Thursday, October 13, 2016

Coastal Starlight: Part 2

This is a continuation of a 2 day train trip from Portland to Santa Barbara. As we left off, our heroes were daring the challenges of on train sleeping in the Amtrak Roomette...

Sometime around 5:00 am I was up to use the bathroom and my lovely partner volunteered to switch beds with me for the rest of the night. The bottom bunk is MUCH more comfortable (4" wider). But I realized that top or bottom, what I really needed to be more comfortable was a second and larger pillow. So put that on your list of things to bring on the train. Or Perhaps…. if we had asked, the attendant could have scared up a couple more of those puppies.

Now here is something to think about. We were cruising through the country side all night. The middle part of the trip, essentially from the time you hit the Oregon High Desert until you coast into Sacramento, is one long downhill run. It takes like 8 hours. During that time you stop at around four towns and you decrease in altitude by 5000 feet. One of the results of being asleep during such a slow descent is that when you wake up you have a killer case of over pressure in your inner ears and you really need to pop your ears. Both my partner and I had a problem with that for the first half hour after waking up. I guess you should wake up every hour or so and yawn.

We got up pretty early and went hunting for coffee. We had been worried about that, but it turns out there is an urn of the stuff at the center of every sleeping car and more in the parlor and dining cars. We were going to eat breakfast in the dining car this morning, but first we wanted some coffee and a shower.

Yes, I said shower.

Time to explain the accommodations on the Coastal Starlight.
As far as I can tell, all of the sleeping cars in American are operated by Amtrak and all of them are the same design (as I have described in my previous post here). In addition to the half Roomettes/half Suites layout of the car there is also one bathroom on the half with the Roomettes. The on-train bathroom is only slightly larger than the ones on an airplane. They were nice and clean and pleasant in Portland, but by the time we hit Oakland they were getting a bit ripe. Downstairs from our rooms is the entry doors, the luggage racks, and a few more special rooms. By special I mean a handicap access room and a ‘family’ room. The family room has 4 cots in it, 2 of which can only fit very small people. It is set at the end of the hall and so has a window on both sides of the train.  Also on the bottom floor are 3 additional bathrooms and a shower. My partner and I took advantage of the shower since it was unoccupied. It was actually pretty decent. Big enough for 2 (if you like each other) and had plenty of hot water (though it was sort of hard to figure out how to get it to work). Sort of tight for changing clothes in the adjoining changing space. A funny part was the drain below us was just a hole in the bottom of the train. You could see the ground going past below us. Clickety Clack Clikety Clack the wheels are rolling on the railroad track. Where you go you can’t go back. Where you go you can’t go back.

The Dining Car. I like to face forward
Napkins! Such Glamour!

We couldn't go back, but we could have breakfast. We went to the dining car when they called the time for our sitting. We had a table to ourselves (because the waitress heard me worry about being woosy with facing backward and moved us. She doesn’t want woosy). The meals on the train are covered by the Sleeping car fee. We had a perfectly decent set of pancakes and scrambled eggs. And more coffee.

Since we were back in that part of the train we decided to go all the way to the back and see what else was there. Lets see if I can still remember. I think that actual disposition of the cars changes with the demand for travel. We had two engines and they certainly could have pulled more cars than we had going this trip (which I know because they are going to add a couple later in this blog (I read ahead)). So right after the  dining car was the Business Class car. Big seats that leaned way back and had nice foot rests that came up. Lots of room all around. Actually looked like it might be a more comfy sleep that the top bunk of a roomette. People in this car have assigned seats and get to use the Parlor Car. The next car was the observation car. This is the car with wrap around windows for the economy passengers. There were a bunch of swivel chairs and couches and big windows and it was very full of people. Down stairs on that car was a little snack bar and a couple of tables to eat your snacks.  After that was an economy car. Seats a little smaller than Business Class, but still HUGE Compared to an airline seat. HUGE even compared to a first class airline seat. Downstairs were smaller rooms with more seats (and the bathrooms). There were 2 economy cars and then, the end of the train. No Caboose. What a rip off. (on doing more research on cars, I find that there is only one kind of "coach" car. So the Business Class and the Economy class cars must be identical. My perception that one was bigger is evidently wrong. you heard it here first)

The Comfy Chairs are the way to go

We went back up to the Parlor car and scored a couple of the big plush captains chairs where we could look out the window and enjoy the trip. We were just hitting the Sacramento Delta area.

The rail now winds its way out of what remains of the highlands and so across the rivers and deltas that make up the north east end of the San Francisco Bay. The track here is all built up over the surrounding lowlands, which I am sure get damp if California ever has any rain. We hit the bay and turned South and ran along the shore for a while. We were approaching the Oakland station. My partner and I have still have our seats in the big comfy chairs. We have an excellent view of the creations of man that are stacked up along the right of way outside of our luxury-on-wheels. It is sort of like riding a luxury cruise ship through a ghetto. I am ambivalent about that. I am ambivalent about even using the word "Ghetto".


Because the train curves around a lot, it creates irregular shapes as it cuts through the surrounding property. These irregular shapes form together and leave a lot of unused thin triangles and random deadends. Places too small and hard to access to use efficiently to stack stuff. That is where the homeless live. They can wheel in with their shopping carts filled with blue tarps and old tents and colorful kids umbrellas and build their own little world. The pictures show a few of the typical installations that we saw as we rolled through. These encampments seem to be in competition with the staggering amount of urban graffiti art that covers every horizontal surface over 4 feet high. The Graffiti was very interesting. Much of it was just the standard boring balloon letter tribal territory marking, but a lot of other work seemed to be humorous, political, or perhaps product placement.  Quite a few of the signs were very artistic. And why is art sitting out there facing the railroad tracks? I guess these particular tracks carry not only freight and the Coastal Starlight but also the commuter between San Francisco and Sacramento (the Capitol Corridor). But either as visiting artists or as permanent residents, there sure seem to be a lot of people out and about on the Railroad's right of way.

We had a slightly longer stop in Oakland to pick up a couple of additional cars. These were private party cars. I have a couple of pictures of them. They are these cars owned by this society that you can rent for private parties and journeys. They contract with Amtrak to pick them up and haul them around to different places. They are restored historic cars from the California Zephyr line. Here is a link.

These are the new (old)(classic) cars we added

We left the Oakland station and traveled for around 30 seconds and then stopped again. Here we sat admiring the nice blue tarp structures and urban graffiti for around 10 minutes until the Conductor came on the PA: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are stopped here for a while because of a Trespasser Strike blocking the track ahead”.

A Trespasser Strike. How confusing. Seems like in California, everyone is unionized.

Then she (the conductor) came back on to give more details. “They have called in the Coroner and we are going to have to wait until the investigation is finished. This could take 3 or 4 hours”.

3 or 4 hours? We will miss our connections !! We will miss our Dinner !! Wait a second. Coroner? Someone is dead on the tracks up ahead? It turns out that Trespasser Strike is Railroad speak for “We just killed someone. But they shouldn’t have been on our tracks so it is their fault”.

Were we thinking about this snuffed out life? No we were all worrying about our connections, and the nerve of some trespasser for putting us out like this, and also feeling incredibly guilty for having these thoughts. As my partner put it, “Up ahead, someones brother, husband, daughter or partner is dead. And we worry about being late for dinner?”

I blame the Amtrak Wording. More thought reveals that the wording implies that this sort of thing must happen fairly often. And then I remember all of the people living on the right of way. These are homeless people, quite likely depressed and with mental or drug related issues. Walking on the track by accident could be very likely. Walking on it on purpose isn’t so unlikely either.

The conductor came on again about 10 minutes later, “Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a first in my 24 years of Amtrak work. We are being routed around the incident onto another section of track. Should be back and moving any minute now.”

And we were. So not only did we have terrible thoughts about being late, but we weren’t late. Where is my humble pie? I am so hungry.

I want to say one more thing about the scenery whist rolling through Oakland and the lower bay area. Behind the walls that support the Graffitti and don’t keep the homeless off the tracks are yards full of stacks of stuff. Not piles of random assorted junk, mind you. Very Specific huge stacks, each of one particular type of stuff. Stacks of Tires. Stacks of Rusted Car Drive Wheels. Stacks of crumpled cubed aluminum. Green Plastic Buckets. Blue Plastic Buckets. Cars. Concrete blocks. Bails of Wire. Lumber. A stack for pretty much everything that could be stacked. And all of these stacks are lined up down the  much less valuable right of way of the Union Pacific Rail Road. Here are some pictures of stacks of stuff.

bailed Aluminum

Blue Plastic Barrels

And now we are rolling rolling rolling. Down the valley beside route 101 through one of the hearts of Central California. A big drought ridden sea of natural brown heavily interspersed with irrigated green fields. On and on we chug.

Time for another true Passenger Story.

My partner and I are sitting in the comfy chairs in the Parlor Car. The land is slipping by outside and I am trying once again to make it through Richard Feynman’s classical set of lectures on Quantum Theory for the layman called (in Book Form) “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter”.

This book doesn’t use many equations, but he does present a simple mathematical manner (involving counting time and spinning a bunch of arrows (well, an infinite number of arrows)) that one can use to explain ALL of the phenomena of light. All of them. Pretty colors from a drop of oil on a pool of water? Explained with spinning arrows. Light appear to be sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave? Explained with spinning arrows (Hint: light is ALWAYS a particle). Why a thin piece of the same kind of glass can block more light than a thick piece? Explained with spinning arrows !! Anyway. I have never quite been able to get myself through all of the lectures. On this particular reading, I had gotten about 2/3 of the way through. I put the book down and stair off into the distance (trying to envision this whole glass thickness thing) when an older gentlewoman across the aisle from me puts down here knitting, looks at me, and says “How are you doing with Feynman? I always had problems with him. I do much better with Hawking”.

I think I sort of gaped at her for a moment. Then I realized that something equally urbane and insightful was required from me. “I always had trouble with Hawking’s closed Universe. I can’t quite come to grips with that”. She nods in agreement and she goes back to her knitting and I go back to my reading.

I wonder if the trains would have more or less passengers if they had a bit of a re-design and moved into the 2000s. The parlor car, for instance, is a 50’s design. The attendant said that only the Coastal Starlight has a parlor car. Not having a Parlor car would make the Journey to Chicago on the Empire Builder a lot less enjoyable. Best look that up before I try and talk my partner into it. (I looked it up, no Parlor Car).

I really like the 50’s luxury feel of the Parlor Car, but I think even it could use some redo. It had a lot of wasted space. For instance, in the middle of the car, standing next to the stairs down, there is a stainless steal cart setup that looks to be used for hosted a breakfast buffet setup. It takes up space that could be used for at least 2 comfy chairs and certainly wasn’t employed on this journey (and if not this what. Then Which one?) Get rid of it. Put in some more chairs.
The Parlor Car again, You can just see the Couches back there

The little couches are a question to me. The seem pretty nice, but were drastically under utilized. I think it is because they don’t face out. They face in and so are less interesting. Perhaps they would get more use at night. I never did go the the parlor car to check things out at night when you can’t see the scenery. Perhaps the place was a hopping party at night. Then there is the downstairs. There may have been a bathroom down there. Not sure. But there was a movie room. This room faced the rear of the train (at least in this train configuration). It had a large flat screen TV and a few rows of 50’s era foldable movie seats (bolted to the floor). I bet that back in the day there was an actual projector down there. Today, what we had was some broken electronics that no one knew how to fix. So no one was watching one of the scheduled movies (“The Martian” ) because... well because it wasn't on. But in this day and age, everyone is carrying around a movie display device in their backpack. They don’t need a room  set up for this. So what to do? Perhaps the economy observation car is the answer to this. The attendant did say it was much more modern. It has more out facing couches up top. A few tables to sit at, and then downstairs it has a snack booth and some more tables. More of a Disney Land Train of the Future (from the 50s) feel. Hmm. I don’t want that either. I want to keep the luxury but just convert some of the obsolete space.

The thing that really needs some redesign is the sleeper. The Roomettes just don’t hack it. And the big suites seem to also be lacking in appeal, at least to me. For instance, I really don’t want a private shower and bathroom in my suite. Why? Because I don’t need that chemical smell. “But, Bob,” I hear you say (probably because you have forgotten my name), “Wouldn’t an RV have pretty much the same Bathroom to Bed Room configuration? The same Chemical Smell? You say that you want one of those, don't you?" To which I reply, "Shut up!"


Ok, But given that. What would be a better sleeper arrangement? The problem is that you are greatly constrained by some of the physics of the train. You need a corridor, first of all. A way to get down the length of the car. So you can’t have any big rooms that give views out both sides of the car unless you are going to have people walking through them (the exception is the 2 end rooms on the lower level. Like the Movie room in the parlor car, those can be the width of the train with no corridor). This is what forces the size of the Roomette. We have a corridor. This has a minimum safe size (and it is not very wide). Then you can put a room on each side of the corridor. Bingo. Roomette. I am going to do some research on train cars. If nothing else, I think I owe you some better pictures of the layouts of all of these cars.

Here is a page with layouts of the various cars: here

But enough of that. Something interesting seems to be happening outside.

Is that..... California?

It is like we are in an airplane

We are on the West side of highway 101, we go through a tunnel and suddenly we are on the opposite side of a Ravine from the highway. The highway is taking a steep hill down to the ocean, but the train can’t go down that steep a grade. We are going to stay over here in the foot hills and wind our way slowly down and through this side. Yes, through. We are in an area with lots of fingers of mountain sticking out from the hills. So, bridge or fill across the ravine, then tunnel through the finger. Repeat about 10 times. Then head away from the highway to do a switchback. At this point we had to stop on a siding for 30 minutes. Our sister train (the North Bound Coastal Starlight) is just coming up the hill from San Louis Obispo. Sort of cool to see our twin laid out below us like that. Round the bend it comes and woosh right past us. Now we are moving again.

We travel along past a LOT of RV’s. This may be because we are in Pismo Beach. We pass one sign that reads “Monarch Butterfly Grove”. I visited that place once a while back. It is a stand of Eucalyptus trees that is a regular migratory stop for Monarch Butterflies.
There can be thousands of them in that little stand of trees.

We are now traveling through the “Coastal” part of the Coastal Starlight. This section of the California coast is semi desert with high soaring sandstone cliffs feeding down to the ocean. You see the occasional house or camp ground, but mostly it is empty. Oh, is that a rocket launching platform over there? I forgot that West Coast Nasa and Air Force launch facility is along here. And there is a SpaceX launch platform. Cool. The timing for this stretch of the beach is pretty nice (at least for this time of year, and being 1 hour late). The sun is getting down toward setting and the lighting off the water is fine. We zip along the coastline until we start to get back into inhabited areas once again. We have to pull into a siding once more to let a local coastal commuter train go by going North. Since we are so far behind schedule because of our “Trespasser Strike” we are the odd man out on all of these encounters with “on time” trains. I guess if you are in a hurry, that can be a bummer. Might want to try the plane.

A so we come coasting into Santa Barbara. This is where we get off on this trip. Palm Tree’s and outdoor buildings. Sunshine and Sand. The train goes on without us. On to a few more stops and then to the terminus as the Los Angelos station. And then turn around and do it again.


  1. Sounds like it was a fun trip. You mentioned the Empire Builder. My folks took that one out to Glacier National Park and then drove from there to Big Sky for Molly's wedding. They really enjoyed that trip. If you ever do take the Empire Builder to Chicago (despite it's lack a parlor cars) you two must stop in for a visit.

  2. Hey Ted,
    I didn't know you read blogs !!
    I am certainly eyeing this trip to chicago. May have to save up for a real room.