall that we reintroduced ourselves to train travel three and a half years earlier to attend the wedding of Barbara's sister Debbie in Denver. We've been hooked on Amtrak ever since.

Our rail destination was Salem, Oregon. We planned to spend the night there with my mother and sister, then drive the next 60 miles or so to Hillsboro, west of Portland.

We made our train reservations in late December, just after Christmas. We could have saved about $20 if I booked before Christmas, but we needed to finalize our plans at the family Christmas gathering. Still, we saved a fair amount of money over flying coach from Monterey, and we were going first class. Our total round-trip fare was well under $500.

I wanted to get an upper level Standard Bedroom for our northbound trip, and a lower level room for our southbound trip. There was no particular need here, I just wanted to compare ride quality and noise levels to see if there was any substantial difference. To make this request, I was unable to make the reservation on the Internet. I had to call 1-800-USA-RAIL and speak with an agent. He was most courteous, and accommodated my request easily. We were assigned to room 3 northbound (on train #14) and room 11 southbound (on train #11).

Shortly after I booked our trip, I developed an inner ear problem that was giving me dizzy spells. Though the frequency and severity of the problem was lessening over time, it was still with me in a mild form up to the day of our departure. I was a little concerned that the motion of the train would aggravate it. As it turned out, the motion of the train so completely overwhelmed my inner ear signals, that while I was on the train I actually felt better than I had in weeks.

February 25, 2004


A huge storm blew through Monterey that day. Such weather is not uncommon this time of year, but is not conducive to waiting at two bus stops en route to the train station. Thus we arranged to have a friend drive us to the Monterey Transit Plaza to catch the little Amtrak bus which in turn would take us to Salinas. As it turned out, the weather cleared about an hour before we left home, and by the time we got to downtown Monterey, there wasn't a cloud in the sky!

The Salinas station. The little bus was ours.

Once in Salinas we checked our largest bags, and the station attendant told us the train would probably not be there until 8:00pm. I had anticipated a long wait. I'd been following train 14's on-time performance the last couple of weeks. Its times into Salinas were all over the clock, running anywhere between 7:30 and 10:00pm! With that in mind I packed a pair of sandwiches to sustain us through dinnertime if needed. We got into them about an hour into our wait.

There was some UP freight activity to watch while we waited.
This train was assembled in the adjacent yard before being taken northward.

Left: Heidi reads while we wait

Station agent humor department:
At the seats closest to the rear doors of the lobby sat a round faced man with his wife. Seeking a further update, he walked up to the counter and asked "Where are we now?"

"We're still in Salinas" came the agent's reply.

Train #14 finally arrived at about 8:35. We were greeted at the door of sleeping car #1431 by a blonde woman named Angela. She indicated that the dining car was still open for us, and we should hurry down as soon as we could. She then directed us to our room, #3 upstairs.

When we arrived we saw that our beds had already been made up. This made settling in a little awkward, so perhaps it was a little premature. But overall I give Angela very high marks for service. She kept us well informed and was looking out for all of her passengers at every step of their journeys. The only qualifier I would add was that she sometimes seemed a little jumpy.

#14 arrives at Salinas

We were soon seated in the diner. Since we had eaten sandwiches earlier, we skipped the salad and went right to the entrée. We both ordered the lamb at the recommendation of Juan, our server. Heidi enjoyed hers but I thought mine seemed kind of gamey, and tasted more like beef than lamb. It was otherwise well prepared, however, with a nice sauce and fairly tender. Heidi cleaned her plate, while I ate maybe half of mine. We were both pretty full by then so we reluctantly skipped dessert.

Juan was a wonderful man. We had him for all three meals, and every time he treated as like members of his own family.

At 9:05, while in the diner we overheard a detector report from the radio on a conductor's belt. It was at milepost 99.1, just north of Elkhorn Slough.

"UP detector, milepost 99.1, no defects, total axles 52, train speed 51 mph. Detector out."

For those not familiar, detectors are sensors located along the tracks that check for overheated wheel bearings, dragging items, etc. They then relay the report to the train's crew via a synthesized voice through the radio.

After dinner we stopped in the Parlour Car for a few minutes of pointless lounging. When we returned to our room, I noted the names of the sleeping cars. #1430 was Louisiana. Our car, #1431 was Kansas. I made some silly joke about being back in Kansas, Toto.

9:50pm "UP detector, milepost 83.3, no defects, total axles 52 axles, train speed 36 mph. Detector out." We were now 83.3 miles from Oakland. North of Oakland, the mileposts would begin counting upwards.

Heidi crawled into bed, taking the upper bunk. Meanwhile I called an acquaintance in Emeryville named Doras. She is a well known and very active Amtrak advocate. I met her on the California Zephyr in 2000, and we have stayed in touch ever since. She lives near the Emeryville station and we had arranged to meet there on our way through. But tonight we were so far behind schedule that she thought she would be in bed by the time we arrived. She did tell me to look out for a couple of her friends who would be boarding our train. Their names were Walter and Milly.

I moseyed on down to the Pacific Parlour Car for a little reading and light conversation with a few of our fellow travelers. When we reached San Jose we could see that it was pouring rain. Such stormy conditions are not much fun for driving, and can be uncomfortably turbulent for flying, but in the Pacific Parlour Car we gently passed through this weather as if we were at home in our living room.

Left: Oakland in the rain.

I was back in our room by Oakland, and I began to get ready for bed. From my pillow, I watched out the window until we got to Emeryville, around 12:30am. I then tried to settle down for the night. However, I was till awake when we reached Martinez, so I watched as we passed the brightly lit refineries and crossed the bridge over the Sacramento River delta. That done, I laid my head down once more and went to sleep.

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