Riding the Rails – Adventures in American Train Travel

Someday the hubs and I will buy a Eurail Pass and travel wherever the trains take us.  Someday, we’ll enjoy the comfortable, efficient, reliable train service that travelers in many countries take foregranted.   Someday can’t come soon enough.   My train travel experience has been limited to riding Amtrak on both the east and west coasts and I have to admit that it’s been a mixed bag on service and efficiency and it’s always a lesson in the fine art of patience.  Obviously this is a lesson I still need to learn as it keeps repeating itself – I’m writing this post on the train as we sit in the station…waiting, waiting, waiting to depart.  Breathe.  Relax.  Ha!   So, since I’ve got about three hours to kill, I thought it might be fun to share a few of my Amtrak experiences and apply my own very unscientific rating system.

Portland Union Station - photo from the Amtrak Website

Portland Union Station – photo from the Amtrak Website

Way back in the day, I lived in Los Angeles and we took the train for fun – a day at the San Diego zoo or brunch in Santa Barbara.  In those days riding the train usually included a group of friends and copious amounts of alcohol.  We were not worried about arrival times because it meant more time to party en-route.   Rating ~ I’ll give it a B with a twist. (lemon of course)

In 1987 I moved my family from Los Angeles to Portland.  We loaded our car into the moving van with all our other worldly goods and the kids and I headed toward our new life on the Coast Starlight.  I envisioned an overnight adventure.   Reality?  We slept in a postage stamp size room with pull down bunks and spent many hours eating bad food in the club car while I pointed out passing forests, fields and cows to my less-than-thrilled children.  They were more interested in hanging out in that space between cars trying to freak mom out.   Where are your drinking buddies when you really need them?  Rating ~ Only a C+.   Two adults traveling alone and it might have gotten an A.  Sorry kids!

I’ve also taken the Amtrak commuter between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. – on time and no frills, molded plastic seats and a snack bar, but it got us where we needed to go with no delays with no fuss.  This was definitely a B.  Boring, but it worked.  The station in D.C. is stunning and worth a visit if you have a chance.

My experience on the Empire Builder was another story entirely.   This route is supposed to be one of the “crown jewels” in the Amtrak system.  You can board in Seattle or Portland and travel all the way to Chicago.  Our plan was to get on in Portland and get off in Whitefish, Montana for a five-day mini-vacation fishing on the Flathead River and sightseeing in Glacier National Park.  Ever thrifty, I convinced myself and the hubs that we didn’t need to spend the additional money for a sleeping compartment.  It was summer, we could board at 5:30pm, enjoy a leisurely dinner, drink a little wine and watch the world go by until it got so dark we could no longer see out the window.  A short sleep in the comfy recliner seats and we’d wake up in Montana.Empire Builder - Spectacular Scenery Oh yes, I had a very romantic vision of how it would  play out.  Amtrak wanted no part of my romantic dreaming.  We arrived at Union Station in downtown Portland to find a paper sign at the check-in counter – No Train Today.  No train.   No warning.  Nothing anyone could do about it.  And, frankly, no one at Amtrak who seemed to care.  “Would we like to cancel or would we like to return the next day at Noon, take the train to Seattle and pick up the Empire Builder there?”  Pick one or get out of the line.  Out of options, we chose the latter and showed up at Noon ready to try again on Day 2.  We lined up with the herd to get our seat assignments and board the train.  Off at last!   Not so fast, Nancy.   We sat on that train for almost an hour, knees to knees with two strangers, in seats that faced each other.  Nothing moved, including the air in our compartment.  I don’t sit well so I decided to explore the train and find the club car.   After what seemed like an endless wait, we were advised there were mechanical problems with our train.  We all gathered our belongings and moved like lemmings to train number two.  We finally pulled out of the Portland station about 90 minutes late, but at least we were moving.  I wasn’t into all the knee touching and since I now knew where we could relax with a frosty beverage, I grabbed the hubs and we claimed a table in the dining car for the duration of our trip.  A bag of chips and a Bloody Mary and we were MUCH happier.  Which was a very good thing because there was trouble on the tracks.  A derailment the previous day caused serious stoppage and delays along the way and our 3 hour trip turned into over 5 hours on the train.   We pulled into IMG_0981Seattle after 6pm.  The Empire Builder had been waiting for us for over two hours.  We scrambled aboard, found our seats, and had a  moment of silent gratitude that these seats had leg room and reclined.  A blanket and a pillow and we’d be set for sleeping.  But wait, we’re on Amtrak, so of course “there’s more”.  The conductor (a young woman) and the steward (a rather rotund gentleman who shall remain in my brain forever as Mr. Crankypants) stood conversing across the aisle.  I thought that perhaps like the airlines, they might have a blanket and pillow so I asked “Excuse me, I was wondering if you had blankets?”  Apparently I was interrupting a very important conversation as Ms. Conductor turned, glared at me, hand on hip and replied:  “We’re a little busy here.” and turned back to her conversation with Crankypants.  You cannot make this kind of bad customer service up folks.  She silenced me…not usually an easy feat.

Before the train was even out of the station, I went to inquire about dinner.  Naturally, we ended up eating very late.  The dining car looked quite elegant – white linen and all.  The food left everything to be desired and when your half-bottle of wine comes dressed in its own little satin tuxedo, you can be pretty sure it’s Swill’s Second Cousin.  Our table companions were part of a large group of Japanese tourists.  We nodded and smiled, but witty dinner conversation was not on the agenda that evening.   Our server, quite possibly a Denny’s retiree, wore her tuxedo vest over a white shirt and sported a large band of jangling keys around her left bicep.  That this woman was over-worked and over-whelmed was obvious.  But worse, this woman was rude to the Japanese group who had an obvious challenge with our language – to the point of making faces behind their back.   If there were a three strikes law on travel, Amtrak was already over the limit on this trip.

Let’s just say it was very, very long and sleepless night for Nancy who sat freezing in her Artic air-conditioned recliner seat, because it turned out there were no blankets, noisy passengers walked the train all night long and Mr. Crankypants patrolled the aisles yelling at people who were not sitting in their assigned seats.  Of course, hubby slept like a baby.  When the train finally pulled into the tiny Whitefish station and I stumbled, blurry-eyed and exhausted onto the platform, I felt like I had survived some sort of horror movie.  And, because we were now officially more than 24 hours behind our scheduled arrival time, we had less than one hour to find our rental car, drive to our B&B, splash a little cold water on our faces, meet our fishing guide and spend the next 5 hours on the Flathead River in an inflatable raft in 100 degree heat. Hubby (well rested from his long nap on the train) was perched high up in the front, fly rod in hand, master of all he surveyed, while I bounced around in the back nodding off and trying to keep from falling asleep and falling overboard.   Amtrak, I have waited a long time to share this story publicly.  You almost ruined my vacation and you killed my romantic fantasy of train travel.  For this, I’m giving you a D- Amtrak.  Consider yourself lucky.

IMG_0947My most recent excursions have been simple jaunts from Portland to Tacoma or Portland to Seattle.  Mostly pleasant, often inexpensive (last weekend I paid $58 round trip) and usually on time.   The scenery is beautiful and the conversation in the Bistro Car is always lively and interesting.  When you get bored, you can just plug in and tune out. On a trip this summer, the train was packed with hundreds of riders (mostly men) and their bicycles who were heading from Portland for the STP (Seattle to Portland) bike ride.  The celebrating began before we left the station.  That was a very fun trip!  Just like the old days in L.A.  Rating ~  Not too bad Amtrak. I’ll give you a B. I love the fact that you have wi-fi and I can bring my laptop and work.  I always get a Bloody Mary and a bag of chips.  It’s a tradition now.

So – Amtrak.  It’s definitely a love/hate relationship with most folks and a long way from the trains that criss-cross Europe, the bullet trains in Japan or the glory trains like the Orient Express or the Royal Scotsman.  I’m holding on to my romantic train fantasy a while longer – just not with Amtrak.

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10 thoughts on “Riding the Rails – Adventures in American Train Travel

  1. Another knee slapping story Nancy. I will give you an A+ for effort for persuing your romantic notions of Amtrak. I love taking the train and dream of getting a rail pass to tour through Europe too!
    You make me want a Bloody Mary. 🙂

  2. Reading this @Union Station waiting for train to leave. Laptop already plugged in. I’ll be getting coffee rather than a bloody mary. I’ll rate my trip later but so far so good. Small rolly is stashed.

  3. Good read! Yeah Nance I want you to get an opportunity to ride the TGV in France. It’s better than flying! And fast?! Holy moly. Quiet, and very comfy and roomy. People didn’t talk on cellphones in the cars…they’d get up and leave between car areas. I’d have ridden those anywhere. I’ve also had some over crowded cattle car experiences in Italy tho. You can get those rides anywhere…..it’s about what you’re willing to pay I guess. Those Euro trains definitely run on time and are very efficient!!

    • Thanks Vic. Yah, I need to win the Lottery so I can start traveling sooner rather than later when I’m too old. Are you home?

  4. Nancy, The one predictable thing about Amtrak is that train travel here is not dependable. I also love train rides and whenever I take the train I anticipate a comfortable ride, eating in the dining car and communicating with strangers who are touring the NW for the first time. Of cause there is no excuse for poor customer service and I must have had the same conductor(s) you did on my last trip. I felt so guilty interrupting their boring conversation to ask a question. How inconsiderate of me. Train travel in Europe is fantastic, comfortable and you leave and arrive on time. Thanks for sharing your experience, reading your comments brought a big smile to my face and helped me validate my sanity! Keep it up.

    • Hi Yvette. Are you up for coffee/tea at Starbucks sometime soon? I’d love to hear about your recent adventures in Mexico.

  5. Warning – put those Eurail fantasies away. Train travel in most of Europe seems to be only marginally better than in this country, the main difference being that there are a lot more trains to take you to a lot more places, which makes everything easier. Finland’s premium train was late and kept breaking down, Sweden’s was also late and staffed by folks who must have in the same customer service class as Mr. Crankypants. Italy’s trains were serviceable. Germany is the exception, where the trains were well maintained, ran on time, and had friendly staff. On the other hand, they were as overcrowded as any other train system we took, making it impossible to travel with my elderly father without reserved, first-class tickets. Think about how comfortable you are dragging your rollie through multiple packed train cars looking for seats while the train is moving when you choose those Eurail tickets! Trains in Europe are efficient, but don’t get your hopes too high!

    • Thanks Cindy (sort of) for the great info. It looks like another of my romantic fantasies on traveling by train has been shattered (or at least tarnished a bit). I have heard from friends that the trains in France are great and know first hand of the bullet trains in Japan. Mr. Crankypants has spawned all over the world it seems. Prepare for the worst – hope for something better!

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