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Travel by Amtrak – a bit rough

Posted By Chris On 3/20/2007 @ 6:09 am In General | 3 Comments

I mentioned earlier that my mother and I took my nephew for a train trip to St. Louis for Spring Break this past week. My nephew is a train fanatic (my former sister-in-law now refers to trains as “porn for eight-year-old boys”), so this was to be the trip of a lifetime for him — we arranged a destination which would ensure that we’d sleep overnight on the train, and we booked one of their first-class bedroom accommodations for the trip.

The trip was indeed a lot of fun for my nephew, and it was an intellectually interesting experience for my mother and I. But, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as we sort of imagined before leaving.

Lounge Car, Amtrak Train [1]

Read on for further description and for my tips for Amtrak train travel.

First, the bedroom we got, which included its very own bathroom was quite tiny. Think smaller than my cube at work (which is admittedly, pretty darn large for a cube). But, even my nephew was nonplussed. He’d previously been on a cruise with his mother, and he promptly informed us that their cruise ship cabin was considerably bigger than the train bedroom. Cool.

Our Bedroom, Amtrak [2]

The bathroom was closet-sized, and just the smallness made it challenging to, ahem, “use the facility.” My mother and I are slim, so anyone who’s overweight could find it particularly tight. Oh, and the shower was combined with the toilet, so you nearly have to straddle the throne when you shower. My mother just opted not to shower, perhaps partly out of a fear of slipping since the train sways a lot, though I can’t see that anyone of normal size would be even able to fall inside that coffin-sized space.

If you’re travelling with other people in your cabin, changing into clothes after you shower could be quite challenging to do without flashing everyone — you have to get your clothes from outside where it’s dry, and you’d want to carefully put them on inside the bathroom without touching the walls much so you wouldn’t get them wet. I was able to do all this, but it’s just not easy.

First-class status got us paid meals, which were sort of a relief — the dining car feels quite spaceous and airy after being in the cabins, so it was really nice to be waited on and to have good sized picture windows to gaze out of. (Yes, the bedroom also had a good window, but the narrowness of the walls makes it slightly less fun to watch out of compared with the longer dining car with windows running down both sides.) The menu was very limited, however, and it was possible that they could’ve already run out of entrees. There’s a vegetarian entree at lunch, but oddly enough, not one at dinner. I’m not vegetarian, though I’ve been eating more vegetarian meals lately to balance out my diet, so I wasn’t happy to have little choice for dinner. The meals are likely microwaved, and there’s no chance for substitutions. Drinks were not included in the paid status, nor were tips, of course.

Mom, Caleb & I, Amtrak dining car breakfast [3]

The lounge car is also a great respite from the closeness of the bedroom, and it’s quite nice when it’s cleaned and vacuumed. Not only does it have the picture windows, but sort of clerestory windows or skylights along the upper corners running down the car. This gives a great openness, and sky view. Some of the seats in some of the cars are swivels, but most are stationary, oriented looking out the windows.

The major quality issues were me having to haul almost all the luggage, which was heavy, and the low quality of sleep that could be had.

I have very high tolerance of environmental noise during sleep, but the combination of noise plus the sometimes violent train motion made it nearly impossible to sleep on the first leg of the trip. The train blows its horn quite frequently as it goes across the countryside, which is something that I was already accustomed to from my childhood, since my grandparents’ winter home in Memphis was right across from some train tracks. So, the horn is actually kind of a wistful, nostalgic sound. But, the clattering of tracks and slamming of doors between the traincars could be quite loud at times.

The worst of it was the train motion when we were trying to sleep. Now, we were on the second story of the car, and mom and my nephew slept in the lower bunk. I slept on the top, and I’m sure the motion at the top of the train is much more pronounced than lower. It’s so violent at times that the upper bunks are equipped with a net of straps on the open side, to keep you from flying out.

The train motion overall could be a hardship for people who get motion-sick. My mother and I have stomachs of steel, though, so this wasn’t an issue. But, there are warnings aplenty around the train about holding on to things will traversing the cars, and this could also be a big challenge to anyone who has walking problems already.

You sorta have a preconceived notion that modern passenger trains would be sleek and smooth — like those Japanese magnetic-field suspension trains or something. This just isn’t the case — you really have to get your “sea legs” and sometimes the motion impacts on you are hilarious. The Amtrak trains really have a low-tech feel, as though not all that much has really changed since the late nineteenth century.

The return trip was better for me — I got more sleep. Perhaps I’d adapted slightly to the sleep challenge, but it could’ve just been sheer fatigue.

Here’s just some tips which could be helpful to you if you’re considering Amtrak travel:

  • Pack lightly. You can check a couple of suitcases, but keep in mind you still might have to lug them around the train station. At very least, pack your carryon bags as lightly as possible.
      
  • Pack snacks, particularly if you’re picky. There is a snack bar on the lounge car, but it’s pretty skimpy on offerings. Figure they won’t have whatever it is you’d most like to have.
      
  • Keep valuables such that you could easily carry them with you – like in a wallet or purse – so that you can take them with you if you go to the dining or lounge cars. I didn’t see any way to lock these bedrooms, so if your whole party has gone out, there’s no one to guard your stuff, apparently.
      
  • Plan on being substantially late to your destination — perhaps by a number of hours. Sometimes the trains don’t depart on time, and even if they do, they sometimes get delayed by freight trains running in the same routes. This is a pretty frequent event.
      
  • If you have special dietary needs, pack your own meals to take with you.
      
  • Show up to the dining car early! If you show up near the later end of your period, you risk not having certain entrees available since they apparently only have room to store limited quantities.
      
  • If you’re in a party of two or by yourself, you could end up seated with total strangers in the dining car, as it’s “community seating”. If that bothers you, you can ask your conductor to bring your meal directly to your bedroom car, if you’re in first-class.
      
  • Take a DVD player with you. They have TVs on the lounge car, but I never saw them turned on.
      
  • Take some games to play if you go with friends/family.
      
  • If you’re prone to motion-sickness, better take some Dramamine or similar drugs with you.
      
  • Consider taking sleeping pills, because you might not get enough sleep otherwise. If you do this, you should probably tell your conductor you’ll be doing that, and ask him to wake you before your stop.
      
  • It’s possible to turn the PA system off in your room — do that before going to sleep so that the engineer’s announcement about smoking stops won’t awaken you.
      
  • Consider doing just a sponge bath with the provided washrags — I found that to be a much better experience than trying to take a shower.
      
  • My mother complained of pain/stiffness from the thin matress. You might consider taking extra padding or a sleeping bag/bedroll if you’re sensitive about sleeping on moderately hard surfaces.
  • I had no prob in unfolding/refolding the bunk beds, but I can see that it could be physically challenging to many. Ask the conductor to assist you if you need.
      
  • Tip your waitperson in the dining car!  I think they may get a lot of cheapskates, and you might get the same waitperson at the very next meal or on the return trip.
  • No WiFi service for my laptop, of course. They do have 120V plugs in the bedrooms, though.
      
  • Cellphones seemed to work in plenty enough areas — you’re passing through towns with enough frequency that there seems to be enough time to have brief conversations.
     
  • Make sure you have transportation arranged to/from the train stations before you depart. These are not like airports with waiting queues of helpful taxi drivers! I use my PDA to find taxi companies and call them, but I can imagine non-wired people not being as prepared.
      
  • Consider not shaving, if you shave. I shaved on the initial trip, but I opted not to on the return. It’s some sort of miracle I didn’t cut myself on the first leg of the trip. If you must shave, consider bringing one of those electric razors to do the job.
      
  • Take bottled water with you and/or soft drinks. Why pay the steeper train prices for it?
      
  • Nice side: no oppressive security checks like for getting on airplanes! No X-ray machines, no metal detectors. There’s a very cursory check of your IDs against your names on the train tickets.
      
  • If you want to take photos out the windows, expect to see mostly uglier, industrial sides of towns. You won’t really have opportunity to step off at stops for picture-taking, either. For the few glimpses of picturesque scenes, it’s worthwhile to have a fast digital camera, or else use fast film that doesn’t require long exposures, or else your scenes will all motion-smear.

In some ways the train travel was fun and interesting. In other ways it was like roughing it or camping, neither of which are very thrilling to me for vacation.

I’m still uploading my vacation pics from this trip, so check back if you’re interested. One place I took my nephew was utterly fantastic — a wonderland for kids — I’ll blog about that cool St. Louis attraction in another day or so.

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3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Travel by Amtrak – a bit rough"

#1 Comment By Sam Damon On 3/27/2007 @ 12:48 pm

Nice to see you had a decent trip. The major railroads have cut their trackage substantially at a time when freight traffic has increased. Delays while riding Amtrak are inevitable.

This should come as no surprise, given the amount of money the USA spends on highways and airports compared to railroads.

#2 Comment By Laurie Lind On 6/23/2008 @ 11:50 am

I had a much more positive experience on Amtrak, traveling round-trip from Fargo, ND to Seattle, WA, on the Empire Builder.
I chose to simply go coach, but found the reclining seats to be pretty comfortable. I had no trouble walking when the train was moving and thought there were quite a few wonderful selections on the dining car menu. Personally, I would not bring along a DVD player. You’re traveling, for goodness sake. Look a the gorgeous scenery and save the movies for boring evenings at home. Do bring your own snacks, as meals and snacks are expensive on the train. Overall, I think train travel is way fun and the best way to go!

#3 Comment By Laura On 8/19/2009 @ 11:01 pm

I have just had one of my most unpleased travel experiences and I have traveled all over the world. I always thought a wonderful way to see the country would be from an Amtrak cross country sleeper car. On Friday afternoon I set out on a cross country trek from Washington DC to San Diego California, by Amtrak train. The trip from Washington DC to Los Angeles was by Amtrak sleeper car. I was going to spend 3 nights in an Amtrak sleeper car. One night from DC to Chicago, change trains in Chicago for a two night trip to Los Angeles. Change train in Los Angeles for a 2.5 hour train ride to San Diego.

The trip from DC to Chicago was uneventful. The bulk of the traveling was done at night so I was a little disappointed about not seeing lots of scenery. The upper bunk did NOT have a window so my images of falling asleep while the landscape passed were thwarted. We arrived in Chicago Saturday morning with a 6 hour layover before boarding the Southwest Chief for Los Angeles. After sightseeing in Chicago, we boarded the Southwest Chief sleeper car. Before we left the station in Chicago a fowl smell overtook the sleeper cabin. It smelled like sewage. It lingered then passed after a few minutes. Soon the train took off and the adventure was underway. Soon after leaving the station the smell of sewage appeared again, lingered a few minutes then passed. I assumed it had something to do with the area the train was travelling. Unfortunately it soon became a pattern every 15 minutes or so the entire sleeper car would be overcome with the smell of sewage. The smell would linger and then pass. The smell was coming from the vents. Yes, the vents were emitting the smell of sewage again and again. It soon became unbearable. We entered the lounge car to get away from the smell. We had paid for an expensive sleeper car, but were unable to use it because the smell of sewage was being vented into the room on a regular basis. Four hours out of Chicago, I saw the conductor passing thought the lounge car and mentioned this problem to him. He said he would get back to me since he had to attend to boarding passengers. One hour passed and I had not heard from the conductor. However I could see him having a conversation with staff in the dinning car. I asked him about the smell. Again he told me he would get back to me. Finally someone told me that no other sleeper or coach seats were available, and the lounge car closed at 10:00 PM. The problem was that when the sleeper car in front of my sleeper car flushed their toilets the smell was vented into my sleeper car. For 2 nights and 3 days the customers on my sleeper car were bathed in toilet smells coming through the vents. You can imagine the horror of the experience. We passed through many large train stations between Chicago & Los Angeles……….nothing was done. We were told they would take care of it in Los Angeles. How would that benefit passengers on the train? The train trip ended in Los Angeles. We were told to complain to 1 800 USA Rail. The problem started Saturday and did not end until the train arrived in Los Angeles Monday morning. Customer relations for Amtrak is closed on the weekend. When you called 1 800 USA Rail you are told to call back on Monday. Monday morning 9:00 AM I began calling 1 800 USA RAIL. While I could get through to make a reservation, I could NOT get through to customer relations, I was just forwarded to music. I attempted to find someone to complain to in the Los Angeles & San Diego train stations. In both places I was told to call 1 800 USA RAIL. I was told that typically there are so many calls on Monday to customer relations that you can not get through. I have now spent 6 days while on vacation in San Diego attempting to get thought to customer relations on the 1 800 USA RAIL number. I have literally spent hours listening to the music on hold and have yet to be able to speak to anyone at Amtrak’s customer relations about my experience. Not being able to get through to complain about Amtrak on the 1 800 USA Rail is either an insidious plan by Amtrak or a grand omission. Neither is acceptable. However I was able to get through to the Department of Transportation who forwarded me to the Federal Railroad Administration. They told me that while they do not regulate the toilet problem on Amtrak (they get involved in things like derailments) it is the number one Amtrak complaint. Seems my experience is far from unusual. Unless you are a fan of sewage smells, stay far away from Amtrak especially on long haul trips. During my week in San Diego every time I heard a train whistle it brought back smells of the sewer. Fortunately, I am flying back to DC.


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