Whilst we had checked out some impressive first class carriages on last year’s honeymoon-by-rail across Europe, I was keen for Alaina to get to experience the US’s rather different take on long-distance train journeys. The Coast Starlight‘s facilities – private ‘roomettes’, dining tables, lounge cars, even showers! – feel more like a travelling hotel: with all the lack of speed that image conjures up.
Our original plan had simply been to ride to Portland and back, but when we spotted Eugene a little further down the line we couldn’t resist extending our itinerary. However, as the Coast Starlight runs only once a day in each direction we’d have very little time to explore the city on an overnight stay, so we picked an earlier departure of the Amtrak Cascades instead. For that we’d have to settle for business seats instead of a private compartment – although on the day we ended up with a private carriage, as we were the only customers in that class!
Sadly, the Coast Starlight is not all it once was: the Pacific Parlour Cars, once the exclusive domain of first class ticket holders, were finally retired earlier this year. Although the lounge car – shared by all passengers – remains a feature for now, the Parlour Cars weren’t just about the views. They also had their own catering, offering some variety to the standard dining car menu; and would host events such as wine tastings too! So I consider this quite a loss – enough to question the merits of booking first over business for daytime sections such as these.
Although there is only the standard dining car menu to choose from now, first class does still get you free meals throughout the journey. It also seems to get you first pick of a time slot – which also guaranteed we’d have enough time for a lunch sitting before reaching Portland on the outbound. As usual, communal dining was in effect; sadly we didn’t particularly click with our two companions (who did not know each other), so my notes summarised that first meal as “tasty burger, limited conversation”. Dinner on the return a few days later was genuinely one of the best meals of the trip flavour-wise but, again, having spectators made it a little awkward! Fortunately conversation flowed more easily in the lounge car, which due to light passenger loads made an acceptable replacement for the Parlour Car (back in 2015, I doubt I would have found a seat, let alone two).
Of course, this is all still far beyond what is offered on the Amtrak Cascades: its bistro stocks light refreshments to be enjoyed at one of a couple of tables or back at your seat (All quite reminiscent of buffet cars on British trains). With the 9:45am Portland departure arriving in Eugene at lunchtime, this was not really a problem for us, but something to keep in mind if considering a longer section of the route. Business class passengers also get a few dollars credit thrown in, although you’d have to combine forces to afford a hotdog!
The last time I’d taken the Coast Starlight from Seattle, it was all the way to Los Angeles. Whilst we wouldn’t be travelling so far this time nor, it turned out, would anyone else. Californian wildfires had reached such an intensity that it was not possible to operate between Redding and Sacramento; and rather than make partial progress it was decided not to even venture into the state. Our first service would therefore be terminating at Klamath Falls, but anyone hoping for a destination beyond that was advised to cancel entirely and fly from Seattle.
These fires became a recurring topic on our trip: many sections of road that would have featured in our tour of the Columbia gorge were still closed from previous fire damage; on our train to Eugene staff showed us maps of dozens of blazes now within Oregon; by the next day, they had leapt from maps to the landscape around us.
Although both our Coast Starlight services ran notably late as a result, the northbound by almost an hour, we considered ourselves lucky: some passengers had spent days trying to complete their journey. Moreover, if we’d taken this holiday just a month later, Seattle would have been a write-off, with advice to stay indoors amidst some of the worst air quality readings in the world and negligible visibility from the Space Needle. [Even now as I write – in November – fires continue to devastate California.]
Some of the landscape rolling leisurely past the windows bore witness to older – but even more spectacular – hazards. Banks that I had assumed arose from cutting the train route through hillsides were actually ash and mud thrown up by Mount St. Helens’ devastating eruption, still piled high some thirty years later. On the return journey, we learnt more about this event from a pair of guides in the lounge car; they were aboard as part of the National Park Service’s Trails and Rails programme. As well as their gentle narration, they passed around maps and photographs to aid our understanding of the sights we were enjoying via the floor-to-ceiling windows. Apart from their train-wide announcements of particular highlights along the route, I had not paid attention to these guides before, but it’s definitely worth sharing time with them if they are riding on your train. (That said, the only tale I made note of for further investigation was that of the Nutty Narrows bridge, a road crossing in Longview – for squirrels!)
On my previous full-length run of the Coast Starlight, the initial stages from Seattle – before climbing into the Cascades – hadn’t left much of an impression. In fact, my account suggests I found my book more rewarding than the scenery… At the time I attributed that to the overcast weather and the unreasonable baseline set by the previous evening’s sunset trip from Vancouver to Seattle. However, with the benefit of these two additional rides I now think I simply had the wrong view. Seated on the left-hand side travelling southbound, I was generally looking east / inland; this time we had windows to the west, revealing much more of Puget sound and the Columbia River.
Better still, the timing of our northbound trip meant that the sun was setting as the Coast Starlight worked its way through Washington. The fading light flooding in sideways across the water gave a warm glow to already-idyllic shoreline scenes: glimpses of ferries moored at piers, or families enjoying beaches now leeched of the more oppressive heat of the afternoon. Travelling through sundown to arrive at our eventual destination in darkness gives a fitting sense of scale or pace to these long rides; it’s part of why I previously so enjoyed that journey from Vancouver. But there was also a pleasing sense of unwinding to our itinerary, as we slowly reversed all of our progress south. We’d left Seattle at 9 one morning, and arrived back at 9 at night; for every hour in between, we could point to a day where it had been spent on a train. That gradual shift tied together our three destinations in a way that the dislocation of air travel never could, and I hope I can continue to find the time to take to the rails whenever I’m in the US. I’ve definitely got my eye on the one service from Portland I’ve not yet sampled – the Empire Builder…
Here’s an assortment of photos, from all three journeys; unfortunately I still struggle to take photos from moving trains that do justice to the views!