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Los Angeles to Tucson by train

Feb 18, 2017 Saturday – Los Angeles to Tucson by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train

2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy

Rainbow over the desert as we approach Tucson train station
Rainbow over the desert as we approach Tucson train station

After a good sleep overnight from Los Angeles, I’m up early and sit down for breakfast shortly after the dining car opens at 6:30AM. My new friend Jim joins me, so we talk about our upcoming plans over coffee, scrambled eggs and croissants. Jim is having grits, and assures me they taste great providing they are seasoned with salt and pepper – but I pass on them! The train is running late, so we have plenty of time before our projected arrival around 10:15AM. Outside there is desert scrub and a few cactus, and the mountains behind. We see a vertical rainbow to the north as the Sun rises over the mountains to the south.

It’s a cloudy day here in the desert. As we approach Maricopa, Arizona (near Phoenix) it is raining lightly. There is a crew change here before we leave for Tucson, my final stop for this train trip. This morning, the conductor says our delays last night when leaving Los Angeles were caused by staying clear of freight trains and there were also some weather-related delays, whatever that means.

The train pulls into Tucson station at 10:15AM (see banner image above) – the end of my train trip.

Map of Amtrak's Sunset Limited train route between LA and Tucson
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train route between LA and Tucson – the blue line
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Sacramento to LA – train & bus

2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy

Feb 17, 2017 Friday – Sacramento to Los Angeles by bus and train

Sacramento Valley Station in the rain
Sacramento Valley Station in the rain

My day starts early at 5AM when I wake up in my Roomette and look outside at the dark. The dining car doesn’t open before our arrival in Sacramento, so no breakfast for those of us leaving the train here. I say goodbye to my cabin attendant and shlep my bags into the terminal. I check into the ticket booth, and they issue new Amtrak tickets for both of today’s bus-train-bus segments, this evening’s train to Tucson, and my return trip back to Seattle. I sit with Jim, one of my fellow passengers, who tells me by his calculations our train averaged 43 mph from Seattle to Sacramento.

The Amtrak bus leaves the station an hour after our arrival and takes about an hour to transfer us to the Stockton station. We wait an hour before boarding the San Joaquin commuter train to Bakersfield. The train leaves at 9:25AM and arrives in Bakersfield at 1:49PM. Along the way, we pass huge fields of almond trees in bloom, and even some orange bushes. The fields are either flooded or are so wet that there is no way they can be worked. The train slows because of high winds in the valley. I go to the snack bar on board and have a hot panini for lunch.

Route map from Bakersfield to Los Angeles Union Station
Route map from Bakersfield to Los Angeles Union Station

We then take another Amtrak bus from Bakersfield to Union Station in Los Angeles. This proves to be a real endurance contest, since it is raining so hard. The US Weather Service is sending out warnings to stay away from the areas we are driving through! This was supposed to be a 2 hour and 20 minute trip according to the ticket, but ends up taking over four hours. I find it to be very stressful, not only because of the extremely hazardous driving conditions (see banner image above), but because we are stopped at least twice from entering LA because of mud slides, washouts, or MVAs causing roads to be closed. Apparently, the major interstate freeway I-5 was closed in both directions today!

After we arrive at Union Station, I find the Metropolitan Lounge; sit down to relax and have a coffee and snacks. I need some time to unwind a bit, and to recover from the stress of the last segment of our journey today. I leave my big bag in the lounge and have a nice dinner with a new friend I met on the train at the Traxx restaurant in the station.

Traxx restaurant in LA's Union Station
Traxx restaurant in LA’s Union Station

I then return to the lounge, retrieve my bags, and a red cap takes me to the train. I quickly get settled into my Roomette, and then I have a shower before we depart the station, since it’s so much easier than when the train is rocking and rolling. Our cabin attendant tells me this train has no Wi-fi aboard, and the route the train takes means the cellular coverage cuts out as soon as the train clears the LA area.

10:00PM – The train leaves the station on time and slowly proceeds eastward through Los Angeles, but by 11:00PM it comes to a complete stop for about 15 minutes before proceeding slowly again. I have a feeling the operating staff are watching out for debris on the tracks, since this rainstorm has washed out many roads, and gullies are full of mud and rocks. No doubt they are being extra careful to avoid derailment – it is still raining, but just not as hard as this afternoon. The train starts and stops several times before I finally go to bed around 11:30PM.

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Seattle to Sacramento by train

Feb 16, 2017 Thursday – Seattle, WA to Sacramento, CA by by Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train

2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy

I wake up at 6:30AM this morning, having had a good sleep at the hotel. I go down for some breakfast and the essential coffee. It is then time to leave for the train station. There are patches of blue sky and no rain, so instead of taking a taxi, I slowly walk the six blocks to the train station, pulling my big bag on wheels.

Looking into my Roomette aboard the Seattle to Sacramento Coast Starlight
Looking into my Roomette aboard the Seattle to Sacramento Coast Starlight

The King Street Union Station in Seattle is beautiful inside, with marble walls and classic high ceilings. The old-style wooden high-backed bench seats hearken back to previous eras. I go to the ticket booth to check-in and the agent explains that if I need stuff out of my big bag, then I will have to take it aboard with me instead of checking it through to LA. Next time, I will know to take a smaller bag, since there is no assistance with bag handling when boarding the train.

This is certainly slow travel, since our check-in consists of showing our tickets to the agent, and then they hand write a paper ticket with our car number and room number on it. No ticket scans and no security checks. The Homeland Security Police presence inside the station bring me back to the current reality, although they appear to be pretty bored, having little to do.

9:30AM – Leave Seattle, WA. There is a Sounder commuter train unloading passengers on the opposite track to ours as we leave. It’s so refreshing to see rail transport being actively used here in Washington State, unlike Vancouver Island, where rail transport is being neglected.

Tacoma Narrows bridge at sunset
Tacoma Narrows bridge at sunset

10:30AM – Tacoma, WA – we stop to board a few passengers before leaving for the most scenic stretch along the Puget Sound to Olympia. The Roomette on the opposite side of the isle is being used by George, our car attendant, so I scoot over there to shoot video and photos, since he said he doesn’t mind. We also briefly stop in Olympia to take on a few more passengers, and then the train goes inland through rural areas.

Seattle to Sacramento by train - map
Seattle to Sacramento by train

12:00 Noon – Centralia, WA – we stop for a few minutes to detrain some passengers, and then carry on our way. Lunch is served in the dining car in three seatings: 12:00, 12:30 and 13:00. I skip the first seating, since there is a rush of passengers. The rivers in this area are muddy and swollen with the rain and snow we recently had over the last month or so.

12:20PM – Longview-Kelso, WA – The rain starts as we travel south, crossing rivers and streams with the I-5 freeway beside us. I’m so happy to not be driving…just sitting here in my Roomette with my slippers on, fully relaxed as I watch the drivers on the freeway drive through the rain. I go to the dining car at 12:30PM and have turkey medallions – a very nice hot lunch!

1:50PM – Portland, OR – We stop in Portland for about a half hour, where passengers get on and off. It is also where passengers can get off to stretch their legs, get some fresh air, and to have a smoke (outside the terminal). I stay onboard, since it is raining quite hard.

I receive a voicemail from Amtrak stating that I should get off at Sacramento to be transferred by bus and commuter rail to LA to connect with my train to Tucson, since they are expecting delays further down the track to LA. They have refunded a portion of my ticket in compensation. I check with my car attendant, and he can’t see why that is necessary since the train isn’t currently running late. He suggests I check with the next conductor before arriving in Sacramento, but I should be prepared to get off the train in Sacramento at 6:35AM.

Red barn and green field at sunset near Tangent, Oreon
Red barn and green field at sunset near Tangent, Oregon

3:50PM – Salem, OR – A quick stop, where I see the Willamette University Bearcats female football players practicing. Lots of farming is going on in the Willamette Valley between Salem and Albany.

4:35PM – Albany, OR – Quick stop. Big rail yard.

The conductor comes by to find out what I was told about getting off in Sacramento. He confirms there is flooding near Chico, California, which will slow the train down, and there is also track work being done on the California coast section, so the train will likely be quite late. He confirms I should get off in Sacramento, and tells me I will be on a bus from Sacramento to Stockton, then a fast commuter train from Stockton to Bakersfield, and finally another bus from Bakersfield to LA, driving down the Central Valley. I will arrive in LA at 4:15PM, so I will have lots of time before my train to Tucson leaves at 10PM.

6:10PM I go for dinner at the second seating, I am seated with a couple who boarded in Tacoma. They are heading to LA and then getting on a cruise ship in San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles, for a short 6 day cruise down the coast of Mexico.

8:00PM – It’s pitch black outside, but I see quite a bit of snow flashing by and snowflakes falling outside the window. We haven’t had cellular reception for quite awhile, which is to be expected in this area, according to the conductor. The train has slowed down to perhaps 10-15 mph and now it has stopped. Our conductor announces that the train will stop because an outside sensor is detecting that something is dragging below the train. He goes outside to investigate – in the dark and snow, and with a serious drop in slope beside the roadbed. After 10 minutes the train starts moving again after he reports nothing found.

8:33PM – I thought the train has stopped again, but it’s just become very quiet riding through the snow.

9:05PM – Chemult, OR – more passengers board the train, with deep snow outside.

10PM – Time for bed…my cabin attendant makes my bed – my first night aboard a train in my own Roomette.

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Victoria to Seattle

February 15, 2017 – Victoria, BC, Canada to Seattle, WA, USA via Victoria Clipper catamaran ferry

2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy

Clipper Navigation calls me this morning to let me know they are advancing the departure date of the sailing from 5PM to 2PM in order to avoid the predicted strong winds. I quickly finish packing and tidy up what I need to at home before calling a taxi at 12:30PM to take me to the ferry terminal downtown. I’m the first passenger there, but the waiting lounge soon fills up. We pre-clear US Immigration in the terminal shortly after 1PM, and we are all aboard about 15 minutes later. I have six window seats all to myself since there are very few passengers on this sailing.

Serving staff and lots of empty seats in the main cabin
Serving staff and lots of empty seats in the main cabin

They announce that tea and coffee are free on this sailing, and beer is on sale for US$3, so I order a Pike Place IPA and a smoked Provolone sandwich as a mid-afternoon snack/dinner. We hit some bigger waves around 3PM for about a half hour or so.

The captain takes us directly across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Dungeness Point near Port Angeles in order to keep our time in rough seas to a minimum. We pass Whidby Island on our left and the Point Wilson lighthouse at Port Worden Historic State Park on our right near Port Townsend. The rain is really streaming down the windows of the boat as we proceed through Puget Sound towards Seattle. I’m seated beside four women from Louisiana, who’s accents are a hoot to listen to.

Route map - Dungeness Bay
Route map – Dungeness Bay

Once we dock at Pier 69, all the passengers with no checked luggage get off first, then the rest of us claim our bags and go through US Immigration and Customs. None of the agents have computer terminals on this end, unlike in Victoria where my passport was scanned. I catch a taxi outside the terminal, and he takes me the 10-15 blocks through rush hour traffic to the Best Western Plus Pioneer Square hotel. I picked this hotel because it is about six short blocks to the King Street Train station where I will show up tomorrow morning to begin my train journey to Tucson, Arizona.