This travelogue covers the rail journey of Ray Burns and Steve Grande round trip on the inaugural revenue run of Amtrak San Joaquin direct service between Sacramento and Bakersfield, California. The travelogue also includes our northbound and southbound rail journies on the Amtrak Coast Starlight the day before and the day after the event to get to and from Fullerton to Sacramento, California. Photos and video clips are also featured.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 08:05
Although I started out this journey from Fullerton, Ray had to start one stop before me in Anaheim. The only place to park vehicles in Fullerton near the station overnight is in the garage, but since Ray drives a van that doesn't fit in the garage, he had to park it at the Anaheim station. Fortunately, parking is free in both places.
Since we already had Pacific Class (custom class) tickets for both of us for the trip between Fullerton and Los Angeles on the Amtrak San Diegans, Ray just had to purchase a regular coach ticket for $3.50 to get him the 6 miles from Anaheim to Fullerton. His move from regular coach to Pacific Class seemed to cause the train staff a bit of confusion! It took them a minute to figure out why he moved from regular to custom glass instead of getting off the train in Fullerton!
In Pacific Class we were each provided with juice and a newspaper and offered a pillow. It was also our pleasure to meet onboard one of the other people who have their web site hosted at TrainWeb, "Wizzle". Click here if you would like to visit the Wizzle On Rails web site now! It is always a pleasure to meet someone in person whom I have previously only interacted with on line, but it is even more of a pleasure when I meet them onboard a train!
1999 FEB 20 SAT 08:40
Usually, the Amtrak San Diegan pulls right in on the track across the platform from the Amtrak Coast Starlight. It didn't do that this time, though the crew of the San Diegan had expected it to. They had given us directions to just cross the platform and head for the opposite end of the train to get to the sleeping cars. Over the P.A. system they made an announcement that we would have to go through the tunnel to board our train.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 08:40
Although it was almost an hour before departure time, the Coast Starlight was ready for us to board! Our Car Attendant was right by the door. He greeted us, took our ticket, and pointed out our room. We wasted not time in putting our luggage into our room and heading up to the Pacific Parlour Car. To our pleasure, the Pacific Parlour Car was totally set up for service! A number of people were already sitting at tables and in the big comfy lounge chairs enjoying a continental breakfast of pastries, fruits, cheeses, coffee and juices.
We selected a table on the window side of the car and took a few of the breakfast items from the buffet service area. A large number of glasses of assorted juices were sitting on the bar ready for patrons. Passengers are much happier when they can come to this car when they board and immediately partake in the continental breakfast than when they are made to wait until the departure of the train, which I have experienced numerous times in the past.
The Pacific Parlour Car Attendant for this trip is Larry Chaleff. I don't know whether having the car all set and serving passengers as they board the Coast Starlight is a policy of Amtrak West of is just due to Larry's own diligent working habits, but I am certainly grateful for whoever is responsible for having the car ready and serving when I came on board!
Right before departure, Larry gave an explanation about the services and policies in the car. He said that movies would be played in the theatre downstairs as requested. So, if you want to see a movie, just tell Larry and pick one from those available on board! More information about the Amtrak Coast Starlight Pacific Parlour Car is available elsewhere at TrainWeb, but just to review, there is an 18 seat movie theatre downstairs in this car. It is 6 rows of seats, 2 seats in each row on one side of the aisle and 1 seat in each row on the other side. The screen is fairly large, but not "home theatre" size as they did want to mount it high enough so that the people in front would not block the view of people in back. The decor is that of an old theatre with old theatre type seating, lighting and drapery.
Larry did mention that food is not allowed in the theatre in the Pacific Parlour Car and also mentioned that we would be sampling 4 wines instead of 3 wines during the wine tasting in the afternoon.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 11:30
Larry Chaleff, the Pacific Parlour Car Attendant claimed he prepares the best Bloody Mary's around! After sampling his preparation, I can't offer any comments that dispute that!
I ran across Peggy Lyon in the corridor of a Sleeping Car of the Coast Starlight. I first met her with my kids back in December of 1995 on the Amtrak Southwest Chief when my daughter Jodina drew a picture for her which she said she would treasure forever. I then ran into her at other times in my travels, mostly on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 15:00
Four different wines were served during the cheese and wine tasting. I very much liked the first and the last. The first was "Midnight Cellars 1996 Chardonnay" from Paso Robles, California and the last was "Ravenswood Cellars 1995 Sonoma County Zinfandel" from Sonoma County, California. Both were quite dry which is the way I like wines. The first was white and the second was red. We sat with Matt Sugarman who was a retired ranger from the U.S. National Park Service. He was traveling with his wife Molly and her sister Ellinor. This was his first time on an Amtrak train and he was definitely enjoying the experience. Molly had traveled on Amtrak a number of years ago before they had upgraded the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
After the wine tasting, Trissia Baughman, a magician from Zebra Entertainment, came over to our table and did a number of excellent coin, card and rope tricks.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 21:52
Almost forgot to mention something about the consist of this train! The lead engine is one of the new F59PHI locomotives followed by an older F40 and then that is followed by 2 Genesis locomotives. This is the first time I have ever personally seen a F59PHI in the lead of a Coast Starlight! I don't know if all 4 engines are being used, but this train seems to rapidly build up speed as we depart from each station and has been traveling at a very fast clip throughout the route. In all the times that I have ever traveled on the Coast Starlight, this is the first time that I can remember coming in early at every station! We actually came into Salinas more than 10 minutes early! I know that delays are usually due to freight traffic and other problems beyond the control of Amtrak, but I just wonder if having the power of 4 locomotives, especially with one like the F59PHI which was designed to accelerate quickly, could help passenger trains make up some lost time by getting them quickly up to running speed.
1999 FEB 20 SAT 23:59
We arrrived pretty close to schedule into Sacramento. The trainset for the morning San Joaquin wasn't in site, but it could have been parked on a track on the side opposite the Coast Starlight from which we disembarked or on a siding beyond the station.
Ray and I walked to the south end of the station and through the passage to Old Town Sacramento. If you come to Sacramento and are staying in either the Vagabond Inn or the Holiday Inn near Old Town Sacramento, the best way to get to these hotels is to walk to the very south end of the platform at the train station. Don't bother to go into the train station. If you do, you'll be heading away from the shortest way to cross the street!
It only took about 2 minutes to walk from the station platform to the front lobby of the Vagabond Inn. While we checked in, we noticed the log for the Amtrak crews to check in and out. This is where most, if not all, the Amtrak crews are lodged when they sleep over in Sacramento. Sacramento is a crew change point for the Amtrak Coast Starlight (Just the Engineers and Conductors change here. The onboard service crew goes the entire length of the Amtrak route.)
I set my alarm clock for 5 A.M. and also asked the front desk for a wake up call for that time. I wanted to make sure we had enough time to get ready in the morning and would get down to the station well in advance of boarding time.
Ray Burns and I woke up at 5 A.M. on Sunday, February 21, 1999 and made it down to the station before 6 A.M. We approached from the Old Town Sacramento end of the platform and could see the locomotive of a train already sitting in the station. From the end of the platform, I could not tell what type of cars were on the train. If they were Superliner Cars, then I would have known it was just the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight that had arrived into the station early. But, as we got closer to the station, we could see that the locomotive was one of the new F59PHI locomotives followed by a set of Amtrak California Cars.
I didn't know the exact schedule of the Amtrak Capitols, so I could not yet be sure if this was the trainset for the inaugural Amtrak Sacramento San Joaquin or was just the trainset for the first Amtrak Capitol southbound out of Sacramento for the day. Once we passed the first car and saw the electronic sign on side that said "BAKERSFIELD", we knew this would be the trainset for the inaugural run!
I could see that at least one door was open on the train, but I wasn't sure if they were quite ready to board passengers yet. Within moments of our arrival, they opened up all the doors and announced the train via the onboard public address system. Ray and I boarded the train and headed up the stairs to the upper level of the California Car. We sat at the 4 person table that was right at the top of the stairs because it is one of the few tables in each car to have an electric outlet under it. You can easily tell which tables have electric outlets since they post a label prominently right below the window at the center of the table.
I plugged in my notebook right away. However, I must have been too busy taking pictures and talking with others on the train. Nothing of what I'm writing now was actually composed on the train. With so many things to take care of once I got back home, I actually didn't get to write this part of the travelogue until more than a week later on Tuesday, March 3, 1999!
A number of dedicated fans of rail travel showed up for this inaugural revenue run of the Amtrak San Joaquin out of Sacramento. I keep referring to this trip as the inaugural "revenue" run as there was actually another "inaugural" run of this train on Friday, February 19, 1999. However, that was just for V.I.P.'s such as the mayors of cities along the route and was not a "revenue" run. That is, fees were not charged for that trip and regular paying passengers were not allowed on that trip.
Gene Poon, who writes quite a few articles for Rail Travel News and who I met previously on the inaugural Amtrak Texas Eagle and have corresponded with via e-mail since, took a seat in the group of 4 facing chairs across the aisle from our table. Like us, Gene came prepared to take photos and notes about this trip.
Before long, a number of those other rail travel fans came through the train and either sat down at our table or at the group of 4 seats across the aisle from our table. Kirk Schneider, editor of "California By Train, Bus & Ferry" and webauthor of California Transit (www.catransit.com) came by and spent some time with us. The web author of West Coast Amtrak Train also stopped by. (Ed Note: Turned out this was Peter Warner, well known to the local rail community, but who I didn't know very well back in early 1999.)
Chris Guenzler came by and spent some time with us. Chris has already traveled every mile of the Amtrak system many times over and is about to embark on another very long Amtrak journey throughout the United States and Canada on his North American Rail Pass that will last a few weeks! Chris frequents the Amtrak San Diegans and is probably known by every Conductor and crew member on the line! (Ed Note: Some time later, Chris Guenzler joined the correspondents staff of TrainWeb and became the most frequent traveler and contributor of travel reports and photos to TrainWeb at: TrainWeb.org/chris/).
Although not one of the people that were on the inaugural southbound Sacramento San Joaquin run, Ray Burns did run into John Raina, Jr., webauthor of the East Bay Railroad Sightings, on the northbound inaugural revenue Amtrak San Joaquin to Sacramento.
Just so that I don't give an unintended impression, the above group of people would probably be considered a unique subset of the general category of railfans. These people greatly enjoy travel by train and have a great deal of knowledge about Amtrak. On the other hand, there are many railfans that don't care a lot about passenger rail travel and would not be able to tell you much more about Amtrak than the technical aspects of their motive power, consists, and other information that is obtained from observing the train from the outside or from exchange of information with other railfans. There are quite a few railfans that are fascinated by trains and have a great deal of knowledge about railroad operations, but who unfortunately have little love or desire to actually ride in a passenger train!
Our group of rail travel fans probably has a diversity of knowledge of railroad operations ranging from some of us that have a great deal of knowledge of railroad operations and understanding of the technical aspects of the equipment to some of us that just have a rudimentary grasp of these aspects of rail travel. While I think I could pretty much hold my own in terms of knowledge and experience of travel by Amtrak as well as onboard operations, I think I'd fall toward the weak end of the spectrum in this group when it comes to the more general understanding of railroad equipment, operations, motive power, etc. I love to travel by rail and seem to learn everything related to that experience quite quickly, but anything outside my immediate environment while traveling on the train seems to take repeated exposure before I'm able to remember the relevant information!
There weren't a lot of people on this first Amtrak San Joaquin to depart out of Sacramento, but neither could you consider the train empty. I was actually a bit surprised by how many people did board the train at 6:20 A.M. on Sunday morning who were not railfans, who actually had a destination in mind, and managed to find this train existed before its very first run. I suppose some of the people might not even have known that this service was to start today and might have expected to be taking a bus from Sacramento to connect to the Amtrak San Joaquin in Stockton. Some passengers might not know much about the Amtrak system at all but just might have assumed that Amtrak would have some way to get them near their destination!
Beyond Stockton, however, this would just be another Amtrak San Joaquin heading south. Thus, a number of people waiting at stations south of Stockton were just waiting for whatever southbound San Joaquin came along to get them where they were going!
The stop in Stockton was rather unique itself. This train has to stop at the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) stop rather than the usual Amtrak San Joaquin station in Stockton as the train is on the wrong set of tracks and does not join up with the regular San Joaquin tracks until south of the Amtrak Stockton Station.
The ACE station is not yet completed. Thus, the Amtrak train just stops right smack in the middle of a grade crossing and passengers step right out into the middle of the street! You can see photos and a video clip of this below.
Continuing south from Stockton, Cindy Ray from the Amtrak Marketing Group stopped by to say hello to Ray and I and to also introduce herself to some other members of our traveling party. Cindy contacts us from time to time by phone or e-mail and has been very helpful in keeping us up to date with the pending announcments from Amtrak West.
Except for a few delays, the trip from Stockton down to Bakersfield was relatively smooth and uneventful. Once we got to Bakersfield, we ran into a television crew from a local station. Ray took a few pictures of me being interviewed for television that you can see below.
The Conductors on the southbound train were Bill Powell and Ray Belluomini. All I got of the Engineers names were Bob and Jack.
The following was posted to the ALL-ABOARD rail advocacy list by Gene Poon, a writer for Rail Travel News and is re-posted here with permission:
Inaugural Sacramento train 702/21Feb Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1999 18:52:05 +0000 From: Gene Poon
Organization: sheehans To: All-Aboard Inaugural departure from Sacramento of new San Joaquin service: Consist: 2003 F59PHI "Rocketship" 8807 Diner/Lounge Imperial Valley 8203 Coach/Baggage Bodega Bay 8027 Coach Smith River 8002 Coach San Joaquin River Train headed west out of Sacramento, across the I St. Bridge, as its path to the east was blocked by a Capitols consist headed by P32 #508. #702 then operated back-up eastward on the ex-SP to Elvas Tower, around the north wye toward Roseville until past the east wye, then forward and southbound (railroad west) on the ex-SP Fresno line to Stockton, where it stopped at a grade crossing just south of the under-construction Altamont Commuter Express station platform. Then on the interchange to proceed toward Bakersfield on the former Santa Fe and the usual San Joaquin route. Note that it did not follow the originally-planned route on the former Western Pacific, as the permanent ex-SP route was approved last week. Only real delay was for a west (north) bound BNSF intermodal which broke in two in front of us near Merced. ARROW train status: TS 702 21FEB Z ML CTY ARR DEP STATUS P SAC 0620A DP 0620A ON TIME P 49 SKT 0735A AR 0730A DP 0735A ON TIME P 26 RVB 0806A AR 0821A DP 0823A 17 MI LATE P 15 TRK 0828A *NO REPORT* P 24 MCD 0853A AR 0930A DP 0932A 39 MI LATE P 37 MDR 0924A *NO REPORT* P 21 FNO 0948A 0952A AR 1024A DP 1027A 35 MI LATE P 30 HNF 1025A AR 1056A DP 1059A 34 MI LATE P 17 COC 1046A *NO REPORT* P 38 WAC 1117A *NO REPORT* P 25 BFD 1145A AR 1214P 29 MI LATE The consist turned to become Train 715 to Oakland. It had to be wyed because there was no cab control coach. No onboard festivities, since the needs of the VIP's were handled on the ceremonial extra operated BFD-SAC on Friday, Feb. 19. There were a few passenger advocates and fans who braved the 620am departure time to take the train; some more at trackside to watch us go by; and quite a few who were not fans, but who had seen the ample publicity from TV and newspapers from the Feb. 19 special. -Gene Poon
We arrived into Bakersfield at 12:14 P.M., 29 minutes behind schedule. But, Ray and I still had 5 hours and 30 minutes to kill before our inaugural revenue Amtrak San Joaquin Train #703 would depart Bakersfield for Sacramento.
The day before our departure on this journey, I had already checked the internet to find a shopping area that had lots of restaurants, stores and even a movie complex that wasn't too far from the Bakersfield Amtrak Station! Well, actually, it turned out to be about 7 miles from the station and a 15 minute cab ride ... but that was close enough.
There weren't any taxis waiting at the Bakersfield Station to pick up passengers and there didn't seem to be any phones in or around the station to call a taxi! I had my cell phone on me, but I really wanted a Yellow Pages to find the phone number for a taxi company. I guess I should have got that phone number when I was on the Internet! I just didn't think there would be a problem grabbing a taxi right at the station.
We spotted a payphone at a little store at the end of the Amtrak parking lot and walked over to it. Unfortunately, the phone book was missing. So, we just used a technique that I've used in many cities when I didn't know the name of any local taxi companies: We asked information for the phone number for "Yellow Cabs". Every city has a cab company called "Yellow Cabs"!
Within a few minutes, a taxi did show up, but it was neither yellow nor from the "Yellow Cab" company. I just assumed it was a taxi that someone else called to pick them up, but within a few minutes it left the station empty! We called the cab company and found out that was there taxi. Sending out a taxi with a name different than what the customer is looking for seems like a pretty dumb idea to me. Maybe the people that live in Bakersfield are used to this practice. In any case, the taxi company said they would send the driver back.
A "Red & White Taxi" then showed up and dropped off a few people at the station. We decided to not take any more chances after we had already wasted a half hour on the weird business practice of the Yellow Taxi company. So, we asked the driver of the "Red & White Taxi" if he could take us where we were going and he was more than happy to do so. We did make a courtesy call on my cell phone to the Yellow Taxi Company to tell them to cancel the cab that we had requested. If you happen to visit Bakersfield and need a taxi, just call the "Red & White Taxi" at 805-325-5511 and avoid the nonsense with the Yellow Cab Company! So, we took the taxi over to the Bakersfield Marketplace. When the driver dropped us off, he said he would return at 5 P.M. to take us back to the station so that we would be on time for our 5:45 P.M. train back to Sacramento.
After checking the current movies playing, the only one that we could find that would fit into our schedule was "Payback" staring Mel Gibson. I don't want to give away the plot, but don't put your hopes on many coming out of this movie alive beyond the two main characters! The movie started at 1:15 P.M. and ended around 3:00 P.M.
After the movie, Ray and I went across the parking lot to an Applebee's Restaurant to grab a late lunch. Just as we were finishing up our lunch around 3:30 P.M., my cellular phone rang. Only a few people have my cellular number, so I don't get many calls on my phone.
It was my wife calling to tell me that my Dad had died around 2:30 P.M. My Dad had been in ill health for a number of years, so his death did not come as a total surprise, but it did catch me off guard. The doctors had not expected him to live very long, but he surprised everyone by hanging in for more than another 5 years after those predictions.
During those 5 years, his health had waivered up and down. Sometimes he would go out to eat with us at a restaurant and other times he would be hospitalized for many days. He even travelled with my Mom and the whole family one time up to Salinas via the Amtrak Coast Starlight and then on to Carmel via limo.
We were always aware of the possibility that my Dad could die at any time over the last 5 years. We always had some idea in mind of how we would handle arrangements if I or my whole family was out of town on one of our week long rail trips. Most likely if we were in transit, we would just have to get off at the next Amtrak stop in a major city and fly home from there.
If this had to happen anywhere or anytime in the middle of one of my travels, having it happen while I was in Bakersfield presented the least amount of problems than I would have encountered in any of my rail travels. Although I was in the middle of this rail journey and had traveled over 800 miles in 18 hours, I was just 4 hours from home by bus and rail because of the circular nature of this journey.
At first, because I left all my clothes and other luggage in the hotel in Sacramento, I thought I was going to have to return to Sacramento on the San Joaquin and then fly home. But, when my head cleared, I realized that Ray could go back to Sacramento without me, pack up my stuff, and then he could return on the Amtrak Coast Starlight as originally planned.
We called the taxi company to have the taxi come to pick us up earlier than originally planned. When we got back to the Amtrak Bakersfield Station, a southbound train had just arrived and all the buses were being loaded with connecting passengers. I went into the ticket office to purchase a ticket to travel back to Fullerton by Amtrak Thru-way bus. However, there was a sign in the ticket window that said the agent would be back at 4:30 P.M. Unfortunately, the bus to Los Angeles was scheduled to leave at 4:25 P.M., 5 mintues before the agent was expected to return!
We explained our predicament to the bus driver. He asked to see our tickets. We sure had enough of those! We had two tickets for passage on the inaugural Amtrak San Joaquin Train #703 back to Sacramento of which Ray would only need one. We also had a single ticket good for two people in a Standard Sleeping Accommodation on the Southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight in which Ray would be traveling alone from Sacramento back to Los Angeles. We also had another ticket good for two people from Los Angeles to Fullerton that Ray would need once he reached Los Angeles the following evening.
The bus driver was kind enough to let me board the bus without a ticket specific to that route segment. I don't think there were more than about 8 people on that bus trip. Since I don't remember much of that trip, I must have fallen asleep almost immediately after the bus got under way. I was still recovering from a cold and I hope I didn't disturb others on the bus from my snoring. I was pretty sure I had been snoring as I would often wake up with a dry mouth and sometimes would wake myself up from my own orchestration.
The bus had left Bakersfield at 4:25 P.M. and was scheduled to arrive into Los Angeles at 6:45 P.M. The bus actually arrived a little earlier than that, about 6:30 P.M. I went to the automated ticket machine and purchased a ticket to go from Los Angeles to Fullerton for $7. I looked up at the list of departures and thought for a moment that I could catch an earlier Metrolink at this hour. At first I was confused in not being able to find any Metrolinks posted on the board at all! Then, I realized it was Sunday and that the Metrolinks don't operate on Sunday at all on any of the routes!
A boarding call was made for southbound Amtrak San Diegans Train #584 about 7:00 PM and the train departed out of LAUS at 7:15 P.M. The train arrived into Fullerton at 7:47 P.M. and I was at my mother's home by 8:30 P.M. along with my wife and two daughters. The total time from when I received the call in Bakersfield until I arrived at my Mom's house (just about one mile from my own home) was just 5 hours.
As you can imagine, I was occupied with the family in making numerous arrangements as well as periods of mourning for the next few days. Thus, it wasn't until late Thursday evening, March 4, 1999, about a week and a half after the run of the inaugural Amtrak Sacramento San Joaquin that I was finally able to finish this travelogue and post it to the web.
Ray headed back to Sacramento on the inaugural revenue Amtrak San Joaquins Train #703. Ray was the first one to have his ticket collected and punched by the Conductor and the Conductor told Ray that he was the first person to ever take a direct San Joaquin from Bakersfield to Sacramento!
Ray had no problem collecting up my luggage from the hotel and boarding the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight on Monday morning, February 22, 1999. I'm afraid Ray caught the cold that I was just shaking off and had to spend most of the southbound trip resting in bed in the room. He did come out of the room a few times and ran into Brian Rosenwald, the Product Line Manager for the Coast Starlight and General Manager for Amtrak West. They had a good conversation in the Pacific Parlour Car. Ray noticed that this Parlour Car had a regular credit card Rail Phone mounted on the wall. This is the first that I had heard of a rail phone on the Coast Starlight or on any long distance Amtrak Superliner Train for that matter!
Ray and I got back together in the TrainWeb office on Tuesday, February 23, 1999 and swapped stories of what each of us had experienced since the time that we went our own ways back on Sunday afternoon.