When last we left my brother Tim in this space, a few years ago he and I had just completed a transcontinental train trip from Seattle to Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Hollywood, Florida, spanning five days and nights with one overnight in Chicago. Both of us thought that would mark the end of our train travel, likely for the rest of our lives. Recently, Tim’s medical condition worsened and someone our diversionary conversation switched to trains which we wished we had ridden but had not. I should have known better.
As I write this the two brothers are back on the rails again, having left Los Angeles at 1115am this morning [Thursday] bound for Seattle and hoping beyond hope to arrive there sometime tomorrow night, in time for a good night’s sleep before flying back home on Saturday.
Tim is not feeling at all well this afternoon, but he is so excited by the train trip that it is hard to get him to concentrate on how poorly he is feeling. He had a CAT scan on Tuesday prior to flying to Los Angeles yesterday and thinks the injection may have something to do with his general condition. I am worried as I pen these lines and thinking of alternatives. But I probably should be more worried about a “sick” locomotive.
Back to the train trip, however. We are aboard AMTRAK’s train number 14 which is called the “Coast Starlight”. it is a 1377 mile trip from LA to Sleeplessville and if everything works like it should, it will take thirty-four hours. But this is AMTRAK and not everything is working like it should, or maybe I should say it is working exactly like it does (not should). After flying into LA and meeting at the airport yesterday, we overnighted near Union Station in LA to position ourselves well for our 1010am departure this morning.
LA’s Union Station is now one of the nation’s treasures. After years of desuetude, this monument to the days of the great transcontinental trains like the Santa Fe’s Super Chief, El Capitan and Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles has come back to life with trains departing at all hours of the day and evening to San Diego, Santa Barbara, myriad LA suburbs and a few AMTRAK name trains to the Bay Area and Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans. This morning it was full of life and has been magnificently restored. It even has its own Starbucks for heaven’s sake.
Arriving at 900am for our 1010am departure,we found the special lounge for sleeping car passengers totally full. Tim and I were the youngest people in the assembly by far at 73 and 71. If you are old and want to feel young, just ride an AMTRAK sleeping car!
Anyway, 1010am arrived and there was no train in the station. “We’re having a mechanical issue in the yard and the train has not been cleared yet to back into the station” we were told nicely. At 1035am, good news. “The train has been released and is backing into the station and so please leave for platform 10 and have a nice trip” A delightful Redcap took our luggage, piled us into a golf cart and away we drove to the platform just as the train was arriving. We left LA one hour and five minutes late without moving a wheel – an augur of things to come I suspect.
The very first stop on the journey was twenty minutes outside of Union Station at “Bob Hope Amtrak Station, Burbank where we sat and sat and sat. Eventually the lady conductor came on the PA to announce they hd to summon the police to remove a recalcitrant passenger who was a stow-away without a ticket but still refused to leave the train on his own power. Turns out a night in the Burbank jail might have been better than a night on the Coast Starlight. We are now 95 minutes late and only twenty miles from where we started.
We have two rooms this time because between us we weigh 445 pounds and can generate enough heat in a small space to be comfortable in Fairbanks in the dead of winter. Also, I need to make sure, that one room was on each side of the train because this is the second most scenic train trip in the US (AMTRAK’S “California Zephyr” between the Bay Area and Denver is, in my opinion the most beautiful).
Ninety minutes after leaving Union Station travelling north, the train hugs the Pacific Coast for about 145 miles, and I do mean “hugs”. There are moments when you can see the fish in the crystal clear water and when not looking at fish, today we saw one in ten Californians enjoying a magnificent beach day.
At Gaviota, California, our lead locomotive died. Kerplopp!! Would not start, would not work, would not run the air conditioning system or electrical system. Another forty minute delay but it was decided that we could at least get to San Luis Obispo with the one good engine. Now two and one half hours late and 90 miles from where we started.
The most beautiful part is between Mission Santa Barbara and Mission San Luis Obispo, two of Father Junipero Serra’s magnificent California mission churches. The rails are right along the seaside and the beach is sometimes less than thirty feet away. Tim is excited and has his HD videocam and his new Canon Sureshot working hard. Someone is going to have to sit through a long showing of ocean pictures taken from a moving train when we get home.
Lunch was in the Dining Car at noon. There are a lot of people on this train and it is one of AMTRAK’s most profitable long-distance routes. Some will get off tonight when we arrive in Oakland and others will take their place because we are full all the way – four sleeping cars, four coaches, a diner, a lounge and something unique to this train called therr “Pacific Parlor Car” about which I will write tomorrow. Each sleeping car has 43 individual beds and each coach holds 60 people so this journey will find a possible 420 people on board during these very popular summer months.
Outside of San Luis Obispo we pass the southbound Coast Starlight also running two hours and a half late. It seems they ran out of green beans and asked if we would stop and lend them some from our larder (I am not kidding – it was akin to passing Grey Poupon from one train to another.
We leave San Luis Obispo two hours and forty minutes late but we borrow a freight engine from the Union Pacific Railroad to help us climb a steep grade leaving town. It worked, we got to the summit of the spectacular climb, said good-bye to the borrowed engine and proceeded about one half mile when the only good AMTRAK engine we had left konked out. Kerploop. Two additional hours of hard work by the engineer and conductor got it fixed but now we were six hours late and we had only just begun.
Off we finally rush to Paso Robles, our next stop, which we should have arrived at 437pm but it was now 1037pm when we pulled in. I counted eight stalwart citizens on the platform but then we are told that there has been a medical emergency on board and an ambulance needed to be called. Lost another thirty minutes. That was enough for Tim and I and we went to bed with almost a full moon illuminating the Salinas Valley, breadbasket of California and home to John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN and Cesar Chavez.
The Lynches looked at day one and said “it was good!”