Monday, 4 July 2011

Train to nowhere (actually Seattle, but very slowly)- 12th, 13th, 14th October

At LA Union Station we checked in our backpacks, only to realise after that we’d left our mashed potato, penknife and couscous in there and if we didn’t get a move on and buy some snacks a very hungry Jenny and Fiona might be arriving in Seattle. There wasn’t much available at the station, but we found a few bits and pieces.

The train journey started as it meant to go on with a delay of 45 minutes before we’d even left the station. Our fellow passengers were getting into the spirit of train travel with the man behind us announcing to no one in particular ‘this is like the roller-coaster train, any fun that’s gonna be had on this train, we’re gonna have it’. He also kept going on about this apparently amazing donut place in Portland and about a previous train journey he went on. The passengers had been told there would be a 90 minute delay at the station, so he went off to buy a sandwich and when he came back the train was gone. Apparently it was ‘fluid’ and he should have been ‘fluid’, but they forgot to tell him this before he missed the train.

Jenny’s face formed into a childish grin following an indecipherable (to my ears)tannoyannouncement that there are recycling facilities on board. This meant we could proceed to offload most of the contents of our bag of recycling we have been carting around since disembarking the boat (it was just too painful to let them burn our plastic bottles). In another announcement we were told ‘it does get rough up here now and again’ and an extensive explanation on how to handle the rough and turbulent conditions was added. The seaway was worse than most days on the Hanjin Yantian.

The sprawl of Los Angeles felt like it would never end, but we did eventually come into an area with lots of rocks rather like Terelij in Mongolia without the gers, goats or sheep. In Santa Barbara I made sure to show Jenny the famous fig tree, which is either the oldest or largest in North America. She didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm for it. With Santa Barbara behind us we followed along the coast again. We felt quite at home as the train rocked its way slowly along the coast with just the sea, birds and dolphins to spot out of our window. Even more comforting (to begin with) was when the train broke down, the power was cut and the engineers were called. We could easily have still been on the Hanjin Yantian (only the ‘shit alarm’ was missing).

It was 2.00p.m. when we came to our break down spot with excellent sea view. In order to provide some distraction from the delay the following announcement reached our ears ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are a number of dolphins playing in the water’. It took a while before the dolphins had reached our end of the train, but they hung around for a long time and were very close. At some point we were all told that the air brakes weren’t working and that we couldn’t continue with this engine. We would progress at a very slow pace using the remaining engine to a passing place 7 miles away where we would wait for the train coming the other way to bring us a replacement for the one that wasn’t working.

As we sat there we thought about the Hanjin Yantian gaining on us on it's way to Seattle. We found ourselves amidst a relatively international crowd- Americans, Canadians and an Australian, and we soon came to enjoy ourselves in the camaraderie and hilarity of getting stuck on an Amtrak train. The man behind us had a pretty good commentary going on.There was some disgruntlement from fellow passengers festering in the cattle wagon accommodations of second class (coach class) at the announcement regarding the free wine tasting for sleeper car passengers taking place later on in the dining car. The announcement might have been a little tactless.

After about three hours we saw the other train approaching with our new engine and we were told we'd should be leaving in about half an hour. From behind us came 'Oooh- here we go' and as the train came to an abrupt halt a second later 'that was shortlived'. In the corridor some elderly people almost toppled over. There was a lack of power too and the air conditioning switched off as well as the lights. The commentator had his two pennies (cents) worth to add of course. 'You know some day in the future we’ll all laugh about this. You see that there, which has been cut, that’s where the electricity stops.' Jenny and I couldn't help ourselves we'd already been laughing for a while.

As time progressed the phrase ‘Ladies and gentlemen….we are now going to stretch the train’ became very familiar. The train would start up, go a few metres and then brake violently. After a while they let us know that 'the train keeps going into emergency. We've definitely never had this problem before. The mechanics are still here working on the problem. Our apologies again. Thank-you for your patience. We appreciate it.' All very reassuring. And a bit later came across the tannoy what sounded like 'Fortunately we have been unable to fix the problem'. Fortunately?

Not thinking we'd heard about it enough times- 'Ladies and Gentlemen we are about to start our wine tasting'. Comments were made. And after the air conditioning had turned off for the umpteenth time 'That's what I get for mouthing off'.

Time ticked slowly by. 'Ladies and Gentleman I am now taking reservations for dinner' came across the PA and the voice behind my head announced 'Jeez, he's got a cheek. Maybe it's free'. After descriptions of the pork tenderloin- 'We need oxygen and he's telling us about what's for dinner'.

At some point in the proceedings the air conditioning did come on again briefly to the pleasure of the Americans who seem not to be able to go for 5 minutes without it. Another announcement in the slow drawn out phrases with lot of pauses that we had become used to for the past few hours, apologised once more for the delay and said something along the lines of 'we realise some passengers are wanting a cigarette, but we're very sorry we can't let you out, we're in the middle of nowhere and it would be unsafe to let you do so'.

A few more failed attempts to get going later the man behind us announced that it was 'time to start walking' and murmured 'God! God doesn't like me' to his laptop. After his visit to the loo/toilet/washroom/bathroom/restroom/whatever you call it he came back with some sound advice. 'Don't use bathroom C, there is a malfunction in bathroom C'. In actual fact there seemed to be a malfunction in most of the bathrooms, perhaps something to do with the intermittent electricity.

All the dinner reservations were off schedule due to the lack of power and in the end the 7.00 and 7.30 dinner reservations were actually called at 9.00. It was almost 10.00p.m. when the train finally got going again. Only once before (with the air conditioning in Germany) had we had any problems with the trains as we crossed Europe, Russia and the supposedly less developed nations of Mongolia, China and South Korea. Where the Asians had succeeded with fast trains that arrived on time, the Americans had failed.

Being so far off schedule meant that we saw a lot more of the Western Cascades mountain range than we would have. One man was ecstatic about the mountain views, since the train would normally go through this mountain range in the middle of the night. He finally got to see Mount Shasta- 'large and in charge' in the daytime.

A 'Quick fresh air break for those of you starting to bite your fingernails' as we started to go through the mountains was a chance to see a small isolated town and feel the cool air. It really was very scenic and a new conductor had been swapped in, and maybe this one in particular to raise morale. In the sightseeing car he gave excellent information on all the mountains, extinct volcanoes and derailments of days gone by. The passengers listened in intently and an old man looked at his map to trace our journey. The conductor seemed to be a bit obsessed with talking about fishing and fishing lakes. Most people were enjoying the chance to see this scenery.

In the evening the train stopped for about half an hour before it got into Eugene station, waiting for a platform to free up, so we lost yet more time. In the middle of the night the Australian was eagerly anticipating disembarking the train in Portland and had risen wishfully from his sleep, with backpack on about two hours before we thought the train would arrive there. He proceeded to pace up and down the carriage. We were crossing the bridge and just about to pull into Portland station when the train stopped abruptly and the lights all went out again. It started up again, but then stopped. So close for them, and yet so far. The girl behind me (I'd spread out onto a different seat to sleep) was on the phone and had had enough, beginning to get pretty hysterical. It wasn't too long a wait though before we were en route again.

The 'roller coaster train' reached Seattle at about 5a.m., our youth hostel booking for the night pretty useless. But we did at least take advantage of the 'free' breakfast.

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