We got out of the hotel without any rush and took a taxi to Union Station, arriving just as the mini-reception (juice, coffee, tea) in Traxx Lounge for sleeping car passengers was starting. After half an hour or so a conductor came by and checked our tickets, and shortly thereafter she walked those of us as were ready to board down to Track 10 where the Coast Starlight was backing in to the platform. Being there first thing meant we could board without rush or bother. We settled into Bedroom E of car 1432, AMTK 32058, a rebuilt Superliner I sleeper. Ahead of us were 32063 and 32047, also Superliner I sleepers, the latter having not been through the most recent rebuild program – it still had the older style shower/toilet/sink modules. While I sat in our compartment and looked after Kuma Bear, Lisa went back down to the platform and took pictures before the conductor gave the "All Aboard."
We pulled out of LAUPT "on the advertised" (that's exactly what the conductor said over the radio) at 10:15 and made our way north. Being back in California, I could follow our progress using the Altamont Press Railfan Timetable Lisa brought with us. I also had remembered to print out the radio frequency list for this route, so I could listen to the train discussions and determine our location from lineside detectors even when I couldn't spot mileposts.
After a while, I went to the Pacific Parlor Car, and Lisa joined me later. We had a number of pleasant conversations with other sleeping car passengers taking advantage of the special Coast Starlight lounge that is a real bonus on the Los Angeles-Seattle run. I was very happy to have the good left-facing seats looking out over the ocean for this "Coast" portion of the Coast Starlight's run. In this section, the railroad is closer to the beach than the highway, and of course you can watch things too, not having to keep your eye on the road. We passed the Ventura County Fair, playing its last day and full of people.
Around Santa Barbara, A young budding railfan spotted my railroad and asked if it was a scanner. I explained the technical distinctions and showed him my Railfan timetable. I started to show him the tables describing our route, but our lunch reservation time was announced. I told him to find me later and I'd show it to him.
After lunch, Lisa and I watched our progress though Vandenberg Air Force Base, and Lisa took pictures of all of the interesting scenery while we speculated on just what each piece of mysterious looking gantry-work was. At the little station of Surf, our train came to an unscheduled halt and the engineer had to get permission to pass the (defective) signals at that location. A signal maintainer's high-rail vehicle (a truck with auxiliary rail wheels) was on the siding at Surf, so it looks like the railroad knew about the problem and was trying to fix it.
South of San Luis Obispo, we held at the Waldorf siding on this single-track railroad and waited for an opposing Pacific Surfliner to pass. We heard the crew of that train call our train and say that they'd set off a defect detector and ask if our crew could have a look at the side of their train as they rolled past us and see if there was anything wrong. Lisa and I went downstairs to the lower level door to have a better look. The southbound train rolled by, and we saw nothing obviously wrong. Neither did our crew, who radioed the results of the roll-by to their opposite numbers on board the Surfliner. Shortly thereafter, the signal ahead of us cleared and we were on the move to San Luis Obispo again.
Just south of SLO, our opposing Coast Starlight, Train 11, having just made its SLO station stop, passed us on the double track, and we rolled into SLO. This is the "division point" between the Santa Barbara Subdivision to the south and the Coast Subdivision to the north, and is a crew-change point where the conductors and engineers change out.
A word about our train crew: Lisa noticed by the voices on the radio and PA system that both of our conductors and one of our two engineers were women. So was our car attendant and the dining car Steward (Lead Service Attendant – the supervisor of the on-board crew other than the conductors and engineers). It wasn't an all-woman crew, but it was somewhat unusual for three of the four train service crew to be women. Not that this is a bad thing, of course. Lisa briefly chatted with the three women train-service crew while I walked up and down the platform.
San Luis Obispo is a "smoko" rest stop because of the scheduled crew change ther. I ran inside the station to see if they had any Coca-Cola, but their machines were Pepsi products, although I scored a Mug Root Beer for Lisa and trotted back to the train.
We were looking at a pretty close to on-time departure, and the passengers were all aboard and ready to go, when the conductor made a very dismaying announcement: There had been a fire at Watsonville that may have damaged a railroad trestle. Our train was to hold at SLO while UP examined the bridge and determined what we could do. The conductor said, "If our train is unable to continue, alternative transportation will be provided."
I had gone to the Parlor car with the young railfan who was interested in my knowledge of trains (his grandmother had asked during the rest stop whether her grandson had found me and my wife), and was showing him my Railfan Timetable when the announcement of our hold came over the loudspeakers. Moments later, Lisa appeared in the Parlor car nearly in tears. "I don't want to ride a bus to Oregon!" she wailed. (That's what "alternative transportation" usually means.) I commiserated with her and expressed my hope that maybe the fire damage won't be severe enough to force them to close the line.
At 4:30, the conductor updated us, saying they were supposed to determine within 15 minutes whether the bridge was safe to pass and that he would tell us as soon as he knew what we were going to do. Fifteen minutes later, there was still no word, and I heard the conductor talking to another crew member over the radio saying "ten or fifteen minutes" again. I assumed that he was talking by mobile phone to the dispatcher and Amtrak management. I continued to cross my fingers and hope for insufficient damage at Watsonville. Of course, any hope of an on-time arrival at Salem tomorrow went out the door with this big a delay, but the biggest thing on our minds was avoiding being put on buses or even airplanes.
At 5 PM, the conductor announced that the line around the train trestle was impassable and that they were going to take our train up to Salinas, load us on buses, and take us to Sacramento (people with intermediate stops will be bused there). At Sacramento, we were told, we apparently would have to wait around all night until tomorrow's southbound Coast Starlight arriving tomorrow morning around 6:30 AM. Southbound #11 will terminate there, and those passengers will be thrown out of their seats and beds and put on buses while they turn that train and put us on it northbound. At the very best, we could expect to be around 7 hours late, which means arriving in Salem around 9 PM Monday night – but probably later. It also means that we're apt to be stuck at Sacramento for much of the night, and at least for now there's no indication of what they're going to do with us overnight other than make us wait around Sacramento's train station. Sure, I have credit cards, and could get us a hotel room for the night, but it would help if we knew at least that they were thinking of what to do with us. OTOH, if we were not going to be in Sacramento until 4 or 5 AM, it hardly makes sense to get a hotel room.
We of course were very disappointed to hear this. It did appear that we'd miss our final night on the train, lose a night's sleep, and have to spend hours on buses – something we hate with a passion (Lisa even more than me). Lisa was very unhappy – I am somewhat more stoic about these things, I guess – and asked our sleeping car attendant to please see if she could at least find out more about what sort of sleeping arrangements (if any) are going to apply. Our attendant was just as concerned as we were – after all, she doesn't know where she's supposed to go, either. It's not as simple as her staying with the trainset on which we started, because heading back to Los Angeles would screw up the crew rotations and put entire trains' worth of on-board crew in the wrong place and with the wrong schedule.
I called Lisa's father, told him that we were going to be many, many hours late, and to not make any plans until we called him with an update, possibly not until tomorrow sometime. We discussed alternative ways of getting back to Mehama (20 miles east of Salem) that didn't involve having her father have to drive to Salem late at night.
Well, at least we'd get another meal on the train. While we sat at SLO, the dining car started their dinner service. We were in the 6:45 PM seating, and even if we'd left SLO when the conductor said we would – we did not – we should expect to have our dinner before arrival at Salinas to meet the Dreaded Buses. I thought about taking a nap since it was clear we wouldn't get much rest tonight. (I can sleep on trains, but rarely on any other form of transportation, and Lisa has it worse than I do. Worse, while we've been in our compartment, she has been able to plug in her radio/white-noise tinnitus-masking unit to on-board power, whereas on the Dreaded Buses, she'll have to rely on batteries.)
At 5:45 PM, the conductor announced an additional 30 minute delay, with the stated reason for the delay being that they'd rather wait here than at Salinas waiting for the Dreaded Buses to catch up to us. That makes the delay even longer, of course. At 6 PM, I heard the train crew over the radio saying that we'd be cleared to depart at 6:30 – almost four hours late. The dispatcher called our train at 6:06 PM to relay the same information.
Lisa and I continued to discuss alternative means of getting from Salem to Mehama. My only real question is just how much a taxi from Salem train station to Mehama would cost -- $50? $100? It's only about 25 miles, but it does involve a 25-mile deadhead back into Salem. We could easily be facing getting in to Salem at Midnight (originally scheduled time: 2 PM) or even later!
Normally I wait for my mobile phone to get down to 50% before charging it, but under the circumstances, it seems to me prudent to keep the phone as fully-charged as possible. I might be off power for a while and have to make a lot of calls. I therefore "short-turned" the phone by putting it on the charger with 75% charge indicated.
Lisa fretted over our luggage, with good reason. Our entire packing has been based on having a fairly large space of our own – even when we were in a roomette coming down from Oregon or on the eastbound Lake Shore Limited. We made no provision for our smaller bags like her or my computer bag or the camera bag to be tossed into a bus baggage bay. A bunch of repacking was in the cards during the trip to Salinas.
I can't fault Union Pacific for closing the line. If the bridge is damaged, it's damaged, and we can't do much about that. The Coast Line is a single-track railroad, and there are no alternative routes through this area. We're pretty well stuck, fantasies of turning the train and returning south, then heading up the Tehachapi Loop line through the Sacramento valley notwithstanding. (Such a re-route would be a railfan's dream but an operational nightmare for Amtrak and UP, and we'd surely be even later than the bus-bridge-and-turn-at-Sacramento plan. "But it would be more fun!" Lisa volunteered when I read that sentence to her.) Amtrak seems to be coming up with the best operational solution for the utilization of their equipment; however, they're not being especially good about the human factors, particularly accommodating the premium-fare sleeping car passengers. Lisa says we're not the only people who said variations of "I didn't buy a train ticket to ride a bus!"
At 6:26 PM, our train crew buzzed the UP dispatcher and looked into getting clearance for a 6:30 departure. The signal north of the platform had been glowing a tantalizing green at us ever since our arrival almost three hours earlier, but our train did not have a track warrant to proceed beyond SLO. Things could be worse – if we had been stuck at Santa Barbara, our train would have been blocking a major grade crossing, and there's no telling how they would have been able to resolve the mess. At least at SLO, people were able able to get out and walk around and stretch their legs, although everyone was warned to not wander off because we could have been told to leave at any time. I didn't bother.
At 6:30, the dispatcher said we were good to go, and we whistled off for Salinas, with the air of a condemned man awaiting execution in three hours – Death By Bus.