Monday, January 19, 2009

All Aboard!

I didn't realize those words could bring such a thrill of anticipation until we were on Amtrak's Coast Starlight for our Christmas adventure. The conductor calling with the age-old cadence brought back memories of traveling from Iowa to Seattle with my grandmother when I was 5 and my family first moved here... Our destination on December 22 was Oceanside, California, and we expected to be about 38 hours en route, including a train change in Los Angeles. However, snow affects many things, and the delays on our route south gave us an extra 22+ hours to experience our first long train trip. We stayed fairly philosophical, remembering that many flights at the airport were outright canceled, and at least we were progressing south. We had a "roomette" with cozy privacy of two wide seats facing each other, our own heat and lighting controls, meals included, and the seats became one bed at night with a second lowering into place bunk-bed style. The food and the relaxation were quite preferable to air travel - sitting at a dining table chatting with other riders while we ate was interesting and varied, and the scenery is incomparable. We napped, talked, read, George watched a movie on his portable DVD player, and I knitted.

The train staff began to refer to our trip as Murphy's train since nearly everything that could delay progress seemed to do so. Initially, there was a power outage on the train, so we got out of Seattle about 4 hours late. Then there were, of course, frozen switches; a tree on the track that caused the need for an engine change in Portland, then the power was out again (3 hour delay); the engineer and conductor twice ran out on their 12 hour federal work hours limit, so the train was literally stopped where it was (3+ hour delay the first time, right in the Cascades) while new staff were brought in. We stopped further in the Cascades to pick up two stranded crews (photo at left is one set) from freight trains frozen in the snow, and later waited while another set of engineer and conductor were in traffic behind a major freeway traffic crash. On the third day, the train staff members who were not being relieved (the car attendants and the food servers) were showing their fatigue, having only slept minimally since leaving Los Angeles 5 days before. They still managed to do their jobs with courtesy and a sense of humor; we heard that our long trip was covered on CNN and joked about by Jay Leno. Still, we only saw one example of a passenger taking out frustration on the train staff. I think the people who choose to travel by train are ready to relax and enjoy themselves and maybe since they've already chosen the unhurried method, are not quite so stressed as those who pursue the quick way then are upset when it is slower than expected, or fails completely. Our return trip was delayed by only 15 minutes, and picking up the luggage was nearly no time at all. Anyway, we had a great time, a good visit with George's family, and we expect to travel by train whenever we can. As George said, when you travel by train, you're on vacation the minute you step on board - a refreshing change from air travel!