Forced to make a quick decision during a snowstorm in Chicago a couple of years ago, I abandoned my plans to travel by air and boarded an Amtrak train home to Los Angeles. I had set off for the airport harboring increasing feelings of skepticism and dread: interminable delays, a Civil War battlefield–style scene at the departure gate, being trapped on the tarmac for 12 hours with overflowing toilets, no food and my children 2,000 miles away.His column notes that Amtrak's first class is neither as cheap as a Northern Pacific Slumbercoach nor as posh as a Great Northern trout dinner.
When I arrived at the terminal, my worst fears were realized. Well, almost. It was clear that no plane would be leaving that day or the next. So I turned around and took a taxi back to the city to regroup. During the ride, I had a lightbulb moment, dialed 411 for Amtrak and booked a private room on the next train leaving for L.A. It was a call that changed my life.
Upon committing to this experience, you will have to pay. There's no point in doing trains on the cheap or you'll be just as miserable as in the air. Once on board, you will have to open your mind and maintain an attitude of detached amusement.An improvement in first class need not wait for a green revolution. In my experience the sleepers are now selling out earlier than they did when only well-off vacationers booked them: first parents with small children turned to them in search of sanctuary from the coaches, which sometimes fill with a rough crowd; more recently business travelers growing weary of the airport experience and the unpleasant hotels have been returning to the sleepers. Makes for more interesting company for an aging ferroequinologist in his travels, though. Mr Netto, however, is still a novice train rider.
A conventional approach to hospitality is not the culture on the rails. There are some wonderful people working on these trains, but on the whole, Amtrak customer service is arcane, highly unionized and under-incentivized—something more along the lines of an old-school Soviet hotel. It has been so long since American rail has had to behave as a normal business and not an arm of government (quasi-national Amtrak was created after the implosion of most private carriers in 1971) that this will only change years into the future, assuming train travel goes mainstream again as part of any self-respecting green revolution.
Be sure to get a private car, not a shared roomette. This entitles you to twin bunk beds (seats by day, convertible at night), your own bathroom, a whole lot of tiny folded towels—Amtrak doesn't give you much but they love to give you towels—a fold-down table with a checkerboard on the surface and an incomparable feeling of coziness and well-being. If you are not alone, get two adjoining rooms and suite them up. When I travel with my wife and two young daughters, we do this and giggle the whole time, visiting through the sliding door from one room to another.The dining car crews now alert passengers that they will be seated with new friends, and, invariably, the stories are good. On the other hand, the roomettes are not assigned in the Russian style, where any two people will be assigned to bunks in the same roomette. The bedrooms set up en suite are great for families with children, if pricey.
Instead of losing a day to get to where we're going, our vacation starts the minute we board. Here's what you will get on Amtrak: a feeling of unparalleled excitement when the train starts to move and gathers speed. Snug in your sleeper car, you can look forward to all those hours of contemplation, reading, working, backgammon, whatever. You will also never be lied to en route. When a conductor makes an announcement about a mysterious, undesired and unscheduled stop, if he or she doesn't know the length of a delay, that's precisely what they will tell you. Find me the airline you can say this about.
If you are traveling alone and decide to partake in the dining experience, the charming system of signing up for meals at an appointed hour in the dining car means sharing a meal with three perfect strangers.
This is good for you. Despite paroxysms of terror at sliding in to round out a four-top, I have never finished a meal without being surprised at turns in the conversation. Once I had dinner with a man who had met the Russian revolutionary Alexander Kerensky. And remember, these fellow journeymen are just as freaked out to be sitting with you.
Washington Monthly author Phillip Longman, in the course of his case for strengthening conventional Passenger Rail, discussed here, is among the ranks of disaffected business travelers.
For example, when I need to travel from my home in Washington, D.C., to Chicago, I am always tempted to take a sleeper car on Amtrak’s “Capitol Limited,” and frequently do. Though it never goes faster than 79 mph, the train is scheduled to leave Washington at 4:00 p.m. and to arrive in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. To make a morning meeting in Chicago by plane, I would either have to fly out the night before and rent a hotel room, or get up at some ungodly hour on the same day and arrive frazzled. Either way, taking the plane requires schlepping my way to and from airports on both ends, while also enduring the hassle and uncertain duration of airport security. In the wintertime, I’m also far more likely to be stranded by snowstorms if I take the plane, and, of course, dinner in the diner sure beats airplane food.All of that by way of introducing the Trip Report for Cumberland back to Chicago. (The Trip Report will address other subjects, but these two articles give an excuse for reporting on the trains first).
But while the Capitol Limited is fast enough to be more convenient than flying when it’s on time, it frequently runs hours late, even in fair weather, due to competition with freight trains. So I can’t count on it for business travel to Chicago unless my meeting is in the afternoon. Even with that poor track record, sleeper cars on the Capitol Limited are often sold out weeks in advance, such is the surging popularity of this way of travel among professionals who have had it with air travel. All Amtrak needs to build a much larger market share would be better on-time performance, and this, in turn, would require only incremental investment in new sidings and track capacity to make sure freight trains don’t get in the way.
Frequency of service is also often more important than top speed. Only two passenger trains serve Cleveland, for example, and both come through, in both directions, between 12:59 and 5:35 a.m. It’s surprising how many people use these trains nonetheless. Recently, after business in Cleveland that kept me there late, I decided to take a sleeper car home rather than spending an extra night in a hotel room and flying out in the morning. I counted some seventy-five people in the waiting room even at two a.m. Many more would be taking the train in and out of Cleveland if only there were reliable daytime service to nearby points such as Pittsburgh, Toledo, South Bend, Akron, Indianapolis, or Chicago, all of which could be reached by conventional trains in far less time, and at far less cost, than flying.
By way of background, on the eve of Amtrak, Baltimore and Ohio's westbound Capitol Limited left Washington, D. C. at 4.40, Cumberland at 7.52, Pittsburgh at 11.45, arriving Chicago at 9.05. Amtrak's train goes from Baltimore and Ohio to Pennsylvania Railroad at Pittsburgh, thence to the New York Central east of Cleveland and on The Water Level Route via Toledo and South Bend to Chicago. Pretty commendable timings given a longer routing and handoffs from railroad to railroad. On the other hand, Baltimore and Ohio's Shenandoah was still offering a day train connecting Washington to Akron, with reclining seat coaches, a food bar coach, and on some days a dome car. Train frequency matters, and that second schedule allowed Akron passengers a day in Pittsburgh, or Potomac Valley passengers a day in Pittsburgh. Amtrak, however, has scarcely enough coaches to cover its existing trains, and Congress can engage in populist sound and fury by refusing to appropriate money for sleeping cars, lounges, and dining cars, never mind that the first class service sells out.
Despite those considerations, the Capitol is very much in the business of moving coach passengers, probably including more than a few commuters, in the Potomac Valley. The Cumberland, Maryland station is an Amshack, but the long westbound platform of B&O days is still in place, and the coach attendants don't keep the commuters waiting while the engine crews change. Although more people detrained than boarded at Cumberland, passenger loadings were substantial, with on-board service announcements telling passengers to expect a full train. Reservations were available up to train time, with three coach passengers boarding for Chicago after their private plane had made a hard landing somewhere nearby (from what I could overhear of mobile phone conversations with the insurer, sounded like a landing gear failure). Everybody walked away and their luggage was intact.
Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited, Cumberland, Maryland to Chicago, 5-6 July 2011: Genesis diesels 197 - 817, baggage car 1735, Superliner coaches 31041 - 34086 - 34082, lounge 33031, diner 38064, Superliner sleepers 32073 California - 32110 Tennessee, transition sleeper and crew car 39037, converted 10&6 10021 Pacific Cape, business car 10001 Beech Grove, arrives Cumberland about 7.45 account track work and freight train interference; space on lower level of 32110; attendant explains the car fittings and suggests I head for the dining car; leave Cumberland 7:58, dinner and conversation with visiting Britishers up Sand Patch, Connellsville 10:33-10:35:45, Pittsburgh 12:14:11 - 12:28:18; bedtime; loudspeaker announcement near Waterloo that last call for breakfast is at 8 am; wash up quickly, head forward, diner relatively empty with waiting passengers being sent to the lounge car; Elkhart 7.24 - 7.29; despite apparent disorganization in the dining car, everybody waiting in lounge is seated and service commences, leave South Bend 8.00 (Eastern); arrive Chicago 8:42 (Central); train routed onto Track 19 on the Milwaukee Road side so as to allow the Amtrak managers a short walk from their private cars, that also gives me a shorter walk out the north end of Union Station to North Western Station, where the morning maintenance window means the next train to Elburn is at 10.40. The composition of inbound train riders changes as the morning progresses, with those last arrivals just before nine predominantly the suits; after 10 am come the shoppers in shorts and the White Sox fans (that day's home game) in black.
Crews on the East Coast trains (those that there are) are more rushed than those on the western trains, where the distances between stops are longer and more of the sleeper passengers are in cruise mode for a day or two. On the other hand, the food service ends unaccountably early (is there too much bookkeeping and inventory to do on the deadhead move to the coach yard) and the practice of inspecting tickets at trackside makes the intermediate stops longer than is necessary.