Well we made it!!! A trip report on the Coast Starlight, the Cascades, and the Empire Builder

Travel was from Los Angeles to Portland on October 15-16, then Portland to Seattle on October 17, and Seattle to Spokane October 18, 2007. Here are some notes about our “little” journey, with a few comments about the California Zephyr, too!
By John Dornoff, RailPAC/InterMountainRail Associate Director
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Our Coast Starlight ended up arriving in Portland 2 hours late. First (after departure from Los Angeles) we took a 20-minute hit before Simi Valley due to a late Metrolink train, then hit three red signals before SLO (my Zephyr trips have been plagued by red signals, too) which put us about 40-minutes late but we made it up by Oakland and then lost it again by Davis. We were still 40-minutes late into Klamath Falls and took some hits in the Cascades due to track work. Our single biggest hit was waiting 30-minutes in a siding for the southbound Starlight 5 minutes south of Salem.

Portland, Oregon’s famous train station with its landmark clock tower on a rainy day in November, 2005. (Photo by Russ Jackson)

Our next trip, on the Cascades, started out great when one of the Talgo train sets pulled into the station. I saw all the Cascade service train sets so everything is back to normal. I don’t know if the Vegas Talgo is back in service on the Vancouver run but I understand that train was not to be back in service until January and that was before the problems were found with the other Talgo sets (Being remodeled to match the others since the likelihood of it every seeing service on the Vegas line is almost zero?). Our train ran 20-minutes late due to track work and a BNSF switching move in Centralia but we still made IT to Seattle on time. Our trip was the day before the Steilacoom derailment that blocked the line for two days (incidentally BNSF crews were working on the tracks at that very spot of the derailment when we passed by on Wednesday).

A Cascades train waits to depart from the Portland station in November, 2005. Full Talgo service has now resumed on the routes in Washington and Oregon. (Photo by Russ Jackson)

Then there was the thrill of the Empire Builder from Seattle to Spokane. We left Seattle 10-minutes late because we had to wait for the bus from Vancouver BC. Then there were slow orders along the Sound because of high winds and rain so we left Everett 30-minutes late. Then 10-minutes out of Everett we came to a halt because trees and power lines fell in front of a BNSF freight that was going into a siding for us. We sat there for three hours because there were no power company crews available due to other fallen lines so finally the dispatcher had the freight train remove its front locomotive and proceed to ram the fallen trees to clear the right of way and let us proceed. Meanwhile we ended up having two obnoxious teenagers sitting one row up and across from us who made the wait an unpleasant experience. We did luck out as our crew died on hours just before the Spokane station so the other crew was able to quickly jump on and make all the moves to get us in the station.

Comments: The crews on the Starlight and the Cascade trains were terrific. We had no coach attendants on the Builder so we had the Conductor and Assistant doing their job. They were much better than the California Zephyr crews we’ve had recently on our trips from Salt Lake City to Denver, but still several notches below the Starlight crews. They kept the interior lights on until almost 11:00pm and basically did the minimum required of them.

On the Starlight I talked to three couples who had ridden the Zephyr before the Starlight. All three of them had ridden different days and had nothing good to say about the crews. One of them said they were treated so bad on the Zephyr that they were thinking of flying home but the Starlight crew changed their minds. Elsa and I were in the last group of people in the diner at lunch time when the wife of the one Zephyr couple went up to our dining car waitress and thank her over and over on how wonderful she was and how bad their Zephyr experience was. At this point the lounge car attendant was eating his lunch and witnessed the exchange, afterward the dining car attendant asked him how could a crew be so bad and his response was “Zephyr crews are based in Chicago so yes they are that bad.” Even the other Amtrak employees can see it!!

Well, on Friday night I get another experience with the Zephyr as I will be taking it to Reno to attend a conference before flying to Miami to do my presentation at Railvolution so we will see how this journey goes!!

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