For Friends of Amtrak
Fresno, California to Winter Park, Florida to Washington, DC and return to Fresno
Part 1. Fresno-Los Angeles.
June 19, 1998. Train 714. The San Joaquin.
Arrived about 10-15 minutes late heading southbound from the Bay Area. All of the San Joaquin trains use the new California cars. The usual high-capacity Friday crowd was aboard and we were lucky to get a table with a woman traveling to Hanford (for those unfamiliar with California cars, there are tables for four scattered throughout the coach seating). We made good time until just past Wasco, where we waited for about half an hour for the northbound train 717 to pass. Unfortunately, this was to become a theme on this trip. Arrived Bakersfield about 45 minutes late. Amtrak runs buses from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, which are efficient and faster than continuing by rail. I dream of the day that we'll again be able to ride a passenger train over Tehachapi, but for now it's a bus ride over the Grapevine. Ironically, the bus made up some of the time that the train had lost. Because of the short trip, we did not sample any food on this train, but had an excellent (but pricy) dinner sitting outside in one of the courtyards at LAUPT.
Best features of this train -- equipment.
Worst feature of this train -- bus ride.
Train 2. The Sunset Limited.
Boarded the Sunset Limited at about the time that we should have left the station (slightly before 10pm). We rode in an economy bedroom in one of the "new" Superliner sleepers (the Michigan). This car was nice and has some improvements on the older sleepers, including a storage well rather than a closet, which is not as visually appealing but holds a lot more stuff. Unfortunately, the only restroom that functioned was the one on the upper level -- all of the lower level toilets failed to flush and the attendant had to close them off. Fortunately, the shower did work.
We waited for a late Coast Starlight so that passengers could make the connection. We left Los Angeles about one hour late. We were still about an hour late the next morning. However, traffic on the Southern Pacific line (I know that it is UP now, but I like the heritage names) was so heavy that we kept hitting bottlenecks. At one point the conductor announced that we were seven miles outside of Tucson -- it took 45 minutes to cover those seven miles. East of Benson, Arizona we were placed on a siding while FOUR freights were allowed to pass. This took another hour off of our time. While it was a pretty spot to sit for a while, it got a little old. By the time that we reached El Paso, we were already about four hours late. Additional time was lost on the Huey Long Bridge and across Florida (and possibly during the evening hours). The terrible fires in Florida were evident from several stretches of very smoky track and from seeing flames at a couple of points. The 2:45 arrival in Winter Park turned out to be about 9:00. The station usually closed at 7:00 -- thankfully the station worker stayed around to keep it open for the people waiting for us. Despite the late arrival, the crew was excellent throughout and provided a good atmosphere for the trip.
Food aboard the Sunset was all served on china (well, OK, on Corning ware) with stainless steel and cloth tablecloths. Best dinner entrees were the steak and the Chicken Kiev. Breakfast southwestern omelette was very good. Surprisingly, this was the only train on the entire trip that served "railroad French toast", which I had thought was standard breakfast fare. During the third afternoon, the sleeping car attendants hosted a wine and cheese party for sleeping car passengers (is this practice catching on from the Coast Starlight?). It was a nice touch that furthered the good will of the crew.
Best features of this train -- the crew.
Worst features of this train -- the delays, the failed restrooms.
June 25, 1998. Winter Park, Florida to Washington, DC. Train 92. The Silver Star.
This was the only train on the entire trip that was on time. It arrived in Winter Park a few minutes late and arrived in DC on time. We rode a standard sleeping car room in one of the Viewliners. This was my first night in a Viewliner and I liked it. The movies in the room are a nice treat (watched "As Good as it Gets" and they also showed "Grease"). I really enjoyed the window for the upper berth. The odd shaped berths made the decision of whether to sleep feet-first or head-first obvious, since one end is much wider than the other. Restrooms worked, but the shower did not -- however, we used the shower in the second sleeper. The food was average (I had crab cakes, which were ok but not great). The woman in charge of the diner was great -- kept things running and on time. All food was again served on Corning ware with stainless steel silverware. Washington's transportation network worked well for me. I arrived at the station at 11:20 and by 2:30 had checked into my hotel at L'Enfant Plaza, registered for my conference at the convention center, and made it on time to a meeting near Dupont Circle.
Best features of the train -- Viewliner room, on-time performance.
Worst features -- old lounge with less-than-friendly service.
June 30, 1998. Washington, DC to Chicago. Train 29. The Capitol Limited.
This was the only train on the entire trip that adhered to the old practice of placing the sleepers at the rear end of the train. I guess that due to heavy rear-end traffic in mail and express (which used to be head-end traffic), someone decided that sleepers should be towards the front. Most of the people on the trip that I talked to preferred the rear, as do I. Moving to the front results in a longer platform walk at each end of the trip and more engine noise. I'd gladly exchange a few bumps from switching in and out mail cars to be back at the end of the train. End of soapbox.
Left Washington right on time and enjoyed the beautiful scenery to Harper's Ferry and the mountains of West Virginia/Maryland. For this part of the trip, I was in what must be one of the oldest Superliner sleepers. The upper berth did not even have carpeting over the bottom to soften any potential impact -- it used plastic strips. However, even though it was the oldest, it was the only one in which all of the plumbing was functional for the entire trip! We lost a little time outside of Martinsburg, WV due to an intense thunderstorm that knocked out power to the signals. There was also a tree across the tracks, which the crew got out and moved out of the way. I was impressed on how they kept everyone informed and took action rather than calling in help from elsewhere. Later crews were not as informative. Of course, on the entire trip I was using my scanner, so I knew what was happening even when other crews did not tell us.
Dinner was again an average to good affair. I don't remember the entrees, but it was again served on "real" china. During dinner we sat at a signal for at least half an hour, with the back half of the train (including the diner and sleepers) sitting inside a tunnel. This train also had a "new" Superliner lounge car, featuring self-service sandwiches and beverages. This takes away from the character of the lounge car, where the attendant often sets the tone (good or bad) for the entire crew.
Woke up to a beautiful sunrise over Lake Erie and a fairly fast trip across Ohio and Indiana. We were two hours late throughout, but made up an hour due to the heavy padding of the schedule into Chicago. The sleeping car attendant gave out Capitol Limited mugs to everyone, the nicest first-class gift of the trip.
Best features of this train -- plumbing worked, mugs.
Worst features of this train -- no real problems.
July 1, 1998. Train 5. California Zephyr. Chicago to Martinez, CA (supposedly).
Once again was on an older sleeper in an economy room. The toilets again had flushing problems, resulting in all toilets in my sleeper going out of service within the first few hours of the trip. The shower and sinks worked, but we had to go to other cars to use the toilet facilities.
Left Chicago right on time. East of Galesburg, we waited for at least 45 minutes for eastbound train 6 to pass. Since this is all double-track territory, this should not have been a problem, but there was no explanation. Crossed the Mississippi about an hour late. Some of the track in Nebraska is pretty rough, making for on and off sleeping.
Arrived Denver about an hour late and did not make up any time in the station stop. Enjoyed (as always) the journey up to Moffat Tunnel. Stopped again during lunch for reasons unknown and lost about one-half hour. Later on we stopped due to a red signal. Lost 45 minutes due to computers being down in Omaha, so the dispatcher could not approve moving through the red signal. I guess that this is one of the downsides of centralized dispatching, when computers over a thousand miles away can shut down the entire railroad. Arrived Grand Junction at dusk and was disappointed to not see Ruby Canyon in daylight.
Woke up to beautiful desert scenery -- unfortunately still in Utah. Due to being four hours or more late, we saw the Utah and Nevada deserts in daylight (a first for me). This was an interesting and enjoyable change from previous trips and the desert was much greener than last summer (when I drove the same route), most likely due to the El Nino rains.
Arrive Sparks 3.5 - 4 hours late. Between Sparks and Reno, we were told that all passengers for the San Joaquin valley and San Jose needed to get off at Reno. This gave us ten minutes to pack and to get everything together in our room. At Reno, we had the extreme disappointment to be placed on a BUS to Sacramento. This put us in my least favorite mode of transport instead of one of my favorite rail journeys over the Sierras. To add insult to injury, the train actually beat the bus to Truckee, as if teasing us poor people who had been dumped at Reno. At Sacramento, we were then put on another bus to Stockton. I had expected to be on this bus if we were late, but not the one from Reno. First class passengers were offered no other options nor any compensation for food, etc., which we would have received on the train. I was not happy with this arrangement and plan on writing Amtrak about it.
The food on this train was good. The Rocky Mountain Trout was great as always and is still my favorite food on any Amtrak train. A new desert being tested was also excellent. All meals were on real plates and stainless steel.
Best features of this train -- scenery, food.
Worst features of this train -- the bus, lack of restroom facilities.
Train 718. San Joaquin. Stockton to Fresno.
An anti-climactic trip after everything else. The bus put is in a down mood, but we played cards in the lounge most of the way. The track on this stretch was much rougher than I remembered from trips only a couple of months ago, resulting in a wild ride. Staff was friendly and equipment was nice. The train was fifteen minutes late throughout, which was nothing compared to experiences on the Sunset and the Zephyr.
Best features of this train -- equipment, on-time performance, getting
Worst features of this train -- rough track.
Overall the trip was good, but Amtrak needs to work on fixing the toilet problems and the on-time performance. Nothing will drive away customers more than being late and not being able to use the restroom! In addition, other means of handling late travelers need to be considered. I would rather have stayed on the train and spent an evening in Sacramento or the Bay Area and arrived home the following day rather than taken the bus ride from Reno. However, this option was not presented and we had so little time to put everything together that we could not track down an Amtrak representative and negotiate. We will definitely ride the train again, but we want to ride a TRAIN, not a !@#$% bus.
By Dave Tyckoson
Edited by Craig S. O'Connell
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