The Coast Starlight gives a lung to a dying sister

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, August 13, 2011

Leave it to this one-time tabloid reporter to write a tearjerker. But before I get to that, the old adage that a late train just gets later applies only when there’s competition for the track. Union Pacific doesn’t have a lot of train density between Roseville, Calif., and Portland, Ore. The northbound Coast Starlight is 81 minutes late leaving Dunsmuir, Calif., when I get up at 6:30 this morning, which gives me an opportunity to see the Cascade Range better than I ever had before.

From Dunsmuir on we narrow the schedule deficit until arriving Portland, there are 40 minutes to spare before an on-time departure. The conductor says over the PA to feel free to get off and walk around, but that the gates will close at 4:15 and the train will leave at 4:20. Debarking to buy a banana (one byproduct of travel I notice is acute hunger at all hours), I admire the four-car Portland section of the Empire Builder on the adjacent track, behind a quiet P42 locomotive. It will leave 25 minutes behind us for Spokane, Wash., and Chicago

Come 4:20 p.m. and back on my train, I hear a toot-toot, but we don’t budge. More toots. Still, we don’t move. I finally break off playing computer Solitaire and key in the new train radio channel. It seems that the Empire Builder locomotive is silent for a reason. It cannot be started. At the last minute before our departure, a decision is made to give one of our two locomotives to the Builder — in other words, to donate our train’s second lung.

Lucky for the Builder’s passengers that we are there to help, I guess. Hey, I believe in assisting those in need. Happy to lend a hand to the poor Builder folks, and no, they don't ever have to thank me. Wouldn't you do the same?

Forty years ago, the Santa Fe switch crew in Clovis, N.M., would have excised a passenger locomotive from a train and reconnected us in five minutes. But you know how it is today: For each pull and shove, allow 10 minutes, plus another 10 to reconnect the air hoses and electrical cables. Oh yes, then a brake test.

Amtrak’s web site says we left Portland at 4:32 p.m., 12 minutes late. Horsefeathers. We leave at 5:15 p.m., 55 minutes late. But due to the modern miracle known as schedule padding, we still get to Seattle dead on time, at 8:45 p.m.

I love this train. I loved this trip. In summer the bilevel Coast Starlight is four coaches and four sleepers, a 12-car monster that would have been 18 cars or more in the single-level era. Follow my footsteps while you can. We don’t know what the future holds. — Fred W. Frailey

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