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16 Day AMTRAK Journey
On Amtrak Trains in the US
By James McKenry - October 2003
Train travelers who may be interested in trying something different, as we were, may find this account of the 16 day round trip from Tucson my wife and I took on Amtrak in October (2003) to be of passing interest. We mapped out the trip to bring us to remaining sections of the country we hadnít yet visited and, at the same time, fulfill a long standing desire for a train vacation. Our planned stopovers were Seattle, including Victoria and Vancouver (one week), Minneapolis (three nights), and Milwaukee (two nights). The travel itinerary of the journeyís four connecting Amtrak trains would also touch on the principal cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, San Antonio, and as an added bonus, Fargo, North Dakota.
For us it was suspenseful wondering whether a train trip would live up to its glowing promises. By the time it was over, we thought we knew. The main value of our reactions, for whatever they might be worth, is to provide a vicarious insight into what is probably a seldom dreamed of alternative to an ocean voyage.
To help in evaluating our observations, as seniors, our travel experience over the years is summarized as: the basic and the luxury, the crummy and the five star, the barely able to make it car trip and the premier cruise, as well as discovering most of the U.S. other than this tripís stopovers, and accessing two dozen plus foreign countries by land and sea.
As the trip turned out, the stopovers were more fulfilling than the train ride.
Train schedules: Our driver told us on the way to the station that one needs patience to travel Amtrak. His words were an understatement.Scheduled - Actual - Status Depart Tucson 8:57pm - 11:30pm - 2 1/2 hrs late The late arriving train (Sunset Limited) lost another 4 or 5 hours by early next afternoon and we were taken off the train at Palm Springs, CA, and bussed to Santa Barbara to catch up with the Coast Starlight out of Los Angeles. A 3 hour bus ride. Arrive Seattle 8:30pm - 9:30pm - 1 hr late Depart Seattle 4:45pm - 4:45pm - on time Arrive Minneapolis 7:05am - 7:05am - on time (3 days later) Depart Minneapolis 7:40am - 2:45pm - 7 hours late Arrive Milwaukee 1:55pm - 10:00pm - 8 hours late (total) Reason given for the lost 7 hours departing Minneapolis was The Empire State Limited from Seattle had engine trouble crossing the Rockies. Upon boarding it lost an additional hour enroute to Milwaukee. The total 8 hour delay eliminated a full day from our Milwaukee visit. Depart Milwaukee 10:50am - 10:50am - on time Arrive Chicago 12:15pm - 12:15pm - on time Depart Chicago 3:20pm - 3:20pm - on time Arrive Tucson 8:17pm - 1:15am - 5 hours lateThe Texas Eagle from Chicago lost a couple of hours as it traveled through Texas to hook up in San Antonio with The Sunset Limited, traveling from Florida. The Sunset Limited lost the rest of the time, mostly before San Antonio.
Delays throughout the trip, we were informed, were caused mainly by passenger trains having to pull off to sidings in order to let freight trains pass. Freight trains have the right of way. We observed those occurrences frequently.
Compartment: Our vision of gliding over the countryside in deluxe comfort was somewhat optimistic. Compartments have an upper (equipped with safety straps), and lower berth, roomy enough by day when the upper is stored, but bringing a challenge at nighttime. There is a chair for daytime use which is convenient, but not as comfortable as coach seats. Bedtime preparations, we learned, had better be completed prior to the porterís making up the beds. Otherwise collisions can be expected while slithering back and forth in narrow spaces, and teeth brushing has to be accomplished while sitting on the edge of the lower bunk, squeezed against the sink.
Whichever passenger draws the upper, with an approximate one foot overhead clearance, should plan on staying put for the night. Climbing up and down the supplied ladder is no picnic, and neither is there an easy solution to finding a spot for positioning the ladder before and after the maneuver in order to avoid entrapping the occupant in the lower. How to avoid waking up the lower occupant is a further challenge. One couple confided to us over breakfast that, instead of using both beds, they entwined themselves together lengthwise and shared the lower. We are still trying to visualize that arrangement.
Over the course of the four trains we were situated in both inside and outside compartments (there are five in a row). The compartment at the car end (A), as opposed to ďEĒ at the inside end, has a unique noise accompaniment. The car doorís banging, wheels bouncing and grinding underneath, and assorted metal clanking sounds all plot to defy sleep. A completely unsuspected factor was the sleeping carís distance from the dining car. The two were adjoining on the Sunset Limited and made meals a short trip. On the Texas Eagle, dining was six cars away and made for a noticeable hike, almost necessitating turning around right after lunch in order to make dinner on time.
The advantages to first class train travel, (with the exception of the Coast Starlight) were that all meals were included, free drinks (non-alcoholic) included, located in the sleeping car, the compartment afforded privacy, and the sleepers were first on the dinner reservation list. Otherwise first class was indistinguishable from that of the rest of the trainís passengers. All competed equally for breakfast and lunch seating, frequently on a wait list, and for positions in the lounge car. Free sleeping car drinks were occasionally commandeered by non-first class passengers.
Food: The food was good, not great, but good enough. What with the dining carís limited capacity, service is hurried and meals require more than one seating.
Dining car service personnel on three trains were cordial and accommodating, but the Texas Eagle was a step down. The things you run into. An unpleasant woman acting as ďmaitre dĒ, reportedly a trainee, herded people into the diner, and with oral commands. Dour and unsmiling, her independent attitude must have infected our waitress, also, who fired our meal at us and needlessly left the car door banging behind our table. We were second class citizens in that dining car. The second day, for some reason, the service staff left the train during the afternoon and we were served a box lunch for dinner (at least those in our car were).
The Ride: We apparently took a smooth ride for granted because it never occurred to us beforehand to be concerned. Amtrak advertises that the beautiful panorama of unique views of the California and Oregon coasts and Montanaís Rocky Mountains are views that are attainable only by rail, and that is undoubtedly true. But a smooth ride would have helped make the scenery enjoyable and this ride was anything but, throughout the trip.
Train travel is smooth enough at low speeds, pulling into and out of stations and sidings, but at normal cruising speeds, swaying from side to side beyond comfort level much of the time, it is bouncy and jerky. Overnight, which seems to be used for making up lost time, the ride at high speed is even rougher, and tossing and turning in bed is redefined. The violent movement suggested to us a comparison with a hurricane at sea we experienced while in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it was a tie.
The cause of the turbulent ride seems to lie with the condition of the tracks. Tracks in the U.S. reportedly are universally in need of repair. Amtrak trains does not own the tracks.
Porters: Our porter from Chicago to Tucson was excellent. The Coast Starlight porter, was very good. The Empire State Limited porter was bad news and our first porter, on the Sunset Limited, was suspect. At 9:45pm, our first night on The Empire State Limited, the porter displayed angry over having been kept up so late to make the beds. Almost the only times we saw him were in the diner during the day where he sat visiting with friends over coffee, as far as we could tell. When we boarded The Sunset Limited in Tucson its porter had given away the inside compartment we had reserved three months prior, assigning us instead to the noisy Compartment A.
Customer Service: Who could believe customer service would be the worst service personnel? I had trouble understanding the attitude of the first representative I spoke with after the trip was over. He seemed to be playing a strange, subtly hostile game. The second offered little help towards resolving the underlying problem but, at least, acted conventional.
The reason for the Customer Service contact (1-800-872-7245) was that I had started to prepare a letter to Amtrak trains addressing two definable problems and wanted an appropriate mailing address.
ďJivinĒ is the nearest I can come to describing the response I got from the first one. He slurred over his name rendering it unidentifiable and led me down a garden path with more baloney than I could imagine.
Snatches of the conversation went like: ĎWhat is your name? We donít have any record of you having traveled with us. Whatís your address? When did you take this trip? September 27? We donít have records going back that far. --I said thatís when I started. The trip terminated October 14, actually the morning of the 15th.-- Thatís a week ago, We donít have any record. --How about if I give you my Reservation number?-- No. We donít keep them. Somebody else is using it by now. --I ask a few times during the conversation with little luck ďIs there someone else I can speak to?Ē-- Whatís your credit card number? Maybe we can get it that way.-- I take a chance and give him my credit card number thinking I should be able to trust the railroad.-- No, we donít have that number.í
And so it went. I thought afterward perhaps Amtrak gets a lot of complaints and his role might be to turn a caller off so he or she would hang up and give up. He finally did pass me on to the second representative. When it was over I wondered if the two work as a team and anyone the front end of the team is unable to discourage gets through to speak with the other member. This is customer service?
The Coast Starlight: This train runs between Los Angeles and Seattle and is the exception in the Amtrak lineup among the four trains we traveled. Its accommodations are the same, the track may be slightly better, but it is a train that offers an ambiance and amenities worthy of first class when compared to the other trains. The Coast Starlight has first class only dining and a first class lounge. Complementary danish pastry was put out in the morning and both afternoons featured complementary wine tasting. It was the best evidence we saw of value for the added expense.
Close: We have heard of a lobbying effort to shut Amtrak trains down but know nothing else about it. (Freight is a separate consideration). In deference to rail aficionados, persons who canít take plane or car travel, those who find train travel necessary when no reasonable alternative exists, and for point to point coach travel, shutting the company down seems extreme. A definite recommendation, though, is that Amtrak back off from promoting sleeper travel in the glowing terms it employs in its advertising. The sleeper travel leaves much to be desired and we feel is not a good alternative for vacation travel.
The Coast Starlight, our stopovers, and the California and Oregon coastal and Rocky Mountain scenery were the enjoyable part of the journey. Otherwise the lurching and jerking, cramped quarters, uncomfortable sleeping, inability of Amtrak to meet schedules, and incomprehensible Customer Service, along with a few other unpleasantries, made aspects of the trip near sheer torture. As at least three other couples on board remarked, ďThis is our first and last Amtrak tripď theirs is a summary opinion we share.