Saturday, June 7, 2008

Riding the Rail - Taking the AMTRAK Cascades to Seattle

This week I took another business trip to Seattle. I love going to Seattle and Oregon these days because I can take the AMTRAK Cascades train. While I’m sure one could drive to Vancouver and catch something there, the Via Rail website leaves something to be desired. Besides that, shall I drive out to Vancouver from Langley and then park my car a stone’s throw from Main and Hastings?

For me the choice is very simple, and I have to credit our co-founder Nathan Pachal for enlightening me. I simply drive to Bellingham, WA on I-5 and take Exit 250 to the little historical area of Fairhaven, the Fort Langley of Washington State. The modern AMTRAK station is also a Greyhound bus terminal, and they have everything you need, including Greyhound Bus service to BC. I usually cross the border early at the Pacific Hwy. crossing with little to no wait, then zip down to Bellingham.

I book my ticket from BEL to SEA online at the AMTRAK website, and print out my paper receipt. When you get to the station you simply swipe your credit card at a machine in the lobby of the station and select pre-paid ticketing. The machine efficiently prints your return tickets. Sign the top of your ticket and you are good to go!

Coach fare is US$ 40 round-trip, all-inclusive. Business Class is US$ 62 round-trip, all inclusive and then they give you a US$ 3.00 food voucher each way that can be used in the Bistro car. I have a BCAA membership and they offer a discount for BCAA (use the AAA code) and for seniors. You must book at least 3 days in advance of your trip to get the AAA discount. The station has long-term parking across the street from the Fairhaven Station and its US$ 6.00 per day, or $30 for the week. I’ve parked my car there for a week during a recent business trip to Portland and I had total peace of mind. The gates to the lot are locked shortly after the last train arrives each evening. Just bring correct change, as you have to fold the US bank notes and insert them into a manual parking board located in the lot, with space numbers printed on it. This is very LOW tech for sure! No receipt is given. I just found that if you arrive early enough, there is a little side street next to the lot and you can park in certain areas there free!

I must stress that if you plan to travel to Seattle or Portland on a weekend, you had better plan and book your trip at least 1-2 weeks ahead, as this train sells out on weekend, with even the dining car tables being filled and sold out! On a recent business trip to Portland

My Business Class ticket with AAA discount cost me only US$ 58 and minus the food vouchers, it was only US$ 52. Business Class gives you’re a wider seat with more legroom. It’s never crowded in Business Class except on weekends and sometimes I’ve had an entire car to myself in the evening! I left in the morning and came back the same evening. Its stress-free and even in Coach there are electric plugs for your laptop (no WiFi on this route though). The Bistro has a great selection of hot and cold foods and drinks. I generally have a breakfast sandwich on the way down and I can’t resist a couple of nicely cooked Hebrew National hot dogs with some Dijon mustard and even diced onions in a sealed pouch that is available in the condiments area. How civilized! I find the prices to be reasonable. You can also purchase great wines, beer and other alcoholic beverages in the Bistro car. The wines and beer are always Washington State varieties and some are very good.

The Cascades takes about 2 hours to 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach Seattle and makes some stops along the way. I find it to usually take just 2 hours. I’ve also taken the Cascades on to Portland, OR. I travel with Nathan and our friend. The train stoped in Seattle for 20-30 minutes and then continued on to Portland. The stop was just enough time for Nathan and Rob to bring a Starbucks coffee back to me. Its about 6 hours total, to get to Portland from Bellingham. The Portland trip was lots of fun. We got a table in Coach (asked for it at the ticketing desk) and sat around as a group to chat, eat and enjoy the ride. I believe that Coach ticket was just US$ 63 round-trip, all-inclusive and I’ve done the same trip Business Class for US$ 82.20 before deducting the $6.00 in food vouchers. I should mention that you could also take your bicycle on the train for an additional US$ 5 only! They do show a movie on this train. You can bring your own headset, or purchase a pair for US$ 4 that you can keep for the next trip.

Be sure to register for the AMTRAK Rewards Program. Just like the airlines, you can earn trips and rewards by riding AMTRAK and using the services of their partners. I have 3,604 points without counting this recent trip I'm hoping to reach AMTRAK "Select" status very soon to earn a 25% point bonus and special offers. A times AMTRAK will email you special offers if you sign up to allow them to. With some of these offers you must visit the Rewards homepage and enter the promotional code they give you, in order to get the bonus points or other deal.

This month AMTRAK is offering a travel deal from Seattle to LA aboard the scenic Coast Starlight. You get double AMTRAK Guest Reward Points if you purchase by June 30, 2008. Along the 34 hour trip they offer regional wine and cheese tastings. I recall a member's reward notice that said they were offering a free reception in LA as well. A round-trip ticket from Seattle to LA was about US$ 180. For $500 one could get a round-trip ticket with an Superliner Roomette for two!

It was a fun trip, despite being for business. The train was busy because many people from Bellingham and other places were going down to the Seattle Mariners game and coming back the same evening. There was lots of excitement heading down in the morning. By evening, I was sitting next to a group of two couples in their early 70’s that had attended the Mariner’s game and were very happy after several bottles of wine! I couldn’t help but smile as I worked away on my laptop at my table, and watched one lady in the group who kept spilling her red wine all over the table. Later I joined them for some good conversation and fun. Wished I had snapped their picture!

I met with some clients, had lunch with them and then had another alliance partner meeting at a Starbucks near the King Street train station in Seattle where I got my train home. Near the Starbucks is an office I have passed many times. Usually on weekends, when they were closed. It’s the Seattle office of Cascadia Regional Green Building Council, a non-profit organization that supports sustainable and green development through training workshops in such things as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) principles, the Pharos materials selection process and other green building design and sustainability programs.

Cascadia is active in Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington State. They do some advocacy in the Pacific Northwest, serve as bio-regional problem solvers, help network architects, engineers, builders, brokers, owners and others who care about green buildings; provide educational and training programs, while accomplishing several other mandates. Thor Peterson and Katie Spataro provided me with some great brochures and I will certainly be looking at a membership and purchasing some of their books. Thor and Katie’s flooring was just resurfaced, so their two desks seemed alone in the large space that is usually filled up. Thanks for the conversation and materials guys!

I also had a nice chat with AMTRAK Conductor Chuck Allen who is a real character, and has been known to play “Working on the railroad” on his harmonica while the train is making its way into Fairhaven Station! He also gives some great insight into little areas along the train route when he wears his tour guide hat. Chuck is also involved with a rail advocacy group in the area, All Aboard Washington. This group is actually looking to acquire and operate a rail line!

It was a great trip and I got lots of work done on my laptop without any stress. I got to meet some new people, laugh, and of course have my Hebrew National hot dog dinner. Who could ask for anything more?


companyofheroes said...

Amtrak runs one train a day to/from Vancouver, and they are extending a second train that currently terminates in Bellingham to Vancouver this summer. I am excited about this, as I ride Amtrack between Southern California and Vancouver to/from school.

Train travel is the way to go. We need to convince our government in BC to make major track improvements between White Rock and Vancouver. The most important of these is the replacement of the New Westminster Rail Bridge!

Joe Zaccaria said...

And South Fraser OnTrax is advocating for exactly that! If you can join us and help out, please do so! We need HELP!