Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train classes up its act

Parlour Car on Amtrak\'s Coast Starlight train

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train, which meanders up the Pacific Coast between Los Angeles and Seattle, has made a big comeback after being sidelined for months by a mudslide that covered tracks in Oregon. Since returning to full service the first week in May, it has spiffed up its perks in first class and added seat-side meal service for coach passengers.

Better yet, the often-tardy train ran on schedule 86% of the time in May, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham. That beat major U.S. airlines, which logged an on-time rate of less than 74% from April 2007 through April this year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures. Ridership has soared on the Coast Starlight, which carried nearly 22% more passengers in May 2008 than in May 2007, Graham said. Could it be the gas prices? Or rising airfares?

I toured the train Tuesday before it pulled out of Union Station in Los Angeles to see the latest updates:

Parlour Car: This vintage hang-out for the sleeping-car crowd (shown in photo) has been retrofitted with new air-conditioning. Very welcome, I imagine, in summer when you’re stuck behind a freight train. Also new: The upstairs lounge serves lunch and dinner. Meal seating is limited to 24, so reserve early or go to the regular Dining Car. In the downstairs theater, you’ll find a 50-inch, flat-screen monitor and an updated sound system. Some bad news: Daily wine-tastings are no longer free. It costs $5 to sample four regional wines, paired with four cheeses.

Arcade Room: Once known as the Kiddie Car, it’s now open to everyone and outfitted with video games. Warning: It’s a tight fit.

First-class boarding: Sleeping-car passengers in Los Angeles are served juice and coffee in the station while waiting to board. Then a conductor takes their bags for them and escorts them to their car. “From the time you get here, we wanted it to be a first-class experience,” said Dee Mason, Amtrak’s Oakland-based senior director for product management.

Coach class: Denizens of the cheap seats will find a few improvements. The main change is that you can now order meals delivered to your seat. (Don’t forget to tip.) You can still go to the Dining Car too. Coach-class pillows are bigger, I’m told, and blankets now cost $7.50 instead of $15.

– Jane Engle, Assistant Los Angeles Times Travel Editor

[Photo: Jane Engle]

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10 Comments on “Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train classes up its act”

  1. Mike Says:

    Jane,

    Thanks for the continuing coverage of rail travel. It’s often overlooked. It’s too bad you didn’t get a chance to ride the “new” Coast Starlight. Sounds like about half the highly-touted “new” services aren’t being offered on the first day of service, which is a shame. And on the second day of “new” service, they didn’t have a Parlour Car or substitute first-class lounge at all. It’s still a beautiful train ride, though!

  2. Jim Says:

    The Coast Starlight is our favorite way to travel to Oregon. We just pick up a rental car upon arrival.

  3. Larry Says:

    This is welcome news. I had intended to take the Starlight earlier, learned of the mudslide and decided against the bus shuttle, vehicles that I can’t stand. Though patronage is up, it’s truly a shame that the entourage back in Washington DC is intent on starving AMTRAK and pushing people onto planes or slogging it out on the freeways with gas that in rural areas can easily reach $5.00 per gallon. Are those DC politicians mad? Welcome back AMTRAK!

  4. Bruce MacKenzie Says:

    I was on a Starlight from Oakland to Santa Barbara a few years back, and we were something like 13 hours behind schedule. We figured we could have driven back and forth and back again between the two stops during the time it took.

    Still, the staff seemed to know how stressed we were and went out of their way to make it a comfortable endurance experience. They had reasonably good food and great service in the dining car. It was hard to get angry at the staff, because they were trying so hard — and were giving good service.

    I vowed never to do it again, however, because I have a business to run. Nevertheless, years have passed and, with the announcement that they’re back with some increased amenities, my romance with rail travel was reawakened, and I’ve booked another round trip to Oakland — but timed it so that a delay won’t hurt my business meeting schedule.

    I’m looking forward to the first leg of the trip on Sunday.

  5. Eli Says:

    It doesn’t matter what upgrades they make to the trains if they maintain a staff of belligerent, customer-hostile employees who should have been fired years ago or put into a back-office role.

    For a sample of what you can expect if you’re unlucky in who’s working the Coast Starlight when you ride, Google for “My Final Trip on Amtrak”.

  6. Mary Ann Says:

    Is there train transportation from Michigan to Salt Lake City, Utah?

    Please advise.

  7. Jane Engle Says:

    Thanks to everyone for their useful comments on the Amtrak article! Mike, I’m wondering when you rode the Coast Starlight. Although I toured the train for its “official” re-launch, I believe some of the new features have been on the train since late May.

  8. carden DeLong Says:

    despite congressionl attempts to kill off amtrak, i have found the onboard service excellent, most of the time. late trains due to freight rr, inoperable toilets due to lack of funding, still a great experience worth some “interesting” inconveniences.

  9. Kevin Says:

    To Mary Ann, yes there is Amtrak service from Michigan to Salt Lake City, UT. Of course it depends on where you begin in Michigan, but more than one route can bring you to Chicago where you would change trains to catch the California Zephyr which stops in Salt Lake late at night. For more info, check online at http://www.amtrak.com

  10. Jake Says:

    I found coupon code V851 at http://www.railserve.com/amtrak_coupons.html that gives 20% off fares on the Coast Starlight. It didn’t work for travel next week, but saved me $20 on a trip in August.

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