At the end of April we travelled down to Portland. Portland for us is home to delightful family members, so seeing them is the highlight of any trip there. If it wasn’t for them, and despite the very high praise that is (no doubt worthily) heaped on the city, I think the best bit would be the journey. I love catching the Amtrak train. Rail travel, for some reason I really don’t understand, isn’t a usual form of transport for most people in the USA. The tracks carry far more freight trains than passengers and have gained priority. Freight trains here can go on for miles – or at least it seems so. If you reach a rail crossing when one is passing you really have to wait some time to see the end of it.
As you must know by now, Seattle is a major Pacific Northwest city. Guess how many passenger trains a day? Well weekdays in terms of commuter trains 4 Sounder trains head down from Everett in the early morning and 4 return there in the evening. Similarly 8 come in from the South via Tacoma each morning plus 2 late afternoon, with the reverse going back. Long distance is Amtrak trains. The Cascades service sees 4 south to Portland and 2 up to Vancouver BC. Then there is the Coast Starlight, which goes all the way down to Los Angeles (35 hours), which comes through once a day. And the Empire Builder – which travels the 46 hour journey to Chicago – also has a daily arrival/departure. And that is it, 22 passenger trains departing a day, with the same number arriving – unbelievable! Doesn’t exactly match my commutes in to London, where Clapham Junction alone averages one train every 13 seconds in peak times and one every 30 seconds off peak (I will leave you to work out the total!). What this allows though it the most remarkable maintenance of a sense of glamour and excitement in train travel. Everything makes me feel I should start by being dropped of by carriage with my trunks.
The stations are glorious. Last year King Street Station in Seattle revealed itself after a $55 million restoration project (42% of which was spent on seismic work to protect it from earthquakes). The full splendour of this 1906 construction glistens. It is wonderful – although with an occasional modern day ‘necessity’ which it is hard to feel shouldn’t be more hidden out of sight. You get plenty of chance to enjoy the fantastic feel of the place – no quick dash to the platform here. Amtrak passengers are asked to arrive at the station no less than 30 minutes before the planned departure time of the train. You then queue to show your booking and are given a seating reservation, a blue card which once onboard you place in a special clip on the luggage rail above the seat. This means that once settled the train conductor doesn’t need to interrupt your relaxation to see your ticket – as you wouldn’t have a reservation card without it – elegant you see. The seat reservation puts you in a carriage with others embarking and disembarking at the same station, again saving your journey from disruptions as others enter/leave the train during a journey. In fact your carriage door is not even opened at other stations – naturally we need not be concerned with any unnecessary chills or heat entering the carriage after all…how civilised, I love it! We have only travelled coach class – the standard of which equals first class back in the UK. Business class must be fantastic.
I would love to go on one of the longer distance trains with their wonderful overnight carriages and elegant dining arrangements – not to mention schedules being based on arriving at the most spectacular scenery at the right time of day – but sadly the journeys are not at 1920 prices, and in the domain of a very very special adventure. And there are more options, with private operators making use of independently owned and restored historic carriages to run some really amazing journeys. The April edition of Sunset magazine had me drooling with a beautifully illustrated, and amusingly written, article about such joys – which included everyone getting off the train, it going backwards just so it could then travel forward again pulling through a particular scenic spot whilst passengers photographed it from terra-firma, then repeating the whole back and forwards thing incase anyone was disappointed with their initial shots and needed more. The romance of train travel is far from dead…
Anyway back to this trip to Portland. Currently the train takes a gorgeous route, although there are plans for some of this to change from 2016 due to the pressure of freight and too regular delays in the passenger train schedule. Make the most of it before then, as it spends a considerable time meandering down the waters edge of Puget Sound. The section south of Tacoma through the Tacoma Narrows with its bridge with a fascinating story, past Anderson Island and then Nisqually is just amazing. It doesn’t end there though as you get further south you meet up with the Columbia River and more watery delights. Initially I felt all the fun was to be had only if you had seats on one side of the train, but the mountain views are better from the other side – including views of Mount Hood on a clear day – so wherever you are sitting you’ll have fun. Top tip though; the conductors don’t mind if you change seats within your carriage once the train is underway, just take that blue seat reservation card and pop it above your new place.
Arriving in Portland you are assisted off the train, with the help of a very cute yellow portable step which uniformed staff place at each door, (no having to open the door yourselves) and on to Union Station, another lovely early 1900’s building. With a restoration project completed earlier than Seattle’s King Street Station, the glamour continues. There is also a shop here selling Amtrak memorabilia, so you can have your own version of the cute hat the guards and conductors wear, among with many other bits and bobs.
We had great bright sunny weather there and back, but we have also done the journey when misty and sultry, and in low winter sunlight – just as beautiful, honestly. I find to hard to imagine that, in daylight, it will ever not be spectacular. Taking photos on a moving train, through the window, can not capture the true beauty – but hopefully they give you enough of a feel to want to make the journey yourself.
People are surprised that we took the train, it does take marginally longer than driving, but really I am surprised anyone goes any other way.
We spent some of the journey researching excuses to take it more often, yes there is free wi-fi so some modern concessions! So look out for reports of a day trip to Olympia that will be coming up, a train ride followed by a tour of the State Capitol building… What a great idea, want to come along?