Solo Train Travel: One Bucket List Item Down …

Last week I finally took myself up on my bucket short-list for a solo train trip.

The Coast Starlight at North Fork of the Willamette River, by Wiki-media.

Off to to Portland I went to visit my daughter for a few days. Booking a ticket was easy. Go online, choose your dates, pay with a credit or debit card, then print out the ticket and bring it with you.

The northbound Coast Starlight arrives in Redding around 3 a.m., and it’s recommended passengers be at the station 20 – 30 minutes early, so I stayed up rather than go to bed, fight sleep, fall asleep and then risk missing the alarm. Besides, I could sleep on the train. After all, the train ride was more than 12 hours long. Clearly, this kind of travel is ideal for the unhurried, or the self-employed, unemployed, retired or airline phobic. But it’s also perfect for train-lovers, which I am. I’ve often said I would vote for almost anyone who’d make high-speed rail a priority in the U.S.

A $5 cab fare delivered me to the downtown Redding station where I was surprised to see so many others waiting as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be awake and waiting for anything at 3 a.m. The most practically dressed woman wore  pajamas, and brought her own pillow.

My seat was upstairs, but when I got there I discovered it was occupied by a snoring, splayed-out woman, mouth agape – across her seat and mine.  When I tapped her shoulder and pointed to my seat, she shifted most of her lower half from it and fell back to sleep, one hip still on my seat.

I tried to sleep and finally gave up and took a walk. I explored the train and found the best place was the Observation Car, surrounded by windows and topped by skylights. This car – also called the “Parlor Car” – had tables and swivel chairs that faced views (at daylight) on both sides of the train.

The observation car offers great views and opportunties to eat, play cards and meet other passengers. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

Later in the morning, after sunrise at Klamath Falls, a pair of Trails and Rails docents boarded who acted as train travel guides. They pointed out nesting eagles and red-winged blackbirds and mountains and lakes and Oregon lore. Very interesting.

There was the Coast Starlight’s sleeper car, which is notoriously expensive, but enticing. The Superliner Bedroom sleeps three and has a bathroom and shower. Meals are included. And it costs $772 per night. The Superliner Roomette has no bathroom, but it sleeps one or two people. It costs $346 per night.

I found an empty mini car downstairs designated just for passengers for disabilities. Also downstairs was a very tiny little “café” and a space filled with all kinds of snacks and drinks.

Upstairs was the dining car, classed-up with white tablecloths and flowers, where reservations-only breakfast, lunch and dinner were served, prepared by chefs. I got a peek at the menu and saw that prices ranged from $7.50 for scrambled eggs and $10.75 for a soup and salad combo, to $25.75 for the Amtrak Signature Steak.

I’d brought protein bars and nuts, but bought a plastic container of mixed fruit from the café that made me wish I hadn’t. Hard mangos, tart apples, sour pineapple, tiny grapes.

Other than to avoid the pucker-up fruit bowl, I learned a few other things during this train trip.

• There’s a lever on the armrest that operates a fairly large (but mostly hidden) flipper-foot rest that can be pulled up and extended so you can stretch out. If you’re lucky enough to have an empty seat next to you, you can have a spacious enough surface to actually sleep in relative comfort. On my trip, the train was packed coming and going, so spare seats were rare.

• The train porters and servers were kind and accommodating. Let’s say you’re stuck with a seat mate who smells strongly of cigarettes and alcohol, whose body is draped across your seat. Just quietly explain the situation to a train employee and chances are good that you’ll be moved to a better place.

•  If your seat is upstairs, before you take the trek up the narrow, steep metal staircase, first take advantage of storing your suitcase on the racks downstairs by the exits, unless you need your luggage nearby during the trip.

• Search for the least-visited bathroom, because it will be in the best (relative) condition. In the case of the Coast Starlight’s train 14, that would be the bathroom tucked away near the café tables.

• Speaking of bathrooms, they are small – like a commercial airline’s, but not as luxurious. And the bathrooms can look as if someone were jostled mid-stream, so about the only advice I can offer is to go easy on the liquids, use lots of seat covers and bring hand sanitizer.

• Bring a travel pillow, because the available ones loaned out by Amtrak are those papery little disposable numbers. Reused by passengers. You might also bring a shawl to serve as a blanket, because it can get chilly on the train. And then warm. And then chilly.

•  Bring earplugs and eye shades to help with sleep.

• Arrive on time for your train, because if it’s on schedule it will leave without you. On the other hand, be prepared for train delays, so common that the Coast Starlight is sometimes called the “Coast Starlate.”

Sunny in Redding could mean rainy in Portland. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

•  This is more about travel in general, but check your destination’s weather forecast before you leave, or you might end up as I did, arriving in a Portland downpour wearing sandals, capris and a summer top.

• Unless you plan to eat in the dining car or buy food from the little cafe for every meal, bring your own food and beverages.

•  If you take advantage of the occasional opportunity to get some fresh air and walk around outside during station stops, stay near the train doors. One women was nearly left behind when she wandered too far from the train during her smoke break.

Train depots are a great place to stretch your legs and get some fresh air during a long train ride, but stay close or the train may leave without you. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

• Get to know the other travelers. I met Grace from L.A. whose niece wants to be a writer, and she wondered if the niece could email me. (Sure.)

And I met a professional fisherman who has liver cancer, who’d sold everything to move near his family in Washington.

I met a woman from Pasadena who’d visited her daughters in Seattle, who told how she spent an entire summer (and $80,000) in Mexico, one of the best times of her life.

I met a kid playing a video game called Fruit Ninja.

And I met a teenage girl named Kelley, who’s taking her entire high school course load online; traveling to Redding to spend time with her sister’s family on their Shasta Lake boathouse.

For changing scenery, there’s nothing like a train trip. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

 

• If you don’t feeling like talking, you can just observe the scenery and watch your fellow passengers. There was the long-haired guy who set out a spread of bagels and a-nearly-empty jar of peanut butter on his seat tray. There was woman and a man who seemed to strike up a romance just outside Portland. By Albany they weren’t speaking.

• Bring something to pass the time. Many passengers read, slept, talked, played cards, listened to music via earbuds, watched movies on laptops, worked on laptops, ate, knitted, did crosswords, or just stared out the windows. I read an entire book on the return trip (“Those Who Save Us” by Jenna Blum – thumbs up).

On the trip to Portland I wrote. Trains are perfect for writers. You’re captive, you’re not home. You can’t procrastinate and start a load of laundry or yard work or decide to make nut bread or run to the store for something. You’re stuck on a train. You may as well write.

Besides, there’s plenty to write about. So many stories.

Like the story about the Redding woman who crossed “solo train trip” off her bucket list, only to replace it with Superliner Bedroom and Summer in Mexico.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

 

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Charlie says:

    Madam, Riding the rails — mouthwatering, except for the pineapple.

    Great article! I'm packing my valise and can already hear the whistle blowing. Chattanooga here I come! your fond, the Wabash Cannonball

  2. Avatar Fig says:

    The joys of riding the rails! About 8 years ago I had the pleasure to ride the Coast Starlight from LA to Tacoma WA and had a terrific time. Booked the Superliner Bedroom for the 34-hour trip and it was worth it. (At 3:00 AM, that was one cute "little" Redding train depot!) One of the highlights was the dining times. Whether you pay for your meals or the meals are included with the fare, you enjoy "communal dining" with different sets of people at each meal (no preferred seating). From first-timers to "veteran railers," I listened in awe at the tales of others who rode trains and left with a better appreciation of what life can be. Someday, I would like to ride to another far distant destination. Thanks for painting such a wonderful picture to us readers.

  3. Avatar Judy Smith says:

    While I recognized many of the negative aspects of train travel in your account, I admire your determination to give it another try. While AMTRAK is not the gracious mode of travel of say The Orient Express or even most European lines, there are definite pluses. As you discovered, the scenery is like nothing you can encounter in an automobile; railroads have access to stretches where cars aren't even allowed (like across Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. Also, you're not needing to watch the road rather than the views. Fun and interesting people ride trains, and talking with them is often entertaining and enlightening. One way you can rule out the risk of "sharing" a seat with a less than desirable seat partner is to take along your own sidekick. We've had wonderful experiences escorting grandchildren on assorted routes, with and without sleeping accommodations. (Sacramento to Chicago, Sacramento to San Diego, and this summer, Emeryville to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado) Kids ride for a nominal amount, and if you share a Roomette (2 chairs by day, 2 cots by night), they basically eat free. It's great fun to see the journey through their eyes, to share with them a unique adventure. Somehow, the rail travel shortcomings become less important on such a trip. We've found that taking our own snacks not only saves money but ensures the availability of healthy favorites. You can take pretty much anything on a train–even your Swiss Army Knife for cutting up fruit and cheese. We definitely don't ride the train for the gourmet dining–it's not. Remember, they must load on all foodstuffs at the departure terminal, enough for the whole trip (because of quick stops along the way) and have very limited cooking facilities for hundreds of people. If we could get more passengers to utilize trains, perhaps there would be more lines and faster trains with better equipment, more personnel to keep bathrooms clean (an issue for sure!), and an experience that would make more people want to ride trains……a vicious cycle? And, if we could get government support for rail travel to the same extent that air and automobile travel have been subsidized over the years, we'd have ourselves a fair fight.

    • Amen, Judy. I totally agree with everything you said. I didn't mean to harp on the negative aspects of train travel, but wanted readers to be prepared and find ways to make the trip more enjoyable.

      I will definately ride the train again, and will do my part to get the most of the trip. I heard conversations between seasoned train travelers that recommended the Denver train ride in the winter, and the Grand Canyon ride, both of which sounded wonderful.

      You are so right to say that if the government would give a fraction of as much funding to rail as it does to air and highway, we might have a rail system to rival Europe's.

      And yes, next time I will bring a sidekick to share the experience. 🙂 Can't wait to take Austin when he's a bit older. (I don't know if this is typical, but I saw an Amtrak ad that said kids ride for 50 percent off.)

      Happy rails to you! 🙂

  4. Avatar Magnolia Neighborhoo says:

    Thank you, Doni, for your story of a trip on Coast Starlight! I've enjoyed several trips in both directions within the last few years on the Coast Starlight.

    Yes, yes, train travel is great! I've been lucky enough to travel via train in Australia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and across the USA several times, twice with my elderly mother. Love meeting people, enjoying the scenery, and experiencing the relaxed pace of train travel. Travel light and wear a smile!

    P.S. The possible impact of high speed rail in California may mean a daytime train here in Redding….remember the Coast Daylight of years past?

    • I don't remember the Coast Daylight, but I do remember our family's train ride from Canada to Redding when I was 5 in July, and it was hot (we were wearing reindeer sweaters), so the sun must have been up.

  5. Avatar Laurie S. says:

    Thank you, Doni. I've always wanted to take a train trip, but was sorry that the stop in Redding was in the wee hours of the morning, because I long to see the scenery north through the canyons along the Sacramento River that you can't access by car. However, I am definitely putting this at the top of my "to do" list now. Just observing people, beautiful scenery and writing sound absolutely perfect! Thank you!

  6. Avatar Sally says:

    Fun to read and brought back ancient memories of growing up in L.A. and taking either the Daylight or the Lark to S.F. to visit relatives. Being a child, I was responsible for nothing so roamed the train a lot. Passing between cars was a little tricky and loud, but my favorite way to pass the time. I know the trains are very different in this age.

  7. Avatar CoachBob says:

    Simple way to enjoy a quick trip: Sacto to Reno over Donner Summit. Especially during a snow. Nothing more beautiful. And the train stops in dead-center downtown….stay the night, see a show, catch the return Amtrak in the morning and you're back in Sac. Great trip.

  8. Avatar Ellie Thompson says:

    We took the Amtrak Train from Omaha NE to San Francisco in 1984…with three kids! Wonderful experience! Ended up moving to Redding in 1989! We have taken the train back twice since….bring a light blanket for cool nights on train…and now that we are older I would pay extra for a sleeping car of some sort…but the kids loved the open car, they played movies for the kids at night. It was a fun experience and I would recommend all families to try it!

  9. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    TRAINS, TRAINS, TRAINS!!! I can't think of ANY mode of transportation that I love any more. The ONLY drawback I can think of is that it slows you down a bit . . . and I do NOT consider that a drawback. So far as seeing the canyon north of here: book your trip around June 21 (longest day of the year) and pray the train is running late. It is absolutely breathtaking between here and Klamath Falls . . . but then it's also breathtaking from Chamault, OR to Eugene . . . then as you go north between Tacoma and Seattle when it almost looks like you're in a boat. And if it's spectacular you're after, plan to travel from Seattle to Wenatchee or points east on the Empire Builder up over Stevens Pass. Well, I could go on ad infinitum . . .or nauseum.

    Also, if interested in the Donner Pass ride you can book that any time of year with Amtrak or Key Vacations runs an excursion train from November thru March. Packages include round trip, two nites in a hotel and a box lunch on the train both directions. Gee, maybe I should go to work for Amtrak!!

    Oh Doni, I'm so glad you had the experience then wrote about it.

    BTW, there is an Amtrak number you can call that will keep you updated on whether your train is on time.

  10. Avatar Jim Loomis says:

    Delighted that you have discovered — and reported — the pleasures of rail travel. Just a couple of comments. Yes, sleeping car space can be expensive, although prices vary a lot depending on time of year and when you buy your ticket. And to clarify, I'm pretty sure that the $346 cost you quoted for sleeping car accommodations was for the entire Los Angeles-Seattle run, not just from Redding to Portland. But there are real pluses, starting with the privacy of your own room and a real bed to sleep in at night. Also, your dining car meals are included when you travel in a sleeper and, on the LA-Seatttle trip, that means five meals. Finally, there are two special cars on the Coast Starlight: the Observation Car, which you mention and is available to all passengers, and the Pacific Parlour Car, which is for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers. Of all Amtrak's long-distance trains, only the Coast Starlight operates with these wonderful cars. There are overstuffed armchairs, comfortable booths where you may choose to have a meal instead of in the dining car, and an actual bar with an attendant who will serve you a Bloody Mary as a spicy accompaniment to your breakfast. The attendant also hosts wine and cheese tastings in the Parlour Car each afternoon on the journey. Finally, do remember that the $346 supplement is for the sleeping car room, so TWO passengers can enjoy the privacy, have beds to sleep in, get those free dining car meals, and have access to the Parlour Car … all for that one additional charge. But — bummer! — you will have to pay for the Bloody Mary.

    • Wow, Jim, when you put it that way it's a bargain. And thanks for the clarification on the Parlour Car vs. the Observation Car.

      I do recall hearing over the speakers an announcement for wine and cheese-tasting at 4 p.m., and everyone got all excited, and then the announcer distinguished that it was reserved just for the sleeper car passengers.

      It would be a fun adventure, especially if you were traveling with friends or family. 🙂

  11. Avatar C says:

    That bridge in the first pic looks pretty rusted out…

  12. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    The sleeper car really seems a bit much when you board the train here and the night is pretty much gone. . . Oh, I know. (and I just may do this). I'll take the coach from here to my brother's place in Portland, then I'll book a sleeper car from Portland to L.A. . . . now, you see, where there's a will, there's a . . . . well, you know!!

    Took the train from Vancouver to Toronto. Did the Rocky Mountaneer from Vancouver to Jasper (all daytime travel through the Canadian Rockies) then VIA Rail (Canada's version of Amtrak) from Jasper to Toronto in a sleeper car. What a way to go. . . worth every penny!

    In a plane the trip is to be endured. On a train the trip is to be savored.

    or

    On a plane it's all about WHEN you get there. On a train it's all about HOW you get there.

  13. Avatar Alice Bell says:

    I love taking the train. I went up to Seattle and back 3 times last year and once so far this year. It's not for those on a schedule (the train in December had a brake problem between Chemult and Eugene and we ended up getting into Seattle 9 1/2 hours late) but it's a great time to catch up on your reading, enjoy the beautiful scenery, meet interesting folks in the dining car and stretch your legs. Plus it's a bargain if you are over 62 (15% discount) or snag one of the 20% off sales. Food in the dining car is so-so and not too overpriced (the Angus burger isn't bad at all) but the opportunity to meet and talk with folks from all over the place (even from other countries) is great. I especially enjoy spending a lot of time during the day in the observation car.

    What really surprised me was how full the train was, even the times when it wasn't around a holiday or school break and the number of young (20 something) folks taking the train.

    Before heading to the station, I keep checking Amtrak's website to see where the train is and, when I see that it has left Chico, off I go.

  14. Avatar WBull says:

    Can anyone tell me if they have wi-fi available on these trips for an iPad or smart phone?

    • Hmmm. I know a lot of people used their cell phones on the train. I used my computer, but just for writing; not the Internet. (Anyone else have a more helpful answer?)