Last-minute decisions (and the Dining Car From Hell)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, August 11, 2014

How would you solve this problem? You've used a jillion Guest Rewards points to book bedrooms on the Coast Starlight from San Jose, Cal., to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited to New Orleans and the Crescent to Washington, D.C. The Starlight arrives in LA at 9 p.m., the Sunset leaves at 10 p.m., and therein lies the dilemma on the night before departure. Dogged by locomotive failures and other bad luck, the northbound Coast Starlight got to Seattle 12 hours late, causing it to leave toward you almost three hours late. And when you went to bed it had not made up a minute of time. So do you board a very late train and fret all day whether the Sunset will hold for you and other connecting passengers? Do you play it safe and get to LA via the Central Valley on a San Joaquin train (b-o-r-i-n-g)? Or do you just throw out the book and do something really crazy?

At 7:30 yesterday morning I am standing outside San Jose's century-old station. The train to Oakland and a connection to the San Joaquin leaves in 20 minutes. I call Amtrak Guest Rewards and ask to be rerouted via Chicago on the California Zephyr and on to DC aboard the Capitol Limited. Inexplicably (it is peak travel season, remember) there are unsold bedrooms (the big ones) on both trains and in two minutes I'm set to go. At the ticket counter I exchange my Oakland ticket for one to Emeryville, Cal., the next station east and the originating point for the Zephyr. My train gets to Emeryville two minutes before the Zephyr's 9:10 a.m. departure time, and I hop on. And by the way, up the line, at Martinez, Cal., we meet the southbound Coast Starlight, still as late as when it left Seattle, and it sports a Union Pacific SD60 on the point, limiting the train to 70 mph. To cut to the quick: The Starlight stumbles into Los Angeles at midnight, but the Sunset, by then two hours late, is waiting on it. Good for those making the connection, but worrying about whether it would turn out so well (the next eastbound Sunset leaves two days later) would have ruined my trip down the coast.

That was yesterday. Today I am more certain than ever I made the right decision back at the San Jose station. On nice, long summer days there is no better train on this earth to ride than an eastbound California Zephyr. We've just left Grand Junction, and outside my window stand awesome cliffs hundreds of feet above the Colorado River, which we will follow all day to its headwaters not far from Moffat Tunnel. Why did I ever consider going home via New Orleans?

And I say this despite being tortured in the Dining Car From Hell. Does enjoying a meal on a long-distance train have to be so hard? Yesterday, when the first call to lunch is made, I am ready, entering at noon on the dot. Then I and my seatmates sit . . . and sit . . . and sit while every seat in the car is filled. That takes 15 minutes. Then the waiter in charge calls for quiet and recites the menu (they had been given the wrong menus). He and the other three waiters take lunch orders and finally, at 12:30, they are all dumped at once on the kitchen downstairs. For 15 more minutes not a thing happens. Then one by one the orders begin coming up on the dumbwaiter. My table is the second to be served, and by then I have been in the car for 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, anyone who missed the first stampede will not be called until 1:30 p.m. or later. That's because no table is reset until every last person in the first seating has left. The Sightseer Lounge just ahead of the dining car becomes a holding tank for the 20 parties who are told to wait. Lunch doesn't end until 3 p.m. Dinner is by reservation, and last night my table waited 30 minutes for a waiter to appear and another half hour for our orders to come up from the kitchen.

I bring this up because it is a pattern I've noticed on three occasions aboard the California Zephyr and nowhere else. Cal Zephyr passengers have mentioned it on as well. Amtrak needs to establish best practices for its dining cars and then enforce them. That or transfer Mr. Big from his current gig running the Auto Train and let him kick the complacent asses of the Zephyr's dining car crews. Mr. Big doesn't take crap from Amtrak service employees.

Okay, now I feel better. Even the Dining Car From Hell doesn't much diminish my enjoyment of this trip over mountains and across vast deserts, and the best part is coming up, from Glenwood Springs, Colo., into Denver.

Then, alas, we pay the piper. Every evening, it seems, Union Pacific delivers the Zephyr to BNSF Railway at Denver within an hour of its schedule (which for Amtrak this year is the same as on time), and BNSF proceeds to murder the train between there and Omaha, Neb., on a line that doesn't sport that many freight trains. Four hours late appears to be the typical arrival time in Chicago, which is just after the Capitol Limited's scheduled departure. I rate my chances of making the connection as pretty good. But come back in two days and find out.--Fred W. Frailey

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