Dana’s Adventures on the Coast Starlight Start Today

I grew up in Central Washington State and when I recently learned my autistic nephew was about to graduate I determined to witness this important family milestone by travelling north. And in the process also experience something I have long been curious about: sleeping car service on Amtrak long distance routes. I have ridden coach on the Coast Starlight (Amtrak’s route between Los Angeles and Seattle) previously up the coast for two round trips and have vivid memories of what that was like. It is widely seen as one of the more scenic routes operated by Amtrak.

Starlight in blue.

During the the tail end of my Southbound return during the first trip on the Starlight I was seated in the dining car for dinner with some folks from the sleeping car section. I was intrigued at the camaraderie they exhibited telling me about the fun they had been having during the trip. The memory of that made me interested in finding out what all the fuss was about.

A few years ago at a conference put on by RailPAC (an advocacy group) as a premium for a nominal charge I obtained a copy of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide by Jim Loomis. After reading it cover to cover I sent it to my brother who is both my nephew’s Dad and a rail buff. That at least gave me some inkling of what my sleeping car adventure could entail.

Also luckily Larry Welborn recently did a write-up of his sleeping car experience on the Starlight for the Orange County Register which I found helpful plus my Mom sent me a clipping of an excellent overview of rail travel.

Doing online research I began to learn about various aspects of what I should expect during my journey. The Amtrak website has excellent details on trip planning and virtual tours of sleeping car accommodations (I will be travelling on a bi-level Superliner car in what is known as a roomette). The National Railroad Passenger Association (the national advocacy group for passenger service) has pages on its website with helpful

tips and details on what to expect during an Amtrak trip. Many rail fans have also compiled useful tips on Amtrak trips. Plus I looked over comments on the Starlight posted on Yelp and a travel blog’s advice on booking a ticket on the Starlight (which by the way is officially known as train #14 northbound and #11 southbound).

Then I focused in on the roomette aspect. The rail fan site trainweb has some informative layouts and diagrams. I also benefited from a thread on a flyertalk.com forum. And even found an explanation for the roomette room numbers.

As I need a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine due to sleep apnea I was gratified to find a description of what I needed to do to operate it on the train (basically be sure to bring a short extension cord to ensure the machine while on the floor connected to the outlet and was close enough to the bed that the air hoses would be able to attach to my face as I slept. Also that I should fill the humidifying water reservoir only one-third of the way due to train swaying).

I even on Sunday went out to Santa Monica to see if there was anything I might find useful at the retail store of Magellan’s, a travel supply specialty company. And ended up getting earplugs (I saw in my research warnings that sleeping can be be disrupted when passing noisy train crossing signaling devices) and a portable light with a motion sensor so I don’t have to grope for the light switch when entering the room after dark.

Sadly it won’t be until August that Amtrak opens a Metropolitah Lounge for sleeping car passengers. But in the meantime before departure we do get a

pre-board reception at Traxx. Oh, well. Something for me to look forward to on my next Starlight trip. Because when I was working a booth at National Train Day last month and mentioned to an attendee about my impending trip she declared “Once you do sleeping car you’ll never go back to coach!”.

I picked up my large luggage Tuesday evening from my repair guy (the wheels were broken), washed laundry and packed. By the time you read this I will after a good night’s sleep via taxi arrive at Union Station circa 9 a.m. for the reception and scheduled 10:10 a.m. departure.

Before I call the taxi I’ll confirm via the Amtrak app on my smartphone that the departure is on time since sometimes a late arriving #11 the prior day can cause a delay in the departure of #14 the next morning as the consist needs quite a few hours to be cleaned out, restocked and made ready before it can go out again after the locomotive is moved to the head end — you can also find out the status by calling 800-USA-RAIL and talk to the voice recognition system known as “Julie” (this can also be done via the “Ask Julie” virtual assistant feature of the Amtrak website.

I have CDs and reading matter to savor during the trip up and know there will be surprises along the way before my scheduled arrival in Portland, OR Thursday at 3:32 p.m. My Mom is picking me up there and we’ll drive on to Spokane, WA (the home of Next IT, the technology company that developed the aforementioned “Ask Julie” program) via the Columbia River Gorge with a stop in Hood River, OR for dinner at Pietro’s Pizza. Sunday afternoon is the ceremony so I have a few days to spend with family in Spokane before moving on to Yakima (home of “America’s last intact, early 20th Century, interurban electric railroad!”) where I grew up and revisit my youth via having a burger from either Miner’s or King’s Row. Or maybe I’ll get a burger at Miner’s and fries at King’s Row (the optimal combination). Thankfully both have fry sauce. YUM!

Then next Wednesday via shuttle bus over the Cascades I’ll depart from Sea-Tac Airport to LAX on Alaska Airlines.

A bit of trivia: the abbreviation Amtrak uses for L.A. Union Station is LAX.

  • HP cyclist

    I love the Coast Starlight and have taken it many times (including a couple trips in the roomette). Three words: Pacific Parlour Car. The car itself is lovely, the views are great, and I think the meals served there are better (albeit more limited) than the ones in the dining car. Plus, wine tastings!

  • MarkB

    Wow! You’ve been researching this like it’s an African safari! It seems you’ve covered all the research bases, but do you know about the enthusiast site Amtrak Unlimited (amtraktrains.com)? The site has a comprehensive set of discussion forums, virtual tours and the like.

    I’m a veteran of a few long-distance runs in sleepers, including the Starlight. I second HP cyclist in endorsing the PPC. We took all our meals there, did the wine tastings, watched the scenery go by from comfy swivel chairs, and met some really nice fellow travelers who we ended up chatting with an entire afternoon.

    More for other readers of this post than for you (since you’ve no doubt already read about it), some of the keys to enjoying a long-distance train are:

    —Be social. Most riders will be social in return. It’s not like an aircraft where you spend five hours sitting next to someone you never talk to.

    —Be flexible. Most of the time, things go according to plan. But if they don’t (equipment malfunctions, schedule delays, etc.), roll with the punches.

    —Be understanding. The Superliners are close to geriatric. Despite regular maintenance, you may come across squeaks and groans, chipped this or worn that. If you’d covered as many miles as they, you’d be creaking too!

    —Be Zen. Amtrak on-board service is consistently inconsistent. You may have the most fabulous sleeping car attendant imaginable but a surly PPC attendant or vis-versa. Lunch may be delicious but dinner like under-heated cardboard. Most OBS is at least professional, but the company isn’t as good at weeding out the bad eggs as it should be. Should you get a bad crew member or service, note the person’s name so you can let Amtrak know about it afterward. Then, let the experience be the thing you notice and then forget.

    A lot of what I describe is “worst-case scerario” stuff. I’ve been on end-to-end runs in sleepers on the Zephyr, the Empire Builder and the Starlight and I’ve enjoyed every trip. I’m already thinking of what my next run will be.

    Enjoy the ride!

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