USA Reflections West Coast: Amtrak’s Coast Starlight
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight
It certainly made an entrance. Amtrak’s vast Coast Starlight – twelve double decker coaches hauled by two GE ‘Genesis’ locomotives – arrived at Seattle’s handsome King Street Station; a clanging, banging, purring beast that sat down on the tracks hissing and humming, impatient to get underway on its journey south via Portland, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles.
A career railwayman, I was looking forward to this. We’ve travelled on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Acela Express services between Boston and New York a few times but I’ve wanted to experience a long-distance train journey for years. Boarding the Coast Starlight, I was not disappointed.
We had a cute bedroom with a big sofa, comfy armchair and private shower and lavatory; most important, the room had a huge picture window from which to watch the passing scenery. We would be taking the train as far as Emeryville for San Francisco, a trip due to last around 24 hours.
Sometimes you don’t see the best side of a place from a railway carriage; the tracks weave in and out of industrial estates and warehouses and vacant scraps of land. But these unglamorous, unloved city quarters hold their own interest. So it was leaving Seattle. We trundled – express it ain’t – past the back-end of King Country Airport, past Union Pacific’s endless Argo Yard with shipping containers laid out for mile upon mile like Lego bricks, past the trailer parks and back yards and parking lots of Seattle’s working suburbs before the city’s hinterlands gave way gradually to the green open spaces of Washington state.
Settled in, we explored the train. The Coast Starlight has a vintage Parlour Car for use of sleeper passengers, complete with a small cinema downstairs. There’s also the Observation Car with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, comfy chairs and a bar. We settled here with a couple of bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and watched the landscape outside become more and more rugged and remote. Trees spread out either side of the tracks as we snaked through dense and dark forest, broken up only by the occasional lake or pond.
Volunteers from the National Park Service provide commentary between Seattle and Portland and it was from them we learned that the massive, brooding peak off to the east was Mount Rainier, tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. They were a nice bunch and full of interesting information about what we were seeing outside the train. As a Brit and therefore unused to mountains, I found the sheer size of the peaks we past astounding. Mount St. Helens – the one that blew up – Mount Adams, Mount Hood and others stood tall in the distance.
Meals on the train are included and the food is actually rather good. As a couple, you’re seated with another couple and we had some pleasant conversations with otherwise total strangers. For dinner, I had the Amtrak Signature Steak, washed down with a few glasses of Californian red. Really quite tasty.
After dinner we snuggled down in our compartment and opened the bottles of wine we’d brought from Seattle. Our steward – whom I had tipped quite well at the start of the trip – had been in to convert our sofa into two bunks. We would sleep as our train chugged south through Oregon.
I did not sleep especially well. The ride is bumpy, thanks to the relatively old rolling stock and track meant for freight, not passenger, traffic. I woke several times during the night – once to find the train going backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards somewhere near Klamath Falls, Oregon – and eventually gave up around 5am.
Wrapping myself in a blanket I watched as our train snaked through the California mountains, bathed in stark moonlight. Deer and foxes and other wildlife ran alongside the tracks and the green and red glow of the signals cast kaleidoscopic patterns in the purpling dawn. Gradually the sun rose over the mountain tops and the peaks and valleys and rivers came to life, bathed in California sunshine. Those few hours were worth the whole trip.
By this time, we were seven hours late. Flat, dull expanses of agricultural land fell away on either side and we began to get a little impatient. But soon we pulled into Sacramento and began the last leg down to Emeryville. Standing in the corridor of our sleeper car we leant against the window and watched as we swung around San Pablo Bay and then turned south along San Francisco Bay.
Gradually the city came into view; the peak of the TransAmerica Tower, Alcatraz Island and, in the far distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. Arriving at Emeryville we said farewell to our moving home and watched it rattle off into the distance before turning our eyes across the bay to The Golden City beyond.
Words by Nicholas Rogers
Photos by Liam Shoots