[Part 1 of this story covered joining the Southwest Chief in Chicago, a bit of an adventure in itself, and settling in for a two night and three day journey. In part 2 we travelled through Kansas, Colorado and new Mexico top Albuquerque and spent our first night on the train. In Part 3 we had a disastrous meal, crossed Arizona in the dark and arrived at LA Union Station, a fine example of the Art Deco style of architecture and said goodbye to Robert. In Part 4 we sampled the delights of the Traxx Lounge – not exactly the breakfast we had been hoping for – and boarded the Coast Starlight to travel north up the Pacific Coast to Oakland for San Francisco. In this final part we complete our journey with a 24 hour ride up to Seattle in the very North West of the United States.]
On Friday afternoon we call in at the Amtrak office to check that everything is in order for the final leg up to Seattle starting on Saturday night. Just as well we did. It transpires that the train northbound cannot be boarded at Oakland as our tickets say. The reason, there is no transport from downtown San Francisco to connect with that train. Instead there is a connection to Emeryville the next station up the line. We are told that we can check in our cases any time on Saturday at the office, which will be a big relief. We’re issued with bus tickets to get to the train and assured that all is now in order with our travel arrangements. Let’s hope so.
Getting to the train on Saturday night goes to plan and expectation. There are about 20 people on the bus from the Amtrak office at the Ferry Terminal. That doesn’t seem a lot of people for the main south to north service up the West Coast. When we get to the station at Emeryville (908 miles to go) there are about another 20 people waiting for the train. It just shows that support for Amtrak and the railways is not strong in America.
The train pulls in a few minutes after we get onto the platform right to schedule. Our sleeping car is almost the furthest away being the second coach from the engines. We’re met by a large amiable attendant, Mike, who wonders why we didn’t get on at Oakland – we explain and he understands – and says that our beds have been made up. We feel like old hands as we climb the stairs to the upper deck and along to cabin number 5.
On the surface the cabin layout looks familiar but we quickly begin to notice differences. Not least is that we have a wardrobe but its only six inches wide, enough for two lightly loaded hangers. Also there is a little cubby hole for watches, glasses, etc plus the curtains can actually be closed properly across the corridor side of the cabin giving better privacy. As far as we are concerned these are all improvements.
Once the train starts we head straight to the Pacific Saloon Car and the bar. We’re not the first to arrive but there is no barman. He is found in the dining car with two other staff and they’ve clearly being drinking the dregs of the diners’ wine bottles. The barman staggers to the bar and proceeds to dispense martinis, vodka and tonics, gin and tonics and a bottle of wine for yours truly. He explains they have no half bottles but it can be taken along to lunch and dinner tomorrow. Sounds fine.
One of our fellow travellers is trying to get an internet connection as am I but to no avail. The wifi is working but the barman says no one has been able to get a connection all day. It looks like we’re in for another internet famine. So finishing up our drinks we head back to the cabin for a bit of shuteye.
As so often happens on Amtrak there is a small diversion. The train stops at Sacramento (824 miles to go) just before midnight. This turns out to be a 20 min stop and an opportunity to step onto the platform. It is the re-watering stop and every carriage is connected to a hose-pipe on the platform. Once the water is on board it’s time to move northwards and to get to bed at last. The morning should see us in the woods and hills of Oregon.
And true to form we’re woken up at 7am to an announcement that the train has just crossed the California-Oregon State Line and it’s a beautiful day. The train stops almost immediately at Klamath Falls which has a station and not much else. It is however an opportunity to get off the train and breathe in the warm mountain air. A mini bus appears and two of the train crew board it whilst two replacements get off. A very remote place for living. Incidentally, today is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a good time to be isolated on a train.
There is a series of announcements from the competing breakfast providers. The cafe bar is open for light breakfasts including bagels and cream cheese, the Pacific Parlour is open with a small range of cooked meals including French toast and the dining car is taking bookings for full breakfasts. As it’s 12 hours since we ate anything and that was a fairly light Mexican meal, it has to be the dining car. Also we may be lucky and get seated with some of our fellow travellers. A table is booked for 8.30 leaving us time for ablutions and generally getting ready for the next 12 hours on the train.
Just before 8.30 our names are called over the tannoy and it’s time for breakfast. We are seated with Nancy and Charlie a couple from the Carolinas. Nancy lives in South Carolina whilst Charlie lives a few miles away in Myrtle Beach North Carolina. This is their first time on the train and they’re enjoying it. Indeed we remember they were the first people into the bar when we boarded the previous night.
The scenery is a mixture of trees, lakes and mountains with vast tracts of grasslands. A number of the lakes are filling the craters of long extinct volcanoes. As we edge northwards there are the remains of other volcanoes including Mt Scott, Mt Thielson and Diamond Peak all between eight and nine thousand feet high. We’re now in the Cascades and the train is going more and more slowly as we climb to the summit of the pass. There is an announcement that we will be stopping at the summit to deliver a part to a freight train that has broken down. All part of the Amtrak service.
The Cascade Pass is over 14,000ft above sea-level and is followed by the longest continuous downhill stretch in the US rail system with gradients of 1%, i.e. a descent of 1ft in 100ft, very steep for a train. The track goes through 22 tunnels, some very short and others a few hundred yards long, during the descent. The views to the right (East) are to mountains and gorges. The train is skirting along the Western edge of a very steep valley. Because of the steepness of the gradient and the tightness of the curves this is a very slow part of the journey.
We pass a place called Frazier where the largest ever natural rail disaster in the Pacific North West occurred in 2008, a major landslip. On the left there is an electric sensor fence that is designed provide early warning of further landslips. To the right, looking several thousand feet down through the clearing created by the landslip, you can see the rail track that we will be on fairly soon.
The train is slowly turning from a Westward direction to an Eastward direction. There are so many changes of direction that the sun at 11am is at some points coming through the right hand then the left hand windows and at some points from the front of the train and at other points from the back. On one big bend we cross over a white water river and alongside it a highway, the first sign of a through road since the last stop at Chemult. The line has now crossed to the East side of the valley and from our left-hand side compartment we are looking down into the valley. The trees are so close to the tracks that they are virtually brushing against the train. Along some stretches the branches have actually been hacked back to give clearance. The long, slow whistle is now going at regular intervals, where logging roads cross the tracks.
We pass a southbound freight train made up of four locomotives at the front, eighty trucks mostly loaded with planked timber and two rear locomotives. It has taken our train about ½ hour to get down to this point from the summit. How long will it take the goods train to get to the summit? We now approach civilisation at the town of Oakridge which was at one time a major logging town but is now a key centre for mountain biking.
The train passes a large man-made reservoir called Lookout Point. When this lake was created in the 1950’s in part for water supply and in part for flood control, the highway and the railroad ran on what is now the East side of the lake. During construction both were moved to the West side of the lake. Looking across the lake today you can see the line of the old railroad. The highway is apparently completely submerged.
It’s now nearly 12.30pm, the valley has widened out and we’re approaching the town of Eugene OR (310 miles to go) known as the “World’s Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors.” For us railway buffs it is more importantly noted as being the most westerly point on the whole Amtrak system and for everyone else as the home of Nike. The train conductor announces that passengers may get off the train but should not leave the immediate vicinity. Apparently passengers are regularly left behind here including three last night. As the conductor went on to say “if you don’t get back on board we WILL sell your stuff!!” We’ll be clinging to the train.
Shortly after leaving Eugene we are told to look out for a covered bridge over a river that we cross. Sure enough there it is. The covering of this type of bridge is designed to protect the expensive planking of the bridge deck from the rigours of the weather. They are common in a number of parts of the US.
Then it’s time for lunch. We seem to do a lot of eating on these trains. For this meal we’re seated with two ladies of our age whose names we never quite get. The conversation ranges from travelling to grandchildren then more grandchildren. Meanwhile the terrain opens out to miles of flat fields mostly left to grass with lots of cattle.
Now it’s time for the cheese and wine tasting – again. Ever gluttons for punishment we settle down for another sampling. Interestingly, all the wines, two white and two reds, come from Oregon and Washington States. They are very drinkable. Whilst sitting in the Pacific Parlour Car the waiter from the dining car comes through to take bookings for dinner. When will it stop? He explains that as we will be arriving at least ½ hour early into Seattle dinner will start at 4.30 (!!!!!) with the last sitting at 6. Everyone in the car goes for the 6pm sitting.
Then it’s into Portland OR (187 miles to go), with just over 1/2m people it is the largest city in the state. The entry is quite dramatic as we approach over an iron bridge with two decks of rail tracks which can be lifted to increase the clearance over the busy river. It’s a 90˚ turn to get onto the bridge and another at the other side to get into Union Station. Getting off the train for a break we realise how hot it is, probably around 30˚C. There is ¾ hour wait during which we amble around the platform and have a look into the terminal building. Once again I fail to find any maps. Maps must either be treated as a specialist item or they don’t to exist. So back onto the train and it’s now the last lap.
As we leave Portland we cross two branches of the Columbia River which are both some 200 yds wide at this point. Very impressive. We have now entered our last state, Washington. The first town is Vancouver, not to be confused with Vancouver in British Columbia just a short distance up the road. This Vancouver is the oldest settlement in the Pacific North West built by the Hudson Bay Company in 1824 . It is an active port today.
Then it’s time for dinner – just what we need. Our final dining companions are an Australian couple on an epic journey. They flew from Sydney via Auckland to LA then on to Las Vegas for a visit to the Grand Canyon. Then back to LA where they joined the Coast Starlight. When they get to Seattle they are joining a cruise that will go up the Canadian coast, round Alaska and along the Aleutians, over to Russia and Vladivostok, then down to China via Korea and finishing in Shanghai for a ride on the Chinese bullet train. From there they will fly back to Oz. A real circle of the Pacific Rim and a journey of a lifetime. It turns out that the wife’s family came from the Oban area in the West of Scotland and there is still a family croft in Glen Etive which they have visited.
A quick word about the food. We couldn’t possibly be hungry but somehow we were able to look at the menu and order. I had a very nice piece of grilled salmon on rice whilst Margaret had about half a pig’s ribs in a BBQ sauce. They overlapped the plate. Was it a joke? Somehow she got through most of one side. Funnily enough we didn’t order any desserts.
For a long stretch the railway runs between two three lane carriageways of a major north/south highway, rather like forming the central reservation. The track is now following the Columbia River on our left side. The banks on the other side of the river are in Oregon. Until 1812 the Columbia River formed the border between the United States and Canada so we are now in ‘old’ Canada.
The last stops on the journey, all in Washington State, are Kelso-Longview, Centralia, Olympia-Lacey, Tacoma and Seattle. Near Centralia is Mt St Helens which erupted as recently as 1980. Centralia was founded in 1875 by the son of a slave from Virginia, by name George Washington. [This George Washington, not to be confused with President George Washington, was a pioneer from Virginia, the son of an African American slave and a woman of English descent. For the next 30 years, he was a leading citizen, promoter, and benefactor of the town he founded.] Olympia is the capital of the State and was the furthest point west reached by the Oregon Trail. It is at the bottom of the Puget Sound that stretches out to the Pacific. Tacoma is a major port having one of the largest container ports in the US. The Olympic Mountains rise up across the Puget Sound.
And so we arrive at our final destination on, for us, the longest ever rail journey. It’s Seattle, home of Microsoft and Starbucks. We’ve covered some 3,642 miles in about 78 hours and three nights of travelling and it’s beginning to feel like it. The tannoy announces that the luggage will be in the baggage hall in about 10mins and the tannoy is right. If only it had been like that back in Oakland.
Apart from the fantastic – and occasionally boring – scenery along the way, we have met some really interesting people whom we would not have met any other way; and suffered the appalling black humour of the on-board Amtrak staff, who for the most part, deliver an excellent service.
Will we do it again?
Of course we will. It really is a great way of travelling, seeing country that can’t be seen any other way and meeting like-minded people. Unlike flying, there are no intrusive security procedures, you can move about the train and enjoy the different lounges, there is really good legroom and you have time to think about your destination.
A little research helps to shed some light on the closure of the California Zephyr. During the summer a lot of rain has fallen in Nebraska resulting in long stretches of track being washed away or destabilised. This did not directly affect the Zephyr’s route but did divert a large amount of freight traffic onto Amtrak tracks resulting in severe disruption of the timetable. Then recently an Amtrak train struck a piece of agricultural equipment protruding onto the line resulting in a small number of injuries on the train. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back and it was decided to suspend the service between Chicago and Denver until a reliable service could be restored and one that would to run to schedule. This is what stopped us from riding the Zephyr although the service is running between Denver CO and Sacramento CA.
Quite separately there was a recent serious accident in Nevada. For reasons as yet unexplained, the lead truck of a road convoy was too late in braking and ploughed into the Zephyr in the middle of the night. The front sleeping cars were derailed and set on fire. Many people were killed or missing and to date the exact number of fatalities is unknown.
As so often happens in the rumour mill these two unrelated incidents have been conflated, often by Amtrak staff, resulting in confusion for the passengers.
Thank you for reading to the end. I hope it inspires you to getting out the atlas and planning a long train journey in America or elsewhere.