Expenses and schedules

You can book a trip with Washington, D.C.-based Amtrak online, at www.amtrak.com, or by telephone at 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245).

My senior fare (62+) from Seattle to Oxnard cost $342.60 for a “superliner roomette” that included three meals a day during my 33½-hour journey. A standard Flexible ticket would have been $189.55, but the difference of just over $150 was less than I would have paid for a motel room and meals had I traveled by another means, such as private vehicle. Value tickets are also available at just over half the price of a Flexible ticket.

The same journey from Chemult was priced at $279.55 for a roomette, $169.15 Flexible.

— John Gottberg Anderson


What is the magic of long-distance rail travel? The clickety-clack of life on the track has captured travelers’ imaginations for more than 200 years, since the time the first steam trains rolled through England in the early 1800s.

We romanticize such journeys. Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, South Africa’s Blue Train, Australia’s Indian Pacific and Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer are just some of the great railways that have titillated our collective fantasies, conjuring images of exotic places and remarkable people.

Casey Jones and John Henry are a part of American folklore. Author Jack Kerouac hoboed across this country in the 1950s, a story told in his seminal work, “On the Road.” Little Eva danced “The Locomotion” in the early ’60s. Writer Paul Theroux’s 1975 bestseller “The Great Railway Bazaar,” described his train travels through Asia. Decade by decade, we have embraced the train’s shrill whistle, always going somewhere that’s not here.

“It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” In the context of rail travel, that somewhat clichéd statement is a true one. Stories and songs of traveling by car, by ship, by air, are far outnumbered by tales of train travel. Think “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Take the ‘A’ Train.” There are well over 1,000 railroad songs, going back to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Blues, country, rock, jazz, folk: It seems there are railroad songs in every genre of contemporary music.

And then there are movies: “Murder on the Orient Express,” “North by Northwest,” “Throw Momma from the Train,” “The Great Train Robbery,” “Polar Express” — as well as innumerable James Bond movies in which Agent 007 enjoyed the company of a femme fatale in a spacious overnight cabin.

As a young man, I enjoyed traveling on European trains with my student-priced Eurailpass. My last lengthy journey was about 20 years ago on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok. In this country, however, we tend not to consider long-distance rail travel. With our outstanding interstate highway system, and airports that serve even small towns, it seems somehow unnecessary.

But when you’re sitting in coach on Horizon Airlines, you’re not going to sit back and watch the world gliding past your window. When you’re driving down the freeway, you’re more likely to be concerned with traffic than with views. When you’re on a train, you can relax in an observation lounge or a dining car, eat and drink with interesting new friends, or stretch out and sleep in a private bed. That beats In-N-Out or Motel 6 any day of the week.

King of the road

I rekindled my love affair with rail travel on a recent 33½-hour, 1,310-mile trip from Seattle to Oxnard, California, where I was attending a conference. I departed Seattle on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight at 9:35 a.m. on a Sunday morning, arriving in Oxnard at 7:05 p.m. a day later.

Tiny Chemult, a drive of just over an hour south of Bend, is Central Oregon’s only Amtrak station. A departure from there would have cut the length of my journey to 23 hours, not counting the bus or automobile connection. But as I had professional and personal business in Seattle immediately before my conference, I chose to board the Coast Starlight at its northernmost terminal and ride it all the way to Southern California.

Seattle’s red-brick King Street Station is located between Pioneer Square and the International District, a stone’s throw from the CenturyLink football and soccer stadium. Built in 1906 by the same design team that created New York’s Grand Central Station, it’s a National Historic Register property with a 242-foot tower that is modeled after the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, Italy. Italianate influences carry into the grand waiting room, which features a compass-rose navigational star laid out in hand-cut marble floor tiles.

It was from here that I began my journey. I held a ticket for a “superliner roomette,” which cost substantially more than a seat in coach but which included in-transit meals. It also gave me a private cabin, as I was traveling alone.

I was very glad that I had packed light for this trip. My cabin was on the upper level of a double-decker car toward the front of the Starlight, which meant I had to hoist my bags — a small suitcase and a computer satchel — up the 10 steep and narrow steps of a circular staircase to reach my temporary residence.

The iron horse

That the car’s designers succeeded in making a unit as small as mine livable was a marvel of engineering. I had to open my sliding doors and step into the pinched corridor just to lift my suitcase onto an upper bunk; I can only imagine how much room would have been left, had there been two of us in the unit.

But I was comfortable. I had cushioned seats with a pull-out table at which to work and read by day, pillows and blankets at night after pushing the levers that retool facing seats into a bed. I had curtains, lights and a bathroom with potable water just down the hallway, which I shared with occupants of nine other rooms.

Each car had an assigned attendant. In my car, it was Liliana, a young woman who somehow was always available to answer questions and assist with mechanical issues. She had to get a little rough with my bed when it initially wouldn’t click into place.

Walking through railcar corridors as the train moves at speeds up to 80 miles per hour requires a certain level of agility. I sometimes found myself bouncing between opposite walls as I negotiated the five-car gauntlet to the dining area.

Oscar was the porter who took reservations for meals in the parlour car, which adjoined the observation car, and in the adjacent dining car. Different menus were served in the two cars; steaks and hamburgers were popular in the dining car, which welcomed coach passengers, while lamb, chicken and vegetarian pastas were popular in the parlour.

Between meals, I spent considerable time in the observation car, where sporadic Wi-Fi was a little better than in the sleeping cabins. Here I enjoyed conversations with other passengers, like Ron, a professor of oenology from New York; Heather, an educator from Oakland, California; and Jim and Carol, a Canadian airline pilot and his wife from Vancouver Island. Jim, in particular, was enjoying his journey all the way to Los Angeles. When you spend half your life in the air, I suppose, it’s nice to spend a little extra time on the ground.

The Amtrak story

Amtrak, a creative contraction of “American track,” is the name under which the National Railroad Passenger Corporation serves the public. Founded in 1971 when the federal government consolidated pre-existing passenger rail companies into a single entity, it remains partially government-funded, but is operated and managed for profit.

More than 300 Amtrak trains each day ramble across 21,300 miles of track, making stops at about 500 cities and towns in 46 states and three Canadian provinces. Three lines serve the Pacific Northwest; two run once daily The (north-south) Coast Starlight, on which I traveled, runs 1,377 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles. The east-west Empire Builder covers the 2,200-plus miles to Chicago from Portland or Seattle in about 46 hours. (Northern and southern branches join in Spokane.)

The Amtrak Cascades runs three times daily between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia, via Portland and Seattle. This European-style train is somewhat more upscale and truly geared for Northwest travelers. The 3 hours, 40 minutes, from Portland to Seattle cost as little as $35 in coach, and for that, you get a wide, reclining seat, in-train Wi-Fi and laptop outlets, even a rack to take your bicycle. The bistro car offers microbrews and locally roasted coffee.

Midnight express

When I headed south from Seattle, we pulled out of the station exactly on time, right to the minute — and we arrived in Oxnard 33½ hours later, exactly on time, right to the minute. There were occasional delays along the way, mainly as we approached busy stations and had to wait for other trains to clear the track. Each time, the engineer of the Coast Starlight made up the time between stops.

Our route from Seattle took us past Boeing Field to Tacoma, then around Commencement Bay and Point Defiance to a splendid view of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. We trundled through the Washington state capital of Olympia, and after a stop at a historic depot in Centralia, followed the Cowlitz River through Kelso and Vancouver, Washington, crossing the Columbia River into Portland.

We had 35 minutes to get off the train and stretch our legs at Portland’s Union Station. Originally built as a Northern Pacific depot in 1896, it has a signature 150-foot clock tower with neon signs that were added in 1948: They say “Union Station” on two sides and “Go by Train” on the other two faces.

After stops in Salem and Albany, we arrived in Eugene shortly after 5 p.m. By the time of our arrival in Chemult three hours later, I had finished a dinner of steak, salad and baked potato with a glass of Argentine Malbec; wondered at the drifts of snow that lay beside the track across Willamette Pass; and was readying my bunk for sleep.

I was already drifting off to dreamland when we stopped in Klamath Falls at 10 and the train’s designated “quiet time” began. I slumbered through early-morning California stops in Dunsmuir, Redding, Chico, Sacramento and Davis.

I must have awakened somewhere near the delta town of Martinez, on Carquinez Strait, as the Starlight cruised through Emeryville to Oakland’s Jack London Square. These latter two locations are the connection points, by bus or light rail, to San Francisco, whose distinctive skyline may easily be seen just across the bay.

East Bay was picturesque not for its skyline or bay views, but for graffiti art that lined the walls of buildings and railyards for many miles as we moved past San Leandro and Fremont to San Jose. Along with that graffiti, however, came homelessness: Here were the primitive camps of societal hangers-on, whose difficult lives were as visible from the windows of the train as if they were broadcast on national television.

Comin’ ‘round the mountain

Our next stop after San Jose, perhaps appropriately, was Salinas, where early-20th-century author John Steinbeck was born and raised. In books such as “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden,” he wrote about the plight of the working man in central California.

We had glimpses of that in the fields of garlic, artichokes and cabbages as we crossed through the Salinas Valley to Paso Robles, once a heavy cattle-farming region, now better known for its distinctive wine grapes. Then we descended the steep Cuesta Grade, passing through a series of tunnels and around two horseshoe curves as we lost 1,000 feet of elevation in just 11 miles.

San Luis Obispo, at the bottom of the Grade, dates from the founding of Mission San Luis Obispo del Tolosa in 1772. Now a relaxed city of about 50,000 that tries to live up to its “SLO” moniker, its population is a mix of university students and retirees, all of whom enjoy the Spanish-influenced vibe of its cozy downtown. The restored station here is just a few blocks from the downtown core.

We somehow stretched the 153-mile run from SLO to Oxnard to 3 hours, 45 minutes, with only one midway stop in Santa Barbara. That was just fine, as the scenery along the coastline of this American Riviera, through Pismo Beach and around the Vandenberg Air Force Base, bordered on spectacular. From surfers at Gaviota Beach to offshore oil rigs looming like awkward monsters in the ocean mists, from wildflower embroidered shores to the dramatic silhouettes of the Channel Islands, there were no dull moments.

And then we were in Oxnard. And I disembarked. And already, I’m ready to board the train again for another long trip.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com