Advice on traveling long distance by Amtrak

It kinda was at the time, but these days I am going to guess it will be happening more and more often.

Now we’re stopped at a crossing in some small town. Apparently someone has had a medical issue and we’re waiting for EMTs to come check them out before we get up into the mountains where no one would be able to reach us.

Yay! Relieved to hear you made your connection… with Giordano’s, yet!

But I counted and over half of the posts here lately were worrying about whether the train was behind schedule, and by how much. I do hope you (and everyone else traveling now or this summer) are getting to do other things.

Like enjoying scenery you’d never see otherwise… and, my favorite part, seeing the “backside” of so many small towns.

Last month I caught a short ride on the Coast Starlight from Albany, OR up to Olympia, which happened to be running about 2 hours behind. As I was sitting in the station, a good hour or so before the train was to be expected, the automated boarding call message went off. The station attendant explained that Amtrak’s arrival projections don’t update in real time, but rather are updated when the train passes certain waypoints along the route. If the train is stopped or moving very slowly, which it was, the arrival time doesn’t update, and so the system assumed the train was about to pull into the station based on when it had passed the last waypoint even though it hadn’t heard from the waypoints further down the line.

I assume it’s an old system that predates the ubiquity of GPS and wireless data, that hasn’t been updated just because it’s a lower priority than all the other stuff Amtrak needs to spend money on to keep things running.

We too had one stop on the CZ where someone was sick; no clue how that turned out.

We had a hell of a hailstorm a few hours after Denver. i didn’t realize what it was at first, at first - I thought it was my husband rattling something repeatedly on the top bunk, and asked him what on earth he was doing. He thought I was doing something. Then I opened the curtain, saw the lightning, and realized what it was. I couldn’t see the hailstones themselves because it was dark outside.

We are on the Capital Limited now. There are so many trees, the mountains are much smaller, and there’s actually fog! We didn’t see fog at all out west,
not even when we drove to the Oregon cost in the rain.

The train horn is also sounding nearly constantly because we’re going through so many small towns. Just saw a few wind turbines on a hill (we are a bit east of Pittsburgh); those were surprisingly rare out west. We saw the huge wind farm in Central Indiana on the Cardinal.

No clue whether our checked bags are on the train with us. We got a robocall from Amtrak, somewhere well west of chicago, saying there was no room and if we still wanted to check them, they’d be delayed. We didn’t actually GET the message until we were on the second train - and wouldn’t have had any time to deal with it anyway. I called them back and a human told me the same thing, but gave me a Chicago and a DC phone number to call. The Chicago number was lost and found and is only available during business hours. The DC number was more helpful; they called all three baggage rooms (Chicago, Emeryville and LA), none of whom have our luggage. We are hopeful it made the train.

We definitely saw things we would not have. Snow on the ground - in May. Ruby Canyon (?) which is visible only from the train or very intrepid kayakers. More of the Colorado River than I’ll see again. More of the Colorado River RAFTERS than I ever hope to see again. Beatiful views - though unsurprisingly the prairies of ND and MT got old, ditto the last day of the CZ. The Moffat tunnel - highest point of the ride yet we were still under 4000 feet of rock.

Not on the train, but still noteworthy: beautiful views of the Pacific (Okay, some of those were from the Coast Starlight). Mt Hood and Mt St Helens. Some rather terrifying mountains (as I was driving through them) going inland from the coast near Pepperdine University. Some seriously sublime strawberries from a farmstand on that same drive, and minor irritation that my husband only got one pint of them. Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, where everyone went in with the rule that you could not buy more then you could carry with your own hands. Being burdened with a knee walker, that was a serious disadvantage.

And last but definitely not least, a real, live therapy llama at the hotel in Oregon. Seriously. Caesar the No-Drama Llama happened to be there the day we arrived.

Lessons learned:

Have at least a day layover between every leg. The only real stress - aside from LA traffic - was hauling stuff to/ from trains, and our very real worries about missing our last connection

Unplugging from the world is good. With no cell signals much of the ride, we HAD to relax. Though I’m surprised at how little actual reading we did.

Roomettes for 2 people: We are too damn old to do that anymore. From now on, it’s the family bedroom, or a regular bedroom, or at least 2 roomettes.

I miss shared tables in the dining car. Some WONDERFUL conversations ensue there.

We need to learn to pack lighter and build more time to do laundry. We literally have more than we can haul ourselves, due to my broken foot, and we were packing for 15 days of travel.

The train beds are somewhat hard. If you can spare the space, some kind of inflatable pad or egg-crate foam would be useful.

The food on the east coast trains is truly dire (Auto Train excepted, as it still has traditional dining).

For just one person in a roomette, I found a carry on sized bag and a backpack fit perfectly on that shelf next to the seat. I guess technically it’s the step for accessing the top bunk, but since I wasn’t using the top bunk for me it’s a shelf.

According to Amtrak’s app we’re “only” projected to be an hour and forty minutes late getting into Chicago.

I appreciate all the comments and updates @Mama_Zappa and @WildaBeast have shared here. This thread should be required reading by anyone considering a long distance train journey on Amtrak. Truth be told, it does not paint a very attractive picture of the journey, so I appreciate you all taking one for the team here.

I use the Capitol Corridor commuter train from Sacramento to the SF Bay Area once in a while and find the train to be quite competitive time-wise compared to driving, depending on the day and where I am going, what I am planning to do, etc. I think inter-city trips by train make a lot of sense when origin and destination are around 100 - 150 miles apart or less, but after some point the distance is too great and flying makes more sense. Unless, of course, you intend to experience long-distance train travel in the US.

I admit, I’ve tended to report on the negative aspects, assuming the stunning views are a given :grin:

We got home about 45 minutes ago. Train was only a few minutes late getting into DC. Our luggage was indeed on the train, so I dunno WTF that phone message was about.

I’d extend that 100-150 mile range to 250 or so, from long personal experience traveling between DC and NY. Driving would take us 4.5 hours or more, plus NY traffic. The train takes 3 - though to be fair, that’s after battling DC traffic to get to the station (which once cost us an hour within 6 blocks of the station!). Flying, which I did a lot of in the 90s, rarely improved on the 3 hour figure when you factored in the time to get to the airport, security, and weather delays. I suspect this has not improved since 9/11.

I’d fly from DC to Boston. From NY, I’m not sure whether train is better but it can’t be much worse. From DC to NY, about 240 miles, the train wins.

As far as these long distance trains: you go because you’re afraid of flying, you want to go cheap (coach), or you love trains. The demographic, in sleepers, definitely skewed old; we are in our early 60s and were younger than most people.

All in all, the biggest negatives are timeliness (not always Amtrak’s fault), the food (decent in the west, dreadful in the east), and the bathrooms (which would have benefitted from a visit from a toilet brush, and which absolutely could have been handled better). The positives are the scenery, the relaxed mode of traveling, the downtown-to- downtown locations, meeting other people, and the “Cool!!! I’m on a CHOO-CHOO” aspect. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

I just checked, and it looks like Wildabeest’s train was roughly as late as ours was. Hopefully you got to the Sears Tower (i refuse the new name, LOL).

Another suggestion: do a home COVID test, given how few people masked on the train. We did them 2 days in a row out west, since we were going to visit an elderly relative. And we did one today just on general principle. So far, all have been negative. We were extra vigilant about wearing masks, though.

Yep, as we neared Chicago we got stuck behind a Metra train and had to go at a reduced speed, adding to our delay. But I was still able to check in to my hotel, drop my luggage in my room, and get to the Sears Tower with 15 minutes to spare.

All right! Both our Canaries in The Coal Mine made it just in time!

How great that one was in time for Deep Dish Pizza, and the other for the Sears (WhatchooTalkin’Bout,Willis) Tower.

On our Empire Builder trip, that would’ve been true, except for a number of families with small kids… and the Amish. They don’t like driving but they do love trains! There were often three or four (very friendly) extended families in the lounge car.

Really? Because I found it to be a positive experience. Maybe I should have posted pictures. Throughout the trip I was taking pictures out the window and posting them on Facebook when I could get an internet connection, and the reaction there was a resounding “Wow, what an amazing trip!” And I did mention the delay there, too.

I mean, if you absolutely have to be somewhere at a specific time Amtrak probably isn’t for you (or just plan to get there a day early). But if you want to relax, see some amazing scenery, and tell yourself “we’ll get there when we get there” it is very relaxing way to travel.

Now time for my food reviews. The chicken was meh. All the lunch I items I tried (burger, grilled cheese, Cesar salad) were pretty good. As was the omelet. The French toast was really good. The steak was excellent. I really can’t say enough good things about the steak. And yeah, we did get lunch on the third day. I guess I was wrong about that. Oh, and the desserts I tried, the cheesecake and the chocolate torte, were both really good.

Well, you were going by Amtrak’s website! so you can hardly be blamed for that, The Capital Limited info is similarly wrong (does not state that dinner is included). On the CZ, really, given its touted arrival time of well after 2 PM, and its ACTUAL arrival time of, often, hours later, they’d be risking a trainful of hangry passengers.

We too saw some Amish families boarding - pretty sure they all went coach, between the cost, and the fact that perhaps a sleeper would be viewed as an unnecessary luxury. They did not hang out in the lounge car, nor were they in any of the coach cars we had to walk through on the Empire Builder.

We too posted photos on Facebook whenever we could. We had a wonderful trip, but I guess I did dwell on the negatives here, as much as a warning to anyone else contemplating such a trip (stuff you NEED to know) as anything else.

If you’re not a railfan, you won’t enjoy the trip even if everything goes perfectly. If you are, like me, you won’t really CARE about things that go badly unless they go really, really badly (think, derailment, missing my connection, etc).

Other trips I’d like to take:

  • The Crescent to New Orleans, a few days there (never been), then the Sunset Limited to LA.
  • The whole Coast Starlight route from LA to Seattle (or vice versa)
  • The Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver
  • The California Zephyr again, but this time in wintertime (assuming I don’t care what time we get into the destination station).
  • The route from Winnipeg to Churchill, MB - the only land connection to Churchill (there are no roads). That one isn’t all that long - 800ish miles - but takes nearly 48 hours.

I think we’ll keep our Amtrak credit card for a bit :slight_smile: (we paid $$$ for our outbound trip, but the rest of it was basically free).

[quote=“Mama_Zappa, post:215, topic:950896”]

  • The Crescent to New Orleans, a few days there (never been), then the Sunset Limited to LA.[/quote]

I took the Crescent from DC to NOLA last July and while it was interesting to check it off my list, I liked the City of New Orleans down from Chicago better as a train.

I also took the Sunset but in two pieces, Maricopa to LAX then NOLA to Maricopa the bits in the bayous in the beginning were the most interesting, probably because they were more exotic to this desert boy than Texas flatlands.

The forced disconnection from digital life was AWESOME! I couldn’t engage in the social media rage echo chamber. I had to watch the scenery and - what’s that word? - relax. It was much needed. I got to see the country, I could walk a bit or eat or go to the bathroom anytime I wanted, and someone else drove. I even read an entire book! If it wasn’t for the possibility of missing our connection, the travel would have been worry free. Oh, and no pat downs or scans or taking off my belt and shoes.

I even learned a trick for sleeping well on trains. The foam mattress was too hard for me. I grabbed some extra pillows and slept on them - an impromptu pillow top! That’s not always available so next time I’ll bring a soft sleeping pad.

Long distance passenger rail may not be for everyone, but it has its advantages, IMNAAHO.

I seem to remember some fellow wandering around and claiming he was a SDMB member, during most of my trip. Kinda creepy and stalkerish.

Typo is, in fact, the husband mentioned periodically.

Just rereading the thread, and wanted to comment on this.

Upstairs, you have (up to) 20 people and 1 toilet.

Downstairs, you have 6 roomettes and a family bedroom - let’s say up to 16 people, and 2 toilets. The accessible bedroom having its own, I won’t count that.

There WILL be people coming down to use the toilets on occasion (we definitely saw this a few times).

The one disappointment about the family bedroom was that all 3 legs where we had it, the car was set so we had to sit facing backward, which definitely affected our view out the window - we could see where we’d been, not where we were going. I don’t know if that’s standard, or luck of the draw. The facing seat at one end was child-sized, so sitting there wasn’t practical.

The trains I have been on have the bedrooms forward, above the bathrooms and the accessible room. This means the family bedroom is aftward, under/behind the roomettes. If that is how your ride was, I guess looking back is standard (never been in one of those).