Facebook Page
Amtrak Coast StarLight Trip July, 2017

Amtrak Coast StarLight Trip July, 2017

By Rick Chase,


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 is attached).

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 bell immediately. 

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 wife.

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 others.    

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 Quesadillas.


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.)


California landscape


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 people.

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 Sacramento River.




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 opportunity!


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.



Our dinner companions that evening were Ken & Kay from New Iberia, Louisiana. A charming couple who regaled us with tales of life in southern Louisiana.


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.



[ Top of this report | | Earlier Reports by Rick Chase | American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) ]