An AMTRAK Adventure-A Trip Report

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May 17th, 2018, 07:44 PM
  #1
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An AMTRAK Adventure-A Trip Report

Ordinarily I wouldn't bother folks with something like this but given the fact that we keep hearing about how great train travel in this country can still be and over on the Europe board we have at least one person who makes a living by publishing rail travel data who likes to say that flying "is just a trip" and traveling by rail is a genuine journey, so I thought might as well.

I admit to not being a very amusing writer. My Husbear doesn't cook naked, much less cook at all and I simply try to call it as I see it so here's the first installment.

This trip literally popped onto the radar screen a couple of days ago after I visited a neurosurgeon and he referred me to another practitioner for my ongoing issues. I figured I'd better do this while I still can and Husbear keeps saying, "But it should be relaxing" and since the goal these days is as much mental stimulation as possible for his failing memory I found some space on Amtrak's "California Zephyr" and two adjoining seats on a non-stop to San Francisco so here we are.

The plane trip: we usually don't use United but there is a non-stop from Fort Lauderdale to SFO so I booked that. Dropped little doggie at the pet sitter's house yesterday and up at 4:00 AM this morning. The so-called "wet season' has started in South Florida and this morning before daylight it was quiet, wet blanket humid, and about to rain (again) as we drove to the airport. Arrived around 5 AM and the United terminal was already semi-chaotic and it wasn't even a usual "cruise ship day."

Security was fast (Pre-check helps, when it is open) and the only other "long lines"' were at the Starbucks. Remember this is Florida where a lot of people fly in shorts and flip flops; some man was in a three-piece business suit and flip flops; cell phones and laptops seem to consume a lot of waiting folks' attention so there wasn't a lot of noise. PA announcements from competing gates from three different airlines remain almost impossible to understand but what else is new?

United's "line lice" waiting to bolt down the jetway didn't seem any worse than American's but, of course, the overhead bin above our two seats was already full by the time we got on (we were in row 4) so I'm glad we checked bags for a change although I always wonder if they will arrive when we do so I never do it anymore unless absolutely necessary.

We actually ate the reported-by-everybody-who-writes-about-airline-trips "terrible" food. It was either oatmeal (they did not say if it was "steel cut" or not or some foreign -usually poor with lots of alcoholics country type) so we opted for the "egg dish." This turned out to be eggs with tortilla somethings which tasted pretty good and besides, we were hungry.

Service good; flight smooth; despite a late start due to rain and lightning which forced those "marshals" who guide the planes during pushbacks to remain indoors. Traveled back and forth on the Tarmac upon arrival in San Francisco looking for a gate; luggage arrived intact and we took a cab into the city as opposed to our usual BART use. Patches of traffic congestion drove the fare up (always expected) but the room was ready at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero (our usual hotel when we come to town for opera, etc).

By now near noon time and Muni Metro to West Portal where the weather was cooler and the sun had disappeared for some lunch at the (IMO) less-than-opportunely-named "Squat and Gobble" but we enjoy the place somehow. Stopped in at Cliff's Variety on Castro for some amusement. I really wanted to buy one of those t-towels inscribed with "Nobody wants to watch you eat that banana" or one of those serving trays saying "You're a mess." Thought about one of the drag queen shower curtains (but we have glass enclosures in all our bathrooms, darn it...they make great bedspreads, though).

Over to the de Young for a wander (and to walk off the food) inside and back to the hotel. Had there been an opera performance tonight we would have tried to get seats but no such luck and not in the mood for "Beach Blanket Babylon" unfortunately.

Delays on the Muni return trip (certain politicians would hate living here; I mean all those "foreigners" who have to be illegal, right? crammed into the streetcars; do they actually work????)

Bought some snacks at a Walgreens and some booze at a package store for the train journey which begins tomorrow morning. Unpacked the portable ice chest (hence the checked bags) and it is off to bed in a few. Pink is fading over the bay now and lights on; is that tall building actually leaning?

More tomorrow.

Last edited by Dukey1; May 17th, 2018 at 07:48 PM.
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May 17th, 2018, 09:11 PM
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As a follow-on I am hoping to update this daily but the only way I can do so is by using my phone so it may end up being a retrospective report unfortunately.
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May 18th, 2018, 04:45 AM
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Day 2 The Hotel: The Hyatt has somewhat "renovated" some of the "club" rooms and the bathrooms seem to be larger and the bathtubs have been replaced with larger showers; either that or after many years of staying here finally got one of these. Anyway, slept well last night and the place is quiet; views over the bay (if you have one) from the balcony is nice. Regency Club above opens in about 30 minutes for continental breakfast and those views are even better, especially at night with the Bay Bridge "light show." The fountain on the Embarcadero is operating again; it was bone during the last visit and looked like a bunch of poured concrete Lego tubs with nothing to do.

Used the ice machine early on to fill the chest we brought so that the machine would have time to recover.

Although Amtrak runs a bus service across the bay to the Emeryville rail station we will probably take a cab to prevent any hassles.

The last time I was here thanks to Amtrak was on a trip up from Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight which arrived in Oakland almost eight hours late which kinda soured me on the Amtrak situation except for the Northeast Corridor services where it owns the right of way. I hope this trip will be different.

Re my comment above as to staying in touch. I'll try using my phone and personal hotspot to connect this laptop as we progress eastbound.
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May 18th, 2018, 05:07 AM
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Enjoy your trip. We’ll try to roll out good weather for your arrival in Chicago.
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May 18th, 2018, 05:23 AM
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I hope Amtrak comes through for you this time.
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May 18th, 2018, 05:44 AM
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Good luck with the train. I really enjoyed the California Zephyr going the other way, and it was almost on time! (But the Coast Starlight left Emeryville three hours late.)
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May 18th, 2018, 07:13 AM
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I hope you have a good trip and will be interested to read about it.

My husband and I took the Coast Starlight from LA to Oakland a month ago and it was only about half an hour late getting in. All in all a great ride except for the dining car food. Packing a cooler for your trip sounds like a good idea.
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May 18th, 2018, 10:00 AM
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Aboard the Zephyr

i have been able to connect using my Iphone personal hotspot so for now we are in business.

We opted for a cab ride from the hotel over to the Amtrak station in Emeryville rather than using the Amtrak bus transfer service. Folks waiting in the station; some for the San Joaquin services; others for the Coast Starlight and the Zephyr.

The lighted signboards in and outside the station show only the San Joaquin service arrivals and departures with all others being announced by the station agents over the PA system. When the southbound Starlight arrived we watched folks entering the station who were obviously looking for the bus connections, etc. There were no signs for these unfortunately.

At about 8:50 a verbal announcement was made in the waiting room (I was in the bathroom) and when i emerged there was Husbear sitting all alone and most of the other passengers were outside being sorted for the impending train arrival. I gathered him up and moved out behind a bunch of late-arriving Amish folks complete with straw hats and gauze hair covers. Why did I immediately think about Kelly McGiliis and her Amtrak ride in the movie "Witness?" I will endeavor to remain positive.

We are in the very first sleeping car (the furthest from the station, of course, but we need the exercise). Train arrived, we piled in; car attendant came by and went over the dining car situation, etc. We are in a bedroom which is adequate for two people and has its own bathroom/shower combo.

One of the electrical outlets doesn't work and washcloths have been stuffed into crevices to keep the door connecting to the bedroom immediately adjacent from opening spontaneously. It really is unfortunate that this equipment has not been maintained as well as it deserves IMO. The VIARail Canadian stuff is from the 40's and a lot of it has been renovated/restored and modernized. In the AMTRAK case one always wonders if the death knell is just around the curve.

Scenery between departure and Sacramento (we just arrived) is interesting enough; not as much brown as i expected and that's a good thing. Sun out for now.
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May 18th, 2018, 10:33 AM
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Tell your SCA about the outlet that doesn't work. It might be a circuit breaker that he/she can reset. Hope you enjoyed the trip over the Donner Pass. The Reno station is below street level but you should be able to post from there. You should be in Winnemucca by sunset. We've started a couple of Zephyr trips there. I travel in a roomette. I see no need to have a toilet and shower in my room.
The food will be much better than what you got on the plane. The cooked to order steak is what most of the sleeping car passengers have for dinner. It is too expensive for most of the coach passengers.
One tip for passengers is to pack a short extension cord with multiple outlets. Some travelers even bring along gaffers tape to quiet noisy doors etc.
Even though your food is "free" remember to tip your server and tip the SCA at the end of your trip. They do their best to put your bed down when you want it done.
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May 18th, 2018, 12:32 PM
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I was fine with a roomette too, but if I had been traveling with a companion it would have been a tight fit. I thought the crab cakes were quite good.
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May 18th, 2018, 03:35 PM
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Originally Posted by Dukey1 View Post
I will endeavor to remain positive.
That's the spirit! My parents love taking the train, so I'm looking forward to hearing about your experience. It's snowing in the Colorado mountains so I hope you get some great scenery. Good luck!
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May 18th, 2018, 03:56 PM
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Following avidly! We intend to do something like this soon!
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May 18th, 2018, 04:05 PM
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I like taking the train but usually just the auto train one way. Dining companions have always been interesting and food excellent. I have only had a roomette. I am usually first one in the shared shower so you are lucky having your own bathroom. One time we were entering a county in Ga and we had to order our drinks fast as it was Sunday and they had blue laws. They couldn't pour during that section of the trip. Hope you enjoy.
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May 18th, 2018, 05:57 PM
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Originally Posted by smpclippingpath View Post
While I haven't taken all of Amtrak's long distance routes, I can say the Coast Starlight is hard to beat. I took the Los Angeles to Seattle route and in very little time you're transported to a place where the Pacific Ocean meets the rails - and at points there is very little distance between rails and water! Further north is the famous Horseshoe Curve where the front of the train is visible from the rear of the train. The lush forests of Oregon and Washington also await - in many places it's train, old telegraph poles and scenery galore.

One unique aspect of the Coast Starlight is the Pacific Parlour Car, refurbished lounge cars from the 1950s Santa Fe Railroad. This car is reserved for sleeping class passengers and not only provides a less crowded alternative to the standard observation car but provides alternative dining options as well. There's even a small theatre in the downstairs area of the car. Each afternoon the Pacific Parlour Car hosts a wine and cheese tasting with wines specific to California, Oregon and Washington.

The train also boasts the standard Amtrak observation car with an arcade and snack bar downstairs, as well as a dining car where meals are served on actual china (most diners across the Amtrak system use plastic plates). Of course, one of the unique aspects of train travel is the fact you meet all kinds of people - most of whom can't wait to share stories about train travel.
Sadly, all of the Pacific Parlor cars were removed from service on the Coast Starlight earlier this year. I don't believe they are ever coming back.
For people who can tolerate overnight coach travel on Amtrak, there are 15, 30 and 45 day USA Railpasses that save a lot on multi city trips.
For those saying that Amtrak is "always late" train 6 arrived in Winnemucca 23 minutes early tonight. It will remain there until 7:08 and leave on time.

Last edited by tomfuller; May 18th, 2018 at 06:02 PM. Reason: added info
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May 19th, 2018, 02:47 AM
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I am typing this around Provo, Utah.

The topography begins to change once you leave Roseville, CA, and the trip up over the mountains and into Truckee and then Reno is very scenic. Definitely remnants of snow on the ground. We spent considerable time in the Sightseer Lounge with its large (and clean) windows.

I will try posting some pictures later on today. The vastness of central Nevada is impressive; there is a beauty somehow with all the sage and the cottonwoods but I'm somewhat biased because I grew up in similar surroundings.

The train has, as was mentioned above, been on time and early throughout this trip thus far. There have been very few delays on any sidings to allow freight trains to pass by. The roadbed is in good shape too which helps, especially when sleeping at night.

Food service has also been good and despite only two servers working the dining car the food has arrived from the kitchen below in a VERY speedy fashion. Last night we had a long and wonderful conversation with a couple from Denver who, as we did, flew to San Francisco with the sole purpose of taking this train all the way to Chicago where the husband grew up.

People aboard are pleasant and seem to be enjoying the trip.
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May 19th, 2018, 04:27 AM
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I love the California Zephyr, as that train introduced me to some American scenic gems. I also love the area in the Sierra Nevada around the Donner Pass and Truckee; I had no idea before going that this part of California was so stunning. Glad things seem to be going well so far!
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May 19th, 2018, 04:27 AM
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An enjoyable write up, thanks! We enjoyed our trip from DEN-SAC last year on the Zephyr, although my wife got motion sickness due to the rocking cadence of the upper deck, where the sleeping cabins are located. We also met some interesting and friendly people in the dining and lounge cars, with a lot of train talk happened. Maybe you'll learn, like I did, how the town of Dotsero, Colorado got its name.

I looked at the Zephyr route map and it seems like the schedule is timed so the trains are in the same section of track during daylight hours, regardless of direction. You are about to enter the most scenic part of the route out west, I think, but also passing places like Cisco, Utah, which is one of the "graveyards of the rusted automobile".

Enjoy! Hopefully you''ll have some superb views in Glenwood and Gore Canyons.
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May 19th, 2018, 04:51 AM
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I'm very interested in your impressions of the trip. We've never traveled this way, but I would want to have a bathroom in my cabin too. The idea of walking down the hall in my nightie in the middle of the night gives me the willies.

Thanks for reporting.
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May 19th, 2018, 05:25 AM
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Originally Posted by emalloy View Post
I would want to have a bathroom in my cabin too. The idea of walking down the hall in my nightie in the middle of the night gives me the willies.
I totally agree. I would want a private toilet and shower for a trip like this.
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May 19th, 2018, 05:27 AM
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Nelson - there is sleeping accommodation "downstairs" on the western trains, but it consists of roomettes, one family bedroom and one accessible bedroom per carriage. On most of the eastern routes the carriages are one level - and the roomettes have toilets.
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