Trip Report - My Great American Train Trip

Old Apr 19th, 2011, 08:43 AM
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Trip Report - My Great American Train Trip

As a railroad buff, I try to take at least one cross country train trip every year. For me, travel by train is a luxury I could not often make the time for before I retired but can indulge myself with now.

I'll break this report into logical (to me, at least) segments but first, a few general comments and observations.

This trip took me from my home northeast of Las Vegas to Orange County, Calif by car, to New Orleans, Chicago, and then back to California by train. I drove from Orange County to San Diego for a few days and then returned home. All in all, my trip encompassed twenty days, 1,268 road miles, and 5,450 rail miles.

I enjoy good food but I've been on a weight loss regimen for the past several months so I tried to balance both by eating a few good meals but also being sensible for most of the trip. In this report, I'll describe a few of the meals that I particularly enjoyed but I doubt if any of you will be interested in my descriptions of the many turkey and chicken sandwiches and salads I also had. That seemed to work out well since, even with the indulgences I describe later in this report, I only gained 3 1/2 pouds during the trip.

I am a member of the Marriott Hotels rewards program which provides me many travel perks. For that reason, I use Marriott properties when it makes sense to do so and, on this trip, I stayed in Marriott Courtyards at each of my destinations. This brand has an excellent set of standards for their franchisees. In Orange County, I stayed at the Foothill Ranch property , the warehouse district property in New Orleans, and the Rancho Bernardo property in San Diego.

Sometime in the next few days, I will process and post some of the photos I made during the trip. When I do, I'll put a link to them on this topic.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 08:58 AM
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Ooooh! This is going to be good! Looking forward to this trip report!
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 09:05 AM
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Looking forward to your report with pictures.
It's nice to have another Amtrak advocate here on the forums.
There are a few here on the forums (I won't name names) that whenever Amtrak is mentioned say something about late trains as if airplanes were never late or canceled.
In the last 9.5 years I've traveled over 20,000 miles by rail in the US and Canada. Sure wish they had a North America Railpass still.
Did you have a 15, 30 or 45 day USA Railpass?
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 09:15 AM
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Before I get into the destination parts of this report and since, for me, getting there is half the fun, a few words about my AMTRAK experiences on this trip.

Even before the trip began, I had problems with my routing. This was not AMTRAK's fault but it was still a disappointment. My original rail routing was to be Salt Lake City-San Francisco-Los Angeles-New Orleans-Chicago-Salt Lake City. Because of heavy snow in the Sierras, the rail lines were closed to all freight and passenger traffic and so, at the last minute, I had to reroute. That was easy enough to do but it forced me to miss the two most scenic segments of my planned trip - the High Sierras and the Rocky Mountains.

Since my home is equidistant from Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, it was as easy to go to LA to start the trip. My final routing was LA-NOLA-CHI-LA.

The on-time record was mixed. The Sunset Limited was two hours late into New Orleans due to a mechanical problem in San Antonio. The City of New Orleans arrived in Chicago ten minutes early and the Southwest Chief was 5 minutes late into LA. I go into every train trip knowing there can be delays and I view it as an opportunity to spend a little more time on the train so, for me, delays are not a problem unless they cause connection problems.

Service quality was also mixed. On the first two legs, service was excellent. On the Chicago-LA leg, both dining car and sleeping car personnel were not as friendly or outgoing and, in some cases, bordered on rude.

AMTRAK food was about as it has been for the past several years - good but not great. I do enjoy dining with a variety of people during the trip. It is always interesting to hear each different set of traveller's experiences and backgrounds. This trip was no exception with a family from Australia making an extensive American tour, three ladies on their way to a business conference, a newly retired couple from Palm Beach on their first train trip, and a lady writer from Missouri.

My old bones are getting too brittle to tolerate sitting up all night in coach cars so, I always get a sleeper when I'm going to be on a train overnight or even deep into the night. I know some people find them cramped and uncomfortable but I do not. In fact, I seem to sleep better on the train than I do at home. Maybe it's the rocking motion.

Along the way, I saw deer, pronghorn antelope, eagles, hawks, vultures, and a variety of small birds as well as a constantly changing panorama of the country.

As with all the other train trips I've taken, I enjoyed this one very much and I'm ready to go again.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 09:18 AM
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Tom and Starrs - thanks for the comments. No, it never occurred to me to look into a rail pass. Since I always book sleepers, I hadn't thought of that but I will the next time.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 09:34 AM
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Hello dwooddon, as a train lover, although I haven't been on one in ages, I am enjoying reading your comments and look forward to the rest of your trip report!
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 09:56 AM
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Maybe someday I'll be rich enough to ride in a sleeper.
Our last 30 day pass took us from Albany Oregon - Washington-Kissemmee Florida- Albuquerque-Victorville (family)- Albany OR
We also made a stop at Fresno and rented a car to go see Yosemite. Flying to all those places would have cost a fortune.
A secret not all Amtrak passengers don't know- When the conductor lifts your coach ticket ask if there are any unsold sleepers. The conductors have the right to sell you an unsold sleeper at a discount on the spot.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 02:51 PM
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Great start to your report -- Really looking forward to the rest. I have relatives who were railway workers back over 3 generations. Have you been to the Railway Museum up here in Sacramento? It (and the one in York England) is really terrific.

"It's nice to have another Amtrak advocate here on the forums. There are a few here on the forums (I won't name names) that whenever Amtrak is mentioned say something about late trains as if airplanes were never late or canceled."

(OK Tom - why not name names?? You mean me. I have taken many rail trips both in the States and in Europe, and usually enjoy them. But I definitely DON'T recommend Amtrak 1) if a trip is at all time-sensitive, 2) to get back and forth across the Central Valley to places like Yosemite or Sequoia, and 3) When they just don't make sense for the itinerary)
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 03:45 PM
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Hi Janis - yep, I have visited the California Railway Museum a number of times over the years. For those who have not seen it and like trains, it is great.

About ten years ago, a neighbor of my ex-wife knew I was a train freak. When he died, he left a note asking that several marked boxes in his garage be given to me. When I opened them, I found hundreds of photos and news clippings of rolling stock, depots, and train accidents, mostly from the steam era.

After savoring them for about a year, I thought they might be a pretty good research resource and I contacted the librarian at the CRM. They wanted them and so, I donated them and they now reside in the stacks in Sacramento.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 03:52 PM
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Yes janisj you are the most noteworthy of the Amtrak critics.
I seem to remember someone else who never has anything good to say about Amtrak. Sorry you have soured on Amtrak.
The earliest Amtrak train I was ever on pulled into Sacramento 45 minutes early at 5:30AM. The latest train I was ever on was the Canadian from Winnipeg to Jasper. It was 16 hours late into Winnipeg because of snow on the signals in Western Ontario.
I could never afford to fly to half the places I've been using North America and now USA Railpasses. I retired 6 years ago this month.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 04:11 PM
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Although I visted Orange County at the beginning of my trip and San Diego at the end, I will combine my comments in this post.

My primary reason for these destinations was to visit old friends so I don't have much of a touristy nature on which to comment.

The road trip in was a breeze, aside from all those desert miles that had to be traversed. It took about 5.5 hours and it was pretty much at the speed limit or above. The trip home was a bit more problematic. I traveled on a Sunday and I expected traffic to be light in that direction. Think again, cowboy! Traffic volume was heavy all the way from San Bernardino to the Nevada state line. To compound that, there was some sort of a law enforcement problem east of Barstow and it took about 45 minutes to travel 3 miles. I'm glad it wasn't 110 degrees.

Spring is a good time to make this trip. Once you get off the desert and into the foothills of Cajon Pass, the hills are ablaze with California Poppies, Mustard plants, and a variety of wildflowers. The closer you get to the coast, the more dramatic that becomes.

In Orange County, I stayed in Foothill Ranch, adjacent to Mission Viejo. It's centrally located for the people I visited and it's like coming home.

I had to change my train tickets because of the rescheduling so I stopped at the San Juan Capistrano depot to do that. While I was there, I took about an hour to wander around the Los Rios district in old San Juan. Although it is still a living community where people work, sleep, and eat, it has been maintained in much the same style as the early days. It's quaint, quiet and peaceful and I always enjoy spending time there.

On another day, friends and I visited Dana Point Marina for lunch and to enjoy the view of boats a surf board paddlers in the channel. We ate at the Wind and Sea (as we always do when I'm there) and the sea food salad is generous and terrific.

Rancho Bernardo is a convenient place for me to stay in San Diego. While I was there, I ate at Hacienda de Vega, my favorite Mexican restaurant in the world. I had shrimp in tequila sauce with rice and corn tortillas - delicisioso! I also ate in the dining room at the hotel one evening and had surpising good lamb chops.

A friend and I visited Coronado Island and I was able to get some pretty good photographs of the San Diego skyline, the USS Midway aircraft carrier, and the Coronado ferry landing. We ate at Candelas Alta Cocina right at the ferry landing and it was also superb in every way. Service as attentive and my grilled shrimp tacos (are you detecting a pattern here?) were excellent. My friend had giant prawns over a slice of ahi tuna drenched in tequila sauce and he said it was very good also.

All in all, it was a great visit to both areas I called home for many years and to see friends out of my deep past. My only regret was my sister and her husband, who still live in Orange County, were on a trip of their own and I was unable to see them this trip.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 04:13 PM
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dwooddon: Oh that is a wonderful story. Do you know if any of the material is on display or mainly in the research files.

Hopefully the city will get their act together and start restoring the historic shop bldgs. They will be a terrific addition to the Museum.

Tom: read what folks write - will ya?? I am not soured on Amtrak -- but there are times and places it simply doesn't make sense. I don't advise every single person who posts a question that they are better off on Amtrak than renting a car. One size does NOT fit all . . .
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 04:18 PM
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I didn't see your new entry (we were posting at the same time). It has been years and years since I've been in San Juan C. Been meaning to get back there -
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 04:23 PM
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Janis - I beleive it is all in the research library.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 01:45 AM
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Thanks for posting this report. And I am glad to hear that your rail delays weren't nearly as bad as some on AMTRAK have been historically.

I have to agree with you about both the food and service aspects being mixed. BTW, have you ever taken VIARAIL's Canadian from Toronto-Vancouver or vice versa? I've done that trip several times and will be doing it again this coming August (I'm also doing the Sunset/Texas Eagle combo in Feb 2012 from LAX to Chicago with the long sleeping car layover in San Antonio).

Anyway, the Canadian equipment (vintage and well-maintained/renovated) sleeping cars (traditional roomettes, doubles, and a couple of the old "drawing rooms") are wonderful as are the dome cars. The on-board personnel are uniformly excellent and the food is so many cuts ABOVE AMTRAK it is almost worth the cost alone.

Again, thanks for posting and glad you had a great trip.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 05:55 AM
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As someone who will take the train even when it doesn't make sense for the itinerary, I enjoyed reading about your experience. It sounds like Amtrak was actually rather on-time for you; it occasionally happens to me too (although I always mentally prepare myself for 4 hours late beforehand, it helps keep me patient during delays, and if the train is on-time, I view it as a happy surprise!).

Look forward to hearing about your stays in New Orleans & Chicago!

Daniel
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 06:52 AM
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Dukey - I have taken the Canadian between Vancouver and Edmonton and I agree with your comments. The Canadian is not the only route that uses the restored 1950's Budde stainless steel cars. The Skeena, arguably the most scenic cross-country train trip in North America, and the Ocean use them as well. The Skeena runs between Jasper and Prince Rupert with an overnight stop in Prince George so you travel the entire width of the Canadian Rockies in daylight hours (at least during the summer). The Ocean runs from Montreal to Halifax and has sleeping cars since it continues during the night.

For those who have not been on them, the stainless steel cars are a wonder. They harken back to a period when train travel was an elegent and luxurious experience primarily enjoyed by the privileged. The dining cars have table areas separated by etched glass partitions and use real china plates, cups and saucers. The lounge cars at the end of each train are tear drop ends and have the old sight-seeing domes (see http://www.viarail.ca/en/about-via-r...yline-dome-car). I have not noticed much difference in the interior style or comfort of the sleeping accomodations between Viarail and Amtrak.

I also agree with the sense of your comment that Viarail, on an average day, exceeds the standard of serice and quality of food Amtrak provides on its best day. That being said, it does not prevent me from enjoying the experience that Amtrak provides.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 06:58 AM
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The link in my previous post was for a dome car, not a parlor car. The correct link is http://www.viarail.ca/en/about-via-r...fleet/park-car.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 07:43 AM
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My stay in New Orleans was the longest period of the trip and centered on the annual French Quarter Fest. Because of its length, I'll use this post to discuss FQF and the next one to discuss the rest of my visit to NOLA.

FQF is an annual event celebrating music and food held in Jackson Square and at stages all around the rest of the French Quarter and the riverfront. I've attended in a number of previous years and have always enjoyed it very much but I'm afraid it has become a victim of its own success. In the words of that great American poet, Yogi Berra, "it's so crowded, nobody goes there no more".

This year's official estimate of the crowd is 533,000. In a compact area, that's too many for my taste. Unlike previous years I attended, it was very difficult to move around or to the various stages and much more difficult to find a vantage point that offered good perspective for photography.

Since there are more than a dozen acts performing at any given time on the various stages, you have to pick and choose which you will see. For me that is especially difficult because many of the bands are local and I'm not familiar with them. I'm sure I missed a lot of music I would have enjoyed but I do the best I can with the time available.

The act I enjoyed the most this year was the Victory Belles (http://www.nationalww2museum.org/vic...ry-belles.html). They are a three woman singing and dancing group put together by the World War II Museum and are accompanied by a small band. At the beginning of the show, the band performs up-tempo WWII classics and the ladies dance with members of the audience. For the second half, the ladies are on stage singing other such classics in three part harmony. If you ever get the chance to see them, it is worth the effort.

Ingrid Lucia is a local New Orleans jazz singer who has made a number of CD's and I think I have every one of them. I make a point of seeing her on each visit and she never disappoints. Other favorites of mine this year were the Preservation Hall Jazz band, the Tim Laughlin band, and an R&B group called the Revealers. I do not normally enjoy R&B and would not have seen this act had they not been performing in the same area, just prior to Ingrid Lucia's performance. They were very good and had many of the audience dancing in front of the stage and throughout the crowd.

The other focus of French Quarter Fest is food. Many of the most famous dining places in NOLA rent tent-like booths around the fringes of the performing areas and serve small portions of two or three of their favorite foods at reasonable prices. There are, I guess, hundreds of these tents in the performance areas and by touring all of them, you could get a very good sample of all that NOLA has to offer in the way of food. There are also a number of such tents offering beer or daquiris but I have never seen a problem at FQF with drunken rowdys. The FQF itself has a number of booths where you can purchase memorabelia of the fest such as posters, t-shits, caps, pins, and other such gee-gaws.

Even with the crowds, I enjoyed my visit to FQF very much and would recommend it to everyone who likes New Orleans music styles, food, or both.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 07:48 AM
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The discussioon of the memorabelia available should have read ... t-shirts... Whoops!
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