By Gwen Lawler Tough
Riding the Rails
By Gwen Lawler Tough
Photo by Evan Morrison
Dusk was falling and so was snow. Blanketing the forest of firs for as far as the eye could see, it was stunningly beautiful. It happened on the #11 train traveling through Oregon in March 2016.
There are plenty of other memorable moments on Amtrak. Taking the Coast Starlight from Redding opens doors to travel to Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, B.C. Or, going southbound: San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, San Diego. The seats are 23 inches wide, recline and offer tons of legroom: utter luxury compared to airline seats. Comparisons don’t stop there: you get to bring two 50-pound bags onboard as well as personal items. Bring lots of snacks. You can get up and move around between cars. You may even bring a small dog of 25 lbs. or less that can stay put beneath your seat. On some trains, you can bring your bike.
The middle-of-the-night departure times from Redding’s downtown station can be a challenge. Northbound trains are scheduled to arrive in Redding at 3:06 am, southbound trains at 2:21 am, but there are often delays. How do you arrive in time, without spending too much time in the parking lot instead of in your bed sleeping? Here are some tricks of the train, garnered from personal experience.
1. The inside of the Redding station is closed, and there is no bathroom facility. But the parking lot and boarding areas are very well lit. Get to the station 30 minutes before the train is scheduled to arrive according to real-time schedules. All trains are now tracked with global positioning and you can see exactly where they are.
2. Download the free Amtrak app. Touch “Train Status” and enter the Redding station and the number of train #14 northbound or #11 southbound, leaving the following morning. Before you go to bed, check again for the expected time of arrival. This info is updated about every four minutes. Remember, the train arrives the next day.
3. Put your smartphone assistant to work! Set your alarm for 12:15 am. Check the train’s arrival time again, then re-set your alarm for your departure. Northbound #14 will almost always be running more than an hour late. You can also go online and check www.asm.transitdocs.com. Click on your train number to see where it is located. The good news with late trains is that with daybreak you can see the incredible scenery you will immediately enter: the Sacramento River and Lake Shasta.
4. Roomettes, or tiny sleeping rooms, are not worth the extra price. They include meals but don’t include what’s more important: a bathroom. I have never used one, even traveling from Chicago to Martinez. There is something about the train’s motion which seems to put everyone to sleep.
5. Travel with a friend. Coach seats come in pairs and it ensures you will be sitting/sleeping next to each other on a crowded train. It makes the trip much more fun. Or bring your grandkids and they’ll be talking about your trip the rest of their lives.
The fun thing about trains is that you can stop and get off. It breaks up the trip and allows you to explore. For example, going north, get off at Klamath Falls, Ore., and take a bus or rent a car to Crater Lake, 60 miles from Klamath Falls. Treat yourself to a night at the Crater Lake Lodge (early reservations are a must) and remember 6,500 feet is nippy even in the summer. The stunning turquoise lake is a hidden gem. Or, taking the #11 train to Los Angeles, get off in Salinas and take an Amtrak connecting bus (or rent a car) to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. When making tricky connections, I find it’s better to use the Amtrak phone representative.
Amtrak now features vacation packages, including trips to Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks, but they can be pricey. Less expensive: Plan your trip way in advance to get the best train and hotel prices. Seniors and students get discounts and an adult can bring two children up to 12 years at half price. Train travel is a great value.
Here’s the trip I want to take: Get on the train to Seattle. Spend several days with my family there, and then get on the “fast” Cascades Train to Vancouver, B.C. Then I’ll connect to a bus going to Victoria, Vancouver Island to visit Butchart Gardens. These gardens rival Holland’s Keukenhof, with no overseas travel required. I’ll use Uber to get around Victoria.
The Coast Starlight may be on the Congressional budget chopping block. Now is the time to take the trip you have always wanted.