Madam Musing and I just got back from a quick trip to Santa Barbara. And to make this trip more adventurous, we decided to take the Coast Starlight from Oakland. Amtrak runs this train daily, starting from Seattle and going down to Los Angeles.
First impression - friends warned me that riding a long trip on Amtrak requires massive amounts of patience. I thought I was ready. I wasn't. It wasn't just that it was slow. It was also that the Amtrak people were so indifferent and unapologetic about it. They seemed to treat it as a feature rather than a bug (in geek speak). On our trip home, when we were almost to Salinas, I asked someone how we were doing. He said "Great, we're right on time." The train proceeded to pull into Salinas 40 minutes late.
All the train people were comics. They were so chipper, I thought they'd just come from jobs at Disneyland. I love to see people enjoy their work, but this was a bit over the top. I could have taken the unending good-humor if I'd felt better about the train ride myself. But it mainly left me very, very tired and cranky.
The meal service had some interesting features, too. Riding down, there was no problem for us to get a table to ourselves. But coming home, with a new diner crew, it was required that you sit with other folks. Ok, we decided to try it. But the people we had lunch with were pretty strange and unfriendly and we wanted to eat dinner by ourselves. "Not possible" said the diner people, even though there were tons of empty tables. They left some tables empty for the entire meal while crowding the customers into just a few booths. All I can think is that they didn't want to have to clean up more tables than absolutely necessary.
There was the same difference from ride to ride in the amount of information we got about our progress. Some conductors told us about every unexpected stop, why we were making it and how it affected when we'd reach the next station. But others were silent about such things and we were left to our own devices to consider when we'd reach home.
I must say that the trip wasn't all bad news. There were some wonderful things as well. The view from the train during the day was fantastic. This was especially true on the return trip when we watched miles of California coastline roll by. And being able to move around and chat with people and have a drink or two while someone else was driving was a great pleasure.
One last disturbing story came from a fellow passenger who'd taken the Starlight down to LA the day before we left for Santa Barbara. The train was even more hours late than ours and finally it just broke down completely. Amtrak unloaded everybody from the train, put them on buses, and finished the trip that way. We'd been considering that it might be a beautiful trip to take the train out to Denver to visit friends there. I understand the train travels through some beautiful canyons in Colorado. But it would be terrible to sign up for a beautiful train trip and end up on a bus riding the interstate to your destination. All I'd be thinking would be "Why am I not on a plane?"