Seattle to Vancouver on the old GN
Saturday, May 21, 2005
Unable to pass up a 2 for 1 coupon, my wife and I took
her Dad on a day trip to Vancouver, BC by train.
We picked up Baolu's Dad in the wee morning hours and
parked at the Mercer Island Park N Ride. From there
it was a short bus ride downtown to Jackson Street
(it was so early, the bus tunnel wasn't open). The
three of us made our way over the Weller Street overpass
and down to King Street Station.
The old GN-NP depot is slowly being torn apart as
renovations continue. All the "awning" around the outside
is gone with only the steel frame exposed. Inside,
several false walls have been torn down and you can once
again make your way through the support pillars in the
center of the depot.
The Coast Starlate arrived in the wee hours of the morning
from California and is still occupying the track closest to
the station...effectively blocking use of other slots.
As a result, we board Amtrak #510 on one of the stub tracks
to the south.
We depart on time at 0745 and back out of the depot
southbound through the maze of trackage. Once on the
mainline, we proceed north through the tunnel under
Seattle, built by the GN in the early 1900's.
Our ticket was lifted in the station, so we leave our
seat check in the overhead slot and proceed directly
to the diner. Before I realize it, we are running
through Carkeek Park at 0805. I order the "Cascade
Omelet" and Baolu and her dad order the "Kids Breakfast"
which consists of 6 silver dollar pancakes (neat!) and
sausage. We all have tea for beverage.
At 0810, we reach the end of double track and overtake
a northbound double stack with six units on the point.
The Edmonds stop is from 0814 to 0816. Just north of
the depot, we pass a southbound stack waiting for us
to clear the single track through town.
As we pass the former GN depot in Everett, off to the
left is the huge aircraft carrier CVN-72, the Abraham
Lincoln which is home-ported here along with several
smaller Navy ships.
Our train ducks through the Everett tunnel and makes
the depot stop at 0839/0841. There is a large crowd
on hand to board. Slowly we make our way through
BNSF's Delta Yard. The announcement is made our
movie will be "Are We There Yet?", a comedy. We pull
out our headphones, but the movie is having technical
difficulties (it keeps shutting off after about 10
minutes), so we eventually stop watching. It looks like
a good, silly Friday-night type movie though. Hafta
rent that one...
Our hogger on this trip seems rather cautious. We
appear slow to get back to track speed after passing
though slow orders and as a result are slowly falling
This isn't helped by the yellow approach we receive at
Stanwood around 0912. The dispatcher has tucked us into
the long siding there for a meet with a southbound freight.
This is normally "fast track" through this stretch, yet
we plod through the pass at 10 mph coming to a halt at
the north switch at 0919.
At 0924, two Heritage 2 and two Norfolk Southern units
flash by at track speed with a long train of Canadian
lumber. We are on the move at 0925 slowly and finally
hit 79mph 5 minutes later.
At milepost 61 I see new "UP style" signals positioned
sideways to the mainline as we creep through yet another
slow order. In fact I notice new signals being put in
all along the route from Everett to Blaine on this trip.
Slowly, this line is being rebuilt. There seems to be
a tremendous amount of freight traffic on this line with
a train in nearly every siding.
We do a quick stop at Mount Vernon at 0939 with no one
on or off. We cross the Skagit River at 0943 and blast
through Burlington at the maximum. At milepost 77 the
track is getting rough and at 0951 we overtake another
freight at Blanchard.
At 0953, we begin the most scenic part of the line
through 4 short tunnels on the way to Bellingham. The
tide is way out today and I can see the little sticks
of oyster beds out in the sandy muck. The tracks hug
the sheer rock cliffs on a little shelf. The area is
so isolated, I lose my cell phone signal so can only
guestimate the time.
We cross a long causeway, then duck into the final
tunnel before Bellingham. The station stop is a
quick one at 1015. There is a very large crowd on
hand waiting for the southbound passenger which is
in a siding just north of here waiting for us to clear.
Our train is now 21 minutes late.
At 1023, we are climbing out of Bellingham on some
very rough track. The conductor goes through the
train passing out customs forms to fill out. He
notices Baolu who has fallen asleep from the
not-so-gentle rock and roll of the train and
comments, "Wait until we get to White Rock".
1029 finds us passing a VERY faded Heritage 2 unit
at Ferndale on yet another southbound wood train.
The orange has faded to WHITE with the dark green
stripes in stark contrast.
From Ferndale we really start to move holding 79
for the rest of the way to Blaine. As mentioned
previously, this part of line seems to have
recently been re-signaled.
We begin to slow for the International Boundary and
cross into Canada at 30 mph with the Peace Arch
visible on the right. There is a black Norfolk Southern
unit parked all by its lonesome right at the border.
The conductor wasn't kidding. As we creep through
White Rock at a slow walk, the train is viciously
tossed from side to side. The steel and rubber of
the cars creaks and groans in protest. This is
easily the worst track of the journey and the crew
even warned us about it on the P.A. system beforehand.
This is why the schedule allows 90 minutes to cover
the 58 miles from the border to Pacific Central
station in Vancouver. Our drinks are sloshing back
and forth and we are holding on for dear life.
Don't even THINK about visiting the bathroom.
One consolation is the view out the water side of
the train. The tide is way, way out and we see
dozens of bald eagles feasting on the abundant
shellfish and seafood. In fact, I'd never seen
so many of the big birds together before. At
one point, they outnumber the feisty seagulls.
We cross another drawbridge at a marina and
mushily plod along the tidal marshes, cross
under Highway 99 and pass through South Colebrook
Then we turn north following Highway 91 and enter
a lush forest of trees finding another very bad
stretch of track as we lurch along at 10 mph.
Hell, I've ridden on better track on tourist
lines. This is like riding down some old,
forgotten industrial spur. A passenger-carrying
mainline? I think not.
We reach the Fraser River bridge at 1121 and
finish crossing at the required 6 mph by 1125.
New Westminster is reached at 1130 and we finally
find some better track although the going is still
ponderous. We stop at CN Junction near the depot
and then are hand-lined into the Pacific Central
Station Vancouver arriving at 1155 (15 minutes late).
There's a slight delay as the luggage is unloaded and
Business Class passengers are detrained first. Finally,
they let our car off and we make our way through
Canadian Customs (passport in hand) with no problems
From the depot, it's a short walk to the Sky Train
and we are whisked to the Vancouver Waterfront where
we board the Seabus to the North Shore and Lonsdale
Quay. We find a restaurant and have a seat. This
turned out to be a mistake as the service was extremely
slow taking about an hour to complete the meal although
the food was good.
After looking around a bit, we reboarded the Seabus and
walked around downtown seeing the sights, finally paying the
de rigueur visit to Chinatown. From there it was a short
walk back to the depot and reboarding.
At 1700, we are back at the Vancouver station for boarding
and customs inspection. This is very routine as we have
nothing to declare and we are soon strolling down the
platform to take our seats.
The train doesn't leave until 1800, so I stroll up to the
Bistro car for some soft drinks for all of us. They
announce that until the train starts moving, they can't
serve us any alcoholic beverages, so it's just Pepsi
and water for now.
The hour passes fairly quickly and soon there is a tug
and Amtrak Train #517 heads south for Seattle.
Beverages! Like the closet alcoholic I am, I head
straight to the Bistro car. Beer for my father
in law, a screwdriver for Baolu and a spicy Bloody
Mary for me! Mmmmm.... ;p
While enjoying a nice highball at our seats, the
conductor lifts our ticket and we decide to head for
the dining car at 1839. As we order dinner, we notice
it has started to rain heavily outside. We sure were
lucky with the weather today as it held off while we
were walking around Vancouver. I'm glad I don't
have to drive home in this.
Dinner arrives and again it is good. Baolu and my
dad-in-law have the salmon Cesar salad and I have
the prime rib which is delicious with the horseradish
At 1900, they announce that US Immigration will board
the train at Blaine, so we order some more drinks and
stay in the dining car. At White Rock, the bald eagles
are nowhere to be seen as the tide is in (shoreline
seafood buffet CLOSED). As before we rock violently
through town on the rough track. Soon we are in the US.
The visit by the officials is courteous as we hand over
our passports and our train leaves Blaine at 1925 after
a 10 minute stop.
Outside Blaine our hogger really picks up speed. I don't
know if this is the same engineer, but he noticeably
hustles us along. Ferndale is passed at 1939 and we
pass the old GN freight station and depot in Bellingham
The Amtrak depot stop is 1954/1957. As we load/unload
passengers, the evening Amtrak Cascades from Seattle, now
completely empty, passes us going north to be parked
at its siding for the night (it will depart Bellingham
tomorrow morning around 1020 for Seattle).
At 2000, we pass through the first of four tunnels and
out over the causeway. The rain is really coming down
and there isn't much to see out on the water.
2014 finds us at Blanchard, clear of winding shoreline
tracks and our hogger has us moving at the limit through
North Bow siding. Burlington is taken at full speed,
we cross the Skagit River and begin to slow for the
Mount Vernon stop at the new depot downtown.
Another quick station dwell and we are off at 2026,
23 minutes "late". I'm not too worried as the
timetable gives us over an hour to travel between
Edmonds and Seattle -- which normally takes around
Our engineer quickly has us up to 79 per as we
rocket through Fir, WA at 2033. We slow briefly to
30 mph through some trackwork/signalwork and then
are blasting through Stanwood in the gathering dark.
At 2049, we overtake a southbound wood train parked
in the siding north of Marysville and round the
curve under I-5. We pass through downtown Marysville
at 2056 and I spot the old IOOF Hall next to the tracks
where B and I are attending a wedding next July. Hmm...
I'll have to make sure we sit on the TRACK side of the
aisle at those nuptials... Luckily we're friends with
both the bride AND the groom.
From Marysville, we plod across the 3 bridges over the
delta of the Snohomish River, squeeze between a canyon
of doublestacked garbage containers at Delta Yard and
bend around into the new Everett depot at 2111.
We make quick work of the Everett tunnel and emerge
next to the former GN depot. Off to our right, the
Abraham Lincoln has its gigantic "72" lit up in
white lights on the superstructure.
We are by Mukilteo at 2021 and it is completely black
outside. The Edmonds stop is 2034/2036 (26 minutes late),
yet we roll into King Street 10 minutes early at 2205.
We were planning on taking a taxi home from downtown
but a Mariner's baseball game has just let out. Why they
don't have their frikken games in the AFTERNOON on weekends,
I've never figured out. Anyway, we skip the taxi and
climb up to Jackson Street, catching the 550 Sounder
Bus home. Once we get on the express lanes out of town,
we are quickly back to Mercer Island to pick up the truck.
Summary: A great time was had by all. We were all
a little tired on the way home, but it was a long day
(17 hours +). I'm wondering why the tracks are so
rough in Canada? Hmmm...I'll have to ask the
GNGOAT Discussion group that....