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Parlour Car Richard Talmy

Amtrak Coast Starlight

Richard Talmy, Parlour Car Attendant

"The Most Unforgettable Character"

By:  Carl Morrison,


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"Preston" on the Coast Starlight pin.

Remember when Reader's Digest had a section titled, "The Most Unforgettable Character"?  Well, I was assigned to write a story about  a most unforgettable character, a  Parlour Car Attendant on the Amtrak Coast Startlight from Los Angeles, California, to Seattle, Washington, May 8 and 9, 2006.   If you've ridden the Coast Starlight, you know that Sleeper Car Passengers on Train 14  (northbound) and  Train 11 (southbound)  have a parlor car, exclusively for their use during their trip, between their sleeper accommodations and the diner.  The Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak train in American with such a car.  This car has a full-time attendant, one each on the four train sets, who tends to the needs of the sleeping car passengers, making it a more pleasant trip than being in their sometimes cramped rooms for the 1389 miles (two days and a night) from Los Angeles to Seattle.
After we boarded Train 14 in Los Angeles, while sitting in our tiny Economy Bedroom, we heard an announcement:  "Sleeping Car Passengers are invited to come to the Parlour Car for coffee, juice, and pastries; and to hear an "Orientation" of the train and the trip.  Little did we know that we would not return to our room until after dinner that evening!  I said to my traveling partner, Don, "That must be Richard Talmy, the Parlour Car Attendant, let's get down there while the train is still stable here in the station." 
It was about 9:45 a.m. when we arrived in the Pacific Parlour Car, and Richard had already served many guests their morning drink of choice, and they had selected pastries (above) from a serving table in the middle of the car.  When i approached Richard at the end of the car, he knew who I was, even though he had never seen me.  We had corresponded to be sure I was on his train this Monday, May 8.  He was very pleasing to meet and accommodating, just as if we'd known each other for some time. 
The upper level of the Parlour Car consists of six 4-seat booths, each with a table; a lounge area with sofa type seating for eight guests with drink tables in front; and eight upholstered 'parlor chairs' for a total seating capacity of 40 plus standing room at the bar.
Richard began the Orientation by mentioning that this was his first trip with the new dining service, Simplified Dining.  He proceeded to give all sleeping car passengers their lunch dining time of their choice.  He further explained that the Coast Starlight was the only train that has a Parlour Car. 

He mentioned that there was an 11th Commandment on this train, "Though shall not count calories," and further said that if we were taking the train all the way to Seattle, we would have:  two wine tastings of 3 wines each, two continental breakfasts, two regular breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners, all included in the price of our sleeping car ticket!

The layout of the train, he mentioned, was:  Sleeping cars up front, then the Parlour Car, followed by the dining car, the lounge/snack bar car, and finally the coaches.  One coach car has a Kiddie Room on the lower level for the 2 to 11 year olds. 
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Front of the Coast Starlight                                                   Back of the Coast Starlight

The only Parlour Car items that are not included in the room price are alcohol drinks and gratuities.  Cocktails will be served in glass glasses and you may have a tab.  Specialty wines, six bottles, will be served at the two wine tasting times on this trip.

Richard has a table of souvenirs, the wines for this trip displayed on the bar with a sign showing the time of tasting, the movie names and times.  Since the tasting is for adults only, a movie for kids will be shown in the lower level at that time.

The three wines today will be a chardonnay, pinot noir,  and Symphony.  Cheese and crackers will be provided during tasting.  I could see that Richard has all 6 wines, with descrptive labels and prices, on the bar.

Richard continued his orientation by listing the movie titles and times of the showings.  One short VHS movie that he brings on is a documentary, made in 1939, about the "Daylight" which ran between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Movies will be shown in the nice theater on the lower level of the Pacific Parlour Car.  Above the bar is a sign with information about the movies.
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He reminded us sleeping car passengers not to get confused about some terms on the announcements.  "Parlor Car" is this car and "Lounge Car" will be the sightseeing/lounge car on the other side of the diner for the coach passengers.

Dinner reservations are made with Richard.  The diner opens for dinner at 5 pm and reservations are taken in 15 minute timeslots thereafter.   He takes dinner reservations at wine tasting, gives the passenger a clip with the time, and marks the names on a master list.

Lunch starts at 11:30, breakfast starts at 6:30 with continental breakfast in the Parlour Car in addition to full breakfast in the diner.

Richard mentioned that he would start his commentary after the Santa Barbara stop and gave the highlights he would be discussing during his 1 hr. to 1 hr. and 45 min. talk.  He would also have more commentary leaving Klamath Falls.  If we were running late and we would pass Mt. Shasta after the 6:30 scheduled time, he would give a geological lecture as we passed it at that time.  Finally, he mentioned that he would comment on other sights as we pass them during the 2 day journey.

Richard uses his own sound system in the center of the Parlour Car, which allows him to stand in the middle of the car (rather than use the microphone behind the bar at the end of the car) allowing him to see outside the car and give appropriate commentary as the sights pass by.  All other train announcements, by the conductor and dining car steward, come in over the all-train P.A. and Richard politely stops talking during those many announcements, so guests in his car can hear them in case they pertain to them.
In 1995, second-generation Amtrak cars were used to make up the 4 Coast Starlight trainsets.  Five former Santa Fe Lounge cars were found in the Beech Grove, Indiana, repair facility and renovated for use as Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight.

Commentary of the trackside-sights.

We passed a movie ranch started by Crash Corrigan and others.  It was 2,000 acres originally bought for $35,000, near Chatsworth.  You might recognize the sandstone rocks from old black and white cowboy movies.  Movie sets were built and it was a park on weekends, called "Corriganville Movie Ranch."  In 1965 it was sold to Bob Hope and soon closed thereafter and became a housing project called Hopetown.
Coming into Santa Barbara Station, Richard mentioned the Mission Revival architecture that Southern Pacific used for its stations using arches, stucco walls, beamed ceilings, and tile roofs.  Richard pointed out, on the west side of the station,  the largest and oldest fig tree in North America, 161 feet span, planted in 1876, and survived the railroad, the highway, and the development of Santa Barbara. 

After Santa Barbara his commentary covers ecology, geology, history, and specific points of interest.

At 12:45, Richard resumed his commentary by asking that passengers not save seats, except for restroom trips, in the Parlour Car.  He mentioned that there would  be some movement in and out of the Parlour Car as people were called for, and return from, lunch.

A Santa Barbara AAA map was used to point out scenic and historic spots along our route as we traveled north.  He pointed out Point Conception on the map, working, as it were in a theater-in-the-round.  This point marks the end of Southern California.  This area is know as the "Open Gaviota Coast" and is "open" to the public.  However, it is not a coast  but rather Santa Barbara Channel.  Santa Barbara, being east of the coast, in the Channel, does not get all the coastal fog and tides and is a Mediterranean climate.  The California coast actually runs east and west here, the only place that this happens between Alaska to Cape Horn.  The Channel Islands creates a Mediterranean climate with calm ocean.

Until 1950s, 400 onshore oil wells were in the area between Summerland and Gaviota.  Richard asked if anyone knew what Summerland was known for.  It used to be a nude beach!  In the 1950s oil companies stated using oil rigs (23) and the older 400 oil wells were dismanteled.  El Captian, Refugio, and Gaviota State Beaches are in this area west of Santa Barbara.

He pointed out a 'secret' along the track.  El Capitan State Beach and Refugio State Beach are connected by a bike path!  This path is the only access to the beach in this area.  It starts as a park road that we could see from the train, then turns into a bike path between the two state beaches with access to the little coves along the Santa Barbara Channel.

In 1969, 3.5 million gallons of oil reached the beaches here from an oil well blowup.  It took 20 years to recover from this disaster.  This spill sparked the 1970s environmental revolution and was the impitus to create the California Coastal Commission, EPA, and Get Oil Out (GOO) to protect the California coast.

Heavy sour oil has seeped up from the ocean floor in the form of tar balls forever.  This is a natural occurrance and the Indians used it on their canoes.

Oil rigs pump the pools of oil dry in about 8 years.  Four original oil platforms have been dismantedled, three have been shut down,  and three more will be soon.  There are now oil rigs beyond Point Conception, outside the Santa Barbara Channel, but it now illegal to build any as far as San Luis Obispo.  Elwood, on the inland side of the track, is a small oil processing plant.  All Southern California oil taken from Santa Barbara Channel is pumped through pipelines to Martinez and Richmond.  Coke and sulphur (below) is extracted along the way in other plants.  Elwood's claim to fame is that it received a direct hit from a Japanese submarine.

Coastal fog is an indicator of a healthy ocean.  Cold ocean water meets warm air creating fog.  The moving, churning sea wells up nutrients to the surface creating food for the fish, whales, etc.  The warm water current here comes up from Mexico and the cold water California Current comes from the north and the two currents meet at Pt. Conception.  This creates a clashing current ecosystem.   The kelp catches the nutrients.  Kelp is the fastest growing plant in the world, up to two feet a day, partly because of the south-facing shoreline and constant sun.

The Channel Islands parallel the mountain range.  The islands used to be a mountain range as well.  There are 147 rare plant and animal species in this area including California gray, humpbacks, and blue whales.  The Channel Islands National Park is the least visited national park. 

Refugio Canyon Road goes to a bed and breakfast, and beyond, up to the former Ronald Reagan Ranch, and then over the range and into the Santa Inez Valley and the former home of Michael Jackson.

Refugio Beach was  inhabited by the Chumash Indians, originally.  Santa Barbara County beaches are cleaner than Ventura to Los Angles County beaches because there is no sewer rain outlets (rainwater goes out through a pipeline two miles) and there is no farming so no pesticides to flow into the ocean.  Santa Monica has lost 75% of its kelp beds because of polluted rainwater runoff making an unhealthy oceas after rains.

In the late 1800s, Russians eliminated the California Sea Otters in this area in the past, making an imbalance in the control of sea urchins and the decline of kelp because sea urchins eat kelp.  Sea urchins began to be harvested for roe by the California Fish and Game which sold it to Japan for sushi.  Because of this sea urchin harvesting, nature is back in balance and the sea otters, urchins, and kelp are all flourishing.  Kelp is harvested by a San Diego company, Kelko, for use as a thickening agent.

Bald Eagles have been reintroduced to the Channel Islands and there have been two new births recently.  California Brown Pelicans dive for fish in the ocean makng a noise that attracts the bottle nose dolphins to the schools of fish and a feeding frenzy takes place for about two minutes.

California grey whales move close to the shore in this area to avoid killer whales who eat the greys' calves. 

One percent of the ocean waters provide 50% of the fish and kelp areas are particularly good habitats for fish, as are coral reefs in warmer ocean waters.

I noticed that Richard has such broad knowledge that he welcomes and can answer random questions, even about rare birds and animals on the Channel Islands. 

While the train was moving slowly along the coast during Richard's talk, dolphins were sighted and all the parlour car guests moved to the ocean side of the car to press their noses to the windows.
As the railroad continues west along the coast, and Highway 101 turns inland at Gaviota Pass.  Train passengers are the only humans that get to see this beautiful coastline.  Gaviota  was a stage coach stop, the last one to run to the Santa Inez Valley through the Coastal Mountain Range. 

In the 1700s, Spain occupied this California coast, calling it New Spain.  The Russians were harvesting sea otter here and the Spaniards feared that the Russians would colonize the area.  The Spanish government assigned Portola to explore the coast, colonize this area, and in 1769 started the development of the missions, 21 in all, one day apart by stage coach.   This rail line was originally built on the stage and mission line.

Gaviota Pass was the last stage coach line in the U.S.  The train took the coastal route and the highway went through the pass.  Gaviota State Park, pier, and canyon are along the tracks and Hwy. 101.

As we approached Vandenberg Air Force Base, Richard mentioned that 3 former land grant ranches were used for this base.  Before the base, we passed through the Hollister Ranch, which is off limits to the public and stretches from Gaviota to Point Conception.   There are 14,500 acres in these land grant ranches which, in 1971, was divided into 135 parcels.  Each parcel is 100 acres or more.  Owners of these ranches have CCIs including rules to maintain the coastline in its natural state.  You cannot subdivide and you can have only a home and a barn if you have a cattle operation, no other buildings.  Only twelve people can be on the property at one time and it must include the owner.  There is no infrastructure here.  In 1973 when Richard started with Amtrak, these 100 acre parcels sold for $480,000.  Now the 100-acre parcels cost $7.5 million.  This is 8.5 miles of unspoiled California Coast, looking like it used to look like all the way to San Diego. 

There are numerous eucalyptus trees here, brought from Australia by the railroad company in hopes of being a source of railroad ties, but the ties didn't prove to be worthy of this task and, other than for windbreaks, have no other use.  The Las Padres National Forest is behind the Hollister Ranch, so this California coast is today as it has been for centuries...beautiful and unspoiled, with original wildlife.

Coho Anchorage, just before Point Concepcion, almost became a nuclear plant and later almost became a LNG terminal, but was purchased by an unknown benefactor to save it from development. 

At Point Concepcion, the division point between Southern California and Central California Coast, the Coastal Range of mountains starts as a result of the San Andreas fault.  Marked by a 90-degree turn to the north and a lighthouse, Pt. Concepcion marks the end of Southern California.    Only Chumash Indians have access to this area, a religious ceremonial area.  Weather in this area changes frequently.  In some areas say that if you don't like the weather, just wait 10 minutes, here you just move 10 feet to get out of the coastal fog!

The 25,000 acre Bixby Ranch, containing 7 miles of beach front, starts at Point Conception.  Jalama Beach is a public county park with a road to Highway 1, mandated by the Calif. Coastal Commission to be built through the Bixby Ranch.  There are hookups and a store there. 
The 1856 lighthouse at Pt. Arguello still has its original lens.  The Boathouse (below) is a former Coast Guard Rescue station and now it's stated purpose is to retrieve missile parts from aborted launches.  It really is used to entertain big shots when they come to the base.

Pt. Arguella, The Graveyard of the Pacific, with 400 sunken ships off the coastal rocks, was often mistaken for Pt. Conception by ships captains.  In 1923, the worst peacetime naval disaster took place here when 7 of 14 US Naval destroyers sank.  Some of 800 survivors were taken onto the train on this same track.  There is a memorial at the point now.  Richard has a large picture that he shows at this point of a painting of a photograph of the ships that ran aground:
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Vandenberg Air Force Base, originally an Army base in 1941, is the only site where polar orbiting (spy) satellites were launched.  It was expended in size as a buffer to 98,000 acres, and space shuttle launches were to take place here.  Now all Global Positioning Satellites "for profit" are launched from this military satellite launch facility, as well as telecommunications satellites, anything that takes pictures of the earth.  We could clearly see Space Launch Complex #6.  Radar at Vandenberg charts the 10,000 pieces of space junk nowadays. 

There were early restrictions on trains traveling this route.  The passengers had to leave the observation car and other cars had to close the east-side blinds!  In 1995, the base was declassified and Richard took a tour to see what all the secrecy was about.  Project Carona launched the first spy satellite for mapping from here.  In 1959, they let Russian Premier Kruschev see this facility to bluff him into thinking we were a step ahead of the Russians.  There are 700 endangered plant and animal species, some requiring sand nesting, in this area.  We also saw Titan Launch Facilities, which are being replaced by smaller Delta launch facilities.
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Surf Beach by the Santa Inez River.  The main street in Lompoc, Ocean Avenue,  continues on west out of town to Surf, and Ocean Beach County Park.  As we passed, the parking lot was completely empty.  The Surfliner makes 2 stops a day here at a bench-sized station.  Least tern and snowly plover nest in an area near here, and is off limits to people.
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There were plenty of birds on the beach, but no people in the parking lot of Surf Beach opposite the beach.  Fresh water enter the salt water ocean, called an estuary.  Abundant wildlife and no people, yet access is available.  A major wetland along the Pacific Flyway.  The Surfliner stops here twice a day.  No overnight camping here, just a day beach.

There are currently 27 Global Positioning Satellites (24 active and 3 backups).  Vandenberg is the 3rd choice as a space shuttle landing site.  The lights were on at the approach as we passed the 3.5 mile strip (below).  It is to become a space port.  It includes 98,400 acres.  It is also home to the new Space Shield Program which will launch unarmed, 14,500 mph missles which will hit incoming missiles and blow them up.  We saw Space Launch Site #2, a smaller delta launch site for GPS and environmental satellites.
At San Antonio Creek we take an abrupt 90-degree turn inland and leave the coast.  This is the end of the 'longest ocean-view train ride in the United States.'  Farther up the coast in the sand dunes along the coast, Cecil B. DeMille built a gigantic movie set for The Ten Commandments, which gave him notariety.  He built this largest set ever, shot the film, covered the Egyptian city set, then left.  Charles Bronson's brother, Peter, found the set under the sand, after some research in the 1980s.  Santa Barbara County owns the beach.  Guadaloupe has a museum about the buried set-city.  Richard hopes his talk about it will help save it from souvenir hunters.

Nancy Zabel (left below) of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, was taking notes of Richard's talk.  She had been to a United Methodist Church Assembly in Anaheim.  Don Drummer (right below) was enjoying the parlour chairs on his first overnight train trip to Seattle.
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We had a few minutes break while Richard set up for Wine Tasting, a popular event on the Coast Starlight.  Now, Click "Wine Tasting" below.

[ Santa Barbara Coastal Commentary ] [ Wine Tasting ] [ Comments by Passengers ] [ Northwest Commentary ]

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