Amtrak Trains #751, 750 Cascades Service - Talgo Seattle -
Olympia - Seattle - April 30, 1999
Seattle's King St. Station was already buzzing with bluehairs
when I arrived at 6:45am. The tour crowds were gathering for #760
to Vancouver (leaving at 7:45am) as a mostly business crowd waited
for my train, #751 to Portland OR, departing at 7:30am.
I'd skipped breakfast and even coffee at the hotel, convinced
that in Seattle, where espresso bars and carts are found on every
corner, I'd be able to score my much-needed caffeine fix at the
station before boarding my train. How very wrong I was.
King St. Station is a dump. I've seen Greyhound terminals that
looked better. The only food to be found was being dispensed by
vending machines, and there wasn't a latte in sight. What there
was was a very long line at the ticket window and no ticket
selling machines as you'd find at even smaller stations in the
Strangely, each of the ticket agents was being shadowed by
another staffer. Yep, it took four people to run two windows.
While the line of buyers grew to 5, then 12, then 16, an adjacent
line for Custom Class kept getting served first. This was really
pissing off the coach passengers. At 15 minutes before departure
another pair of staffers showed up to open one more window, while
two other terminals sat empty. It took my agent 10 minutes
fighting with a ticket printer before I bought my Custom Class
ticket and departed, convinced that there would still be people in
line when the train left.
How can Amtrak offer such over-staffed yet poor service? Why
can't those with reservations buy their tickets from a machine?
Why not one line and one agent for Custom Class, as First Class
passengers are served at airports? Why then a separate line, after
ticket purchase, for assigning seats to coach riders.
I'd planned a joy-riding daytrip just to experience Talgo, the
Spanish-designed tilt train which has proven so popular on its
unique Northwest runs from Eugene OR to Vancouver BC. Perusing the
schedule on the Amtrak website it seemed that a roundtrip to
Olympia WA would allow the most ride time with minimal wait time.
And I'd have a chance to see Washington's capital, to boot. (What
a mistake that was, as you'll see.)
Having ridden the Swedish X2000 and German ICE trains on their
earlier tests on the Northeast Corridor, Talgo was a much
anticipated conclusion to my triple-crown of European trainsets on
US tracks (not counting the French built Turbo's which run NYP to
I was not disappointed. The new Talgo sets were wonderful. In
attractive brown and green, the trains are in permanent 12 car
consists with wheel sets over the articulated meeting points
between the rather short (at least by Amfleet standards) cars.
Built for high level platforms, its quite a climb from platform to
conductor stool to car-level height, especially for the
elderly or handicapped. Despite their investment in rolling
stock, the stations serving the Talgo fleet seem as modern as the
1950's, i.e. low level platforms.
Inside the cars the most obvious difference was the silence.
Even at full speed, these cars were quiet, reminding me of The
Eurostar or Thalys trains I'd ridden last year where you could
hear a whisper four seats ahead. The two and one seating in Custom
Class was comfy with seats that scooted down to recline rather
than tilted back. There was an audio jack and a few channels of
banal music. (Headphones were $3 and yours to keep) And there was
a free movie shown from four overhead, roof mounted monitors, two
pointed in each direction of travel.
The TV's also showed a passenger orientation video with a
vivacious Am-babe, the likes of which I have never seen in actual
service. And best of all, throughout the trip, the TV's displayed
a map of exactly where the train was on its journey, estimated
arrival time at end-destination (which would creep upward or
downward depending on track speed), outside temperature and
commentary on the itinerary. This was a terrestrial version of
"Air Show", the in-flight, GPS-synched video service I've seen on
several flights. Even as the movie showed an occasional caption
would pop-up ("Now passing through Pyuallup WA"). This service was
great well thought out and information rich without being
Idea: why not a synched audio channel telling more about the
route history, commentary, etc.?
There were individual, adjustable reading lights at each seat.
Free newspapers were racked at the front of the car. The lavatory
was roomy by Amfleet standards, clean and functioned well though
it did seem to be discharging water as we boarded at Seattle.
Passage between each car was accomplished via sliding glass doors
activated by a handle. There were onboard telephones and a Bistro
car and dining car.
Now, I love traveling by train but not with a bunch of drunks.
Is there any reason to serve bloody marys at 7:30am except to feed
someone's disease and/or make a buck for the commissary? I saw
more alcohol than coffee dispensed as we left Seattle. Custom
Class passengers received a chit with their ticket which was good
for a free beverage (non-alcoholic) and "goodie bag" as the
conductor described it. Contents: fruit cup, biscotti and
The Bistro Car opened late, with many excuses. And on our
return ride to Seattle (scheduled arrival 12:15pm, actual arrival
12:30pm) the Bistro Car announced at 10:50am that it would close
on leaving Tacoma at 11:20am. Why would the car cease service for
the last hour of the trip? To allow the Amstaffer to clean up,
bank out and be ready to detrain on arrival in
Seattle. Passenger service be damned, this amenity was going
to stop serving lunch at 11:20am for her convenience. This is the
sort of stupidity that Amtrak has got to address if it hopes to
survive. If the train is rolling, keep service going! Goodness
knows the alcoholics will cover any incremental cost.
As you can sense, while I found the Talgo equipment wonderful,
it's the human side of the Amtrak story that was most
disappointing. Nobody was surly or rude. Quite the opposite, they
were so effusive, familiar and overbearing that any modicum of
graciousness and quiet dignity was lost.
For example, as we left Seattle the morning calm was broken
when a pair of conductors entered the Custom Class car. (Like the
ticket agents, every Amstaffer seemed to operate in pairs except
the attendant in the Bistro where more staffing would've made
sense). These two conductors joked and guffawed their way thru the
car, taking tickets, making comments about destinations and
reminding us to use our chits to get our "goodie bags".
In Europe this act of collecting tickets would have been done
with graciousness and attentive silence, but not here. Whatever
charm and panache Custom Class had afforded the business traveler
on this first train of the day, was lost.
Two other business-suited staffers wearing Talgo nametags kept
moving thru the consist, never identifying themselves but
constantly carrying bags and bottles to and fro. I assume these
were techs of some sort to keep the train's amenities operating,
but they could have played a more gracious role as well, serving
as Chef de Service or Chief Pursers, answering questions or
explaining on-board services.
The Talgo ride seemed rough at slow speeds with considerable
rock and sway. ("The slower we go, the worse it gets" explained
the Bistro car attendant) But at track speeds (70+mph) on the
excellent welded rail roadbed, the ride was smooth and
comfortable. Tilt action wasn't as noticeable as on the Swedish
X2000, but seemed effortless on the many curves along the
coastline. Needless to say, from Tacoma south the scenery was
I detrained at Olympia - Lacey WA, fully expecting to be
center city. Imagine my surprise when I found myself in the middle
of nowhere with 'nary a map to tell me where I was. I had searched
weeks in advance to find out more about Olympia on the web. But
every site I visited, from Amtrak to the Washington DOT
(www.amtrakcascades.com) to the Olympia Chamber of Commerce, I
could find no map or description of where the rail station was
Arrive in any European city, large or small, and there's a map
at the station to orient you to where you are vs. hotels,
businesses, etc. Arrive in any US city, even by air, and you're on
your own. Search out maps online and they are all oriented to the
automobile. Try looking for a location like "Amtrak station" on a
service like Mapquest, and you'll find nothing. The maps show
roads, but not railroad tracks. Not even Amtrak's increasingly
improving site offers this
orientation and planning tool.
To their credit, the city fathers (and mothers) of Olympia
have built themselves a wonderful little station to replace the
traditional AmShack which doubtless serviced this state capital.
Staffed by a ticket agent and a volunteer Station Master, there
were helpful brochures, vending machines and plenty of seats. Two
bus routes connected to the station but with insufficient signage
and schedule information to reassure me it was safe to venture
Returning to Seattle on Amtrak #750 we were 15 min. late out
of Olympia but only 12 min. late into Seattle after a confusing
back-up move into King St. station. Opting for coach on the way
back, the seats were comfortable and the crowd convivial. In the
Bistro car the drunks were really pounding them back. My AmFood
"meatloaf sandwich" was served cold and tasted like dogfood. And
the coffee was as weak as before.
I wish Talgo was available on other Amtrak corridors. But if
the forthcoming Acela is going to learn anything from Talgo it is
this: a great train experience means more than a great trainset -
it means great service from a trained staff as well.
If you're visiting Seattle don't miss the Underground Tour of
Pioneer Square. Appreciating all things old and subterranean
(especially subways <G>) this tour caught my eye in a
brochure I perused during my layover in Olympia. It ended up being
one of the best tours I have ever taken, combining history,
artifacts and a stand-up comedienne. I can't speak to the
historical accuracy of the spiel, but I can tell you it was more
fun than a comedy club and the walking tour underneath Pioneer Sq.
was fascinating. More details at www.undergroundtour.com