Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

So far, Amtrak is living up to my expectations. The trains are late, not just the one I’m on but the ones we’ve met going in the other direction. The food in the dining car is both expensive and tasteless. And business turns out to be a first-class rip-off.

On Friday, a landslide north of Portland shut down rail service between Portland and Seattle. That meant the train I was taking would have arrived in Portland and be ready to go with no chance of delays on the Seattle-Portland leg. Sure enough, we left on time to the nearest three seconds.

Before going 50 miles, however, we got stuck on a siding waiting for a freight train. That’s routine, but this particular wait must have been at least 20 minutes. By the time we got to Eugene, 123 miles from Portland, we were 40 minutes late. I didn’t really care as I have a four-hour layover in Sacramento, but it could be annoying if I were planning to go to a meeting in San Francisco. (As it turned out, we were on time into Sacramento thanks to “pad” in the schedule.)

Even before we were delayed by the freight train, I realized that business class wasn’t worth the $40 surcharge. I expected three-across seating, perhaps a free drink, and more pampering. I knew that Amtrak had fixed up the Santa Fe’s old El Capitan lounge cars for parlor car service on this train and I expected business class would be in there.

Instead, the parlor car is reserved exclusively for sleeping car passengers. Business class is in a standard Superliner coach, distinguished only by leather upholstery instead of cloth. The wifi service is open to anyone who happens to walk through the car and see the large sign giving away the “secret” business-class password. It doesn’t matter; it’s very slow when it’s working and there’s no wifi service at all when we’re not in cell-phone range. I’d do better using my cell phone to create a wifi hotspot.

So my $40 (actually, Cato’s $40) bought slow wifi, leather seats, and a $6 discount in the dining car. For dinner, I ordered the fish-of-the-day, which was supposed to be cod grilled with spices. It came with a medley of vegetables and a baked potato.

The hot, or at least warm, meal was delivered almost within seconds of placing the order, which is never a good sign. It’s not too much to say that the potato had more flavor than anything else, probably because it was the only thing that hadn’t been frozen. None of the vegetables were distinguishable from one another, and the spices on the fish were even more flavorless. This cost $22.75, so even with the $6 discount it was more than most places charge for much-more-flavorful fish-and-chips.

Surprisingly, the train has four sleepers that are supposed to be full and three coaches–four including business class–that are about half full. That means there are as many sleeping car passengers as coach passengers. Coach fare to Sacramento was about $80, but getting a sleeping car would have added $375 to that. That includes free, flavor-free meals in the diner. I’ve been in a lot of first-class hotels that cost significantly less.

There’s no business class on the California Zephyr, which I’ll be on from Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning. That means my expectations will be even lower. I’ll let you know Wednesday whether it meets those expectations.

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2 thoughts on “Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

  1. OFP2003

    Are you interviewing Amtrak people about the delays, pad in the schedule, etc. Can you ask them about regular ridership, passengers, etc? What about the condition of the sleeper cars, can you check on that? Also, how would this compare to traveling via RV – which is the only other way I know of to travel in a private bedroom.

  2. The Antiplanner Post author

    I’ll be in a sleeping car Tuesday night and will provide a report on that on Thursday. The trains I have been on are in good condition. Amtrak publishes its monthly ridership numbers and on-time records by train on its web site, though I don’t have the bandwidth to search for them right now.

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