Amtrak experience-do tell your train travel

Old Aug 13th, 2004, 11:11 AM
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Don't worry, neither did I.

In terms of Amtrak, I don't doubt that some routes make more sense and that some routes can be profitable. The problem is that many of them are not. (Otherwise, Amtrak would be making money.)

I took an elective class in college called the Economics of Politics and Public Finance. We spent a great deal of time discussing the concept of cost benefit analysis and the relative value of projects. As we learned, the reality is that many times claims of "we'll save oil with x over y" or "if you recycle you save this" generally isn't that cut and dry. For example, the cost of road repair I-5 may or may not use less resources overall than if you run trains and factor in things like the steel to build more railcars, the cost to transport the steel rails, etc.

As with every economics course, we learned how to answer a question but always be able to say "on the otherhand...".
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 11:13 AM
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To start with, I've never taken an overnighter on a train. And I doubt I ever will, sleeper or no.

The longest afternoon/evening and biggest vacation blunder of my entire life was taking the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Houston. The trip was supposed to last 9 hours (noon till 9pm), so didn't think a sleeper was even necessary. Train left right on time out of New Orleans. However, there is a huge freight yard just outside of NOLA, and we were stopped for half an hour waiting for clearance.

Once we got going again, we had to stop for every single freight train, because, as stated above, freight has the right of way in the US. And some of those freight trains are wwwaaaaaayyyy long!

We did decide to eat in the dining car, and though expensive, was worth it. Took the early seating (by the time signup reached us, it was either first seating or something like 7pm), and got the beauty of a sunset. Plus the company of a very nice couple who had just boarded the train and provided some interesting and fun conversation.

Then....boredom. Absolute, complete, overwhelming, suicide inducing B O R E D O M! I tried to read, but with the jostling of the train (the engineer knew he was late into Houston so every chance he could, he was pushing the train as fast as possible) and other passengers attempting to walk down the aisles, I gave up. I tried to write in my journal, but the train was swaying so badly I couldn't write one line. I finally dug out my cell phone and played the games on it until I wore down the battery. And we were STILL 3 hours out of Houston....maybe...could be...can't tell for sure.

Train travellers (in coach, anyway) travel very differently than what I'm used to. Sleeping bags, pillows, coolers - just about everything they own, and sprawled out everywhere. The bathrooms were horrid. I happened into one where some one had been extremely ill and could not get to another one. The stench still lives on though it's been over a year ago.

If the train I travel on is on the East Coast, I'll do it and gladly. East Coast trains are terrific! The long haul? No, thanks. I'll go by plane or take a long road trip.

Oh, and the amazing thing was this. I took the train out of NOLA on Wednesday afternoon, spent an entire day Thursday in Houston, spent the night in Houston, caught an early morning flight to SF and then into Orange county Friday, which is home. Spent the night in my own bed on Friday and was out and about doing errands on Saturday, when - WOW! - I was stopped at a railroad crossing for the Sunset Limited! All I could think was - "Those poor saps!"

Truthfully? There are people who enjoy train travel and those who don't. I don't consider myself a "Type A" personality, and if I have patience and love long road trips, then that certainly isn't it. For me, it was being cooped up in a confined space with absolutely nothing to do. (Not to worry, I got the same feeling at the end of a 19 hour plane flight as well) I can sleep under almost any circumstances, but for some reasons this train thing just bugged. If some one hasn't done it, I think they should try it. But keep in mind that it's an individual kind of thing.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 11:13 AM
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Ryan, I take your point: I'm not a wonk, I'm just opinionated So no, I don't have any hard figures (though I bet someone does). Just seems common sense to me that you can move a lot more people between cities on one train than in a whole passel of cars.

I'm with Orcas on this one.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 12:22 PM
  #24  
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Never again, and I only went from Toledo to Chicago.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 01:04 PM
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Like many of the other posters, I have experienced long delays. I have not had the experience of the terrible bathrooms that others have described. When I get on a train (and I do, often), I get on with the expectation it will be late and I am rarely "disappinted".

I still love train travel. One of the huge benefits is meeting a variety of great people from widely varying backgrounds. Another is the sightseeing along the way. Some AMTRAK routes are awesome and you can enjoy them as you never could if you were driving.

Having said all that, I still prefer VIARail in Canada to AMTRAK. They, too, are often late but their employees seem to have a committment to service that is rarely seen on AMTRAK. They also have rolling stock (train cars) with some character as opposed to the sterile AMTRAK cars.

To put my money where my mouth is, I have a double cross-country trip already planned for the fall. I'll be taking AMTRAK all the way across the country and VIARail all the way across Canada, plus some side trips, and I can hardly wait.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 02:29 PM
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My husband and I made a cross country Amtrak trip a few years ago. At that time, you could choose from any route and make three stops for a period of up to 90 days. We got a sleeper, and the price included meals.

We went from Chicago on a central route through Colorado to California and up the coast. The stopping points we chose were Portland, Seattle, and Glacier National Park; and we traveled home on a northern route that went along the Canadian border through North Dakota and Wisconsin and back to Chicago.

We had not been to the Pacific Northwest and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. I spent much of my time on board reading, while my people-loving husband spent most of his in the observation car chatting and playing cards. We enjoyed the scenery, the food was pretty good, and the service was quite satisfactory.

The only thing we would have changed, with hindsight, is to have flown home from Glacier. On the way out, everything was new and the scenery got steadily better. On the way back, it was old stuff and the scenery got more boring. It's not something we would do regularly, but we did meet people on the train who do.

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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 04:34 PM
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It's been a few years since I took my overnight train journey: Portland, OR to Whitefish, MO, then, 5 days later, Whitefish to Wash, DC. A few things stand out in my mind: wonderful sleeping from the motion of the train (yes, I got a sleeper). A family in the sleeper next to mine and the one across from that--parents and two kids, who kept shifting beds all night. Thinking that having the compartment for one was fine, but two would have been awfully claustrophobic with the upper bunk brought down. A funny combined toilet and shower. Breakfast table mate with bad body odor. Mediocre food. Caught up on lots of reading.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 04:52 PM
  #28  
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redshoe-

I've taken Amtrak from Boston->Houston roundtrip in 1991, when I was in college. I did it just for the fun of it. The 1st leg was Boston->Chicago, then 2nd leg was Chicago->Houston (via Dallas). Amtrak has since got rid of the Dallas->Houston route. I was in a coach seat for both trips. I can tell you, I would never do it again. It was fun for a college person, for one leg, but I was dreading the return trip just because it was so darn long and boring.
I had made photocopies of a state by state map, and followed it along which made it somewhat more interesting. The train also stopped for a little while in St. Louis, enough time for me to get on the platform and take a look at the Arch.

Anyhow, if you decide to do it, I hope you're only doing it one-way, because the return trip is really boring as the novelty has worn off.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 05:04 PM
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I love train travel in Europe (did an overnighter just this summer), but sad to say, Amtrak doesn't measure up.

Pluses & minuses:
Plus:
The scenery, depending on where you go (we did the Coast Starlight from L.A. to Seattle and back). Incredible
Some of the compartments: we couldn't get the family room (BIG) or the big compartments, but lucked out with the disabled room, since no one had booked it, and it was big and included a toilet.
Good wine & cheese tastings
Interesting entertainment (including a magician).
Don't have to fly or drive (both stressful).
Decent food
Showers and toilets, for the compartments, were nice and clean.

The minuses:
Very expensive
Boring (especially if you do it both ways)
Very long (2 days)
Never on time (much worse than Italian trains, which are sometimes on time)

Don't worry about the smoking -- no longer allowed (and the same now goes for Italy, surprise, surprise -- although it's not really enforced on the IR trains)

Back when I was really little, we used to take the SuperChief from L.A. to Chicago, then another train to Washington D.C., and those trains (pre-Amtrak) were fabulous; rooms larger and comfy and nice friendly porters and attendants. I only wish they'd go back to the old ways.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 05:17 PM
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You certainly have gotten enough replies, but I decided to add our experience. We took the Empire Builder from St. Paul, MN to East Glacier, got off for 4 days, then back on to Seattle. It was wonderful for so many reasons. It was less than wonderful for some other reasons. We got a sleeper with bath/shower. The only sleepers with bath/shower are two and one half bunks so we had two in each bunk. Very tight. I really didn't sleep but I liked being able to go to the bathroom in our private quarters. I especially liked it when my daughter (then 8) had to use the bathroom when we were out and about and used the train's public bathroom. It was disgusting with feces, etc.

The food was worse than mediocre. When you are in the sleeping cars you receive free meals in the dining car. The scenery in the dining car was wonderful when we went from Glacier heading to Seattle.

Our sleeping room was extremely tight. My husband made the comment that having big feet (size 13 poor guy!) was not conducive to train travel, but I replied "having feet is not conducive to train travel."

It was nice that we could play card games, etc. while looking at beautiful and sometimes breathtaking scenery. My kids absoulutely loved it. My daughter wanted to have lemonade stands for the whole summer to pay for another train trip.

I am picky. Super picky. Would I do it again? Maybe. There is something about train travel.......Good luck! I just think that Amtrak could make it so much better. Oh, I haven't any idea how anyone could take a shower. The shower is in the toilet area which when you shut the door....well it is probably as big if not smaller than an airplane's bathroom, so you would be showering over the toilet, everything. None of us ever took a shower. At least if we go again, I will know what to expect which really is important. Unrealized expectations are what ruins a vacation. Let us know what you decide.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 06:13 PM
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I'm sorry, but if travel includes spending a night on the train it just isn't very pleasant even if you have a sleeping room. Also, most trains are old and ill-kept and too many of the staff are slackers. One is paying a big price in a sleeping car, and the service and class just isn't there. Maybe it's a different story for coach on a short trip.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 06:44 PM
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Jimshep, Not to sound like a broken record, but our experiences were not as yours. The Chicago Boston run we took about 5 yrs ago was a new train and the attendant in the car we were in was no slacker. He was an amazing fellow who kept our kids entertained and delighted all with his smiles.
For the NW run between Seattle and Portland, Amtrak bought several "Talgos" from Italy. (I think that is what they are called.) These cars are roomy and comfortable.

As to the person complaining about the showers, we did take showers, no problem, even though the shower stall included the toilet. The head was removable, like in Europe. It was like being on a yacht, with every square inch being used.

We didn't consider jamming all four of us in one car. The kids had a less expensive sleeper with single bunks. We had the space with the 2 1/2 beds. My husband is tall, so he had the bottom double part of the bunk bed.

We had a tv with movies, space for reading, tables for cards, and the incredibly friendly car attendant mentioned above. We had long meals. We had an interesting time.

One must check out each train and each run. One should make one's decisions on research, not the anecdotal reports of others. Apparently there are variations in quality and also what people find acceptable.
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Old Aug 13th, 2004, 07:23 PM
  #33  
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Well, the train from Chicago to Dallas would be the Texas Eagle- I believe one person so far has ridden that train.

Wow- I have lots to think about- Maybe I should just do a one way-be sure to get a sleeper and hope for the best. If I go via train I'll be traveling with my 14 month old- which I'm hoping will be easier on him than air travel (and easier on fellow passengers) But I'm trying to weigh the travel times.

Thanks for all the "secrets"- sounds as if our train travels sure could use some improvements.
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Old Aug 14th, 2004, 06:17 AM
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There are NO redeeming qualities to traveling by AMTRAK. NONE! I have had some of my worst travel experiences on AMTRAK. In fact, I strongly suggest you avoid any AMTRAK train on which I am a passenger as there is bound to be some type of problem.

Highlights would include:
1. AMTRAK train blows through the BWI station stop on way from DC to NYC. Operator realizes error further up the line and spends 1/2 hour backing up the train to get to the station. Train delayed almost an hour.
2. No A/C in summer or too much heat in winter. This seems to be the norm. On one particularly bad trip, I had to go between cars every 15 minutes to avoid frying.
3. Standing room only. Again, seems to be the norm on Friday afternoons on Northeast corridor trains. Worth it to pay for a seat on a Metroliner.
4. And last, but certainly not least...12 hours from DC to NYC in January 1996 after the big blizzard. Problem was not due to the snow, but several broken down trains we got stuck behind and electrical problems on several portions of track. Dead stop for over an hour at one point in NJ. No food left, no water, nothing.

I now avoid AMTRAK at all costs unless it is an absolute emergency and no other option is available.
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Old Aug 14th, 2004, 03:55 PM
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Please read our recent train experience that I posted on this forum under "Amtrak Itinerary Critque with 85 yo." You can find this by posting Amtrak and reviews will come up. We were seasoned Amtrak travelers and had traveled all over the USA in the eighties and early ninties. Our recent experience was a nightmare. Our last long trip was with VIA rail in Canada and it was a pleasant experienc. Also suggest you go on Yahoo search engine and type in Amtrak Complaints. You will be surprised.
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Old Aug 14th, 2004, 04:38 PM
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Redshoe, I think your idea of going 1 way by train (other by flying?) is excellent. As you can see, there has been a variety of opinions about Amtrak. If you like it, you can always go again. If you DON'T like it, maybe you'll give it another try in the future (or not). That way, even if you find you greatly dislike it, you won't be stuck on a return trip you hate.

Keep in mind that around Christmas & NewYears are VERY heavy Amtrak travel times ... you may wish to avoid the days the closest to the two holidays.
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Old Aug 14th, 2004, 06:33 PM
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I think this goes to show you that people have different experiences on Amtark. Suggestion: If you've never exposed yourself to Amtrak before, take a really short trip first and, if you pay big bucks for a sleeping room, don't expect to sleep well or get great service. Here is a place where First Class means something other than what it means elsewhere.
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Old Aug 16th, 2004, 09:19 AM
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Follow-up post for our readers(!):
The NY Sunday Times travel section yesterday covered 3 different train journeys (Coast Starlight, Moscow to St Petersburg, and train to Machu Picchu.

See <http://travel.nytimes.com/pages/travel/index.html> -- you may need to register, but it's free.
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Old Aug 16th, 2004, 09:38 AM
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If I were you, I would strongly consider flying instead. We took Amtrak from Durham, NC to NYC and back with a 4-yr old. The ride up was fine, although long. The ride back was much more crowded, and some of the people were so unpleasant with their infants (practically beating them) that we reported them to train staff, and I actually thought hard about notifying a police officer at one of the long stops. I wouldn't expect your experience to duplicate mine, but consider the length of the trip. Our 4-yr. old did exceptionally well, but she is not 14 months old, and she loves to travel. I would not consider such a long journey with our 1-yr. old. I am guessing that you would also end up on crowded trains if traveling during the Christmas season. We returned home on the Friday before Easter, which definitely increased the crowding. We would do it again in certain situations for the cost alone, but flying saves so much time.
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Old Aug 16th, 2004, 01:20 PM
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I think this thread has also shown you that people's experiences are also tied to their expectations of service and if someone gets crappy service on Amtrak, especially if they've paid a good bit of money, then they have a valid reason to be dissatisfied. However, that doesn't mean that Amtrak's service is uniformly bad. Just like restaurants, it depends on the staff. Some Amtrak attendants are surly and unhelpful and some go above and beyond the call of duty. Amtrak has hundreds of runs per day and there's no way that they're all bad.

As for boredom, that's also an individual thing. I've never been bored on a train. I take my music, games, puzzle books, and reading. Maybe I'm more easily entertained than others.

I've also never had trouble sleeping on a train. I sleep like a log and I'm a person who wakes up several times during the night at home.

Personally, I wouldn't take Amtrak during the holiday season. The holiday crowds are quite taxing on an underfunded system. However, if you decide to do it and it's a bad experience, I would hope that you wouldn't write off Amtrak after one bad trip.
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