Coast Starlight Day 1: Washington and Oregon

Washington


Seattle King Street Station

Train 11, The Coast Starlight, departs Seattle’s King Street Station at the reasonable time of 09:35; I’m there about an hour before, which is too early, but the station is pleasant enough. The rolling stock I’d spotted last night has since moved on, but a fresh set of coaches make an appearance at ten to nine, inevitably triggering a queue to form. Fortunately those of us in sleeper cars get priority, so I am one of the first to board and get the chance to check out the Parlour Car whilst it’s still empty, before settling in to my ‘roomette’.



Track-side boarding

We depart with a jolt – but no whistle – exactly on time. This sets off a series of announcements over the speaker system, from various parts of the train. In the sighseer lounge car, volunteers from the ‘trails and rails’ program would be offering an in-depth narrative as far as Portland. The dining car gave information on lunch and dinner reservations plus the seating arrangements. We learn of a closed car between lounge and dining, where there is to be strictly no loitering. In the sleeping cars, we hear from the pacific parlour car regarding light lunch options (salad with a roll, or ham & swiss cheese baguettes with kettle chips) and a wine tasting later this afternoon ($7.50, featuring two whites and a red). Finally, our sleeping car attendant introduces himself and points out that there’s coffee already on the go and fruit to grab – anything not alcohol or tips is ours to take.

I linger in the room long enough to make a reservation for lunch (just the time; you select from the menu there), then make my way to a Parlour car swivel chair for some first views of Mt Rainier. We pass through Puyallup, where they appear to have rain, before making our first stop, Tacoma; a place that seems to have seen better days, and where it’s definitely raining. Maybe it’s the weather, or perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the Cascades yesterday, but I don’t find this section particularly inspiring, so I return to my room and book, although I do take note of the Tacoma Narrows bridges as we pass them.



Mt Rainier


Tacoma Narrows Bridges


Olympia-Lacey Station

At 11:15 we make a double stop for Olympia-Lacey, as it’s too small to fit all the cars! As such, we collect the sleeper passengers then pull forward for coach. A passenger joining for one of the rooms near mine resolves a question I’d been pondering – what happens if you join after the lunch reservations run? It turns out, you get whatever timeslot is left.

Half an hour later is Centralia- a brief stop, with no time to visit the platform unless you’re leaving. However, I wouldn’t have time to look anyway, as I’ve been called to lunch.

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Dining Car

Service in the dining car is at tables for four, and there is a system of “community seating”: to fit everyone in, they’ll make sure that each table has four diners. For those in smaller groups, then, you’ll be sharing with strangers – but having not had a conversation of more than few minutes in the last week, that’s fine by me. On this occasion, I have the lovely company of three young women on their way to Portland. As they’re American, much of our freewheeling conversation relates to differences between the US and UK, and how the familiar in one place becomes exciting across the pond (We’re just getting into pulled pork and kale; they are learning of quidditch; I refuse to believe that vinegar beer is a thing). There’s plenty of travel tips in both directions too – one of them has seen plenty of Europe that I haven’t!

We while away an hour and ten in this fashion, over what turns out to be hearty comfort food; from the onboard menu I’d opted for the chef’s marketplace special, “a crispy panko-crusted breast of chicken over a sweet onion sauce, served with garlic mashed potatoes”. For passengers from the sleeper car, all meals are included – the prices are just for folks in coach.

Since I was up and about, I took a look at the Sightseer lounge – this lounge is accessible for all passengers, but given I had the Parlour car, it seemed unfair to claim a space there that could be enjoyed by someone from coach. That also meant I saw the forbidden car – I don’t know if this is normally part of the dining consist, or they were just transporting it elsewhere.



Sightseer Lounge


Closed car

By now the view, if not the weather, has improved somewhat as we follow a river through woodland. Near Vancouver (the American one), I’m surprised to see houseboats – I’d expect them in, say, Louisiana, but not this far north. Although they might fit with the kind of environmentally sound, off-the-grid living I can imagine appealing to some in the Cascades.
Vancouver is the last stop in Washington state, and we cross the Columbia into Oregon at 2pm, about forty minutes behind schedule.

Oregon

Our arrival in Portland at 14:30 marks the first stop where one can stretch their legs (and perhaps even smoke – the rules are unclear), although the advice is still to stay trainside, since departure is on the basis of “when we’re ready” rather than a fixed time. It’s surprisingly humid given the overcast conditions, so I settle for a few shots of our units and a Cascades train on the adjacent track (At one point I’d considered switching trains here, although I’m glad I stopped short at Seattle and thus got to complete the full run of the Coast Starlight).

We gain quite a few sleeper passengers, but they are in search of the dining car at first. The power went out for a bit, prompting apologies from the world-weary sounding café attendant. Perhaps as a result, our eventual departure from Portland is at 3pm, at which point a film starts in the parlour car’s downstairs theatre (the excellent Big Hero 6, although I decide to stick with the windows and company of fellow passengers).

The Parlour Car offers alternative evening meals, and after some deliberation – the main dining car strikes me as more sociable – I opt for that on the basis of a lamb shank offering (with a vegetarian alternative of mac and cheese). I seem to be quite far along the ordering queue, so the only possible time slot is 18:40; for the parlour car you do pre-order, and I’m the last to have the option of lamb.

We make our way to Salem through snapshots of American towns: wooden houses, often with boats; Oregon city; and unidentifiable agriculture – strawberries, perhaps? Salem is another stop purely for those joining / leaving. We receive a reminder about the strict liquour laws preventing consumption of your own carry-on, followed by a convenient reminder that they can nonetheless sell you some at the bar!

We haven’t been making as many non-station stops as the Cascades did; the first I notice is just past Salem, at Renard siding, where we meet the northbound Coast Starlight, train 14. We learn that all dining car reservations have now been taken, full to capacity with a waitlist in operation, so I wonder what their catering ratio is.

Like some scene from a small-town radio drama, there has been a series of PA announcements from Chris in the dining car, attempting to locate a Ms Roth, the owner of a wallet which has been turned in. Since she has not responded to a few calls, they were now seeking the individual who found it; presumably, then, there is no passenger list.

Another siding, Millersburg, to let train 508, the northbound Cascades, pass. That turns out to be a few minutes from Albany, where we arrive a little before 5pm. The station itself seems to be a freight yard, a reminder of how this dominates the US rail industry. Although cloudy, the sun seems to be trying harder to push through. Sure enough, a quarter of an hour down the line we have sunshine, and by Eugene (17:45), there’s both lovely weather and a spare swivel seat in the parlour car for me to enjoy our climb into the Cascades. The rolling views of close-by sun-dappled forests are lovely, but near-impossible to capture well by camera- even more so, the occasional glimpses of lakes beyond.


Climbing the Cascades

The dining car is running delays of 15-20 minutes, no doubt as customers enjoy the scenery with their food, but in the Parlour Car all is to schedule so I move up for my meal. Here I dine alone, although that means I can offer a photographic retrospective; a good piece of lamb, but I was unconvinced by the mash. It turns out there were actually two other courses available; I declined the opening salad, but given dessert options of tiramisu (from Italy!), ice cream or a strawberry cheesecake, I couldn’t quite resist the latter. I also claimed another bottle of ice cold water to take to my room.



Dinner in the Pacific Parlour car, as we travel through the Cascades.

We’re advised that there’s no signal up here for phones or the parlour car wifi to reach the wider world, so it’s just the view – which continues to delight. Around 8pm I stretch my legs by walking the length of the train; coach seems dark and one car smells mostly of feet. Our slow, looping route takes us ever higher into forested mountains, but half an hour later the light is dropping off – ok for eyes, but my camera becomes an expensive paperweight.

We make a brief stop at Chemult, again just to trade passengers; by now the sun has sunk below the horizon, although still lends a tinge of red to scattered clouds.
The twelve hour mark passes with just 475 miles covered, an average of less than 40mph. Little to show for what is easily the most time I’ve spent on a train, and perhaps any mode of transport; both time and distance will triple before I’m done.

At 22:05 we reach Klamath Falls, having thus recovered all but five minutes of earlier delays. This marks the start of quiet time, with no use of the PA – in particular, there will be no call to breakfast, nor announcements of the overnight stops Dunsmuir (00:35), Redding (02:21) or Chico (03:50). This therefore seems a sensible time to request transformation of my room to sleeper mode. After setting an alarm for a solid nine hours – and the surreal experience of getting undressed on public transport – I turn in for the night, easily rocked to sleep by the sway of the train.