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IS AMTRAK DOOMED? (revisited)

As a review, this subject was posted after a "trip to hell and back" last July where EVERYTHING went wrong. It began with 2 weeks of tickets and sleeper reservations turning out to be no good, double charges for the second set of tickets that ran my credit card "over limit" while on the trip, screwups on the re-ticketing that had members of our party traveling the same train on different days, toilets that would not flush, inoperative air conditioning, etc etc ad nauseum.

ANYHOW, it all got resolved, and Amtrak issued me credit vouchers for a "future" trip. I plotted out another trip:


Got on the phone over several days and fiddled with connections and layovers so that I got sleepers where I needed them. And THEN the fun started!

OK - trip was to be made with "North American Rail Pass", so I called and asked "How"? Holey Moley Matilda! "You can't get there from here"! Amtrak had issued me credit vouchers, so I wanted to use them toward the trip. Answer from "NARP" desk - "NOPE! We can't process them". OK - can you issue me only the passes and I'll purchase the sleepers at my local station afterward? NOPE! - sleeper space is very tight. If we issue the passes under your res, we either do the sleepers or release them, and the space will likely be resold before you received the passes needed to purchase the sleeper space. OK - can I purchase sleeper space NOW, then send in for the rest from you? NOPE! - unless EVERYTHING is done thru the NARP desk, we can't issue the VIA portion: then you'll have to pick up your VIA tickets in Canada when you arrive (and pay GST tax, which is NOT charged if the tix are issued by NARP). Talk about "catch 22". Fired off an email to customer service (who had sent me the credits) to find out why I couldn't use them. Apparently they didn't know either, and responded back to "pay for the res, do the trip, then send in the voucher and we'd "resolve" it AFTER the trip"...

Fortunately, a "nameless" Travel Agent who haunts "All-Aboard" said he'd take care of it, so the whole mess went to him OK - friendly TA took over res, jumped in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed since he had done virtually "everything" Amtrak had ever issued, and ran into the same stone walls. One of his comments back was "somebody REALLY has an issue of "job protection" going in this NARP mess. Nonetheless, our hero persevered, ending up Fedexing stuff to the NARP desk despite his online Amtrak hookup, then fretted out a couple of weeks waiting for results. He made many calls, but got responses like "only Fred does those, and he only works Tue-Sat graveyard", or "we have others leaving before your client that need to be done before his - we'll get to it", etc etc. Anyhow, friendly agent finally received packet of approx 60 tickets - loose and in no order (his comment was NARP apparently played "52-pickup" with them before mailing. Nonetheless - we now had TICKETS

OK - first MINOR problem. Tickets put me off train in Niagara Falls New York, but I had solicited advice about where to leave train and had been advised to get off in Niagara Falls Ontario Canada (boy was THAT poor advice - more about THAT when the trip gets there). Anyhow, I needed to change the station on that ticket, so trooped to my local station. Now THERE was an experience. Friendly agents huddled, tried everything the computer system would do, and got NOWHERE. After about an hour, one of them got ahold of someone on the phone who had done this before, and VOILA! - a corrected ticket! Agents were so proud of themselves you'ld have thought they were a bunch of young children. If only they had known.....

Reached about 2 weeks before the trip and it became desirable to change the beginning of the trip from SLO-SBA-LAX-CHI to SLO-PDX-CHI. Called my friendly Travel Agent, who booked the new sleeper space for me under a "new" reservation number, then told me to see by "knowledgeable" local agents to cancel my LAX-CHI sleepers and "capture" my new space into my reservations. He SEEMED sincere, but I honestly beleive he has a "twisted" sense of humor and kinda guessed what was about to happen. ANYHOW, back to local station. Agents jumped in feet first (and ended up struggling to keep their heads above water). We were now talking about MONEY, not just a date change.

Anyhow, again, EVERYTHING that could possiblly be imagined was attempted, including about 20 calls to the NARP desk (which were never connected). Finally, in desperation, the agents tried to issue NEW passes (which they, me, travel agent, and EVERYBODY was told could ONLY be done by the NARP desk), and lo and behold, the computer promptly spit out a new pass! AHA - OK, move the stuff to the new pass - nope - don't work. OK - cancel sleeper and book new sleeper under new pass. Nope - can't cancel anything under the old pass. (Turns out, we found out later, that NARP desk had screwed up the ORIGINAL set of tickets, and had to "exchange" them, and even though they were the only tickets I had gotten, "exchange" tickets couldn't be canceled and credited.

FINALLY, it was determined the only way to do this was to CANCEL all 3 of my passes and tickets (SIXTY segments!) and re-issue new passes and new tickets!

Very patient SLO (not "SLOW") agent was A. Upshaw. Delay wasn't his doing, just a balky computer system not designed to issue these types of passes.

In case anybody's counting, I was at the counter for over 4 HOURS!. Also (as you may have already guessed) this could only be done by issuing a "refund request" for the full charges (several thousand dollars), and charging my friendly credit card the several thousand dollars again (plus the $158 additional fare). "Shades of last time"! I was even wondering if I was going to get caught in a "snafu" since my "refund request" included amounts that had been partially paid for with a credit voucher, and policy says those items are not refundable! Keep in mind however, that I was not getting a "refund", just paying $158 more! (Anybody wan't to bet how THAT turns out when 2 different people get the debit and credit charges?)

OK - ready to RUMBLE! Trip Time! Looked over the latest postings on the boards. Sure enough! #40 (on my itinerary) - almost 9 hours late 3 days ago! Lessee - #14 (first train) - yep - late into SLO yesterday - diner caught fire in Santa Barbara! AND THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW I'M COMING YET!!! Well, to be fair, I fire off an email to customer service, warning them that I am about to embark, and since the likelyhood of a system "meltdown" has just skyrocketed, I advise them to look for a good place to run for cover.

Soon after leaving SLO, we will pass #11 on the Cuesta Grade (I carry a scanner so I know what's happening instead of sitting there wondering "now what?"). Radio traffic is a request from #14 to #11 for salt & pepper shakers and dinner plates! Apparently "Superior Service" #14 has been dispatched this fine morning from LAX without the basics to serve dinner! (We make a "meet" stop when passing #11 and do have plates for dinner that night, but table "silver" service is augmented by clear plastic cups full of paper salt/pepper portions). Hey - no complaint - great dinner is served.

We get snagged in the Oakland coach yards for quite a while and finally pull out to Emeryville about 30 min down (problem with "Fred"-also known as " rear end detector"). I ask conductor if they usually lose time doing the express hookup since they took about an hour, and he tells me to relax - I ain't seen nuttin yet! There is a derailment in the San Joaquin valley and we will be delayed at LEAST another hour in Sacramento.
Turns out a freight derailment has fouled the San Joaquin line, and a northbound has over 60 connecting passengers for us at Sacramento. This is Sunday eve of Thanksgiving weekend, and there are NO BUSSES AVAILABLE, so we'll wait until SOMEHOW the passengers get to us at SAC! Apparently the derailment is several hours old, panel track is laid, and the connecting train arrives at Sac at 2AM. I ask the conductor what is likely to happen to me, since I have a connection of under 2 hours in Portland with my Chicago train. He says I will make it OK if we make up time or don't lose any more than the 2 hours we are already down. He gives me a really "wierd" look as I roll around on the ground shreiking with hysterical laughter at THAT remark ("been there - done that").

Anyhow, as we roll into Klamath Falls the next morning THREE hours late, we are advised we get to play "Ambus" instead of "Deluxe First Class Superior Service", and to hustle our butts, as drive time to Portland is just about enough to catch #28. Bus gets a box of plastic wrapped sandwiches, case of cokes, and driver is told to "stop and get ice" if he has time. He does NOT, and we roll into Portland just in time and board #28 direct after a wonderful jaunt with a lunch of aforementioned sandwiches and warm coke. AND NOW I GET TO LOOK FORWARD TO A COLD 'FIRST CLASS' DINNER, AS THERE IS NO DINER ON PORTLAND-SPOKANE!

Well, it can't be ALL bad. The "cold" dinner I have been kinda dreading turns out to be one of the BEST dinners I HAVE EVER EATEN! That includes not only Amtrak, Airlines, Restaurants, etc., but even "home cooked". FINALLY! - Amtrak has REALLY done this right! Somebody has found a caterer to put together "first class" cold dinners that UNDERSTANDS food. There are different entree's and salads, plus fruits and desserts. All cold, but MARVELOUSLY prepared and seasoned. EVERY item in the packages gets nothing but raves from all the sleeper passengers. (We would have all "applauded" the chef, but lord knows where he was even located). Anyhow, AMTRAK "lurkers" take note! Somebody really did THIS part of the food service RIGHT!!

Sleeper attendant is one of the more professional (and friendly) I have encountered (S. Kotowske). He swaps rooms at my request so our 2 "deluxe" bedrooms are adjacent, opens the adjoining wall, and we enjoy an "en suite" double-double room for the duration. (He's one of the few where a $20 at the end of the trip is really "in appreciation" instead of "as expected).
However, when I note that there are no cokes, cookies, whatever in the sleeper foyer as I usually see, he informs me they are "testing" the new on-board inventory system (there is a "trainer" on board), and that there are also new "rules". NO MORE "GOODIES" TO BE PUT OUT! Passengers might "help themselves!". All such "amenities" are to be "stored" and only dispensed if passenger calls attendant and ASKS for them! (is this more of the "budget" crunch? save the cookies and cokes?).

Anyhow, off to the lounge, order a bloody mary. Answer (after looking) - "sorry - out of bloody mary mix" HUH? We are 30 minutes out from the BEGINNING of a trip and they are "OUT"? Answer is "maybe tomorrow after the train is combined in Spokane" (no - none then either). Also, seems nobody bothered to stock "veggies" for the diner, so they "call" ahead to pick some up at a Montana stop. Problem is that Amtrak has "repossessed" all the cell-phones from the crew, even the Chief of On-Board Services (more "budget crunch"). Crew contacts conductor, who radios head-end, who calls dispatcher, who makes phone call to order the food. Ah the "wonders" of modern technology! (I kept waiting for them to prepare a "flimsie" and "hoop-it" at a station without stopping!. Later query, when there is "still" no bloody mary mix, gets response of "vegetable store doesn't carry it". (Wonder how many bloody mary sales went down the tube on the trip).

Back to new "inventory control". I have purchased 2 deluxe rooms (over $1000.00) INCLUDING meals, and at breakfast my wife wants "biscuits & gravy" with an egg. Menu lists "side items" of sausage, bacon, ham, hashbrowns, etc, but NOT eggs. Answer to the order? NO!-"double" orders are no longer allowed under the "new" inventory control system. Waiter checks with the chief steward, answer - "NO WAY". Don't matter WHAT you paid for your sleepers, you CANNOT have a biscuit & gravy AND an egg unless you PURCHASE the "additional" breakfast for $4.50. Seems Amtrak "planners" are at it again - go "first class", get "bussed" with cold sandwich and warm coke, get a cold (but very good) dinner, and get refused when asking for an egg for breakfast unless you pay extra!

Portland to Chicago, the only schedule "glitch" we hit is such smooth running that we arrive at Chicago 20 minutes EARLY. Naturally, Amtrak has NO IDEA what to do with us (apparently "early" no longer exists in the "vocabulary"), so we sit outside the station for 20 minutes until someone can make room for us and we arrive "on the markers". We have 5 hours to kill before #40 leaves, so go looking for a restaurant highly touted near Union Station, "Lou Mitchell's". Locate it and "curses - foiled again". It closed at 3PM, we arrived at 4PM! Oh well, back to the station - lots of eateries, then to the first-class "Metropolitan Lounge" to await departure.

Various trains leave during the evening, with the City of New Orelans and the Cardinal out at 8:00 and 8:10pm, leaving only a group of about 25 sleeper passengers for the final sleeper train #40 at 9:25pm. Then unexpectedly at 8:30, lounge attendants come around, grab luggage, move it outside the doors and tell everyone "the lounge closes at 8:30. You will all have to wait elsewhere for your train!" ??? I'm not saying it was that big a deal, but does it seem odd to anybody else that the room prepared ONLY for sleeper passengers CLOSES before the daily sleeper trains all depart? Anyhow, off on the "maybe it will arrive and maybe not" #40 to New York.

In response to an answer (not part of my "travelogue") posted by Carleton MacDonald who said I COULD have bought the tickets direct and got the VIA tixs later.....
Unfortunately, you CANNOT do as CM advised. Unless you PAY and have the NARP desk cut the passes and tickets, you CANNOT get the VIA portion of the ticketing. If you do as CM advises, the ONLY place you can get the VIA tickets AFTER you have purchased the US portions elsewhere is at a "special" window in Chicago (I would arrive after 4PM and depart after 9PM - window would be closed - our "friendly" TA was also going thru Chicago on the way to the AAPRCO convention in Tampa - he couldn't time it right either).

Couldn't the NARP desk issue then "after the fact"? NO WAY HOSE-HAY! Absofreakinglutely NOT! "We DO NOT DO IT THAT WAY!" End of story - end of argument - forget it!

The next spot that "could" issue them would be a "special" window in New York. I arrive 7:30PM (or MUCH later depending on #40), and depart 7am. No way to get tix there either. Last and FINAL choice, get them from VIA when I arrive in Canada by "showing them my pass".

A. I will then be subject to "GST" tax (non-refundable on "transportation" - unlike hotel tax) on over $1000.00 US fare for the accomodations, which is bypassed if I do it thru NARP desk.

B. I had to play many-many calls to arrange the "drawing room" in the "Park" car for the trip, and I am not sure of VIA's procedures of "holding" space that is not ticketed or paid for up to the point of departure, and didn't want to find out!

C. I have seen e-mail on boards of people who DID try to get VIA segments under a NARP pass in Canada, and apparently it was quite an ordeal.
Thus, despite our "insiders" advice, neither I nor our TA was able to do as advised.
OK - Off on the UNKNOWN! A trip on the fabled #40 "Three Rivers" (aka " 3 Sewers" and other less attractive names). FABLED for it's lack of punctuality.. Consist is 10/6 sleeper "Pacific Beach", cafe, and 3 coaches - 2 in use and one closed (will be opened to board about 50 passengers in Pittsburg the next day). 10/6 car is allegedly "refurbished", and admittedly is not bad, but then what is "refurbished"? I rode VIA last trip and will be there again soon. Their cars were "rebuilt" in the early 90's, but are far more pleasant and have much nicer decor, carpet, etc than this car. It is OK, but pales in comparison to the VIA equipment of the same heritage. Also, the toilets are not straight "tube dumps", but are still porcelain with water instead of chemical, and when flushed the track noise indicates these must be "grandfathered" non-retention jobs. Also, this car still has the "shoe compartment" that opens into the hallway for the porter to pull, polish, and replace during the night. I place my "tennies" in there, but they still look the same the next morning. (Side note - the VIA sleepers all still have the shoe compartments also, but the hallway access doors have been covered over.

The "Blue Crew" comes thru, lifts tickets, then proceeds to the "closed" car, locks door, and never comes back out in the couple of hours before I sack out. I monitor the scanner for a few hours, and get a feel for why there may be so many problems on this train. The "friction" between train crews (not just ours) and dispatch seems rather obvious from the conversations, but I guess if you experience night after night of "meltdown", frustrated dispatchers and angry crews would tend to be the norm.

After a long stop for a meet of some kind, DS gives the (approximate) following instructions.
"Amtrak 40 - after meeting #...., line the west switch of the north leg of the Y to the east, then the east switch of the north leg to the west, then west switch of east leg will be lined, then line east switch of east leg to the west - over." HUH? I wait and hear a VERY tenative "roger" from our crew, but note that we go NOWHERE. Apparently they do NOT clearly understand what was intended, and have the sense not to roll until they do.
About 30 min later, DS calls and asks if we are moving. Response is "crew is on the ground to line ...... switch and .... switch and then we will move. DS "angrily" responds - "your conductor is NOT to alter the power switch in any way - he is to line ONLY switches ..., ..., and ...!".
Whatever they eventually do out there, we begin moving again, but I begin to see why there may be just a "wee" bit of problems over this line.

Anyhow, it comes as no surprise the next morning at Youngstown to find we are now 4 hours behind schedule (anticipated that from recent history, so had planned trip accordingly). An announcement is made. "KFC dinners have been ordered to be loaded at Pittsburg, and the dinners and EVERYTHING in the cafe car except alcohol will be free to ALL passengers for the duration of the trip to New York!" (Don't recall THAT ever happening before, and I've been on LOTS of late trains!) OK - time to put a WHOLE BUNCH of "whining" Amtrak employees to shame. On #40, our sleeper attendant is a young lady by the name of Angela Delesio.

I have ridden on SEVEN "all-aboard" passes and (now) a NARP pass, PLUS quite a few single segment trips (including the CZ and Starlight numerous times). I have been on nearly EVERY train Amtrak runs, several of them multiple times, and I have NEVER run into a more AWESOME employee than this woman.

She got everybody into the sleeper as required (about 25 on this trip), and managed to open the "en suite" wall as I again had 2 adjacent bedrooms (she had never opened this on a 10/6 before), and as I later wandered the train, I found her in the coaches "bedding down" the 50-60 coach passengers that we had boarded also. A little later she was in the coach restrooms tidying up (there were no other attendants on the train), and then I found her working in the cafe car ("the attendant gets breaks, so I fill in"). (Did I mention the #40 cafe car is open 24 hours? - I have absolutely no clue how she ever got any rest). During the next day, she was the "PA" announcer unless a "blue crew" said something, made up the sleeper rooms, was in and out of the coaches, and was again found working the cafe car during an attendant "break" (anybody else ever hear the "standard" announcement on a full-crewed train "I am taking a break - the lounge car will be closed for the next hour")?

Anyhow, the attendant had a small plastic "tip cup" on the counter which was not all that "endowed". Angela replaced it with a box, "salted" it with the tips, and cheerfully infcrmed everyone "it's all on the house" as had been previously announced. Most people then began puting what they had in their hands into the tip box since they had no other cost, and the tips rolled in. When the attendant returned, Angela gave her a little "instruction" in the art of running the cafe section and doing well - she had accumulated over $20 in tips during the break AND LEFT ALL THE TIPS FOR THE ATTENDANT rather than claiming them as her own.

Later discussion revealed her schedule. Pittsburg - Chicago (5 hours late - arrived 5:30AM, our train back out at 9:25PM (now running 4 hours late), into New York very late and a turnaround back out at 12:45PM back to Pittsburg. As we approached New York, she informed sleeper passengers that since we would be quite late, they could occupy the beds and she would come back in early the next day to prepare any she couldn't get to that evening. She then proceeded to the cafe car and spent quite some time helping the attendant balance out and do inventory.

Not only was she cheerful and upbeat the ENTIRE trip (I kinda kept waiting for her to lead cheers or run an excercise class), but she also went chasing after non-existent redcaps when we finally hit NYC. All in all, I would say she outperformed almost every employee (Amtrak or otherwise) that I have come across, and her "overall" job exceeded all but one "Chief of on-board Services" I have come across. If Amtrak keeps that position, this lady should DEFINITELY be considered for a slot!

Ah! Into the "big Apple" in the (almost) wee hours. Since I am traveling with two ladies on a 17 day excursion, I have just a "wee" bit more luggage than I want to cart around. Up to baggage check, and "surprise!" - didn't read the schedule like I should have - NO CHECKED BAGGAGE NYP-TOR! Well, are there lockers at Niagra Falls since I don't need them and don't want to drag them to a hotel and back? No - there are NO baggage facilities of any kind. Well, it says "Adirondack" takes baggage to Montreal, and VIA carries it from Montreal to Toronto, so how about shipping it that route?

Nope - no "unattended" baggage carried - curses, foiled again. So, "parcel check" the unneeded bags and off to a hotel. 1 subway stop north of Penn Sta is Times Square, 3rd stop is Columbus Circle/Rockefeller center, next stop is 72nd & Broadway. Nice neighborhood (even in the wee hours), and I have the "Hotel Beacon" at 75th & Broadway. Rate was only $160 nitely for Thurs & Fri nites, and I'm a "little" worried since NYC rates seem to be $200 and over everywhere else. SURPRISE! - Totally renovated rooms - fridges - microwaves - armoires - large rooms - etc (no hotel shops or restaurants, but WHO'S COMPLAINING??) Try it if you need to stay in NYC.

Anyhow, get grandma to the "obigatory" statue - Emp State tower, Xmas Tree, skating rink, etc, then an early AM "Maple Leaf" to Niagra Falls. Consist is cafe, 2 amfleet, 3 horizons (1 will be pulled at Albany) Get my first ride thru the "connector" to the river line, then head up to Albany. See lots of MARC bilevels in the Croton-Harmon yards, and observe some real "congestion". Across the river on the "west side line", I observe virtually "bumper to bumper" southbound to NYC double-stacks and TOFC sitting on either the main line or very close together sidings for virtually the entire trip. Is there a "meltdown" going on here too?
At Utica, observe a string of VIA "blue" cars mixed in with cars labeled "Adirondack Scenic", with the engine still painted "Alaska RR", then see what appears to be some ex NYC cars on display, then strings of old rusting equipment, including a canvas-covered dome car still showing faded "Auto-Train" paint (ex UP 7007 - history can be found at - how's that for a shameless "plug"?)

We roll into Niagra Falls NEW YORK, and as advertised, it is nothing but a box in deteriorating yards (but there are taxis waiting). Per advice from several people, we remain on the train for a couple of miles, cross the impressive bridge over the Niagra gorge, and stop at the VIA station just across the river.
There is no announcement by the Amtrak crew of what's happening, they just bail off the train - (I have inquired of the conductor earlier if he knows the VIA scanner frequency and his answer is "we don't talk to or associate with those people since they screwed the conductors and a/c's out of their jobs")

OK - this isn't "PC", but "bull-dike" is the ONLY description that fits of what we encounter next.
People are wandering around (yes, we "know" this is customs, but nothing has been announced), when the "BD" storms in with "TAKE YOUR SEATS" and blows thru the car with no other explanation. She works from the front of the train back (there are only about 30 people on the whole train at this point), and "pounces" on a young pair of oriental youths who do not speak english (she never asks if they speak French). She grills them over and over about where they are going - who they will be seeing - do they have jobs - etc. etc.

The most that is communicated is that they are going to Toronto (as their tickets say) and that "someone" is meeting them. The "BD" continues with the "learn english dam fast and start talking to me or you're NOT getting into Canada on MY train", but nothing else is communicated, so she tells them they are "history", "hat-checks" their seats, and moves on to us. My wife has been observing the previous exchange, but decides to "read a book" until the "BD" gets to her. Before uttering anything else, she spits a "out of RESPECT you could at least put the book down" at my wife, who complies but does a "slow burn" since she's not particularly into "intimidation".

Anyhow, we have no problems, but there is an hour scheduled for customs, and apparently "BD" feels she has to justify her job so we sit for nearly the full hour before a VIA attendant pops into the coach with "passengers may detrain now". NOW I wish I had detrained on the NEW York side. Cab distance would have been virtually the same to the hotel, I would have been one-on-one with border customs, and wouldn't have spent an extra hour sitting on the train - so much for seeking advice! Anyhow, it's off to a hotel (Sheraton Fallsview - very nice), get wet in the spray, and back to the same train the next afternoon (in a requested van as we had trouble getting all the luggage into a sedan on the way to the hotel). Into the VIA station (which we went arounf on the outside to a cab when we arrived, and VOILA! Banks of luggage storage lockers! (more incorrect advice).

Off to Toronto - VIA crew (as on another trip), only knows their radios pick up VIA-1 or VIA-2, and have no idea of frequency or channels, so I'll try later. Crew also does not use "hat-checks" for passenger on-off's. I comment, but they say with only 4 stops, they have no problems keeping track of on-off's without the checks (is Amtrak more complex, or are hat-checks a "rule" in the US?) Into Toronto, at Royal York Hotel adjacent to the station and connected to the "underground city". Very plush old (renovated) hotel $115 (US) - good value. "Underground" maps are either "straightline" (not much help) or "diagrams", but the accuracy does not match a lot of the twists and turns, so it's easy to get confused. Since you can "pop up" upstairs anywhere (into some beautiful buildings) it's no big deal, and is well worth the walking.

2 days later, back to the station and off on the long-awaited "Canadian" Off on VIA #1 - The "Canadian" domeliner. since I know the on-board crew have no clue about scanners, I hustle up front at the station and talk to the hogger. Unlike the US, there is only ONE frequency for head-end from Toronto to Vancouver - channnel 87, so now I know I can listen to "chatter" all the way across the continent without wondering if the frequency switched!

G PA 30C's 6441 & 6445 for power
8604 - baggage
8117 - coach
8123 - coach
8501 - "skyline" dome/cafe for coach psgrs.
Fraser Manor - Sleeper
Hearne Manor - Sleeper
Brock Manor - Sleeper
Fairholme - Diner
Hunter Manor - sleeper
Wolfe Manor - sleeper
Draper Manor - sleeper
Glacier Park - sleeper - dome - lounge - obs

For the "non" VIA types, these are stainless steel cars built and delivered in the mid fiftys to Canadian Pacific. They were extensively rebuilt around 1990, and are in beautiful condition. The sleepers have 6 bedrooms (upper and lower plus enclosed restroom) similar to Amtrak, 4 "roomettes" (privacy curtain plus a door) that have one pull-down bed plus sink & toilet (bed must be up to access toilet) - about as much space as an "economy" Amtrak room, and 3 "sections" of open berths (double seats across a folding table in the day, converts to rather wide upper and lower beds at night - upper and lower sold separately - no toilet facilities, no door, just the "curtains" you see in the old movies. There are also 2 "community" restrooms, and a 4th "section" area has been converted to a shower/dressing room in each car. The rear car on Canadian trans-continental trains is a "Park" car (all named after Canadian parks). There is a dome, a "bullet" shaped rear end lounge with plush seating, a cocktail lounge / smoking area under the dome, four regular bedrooms, and a "drawing room". The bedrooms alternate between the beds running crosswise or lengthwise in the car, and the "drawing room" is basically a combination of two rooms, but with only one bath and the crosswise bed & sofa does not have an "upper', so there are 3 beds available. It is just about like 2 of the old 10/6 rooms "en suite" except there is a little more floor space due to only having one restroom instead of 2.

Anyhow, I wanted the "Park" "drawing room" for the girls, and had started looking in July. The answer from VIA was "sold out". This was for the entire summer, and the "off season" began October 15th. That didn't help either. It was also "sold out" for the rest of October AND November. The first open slot was out of Toronto on 12/7, which I then used to fit the rest of the trip together. I booked the space myself with VIA and got a reservation number before talking to the Amtrak NARP desk, and that was very fortunate. When I tried to set up the whole thing, I was told that I should NOT have booked VIA myself, but they would "try" to incorporate what I had done on my own (they did so). After NARP had done their "thing" I called back a couple of days later to confirm that they had my VIA portion correct. I asked if they in fact had my "Park" "drawing room" and was informed that "sir - we do not know anything about "Park" or other names, or anything about "drawing rooms". We have car numbers and room numbers. You are in 139-A! Hey these are the people who were SPECIALLY TRAINED to handle the Amtrak/VIA reserviations for the pass! I couldn't BELIEVE they didn't know the canadian system!

Anyhow, for you non-VIA'ers (again), Amtrak uses a numbering system of train number and car number, with the car number "series" identifying the use. Example: on the Starlight, the "30" series are sleepers - in train #14, the first sleeper is 1430, 2nd is 1431, 3rd is 1432, etc. (they seldom if ever have more than 3 sleepers). Canada uses a similar system, but in the summer they often exceed ten sleepers, so they start with the "20" series. Train number I was on was #1, so first sleeper from the front was 120, next 121, etc. If they run beyond 129, they just go to 130, 131, etc. Since the "Park" car is always on the rear, it is numbered (in this train) 139. (apparently they don't exceed 19 sleeper cars, or if they do, they use some other scheme). Also, their car diagrams clearly identify the "A" room in the "Park" car as the drawing room, so I knew it was OK, but I found it interesting that the NARP desk didn't.

Another item of interest to any of you who might consider a trip on the Canadian - travel in the off-season! Due to HEAVY tourist use in the summer, the trains are not only usually sold out, but VERY expensive. Due to the "off" season (ONLY 6 sleepers plus the "Park" rooms), I was able to book the drawing room PLUS a section berth (there was no "en-suite" wall to close to give grandma privacy) for the 3 night trip, which 9 full meals for a TOTAL of $1038 US! That's only a little over $100 per person per day, and I thought it was a GREAT deal. There was a large tour group on our train - apparently the "normal" consist in the pre-holiday travel off-season is as low as two sleepers on the train (but the "Park" car is always there - book the "39" car if you decide to go).

OK - off on the Canadian!
We roll out of the station, head north, soon reach CP Snyder, and stop. Crew (when asked) says tracks ahead have been torn out on original route, so we now go a different way. It involves backing around a connection to the west, then crossing our path now headed east. We reach CP Doncaster and swing north again on a different line. A check of my handly Atlas reveals we are now on a line that is used by "GO" (commuter) trains and comes directly from the same station we just left without the backup and detour! Any "Canadians" on here with an explanation?   I am using a 1991 Atlas prepared by the "Railway Association of Canada" - Perry Printing Ltd. According to the Atlas, the line we are on DEAD-ENDS at Lake Simcoe! I am not familiar with the area, but we eventually end up at our first stop (Washago), so either map is wrong or they built new tracks. Again, any Canucks reading this? Anyhow, as is the norm, everyone "packs" the domes in the first part of the trip. I relax, as I know it usually (and does) peter out with plenty of space after the novelty wears off.

VIA advertises "Silver & Blue" first class service, and they certainly try. The attendant in the "Park" car breaks out complimentary champagne as we leave Toronto (they do the same leaving Vancouver, and also BOTH directions out of Jasper). This is followed shortly by hot hors de'oveures. Throughtout the trip, the observation area is stocked with fruits, juices, rolls, peanuts, etc. Meal service for dinner is done differently than by Amtrak. Instead of constantly calling reservations as tables open up, they fill a full sitting, wait until everyone has finished and vacated the diner, then clean and restock, and seat another full sitting. All orders are taken at once, all are sent to the kitchen together, and all the meals come out of the kitchen in a quick flurry. How they do this with 40 plus meals at once is beyond me, but they manage it quite nicely. The food is excellent, but Amtrak's is certainly comparable in every aspect.

The country transited for the first couple of days is not particularly scenic (kinda like riding across on the Empire Builder), and we make stops in Winnipeg (just after dark), Saskatoon (middle of the night), and Edmonton (mid-day). Edmonton is interesting as it has suffered the fate of many US cities. There is a beautiful skyline of downtown on the horizon, and we pull in (actually back in) to a shack in the boonies on the outskirts (tracks have been pulled out thru the city).
We then start climbing gradually and soon see the first glimpses of the Rockies. The mountains seem much more jagged and stark here than the Colorado crossing, but there is a very long "lake" thru the valley as Jasper is approached that tends to dry up in the winter. It is basically mudflats, and party dried. There is substantial wind and this produces what at first seems to be fog, but what really just turns out to be ugly brown blowing dirt everywhere that makes me think of the smoggy air in most cities.

As we reach Jasper, we leave the lake behind, and are greeted with clear air, sunshine, and a large herd of elk wandering around the train station!
As we take a shuttle to our hotel, we stop on the road as a "bighorn" ram decides he has the right of way, then proceed onward into the evening.

Our stay is at the Canadian Pacific resort hotel the Jasper Park Lodge. Situated on a pair of lakes (one of which has been "zambonied" into a central rink with a "track" of about a mile around the outside, golf course (frozen over), with one story room buildings all over the property. Large central complex with shopping arcade downstairs, 3 story high cathedral ceiling main lodge with fireplaces, etc. Room rate (posted on our door) is cdn $429 (and this was "and up"!). It's the VERY slow season. I get room for cdn $104 (about $70 US). As we prepare to leave Jasper, the eastbound Canadian comes thru town with the same consist we rode west, except they have left Fraser Manor and Hearne Manor in Toronto. Train also cuts out Brock Manor and drops it in Jasper.
Our #1 soon arrives, 6449 and 6444 on the point. Consist:
8605 baggage
8123 coach
8502 sykline dome cafe
Carleton Manor sleeper
Pallisier diner
Bell Manor sleeper
Blair Manor sleeper
Douglas Manor sleeper
Strathcona Park dome-obs-sleeper
6449 is removed and 6443 is added to the point. 6449 will be "rotated" onto the next "Skeena" to Prince Rupert (due in as we leave). Brock Manor is also added into our train as we board the same tour group that was on the train we arrived on.

Since leaving Toronto, it seems we had a "meet" at almost every siding for the 2 days of running (but I never notice us passing westbounds). CN is apparently having a VERY busy freight season. Many of the meets are "waits" (apparently no "expedited" passenger trains in Canada either) but we always run on time, so the schedule is obviously padded to include heavy freight traffic. Also, the observation car makes for great track watching - most of the line appears to be CWR with concrete ties - ride is smooth, with almost no "rocking" sometimes typical of the rear car of a train. Just before we are due out of Jasper, I am surprised to see a heavy westbound coal drag depart ahead of us. Talk about no passenger priority!

As we pull out, the inbound "Skeena" radios they have a passenger that would "desperately" like to catch our train (this is not a connection). They arrange a "meet" at a crossing and transfer the passenger aboard in a matter of seconds. "Skeena" is REALLY in the slow season (although they say it is the normal winter train). Consist:
8118 coach,
Prince Albert Park dome-obs.
Talk about your "pocket streamliner"!

Turns out to be quite a few miles of westbound double track, and at the end we roll past the waiting coal drag, so now I see why it rolled out of Jasper so close ahead of us. At a later point we are again on double track and begin to pass a westbound manifest moving just slightly slower than us. Then we slow down and the freight gradually pulls ahead and disappears! Again I wonder about "priority". We then hit a red block and wait for a brief moment and proceed, soon hit double track again and pass the moving freight and take the lead for good. Apparently it's easier to stop and start us than a long freight on these grades, but our delay was minor so it really hasn't interfered.

We roll thru the night and reach Vancouver in the rain the next morning. The station approach is another reverse move around a blind sharp bend of a "Y" into the station, and the obs car is perfect for observing. The "non-existent" condcutor (who now rides the head-end) drops off, throws the switch, and boards the obs car for the reverse move. As we come around the blind turn we encounter serveral yard tracks and a headlight approaching that is hard to tell what track it is on since it is still in the "curve". The conductor radios his hogger that there is a freight ahead and to slow down (we are moving slow anyway), then we round the curve and the freight is on OUR track and approaching about 100 ft away! Conductor tells hogger and train stops, and freight stops also. Conductor bails and hightails it down the track to the freight, and I imaging the blistering the dispatcher must be hearing! We sit for a while, then conductor walks back to us and freight reverses back thru some switches and we proceed. A query reveals this is NOT a dispatch error. This is "rule 105?" territory - "see and be seen". Freight was just as surprised as us and had dropped into emergency stop when we came around the bend in his face (we were 20 minutes early!). Anyhow, speeds were so slow that there was no real danger, but it sure was a SURPRISE!

Anyhow, we back into the station "on-time". It is raining hard, so no yard excursion is in the works, but I observe "Tremblant Park", a couple of skyline domes, and numerous other cars in the station area. There are some old canadian heavyweight car(s) on display, and a skyline dome sat out by them as well. Someone said it was to be part of the display, but I could not see if it was 8508 or 8509. 8508 was "wrecked and retired" several years ago, and presumed scrapped. If anyone wanders the Vancouver station, I would very much like to know if this car could be 8508 or if they are "retiring" 8509, or if the person was just "blowing smoke"! Thanx.

There is a 9:15 bus to Seattle (we arrive at 8:55) that is not a guaranteed connection, but the next bus is at 12:30 and a connecting train does not leave until 6:00PM, so I am anxious to catch this first bus. Unfortunately, there is the "tour" group along, so mucho luggage to unload. Ours finally pops out, we grab it, hustle to the bus area, and make it with 2 whole minutes to spare!

We decide to extend our stay in Seattle and fly (dirty-dirty word). Seating is 3 across "squash", 2 hours, and they not only have cut out meal/snack service and dropped peanuts, even the pretzels or other substitues are history!) Anyhow, we fly to San Jose to catch the same Starlight that departed 24 hours before from Seattle: we caught 6:30AM flight due in San Jose at 8:30AM, and Starlight is due San Jose at 10:30AM and I will be home at 3PM. I call 1-800-USA-RAIL from the airport upon landing and SURPRISE! #11 is "4hrs 52min late at Chico"(groan!). (Turns out delay was a broken rail that had to be replaced plus a small brush fire somewhere added more delay). Is this the end of the trip?

Nope, this is a 30 day "unlimited" stops pass. I still have tickets for next week SLO-SAN DIEGO, then SLO-SAN FRANCISCO over christmas, but that's "mundane" travel and not part of this. So, in retrospect, we had a GREAT trip! Grandma's ready to roll AGAIN and even wifey admits it was relatively trouble free (and maybe I'm off the hook for the around-the-world cruise I "owed" after the last fiasco). None of the delays we encountered were Amtrak's fault, all equipment worked fine, employees were courteous, and we got great value for our money.

In case I never mentioned it, the "NARP" pass for all the travel in the off-season is (US) $450/$405 senior.

Catch a train and go see the continent!    

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