“You’re last”, “You’re last” were the words the small four year old boy in front of me was yelling about at Union Station in Portland, Ore. He was very cute along with his older sister as they jumped with excitement for their first train ride back home to Seattle (the family drove down and dad went home leaving mom to train it back with the kids). The kids had their little carry-on bags filled with stuffed animals, toys and games all ready for their four hour journey to Seattle aboard Amtrak’s Cascades train. To be honest, I was a bit excited too as I do love seeing the various landscapes pass by with each station. I am a bit hardened from the Northeast Corridor here on the East Coast – our train is like your daily commute – long lines, jockeying for the best seat with an outlet and then trying your best to Jedi mind control the best person to be your seat mate as they pass through the aisle. The Amtrak Cascades train ride was going to be my West Coast escape from the routine of the East Coast.
I was quickly no longer last in the line so he turned his attention to the man behind me who found no joy in the child’s declarations. The kids were cute, some passengers had no sense of wonder left in them i guess to indulge the children’s fun. Their mother and I started chatting – the casual conversations during travel are always enjoyable for me. As I was traveling in business class, I could have waited in the front of the line alone, but where is the fun in that? I had already wandered around snapping lots of photos and getting weird “such a tourist” looks so I figured standing in line would pass the time (about 1/2 hr) before boarding -it went by quickly when the kids were showing me all of their stuffed friends who were also riding the train for the first time.
Amtrak has a separate, dedicated website to the Cascades train which was my first indication that this train experience would differ from my normal Northeast Corridor travels. The Amtrak Cascades train travels from Eugene, OR to Vancouver, B.C. (not to be confused with the Vancouver, WA stop). While it can reach speeds over 100 mph, due to track restrictions currently, the top speed would be 79 mph on our train (so not much faster than a car driving but no traffic). My original plan was to drive from Portland to Seattle, however, my travel agent nixed that idea rather quickly with the additional $250 in car rental fees for the one way rental. I hadn’t read much about either the bus or train to Seattle so opted for the train, figuring it wouldn’t have highway traffic to contend with.
Amtrak’s Union Station, Portland, OR
The Portland train station, Union Station, was a quick cab ride from my downtown hotel. Entering the station, I felt transported back in time with the open counters of wood, the neon signs, the vintage scale. For a real trip of nostalgia, there were actual pay phones booths sans doors (i took photos to explain to my nieces life before the smartphone when you needed a dime to make a call). While lacking in the grandeur of Philadelphia’s 30th street station, the Portland station had touches of train elegance of an era gone by (until of course you went to the restrooms which for the life of me are never in good shape anywhere).
Amtrak Cascades Check In/Boarding in Portland
When you check in at the train counter open windows (unlike the glass partitions and coldness of the Northeast Corridor), you are greeted and welcomed aboard. Traveling in business class, i could not use the kiosk so needed to talk to an agent. She looked at the seat stickers for the train (a bit old school), and I was assigned a single seat in business class – an (A) seat on the right side of the train and given my $3 discount for the bistro car.
The business class passengers were allowed to board first so i said goodbye to the family and walked out to the train. The train loomed large in its cream, green and brown colors. The locomotives are seven feet taller than the passenger trains, either way, I felt quite small.
Amtrak Cascades Business Class Seating
Entering the business class car, it was mostly full from prior stations but the brown leather seats were a nice size with leg room. With three seats across – two on one side and a single on the other – the car did not feel crowded despite a full train that day. Each seat has a power port so I could easily plug in and with free wifi, I was all set to sit back, relax and enjoy the views.
Amtrak Cascades Views
During the wait for all to board, i looked outside at the very antique tracks.
With a small group traveling together at the front of the car giggling for most of the trip, I made use of my Bose headphones to mute them out (downside there is no quiet car) and pulled out my old school hardcover book to read. With six stops before arriving Seattle, an estimated four hour journey, we passed over bridges, through small towns, and stopped at even smaller train stations.
I would see the passengers waiting to board and wonder what their story was – who did they hug goodbye? where were they going? and what is life like in the small town that gets three trains stopping a day? A train full of people and their stories – why hasn’t anyone made a documentary or reality show about that yet? (anyone want to fund me? it seems so interesting). I created stories for so many passengers and those left at the stations – were they as fascinating as i envisioned them to be? My movie casting was interrupted by the little boy waving at me as he walked down the aisle with his mom on a quest to see the whole train front to back – got to admire his curiosity and thoroughness.
Seattle’s King Street Station
The approach to Seattle’s King Street station, is not that exciting but that changes when you walk into the station which just finished a historic renovation. You are struck by how white it is and then to see flashes of gold and emerald in the details. I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the visual and architectural beauty of the space as there were many taking photos along with me.
Arriving in Seattle, I didn’t see the children again to ask how their first train experience was but am sure, like most children, they loved it. As a big kid, I enjoyed slowing down to relax and watch the world go by on the Cascades, trying to look at the small details along the way – the industrial remnants of the past, the small towns of the present and the joy of the children and their futures.
Outside of the station, with my Cascades train trip now my past, my present was front and center – I had arrived in the “Emerald City” ready to begin the next part of my West Coast adventure.