The Little Engine that Couldn’t
We woke in Portland eager to begin our journey further north in the magnificent Northwest. My husband is a train buff. He’s taken trains all over the world. Europe, India, Thailand and much more. So, instead of renting a car and driving to Seattle – we decided it would be fun to take the train.
What made it an easier decision is that Portland and Vancouver have great mass transit systems. Portland has the MAX light rail system and Vancouver has the Sky Train. We figured if we stayed in spots close to downtown, or at least close to mass transit access, we could take the trains for travel in between cities.
So, after breakfast at our Portland hotel Friday morning (More about THAT hotel later. Sigh…) we boarded a shuttle to the PDX Airport a five minute drive away. From there we got on the MAX line which took us to Portland’s Union Station. We got to the station with an hour to spare.
Ernie and I each checked our larger bags. I pulled a small wheelie bag with water bottles, snacks, my laptop (the train has wifi) and a couple books. At 12:15 pm on the dot our train, Amtrak Cascades 506, pulled out of the station. I took the picture below left as we boarded. The train was almost full when we left.
Quickly we crossed the Willamette and Columbia rivers taking us across the border into Washington state. We were close to the water and traveling through what felt like forests, but we couldn’t see the coast. It was green and lush compared to Las Vegas, but not remarkable.
Traveling by train is pleasant and relaxing. The seats are larger and more comfortable than airplane seats. There’s more legroom. It’s almost like First Class on a plane. I got engrossed in a book. Ernie watched what was going on outside the window as you can see in the picture below. After a half hour we went to the “Bistro” to get lunch. I got the Market Salad with spiced walnuts, bleu cheese and dried cranberries on a bed of arugula with an organic raspberry vinaigrette and apple wedges ($6.75). Surprisingly good for train food. Ernie got a Chicken Caesar Salad for the same price. I felt I got the better of the two choices. You pay for your food and then take it to one of the dining cars to eat.
In the dining cars you sit anywhere there’s a space, so you may be joining a total stranger at the table. At first the two other women were engrossed in their smartphones. But after a few minutes we started talking. One woman was an executive with a major hotel chain. The other was a clinical psychologist. We shared a lively conversation, getting to know each other. Finally, we went back to our seats.
At 2:30 pm we reached the Olympia WA station. The conductor got on the loudspeaker and announced the engine on our train had mechanical problems. In fact, the engine stopped a few miles ago and we coasted in to the station. Coasted! That’s when things got interesting. For the first half hour I stayed seated and kept reading my book.
Finally we were told we could go outside and stand on the platform. Below is a picture I took of our hobbled train. The platform is a long strip of concrete running along side the train, ten feet wide. That’s it. The weather was lovely – but we were stuck. If we left the platform area we couldn’t get back on the train.
We kept getting conflicting reports. There was talk about sending buses, but those were another couple hours away from arrival. Everything was up in the air.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get clear information from any of the crew members. They seemed to want to help – they just didn’t know. The crowd on the platform started thinning. Some people called friends and family to pick them at the station.
After two and a half hours, we learned another train, the 516, was traveling northbound from Portland headed for Seattle. However, the conductor told us the 516 is always full on a Friday. I asked him to call just to double check. He called and miracle of miracles, Ernie and I got a reservation number.
I ran into the station with the reservation number to get tickets from the ATM-style machine. Then, ran back to the train to retrieve our bags. All while being told the 516 was arriving “any minute.” We got on the new train and left the rest of the people from the 506 standing on the platform. I have no idea how many hours they stood there until finally getting alternate transportation.
Another 20 minutes up the tracks we were traveling along Puget Sound. The views are breathtaking. Deep blue waters, green pine-y forests, the silhouette of mountains and the sun hanging low in the summer sky. I could breathe again and we were excited about arriving in Seattle and enjoying The Emerald City.