Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Coastal Starlight - Portland to Santa Barbara Part 1

All Aboard.

For our end of the summer trip, my Partner and I are going to visit our Southern California family for a few days. We want to make some sort of adventure out of it.

I am thinking.

She agreed. She is so wonderful.

I booked us a room in First Class on the luxurious Coastal Starlight Express. This train travels in hedonistic luxury from Seattle’s King Street Station to the magnificent Union Station in the city of Los Angles. During the two day trip the premiere west coast track winds through such historic sites as Portland, Klamath Falls, Oakland, and Oxnard. We are joining the train in Portland and riding to Santa Barbara, a 28 hour voyage through classic cultural Americana.

Well, at least that is what the guide books say.

The Portland Union Station Main Lobby. (trains behind us)

Entering Union Station is like a step back into the 40s (the 1940s). Everything is Marble and brass and oiled wood. Designed to impress those visitors coming in from the far flung reaches of the world traveling on the only high speed travel route along the West Coast of the most up and coming nation in the world. There are rows of hard wood benches all around the main lobby. Not really enough seating for the number of people that can get on a train. However, you don't have to arrive 2 hours early and go through security for your flight. Just show up 10 minutes before your scheduled departure time. If the train doesn't run on time, elect a different governor.

There were these funny little rooms with no doors and a little desk.
The sign above them said "Telephones". In the 1950's I guess
They expected people to stand in there with their Cell phones and make calls.

We are traveling in the “sleeping” accommodations but we don’t really know what that entails. We don’t really know how important we actually are.

So….. we waited in line. In the main lobby. With the economy class patrons. Silly us.
Though the nice man we met in line was very kind and explained what train the line was for (ours).

I should post-explain that my partner had been desperate for the last hour for a cup of coffee. She really needed one. And the coffee center in the station had a line that was just too long to wait in. So, in need of Coffee. Not a good start to a vacation.

The conductor looks at our tickets. “oh”, he says, “you are in sleeping class. You can go right past that line and into the First Class waiting lounge. They have coffee and sofas in there.

“No need to wait in line?”

“Oh no. You could have gone in there an hour ago.”

Ah. See, one really needs a way to be able to discern these little important details.

The First Class waiting room is really quite nice. Many couches and chairs and such arranged in intimate little groupings. As soon as we entered the lounge, the attendant tells us, “Oh, you can go right on the train, if you want. They are serving lunch until 3:00."

We grabbed our bags and went out the door. (I sort of interrupted my Partner from scoring coffee in the lounge. Perhaps not my best idea). We walked out across the tracks to our train. Hey, this puppy is BIG. It is like a two story train. That is a lot taller than the commuter we rode to Seattle last year. We have to walk a few cars back to find our car (#31). There is an attendant there that looks at our ticket and takes our bags and directs us to our room. “Upstairs, and then right. Room 6. You should hurry. They are serving lunch until 3:00”.

I figure lunch must be a good thing. Everyone was talking about it. Though we did just have that burrito before we left home.

Still. Up the narrow semi-spiral staircase. Turn right at the top. Down the very narrow corridor and watch the room numbers as we pass.  Two, four, six.
Hey, there we are.
The curtain is closed and I throw it open to admire our domain for the next two days.
OK. In all fairness, Amtrak calls this a two person roomette. Not a room. A roomette.

And I must admit that towelette: towel ratio is about the same as roomette: room ratio.

Our Roomette
A corridor lined with Roomettes

What we have is two reasonable 28" wide reclining chairs. They face each other with a couple of feet space between. You have to negotiate where your legs go so as to not kick each other. Plenty of head room and up there above us is a folded up bunk that may eventually be a bed for someone. Right now it is a place we can tuck some extra stuff. There is a sliding glass door and a rather interesting tiny shelf on one side that you can put even more stuff on (I realized later that this is actually the stair up to the top bunk). There is also a little 5 inch wide closet and a table that comes up between the chairs that you can use for playing cards or (perhaps) in-room dining. We also have a huge window looking out on the train station…. and, soon, the rapidly passing world outside.

Right now, however, I am remembering the attendant's warning that the dining car is still serving lunch until 3:00. Hey, I have never been in a dining car before! How do we get there? The first temptation is to go back down the stairs and down the corridor on the ground level. But this is not how it works. The cars are all connected by one long hallway but it runs along the second floor.  The ground floor (track level?) is reserved for mainly support services, more bathrooms, the kitchen, some additional seating. Closer inspection reveals that you would not be able to have a thru connection at that level because the train trucks (the actual object that the wheels mount to) would block you. So, off toward the rear of the train we go.

The central corridor on the train turns out to be a curvy thing. In the sleeping cars, one half of the car is the roomettes; these are divided on each side of the train and so the corridor runs right down the middle. We boarded in the lengthwise center of the car so we went through half a sleeper before we came to the first car to car connection. There are electric doors at these junctions. You push a button (or kick a button at foot level) to have the door swoosh sideways. Just like Star Trek. Then you are in the connection space and then another door that admits you to the next car. This is another sleeper, but the first half of the sleeper is filled with real bedrooms. Not a Roomette. The Real Room takes up about 2X the space of a roomette and so they are all over on the Port side (left side facing forward) of the car. This means that the corridor takes a left jog and is now going down the Starboard side of the train. At least until the lengthwise middle of the car. Here is another stairwell and now another identical set of Roomettes. At the end of this car (after the airlock) we enter into a new car. This is the Parlor car, which is going to turn out to my Partner's and my favorite place to hang out. It is already the favorite place of other denizens of sleeping cars as the six cushy armchairs in the start of this special observation lounge are already taken. The rest of the parlor car is taken up with a couple of wall couches and then a set of six dining tables (3 on a side) and a little bar. The corridor snakes around the left again and then jogs back through the center air lock and you are in the Dining Car. Lots of tables in there, extending the entire length of the car with just a little serving staging area in the center (as well as stairs down to the kitchen).

We were greeted politely and set down to a table where we were told that on a train, they fill the tables with strangers and everyone is polite and likes to meet each other. We were told this by the gentleman that sat down with us. We had some fizzy water and looked at the menus and that is when I remembered that we had just eaten and I wasn’t hungry. My partner was laughing at me because she knew we weren’t hungry and was wondering why I was so focused on getting to the dining car for lunch. I think she realized that I was just excited. Now, some of you are wondering why I am behaving just like a child. What you should really wonder is why a child would have the incredible foresight to behave just like a highly trained and talented Engineer. Really. Spend a couple of moments wondering that, it will do you a world of good.

I think I will mention our first train personality. This was the gentleman sitting with us at lunch. He was a very tall older gentleman with two prosthetics legs. He said he only travels by train and he saved up his money so he could get a Roomette for himself for when he traveled to LA to visit a friend about once a year.

I later conjectured to my Partner that he had a fear of flying because his legs had been blown off in the war in a plane accident. She told me that it didn’t have to be so dramatic. He is a tall person and it is probably uncomfortable to try and fit into a plane seat. Also going through security would be a hassle with metal legs.  Or maybe he was an Engineer.

We headed back to our rooms to sit down and wait. And then. Quietly. Smoothly. Without any fuss at all. We were moving. WE WERE MOVING.

Wouldn't you love a nice Downtown Portland Condo? One side faces the river, the other faces Union Station

Down The Willamette Valley

Out of the station, and right across the Steel Bridge over the Willamette River. We were gliding along through Portland. And I immediately realized that we were on the Wrong Friggin Side of the Train. We were facing East and a lot of stuff, at least for the first half hour, was passing by to the West. Dang.

We later talked to one of the Railroad attendants about what we should do to get a room with a view to one side or the other the next time we travel. He said it was a crap shoot. “These cars are bi-directional. They could hook them up either way. We don’t know from one trip to the next which direction the cars are going to be facing when they build the train”.

Hmmm. I am a little suspicious about this. All of the sleeping cars had the same alignment on this trip…. Perhaps it is an all or nothing sort of thing. And And…. the parlor car had a definite alignment preference (I think) and the economy passenger car DEFINITELY had a direction preference (all of the seats faced the front). How can I verify? Perhaps the internets will know. (update: Internets agree with attendant)

But leave that aside for the nonce. We are moving and there is cool stuff going on. And I can sort of see some stuff out the right side by looking out through the corridor and through the window of the Roomette across the way. We roll through Oregon City. We are right up against the cliffs on the East bank of the river and you can see the industrial mess that is there pretty good. Oregon City is where the Willamette Falls are. A pretty hefty river fall. This is a big industrial zone because back in the early 1900’s the river power was adapted for electricity and to power a paper pulp mill and the like. Now it is a famous Super Fund Site; Willamette Falls Dam Sullivan Power Plant.

The view from the Parlor Car

Soon after we pull out of the rocky part of the Willamette river valley and enter into the big flat expanse of agricultural land. The train line was built before the highways (or the Interstates) and so little towns that had sprung up along the valley 200 years ago were originally centered around the train lines. It's cool to pull through the little towns (we are sort of an express, so we are not stopping) and see the quaint old train stations, and perhaps a cool old street with some big old houses. But that is a rare view of the past. The reality of today is that living close to the railroad is not a desirable location. The rails depress the value of the land (at least for human occupation) and most of the sights along the larger towns end up being ramshackle affairs or old industrial use buildings and sidings. Lots of trash. Lots of old buildings and vehicles. More on that when we get to California.

It ain't all pretty views

Right now it is time for our first stop. In Oregon, well at least in the Willamette valley, the Coastal Starlight only stops in the big cities. So Portland, Salem, Eugene (one of those is the Capitol!!). A stop is not a big deal. The train slows to a stop, you can just barely feel it, it is so smooth. If it is a scheduled “stretch your legs and smoke” stop, you sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Otherwise, they get going as soon as the people at the station have boarded. Then the train starts going again and once more you pretty much feel nothing.

Thinking Things

Rolling through the backlands of the Willamette Valley again. After Eugene, we turn east and start our climb up through the Cascade Mountains. This is the same pass that takes you past Waldo Lake, the clearest lake in Oregon, and also a long stretch of damned lakes which are the headwaters of the Willamette river. We are passing through slightly more rugged country now and are slowing down as we begin to make our ascent. Time for a little train physics. A while ago I heard an article on NPR about modern trains and the Intermodal Freight System. This is those big cargo containers that can fit on a ship, a truck, or a train (many modes of travel, thus Intermodal). The rep from the railroad said that with their low cost of moving freight, they can beat out trucks on cost for anything but a very short haul (inside a city). Now, the secret to a train being able to haul a lot of cargo cheap is the efficiency of using rails. And the efficiency of using rails is the really low friction between the steal wheels and the steal rails. However, this same low coefficient of friction greatly limits the steepness (grade) of incline that a standard train can climb. Two much grade and your drive wheels spin. This means that when the rails wind up through the passes, they often cannot follow the tracks that the roads follow. They go different, more windy ways. They can also follow a more narrow ledge and are free to make greater use of little tressel bridges and short tunnels. That is one of the things I like about riding the train. You go places cars don’t go and see things that cars don’t see. I mean. If cars could see. Which they can’t. Yet.

So what sort of things are we seeing? We are passing through the mountains away from the developed roads. There is usually something of a dirt road running along the track (I assume for track maintenance) and there are quite a few homes with acreage. And as we pass through the mountains there are many little water falls, right there by the track, since the track is right there hugging the steep mountain side.

I also saw a lot of vegetation. Two kinds of vegetation were very prevalent and I would like to mention them. They were Scotch Broom and Himalayan Blackberry. Both of these plants are exotic invasives of slightly different ilk. The Scotch Broom is native to… Scotland !! You know what they call it there? Broom. I used to listen to an NPR music broadcast with Celtic music called “Thistle and Shamrock” and one time that they had a song called “When the Gold is on The Broom”. It is a love song about the spring, because one of the signs of spring in the highlands is the beautiful yellow flowers that grow on the Broom at that time of year. Well, Scotch Broom likes to get into anyplace where there is a lot of sun. It pushes out other plants and isn’t very well liked by the plant eating denizens around here. So you find it everywhere there is strip lumbering (what is that really called?) and highways and train tracks. Himalayan Blackberry is a whole different story. Where Broom might be considered an invasive, blackberry is a down right invasion. The pesky plant is sort of designed to come in and take over. It grows very fast. It has very strong, hard to cut canes. It has nasty thorns. And it makes these perfectly delicious berries. Everything loves those berries. And the plant is designed to be mainly accessible to small birds. So the birds eat the berries with the seeds, fly away, and poop. Bingo, a little seed in that poop has a little fertilizer and a place to grow. And the stuff will grow just anywhere there is a little sun. Along the rails it is growing everywhere. It its really hard to get rid of. And people work to get rid of it. People pay money to get rid of it. It eats your back yard when you aren’t looking. It brings down property values. No matter how tasty those berries are, the stuff is polluting the landscape.

Eternal Vigilance is the cost of Train Riding

So I got to thinking (hey, it was a long train ride, conducive to thinking). Wouldn’t something like this Blackberry make a dandy Organic Weapon? You find something that grows quickly and has arguable value. You put it in a city that is your competitor. It grows up and takes over things and starts to make trouble and it lowers the value of the land by 10% and costs millions of dollars a year to clean up. Millions of Dollars that you spend making your city more pretty. Of course, later in the book you invent a plant where the berries turn toxic after 10 years and it kills everyone in your enemy city, but that is for the novel.

And someplace along the track, usually right where there is a steep rocky wall that the railroad guys have blasted to make a place wide enough for the rails, there is this high electric fence. How strange. There is one like this on the line out by Multnomah Falls and I could never figure out what it is for. Out at Multnomah, I thought it may be to keep people off of the tracks. It is around 20 feet high with these parallel-to-ground wires running each about 8 inches apart from each other. At the fence posts (every, say, 30 feet) there are big obvious insulators holding the wires to the posts. So, clearly an electrified fence. But what are they keeping out? People that can jump 20 feet high? Deer? Hell, if a deer jumped into that wire from the cliff side it would be turned into little slices of deer meat, all over the track. But what else can it be?

(Jon Inserts a Great Picture here that he took in the future out near Multnomah Falls. But not today. Perhaps check back later)

Well, the internet knows.
I was thinking to aggressive.
This isn’t a Barrier Fence.
It is a Sensor Fence.

In particular, it is a rock slide sensor. If rock falls off that rock wall, it will break a wire. The break in the electric circuit is sensed and it lights up a light on the track that the Engineer can see and stop the train. An early warning system. How cool is that? They are set up such that you need the power turned on and running to make the signal not show. So any break or malfunction or power failure will activate the signal. Electrical Engineering. Did I mention that I have a degree?

Dinner and Dancing

On and On we travel. It is starting to get late. And it is Dinner Time !!
We signed up for Dinner in the Parlor Car. Just because we could. Because we are Sleeper Car Passengers.

I like the Parlor Car. If you sit in the bench tables near the bar, facing the front of the train, you have a wonder full out the sweeping windows on both sides and the skylights on the top of both sides. Very nice. The Parlor attendant brings your pre-prepared food for you (you order earlier when the conductor comes by and you are making your reservations). My partner and I are having the Lamb Shank. She also had a frufru no-alcohol drink and I had a beer. What a great experience. The scenery was lovely, the food was great, the parlor car was pretty quiet during these dinner times (the attendant only serves a few couples at a time and has it spaced out, so not crowded).

A meal in the Parlor Car

We were the last sitting that night, so we just stayed at the table for a while and watched the land role by. We had gotten through the pass and were now chugging through the lodge pole pine of the high desert. We should be in Klamath Falls in a couple of hours.

It is getting dark. Pretty soon it will be too dark to see anything outside. We decide to go back to our Roomette and enjoy our view in private. I have to admit that there are times when you want to get away from all of the noise and through-way traffic of the train cars. Everyone that wants to go someplace has to pass you, but the halls are single wide, like an airplane isle. So you duck into corners and wait for each other to pass. There is a lot of bustle. But if you retire to your Roomette you can sit (pretty) quietly with your door closed and your shades to the corridor pulled and just enjoy the sights of the landscape slipping past you. (Editor's note): It should be noted that only one person can really enjoy the view out the window in your Rommette.  One person is riding backwards, and looking out the window is sure to make you feel queasy.  In the dining car, they have trouble finding people to ride facing backwards, all the seats fill first facing front, for the same reason.

Eventually it gets so dark outside that all you see in the window is your own reflection looking back at you. Man, I thought I would be awake when we went through Klamath Falls or would get to see some of the Red Woods in Northern California when we passed through there. But it is going to be dead dark and in the wee hours of the morning when those sites roll by. What a bummer. I checked the routing, coming North you also pass through the middle of the trip at the same middle of the night. That must be math. My partner and I are tired, so we asked the Sleeping Car Attendant to make our bed for us. It is a pretty easy operation. The two chairs collapse down into a bed and then there is a bed topper with sheets already waiting folded up in the top bunk. He just pulls that down and spreads it over the lower bunk. The top bunk is pre-made. So everything is ready to go in like 45 seconds. We sit back down on the bottom bed. At this point there isn’t any place to be except in bed. Very little space between the bed and the door and the upper bunk being down limits your head room in the lower berth. My partner asked me what my thoughts are for sleeping arrangements. I smiled and told her that I figured that since the train trip was my idea, the top bunk was my place to be. So we changed into our jammies and I climbed up on that funny piece of furniture that is really a step up to the bunk. The top bunk is pretty small. Not very wide (24" to be exact). Not much head room. You sort of roll into it and then fasten the safety netting to the ceiling to hold you in (I kid you not). You don’t have any window view up there, but you do have a little night light and a little reading light. and a little netting where you can put stuff. Like perhaps a sock or a piece of paper. We are not reading tonight. At least I am not. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

Lower Bunk
Upper Bunk. And yes, these flannels drive the women folk mad

I am am pretty good sleeper. If I don’t have anything terrible weighing on my mind (like a engineering problem I can’t solve) I can usually just reach for my dream place and tumble quickly off. But it wasn’t that easy on the train. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that we seemed to be in a rough part of the track and we were swaying and creaking and jostling a lot. Or the picture in my head of a half mile of train cars piled up on each other when they derailed. Or perhaps it was just that I had my feet pointed at the front of the train and my head jammed up in the ceiling that made this sensation. Any rate I just could not drop off. Then we stopped someplace. We were probably waiting for north bound traffic to pass. During that lull, I fell asleep.

(The rest of this Trip in Part 2. Right  now, I am too tired)

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