Upper Klamath Lake at Sunset

Two weeks ago I traveled from Seattle to Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight.   Since the dark ages of 2005-2006, during which the train was late 90+% of the time, the Starlight has done much to reclaim its status as a premier passenger train.  After a mudslide knocked out service in the winter of 2008, Amtrak ‘relaunched’ the service with a renewed focus on amenities and on-time performance, and it has worked.  In June 100% of southbound trains arrived into Los Angeles on-time, while 93% of northbound trains into Seattle arrived on-time.  My own trip confirmed this improvement.  For $220 I had an on-time arrival, wireless internet, bottomless coffee and fresh produce, simple but decent meals, tablecloth service with porcelain dinnerware and real flatware, a small but comfortable room, a hot shower, leather lounge chairs, a cinema, and a panoramic view of Mount Rainier, the Tacoma Narrows, the Nisqually River Delta, the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Cascades, Mt. Shasta, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and the Central Coast of California.

Somewhere Between Lompoc and Santa Barbara

Though we often discuss how well-developed passenger trains can take modal share away from car and air travel – and Cascades has a good chance of evenly splitting the air-rail market over the coming years – long-distance trains are qualitatively different.  They offer neither the on-off freedom of cars nor the speed of airplanes.  They are often the only high-capacity transit service available across a large swath of rural America and they traverse scenic pre-Interstate corridors.  Being a functionally unique service, long-distance trains compete only against themselves and their own expectations, and they will live and die on the strength of the experience they offer. Amtrak seems to have belatedly figured this out, and the Starlight is again a wonderful experience.  It’s not the ‘Star-late’ anymore.

As a footnote, I think Seattle and Portland have largely not recognized that we have arguably the highest quality Amtrak service in the country.  We’re not a hub like Chicago, nor do we have the frequency of the Northeast or California, but we have the two best long-distance trains and a unique corridor service with Talgo equipment everyone else would love to have.  While in many ways Seattle is behind the curve, we can at least be grateful for the high quality of service we enjoy.

119 Replies to “Riding The Much Improved Coast Starlight”

  1. That’s great to hear the on-time performance is reasonable now. My wife and I went roundtrip from Eugene to San Francisco in 2003 and absolutely loved the time on train. Sitting in the lounge chairs in the parlor car with the oversized windows was just awesome — especially as we went over the mountains on the state border.

    We also took the Empire Builder out to Minnesota and back once, but didn’t get a sleeper that time. Although the views of Glacier National Park were spectacular, the lack of sleeper made that trip absolutely horrible. We were both worn out and crabby by the time we got home. On the other hand, the train was the only thing moving through blizzard on our way back, so we’d have been grounded in an airport otherwise.

    My bottom line after those experiences was that any train trip overnight pretty much requires a sleeper to be enjoyable.

    1. Maybe it’s my age but I’ve found couch to be more then enjoyable. I’d rather be “crammed” into a Superliner coach then spend four hours in a Greyhound or heaven forbid an airplane. More room then a car room to walk around and decent meals.

    2. As I get older a sleeper looks more worthwhile, and likewise a hotel room vs a hostel bunk bed. I did ride last November and the coach chair was not perfect comfort but a lot better than Greyhound or flying (real legroom). It’s especially better if the seat next to you is empty. I didn’t get a sleeper; I decided I’d do that later when I was traveling with someone; this wasn’t an “important enough” trip to justify the expense. But yes, plan a day of rest after your trip so you won’t remain cranky.

      1. I enjoy riding Amtrak, except for the fact that one can’t get a seat assignment at booking time– seats are only assigned at boarding time, like Southwest Airlines does. I find this a major nuisance.

      2. And all the “technology” is in the reservation system to solve the problem except that you’ll never know which side of the train your seat/room will be on because individual cars can be aligned either way when the train is made up in the yard.

  2. I looked at taking the train to Richmond this weekend. 100 bucks each way and a four hour trip instead of 2 driving. So for four people, twice as long and over 8 times the cost.

    Yeah, the PNW only looks bad when compared to the best. Compared to the vast majority of the nation (and even just those in our weight class) we got it pretty good.

    1. Richmond Beach? Or do you mean Richland (tri-cities)? One problem there is that you’d have to go to Spokane and switch to a Portland-bound train, or maybe they’d put you on a bus at Wenatchee or something.

      1. What a bummer!

        Still, there is good Amtrak service in the Northeast corridor. I have taken trains north from Richmond VA and Newport News VA to New York and Boston, easier than driving and a little less than flying. A nice trip too.

      2. NC is madly trying to improve your proposed trip by building 110mph rail from Raleigh to Richmond Main St. But you probably knew that. :-)

      3. Aye. And the new Union Station proposals are pretty exciting. Hopefully though, I won’t be around to see them as we’ll be back in Seattle long before it’s complete.

  3. How long did it take? I took a train from Seattle to San Francisco in 2006 and I believe that it was to take 24 hours and I was late by something like three hours maybe more, I cannot remember. I do remember though being stopped for hours just waiting for freight trains to clear the tracks. I am glad to hear that things are getting better. Just wish that there were high speed trains.

      1. Though it’s very comfortable and wonderfully scenic, it’s true that it’s still Amtrak’s slowest train by average speed end-to-end. (40 mph average)

    1. Amtrak pads the schedule now to avoid lateness fines. So you sometimes arrive at a major stop 30-60 minutes early.

      1. My train ride down to Portland from Seattle last Saturday on the Coast Starlight did arrive about 40 minutes early.

      2. On my trip from San Jose to Seattle, the train started two hours late in Los Angeles, was an hour late in San Jose, but ended up an hour early in Seattle.

  4. I took the Coast Starlight from Salinas to Olympia and from Seattle back to Salinas last winter (around Christmas/New Year’s). We were on-time going north and south, although the previous day’s southbound train (#11) was late by about 8 hours – because they’d struck a tree near Shasta Lake in Northern California.

    The service and food were fantastic. My wife and I had a roomette, which was the perfect size for us, though we spent most of our time in the wonderful Pacific Parlour Car.

    The highlight of the trip for us was going over Willamette Pass in the daylight, with the trees covered in snow.

    I’ve also taken the Starlight to LA on a number of occasions in the last 2 or 3 years, and have been lucky to only experience delays of a maximum of 1 hour in either direction. At times I’ve paid extra for a roomette, even for the 9-hour Salinas-LA trip, in order to have a quiet place to work with a power outlet (though more and more of the coach cars have been refurbished with power outlets at each seat, along the lines of the California Cars operated by Amtrak California).

    Overall it’s a fantastic train and a service that ought to be preserved, supported, and improved.

    1. I remember seeing one of the trains that lifted the tracks and resettled the ballast working on the tracks down by the Spaghetti Factory on the waterfront. There was a car out front and a laser measuring how straight the tracks were. Pretty amazing stuff.

      Yet another example of a “green” job that won’t be outsourced to India or China.

  5. Will Amtrak let people come on board to check out the coaches before the trains begin the route (or after)? My interest is piqued but I’m leery of the accommodations as I’m a poor sleeper and comfort is key.

    1. The sleepers have ‘virtual tours’ online. Dunno what to say about the coaches — wait for a Superliner to run on Cascades and get a short ticket?

    1. Call Amtrak in Seattle to find out for sure, but I’ll bet they’d let you on. I don’t think they even check tickets until you’re on anyway.

      1. I haven’t taken the Coast, but Seattle’s Empire Builder and Cascades services take tickets in the station

      2. Stations like Vancouver BC, Seattle, and Portland, are major originating/destination points, and crew change points. That’s why the conductors will be at those little ‘lemonade stands’ pulling tickets. They are part of the crew heading out, and aren’t involved in the paperwork/money issues an incoming crew would have to deal with.

        So, in Seattle, they don’t check tickets on the train, they do it in the station.

        The problem with a ‘tour’ of a sleeping car is that the trainsets are brought up from the yard (south, just beyond Safeco Field), just before boarding begins. Not much time, but if you wanted to chance it, you could always ask one of the conductors 1/2 hour before the train departs. (That’s when they show up to pull tickets)

        Having a sleeper car available at one of the stub tracks at KSS, would require ‘spare equipment’.
        So much for that idea!

        I think it would be nice if they had some sort of mock-up in the station, of the various bedroom layouts.

      3. They might be willing to give you a mini-tour after arrival (before the train goes into storage). Maybe if you ask ahead of time you could find somebody to arrange it.

        I think there are floor plans of the rooms on the website. Maybe they have pictures somewhere.

        When I rode the Empire Builder in November, they collected tickets on the train. The only times I’ve seen the “lemonade stand” in use is with the Cascades to Vancouver where they hand out seat assignments. I only vaguely remember Portland trips. I think they use the stand but don’t hand out seat assignments.

      4. Sleepers have Flash-based “virtual tours” on the website. Nothing similar for the coach cars though.

      5. They use the stands, but it’s possible that you might be running into different conductors and their individual preferences.

        Business class passengers get their seat assignments at the ticket counter.

        Sleeping car passengers have the car and room number on the tickets.

        Yep, floor plans are on the website, and in the “Amtrak America” booklets.

        Me, I want to have something to touch and feel.

    2. I checked out my brother’s sleeper accommodations on the Empire Builder before he left Chicago. They took his ticket before boarding, but didn’t ask me for one. It’s pretty common for passengers to have loved ones help them get their luggage on to the train, so it probably wouldn’t be a big deal for you to be on the platform without a ticket. Just go up to one of the sleeper cars and ask the sleeper car attendant if you can stick your head in one of the compartments.

      The roomette that my brother had looked pretty nice, plenty of room for a 6’4″ 220# guy. Plus you can bring a cooler on board with your beverage of choice in it, try doing that on an airplane!

      1. Just don’t ‘help people’ onto the train at downline stations, otherwise you might be riding to the next stop.

  6. It’s important to note that a big reason for the Coast Starlight’s current on-time performance record is that freight volumes are reduced on the UP, compared to 2008.

    1. Is any of California’s HSR money going to improving existing service or is it all going to their separate tracked plan?

      1. Those funds are specifically earmarked for use only with the HSR program. Some incidental improvements to existing service may occur, such as if the Caltrain corridor south of San Francisco is electrified for HSR trains and commuter service also goes electric to take advantage of the program-funded capex.

      2. If California HSR is indeed built as planned (and I doubt it), I can see the Starlight being rightfully truncated and/or segmented. If built, the only portions of the Starlight route left unserved by corridor service would be between Eugene-Sacramento and Gilroy-San Luis Obispo. The Starlight might survive as a luxury or sleeper-only train, but once the Bakersfield-Los Angeles link has been restored, HSR service will be 9 HOURS faster than the Starlight from SFO/SAC-LAX. I think we’d see the Starlight split into a form of the Coast Daylight (LAX-San José) and the old Cascade (Oakland-Eugene or Portland).

      3. It’s possible that it would be truncated, but I don’t think it’s that likely. The Starlight serves a very different route than the HSR system (which I very much believe will be built as planned, it’ll just take some time). In fact, the two routes only overlap twice – for a 30-mile stretch from San José to Gilroy and a 10-mile stretch from Burbank to downtown LA.

        There would continue to be demand from cities between Gilroy and Oxnard for the Starlight, and even riders in the Bay Area would likely want it kept as well for trips south to the Central Coast or north to the Pacific NW.

      4. If the HSR gets fully constructed — including phase II to Sacramento, I would expect some sort of rearrangement, probably involving the southern terminus of the sleepers being in the Bay Area. It would make too much sense for people to take HSR from LA to Sacramento and change trains there for the Sacramento-Portland-Seattle sleeper; even from Santa Barbara it would make more sense to go south to LA and catch the HSR, and from Salinas it would make sense to go north to San Jose in order to get to LA, or Sacramento.

        But that’s if phase II of the HSR gets constructed as planned. Getting way ahead of ourselves there.

      5. Actually, $950 million of the $9.95 billion Prop 1A bond (approved in 2008) goes to other intercity passenger rail and “connecting” passenger rail systems. That includes the Capitol Corridor, the same route which the Coast Starlight uses between Sacramento and San José – and funding is also eligible to be sent to the proposed “Coast Daylight” route between SF and LA via Salinas and SLO, which the Starlight also uses. The Starlight could make use of those upgrades, though the Coast Starlight train itself would not see any funds for new trainsets or additional runs.

  7. I’d love to see the on-board service and amenities on both the Starlight and the builder bumped up to the level of the Cascades or even better to European first-class levels.

    That said the Starlight and the Builder are some of the best Amtrak trains in the country. In fact I believe the demand is there to support 2 daily Seattle-LA and Seattle-Chicago trains. Perhaps the second Seattle-Chicago train could be on the old North Coast Hiawatha route.

    1. I very much agree with you about the demand being there to support 2 Starlight trains per day. In practice that might get handled in segments.

      California has been planning to run a “Coast Daylight” train from LA to SF along the Starlight route (via SLO and Salinas) for a few years now. The state government has finally approved purchasing the trainsets using passenger rail bond funds, but UP has demanded track work be done before they’ll agree to the service, which could happen as soon as 2012, but probably a year or two after that.

      Obviously that’s only part of the Starlight’s trip, and the key is another run from either the Bay Area or Sacramento up to at least Eugene. If another run were to be added, I’m guessing the 3 West Coast states would have to fund much or even all of its operations, as well as the purchase of new trainsets. But it’d be something I would strongly support.

    2. I very wary of adding routes. There is a reason many were abandoned in the first place. I’d rather the money be spent upgrading and increasing frequency on current routes.

      1. I think there needs to be reconsideration of all abandoned routes. Most routes were aboandoned 40 years ago, though many have been abandoned during Amtrak’s tenure as well, but usually a few here and there from time to time, not huge amounts all at once like what happened 1968-1972.

        Since then, population in the USA has almost doubled, and train ridership in the last 10 years has gone up substantially. I believe that in 2010 additional trains and even a few new routes could be supported without breaking the bank.

      2. Maybe we COULD afford to do it, but why SHOULD we? Nostalgia? If trains had never run these routes, would we still be considering them? Forget the past. We have to focus on the here and now, and in my opinion our money is best spent on improving and increasing frequency on our most productive routes. Down the road, when passenger rail is seen as critical infrastructure and not just some bacon to bring home, then we can look at reviving some of these legacy routes.

      3. Why should we consider new routes? Reaching large, unserved cities. Phoenix, AZ. Columbus, OH.

        I think that’s the main and only reason; routes which run through areas where the population remains minimal, like Idaho, are not worth considering.

    3. A recent study indicated that reinstatement of the North Coast Hiawatha would generate sufficient revenue to have higher farebox recovery than the average long-distance route, but would require something on the order of $1 billion in capital improvements (track upgrades, capacity expansion, station construction, etc.) and equipment acquision to begin service, and nobody has that kind of money for a new once-a-day long-distance train.

      1. A lot of money. Montana doesn’t have much to offer in terms of funding, so the route likely won’t happen if/until the Federal government funds it itself. Similar situation for the Pioneer though Idaho.

    4. It would indeed be very nice to have the equivalent of the Talgo’s Business Class on both trains and/or some sort of economy sleeper accomodations. Also, the quantity of PA announcements needs severely reduced.

  8. Great to hear the on-time performance is improved! We loved the route when we took it to LA many years ago, but the (as I recall, about 6-hour) delay on the return trip didn’t take the shine off nearly as much as almost all the bathrooms malfunctioning.

    (And at that time, the trains weren’t non-smoking, as they are now. Someone had the bright idea of making the rear of each car the smoking area, which meant that each car’s smoke drifted back to the front of the next. Now, if they’d just ban smoking on the platforms so it doesn’t drift in the cars at the stations.)

    I think the on-time improvement needs more publicity; I was under the misapprehension that CS was still to be avoided if hours-long delays were not tolerable. I’ll consider it for my trips to the Bay Area, now.

    1. I completely agree. Years ago I convinced family members to ride it up from Chico, and after a nightmare trip with the train standing around for hours and the bathrooms failing (is this a recurring problem?) the train lost all credibility as a reasonable mode of travel. I myself have still been calling it the Star-late and haven’t seriously considered using it. But with an on-time performance of 100%/93%, that might just make it attractive again (though too bad it gets into Chico at 4am and departs at 2am).

    2. FYI, recent Amtrak delays are now well-documented (look under the “Routes” tab at “Historical On-Time Performance” on amtrak.com, or if you want much more detailed information, go to amtrakdelays.com). So you can check for yourself how well a given train has been doing.

  9. Seattle has “arguably the highest quality Amtrak service in the country”.

    Ok, let’s argue. I would argue that long distance train service, for anything approaching a real world trip, is non-existent.

    Case in point — Seattle to Portland. Seems obvious right? Just what you’d want to take a train for. It’s what? 180 miles. A train going at 85 mph should make the trip in about 2 hours. But how long does it take? Yep, 4 hours! Same with Vancouver.

    And what’s with these train lines long a mud cliff? It’s quite possibly the stupidest place ever to put a train track!

    As far as I can see, Seattle is a city where great attention is paid to the most irrelevant things, while the “Invisible Gorilla” goes around unnoticed…

    http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/

    1. If you want to get to Portland in a hurry, jump in your car, drive like hell, hope the traffic is light and you’ll likely beat the train (the Cascades are scheduled for 3.5 hours to Portland). You could also catch a plane for $129+ that would likely get you there faster than Amtrak, but sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. There isn’t any easier way to Portland than taking the train, it doesn’t cost a lot and you don’t have to spend 3 hours gripping a steering wheel to get there.

      If you’re driving to Portland for business you might be able to make a few phone calls while you drive, but you won’t get much else done while you drive. On the train you can spend the entire train trip working on your laptop (still waiting for wifi), writing or reading. Most of the route gets cell phone coverage, so the 3.5 hours on the train can be very productive.

      1. I don’t doubt your arguments.

        I’m just shocked that what would seem to be a logical and busily trafficked route, Seattle to Portland, is not much, much faster. Even relatively slow “fast” train, like the 110mph Metroliner on the East Coast, would make it under 2 hours — with all the pleasures of not having to drive.

      2. The money granted by ARRA should reduce Cascades trip time SEAPDX to about 3:10 and add 2 more daily roundtrips. With further investment the trip could be down to 2:30 with hourly service.

      3. Thanks for the time quote for the results of the already-paid-for work. 3:10 when driving in perfect conditions is 3:00? Not much more work needed to make it really popular….

      4. All politics is local. Want better/faster train service in the NW? Work for WA House and Senate members who will support long distance rail at the Olympia level. Most importantly, work to find a legitimate challenger to Guv Cruisn’ Chris G who needs ousted in 2012. She and her sidekick Pavement Paula, Sec’y of Highways, are tepid supporters of rail, at best. Waiting for Amtrak for substantial new equipment and ROW is pointless because an improved and permanently funded Amtrak cannot happen unless/until 60+ US Senators agree.

      5. Well, it’s already down to 3.5 hours from 4, and more importantly it’s getting to be a *reliable* 3.5 hours. They’re knocking 6 minutes off — and increasing reliablility — if ‘D to M St’ and the ‘Point Defiance Bypass’ ever manage to get past the NIMBYs. They’re also increasing reliability with the Vancouver (WA) Railyard bypass, and with the King St. Station track layout changes; and I think the Kelso bypass track was funded? Increased reliability, due to eliminating all the chokepoints, should allow several more minutes to be shaved off the schedule.

        At this point it’s really getting so it will be at least as quick as driving. That’s a big deal.

      6. I’ve known a few people who had to travel to Portland for a work related trip and took Amtrak Cascades because they could work on their lap top while on the train.

      7. I see that all the time in Business class ever since the running time dropped to 3:30.

      8. For casual travel, I’ve done Craigslist rideshare to Portland and back for $10 each way. Great conversation,

    2. Nobody said it was good quality. Britons complain they have the worst rail service in Europe, yet it’s still ten times better than in the US. Read it as, “Seattle has arguably the least-bad Amtrak service in the country.”

      Your complaints are all idle. They focus on the past, on things we can’t control. The reason we don’t have better tracks and more trains is, the governors and voters didn’t consider it a priority for 50 years. They were more interested in driving and flying. We can call that shortsighted but we can’t change the past or people’s past attitudes, so it’s just an academic complaint.

      One fact that struck me is, both the US and Europe experienced the oil-price shocks of the 1970s, but they had a fundamentally different response to them. The US treated it as a temporary problem and went back to building more airports, freeways, and suburbs/exurbs. Europe was determined to gain energy independence so it would never have that problem again, and invested in high-speed rail, commuter rail, streetcars, BRT, bicycle lanes, wind/nuclear/geothermal power, etc.

  10. I enjoyed as similarly delightful a trip to and from Chicago in late April and early May on the Empire Builder, in the Pullman, as Zach had on his Starlight trip. There’s no Frist Class lounge on the Empire Builder, and the Sightseer cars on my train both ways were a bit tired, but the crews and passengers, and scenery more than made up for a slightly tatty lounges. On time arrivals at end points, a mixture of late Winter (snow flurries in Glacier Park) to early Summer (80F in Chicago) weather, smooth ride on welded rail most of the way all contributed to my enjoyment.
    And yes, we are extraordinarily lucky to have two very good long distance trains plus our Talgos here in the Northwest.
    Get on a train!

  11. The Starlight isn’t the quickest way to LA or the Bay Area, but it is the most beautiful. For most of the journey the tracks are far away from the interstates and the views outside the windows are stunning and inaccessible to autos. The other passengers tend to be laid back–nobody’s in a hurry–and over the course of the trip, conversations with strangers come easy.

    It should be noted that Amtrak’s prices are variable and that as the train fills up, the ticket prices go up. So book your trip ahead of time for the best fares. The $220 fare for Seattle to LA in a roomette is an excellent price. If you want a seat and a roomette on tomorrow’s train (Aug 7), the price would be $678.

    Basic coach fares on Amtrak are very reasonable and they allow access to the Sightseer Lounge, but they don’t include free meals (you can buy meals in the diner or snacks in the lounge) and you can’t take a shower with the coach fare. If you want a sleeping car accommodation the price rises quickly. The roomettes (1-2 persons) are very basic, the bedrooms are comfortable for two and there is a family bedroom for 4. But the sleeper price includes the cost of meals in the dining car, access to a shower and, on the Starlight, entry to the Parlour Car, which is very nice.

    1. Do what I did. Book two tickets, one in coach for as long as you can stand, and then switch to a sleeper when night falls. I sat in coach for 12 hours (Seattle to Klamath Falls), then booked a roomette from Klamath Falls to Los Angeles. I saved $150 doing it this way versus a sleeper the whole way

    2. Is the Parlor Car the same as an observation car? I.e., seats facing outward and a snack shop. When I rode the Empire Builder (2009) and Coast Starlight (1987), they both had an observation car and coach passengers were allowed to use it. Is the Parlor Car something different? Did the CS have an observation car too?

      1. Quite different. The Starlight, uniquely, has both a Sightseer Lounge for coach passengers and the Pacific Parlour car for sleeper passengers. The Sightseer lounge has diner-style tables and a Snack Bar downstairs. The Parlour car has wifi, its own dining menu, its own dedicated waiter/bartender/barista, leather swivel chairs, and a 50″ flat-screen downstairs that plays two daily films, provides sports scores, and lists weather information. Sleeper passengers can choose to dine either in the Parlour car or the Dining car.

    1. Oh, I see. Things that don’t make a profit are worthless, are they? How about art museums? How about the public library? How about any charity you’d care to name?

      How about the U.S. Military?. Does that make a profit? Hell no. That’s a GIANT money hole that makes 3.9 billion dollars look like lunch money. But there’s a reason it exists. And there’s a reason Sound Transit exists and does what it does.

      Staying within the mode of transportation, how about the roads you drive on? Do THOSE make a profit? No. They don’t. And they can’t. Toll booths every other mile is a LOUSY idea.

      Your whole concept is WRONG.

    2. I think Geoff’s point is that the hole will cut into transit improvements. ST needs revenues adequate to fulfill its mandate.

  12. I really wish Amtrak would add roll-up / roll-away bike service to routes other then just the Cascade. Having to box up bicycles really ruins the potential for bicycle/train adventures and makes it no easier then using a car/bus/airplane in this regard.

    1. I’ve often thought of taking the train out to some town in Montana and riding my bike back, but I do hesitate at the thought of boxing my bike. I have heard that it’s not too bad — the boxes are big — but still, I would love to roll it on the train like when I go to Portland.

    2. They’re doing it with the new baggage car order; the baggage cars will have ‘self-serve’ bike racks apparently? I’m a bit surprised by this method, but there you go.

  13. The train can be more flexible and cheaper than flying. I route the Empire Builder in November for literally a last-minute trip, yet the fare was $300 RT and the return ticket was fully refundable. Flying would have been $600 and a non-changeable ticket. Of course, I traveled in an off period when the train was 3/4 empty, and I had four days to spare for the travel time. But you meet interesting people along the way, especially at mealtimes.

    My one Coast Starlight experience was not as good. I’m glad it has improved.

    1. And the cost of a sleeper was $70 including meals, so it’s better than a budget hotel. But you have to reserve the sleeper early for that rate, or wait till you get on the train and see if a sleeper is still available. Otherwise it costs much more.

      1. *whistle*

        You can’t get that price any more unless you’re *very* lucky. Booking six months in advance for mid-February, my roomettes cost more than that. Still something like $120 though, so with meals (for two people!), still a good deal.

      2. It may be the particular trip. I paid the same rate to Chicago that others paid for part of the way. I rode coach, but I believe the sleeper cost was uniform per night. And this is for one-person sleepers, not larger rooms.

      3. Amtrak’s reservation system is the same as an airline reservation system.

        It’s tracking how many people have booked a particular seat or accomodation(room). As the train fills up, the remaining rooms or seats cost more.

        Works the same way as airline seats do if you try to book that the last minute, the price is usually higher for what is essentially the same kind of seat on a plane.

        Although Amtrak doesn’t have a last minute ‘fire sale’, nor do they have ‘stand by’.

        It’s an OLD airline reservation system.

      4. Yes, the price goes up as the train gets full, like an airline. But it goes up on a consistent and predictable scale. Airlines can charge a widely different price for two adjacent seats depending on who’s booking it via what method, and the price can change widely in a few hours or a few minutes. With Amtrak, it takes just a bit of research to guess the minimum and maximum fares, and to time your trip at the price you’re willing to pay. E.g., book a month in advance or longer if you want a sleeper. If you can’t book ahead, travel on a weekday and expect half the price in the off-seasons.

        What I don’t know is how Amtrak charges for distance. The anecdotes I heard on that trip suggest Amtrak charges the same for Seattle-Chicago, Seattle-North Dakota, and Minnesota-North Dakota. But Seattle-Everett and Seattle-Spokane are obviously much cheaper. So distance plays some role, but it doesn’t seem to be a consistent rate per mile like in Germany.

        As for the sleepers, there is a fire sale and standby, you just can’t try for it until you’re aboard and the train has departed.

  14. I just had to comment that this is a really lovely post. I think we often forget to draw attention what a qualitatively unique experience traveling by train is, and I think this post does so rather eloquently. Kudos.

    1. I’d agree. In our quest for bigger better faster more, we often forget the qualitative. Zach’s trip report, and my recent trip to Chicago are illustrative that there still IS a market for true long distancerail travel, and that it doesn’t have to be zipping along at 200+ kph, though running consistently at 100+ kph would be nice. Comfort, reasonably good food (more fresh fruits and veggies, please) and sightseeing can and ought to be part of the North American rail experience.

  15. There’s no question that Cascades (at least between Seattle and Portland) is the second-best train service in the country!

    It’s fast enough to beat driving if there’s even a modicum of highway traffic/construction, it’s increasingly reliable, and for a single person the round-trip fare is undeniably cheaper than gas.

    And for all that, the fares are usually less than 1/4 of Acela fares! (Acela is often hard to justify, especially since an aggressive Fung Wah driver might get you there faster and for only $15.)

    The only stress is on the Seattle end; Metro makes trying to catch the morning train an especially huge nightmare.

    1. @ d.p. “The only stress is on the Seattle end; Metro makes trying to catch the morning train an especially huge nightmare.”
      How so? You only need to be there by 0700 – I can’t think of an in-city route Mo-Sa whose first bus doesn’t get you there by then. Sunday AM might be a little more problematic. I do the 501/508 turn 2-4 times a year and have never had trouble arriving at King Street by 0700 from wherever I’ve lived in Seattle. The trick is getting my bus at 4th and Pike at 2150 on the way home – requires fast running for 508 to arrive by about 2135 and luck getting a bus north on 4th Ave at Jackson by 2140 or so.

      1. My point is that Metro’s infrequency and unreliability can unnecessarily add an hour to the otherwise expedient Seattle-Portland Amtrak trip.

        I have literally missed trains thanks to a Metro bus that should have given me 15+ minutes leeway. To be 100% sure of catching my train, I’d have to be on a bus at 6:05 AM. Which is very early for me, and which is a bit lame considering that the station is, in pre-traffic hours, less than 15 minutes by car.

        It’s a perpetual curse (and, I admit, my perpetual complaint) in a city with sub-par transit. You have to build in so much extra presume-the-worst redundancy into your planning that you effectively make your trip much than should be, negating much of Amtrak’s speed-and-stresslessness advantage!

        Note that this doesn’t really happen on the Portland end, which is infinitely more reliable!

    2. “the fares are usually less than 1/4 of Acela fares!”

      It’s over a hundred dollars from NY to DC! And the regular Amtrak line is also significantly more expensive than Greyhound, to say nothing of the $20 Chinatown buses. I love riding trains but I can’t justify $80 or $130 for a four-hour trip. Maybe it’s comparable to flying, but I wouldn’t fly that short a distance either.

      1. I was once on a Sunday morning Fung Wah that made the Boston-New York trip in 2:45… one-handed! (The other hand was holding the two-way radio receiver into which he yelled in Cantonese for the entire 2:45.)

        Of course, that was before the Fung Wah buses started exploding from lack of maintenance and being driven too hard. ;-)

        Still… Amtrak Cascades is awesome and is a deal!!

  16. There is quite a bit to do. Bringing Seattle-Portland travel times down to 2:30 needs to happen. I would not invest in a dedicated HSL until other Link extensions are completed. If Seattle’s transit was better, I would most definitely support a dedicated HSL. Perhaps it would be possible to create something like the NEC with quad tracks and electrification since extra track capacity between Seattle and Tacoma will be needed for midday Sounder service.

    Would people support a proposition like in California to build high-speed rail in this state? If so, would it be better for a dedicated HSL? Or would it be best to complete a 110 mph route?

    1. I’m one who’d love nothing more than to see I-5 carrying half the number of vehicles or fewer than it now carries, but I’m also enough of a realist to know that our fellow citizens are never going to stand for the level of taxes or the property takings that true HSR (300 kph+ top speed) will require. We MUST get substantial numbers of both autos and freight trucks off I-5 or we’ll be rebuilding swathes of it every 10 years; $10 petrol will help. BNSF has been mostly cordial and agreeable if a bit grabby of public money for updating the SEA-PDX main. If significant sections (say 150 km+) of that main could be tripled or quadrupled (with appropriate signal improvements) so as to be able to carry both more passengers trains and freights, we’d have less pollution, and there’d be more money to improve the line north from Everett and south from Portland to Eugene. Realistically, by 2030, what would be the downside to 3 hrs VAC-SEA, 2:30 SEA-PDX and 2 hrs PDX-EUG? Hourly service in the core, every 2 hours north of SEA and south of PDX. The Starlight would run faster north of Eugene (and probably south of Chico) and there could be overnighters between Vancouver to Portland that would continue south ore come north on a schedule similar to but faster than the Southern Pacific’s beloved Shasta Delight of the 1950s and 1960s.

    2. I don’t think such a thing is likely to happen in Washington State for a long while (10+ yrs). In the case of California, they are linking two very large in-state metropolitan areas and I think a majority of the state’s population are more willing to pay for such a measure than a HSR line to a city in an adjacent state. I think we are better off completing a 110 MPH route.

    3. The chance of HSR here in the next three decades is nil. California has twice the population in the Bay Area, four times more in the Southland, and another chunk in Sacramento/Davis. The freeways may have the same gridlock but it’s over a much wider area, and people travel longer distances. If they don’t get HSR they’ll need another freeway, so they’ll pay one way or another anyway. Plus there are more rich people who like trains and are willing to willing to pay taxes for them.

      HSR in Washington would cost less because it’s a shorter distance and lower property values. So it may be half the price of HSR in California. It would have to be a fifth the price in order to have a comparable tax base. Plus, people in rural areas here do not have traffic and hate taxes. They can drive to Seattle or Portland in two or three hours, so who needs trains? But rural Californians may like to have a train station in the San Joaquin Valley or wherever the intermediate stops are, so they can get to SF or LA without spending hours in that ^&*( suburban traffic.

      1. When Cascades hits 3:10 as it will soon thanks to bottleneck removals, we’ll see whether the jump in ridership helps build the demand for a 110mph line.

        The state of the roads and the overhead of airplane flights means there’s no need for anything faster than 110; it’ll beat everything else on speed at that point. This is an advantage Cascadia has over a lot of the other ‘incrementally upgraded’ corridors; it’s much closer to time parity.

  17. Could we please let at least the Starlight stay on the present route past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? I know the reasons for straightening out the route through there- but it’s always been the part of the ride to Portland I enjoy the most. It’s also exactly the kind of scenery that has stayed beautiful because you can’t see it from a car.

    Mark Dublin

    1. It’s not going to happen; on-time performance is critical to building sustainable ridership, and the one-track bottlenecks around Pt. Defiance are a major cause of failure to adhere to schedule.

      That said, I’m sure BNSF will run the Starlight down the coastal route if the Lakewood route is closed temporarily for any reason, so scenery fans should keep a eye out. ;-)

      1. The other problem is when the route follows the Prairie Line, the Amtrak station will be moved to Freighthouse Square, and that’s a bit of a walk away, shall we say!

      2. So who cares? The Starlight is a scenic route. People using it from Tacoma are going to be dropped off/picked up by someone in a car. As long as you have cell phone service delays aren’t an issue. In fact, the longer it takes the more you get for your money. This all becomes even more true when there’s an alternate “express” route.

      3. ??

        The Train has to stop at a station.

        The route diverges before it gets to the current Tacoma Amtrak station.
        Freighthouse Square is on a different route completely.

        If the station staff moves to a new location, …
        I’m confused by your logic, Bernie.

        Keep both buildings active?

      4. Well, how much expense is there in maintaining the current station? I don’t know. But it seems like stations north of Seattle have a pretty minimal staff the majority of the time. I can’t see keeping the existing station operational for one route being more extravagant than opening a new station at Stanwood. Along those lines, how much would it cost to re-open and add a stop at Steilacoom? I know that’s before the scenic part of the route but it’s a cool little town and honestly I see the Starlight much more like a cruise ship than an airline. Adding another “port of call” could be a plus.

      5. Tacoma is a staffed station, unless you’re advocating a city the size of Tacoma doesn’t have checked baggage/ticketing/express services for the amount of riders boarding.

        Staff both? Staff neither? Staff which?

  18. I was pretty excited when I saw this as I want to go to Sacramento and it looked like a neat way to go. So I go to purchase a ticket for one of the mini sleepers and the fare is like 270, but that is only for one way so I am looking at over 500 dollars for the trip. I can fly for 200 and it will take a tenth the time. I might train one way because it looks fun, but I can’t afford to do that regularly.

    If we want people to take the train it needs to at least be price competitive.

    1. Upthread someone suggesting booking two tickets. One a coach fare to X station (however long you think you can make it) and then a roomette for the rest of the trip. Did you try that?

      1. I guess that could take it down a bit, but even then a round trip couch ticket is 160+ whereas a round trip plan ticket is 200.

      2. This is partly the *weird* airplane pricing where a round trip costs the same as a one-way. Amtrak coach prices are *always* cheaper than airline tickets for a one-way trip, not always for a two-way.

    2. The price depends on how far in advance you book (which is not unlike airplanes, actually) — the price can vary by a factor of 4 or more.

      I’m betting you’re booking less than, say, 4 months in advance. If you book 11 months in advance you’ll find cheaper roomettes.

      If you show up on the train with a coach ticket and ask them if they have any sleepers left unsold, and they do, buying the sleeper on the train will also be cheaper.

      This is basic “get the most money for the sleeper you can while still filling them up” pricing.

      1. The coach ticket prices also depend on how far in advance you purchase. 11 months in advance they are pretty cheap. A week before travel they are pretty expensive.

  19. I might train one way because it looks fun, but I can’t afford to do that regularly.

    Don’t compare riding the Starlight to flying. Compare it to a cruise ship. Flying is about getting somewhere; long distance trains are about going there.

    1. But thats not what it should be. And honestly its not that competitive to a cruise. I mean for less than a hundred bucks more I could take a 7 day cruise to Alaska.

      Train travel should not be a novelty one spends the extra money on for the fun of it.

    2. My friend’s family cruise was more expensive than that, around $100-150 per person per day. But that’s still less than a hotel room and meals.

  20. Re: cost. I find it tough, but not impossible, to find a route where Amtrack competes with flight costs. Generally, I have to tie this in with hotel costs.

    Examples:

    1. Seattle to Havre, MT. I have to travel to Havre for work. The flight out from Billings to Seattle is too early, so this becomes a 3-day trip by plane (Sea–>Bil monday, meet w/ clients tues, Bil–>Sea wed), plus it’s a 3-hour drive to Havre from Billings. So the real costs are: 2 flights, 3-day car rental, 2 hotel rooms. Compare that with taking the train, where my 2 hotel room costs and two of my car rental costs disappear, and I end up saving quite a bit of money.

    2. Vacation to Glacier National Park. Again, not having to pay for hotels or spend large amounts of time in the car makes this perfect. Hop on the Empire Builder on a Friday after work, sleep on the train after a beautiful ride, wake up in Glacier and hop off on the East side – hike all day. Hop back on in the evening, wake up back in Washington, and arrive before noon on Sunday. Even renting a mini-sleeper this is a very reasonably priced vacation.

    These costs are less than equivallent plane trips even when ignoring the beauty and benefits of train travel. The train is certainly not the cheapest for all trips, or even most trips, but it feels great when you can work train travel into a trip and still save money.

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