Amtrak Coast Starlight Travelogue
To The NARP Regional Meeting
In Jack London Square, Oakland, California
March 1 – 3, 2002
by Steve Grande of TrainWeb
Here we are in L.A. Union Station waiting to start another journey on the Amtrak Coast Starlight! This journey will take us round trip to Jack London Square in Oakland, California, for the NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers) Regional meeting that will be held tomorrrow.
We try to attend all the rail advocacy meetings in California: NARP, RailPAC, and TRAC. Because Amtrak is closer now to collapse than it has ever been in its history, I feel it is more essential now than ever to attend these meetings to show support for passenger rail and to be as informed as possible about the latest developments on the situation.
I left my house at about 7:20 A.M. and picked up Shivam along the way at 7:40 A.M. We reached the TrainWeb office at the Fullerton Station at 7:50 A.M. Ray had already been in the office for a few hours before we arrived. We picked up a few things that we needed from the office and headed down to my car at 8:00 A.M.
Ray Burns, Shivam Surve and I drove to Los Angeles Union Station in my car. I usually drive to L.A. when I take the Coast Starlight because of the problem connection in L.A. on the way back. The southbound Coast Starlight often arives into L.A. early or very late. Either way, it results in more than an hour wait in L.A. before the connecting train or bus departs. With my car in L.A., we can all be home in bed by the time the other passengers making that connection depart L.A.!
I like to leave Fullerton by 8 A.M. to make the 10 A.M. Coast Starlight just in case there is a traffic jam or other problems on our drive to L.A. There weren’t any traffic problems this morning, so we made it into the L.A. Union Station before 8:40 A.M.!
Within 15 minutes of arriving into L.A., the Conductor started checking passengers in. The Conductor just takes the main part of the ticket, leaving you with the ticket stub, and then issues you a boarding pass that indicates your train, car and room number, and the number of passengers in your party. The Conductor also collected the Alaska Airline Mileage Forms that I had filled out for the three of us.
I’ve made some interesting obserations about the Alaska Airline Mileage Program and the way that it works with the Amtrak West trains.. The instructions state that each passenger must join the program and submit their miles independently. Each of the 3 of us has joined the program and we are submitting our miles independently. Travel in the sleeping car earns 2000 miles. Once when I mailed in my mileage, Alaska Airlines only gave one of us the 2000 mile credit for the sleeping car and gave the other one just the 500 miles for coach. There are no instructions on the mileage claim form that say that only one person in each room is supposed to claim the 2000 miles for the room. Thus, I filled out the forms in the only way indicated, which is to put us each down for traveling in the sleeping accommodations. I’ll have to see if we each get credit for 2000 miles each way. I suspect that we will since I turned the forms into the Conductor with our tickets. Unlike when mailing the forms in, it might not even be obvious that all three of us are in the same room. However, I don’t think I’m doing anything against the rules of the program in the way that I’m filling out the mileage claim forms. But, please don’t go quoting me if you don’t get 2000 miles for everyone in your party when you travel. I don’t know which way they are supposed to credit the mileage. My only observation is that I don’t see anything in the rules that says to claim anything other than 2000 miles if you are traveling in a Sleeping Car Room. It doesn’t say anything about only one person per Sleeping Car Room claiming the 2000 miles or what the other people in the same room are supposed to claim on their forms.
Boarding onto the train didn’t start until 9:45 a..m. When we got to Track #10, an Amtrak employee had all the coach passengers line up against one wall of the tunnel and the sleeping car passengers against the other. I’ve never seen this procedure before. The train wasn’t at the platform yet. Usually when the train isn’t at the platform, they either hold the passengers in the station or let them proceed up to the platform. These new procedues might be related to the enhanced security at the station.
After waiting in the cold tunnel under the tracks for nearly 15 minutes, we heard the Amtrak Coast Starlight pull in above us. Within a few more minutes, we were allowed to proceed up the ramp and board the train. We dropped off our bags in our room in the sleeping car and then went directly to the Pacific Parlour Car. Many of the large swivel seats were still empty, so we made ourselves comfortable in the three nearest the end of the car.
The Pacific Parlour Car Attendant was Nannett, the same Attendant for two of my most recent trips on the Coast Starlight. Nannett makes a great Bloody Mary and is known for the trivia contests that she has during the wine tasting event. The conductor from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo was Gil Stuart. He recognized us and is familiar with the TrainWeb.com website. He paused for a few minutes to say hello and talk with us in the Parlour Car.
This train was scheduled to have three Sleeping Cars, but that was reduced to two due to the light number of passengers traveling during this off season. Passengers that had been booked into the 1432 car were automatically rebooked into rooms in the 1430 and 1431 cars. But, these people did not find out about their change of room assignments until they boarded the train.
Our Sleeping Car Attendant was Ron Harris, who has been my Sleeping Car Attendant on a number of previous travels. Ron is a very friendly and helpful Car Attendant.
I’m using a new method of writing my travelogue on this trip. Usually, I type my travelogue directly into my notebook PC during the trip. That can be a bit awkward at times. It means that I have to either stay in my room, or I have to lug it between my room and the Parlour Car. Once I have it in the Parlour Car, there is the problem of what to do with it if I want to step off the train for a few minutes at a station stop, or if I go to the Dining Car at meal time. At those times, I have to either have someone keep an eye on it for me, or I have to once again lug it to my room.
This time I am using a Sharp OZ-730 Pocket Organizer. It is small enough to fit in my pocket, but large enough to have a full keyboard that will fit my fingers in normal touch typing positions. It also has an 8 line LCD screen that is fairly wide. With 1.5MB of memory, it should be able to hold any length of travelogue that I would want to write! This unit is so small and convenient that I can just take it with me everywhere! It runs on two AA batteries and I keep two spares in my pocket just in case. The unit costs less that $80.
We arrived into Jack London Square in Oakland a bit more than an hour behind schedule. This station is one of the most convenient to hotels in California, especialy to the Jack London Inn. The Jack London Inn is less than four blocks straight down the station platform.
We wanted rooms on the fourth floor in the front overlooking the tracks. Unfortunately, those were all booked up. We had to settle for one room on the third floor in the front and one room on the fourth floor in the back. From the third floor room, we could see the top of the trains as they went by. You can get a much better view of the trains from the fourth floor rooms that are in the front.
The Jack London Inn has been greatly upgraded since the first time that I stayed there in the mid-1990s. I wouldn’t say it is a 5 star hotel, but it is a decent hotel and its proximity to the tracks provide a perk that few train fans can turn down. The price is right, too, at just $85 per night.
New owners took over the hotel just two weeks ago and they plan for further upgrades to the hotel.
There aren’t any notes posted here from the NARP meeting itself. However, there was a document passed out at the meeting that may come close to summarizing the attitude that most rail advocates see as the only reasonable direction that passenger rail in America should take. That document was written by Eugene K. Skoropowski, Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, and was entitled: America’s Best Hope for a Modern Nationwide Passenger Rail System Rests with Congress. You can click here to read it now.
The rail meeting ended at 3 p.m. and we headed back to the hotel for a short rest. At about 3:45 p.m., we headed over to the ferry dock to take the 4:15 p.m. ferry over to San Francisco. The ferry dock is right at the end of Jack London Square and about a five minute walk from our hotel.
The ferry ride only cost us $5 each and took less than an hour to get us over to Pier 39 in San Francisco. Pier 39 is a well-known tourist attraction in San Francisco. We spent the next hour or so walking around Pier 39 looking at all the shops and attractions. Our favorite attraction was the Wayland Gallery where they had a number of his paintings and sculptures on exhibit. Wayland is the artist that paints whale scenes on the sides of buildings around the world.
There are a lot of fine restaurants on Pier 39, but we had already decided where we were going to have lunch. We were going to the Maharani Indian Restaurant, regarded by some reviewers as the best Indian Restaurant in San Francisco! The Maharani Restaurant is near the Civic Center. There is always a long line of cabs at Pier 39, so it wasn’ any problem getting a taxi.
The Indian Food was excellent at the Maharani Restaurant! At over $75, the cost of the meal was a bit more than I am used to paying for our buffet lunches, and that was without purchasing any wine. But we are spoiled by the price of our buffet lunches at only $5.50 to $6.95 per person that we usually eat every day.
I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but the four of us in the TrainWeb office only eat vegetarian Indian food for lunch. I’ve been trying to eat healthier for more than a year now, and we’ve all been even more dedicated to healthy eating ever since Ray was diagnosed with a heart problem and had to undergo an angioplasty operation. Eating vegetarian might sound pretty bland to most of you, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. There are many Indian, Mexican, Italian and Chinese dishes that can be prepared in a manner that is vegetarian, healthy and spicy. Unfortunately, there are very few restaurants in our area that prepare their food this way except for Indian Restaurants.
Only two of the Indian Restaurants that we frequent are pure vegetarian, but all of the Indian Restaurants have so many vegetarian items that we still have plenty to select from while we are avoiding all the meat items. By avoiding meats, we can’t help but get a lot of vegetables and grains into our diet. With the exotic spices used in Indian Restaurants, every meal is a treat and something to look forward to!
We especially like the luncheon buffets that are featured at most Indian restaurants. It gives us a chance to try a little of everything. We can always go back for more of the items that we do like and avoid the items that we don’t like. However, I have to admit, there has been very little that we have tried that we don’t like! The price is certainly right, too. Most Indian Buffets are $5.95 per person. Some run a little less at $5.50 and occassionally we’ll find one that is $6.95 per person. Since we just drink water with our lunch, the total tab for the three of us, including tip, comes to just a bit more than $20 each day! Eating healthy does not have to mean eating expensively.
So, that is why we wanted to try the #1 rated Indian Restaurant in San Francisco. We certainly were not disappointed with our dinner that evening.
After finishing our dinner, we headed out the door and walked down Van Ness on our way to the nearest BART station. It was about a 10 block walk to Market Street. My map showed that there should be a Van Ness BART station right there, but all we could find was a MUNI station. We asked someone, and they told us there was a station a few more blocks down Market Street at the crossing with 9th. We did find that station, which was the Civic Center station.
We jumped on the first train bound for the East Bay, but it was the wrong train. But, no harm done. As long as we got off at the West Oakland Station, before the tracks split up, we would have lost no time. So, that is what we did. At West Oakland, we switched to another train which we took for just one stop up to Downtown Oakland / 12th Street.
Unfortunately, I did not remember my directions from Downtown Oakland to Jack London Square correctly. Especially bad, was that I had no doubt about these wrong directions in my mind. So, instead of leading everyone up Broadway to Jack London Square, I lead everyone along 12th Street! After walking about 11 blocks and not running into Jack London Square, I knew something was terribly wrong!
Actually, we ended up right by Lake Merritt. There is another BART stop in that area that is about as far from Jack London Square as the Downtown Oakland / 12th Street Station. But, we were lost, didn’t have a map with us, and had no idea how to get from there back to the square. So, we called for a cab and rode back to the hotel. It wasn’t too far as the fare was only about $5, but we had enough walking for one night. After getting back to my room, where I had left the map of Oakland, I realized my mistake. I have walked between the BART station in Downtown Oakland and Jack London Station a few times, but I just forgot that the connecting street was Broadway and not 12th Street.
It was almost 10 P.M. by the time we got back to our hotel room. We had a train to catch in the morning, so we put in a request for a wake-up call and went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning, I called the 1-800-USA-RAIL Amtrak number to find out the status of the train. They said the train was only running 3 minutes late and would arrive into the Oakland / Jack London Square Station at 8:33 a.m. We checked out of the hotel at 8:00 a.m. and made it down to the station before 8:15 a.m. Unfortunately, 8:33 a.m. came and went without any sign of the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight. While waiting for our train, we saw a northbound Amtrak Capitol and a southbound Amtrak San Joaquin come and go. The southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight didn’t pull into the station until about 10 a.m.! Since it was running right on time until 8:00 a.m., I can only imagine that it pulled into the Oakland Amtrak Yard for some work.
“Mo” was our Sleeping Car Attendant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her on the Amtrak Coast Starlight before. She took our tickets and Alaska Airline Mileage Claim Forms. Being busy with baggage and passengers, she didn’t have much time to talk to us at the door, but told us that she would be by our room to visit a few minutes after the train departed Oakland. Unfortnately, because the train was running so late, the Dining Car had already stopped serving breakfast. We put our luggage in our room and headed up to the Pacific Parlour Car anyway.
“Mo” chased us down until she found where we were sitting. She realized that we were veteran Amtrak travelers since we obviously knew the layout and routine of the train, but she insisted on giving us the lay of the land anyway, which was great!
Ray and Shivam had some of the pastries and muffins that are served every morning in the Pacific Parlour Car. I ordered a Bloody Mary, a treat that I look forward to whenever traveling on this train.
The Chef has a new job on this train! He is a substitute Pacific Parlour Car Attendant! The Chef came to the Parlour Car and brought with him a couple of passengers from the coach car. They didn’t speak English, but the chef did speak their language and was explaining to them all about the Parlour Car and the Sleeping Car accommodations.
Some of the passengers started to come up to the bar for service. The must have thought the chef was an attendant for the Parlour Car even though he was standing on the wrong side of the bar. Since we was wearing a white smock, he certainly did appear to be part of the service staff on the train (which I guess he really is.) One person asked for coffee. He said he would check to see if there is any, and he did find some in the coffee pot behind the bar. The next person asked for a Pepsi, and he said he would try to find one, which he did. Usually, the chefs on the train just stay down in the galley and never interact with passengers. Between meal service they take their breaks in the Transition Sleeping Car, which is the crew dorm car on the train.
It is currently 5:00 P.M. and the train is running about 3 hours late. The Conductor just announced that they are going to take everyone off the train in San Luis Obispo who is connecting to Train #2, the Sunset Limited, and Train #22, the Texas Eagle. Amtrak is going to bus those people from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. Between those two stops, the bus can easily beat the train by a couple of hours. The highway goes almost straight from one city to the other whereas the railroad tracks hug the coast providing a very scenic, but a very long route, between those cities.
The Conductor also said that he believes that dinner will be served on the bus. I’m very glad that I’m not being transferred onto the bus! If you are heading south on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and planning to transfer to the Sunset Limited or Texas Eagle, it might be a good idea to get a dinner reservation for an early seating. It may improve your odds of getting dinner on the train rather than on the bus. Personally, I’d play it the safe way if I was making that transfer and just spend the night in Los Angeles. There is a hotel right across the street from the Los Angeles Union Station.
We finally arrived into Los Angeles at 10:50 P.M., almost two hours late. Amtrak already allowed the 10:10 P.M. southbound Amtrak Surfliner to depart, so everyone continuing south from the Amtrak Coast Starlight had to transfer to buses provided by Amtrak. Once again, we were very thankful that we drove to Los Angeles. Since all the passengers and checked baggage has to be transferred from the train to the buses, the buses usually don’t depart from Los Angeles until almost an hour after the train arrives. Thus, by taking the bus, we probably would not have arrived at home until close to 1 A.M. By driving home from the station, we were home and in bed before midnight. The passengers that transferred to the bus would be lucky if the bus departed from Los Angeles by that time.
The only real downside to this trip was that we left one of our digital cameras on the train. Although I have never had anything stolen from me on the train, I’ve experienced a very poor recovery rate of anything that I have accidentally left on the train. Fortunately, I rarely forget anything on the train. But over six years and more than 170,000 miles of rail travel, there are a couple of instances that stand out. One is where I purchased an Amtrak Silver Service umbrella in Florida and carried it all the way back to California. I left that on the train when I got off and it never showed up in Amtrak’s lost and found department. Same thing with this digital camera. Things that are left on the train after the train reaches its final destination, have little chance of being turned in if they are of any value. At least, that has been my experience. That is especially a shame since there aren’t any passengers on the train after it reaches its final destination. I doubt the onboard crew is at fault. They are usually quite responsible at trying to get things back to passengers that they have lost onboard or left behind. I have to assume the theft is taking place by some of the employees that come onboard once the car is moved to the service yard. There is no reason why articles left behind don’t show up in Amtrak’s lost and found department. But, my understanding is that there is an even worse problem of theft on airlines. I’ve never heard of anything ever being stolen out of Amtrak checked baggage, but that does happen at times to airline checked baggage. At least on the train, it is a lot easier to carry a valuable item onboard with you and not be forced to check it. We’ve had that camera since about 1997. At least we got our money’s worth out of it with the thousands of photos that we’ve taken over the last 5 years.