Railroading North America

February 5, 2016

Amtrak’s Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

For the Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago, 2008, see “Seattle” Pages #19, #20, #27 and “Minot” #28 on right >>>>

Topics in this Posting
What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines
What to take on the train and What to check
Dining and Snack Cars
What makes you think you know where your checked bags are?
Mixing it up in Minneapolis with Amtrak’s hired help
Bathrooms and Showers
People Dudes, including Pete passes on becoming a Pothead Dude

The Empire Builder / 47 hours 10 minutes Portland to Chicago

Route of Amtrak’s Empire Builder

The days before. (skippable)
Carol Anne and I flew to Los Angeles in early November 2010 on a tight schedule. We had been accredited to cover the STS-133 shuttle mission in Florida that was to launch at 4 pm Monday, November 1. But NASA ran into problems and first NASA pushed the launch back a day — then pushed it back three days more and eventually back, back and back again. Currently, NASA plans to launch the Shuttle Discovery on its final mission in February 2011. You can find the latest launch information here or here.

Once NASA missed its November 1 launch date, prior scheduling precluded our waiting any longer in Florida; we flew to California on November 2.

Hollywood, southwestern view overlooking the Kodak Theater, evening November 5, 2010

I had come to Los Angeles for several Motion Picture Academy events, among them: – a dinner honoring the 25th anniversary of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships (I am a 1991 fellow of the program) and an annual alumni meeting of the fellows to be held the following night. I had built in extra several days to relax in Ojai at the comfortable Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a 1920s atavism so decadent they even offer massages for couples together and have mud baths.

With Ojai and the Academy functions behind us, we set off on a circuitous route back to our winter home in Florida to re-inspect several trains I blogged about in 2008 (that blog is found on the right >>>). We first took the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland (scroll down) and then, late the afternoon on November 7, we boarded the Empire Builder for a 47 hour 10 minutes ride to Chicago, 2,225 miles east.

We planned to fly from Chicago to Orlando the night of November 9.

It would not quite work out the way.

Streetside view of the Portland Amtrak Station

What you should know about Amtrak and the Freight Lines

Amtrak does own some of its tracks, primarily in the east, and Amtrak does not operate at the mercy of freight dispatchers, although that is a popular misconception.

Amtrak has specific time slots allowing them free operation on freight lines and if they are able to abide by these time slots, the freight trains will stand aside. While hardly close buddies, Amtrak and the freight carriers do work together as they did the day I took the Coast Starlight in 2008 and we ran the Tahachipi loop arriving in Los Angeles an astounding four hours early.

Amtrak personnel is rewarded with bonuses for operating their trains on time so it is very much in their financial interest to enforce strictly the freight line time agreements. Here’s the practical importance for you:

You need to be waiting on the platform, baggage in hand, when the train comes, and you’d better get on promptly, especially across the northwest. Amtrak, often as not, will arrive (and leave) on the minute. This precision can catch the casual Amtrak passenger off-guard and get them left behind.

No, Amtrak will not hold the train if you dawdle. Yes, Amtrak will leave you behind.

That said, Amtrak does build flex time into its schedules which again helps it maintain its schedules, particularly in the northwest and midwest corridors through Spokane, Minneapolis and several other cities where the train must be provisioned or re-fueled. This extra time allows Amtrak, if off schedule, to get back on schedule — or quite close to it — unless they encounter other difficulties with weather, freight lines reclaiming their lines when Amtrak is late, or if Amtrak is forced to wait for a launch at Vandenberg Air Force base in California (which, whoa!, can take hours)

Learn more: Interesting Amtrak factoids.

The Empire Builder and me.

In 2008 I took the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago.

The eastbound Empire Builder actually begins as two trains in two different cities — Seattle (Train 8 ) and Portland (Train 28), depart their respective cities five minutes apart. The Empire Builders meet and are joined together in Spokane departing as a single train from Spokane (designated Train 8/28) about nine hours into its eastward journey. Coming west from Chicago, the procedure is reversed — the westbound Empire Builder train number 7 / 27 is split into two trains in Spokane about nine hours before the separated trains arrive in Portland (train 27) and Seattle (train 7).

When I took the train east from Seattle in 2008 it quickly became a ghastly train. Toilets stopped working in the sleepers. The stink became overpowering and the cabin attendants vanished. No effort was made to repair the train during its two-day trip east. And there was more which should you wish is elsewhere on this blog.

The question was – is the Empire Builder an awful train every night or did I just catch it on a bad day? I’m happy to say our experience on the Empire Builder in 2010 was much better and we had no complaints. But, again, did we just catch it on a good day this time?

Learn more: Amtrak’s excellent, downloadable Empire Builder Route Guide about towns and sights along the routes (right side below map)

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland, OR, for Sleeping Car/First Class Passangers

Train 8 / 28 to Chicago

Amtrak runs small, if amiably comfortable lounges for its First Class customers in many trains stations, including Union Station, Los Angeles.

Unlike its other lounges, the Los Angeles Union Station lounge is like Brigadoon. It’s there, and then it’s not. The Los Angeles lounge is a collection of chairs and tables in a taped off area that creates a sitting area. It is located in and adjacent to the Bar on your right as you enter the main station entrance from the street – if it is there at all.

Generally, this lounge seems to be set up shortly before a train leaves, although it may remain there all day for all we know. There is coffee (but no Danish like Via Rail Canada’s lounges) nor are there other amenities except a cordial Amtrak employee who checks your vitae before he allows you inside the ropes, and then keeps track of you. He’ll also arrange for you and your carry-on baggage to be taken, free of charge, to your train on an electric cart, delivering you right to your Sleeping car.

But he is careless about including everyone.

He overlooked us (how? we were sitting almost right beside him). This caused him to dither and question whether we really wanted a ride to the train (and yeah, with all our stuff we did). Finally, he relented and chased down an electric cart for the remaining passengers, including us, and we rode out to the train.

The ride to the train is a considerable perk in Los Angeles, since the trains are a good distance underground and then up onto the platform.

The Metropolitan Lounge in Portland for Sleeping Car/First Class passengers is our favorite Amtrak lounge, although we have not visited too many. Comfortable chairs. Private clean bathrooms. Free fast Internet. Drinks, including soft drinks – no food. The staff is expecting you and checks you in by name, and then gets you and your bags onto the right car and into the right cabin at the appropriate time.

Baggage Car on the Coast Starlight where our bags weren’t; our checked bags were sent directly to Chicago and never traveled the trains we were on

And they are cordial. Presumably lounge class customers are on their own. However, this is a small station and the trains are just steps from the station, no more than two sets of tracks away. This is not a hardship station with longs walks, unlike Los Angeles, Chicago and, depending on where your car is. New York City and Washington, DC.

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your checked bags are?
Our’s were lost in America.

In Los Angeles we checked two bags, and packed carefully so we would (and did) have everything we might need on the train for the next three days.

It never occurred to us that our bags would not travel on the same trains with us, but they did not – and checking these bags would present a big problem when, later as the Empire Builder ran further and further behind, we decided we would have to leave the train in Minneapolis in order to keep appointments we had to keep in Florida.

My previous experience with Amtrak was that their trains, especially in the west, ran on time (well they do not – ). We had planned to arrive in Chicago at 4 pm and catch a 7:45 pm flight to Orlando. I figured four hours to go from downtown to Midway Airport would be more than enough – and actually I was right.

Even leaving Union Station at 6:30 pm as I did, I was at Midway in a mere 50 minutes and had a difficult by do-able 20 minutes to navigate the airport and make my flight. What did me in was having to recover my checked bags which had been sent ahead on the Amtrak Chief and which arrived a full day in Chicago before we did.

With our checked bags in Chicago, someone had to go get them. Carol Anne and I split up in Minneapolis. She flew to Florida. I took the train on to Chicago to get our bags.

Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station. Okay, okay — this could have been a better picture. Actually: it couldn’t have been considering …

The Sandpoint, ID, Train Station

Last June Carol Anne and I biked the Hiawatha Trail in Montana and Idaho and then headed north to Sandpoint, ID, where we photographed a classic train station that, apparently is doomed. New roads are being built on both sides of it and it soldiers on atop of a narrow spit of land.

The question was: Would the station still be there when we passed through Sandpoint in November?

This is actually what the Sandpoint, ID, Amtrak Station looks like: June 2010 … in the daylight.

I was determined to find out, but it would not be easy. The Empire Builder stops only for moments in Sandpoint, and the eastbound train stops at 2:40 in the morning. Setting foot of the train was unthinkable and, worse, I was not even sure which side the station would be on — although I guessed correctly.

So there I was, in the middle of the night, watching and waiting and I was rewarded: My car on the Empire Builder stopped squarely in front of the station. There it was – looking as healthy as ever.

Time to snap pictures. The light was poor, but I got everything in focus through the window and LURCH! — the train was moving.

SNAP! … SNAP! again. I got off only two shots.

Look up and to left to see the better of the two shots, then lemme know how many 8×10 copies of it you want.

What to take on the train, and what to leave behind

If you are in Couch – the seats are surprisingly large with lots of legroom. This means you can keep your possessions close while not overly crowding yourself. Many in coach are not on for the entire two-day trip, but some are. If you’re going the entire distance, you’ll probably want at least one change of clothing, and of course will need to bring along toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, yaddadadda).

A break in Shelby, MT, for the smokers

Amtrak will provide you with pillows and blankets, but cross Montana in winter or summer might be cold. Amtrak doesn’t always get the heat/cold thing down. Be prepared to shed clothes and the put them on again. Be prepared to protect your ears with a ski cap and your feet with more than one layer of socks.

You can, of course, check your bags – but once checked, they are gone until you get where you are going. Amtrak also has space in both Sleepers and Coaches for extra luggage in the lower level of the cars. That’s good news, unless you are anal and worry about someone ripping you off.

Theft on Amtrak is rare, but coming out of Los Angeles someone did steal a pack of cigarettes, a religious book and another item from a fellow passenger in coach. We quizzed Amtrak personnel through the rest of our trip how common this was. All expressed surprise, and most were shocked.

And in Sleeper/First class it is unheard of.

On the other hand, if you are in coach or sleeper, keep valuables hidden and in sleeper, keep your doors closed and blinds drawn at least when you are not in your compartment.

Food: Dining Car and Snack Bar

Food is expensive on Amtrak and generally not worth the price. Twenty-two-dollars for a bad steak and cold microwaved frozen vegetables

The Empire Builder’s Observation Car, east of Havre, MT, November 8, 2010

served on cheap plastic plates? Come on. Price is a little better if select from the Snack Bar menu, and at least there, unlike the Dining Car, if you want Coca-Cola rather than Pepsi, you can get it. The Dining Car only serves Pepsi.

The price of the food actually puts the issue of whether to book a Sleep versus Coach into play. Here’s why:

All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, are included in Sleeper. That’s about $50 a day – and if two of you are traveling for the entire two day trip, that’s a robust $200 or so. Compartments add about $250 and up to the cost of your ticket, but if you discount the cost of food ($250 minus $200 for food), you’re getting a private compartment where you both can sleep, and very likely cleaner bathrooms which receive much less use than in Coach for $50 (or $25 a day).

Bathrooms and Showers

It is not clear to us who, if anyone, is responsible for keeping the bathrooms and showers fresh on Amtrak trains. We suspect it is supposed to be the car attendant (there is one car attendant for each car in Sleep class; one attendant for each two cars in the Coach), but we’re yet to encounter a car attendant who bothers.

Winona, MN, Amtrak Station, November 9, 2010

What I think happens is that crews go through the trains before they depart in Seattle, Portland and Chicago, clean them and again provision the toilet paper, cloth and paper towels – and then no one ever comes through the train again. For two days, passengers are on their own while car attendants have their own bathrooms and room in the transition car, never venturing into the bathrooms for passengers.

If this is true, Amtrak needs to work on it. Faced with filth, passengers often flee off the train into station bathrooms during smoke breaks which are not always much better.

The showers in Sleeper/First Class are large and, although soap used to be small and awful, Amtrak now provides decent bars or soap and plenty of towels. Take along flip/flops because you likely won’t want to walk barefoot in the shower, and you might consider showering during one of the lengthier stops so you aren’t swaying back and forth. But the showers work. The water does get very hot (be patient) and once adjusted it stays adjusted.

The bathrooms stay clean as long as you and your fellow passengers take a moment before you leave to run a paper towel around the sink.

But paper towels in the bathroom in Sleeper class didn’t last forever – and once gone they were not replaced. After Minneapolis the paper towels in our bathroom were gone, and within an hour the bathroom was quite a lot worse for wear.

People Dudes on Board the Empire Builder
As we travel, we always ask Amtrak personnel what their favorite stories are.

The Beer Cooler and Plasma TV Dudes
Within the past year two guys climbed on the Empire Builder, according to a car attendant, with two large ice chests and a plasma TV and headed for their Sleeping compartment.

Passengers embarking at the Havre, MT, station; none had beer coolers or plasma TVs to my knowledge

They set up the TV and began playing videogames, and soon enough traffic picked up in the Sleeper car. “That’s a sure sign that someone is dealing drugs,” we were told.

Police may not always be visible on Amtrak trains, but they are never far away. Soon enough police were talking to these guys (declining the opportunity to compete in a videogame that was underway), and not long after that they hauled the guys – and their drugs – off the train under arrest. When a passenger in an adjoining compartment objected, the police searched his compartment, found even more drugs, and hauled them away too.

The Border Patrol Dudes

At one stop three Canadian Border patrol guys passed me on the platform and climbed on the train/. Then they started through the cars. I asked what was going on, mistaking them for the TSA and was told that the Canadian police are frequent travelers looking for Canadian border violations.

I didn’t get it – and still don’t.

But if you have issues with the Canadian police, you might want to think twice about riding the Empire Builder. Otherwise you might be saying Hi to these guys.

Dude takes the fall for his Granny

When police pulled a suitcase off the rack in Coach not long ago, a young guy riding with his elderly Grandmother promptly claimed the bag and said, even before it was opened, “you’ve got me.” Indeed, they had someone because the bag was filled with pot. But the police were suspicious. Granny was old, and she looked sweet, but she also looked guilty.

Soon enough, police discovered the dealer was not the Grandson, but the Grandmother who had stashed suitcases every second or third car through the train.

“They’re really quite good at catching drug dealers on our trains,” an Amtrak car attendant told me with admiration – “even when someone is willing to take the fall for their elderly Granny.”

I’m invited to become a Pothead Dude

At longer stops I always amble off the train and begin snapping pictures. In the middle of the night at one smoke break in Montana or North Dakota, I discover the train was longer than the station platform so I head down the platform toward the front of the train to have a look. I begin smelling marijuana and a moment later am surrounded by 6 or 8 people. It is pitch black. They were a few steps back from the train and in the dark.

“Hey there, dude,” an unfriendly voice says.

Now I see them, and they see me. We stare, but a girl in the group decides that I look more like Pothead-Dude than Police-Dude.

“Get on in here, dude,” she says. “I’ll give you some of my grass.”

How to get left behind, with Bonus Credit:
How to get a Conductor to shout at you in Minneapolis

We had decided reluctantly to leave the Empire Builder in Minneapolis because Carol Anne had obligations in Florida the following day – and because it had become clear twelve hours before we would arrive in Chicago that we would not be able to make our evening flight.

Long before dawn, I made new reservations for Carol Anne and I to fly from Minneapolis to Orlando. We would claim our bags in Minneapolis and head for the airport. Minneapolis is an hour stop for the Empire Builder so, my car attendant assured me, the crew would have plenty of time to find and pull of two bags off the train.

Let the duck-waddle begin:

A search of the luggage compartment on the side of our sleeping car revealed our luggage was not there. Our car attendant, the Conductor and I headed for the baggage car. It too was nearly empty, but our bags were not there.

“This has never happened before,” the Conductor said (he must not fly much). But the car attendant was much more savvy. “Their bags probably went directly to Chicago – they must be in Chicago!” So off we went into the station to find a clerk who could call Chicago and confirm that our bags were there.

But there was a line and time passed. The Conductor began to fidget. The clerk once we got to him was uninterested. “The train is leaving,” the Conductor suddenly said, heading for the door. “ALL ABOARD!”

Uh-oh. Now our car attendant rallied, placing himself between the Conductor and the door leading out to the platform. The clerk suddenly grasped what was happening and came alive. He furiously dug and found the private number for the baggage room in Chicago and gave it to me.

Now the car attendant (who had my bags) was running for his life – and for the train – as was I. “Honk, honk!” went the engine which in Train-Speak means the train is starting to move.

Holy crap. Carol Anne was just standing there like a deer frozen in the headlights. “Go to the airport,” I told her.

“I don’t have the plane reservation number!”

It was worse than that: She didn’t even have an official reservation. She flies on Southwest as my “Companion” which means she flies free, but only it I’m with her on the same flight.

“I’ll call you in thirty seconds,” I yelled stepping onto the train and bumping into the out-of-breath car attendant. The train was moving.

Carol Anne was left in Minneapolis without a plane reservation. We still didn’t know if our bags were in Chicago. And the Conductor? “Don’t let that happen again,” he grumbled.

How to really get left behind

Amtrak leaves passengers behind all the time, I later discovered. In 2008 I wandered so far away taking pictures in the middle of the night that a car attendant refused to board the train without me as I ran flat out to get back on.

Another car attendant told me it depends on how the train is doing. “We get bonuses for being on time,” he said. “If we’re running behind we’ll leave you.”

He told me about a guy smoking cigarette on the platform exactly one step from the door. “I told him to get on, NOW,” this Amtrak official told me. “He took another puff, and by the time he looked up he was looking at the side of the train. He spent 24 hours in Whitefish, MT. I hope he had some extra cigarettes.”
My advice is ‘Whoa’: Don’t screw with these people.

This blog, including photographs are © Copyrighted 2008-2010 literary property of Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California. All rights are reserved.


December 26, 2011

Auto Train essentials == Menu, Playgrounds & Stations in Lorton VA & Sanford FL

Amtrak operates a train for you, and your vehicle, nightly connecting Washington, DC (at Lorton VA off the I-95) and Orlando, Florida (at Sanford, FL off Toll Road 417 or I-4).

The rules are simple: No car, no trip for you. Passengers cannot travel on the train without taking their car.

CLICK to ENLARGE // Lorton, Virginia is just south of Washington, DC on I-95.


CLICK to ENLARGE // Sanford, Florida, is just north of Orlando, off I-4, Exit 101C. Toll Road 417 also services Amtrak bringing traffic up from the east side.


CLICK to ENLARGE // Sanford, Florida. Unlike the Lorton, Virginia, station which is adjacent to an Interstate, the Sanford, Florida, Auto Train station is a mile or two east of I-4, and then down a small road.

SANFORD / LORTON // The menu is the same whether traveling north or south (although movies on board are different). Meals are free and are included in the price of your ticket.


SANFORD / besides plenty of chairs and free baggage carts, this brand new station includes tables beside a snack bar that includes electricity for internet users. Internet is available free at both Sanford and Lorton.


SANFORD / The station in Sanford, FL, like the one of Lorton, VA, is new, bright and well-designed.


SANFORD / Drop off you car, collect your luggage and head inside. Amtrak personnel are everywhere to point you in the right directions. The train is steps away from the dropoff area, directly through the station. It is waiting.


SANFORD / Like Lorton there are several drop off (and pick up lanes) which are covered in case of rain. Drop off and pickup is in the same place depending on whether you are departing, or arriving.


SANFORD / You first pass through a gate where your reservation is checked and you are given your ticket and assigned a number which will be magnetically attached to the side of your car. Then you will pull forward to the drop off area. As you unload your luggage onto free carts, your car will be videotaped and any bumps or scrapes will be noted. Next, with your luggage, go inside to the ticket counter, select your preferred hour to have dinner ( 5pm, 7pm and sometimes 9 pm) and wait until it is time to board the train. Usually boarding takes place at 2:30 pm and last call to board is about 3:10 pm to 3:15 pm. The train is scheduled to depart at 4 pm, but often leaves early if loading of cars is done and those cars have been attached to the rear of the train.

. . . . . . . .

LORTON VA / Although you'll probably not see it if you are arriving, there is a playground and a pleasant park in front of the station.


LORTON / Amtrak has in recent years rebuilt both of the Auto Train stations (there are only two). They are now bright, clean and have free internet available.


LORTON / The pickup and drop off area. After the train arrives, passengers move into the station and wait for their automobiles to be unloaded. As each car is unloaded, its number is called and the car stops beside the station door in one of several lanes. Occasionally passengers fail to immediately claim their cars causing a pileup. This makes other passengers unhappy and irritates Amtrak personnel a lot.


LORTON VA / AutoTrain passegers first stop at this guard gate where a number is assigned to their car and where they pick up their ticket. There are no "drive-ins" at AutoTrain. Passengers must have a reservation, and they must have a car or motocycle. No one can travel on the train unless accompanied by a vehicle.

September 15, 2011

Auto Train / Amtrak == a pictorial update == September 2011 & December 2011

Amtrak, Auto Train Pictorial: This is an update on Amtrak’s AutoTrain. You can find my earlier post on AutoTrain from September 15, 2009 by scrolling down. The first few paragraphs here are the same as the 2009 post because both will orient you on how to find the train both in Orlando and Washington, DC, along with departure times and other useful information. Amtrak’s web site for bookings is HERE.

Note —->>>> The pictorial on Auto Train 2011 follows the copy at the end of this post.

Auto Train is the fastest way for you and your car or motorcycle to get from Washington, DC, to Orlando — or back. The train runs non-stop both ways nightly from Lorton, Virginia, south of Washington, DC, just off the I-95 Exit 163, non-stop to Sanford, Florida, north of Orlando (Exit 101C off the I-4). There is a crew change about one a.m. in Forence, South Carolina, but you’ll probably be sound asleep and never notice.

Auto train is, at varying times, very cheap or very expensive. During the slack months when few people are heading north, prices drop. When the Florida snowbirds are in flight, the price rockets.

No one can just climb on Auto Train and go. You have to show up with a car or motorcycle — and the vehicle is a separate charge. The basic price includes a seat for you; if you want a room that is a separate price and, like all other costs on Auto Train, the price varies depending on the time of the year — and even sometimes varies from day-to-day. auto train MAPCheck back often and be flexible for a better deal.

The train departs promptly at 4 p.m. seven days a week from both Lorton, VA, heading south, and Sanford, FL, heading north, passing each other during the night. SUV Vehicles have to be checked in by 2 p.m. and are the largest vehicle Auto Train can handle. Regular vehicles and motorcycles must be checked in by 3 p.m., an hour before departure. To repeat, Auto Train departs promptly at 4 p.m. Be smart, though — come early: Auto Train has a complementary wine and cheese party from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily prior to departure. For those with private rooms, there is also coffee and water available in the cars.

. . . . . . . .

Auto Train / September 11-12, 2011

The Auto Train is arguably, along with Acela Express, Amtrak’s premier train. It is also one of its few trains that make money.

Running each afternoon both south from Lorton, Virginia (Washington, DC) to Sanford, Florida (Orlando) the train is a non-stop overnight express for you and your vehicle up the I-95 corridor.

It is remarkably easy and straight-forward – in mid afternoon you drive into the Amtrak yard, they plop a magnetic number of the side of your car, videotape it (the nicks and dings you have this afternoon will match the nicks and dings you have the following morning) and your car heads one way, and you head another. At about 4 pm off you, and your car, go in a train that often stretches 20 or more cars.

The following morning you are in Virginia having thundered through the night on what is almost always a rough ride on freight tracks. Along the way you have had dinner, a movie, and a continental breakfast if you booked a compartment. If you slept in coach, the meals are not included.

Amtrak has been gradually upgrading Auto Train with new terminals. The Lorton, Virginia, station was finished a few years ago and is gorgeous. The Sanford station was largely demolished and rebuilt opening earlier this year. It is utilitarian and, while not dreary, is not overly cheery. Either different architects designed the terminals or the person designing them both was less motivated when he/she got around to designing the Florida station.

Since we are veterans of the train, and since we are gradually riding different sections of the Amtrak rail system when time permits, we are sensitive to how they are doing in terms of cleanliness, food quality, rolling stock and hospitality.

While it is not true of the entire Amtrak system, increasingly sections of Amtrak are falling into the postal service paradigm of poor service, higher and higher prices and indifferent help. Lacking rail competition, and saddled with unprofitable routes that leach money that could be spent to improve profitable routes, it appears that Amtrak is being forced by Congressional politics to do too much with too little resulting in truly ghastly trains on occasion.

The Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) compartments stank on one of our trips when toilets quit working and the help, unable to fix the problem, vanished into the Transition Car (their on board dormitory that normally runs at the front of the train behind the engine and baggage car). Similarly, by scrolling down you can read what a joke the car attendants were on our recent trip on the Southwest Chief (Los Angeles to Chicago) when they forget to turn on the heat in our car.

That said, Amtrak does have some fast and efficient trains that run routes where tons of people want to go. The Auto Train, which regularly sells out during the snowbird season, is one of those trains. Not surprisingly on these routes the help is motivated, proud, usually crisp and cheery.

2011 Auto Train Pictorial

Auto Train has a new terminal in Sanford, Florida, which opened earlier this year. While not quite as spiffy as the one at the other end of the line in Lorton, Virginia, it is bright, comfortable and clean.


The platform is, of course, where it always was. Signage to the cars is better, however. This sign directs passengers to sleeping car #5245. Each car is clearly marked and the train is adjacent to the terminal now, which it sort of was, and sort of was not, before the new terminal was built.


Auto Train nightly is dragged by two engines working in tandem. Passengers used to be able to walk around the front of the engines. No more. Moreover, on September 11, 2011, the day we took Auto Train from Sanford north, TSA Security people were walking the platform. Is there an every day occurance now or just because it was the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center. We didn't ask.


One great improvement is a playground at the Sanford, FL, terminal with picnic tables and chairs to watch their children. Sanford also runs a free shuttle downtown and back for passengers arriving early. Internet in the station is also free and quite fast, and there are some -- not many -- electric plugs.


On board the Observation Car now has windows similar to those on the Southwest Chief affording great views. The car also has plenty of electric plugs, although no interent. Cellphone coverage enroute is also spotty, as is to be expected. The color scheme, once tourquoise, has been updated. Downstairs is a concessions area which sell sandwiches and soft drinks. It is adjacent to a smoking room which, sadly, leaks air into the upstairs Observation car making it unusable for those allergic to cigarette smoke. Worse, for sleeping car passengers to get to the dining car, they have to pass through this smoke-filled car.


Coffee, wine, cheese, fruit is all freely available in the Observation car, and in each of the sleeping cars. Amtrak has greatly upgraded the quality of its coffee -- today it's great; a few years ago, it was not.


The Observation car has large windows and great views. On the day we took the train in September 2011, the train was empty. In our sleeping car only 4 compartments were booked. This assures clean bathrooms, by the way.


The trains are scheduled to leave at 4 pm, but if everyone is on board and the autos loaded, off they go. On September 11, 2011, Auto Train left the Sanford Yard at 3:30 pm, fully 20 minutes early. Passengers had to be on board by 3:10 pm. Auto Train is scheduled to arrive in Lorton, Virginia, at 9:30 am the following morning, fully an hour-and-a-half later than it used to arrive. Maybe it does -- but maybe it doesn.t On the day we took the train, we pulled into Lorton at 6:50 am, 2 hours-forty minutes early. That's great except that the unloaders do not show up until 8 am, so passengers are left trapped on the train. Super early arrival seems to be the norm these days.


This is what the unloading/loading device looks like for the cars. This photo was taken in Lorton, VA, where close observation of the loading and unloading is much easier than in Florida.


Auto Train is rightly proud of its trains and of its history. This sign in Lorton, VA, sits just outside the terminal on the platform.


The Lorton, VA., is gorgeous, comfortable and bright. Although newer, the Sanford terminal is not quite as asthetically beautiful although it, like the Lorton terminal, is clean, bright and comfortable.


Free baggage carts are available both trainside as you disembark, and also at the reception area where you pull in and turn your car over to Auto Train. It's pure simplicity -- hop out of your car, dump your stuff on a cart and off you go to the train. Arriving -- just reverse the procedure.


Both the Florida and Virginia terminals have concession stores where you can buy newspapers, sandwiches and other items. This is one is in the Lorton VA station.


After you leave the train, you wait for your car to be unloaded. Each car has a plastic magnetic sign with a number which is slapped on the side of your car when you surrender it. After arrival the cars are driven off the train and the number of your car is announced. When it glides into the reception area (this one is at Lorton, VA), you pounce. I-95 north and south is only a hundred or so yards away.


Unloading Sequence, Photo #1. The back of the train's auto car is open and a car is heading our way. The auto train cars have two decks. Autos from the upper deck (shown here) are unloaded first, then the ramp is lowered, and the bottom deck is emptied of cars. The procedure goes quickly.


Unloading Sequence, Photo #2.


Unloading Sequence, Photo #3.


Unloading Sequence, Photo #4. Done! The reception area is twenty yards behind us. Hop in your car and go! These photographs were taken at the Lorton, Virginia, yard. In Florida, the loading and unloading sequence is not as easy to see.

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The blog “Railroading North America”, its content and photographs, are the copyrighted © 2011 property of Seine/Harbour™ Productions, Studio City, California, and Peter Michael Crow.
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November 13, 2010

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight / 30 hours, 5 minutes from Los Angeles to Portland

Route of the Coast Starlight

Topics in this Post:
Free Internet on board the Coast Starlight? Yes, but …
Why isn’t this train always on time?
Food on board — should you carry you own deli?
Amtrak Lounges in Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle — clean bathrooms and more
Quick hints on how you, too!, can get left behind
What you’ll see out the window
People on Board

Coast Starlight / 30 hours, 5 minutes from Los Angeles to Portland
The Coast Starlight originates at the Los Angeles Union Station each day, departing promptly at 10:15 a.m. From Los Angeles to Seattle the train covers 1,377 miles (1,190 miles to Portland) in 34 hours and 30 minutes (30 hours and 5 minutes to Portland).

Amtrak Train 14, Union Station, Los Angeles, November 6, 2010

In Los Angeles, if you are a sleeping car passenger, you might want to arrive an hour or so earlier and wait in the Amtrak First Class lounge that is set up just inside the entrance to the station to your right in the Bar area. Here you will find coffee, and an attendant who will guide you onto electric carts with your carryon baggage and deliver you directly to your car.

In Portland, the Metropolitan Lounge is also inside the station (to your right if you enter from the street: go through the station and look up for the red neon “Metropolitan Lounge” sign; the ML is on your left if you are entering the station from the platform and changing trains). The Portland Metropolitan Lounge is the most comfortable of the Amtrak lounges we have visited, even more to our liking than the one in Chicago which is much larger.

Amtrak Station, Paso Robles, CA

When we took trains from Seattle in 2008, the Seattle station appeared to have no private lounge for sleeping car/First Class passengers, although that may have changed.

The Coast Starlight is a small train, but Amtrak may add more cars during busier times of the year.

Why this train is not always on time.
After leaving Union Station the Coast Starlight heads north through Glendale and turns northwest past several stops that, lacking passengers, the train bypasses. On the Saturday morning we took the train, the Coast Starlight bypassed the Burbank Airport stop, but stopped for passengers in Van Nuys and Simi Valley before its first regular stop in Oxnard about two hours after departure from Union Station.

With few exceptions most stops on Amtrak trains are brisk. Amtrak trains are completely non-smoking and there is no tolerance if you are caught: You will be arrested and removed from the train at the next stop.

Passengers who try to run off the train to smoke rarely have enough time and risk being left behind. Amtrak mostly runs on rails leased from freight carriers and they are allotted certain times to be on the rails. If an Amtrak train runs behind schedule the freight trains can and do take back the rails and Amtrak trains have to wait. That’s why Amtrak will leave you behind. However, there are regular stops every few hours specifically designed to accommodate smokers.

The train passes through Vandenberg Air Force base where missiles are sometimes launched into space. The night before we took the train a missile was being launched and all traffic on the rails was stopped for several hours. It made a hash of the arrival times for the Coast Starlight’s north and south trains. And, if you do the math we’re not really talking about one north and one southbound train. There are always four Coast Starlights on the rails – with a trip of 34 hours,

Parlour Car, Amtrak's Coast Starlight

there are always two trains in various places heading north, and another two heading south.

The Internet on board: Don’t count on it.
The Coast Starlight, unlike other Amtrak trains, claims to have free wireless Internet service. It is available, so train officials and the Amtrak web site says, in the Observation car. It is not available throughout the train, and not available in the Sleeping/First Class cars.

Fair enough:

We’re always skeptical, and not surprisingly we were right in not expecting much. Sometimes, although not often, the Coast Starlight did have free wireless Internet, mostly around metropolitan areas. The rest of the time there were no wireless Internet at all – but, in fairness, there was no cell phone service either.

Our advice: Do not count on being able to use the Internet while on the train, but do keep an eye out for it. At unexpected times, the service pops up available and, if you promptly pounce on it, you’ll be able to connect for a few minutes until the train chugs out of range.

Give Amtrak a gentleman's "C" for the effort.

The coast and the redwoods.
After running along the coast from Oxnard past San Luis Obispo at Morro Bay, the train turns inland toward Salinas and John Steinbeck country.

The coast is, of course, gorgeous, but if you have a sleeper car, you’ll want to be on the left side of the train. I’m not sure you can actually make such a request, but it happened our room was – so we could watch the coastline from our room. The reverse will be true heading south (you’ll want to be on the right side to see the coast from your room). And remember, you can always see everything from the observation car anyway.

North of San Francisco, you’ll enter the red wood country and pass Mt Shasta in northernmost California. Neither may be easy to see because the train passes through these areas either at night or early in the morning. Depending on the time of year, it may be dark.

Railroad Bridge over Willamette River at Portland, Oregon

Once night a year the trains stop near Redding and simply sit for an hour – as they did on the night we were on the Coast Starlight. Passengers who are awake when the train stops about 1 a.m. may be perplexed. They may wait for freights trains, which will never come, to pass. Exactly one hour later the train chugs off again. The reason for the stop is to “fall back” from daylight to standard time and eliminate the hour. In the morning our train arrived on time – in this case, on standard time.

The people on board / Nice people
Our cabin steward was the cheerful Lorna who pronounces her name “Lor-NA” and appeared quite bemused that we scrupulously pronounced it correctly.

In the observation car we met several families who were traveling with their teenage daughters visiting colleges.

One couple traveling with their daughter from Oklahoma knew Grand Lake of the Cherokees, where we have a home and still some business interests, quite well. We tried to sell him an extra home we have on the Honey Creek arm of the lake (he seemed to maybe have some interest …).

The people on board / Not so nice people
Another older couple from northern California seemed normal and interesting. He regaled us with his college professor vitae then he lapsed into academic sophistry asserting privacy was an antiquated 20th century concept. He became more and more creepy.

Amtrak's Coastal Starlight with Portland Train Station in background

]North to Portland
By dawn, the Coast Starlight is running through mountains and rivers. The portion into Portland is scenic, and on the day we passed through filled with rain and low lying clouds.

Late in the afternoon we rounded a curve, passed over a bridge and glided to a stop in downtown Portland. The Portland station, which I had photographed extensively in 2008, is a treasure from 1896.

Our stop here was brief.

We slid off the Coast Starlight into the Metropolitan Lounge and within an hour boarded the Empire Builder for Chicago, which was waiting in the yards for us when we arrived.

As evening closed in, we were on our way east. Chicago was 2,225 miles ahead, a scheduled 47 hours and 10 minutes ahead (although for Carol Anne the trip would be shorter – and for me, much longer).
How to get left behind in the great northwest;
Drugs and the police and smoking grass;
Tips on how to get a Conductor to shout at you in Minneapolis

Map of the route of the Coast Starlight (Amtrak, public domain)
Engine of Train 14, morning November 6, 2010, Los Angeles Union Station
Paso Robles Amtrak station
Night in San Jose, California
Coast Starlight Observation Car where free Internet is occasionally available
Trackside Entrance to Klamath Falls, OR, Amtrak Station
Railroad bridge, Portland, OR
Engine of Train 14, afternoon, November 7, 2010, Portland Train Station

This blog and photographs are the © Copyrighted 2008-2010 literary property of Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California and may not be reproduced without permission. Our attorneys have proven to be surprisingly good at tracking down copyright abridgments of this blog and winning redress on our behalf.

November 11, 2010

All Aboard, 80 Hours on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Empire Builder

Two years ago I spent 30 days on the trains in Canada and the United States — and blogged about it right here (look to your right >>>).

The response to this blog (now reaching into 5-figures), and the enduring interest surprised me. I figured whoever was interested — relatives mostly — would read it and forget it. Largely that has not been true. Today this blog has more visitors than ever. By far the most popular post here, by the way, has been on the Auto Train

Feedback completely lacked the “flame” and nasty comments, but several wrote expressing surprise at how bad the Empire Builder, from Seattle/Portland to Chicago, had become — at least in my telling. One reader wrote that he once traveled the train and had a warm spot for the train. He grieved that it had fallen on such bad times.

But had the Empire Builder become that bad?

Perhaps I had caught it on an awful day. Perhaps I should give her a second look, and while I was at it, perhaps I should ride the regular route of the Coast Starlight, Los Angeles to Seattle. In 2008 in a stroke of luck, on the day I rode the Coast Starlight it had run inland through the Tahachipi Loop, a route it had not run in 22 years. But that meant I never took the Coast Starlight along the scenic popular coastal route from Los Angeles to Emeryville (San Francisco).

So off we went again — from Los Angeles to Portland, from Portand to Chicago. Three nights. Four days. Eighty hours. A total of 10 Amtrak meals. I made all the way to Chicago. My bags made it, too. But my wife (<<< picture at left) didn't.

In Minneapolis, pressed for time as the Empire Builder slipped further and further behind, Carol Anne had to bail. She caught a flight back to our winter home in Orlando to keep appointments. I soldiered on to the end hoping (successfully) to find our bags in Chicago.

What I find on trains always surprises and delights me.

These 80 hours with Amtrak were no exception — come on along. In the next week or so, I'll tell you all about it.

photographs — the Coast Starlight poster is from the Los Angeles Station; the Empire Builder poster hangs in the Spokane, WA, Amtrak station; the photograph of Carol Anne Crow is from a series of photos taken of her standing in the doorway of our sleeper car at various stops during the trip — this photograph was taken in San Jose, California, November 6, 2010.

This blog is © copyrighted 2010 literary property of Seine/Harbour Productions in Studio City, California,

March 12, 2010

30 Days on Amtrak & ViaRail Canada / on right >>>



AROUND THE WORLD / 41 ports in 104 days on Cunard’s Queen Victoria can be found HERE.

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