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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Train to Vancouver, BC

IT'S A LITTLE SLOW BUT IT SURE BEATS DRIVING (and anything beats flying)

Amtrak from Seattle: Edmonds-Everett- Mt Vernon-Bellingham-Vancouver, B.C.

Any chance I get you'll hear me talking up rail travel. Trains are a vastly superior way to travel compared to short flights and most car travel. The sad thing about rail service in most of the U.S. is that it is either nonexistent or inadequate. On the Seattle to Vancouver run that I describe below the top speed is only 79mph even thought the trains are capable of going 120mph on better track ( In Europe there are trains that go over twice that speed).

The ticket was $62 per person round trip to Vancouver. After waiting to get a seat assignment the train left promptly at 07:45. The cars are roomy and comfortable. There are power outlets for each row of seats. If only airplanes were this user friendly for computers. There are TV monitors in the cars that show movies and also display trip information and plot the train's progress along its route on a map.

The anticipated four hour ride was longer than my flight to Chicago last weekend but I wasn't filled with the usual claustrophobic dread that accompanies plane travel. For one thing, there is something to see out the window wspecially on this spectacular track along the coast of the Puget Sound. I brought along my Nikon binoculars and my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America just in case I wanted to do a bit of birding along the way. On a plane you'd better hope that the book you brought can keep you busy for the entire flight.

As soon as the train departed they gave the call for the first seating for breakfast in the dining car. This train has both a dining car, for more formal sit-down seating, and a club car for snacks and drinks. On my flight to Chicago the only thing I could do was stand up to go to the restroom in the back. Lunch was a really small bag of really lousy pretzels.

If you are going to Canada from Seattle be sure to get a seat on the left side, the water side. The view from the window is enough to keep you entertained for the entire trip. The train hugs the coast, riding only a few feet from the water along most of the route. You could literally spit and hit the water but the windows don't open so if you spit it will just hit the glass. Live and learn.

I was going to have breakfast in the dining car but the menu didn't look too inviting. I settled for a sandwich and a bloody Mary next door in the club car. The club car, or bistro car, or whatever the hell they call it, only has a couple of small tables and about six barstools but compared to the cramped quarters on an airplane it is positively luxurious. I almost never talk to the person sitting next to me on a flight. Once you open up you run the risk of having them never shut up for the rest of the trip--in the club car people actually converse.

The attendant in the club car told us a story as we waited for a bridge over one of the sloughs to close. He said as a boy he would go to the circus and one of the attractions was a dancing chicken. He later found out that what made the chicken dance was that it was standing on a hot plate. If the bird didn't feel like performing they would simply turn up the heat on the plate until the chicken complied. Whenever the attendant was in an uncomfortable situation he said he felt like that chicken and the heat was being turned up. I know, the story is probably complete horse shit but it passed the time and I didn't have the heart to call him on it. A couple of well-directed questions and I'm sure he would have recanted the whole story.

There was even a movie I felt like seeing on the trip (Seabiscuit). Usually the movies on planes are completely unfit for intelligent adult consumption. I usually get stuck on a flight with a load like Sister Act II or some equally obnoxious offering, something that is completely offensive even to look at with no headphones. I didn├»¿½t watch Seabiscuit because I am finishing up my rereading of the brilliant Catch 22, the view out the window was superb, and I had my laptop to fart around on. I'll save that movie and maybe they'll show it on my next boring-as-hell flight somewhere although I can't ever remember watching a movie on a plane.

We were delayed more than an hour on this particular run. I don't know what Amtrak's on-time percentage is but none of the passengers on this trip seemed too concerned with the delay (The return trip was right on schedule). A bloody Mary goes for $4.50 so the club car stayed busy through it all on this morning passage. And as I said before, the view out of the port side windows is remarkable. Trumpeter swans, cormorants, the ubiquitous western gulls, mallards, and perhaps about a dozen bald eagles were just a few of the more noteworthy species I noticed along the shore. I certainly wasn't in any hurry.

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