Amtrak Coast StarlightBack to Forum
I was returning from a conference in Juneau last week and decided to make a bit of an adventure on my return journey, taking the wonderfully named Coast Starlight from Seattle to the Bay area (Emeryville), estimated journey time was 22.5 hrs.
Boarding in Seattle was easy, checking in bags also easy, finding the sleeper cabin on the rather large silver tin-can like train the Superliner was well organised. The route went via Portland, and then through the Cascades, to northern California and coming down the central valley to the Bay area. I was particularly looking forward to the journey through the Cascades….
The reality was slight different…the rolling stock is a good 40+ years old, zero sound proofing with the adjacent cabin, overly instructive announcements for dining car reservations and constant reminders that “adult beverages” were not included in the fare, and an almost non visible cabin attendant, who made no effort to secure the overnight linen etc. (having done the VSOE in May, my expectations were perhaps too high!). I had been advised by a colleague that the food on board was of a generally high standard, it was average, but having everything served on or in plastic was somewhat disappointing. The Observation car was in need like the rest of the train of a good refurb, though the Parks Service volunteer between Seattle and Portland was most informative.
There is no wifi on the train due to a dispute between Amtrak and the suppliers, which was an irritant more than anything else. The dining car conversations were interesting, people keen to try and understand Brexit (arn’t we all), a universal despair with leadership in the US, and from my perspective a view on the homeless in the US (trackside living), which you tend not to see when flying etc.and would not look out of place in a number of much less developed nations (a rather sad indictment on the American Dream or lack of it).
We eventually rolled into Emeryville some 3.5 hrs late (which rather ruined my plans for a trip to the City ahead of my flight home that evening), but an adventure for sure, but not one I would look to repeat in a hurry.
A few pictures attached for interest
You must be logged in to access attached files.18 Sep 2019
@rodders – I have always fancied train travel for long distances, well, into Europe from London. However, until the train companies can get their acts together in terms of ticket pricing, i don’t think it will become a reality. Clearly Eurostar works – but combining the service with other European operators seems to be a challenge too far.18 Sep 2019
Apart from the Benelux countries, rail services across borders are really not ‘joined up’ very well.
Getting information and booking is the main challenge.
I thought the captcha had gone but I’m getting it again.18 Sep 2019
As noted above by Martyn, Eurostar is fine provided you travel all the way and not just to Paris and Brussels.
Its network now extends to Amsterdam, to Lille, to Avignon and to Marseilles (however the latter three are seasonal only).
Eurostar should be now have started its own services to Germany as its new trains were bought for that purpose.
However it is our UK Border Agency which is delaying matters. It insists on all passengers being pre-cleared *before* the train enters the Tunnel.
That means special terminals must be built at every departure station in mainland Europe … unless passengers wish to be pre-cleared at another point like Brussels Midi or Lille.
Even when new terminals are built, as at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, UK Border continues to insist they cannot yet be used (for reasons best known to itself).
It means Eurostar passengers from Amsterdam/Rotterdam) to London must still disembark at Brussels Midi for UK Border clearance.18 Sep 2019
I had a wonderful experience on the service from Philadelphia to Chicago and then subsequently a few days later on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville a few years ago … not least because I was able to see a lot more of ‘real’ America and meet a lot of interesting folk in the dining car. My roomette was very comfy and having an electric point meant that I could plug in my CPAP and have a great night’s sleep. The only downside, which I think has to be borne in mind is that American railways cater first and foremost for freight haulage and you have to allow for delays en route and not to tie down your appointments too tightly based on your scheduled arrival time. Yes, it cost me my ‘tour of Chicago’ as the pre-booked tour had already been long gone when I arrived, but I found that the benefits of train travel, especially as regards ‘jet lag’ outweighed the disadvantages. I also really enjoyed Trenton to Boston on a trip last year … and did build in time for a delay en route, which on this occasion was unfounded!
If you have the time, and the inclination … I thoroughly recommend Amtrak long distance IF the timings work for you!18 Sep 2019
Please write a report! I have been considering an Amtrak trip.
My only experience of rail in North America was an early morning departure from Seattle to Vancouver. Although the scenery was impressive, the train wasn’t. It was crowded, scruffy, and noisy with poor ride quality and overall a disappointment.19 Sep 2019
I did this exact trip two years ago: The scenery like the Rockies absolutely fantastic. Small town America was eye opening as could be any place in any third world country. Fascinating trip.19 Sep 2019
Rodders, sorry to hear it was not as good as you had hoped. My only experience of North American long distance trains has been in Canada – Toronto to Vancouver through the Rockies. That was actually genuinely good – comfortable, good food and smart observation cars (it was 10 years ago so interested to hear if anyone has travelled on it more recently).
The only downside, which I think has to be borne in mind is that American railways cater first and foremost for freight haulage and you have to allow for delays en route and not to tie down your appointments too tightly based on your scheduled arrival time.
This was certainly the case for my journey. I travelled in 2009, during the Great Recession, and we got to Vancouver 3 hours early. Regular travellers said that this was unheard of and a sure sign that the number of freight trains on the rails was greatly reduced.19 Sep 2019
On my trip from Chicago to San Francisco, we got there two hours late due to freight trains taking precedence. I don’t understand why this happened up to today. It’s not as if the coal or whatever they were hauling was going to spoil.20 Sep 2019
due to freight trains taking precedence
It’s a simple case of “He who pays the piper calls the tune”! Coupled with the fact that most railroads in North America are single track, meaning that when trains want to pass one of them has to stop in a siding (“passing loop” in North American English).
All long distance North American railroads are predominantly freight operations. Passenger traffic, except in metro areas and on the North-Eastern Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) is almost non-existent and heavily loss-making. Moreover, long distance train travellers have implicitly indicated that they are not in a hurry (or they would have flown): the class of people for whom it is logically coherent to say “I have to be in X by such and such a time, and I have chosen the long distance train to achieve this” is vanishingly small!
As a result both Amtrak and Via Rail know that to attract long distance passengers to use their services, they are competing on the experience, not on speed of travel or reliability of timetabling (or on cost – air travel is almost always far cheaper). Contrast this with their freight operations, which are in direct competition with road haulage companies, and where the decision-points for their customers are almost all about cost and reliability of scheduling (and also security – there is less risk of accidents, theft etc on rail transport).
Given this it is a no-brainer to prioritise freight trains. If you have one set of customers who care deeply about the time their shipment arrives and another who care rather less deeply, it is pretty obvious which one you are going to stop to let the other by.20 Sep 2019
Passenger trains should always be given preference. On my trip across the country, there were people who got on and off at some of the small towns, and so there should be some reliability in scheduling built into the system so that they can organize their schedules – or why bother. It’s abhorrent to tell grandma or grandpa a 20 mile trip can take anywhere from 30 mins to two hours depending on how many freight trains have to pass.
And by the way, we are not talking of freight trains with 10 cars either: some of these freight trains have over 120 cars that take at least a year and a day to pass…20 Sep 2019
I’ve no doubt many will agree with you. But we are talking about America, where “should” gives way to “what makes money”!
Amtrak is a train operator, not a railway company; it does not own the tracks – the actual rails – that its trains run on, and therefore pays the railway companies that do own the tracks an access fee. Being publicly owned and permanently very short of money, it pays bottom dollar access rates, and part of the deal that gets them this cheap rate is that their trains run in the gaps of the freight schedule and give way to freight trains.
One cannot really blame the railway companies for prioritising their own (freight) trains over Amtrak’s passenger ones. There is no such equivalent in America to the EU’s PSO regime (Public Service Obligations, a duty placed on railway companies to run a passenger service to an acceptable frequency and standard, even on loss-making routes) and most US railway companies would rather Amtrak and its trains did not use their tracks at all.
Much the same is the case in Canada, though there is a very slightly greater sense of the role of the Via Rail passenger rail service – where it exists at all – in keeping far-flung communities connected. But even in Canada the train timetables for small country stations are vague; one station my Trans-Canada train stopped at merely said on its timetable board that trains would call “on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, usually in the afternoon”.20 Sep 2019