Sunday, April 30, 2006

Train 14: Time slips by

My first night on the Coast Starlight goes quite well. I manage to sleep relatively undisturbed until just after six. This seems to be my normal sleep pattern on the train, and five to six hours seems to be working for me. However it must be getting light now, as the door in front of me is crashing open as passengers start filterting forward through the train to get coffee and breakfast from the cafe and restaurant cars. When I pull up my eye mask up I'm blinded by the bright daylight. We're bowling along through a beautiful sunrise, and I'm left with the usual early morning activity of trying to guess where we are. The train begins to slow for a station, and without an announcement (Amtrak don't make PA announcements during the night to help people sleep) I take a risk and hope we're nearing Dunsmuir, California.

I am disappoited... it's actually Redding, California. We're now running more than three hours late, and we've not even reached the state line with Oregon. It's little wonder that this train has earned the nickname 'The Coast Star-Late'. When I chat with the cafe attendant later, he tells me that in the twelve months he's worked on this train, the best time it's ever kept was to arrive in Seattle one hour late. Three hours is good, and twelve hours is the worst. Much of this is blamed upon the freight railroad Union Pacific, who own and maintain the tracks we're running on. They do not have a good record of helping the Coast Starlight reaching it's destination, and it creates a sorry atmosphere on board. This can no longer claim to be Amtrak's finest train, despite the beautiful scenery we pass through en route.

It's time for my last breakfast on an Amtrak long distance train. So I walk forward at six thirty and join three others who are traveling independently of each other. One man is going to Portland, another to Kelso and a female acquaintance is going to Dunsmuir. As seems to be the norm, as soon as I sit down to eat we enter the beautiful scenery of northern California, and the train is weaving through narrow valleys and steep canyons, with water crashing down a river beside us. We pass peaceful lakes, and as the sun rises the sides of thickly forested mountains are illuminated.

We all have coffee and cranberry juice (one orders it instead of orange, and then we all follow...). I choose the 'Bob Evans Scrambled Eggs'. I've no idea who Bob Evans is, but his trademarked signature is on the menu. Maybe it's he himself downstairs in the kitchen, but I doubt it. It turns out to be scrambled eggs with meat and potatoes mixed in, and served with two fluffy Amtrak pancakes. It's a good start to the day.

We chat about where we're going, where we've come from and exchange the usual conucopia of Amtrak stories. It's always the friendly way to start the day in the restaurant car, and it's a good way for the solo traveler to make new friends.

After breakfast I do what I should have done last night, and move forward two cars. I try to find the coach attendant of my new car to see if this is ok, but she's nowhere to be found. I move my bags and remember to take my seat check with me. Later that day, I overhear a story from a man who was stranded 100 miles from home on Christmas Eve. He had moved seats during the night to sleep better, but hadn't taken the seat check from above his seat with him. Without a nighttime announcement, the conductor hadn't been able to give him a personal wake up, and he'd ended up far from home as the snow began to pile up. Moral of the story? Don't underestimate how important that slip of paper stuck above your seat is.

Shortly after we leave Dunsmuir the conductor breaks the nocturnal silence and tells us about the delay, which he makes to be two and a half hours. Much of it was put down to a re-routing we had to follow during the night. Incredibly it seems, we haven't been held up because of freight trains yet. There is, however, a long way to go, and I am resigned to arriving in Seattle whenever we finally make it. A reasonable evening arrival looks less and less likely.

My new seat is in an older coach, but this means the leg rest adjusts more and I have more room to spread out. In front of me is a young Hispanic couple who have found themselves talking in a mixture of Spanish and English to an older woman who is traveling on her own. They talk about universities, a subject on which the older woman seems to have a great deal to say...

"There is a very very good university in Waco, Texas. Is a Christian University. You can student anything you like there. Good Christian University. Good city too. There is many dollar stores. Dollar stores good for many many things. You don't want to go to Davis. Don't go there. Stick with your own people. Stick with own people. They will see you have no money and they will treat you like a dog there. Don't go there."

Her advice is taken, but I suspect it falls on deaf ears. We continue through the mountains, slowing to a crawl whenever we pass a stationary freight train.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I thought I'd emerge from lurk-dom to shed some light on your mystery eggs. Bob Evans is a restaurant chain located primarily in the southeast and midwest. It's known for country-style food, down-home cookin', that type of thing.

I've enjoyed reading your blog, by the way!