Advice on traveling long distance by Amtrak

The Southwest Chiefs I spot most nights in Virtual Railfan mostly have the bedrooms in the rear and roomettes to the front. The after dark arrival of the westbound lets you see whether you’re seeing the room or aisle side on the bedrooms. Perhaps once in two weeks one will be turned around.

SWC is odd in other ways, for example pre-Covid the baggage car was just behind the locomotives instead of bringing up the rear like most other western trains. A couple coaches were dropped in KC and I suspect it made that evolution easier.

The EB and the CS have always had baggage in front. The EB has to, because it does the Spokane join/split with the SEA and PDX halves. Bombardier makes a crew sleeper with a roof that slopes down to meet the shorter baggage car in front, but l have never seen one, no idea if Amtrak has any.

Amtrak has Superliner transition dorms, full height all the way across, 17 roomettes and 1 toilet upstairs, an accessible bedroom, 4 more toilets, and a crew lounge down stairs. At one end the aisle dodges to the side of the car, then descends a stair and emerges centerline at the same height as single high equipment.

The roomettes are for train crew use although Amtrak will sell any extras to the public if the demand is high enough. As I said in post 221, pre-Covid SWCs ran the baggage behind the locomotives, then a transition dorm, one or two bedroom/roomette sleepers depending on the traffic, a diner, an cafe/lounge, then two coaches.

With the pandemic drop in traffic, the baggage and TD were dropped in favor of two sleepers, and one of the coaches was a coach/baggage with no seating downstairs but a small baggage compartment instead. Last night’s SWC was back to the baggage and TD in front of a single sleeper. Tonight’s is 7+ hours late and has not come through yet.

Car diagrams.

Does the Empire Builder have two baggage cars - one for SEA and another for PDX, or does Amtrak transfer baggage as part of the split/join?

When I have been on the EB, there has only ever been one baggage car. I presume the westbound Portland baggage is transferred over and the empty car sits in Spokane to be picked up at the next eastbound split. The Seattle run leaves Spokane in about 40 minutes while the Portland run leaves a half hour later.

A typical PDX consist on the Empire Builder has the Sightseer Lounge, one standard coach, one coach/baggage (as @DesertDog noted, it sacrifices lower level seating for a baggage compartment) and one sleeper.

I had to make a last-minute change a few years ago, and the only roomette available on the northbound Coast Starlight was in the transition dorm. I came away with the impression that Amtrak spares every expense when it comes to crew comfort: even by Superliner I standards, it was somewhat ragged around the edges. Understandable, I suppose, given that the crew probably don’t spend much non-sleep there.

Great post. I’ve been getting videos in my YouTube home feed about train journey experiences. Don’t know why exactly, because I hadn’t been googling any info about train trips beforehand, but Google being Google, it clearly knows me better than I know myself.

This video from the other day got me thinking about taking a long train trip out west, and I almost started my own long distance Amtrak travel advice post before finding this thread.

I’m not sure how that works with the Portland leg and checked bags. They must have some other baggage storage then - as we checked bags when we boarded the Cardinal (south of DC) and they were waiting for us in Portland.

I do have to give Amtrak credit for the checked bag situation. All our bags made it both ways, even with the truncated time in Chicago on the way back (and that very screwy message they left me).

Hah - should have read the whole thread - I see several others (including my spouse) commented on the same EB/Portland conundrum.

I get this email from Ipsos to do a survey related to Amtrak, so what the hell, I like the train, why not. It tells me 12~15 minutes of my time. Several questions about me. Around 8 screens in (1 question per) comes race, with a ten or so options. I select “rather not say”. Next screen is “thank you for participating”.

What the hell?

Market research professional here.

You were still in the “screener” part of the questionnaire, where they ask about age, income, race, etc., in order to make sure that the respondents who complete the survey accurately reflect the overall Amtrak user base. They ask about race because they want to make sure that they are getting proportions of Blacks, Asians, etc., taking the survey that are reflective of the overall population.

They give you the option to not answer the question (the “I’d rather not say” option), because some people don’t want to say (and that’s OK), but as they can’t classify you into one of their sample groups based on your response (or non-response), they disqualified you from participating in the main survey.

Bumping because our next Amtrak adventure awaits.

We need to visit the parents in Florida - the adult kids have decided that this is something we need to do several times a year, as they are not doing all that well.

Since my husband and I are closest, physically (if a thousand miles might be described as “close”), we can actually drive - and did so, in April. My son came along in April, and with 3 drivers, we did it in one day. We were not sure about having him come along on the next trip, plus Labor Day weekend is the best time for me to go (having blown most of my vacation time already, see above!); I’ll work while down there, but at least this gives me one day off while down there.

Household members were certain that my assessment of traffic on the Saturday as “not likely to be that bad” was insane - my argument was that most people would have travelled on the Friday. Oh well, we’d have dealt with it anyway.

We looked at taking the train - but it’s a solid 24 hours (I’ve taken it before), and the hassle of renting a car. Then a :bulb: went off: AUTO TRAIN.

We happen to have taken this before - 3 times, so this’ll be the 4th. We live very close - less than 15 minute drive, unless it’s afternoon rush hour (and if it’s afternoon rush hour, we’ve already missed the train!).

The downsides are: we have to arrive well over an hour before departure (to give them time to load cars), and it’s typically an hour at the other end for cars to be offloaded (we could spend $ to get priority unloading). That’ll entail waiting in pea-soup humidity outdoors (or staying inside in the A/C with the morons who don’t believe in masks). Plus, it’s about a 3 hour drive once we get down there (and a 3 hour drive to get back to the station for the return trip). I cheaped out and just got us a single roomette each way - the extra cost just didn’t seem worth it for one night.


  • We can bring tons of stuff, that would not be possible if we flew (given schedule insanity, and COVID, that is NOT happening) or took a regular train. Since one of our aims is to bring a countertop dishwasher for the parents, that’ll help.
  • No hotel expense in either direction (with 2 drivers, we’d likely want to break the trip up).
  • Less food expense in either direction (dinner and breakfast are provided; we’d need to buy lunch in Florida, both ways).
  • It’ll put me over into the next tier level on Amtrak Rewards, for what that’s worth

The cost winds up being (roughly) a wash, if we figure the car cost using the IRS mileage rates. 200 miles from Sandford to the parents, versus 1000, so 800 miles at 60 (roughly) cents a mile = 480 dollars each way, plus hotel and food for each drive - say 150 each way. Add all that together, and we’re paying a bit more in fare than those costs, but there’s less wear and tear on US.

Interestingly, if we travelled a day earlier (leaving on the Friday), a bedroom would have been cheaper than a roomette. Bizarro. Still more than the Saturday.

BTW, I got that same survey, and it also cut me off at about the same point. That may simply be all there was to the survey.

Auto Train trip begun! When you add in all the waiting time before and after, it’s not faster than if we drove it nonstop. It IS faster than if we drove and broke it up into two days.

Car dropoff begins at 12:30 for a nominal 5 PM departure. We did so, and had a short wait to get our car turned in. then we waited in line inside for a few minutes to check in and reserve our dinner slot - we had a choice of 6, 8, or in-room at 7:30. We opted for that. Then our son met us, and we went to a nearish restaurant for a leisurely lunch.

We had to be back by 3:30 for boarding. We were back at 3, and they did indeed board us at 3:30.

Interestingly, we actually left at 4:05. This is the one train where they can do that: car checkin has an absolute cutoff of 3 PM, so you will definitely be there in time. They’ve always tended to move the train a bit to allow them to attach the car carriers so we were actually stopped for a bit on an overpass over Lorton Road (same town that has Furnace Road and Mordor Road).

Despite the early departure we got into Sanford just on time - likely due to the occasional stop.

It’s not a scenic ride, though the conductor did point out various points of interest.

Waiting for our car now- typically it takes less than an hour. We did not pay for priority unloading, and the cars seem to be disgorged in random order eg 190, 395, 170 were just called.

The food was definitely not as good as the western routes. Dinner (which we had in our room) was an entree and a dessert, no appetizer, and I had breakfast in the dining car: cereal, tea, and a microwave breakfast sandwich. I did share a table with an older couple, so that was a nice chat.

We had an upstairs roomette, which was nice. A couple steps from the bathroom. The attendant’s room was right across from ours .

The ride was also a lot smoother than the trips in May - when I walked to the dining car, I was not bounced from wall to wall, leaving bruises, unlike the earlier trips.

As we left, we saw another passenger, who was carrying a small service dog.I asked how she handled potty breaks and she said he was pee-pad trained. Very useful on such a trip. I imagine Amtrak has a hard time enforcing the “service dogs must remain on the floor, not the bed” rule. If she was in the accessible room it would at least be possible, not in a roomette.

It was closer to 90 minutes before they got all the cars unloaded. We know this for a fact because we saw it being driven up, the announcer called our number, and said “this is the last case”. Never had to wait this long before, but I guess someone’s gotta be that one.

A 3+ hour jaunt diwn I95 and we are in our AirBnB

Spent the week hanging out at our AirBnB - I was working, while my husband was over at his parents’ place helping them out with various things. I only saw them for an hour or so every day, which turns out to be a good thing…

We weren’t the last car off on the return, though we were not in the first 80% of them. Next time, I might shell out for the priority unloading, if it’s still only 60 bucks. The food was no better on the return trip.

And, someone gave me the 'rona on the return trip - pretty much the only chance I’ve had to catch it. “No masks”, they say. “Not necessary”, they say. :angry: .

Just spent 2 days on the EB, and it was mostly good (apart from being almost a week late), except the dumbshits at the Chicago yard put it together wrong. The proper configuration is engines-baggage-SeattleSleepers-DiningCar-SeattleCoach-LoungeCar-PortlandCoach-PortlandSleeper but they put the DiningCar behind SeattleCoach.

This meant the Seattle sleeper passengers had to go through the coach car to get to the diner, but worse, Seattle coach passengers had to walk through the diner to get to the snack bar, and right now, with staffing problems, the diner does not serve coach passengers. Of course, that did put the diner one car closer to the Portland sleeper car (or, in a good year, two Seattle coach cars).

Staff were quite good though, and it was 120% on time (unlike my July trip, where someone tossed off some freight cars near Stanley, leaving us to spend the night in Williston and bus over to Minot in the morning to take the opposite train on).

For the info of our random listeners, the EB is the Empire Builder, the train that goes from Chicago through the northern Rockies, and ends in Seattle. And returns along the same route, of course. Me, I was pleasantly surprised about the scenery along the 15 miles or so closest to Seattle. It runs north along the coast of Puget Sound, and is quite pretty. (It turns east after that, yes.)

Minor clarification: the Empire Builder also serves Portland. The westbound train splits in Spokane, with the lounge car, a couple of coaches and a sleeper heading to Portland and the rest continuing to Seattle. Obviously, the reverse happens eastbound.

(According to the schedule, the split/recombine happens in the middle of the night when few passengers would notice. But one time when the westbound train was delayed by a disabled freight, it happened at breakfast — and since the process requires shutting off head end power, they couldn’t serve coffee. I was surprised there wasn’t a riot.)

A couple of coaches in the distant past, maybe, but I have never seen more than one Portland coach. There were 2 Seattle coaches up until about 3 years ago, but they dropped one of late because of staff shortages.

Each half has its one engine, with both pulling the combined train – one trip I was on one of them crapped out and we had to sit in Whitefish for and hour or so while the fetched up a BN locomotive to sub for it. A conductor told me the Superliners are half a century old and have 7~12M miles on them.