A morning Amtrak train leaves Klamath Falls, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 heading north along Upper Klamath Lake. (AP Photo/The Herald And News, Andrew Mariman) - AP

Passengers enjoy pace of life aboard Coast Starlight

Kristina Lindholm waits patiently. The northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight from Klamath Falls is running a few minutes late. It's cold and wet in Chemult, so she's staying warm in the car with her friend, Mark Phillips.

"It's always late," Lindholm, 51, says acceptingly.

She lives in La Pine, where she works as a janitor. Over the past nine years, she's made frequent train trips from Chemult to Eugene and back to visit her mother.

"I love it. It's awesome," she says of sights on the ride over the Cascades and along Odell Lake.

Phillips, 44, isn't boarding Amtrak this morning. He's dropping off Lindholm, but he rides the train once or twice a year to Seattle or Oakland.

"I like it because you can move around. I like the viewing car," he says, adding with smile, "I like it because you can have a glass of wine."

Phillips and Lindholm's friend Tom Rodakowski, 52, a retired filbert farmer, tells how he was in Utah in early 2008 when he rode Amtrak trains that eventually landed him in Chemult.

The incoming train's whistle blows.

Lindholm, with Phillips toting her suitcase, steps up onto the rickety platform.

The rumbling train whistles to a stop. A conductor steps off, sets out a stool and, after more than a dozen people get off, Lindholm boards, waves from the doorway, and disappears inside. Within seconds, the Coast Starlight is speeding to Eugene, its next stop.

Nearly 9,000 people boarded or got off the train at Chemult during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Most live outside the small northern Klamath County community, usually in La Pine, Bend or Redmond. Two shuttle businesses move passengers from Deschutes County cities to and from Chemult. During winter, buses from resorts serving the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort also retrieve skiers and snowboarders.

Dallas King, who boarded the train in San Jose and lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., receives a passionate welcome from Robert Geppert.

Geppert lives in Portland and travels throughout Oregon making deliveries for Home Meat Market. King and Geppert, both 43, knew each other 25 years ago at Aptos High School near Santa Cruz, Calif. They reconnected over the Internet earlier this year, exchanged rings in October and have long-term plans.

Delays are a common complaint of Amtrak passengers, but figures indicate service is dramatically improving.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which runs north and south from Seattle to Los Angeles, and stops in Klamath Falls and Chemult, was on schedule 82.2 percent of the time in the 2009 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to Amtrak figures.

That's a stunning turnaround from 2006, when Amtrak said the Coast Starlight's on-time performance was only 3.9 percent. Figures have improved every year since, with on-time percentages rising to 22.1 in 2007 and 60.8 in 2008.

Amtrak spokeswoman Vernea Graham said the improvements in on-time train arrivals and departures are the result of track repair projects made in Southern Oregon and far Northern California in the mid-2000s. Although the work resulted in delays, as evidenced by the small on-time percentages earlier this decade, the large-scale repairs done over that three- to four-year period resulted in long-range improvement.

Delays occur for a variety of reasons, including conflicts between freight and passenger trains, ongoing track maintenance work and problems with other railroads that own tracks used by Amtrak, according to Tom Lange, Union Pacific's director of corporate communications.

Lange said the Coast Starlight operates on UP-owned track from Portland to Moorpark, Calif., Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line from Seattle to Portland and Southern California Regional Rail Authority track from Moorpark to Los Angeles.

The Eugene-Klamath Falls and Klamath Falls-Dunsmuir segments recently handled an average of 12 to 15 and 8 to 12 trains per day, respectively, including the morning northbound and evening southbound Coast Starlight trains.

"Union Pacific gives Amtrak trains dispatching preference over freight trains as required by federal law," Lange said. "However, in a mixed-use corridor — freight and passenger — it is possible that a freight train may occasionally cause delay to a passenger train. Every effort is made to minimize these delays."

In addition to occasional freight train delays, Lange said the Coast Starlight's schedule is sometimes impacted by maintenance work. He said UP has invested about $2.6 billion in its rail infrastructure this year.

"We have a solid working relationship with Amtrak," Lange said.

Graham agreed.

"We're constantly working with them on various issues, but it's definitely good," she said. "On-time issues are critical to our success. When you're notoriously late, everybody's grumpy."

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