|2006 had been a difficult year in Toyland. A string of
medical issues and associated expenses, an ailing kitty who required
weeks of tender loving care before she passed away this summer, and
busy, busy work schedules made me very pessimistic that we'd be able to
fit a train trip into the calendar or budget this year. On top of that,
Amtrak's Coast Starlight had been experiencing
horrific timekeeping this summer due to track work being done by Union
Pacific, making a train trip look much less attractive than normal.
But by fall a series of events conspired to get me on a
train after all. UP wrapped up the track work and the Starlight's
timekeeping was the best I'd seen in years. Then a September trip to
Sacramento's railroad museum prompted me to start thinking again about
the possibilities for rail travel. It occurred to me that I should
visit my oldest sister who was about to celebrate her 60th birthday on
November 1st, just two days before my 47th. The gift I picked out for
her all but demanded that I present it to her in person. Then I learned
that I could get double Amtrak
Guest Rewards points (the rail equivalent of frequent flier
miles) if I booked a trip this fall. Most importantly, our health was
back to normal. Clearly, it was time to go!
But there was a snag. I had no trouble getting a few
days off work, even though it was a busy time. But Mrs. Toy faced the
opposite situation. Her employer didn't want to let her go, even though
it was a slow period, because they were stretched too thin. Cripes!
They're always stretched too thin, largely due to employees who get fed
up and quit because they can't get time off. Its a vicious cycle. My
wife has bailed out her employer many, many times on short notice, but
when SHE needs something its usually a NO GO! Why doesn't she quit,
too? Because right now she can't afford to lose her health insurance.
So, sadly, I was forced to go solo so she could keep her job.
In early October I did some price checking and saw that
Roomettes on the Coast Starlight were going between
$168 and $226 each way, depending on the travel dates, plus rail fare
of about $75 per person each way. That would be OK for two people but
seemed excessive for one because the room charge is the same no matter
how many people are traveling. Thus when I actually made my reservation
two weeks later I thought it might help the household budget if I
traveled northbound in coach, and only took a sleeper coming home. Much
to my delight, the Roomette prices had actually gone down! I was able
to get a Roomette northbound for only $126, and southbound for $168.
Add in the $73 rail fare each way, and the total came to $440 plus a
few coins. I grabbed it.
So now I had tickets for departure on Train #14 from
Salinas on the evening of Monday October 30th for arrival in Salem on
Halloween. I was assigned to car 1430, room 6. I would get back on
Train #11 for the return trip on the afternoon of my birthday, November
3rd, taking room 7 on car 1131.
I was a little concerned about the fate of on board
amenities. Last year some overzealous Republicans snuck one of those
last minute provisions that nobody reads, much less debates, into an
appropriations bill which required Amtrak to drastically cut its food
service costs. Some 25 years ago Amtrak learned the hard way that
reducing food quality to save money also reduced ticket sales to the
point where the lost revenue exceeded the cost savings. Amtrak dumped
its experiment with what were essentially TV dinners and went back to
having real chefs on board.
This year Amtrak was forced by law to once again do
away with freshly cooked meals and go to pre-cooked foods that are
reheated on board. This time the reheating would be done in convection
ovens, not microwaves, to preserve flavor and freshness. Theoretically,
given new food preparation techniques, the food is supposed to be
indistinguishable from freshly cooked. Also, kitchen staff has been cut
down to one, and servers have been cut from four down to two. The
program is officially known as “Simplified Dining
Service” or SDS. A lot of people, including myself, have been
wondering if this was going to be a repeat of the 1980s fiasco.
I was also hearing rumors
through the Internet that the famous Pacific Parlour Car, a special
first class lounge car exclusive to the Coast Starlight,
was to be discontinued on November 1st, again to please the bean
counters in Washington DC. This was just a rumor, but other problems
were certain. Amtrak has five parlour pars, four of which are usually
on the road at any given time. However, at least two, maybe three, were
out for repair and not all trains had them. It was a tossup as to
whether I would see one this trip or not.
OK, enough of the background information. Its time to
...the bus. The first leg of my journey begins with the
bone rattling Amtrak shuttle bus which takes me from the downtown
Monterey Transit Plaza to the Salinas Amtrak station. I noticed it was
a little different from the bus we had in previous years, but it still
looked old and creaky. I mentioned this to the driver and he said
“Yea, its old. But when I see the drivers of the new busses
they say theirs always break down! This one doesn't!”
At 5:20 pm the bus was rolling and we were following
right behind my darlin' wife, who had just dropped me off. We parted
ways at the Hyatt where the bus made a brief stop before heading on to
Salinas. On the freeway the bus bounced on every single seam in the
concrete and made my teeth rattle. By the time we got to the station at
6:09, I was more than ready for the comfort of my little Roomette.
The back door, Salinas