After enjoying two
trips on the South West Chief, we decided to explore the west coast and
ride the Coast Starlight #14 from Los Angeles to Seattle. (Train # 11
makes up the return trip back to Los Angeles.) The CSL follows the
Pacific Ocean for a good part of the day and the second day provides
passengers with wonderful views of the Pacific Northwest. The consist
is normally led by two GE P-42 diesels but for some reason that day the
2nd power was a GE Dash 8-32BHW #505, a rare sight on Amtrak’s
long-haul routes. Power was followed by the baggage car, a transition
car #0440 (more on this follows), two sleeper cars #0330 &
#0331, the Parlor car, specific to the CSL, dining car, observation car
and three coach (and business class) cars.
The transition car is normally
reserved as crew quarters and rest area. The CSL transition car
consists of crew area in the front area and passenger sleeper
compartments in the rear half. As we wanted to have a roomette on
the left side, so we could view the ocean, I determined that the left
side roomettes were odd numbered. We reserved #17. This is usually
constant as Amtrak wants the crew area forward. The nest two sleeper
cars are “normally” even numbered on the left and odd numbered on the
right. This can change depending on how the consist (make-up of
the train) is set up.
The Parlor Car on the CSL is a
combination observation car for First Class passengers (those who are
booked in the sleeper cars) and as an alternative to the dining car.
The lower level has a small movie theater providing an evening movie.
The next car is the dining car for all passengers. First class
passengers’ meals are included in the price of the ticket (beer and
wine are extra) while coach class passengers must pay for their meal
out of pocket. A less expensive alternative is the cafe car (lower
level of the Observation Car) following the dining car. One of the joys
of train travel is meeting other folks from different locations and
backgrounds who also enjoy train travel. The dining car is the perfect
opportunity for this. For those passengers who prefer dinning alone,
meals are also available in the Parlor Car, though the menu is somewhat
abbreviated. Breakfast is first come, first served while lunch and
dinner are by reservation. The dining car steward comes through the
train several hours before each meal taking your reservation and your
time is called over the PA system. The observation car is wonderful for
enjoying the scenery with wide windows and electric outlets throughout
the car for your phone and laptop. Following the observation car are
three coach cars. A walk to the back of the train offers a nice
view of the tracks and scenery behind you (unless a special private car
Some things to know, especially for
first time travelers.
1) The Conductor is in charge of the train, the
final authority. Each sleeper cars has a car attendant, responsible for
making up your bed at night and converting it to normal seating in the
morning and to assist with most other reasonable requests. Please
remember there are many passengers in each car and only one attendant
per car so please be patient if he (or she) doesn’t answer your call
2) Each roomette converts to two
bunk beds, a climate control and one electric outlet so if you have
multiple devises, you might want to bring a power strip. Your roomette
is not spacious, bring a backpack or small bag to your room and leave
your suitcase in the storage are on the lower level. It’s fairly safe
but keep valuables in your room. Trains creak and rattle so you
may want to bring earplugs and some duct tape to secure a loose door.
Some people sleep easily on the rolling train. I don’t. Between the
rolling of the train and the constant horn, I’ve found a sleep aid
helps. Ask your doctor for his suggestions. Benadryl worked fine for my
3) There is absolutely NO SMOKING
on Amtrak, not even E-Cigarettes. If you are caught, and you will be,
you will be removed at the next stop. They are very serious about
this. There will be several stops for crew change providing an
opportunity to step off the train for 10-15 minutes and grab a
smoke. Be sure to ask you attendant how long the stop is. The
engineer will blow the horn several minutes before departure. Be ready,
once the train starts, it won’t stop for a late runner. These stops are
usually San Luis Obispo, Klamath Falls, Portland and one or two
4) Each sleeper car has 3-4
lavatories and one shower (lower level). Soap and towels are provided.
Consider an old pair of flip flops for the shower. The early riser has
a better chance of hot water. The shower takes some getting used to,
but works fairly well.
5) Children under 12 must always be accompanied by an adult. And no bare feet anywhere on the train.
6) Photography…You will see some
wonderful vista’s along the route. While the Observation Car and the
Parlor Car provide excellent viewing areas, they are not good for
photography. You are surrounded by glass causing annoying reflections.
I’ve found your roomette, dining car and coach class windows are the
best. Do not use your flash; all you’ll get is a glare on the window. I
recommend an excellent resource on this subject, Photographing Trains
by Carl Morrison. Just north of San Luis Obispo is a wonderful
horseshoe curve. Walk to the last car on the right side (left side
going south) and you can get a wonderful view of the entire train.
If you are using a smart phone
camera, download the free photo editing app SnapSeed. It’s very
powerful and did I mention it’s free?!
7) We use points from the Amtrak
MasterCard to pay the fare. When signing up, you receive 20,000 points
if you make $3,000. in purchases in 3 months. The 20,000 points are
almost enough to book a roomette on most Amtrak long haul routes. You
are charged for the room, not per passenger. If you are using money,
check the rates for a few days before you book, the rates change daily
and are demand driven. I’ve seen rates go from $880 to $1,290 back to
$880 in 2 days.
8) Tipping your sleeping car and
dining car attendants. These folks work hard, usually from 5:50 in the
morning to 10 or 11 at night. Some people tip at each meal while others
tip at the end of the trip. Even if your meals are included, tipping
according to the price of the meal is a good idea.
The northbound train leaves at
10:10 AM so we needed to be in Los Angeles the day before. If you
have some distance to travel to your departure station, it’s a good
idea to be there the day before. If you fly in (as we did from
Philadelphia) and your plane is delayed or cancelled, you’ll miss your
train. We arrived in LAX the evening before and took the FlyAway bus
from LAX to Union Station (green sign outside baggage claim at each
terminal). At $9.75 per person (credit card only) it’s a great deal.
This bus leaves at: 10 & :40 after each hour. The trip can take
from 40-75 minutes, depending on traffic. As were leaving LA in
the morning, I searched for a hotel close to Union Station. We found
the Metro Plaza Hotel, 711 N. Main St., 1-855-516-1090. At $149 per
night, it was fine for a short stay and even offered a continental
(self-serve) breakfast. I didn’t realize just how close we were to
Union Station until we got in a cab and gave the driver the address. He
gave us a look and shrugged. We drove one block, turned left and there
we were, total fare, $3.50! S of course I walked back to Union Station
for some night photography.
After breakfast, we walked back to
Union Station to check-in for our trip. First class passengers do this
in the Metropolitan Lounge. After entering the station, turn right past
the car rental desk and take the elevator to the 2nd floor. Amtrak
provides coffee, juice, cookies, etc. and you can leave your bags there
if you want to explore the station, which you should do. Union Station
is a reminder of a bygone era of the luxury of train travel.
There is a nice outside area with benches to sit and relax while you’re waiting. (Train announcements are not made outside.)
A short walk through the station leads up to the platforms.
Each platform has a sign stating
that non-ticketed MetroLink passengers on the platform could be fined
in excess of $1,000. As I had my Amtrak ticket I wasn’t concerned. I
didn’t see any transit police and nobody even looked at me while I took
some train shots.
Passing the Bob Hope Airport
Heading north, we had a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean.
Further north, we passed Vandenberg
AFB but the fog was so thick, it was hidden from view. We met a
gentleman who was stationed there, who pointed out where it was had we
been able to see it.
We enjoyed lunch with Kevin, a
sommelier Peso Robles, Ca. and Chris, from Manchester, UK, here for a
Barbershop Quartet competition.
For lunch, my wife choose the
Southwestern salad and I had the delicious Chicken, Bacon and Cheddar
After lunch, I was able to catch a
south bound Amtrak Surfliner being pushed by an F39-PHI engine. This
meet was at Devon at Camellia, 30 miles south of San Luis Obispo.
(Thanks for that info Brian Bothun.)
Our first crew change / smoke break was at San Luis Obispo.
A nice view of the GE Dash 8-32BHW mentioned earlier.
Jesse, our sleeping car attendant,
who was covering the full car behind us and our transition car as well,
was exemplary. He did everything he could to make our trip completely
enjoyable. A former Army Sargent, who removed EOD’s in Afghanistan, was
one of the most professional service employees we ever met.
We also ran into Marshall, another
of Amtrak’s finest, who was our car attendant on last year’s Southwest
Chief; it was good to catch up.
These two gentlemen, along with the
majority of Amtrak’s employees, really go the extra mile to give
quality service. It is a pleasure to meet and interact with these fine
Always looking for sharp curves to capture the entire train.
If you walk to the last car, you can capture what we call a “rail fan view”.
The Observation Car offers fine
opportunities to view the scenery as we pass by. The car offers both
singles seating and tables for those who want to work on their laptops
or enjoy a snack from the cafe car below.
Pretty river but a perfect example of the reflections you get when photographing from the Observation Car.
Oil fields abound in California.
We enjoyed dinner with Mary and her
son Adam from Anaheim. I always go for the Amtrak Signature Steak for
dinner, never disappoints. Adam, 10 years old, was a delight and one of
the most dedicated and knowledgeable rail fans we’ve ever met. He knew
every train, every engine type and amazed me with his knowledge of
railroading. Constantly taking video’s, my wife said he was a junior
version of me :).
There are no guarantees of on-time
performance with public transportation. So many factors can cause
delays, broken engines, strong weather, and downed trees on the tracks
and in our case, the occasional unthinking person that caused our train
to sit near Martinez for 5 hours. Apparently, an individual, who
was removed from another train as he had no ticket, tried to jump on
our train between the cars as it was pulling out, tripped, damaged the
air brake hose, putting us into an emergency stop, and then fell off
and was killed. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER attempt to board or leave a moving
train! Five hours later, after the air hose was repaired and tested,
police and the coroner finished their investigation and new engineers
and the conductor were brought on board, we were on our way. Because I
had taken a sleep aid, I slept through the entire event. When I woke up
in Sacramento at 4:30 AM and knew we were supposed to leave there at
11:50 the previous night, I had a pretty good idea something was up. We
were later informed of the “incident”. After a bit, we got up,
early shower, plenty of hot water!
We were some of the first for
breakfast (1st come, 1st served.) I had the Amtrak Signature French
Toast and my wife had the Cage-Free Made Your Way Omelet. (I helped
with the potatoes!)
Chris was our breakfast companion that morning. From China, he’s pursuing a doctorate in Economics at University in Oregon.
One of the upsides of our delays
was that we had the opportunity to see some incredible scenery that we
normally would have passed by at 4 AM. Asleep and completely dark
outside we would have missed scenery such as this lake and the
As we were traveling at a crawl,
“speed restriction of about 5 MPH” I had the rare opportunity to find
the windows in the transition car were open with an off-duty crew
member taking photographs. So I attempted to do the same. A word of
caution here, NEVER open a door or window on a train. Besides it not
being safe, it would be a good way to get removed from the train.
Following the crew member, and as were almost stopped, I was able to
capture the following photos.
Later on, as we picked up speed, I
was able to capture Mount Shasta through our normal room window. The
scenery on the CSL is breathtaking.
Our lunch-mates on the 2nd day were
Glen & Patrick, both teachers from Southern California. Glen
regaled us with tales of a teaching assignment in Micronesia. What an
Beautiful Oregon scenery.
Our next crew-change / smoke break
was Klamath Falls. The 15 minute stop turned into another delay of 4
hours. Apparently, due to our original delay, we had missed our slot to
proceed through an area between Klamath Falls and Portland. Union
Pacific, which owns the track, had already scheduled track work. On a
train, unlike the highway, you can’t just take an exit and find an
alternate route. With a single track, you can’t just “go around”. You
wait have to wait. This would put us into Seattle between 4:30 and 5:00
AM. We were originally scheduled to arrive at 9:00 PM. So we waited,
walked around and took photos.
I had an opportunity to capture a
UP special car. I later discovered that our young friend Adam had
already taken many photos and videos of this car. He was in heaven!
The back of our train, not going anywhere. You can see the window for
photographing the tracks and scenery behind the train.
These next two scenes are north of Klamath Falls.
companions that evening were Ken & Kay from New Iberia, Louisiana.
A charming couple who regaled us with tales of life in southern
Not sure of the
location of this lake but we were passing it at dinner. I and three or
four of my fellow travelers paused our dinner to capture this scene.
Because of the long delay, our car
attendants graciously made up our beds so we could get a few hours’
sleep. We were originally informed that the train would terminate at
Portland and that Amtrak would bus us up to Seattle. Groan! Ten minutes
later we were informed that Amtrak had revised its plan and we were
going to proceed all the way to Seattle. Hearing this, I settled in for
about a 6 hour sleep. I had hoped to step off at Portland during and
capture the station and surrounding area but it would be after
midnight, too dark for photographs and I was asleep. We arrived at
Seattle around 4:30 AM. To Amtrak’s credit, they had called for about
10-15 taxi’s to take us to our respective hotels and B&B’s. (Try
finding a cab at 4:40 in the morning!)
The crew was incredibly upbeat
considering they had to be ready for a 9:00 AM departure back to LA.
This speaks of the fine quality of the Amtrak front-line employees.
After a few more hours sleep at our
B&B, we went out in search of breakfast. Glo’s Cafe, 1621 East
Olive Way, in Capitol Hill was perfect and delicious. We then walked
down to the waterfront and the Pike Place Market, famous for its fish
and other interesting food and tourist items for sale.
The next morning we took Uber to
Sea-Tac airport (SEA) for a short flight to Spokane (GEG) getting a
nice view of Mt. Rainier on the way.
We picked up our rental car
in Spokane for the 35 minute drive to Coeur d’Alane, Idaho for a five
day visit with our friends who had moved from San Diego several years
ago. Coeur d’Alane is a beautiful area and our friends were the perfect
tour guides. Coeur d’Alane Lake is 26 miles long with plenty of
boating, fishing, swimming. The city and surrounding is definitely
worth a visit.
Vacations have to end sometime so
the following Tuesday, we returned our rental car at Spokane, boarded
our flight back to Philly (via Phoenix) and headed home.