Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coast Starlight (2): living on the train

As I told you a while ago, we took the Coast Starlight up to Portland, with a full train of about 600 passengers. In this post, I' ll tell you about the experience of living on a train.

The sleepers are at one end of the train, and the regular coach cars are at the other. In between the two are three community cars: the lounge car with the downstairs cafe, the dining car, and unique to the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Parlor car, reserved for sleeping car passengers. The Parlor car is an observation car. It has a bar, a limited food-service area, and a lounge area. Downstairs there is a little theatre and there is satellite internet.

After we boarded, the purser came by to explain the dining reservation system. Sleeper passengers have the option to reserve dining in the Pacific Parlor car, which we did most of the time. The food in both the dining car and the parlor car was okay--certainly much better than the downstairs cafe in the lounge car. Stops are often brief, although occasionally there is a longer stop, enough for the smokers to get off for a quick pull on a cigarette. There's no smoking on the train and the crew is stern with warnings about language and drinking alcohol (which is available in the lounge and parlor cars). I gather it can get a bit rowdy in the coach section. ;-) It's a bit like grownup summer camp.

Since this was a 30 hour overnight trip, we got a "roomette" style sleeper, the fare for which includes all meals. Ours was downstairs (which was nice, because there was less foot traffic passing by). Basically it is a little room with a sliding door for privacy, barely bigger than the two big seats facing each other, and a big window. There is a tiny sliver of a closet. There is NO room for luggage, so we put a few necessities in a tote bag and left our luggage on the rack by the main car door. ( We kept warning people getting on after us not to bother dragging their suitcases to the upstairs roomettes, but they did so anyway, meaning they just dragged them back down again.) Down the hall were three toilets, and a shower/dressing room, which was surprisingly spacious.

As well as the roomettes, there is one room designed for disabled passengers, which has its own toilet. There's also a "family room" with room for 4 or 5. There's a little lobby area where the luggage is stored, and the big exit doors. Upstairs, each car has more roomettes and another restroom, plus a couple of bedrooms with their own restroom/shower. There are no locks or keys on the roomettes, but then there's nowhere for a thief to go.

Each sleeper also has an attendant who occupies one of the roomettes. Ours was a great guy called Bob, who was a gracious and helpful host. He was very knowledgeable about the train, and the scenery, and we could tell he had a real love for the rail history. As night fell, Bob converted our roomette into two beds. The two seats slip down into each other to make a flat surface, and a bunk folds down overhead. On the bunk was an extra, made up mattress, which Bob deftly dropped onto the bottom bed. Once the beds are made up, there is literally no floor space: the roomette is no bigger than the bed. Whoever gets the top bunk has to climb up there, and fasten a safety net so they can't roll out; also it's above the window, so there's no view. The bunks would not work for old people, or anyone claustrophobic. Both bunk and bed are only big enough for one person. In the morning, Bob reversed the procedure, folded up the bunk above, and restored the seats to regular configuration.

We had a great time, although we found it physically confining. The train was early to several stops, though, and the crew was precise about how long we had so we could walk around. Would we do it again? Definitely, although anything longer than the trip we had would start to get a bit tedious. But we came home with a route map to take a look at other trains that we might take, with their evocative, historic names: Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, California Zephyr. And the historic Coast Starlight, definitely a ride to remember.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post; I am researching travelling by train from San Francisco to Seattle and your tips and advice here are great

MarkB said...

The secret of an enjoyable multi-night trip is to get a bedroom, not a roomette. The difference is amazing. You have a full-length couch (great for napping) and a chair, plus room to move around. Even when converted for night use, there's still room to stand and you can still use the chair. And, it's great to have your own toilet, especially for those night-time pees. Since you mentioned you were redeeming AGR points for the trip, a bedroom is really a no-brainer.

I've done the Zephyr (two nights) and the Empire Builder + Starlight (3 nights), both times with a roommate, and never felt confined.