Railroading North America

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,

October 30, 2010

All Aboard: the Coast Starlight & Empire Builder

In November, we’ll re-trace a major portion of our 2008 sojourn on Amtrak, to include giving alarmingly ghastly Empire Builder a second look — this time from Portland to Chicago, versus the 2008 Seattle to Chicago.

The Empire Builder originates seven days a week in both Portland and Seattle in the west, and in Chicago in the east. The Empire Builder heading west is split into two trains at Spokane, WA, and then heads on west to both Portland and Seattle as separate trains (#7 / #27). Heading east, the Portland (#28) and Seattle (#8) trains meet at Spokane and are merged into a single train (#8 / #28) to complete the trip to Chicago.

We were taking the Coast Starlight in the reverse direction that I took it in 2008 — this time from Los Angeles north to Portland. We will not take the gorgeous additional section from Portland to Seattle since we’ll be boarding the eastbound Empire Builder at Portland instead. In 2008 I flew the section from Los Angeles to Seattle bcause I was on a North American Rail Pass (now gone, alas) and was running short of days. On the Coast Starlight trip we’ll run the coast and miss the Tahachipi Loop. Amtrak does not run the Loop and only ran it because of work being done on its regular line. It was a sheer matter of luck that I was on the Seattle-Los Angeles train on one of the few days it has run that section in more than 20 years.

We’re particularly curious whether the trim masterpiece of a station at Sandpoint, Idaho, survives. We visited the station in June when biking the Hiawatha Trail in eastern Idaho and found it precariously perched on a spit of land between new downtown roads under construction. We photographed the station extensively, and then encountered a construction foreman who lamented with us that Sandpoint citizens had not raised a storm and saved the station. We’ll pass through there in the middle of the night, stopping for only moments — but we suspect that station will be gone, and our pictures will now be among only the memories of the station.

(photo: Sandpoint, ID, train station June 6, 2010)

This site and its photographs are © copyrighted literary property, 2008-2010 of Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California

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