Commentary, Reports

The Coast Starlight:  Paso Robles to Eugene; not endpoint travel!  What about the food?

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson with Ralph James

Amtrak likes to tout its end points and the volume of traffic it gets between those departures and destinations on all of its routes, but while some passengers do that it is the intermediate station travel that fills up the trains.  Can you imagine, as RailPAC President Paul Dyson says, if you could only travel between endpoints on the interstate highway system?  Amtrak is usually surprised when someone wants to travel from, say, Paso Robles, CA, to Eugene, OR.  They might not be able to collect as much money from that passenger, but they can still sell that seat on either side of those two locations.  Here is an instance of that exact travel pair as reported to us by RailPAC member Ralph James.  He recommended to a friend that he take the his Thanksgiving trip on the Coast Starlight from Paso Robles to Eugene.  The  friend was dreading the long drive.  “With the necessary tinge of reservation,” Ralph says, “I suggested he look into Amtrak since his origin and destination were right at stops for the Starlight.”  He did so, and sent Ralph a trip report of the first half of his trip, as an “assessment,” giving Amtrak numeric grades for what he experienced with comparisons to airline travel:

  • Connectivity:  90  (Phone connectivity, that is)  I am traveling coach class, but my iPhone works fine as a hotspot; ergo, I’m connected.  Airlines are still trying to figure out WiFi connectivity and if they do provide it, it will be at a premium surcharge on your credit card.
  • Comfort:  85  It’s no secret the airlines are cramming people in like cattle.  Only complaint with the rail approach is the feel of the seat for sleeping, but perhaps I didn’t figure out how to adjust it correctly.
  • Onboard Computer Amenities:  100, as opposed to the airlines which get a 0.  This includes charger outlets for the iPhone, etc.  Airlines have none where Amtrak has one at every seat, even in coach.
  • Dining:  95  Meal served on the train is a real meal; breakfast was bacon and eggs served on a plate with a metal knife and fork.
  • Non-stress Travel:  100  No going through airport security with TSA, getting x-rayed, dis-shoeing, etc.
  • Time from A to B:  70  Granted, airline travel is faster, but take into consideration the overhead of the security check (about 1.5 hour lead time including check-in).  Hand it to the airline, they win on this one.  Rail was 2 hours late tantamount to arriving about 25 minutes late on a 4-hour flight.
  • Customer service and friendliness:  90  Enough to want to tip the rail service, while on the airline I would want to write them a letter.  Varies highly, of course.  You can bring an ice chest on the train; lucky if you can bring an apple on the airline…security concerns, you know.
  • Economy (inverse of cost):  90  A trip of 800 miles from SBP to Eugene, OR was $194 with free station parking vs an expected airline cost of $600 including station parking.

Final score gives Rail a B+ and the Airlines a D- .  Is that what rail advocates usually hear from first time Amtrak riders?  Not always, as many times there are disasters that happen that result in “never again” assessments.  Ralph James breathed a big sigh of relief that his friend was so complimentary of the experience, and commented to RailPAC:  His friend “did not include scenery or some similar category, but he did rave about the views of Mt. Shasta at daybreak.  The once popular phrase that it would be cheaper to buy every passenger an airplane ticket between Los Angeles and Seattle than to support the Starlight would be a ludicrous comparison in his case.  The “real breakfast” (the only purchased meal) was a big plus with the full diner.  Note that he took food in a small ice chest and did the overnight trip in coach;  the cost of sleeper space was prohibitive.  There is a lot of overnight coach travel for that reason and it serves a different market.  I suspect there are no direct flights he could have taken, which would have required traveling from San Luis Obispo anyway, and would have likely required a transfer between two short intermediate and very expensive local hops by air.  Intermediate points rather than end points are again a critical factor.  His train’s timekeeping was good, except for sitting in Sacramento well over an hour for unknown reasons.  Freight interference during Thanksgiving week should have been minimal.”

As a followup, the friend’s return trip arriving in Paso Robles on Sunday, November 29, was almost two hours late and that was the traveler’s only complaint.  His train #11 lost time at every stop between Sacramento and Oakland!  Poor dispatching?  Or, as Ralph James says, “I can understand some of the delay due to crowds at stops, but not as much as was accumulated, and continues to happen.”  Will this passenger travel on Amtrak again?  That’s the big question that should haunt every Amtrak employee from the on board crews to top management.  Positive reports like this one should be treasured, particularly from coach passengers.

On to other Coast Starlight news now.  On November 22 RailPAC’s Paul Dyson reported that Pacific Parlour Cars will be missing from the Starlight in the coming weeks because the FRA has some concerns about the glazing.  “Apparently one car has already been fixed and Amtrak is awaiting delivery of material for the rest of the fleet.  As the Parlour cars are cycled through the shops they will be temporarily replaced by Superliner lounge cars.  I am assured there is no intent to end the service.”  That last statement is the good news.  The Parlour cars are one of the few distinguishing features that Amtrak offers on any of its long distance trains.  While there have been efforts to downgrade and/or eliminate the cars in recent years they are still attracting riders, just as the new meals served at your seat available for Starlight coach riders, and the extended Business class cars that now are positioned between the Lounge and Dining cars in the Starlight consists.  Parlour cars have their own menu, but seating is limited for meals in there, so passengers should be sure to check in with the sleeping car attendant as soon as you board about getting onto the reservation list for eating in that car.  Pacific Parlour Car Menus are available at  amtrak.com/ccurl/208/770/Coast-Starlight-Pacific-Parlour-Dining-Car-Menu-Northbound-0515.pdf    (Substitute Southbound to see that menu.)  The menu choices are interesting in that northbound your choices are “Smoky Mac-n-Cheese” or on day one Lamb Shank with Mushrooms and on the second day Beef Short-rib for dinner.  Neither of those items are found on the regular Dining Car menus on the Starlight or other long distance trains.  Coach passengers can order the Mac-n-Cheese delivered to their seats for dinner!  Yes, Amtrak does offer some unique service and it is expected this will be expanded.

One last note, when writer Russ Jackson traveled on the Sunset Limited in October the Dining Car voice came on the PA to announce that a BLT was available to Coach passengers at their seats for lunch.  It took only a few minutes for that to be changed, as the Sunset Limited does not offer food at your seat to its Coach passengers yet.  Seems that Sunset crew had been working the Coast Starlight before going on our trip and forgot where they were.  Too bad; Sunset Limited passengers would have gone for those sandwiches like the Starlight passengers are.

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