Amtrak Around The West

At the end of November my mother-in-law and her travelling companion embarked on an Amtrak trip from Havre, Mt. to Tucson, Az.  As I discussed her journey with her I was interested in her impressions of the trip and I’m writing this post as a recap of how they felt about long distance train travel.

I personally was excited for her adventure and I hoped that she would experience the same comfortable stress free ride that I have had in the past.  With the snows she was experiencing in Montana it seemed to be the perfect way to make her way around to see family especially when it was a trip from central Montana to southern Arizona.  However not all seemingly good ideas end up that way.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight arrives into Vancouver, Wa. on time.

The trip didn’t start off so well.  BNSF derailed a Z train at Kintyre, MT east of Havre throwing a big wrench into the start of her vacation.   The good news was the eastbound version of the Empire Builder was already in Havre so all they had to do was run the power to the other end and suddenly the westbound Builder was in town!  The other passengers on the westbound version were bussed from Wolf Point around the derailment and the train with my mother-in-law aboard ended up departing Havre around 9 hours late.  Sadly Amtrak and BNSF did not turn the train so they rode backwards to Spokane.

9 hours late and getting later is not enough time for Amtrak to turn the Builder around at Portland and Seattle.  Amtrak made the decision to put everyone on buses at Spokane and turn the train there.   This did not please many folks including my mother-in-law’s travelling companion.  He’s tall and doesn’t fit well in the cramped spaces of a motor coach.  They did enjoy their complimentary Subway sandwich though the comment was made the food on the dining car was better.

Tired from not sleeping well on the train and from the stress of the previous day the travelers arrived in Vancouver the next afternoon.  The one thing my mother-in-law said about the service disruption experience was that the station agent in Havre was wonderful.  She went out of her way to ensure they were informed and she made got them to the station in a timely fashion so they would get a good seat on the train.

After resting for a few days their trip continued on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.  Departure from Vancouver was on time and arrival was on time into LA!  Whew!  The travelers overnighted in LA in preparation for the last leg on the Sunset Limited to Tucson.  When collecting their bags at Tucson they realized that one bag was missing.  Unfortunately my mother-in-law’s travelling companion had packed his CPAP machine in that bag (he was warned about checking vital luggage).  Fortunately Amtrak knew where it was (somehow got off the Starlight  in Eugene) but it would still be a couple of days before it arrived in Tucson thanks to the tri-weekly schedule of the Sunset.  Again he was none too happy but the station agent in Tucson did bring it out to where there were staying right when it arrived.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, with a very important passenger aboard, crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

The return trip would be pretty much non-stop from Tucson to Vancouver with 2 overnights on the train.  Based on their comments to me sleeping on the train was not at all comfortable for either of them.  They struggled to find a position which was restful and the constant goings on seemed to be quite distracting.  It also didn’t help that on the Starlight one of the sliding end doors was not working correctly (have they worked right since the first Superliners were introduced?) so it would be stuck open for long periods of time until someone would close it.  The result was they were very tired after two straight days of riding.

With one leg remaining from Vancouver to Havre the travelers were both quite done with riding the train.  They had been excited about it beforehand but it didn’t seem to meet their expectations.  The travelling was easy but not entirely restful thanks to the the inability to sleep well.  The food was good and in fact the Thanksgiving meal they ate was quite good.  They had few issues with other passengers though at times they felt like the clientele was entirely from another place (I would agree Montana and California are very different places).  The attendants, conductors, and agents all seems to be a positive part of the trip.  In the end though the positives were not likely enough to cause them to line up another Amtrak long distance trip.

The trip from Vancouver to Havre was uneventful and totally on time.  Less than 24 hours from when they left Vancouver they arrived at their home.  Sleep was the first thing on the agenda.

Stop Ahead

Signals for the Oregon Slough Drawbridge and North Portland Jct. indicate stop.  This is one of the rare quiet moments on BNSF’s Columbia River Drawbridge in Vancouver, Wa.  It seems the bridge is either closed because a train is crossing or open for river traffic.  On December 21, 2010 shortly before 8PM everything is quiet ahead of an eastbound manifest and Amtrak 509.


Shoofly – Doesn’t Bother Me

I moved to Vancouver, Wa. in April of 1993.  Since then the railroad scene has been in constant change whether that is infrastructure change, ownership change, or traffic change.  I remember vividly driving across the crossing at 8th Street for the first time and looking west towards the yard office.  Signals, code line, power lines, and a maze of trackage greeted my eyes.  I’d arrived at the famous Vancouver wye!

Since ’93 not much has changed at the 8th Street crossing infrastructure wise.  It is really just like I found it in ’93.  Until the last few month that is.  The city and BNSF are in the midst of a project to improve access to the waterfront area south west of town by putting modern bridges in the railroad’s dirt berm that skirts the south side of the city.  To get these installed a shoofly is under construction to route the 2 track main line around the location of these new bridges.   Once the rearrangement is complete for the shoofly that will be the end of the 8th Street crossing looking like it does now.

Sure, it is nice to see things stay the same but I have say none of this bothers me.  This construction is about a vibrant community and a vibrant rail infrastructure.  Good stuff!  I’m happy the see BNSF and the city of Vancouver working together to grow our area.

Extra Switch

Much of the switching in Vancouver takes place within the confines of the yard or in the port.  The jobs which switch LaFarge Cement or Albina fuel are quite visible but sadly they aren’t usually out on the days I am.  A couple of weeks ago I lucked into seeing an extra switch job finishing up their work in the Cannery Hole and moving back to the yard at Vancouver.  In this photo the crew member has just unlocked the time release which sets the signals on the Fallbridge to protect the diamond and their crossing.  This crew member will then protect the 11th St. crossing followed by lining the switch onto the grain lead.  After getting permission from the dispatcher the move will cross from grain lead to the hill and back again into the yard.  Whew, lots of moves for 6 empty cement hoppers.

In a few short years this will be history.  LaFarge will be served from the lead leaving the Fallbridge sub at Eighth St. once the project to improve river access is complete.

Heat Waves

Saturday and Sunday were both very warm in Vancouver with Saturday’s temperature at 88 and Sunday’s at 80.  By far the two warmest days of the year.   Of course with the warmth comes the heat waves even early in the day.  Sunday I snapped this image of the V WENPTL coming out of the NP Pass at 10am but by then temperatures over 70 degrees turned on the heat waves.

I’m not complaining.  It is very nice to wear shorts and feel warm again!