For a 22 hour trip up the west coast of the US, that begins at 10:12 pm (11 pm for me as the train was late), you really hope all the best scenery occurs in daylight.
Cattle, sheep, apples, bees. The train glides its way past rolling hills of farms. Plots left to fallow, others recently sown. Different colors of grass and other crops. It could be any other rural countryside, and equally beautiful. During the night we also pass industrial zones, valleys of tall evergreens, and rural communities too few perhaps care much about.
AMTRAK runs its Coast Starlight service along the west coast of the USA. I’m travelling overnight from San Francisco to Seattle. After boarding at Emeryville the train heads on to California’s capital Sacramento. Meanwhile I head off to sleep.
At dawn we are winding along whitewater rivers and steep mountains of fir trees. There are snow-tipped peaks in the distance.
At 6:30 am the dining car opens for a sitdown breakfast. I’m seated among 3 other strangers who are getting acquainted over their meal. “Would you like some coffee,” the server says, offering an appealing way to get started.
The food is simple, some kind of eggs, some kind of cereal, or some kind of sandwich. Juice is also provided. My meal includes a choice of bread or croissant. The staff members are perky and polite. A group of regular travellers, or perhaps a group who boarded the day before, are welcomed back. “Hi there, guys!’
Our group talks travel: places, seasons, and ways of getting around. The last part is the most important as we seem pretty new to this “train thing”. As the official foreigner, I’m a bit more of a novelty. My story takes a little longer to tell. The woman sitting next to me is off to Oregon. The others are getting off at Seattle like me.
All except one is a first time AMTRAK traveller, so we share our feelings about the trip so far and whether another $250 would have been worth it to get us out of coach and into a sleeper cabin. We all decide “not really”. The seats aren’t too bad, and even a sleeper doesn’t guarantee a sound night. The coach seats are reasonable for the price. A $120 online booking for a one-way Tuesday night trip ($150 for other days, even more on weekends) gets me a large aging business-class airline seat with almost a metre of leg room. I’m thankfully sitting alone during the night. By early morning I have someone to share my space with.
Nevertheless, the sleeping is predictably uncomfortable. I wake several times during 5 hours of restless turning, and finally give in, with a sore backside and crooked neck. The carriages are double storey, and you get in with a step ladder from the ground floor of the station. In days gone by there was probably an oak chest to step on; these days it is a bright yellow four-legged stool with an over-designed industrial aesthetic. Luggage storage, toilets, and other amenities are located on the lower floor, with most of the seating up top for the view.
There are a few seats on the lower floor, perhaps for less abled bodies, which seem depressingly below the plimsal line. I poke my head in during the night to see a huge guy sprawled on the ground in front of his two seats. Other people try this throughout the train too, and the lounge carriage has people occupying all manner of crazy positions; seems the thing to do for seasoned train travellers.
Strangely, specific seats are not allocated at the time of purchasing the tickets; each passenger is assigned a seat number as they step up onto the train. There is a moment of frustration and confusion as several passengers, mainly foreign tourists like myself, suddenly discover other people already sound asleep in their allotted seats. Someone moves to another seat, then someone else to another, until almost no one is in their correct seats.
It is a long trip, and AMTRAK organizes a few activities to keep people occupied. Between breakfast and lunch there are volunteers pointing out geographic and cultural highlights that we pass on the landscape. Wine and cheese tasting of local produce is happening somewhere onboard between lunch and dinner.
There are a few stops on the way. After lunch we reach Salem in the picturesque Marion Country. Dinner is scheduled for 5:15 PM – all my meals today are hours earlier than normal: but the dining car runs on a tight schedule of shifts for patrons. While eating, we stop for an hour at Portland waiting for a bridge to be fixed, then pass through a place called Vancouver. There’s Kelso-longview, Centralia, Olympia-Lacey, and Tacoma. When we arrive at Seattle at the end of my journey it’s almost 10 pm.