Posts Tagged ‘amtrak’

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Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Life on board the train

May 11th, 2019

Amtrak
 

I assume most people have never ridden the California Zephyr route — if they’ve ever been on Amtrak at all. This post is for those curious about what life is like aboard the train. It’s an important consideration since the entire route is a serious time commitment at around 52 hours.

From Chicago heading west the trains quickly became less crowded. The train was full in Chicago but had plenty of empty seats by the time we reached Omaha. Aside from April not being peak travel season, I suspect Amtrak is a more typical form of travel for those east of the Mississippi.

As for what to do on the train, I’d recommend downloading some TV shows or movies onto a laptop or tablet. Over the course of the trip I had enough time to read two books and start a third, but a few sections of the train track are too bumpy to make reading a pleasant experience.

Another thing to do is plan adventures your for your next destination — particularly when there’s wifi or at least cell service. I figured out details like how I was going to get around, booked tickets for tours and events, found unusual sights to see, etc. I wouldn’t recommend booking accommodations at the last minute though, nor anything that could sell out months in advance.

 
California Zephyr
Crossing the Mississippi River
 

The most obvious thing to do is look out the window. The lounge car is built specifically for this since the windows are very large and you can go downstairs to the cafe for drinks and snacks. But really there’s a good view from any upstairs window seat.

Occasionally we got an announcement about what we were seeing, such as when we went over the Mississippi River. For the most part when I was curious about what I was seeing I relied on Google Maps.

At least one group of people on each train I was on took a booth on the lounge car and passed the time with card games. A deck of playing cards can be purchased from the cafe.

 
California Zephyr
Coach legroom with my backpack
 

Even at its most packed the coach section is roomy, with big aisles and plenty of legroom. When the seat next to me was empty I’d often stretch out and use all the space, which felt surprisingly luxurious. In coach from what I understand you can switch seats whenever you like as long as you stay in the same car and move the destination card above the seat with you. Be warned that if you switch cars you could miss your stop — passengers are assigned cars by destination, and not all doors open at every stop!

I have less to say about my two nights on the sleeper cars because, well, I was asleep. Yes they’re a little cramped, though comfortable enough. In general I had no problems sleeping in a roomette aside from getting jolted awake a couple times. To reduce noise I brought along “Leight Sleeper” brand foam earplugs. The train announcements stop during the night so people can sleep without interruption, though the train whistle still goes off throughout the night for safety reasons.

While in the sleeper cars I always set an alarm on my phone to wake up in time. Conductors go around knock on doors to wake people up before their stop, though I wanted to wake up a little early for a shower and breakfast.

There was only one part of the trip where we were told not to move between cars; inside the Moffat Tunnel between Denver and Salt Lake City. It’s a long tunnel and the ventilation is bad, so if anyone opened the doors between cars it might fill up with diesel smoke.

Every few hours at a stop we’d be invited to exit the train for a “fresh air break,” which in practice was mostly a chance for smokers to take a quick cigarette break on the station platform. That said it’s a good chance to go stretch your legs and take photos.

In the cafe, nearly everything is prepackaged and the food is often microwavable (they work the microwave for you.) It’s somewhat overpriced and disappointingly is not open 24/7. You can allegedly order “meals” here but they’re ghastly smelling TV dinners. The worst thing I personally ate from the cafe was a bagel, a chewy mess.

 
Amtrak breakfast
Dining car early breakfast
 

The dining car is a step up from the cafe. It’s included if you’re in a sleeper (but bring cash for a tip) or as a paid option in coach. Not the most exciting menu, but it meets most diets. Unlike on an airline it’s served on plates with metal knives and forks. There’s even a tablecloth! Don’t get me wrong though, the food’s more like Applebee’s than a gourmet restaurant.

The worst item I tried on the menu were the salads, all of which came with wilted lettuce; they should have taken them off the menu. The best item was the baked potato side dish. The after dinner deserts were all fine, but I only ordered them so I’d have an excuse to stick around and chat.

All tables on the dining car are communal, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ride. If you’re traveling as a couple or group you’ll get seated together, but those of us traveling alone could get seated anywhere. This is an underrated aspect of dining on Amtrak — meeting random people on the train. The conversation starters are obvious:

“So where are you going?”
“..and why Amtrak?”

A surprising number of my fellow passengers were just like me: those who’d never been on Amtrak before, but were curious to try it. It doesn’t bode well for Amtrak’s California Zephyr if most of the passengers are new rather than loyal riders. I’d expected the typical rider would be older men afraid of flying; yet I only met one passenger who fit that profile during the entire trip.

Another surprise was how many passengers were heading to San Francisco. I didn’t want to play tour guide since I was on vacation myself, but I did answer some basic questions. This worked out fine as nearly everyone had a concrete plan already. Mostly the SF-bound crowd only wanted to chat about their plans or to ask simple advice like where to find good coffee near their hotel.

The entire time I was in the dining cars I couldn’t help but to worry about my backpack, especially if it was in coach. In practice Amtrak seems relatively secure, though if they had private lockers it would have given me more peace of mind.

 
Amtrak
A scenic fresh air break
 

Tipping is an aspect of Amtrak I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s straightforward enough in the dining car if you treat it like any other restaurant. Still, what do you tip the conductors? They accept tips in cash when they greet you as you leave the train. It never felt mandatory to me in coach, but on the sleeper cars conductors do everything from making the beds to making coffee.

I’m not very good at remembering to carry cash so unfortunately I only tipped the second sleeper car conductor. I gave him $20. Was that the right amount? Hell if I know. Just because I’m American doesn’t mean I understand all of our tipping practices.

It’s worth pointing out that food on the dining cars — but not alcohol — is included in the price for sleeper passengers. You just write your car and room number down similar to how you’d bill something to your room at a hotel. However this doesn’t mean tips are included, and the only option is to tip in cash. This is a little confusing since you won’t see a bill, you’ll just have to remember the menu price of what you order and tip accordingly.

 
Amtrak
 

Conclusion

The big question is, would I do it again? The answer is yes and no. Yes, I’d consider riding Amtrak again, but not this route. Why? Three reasons. First, I’ve already done it, so if I took another Amtrak trip like this I’d go on a different route and visit new places. Second, my favorite stops by far on the trip were Chicago and Denver, and both of those are far away enough it’s faster and cheaper to fly.

The third reason I wouldn’t repeat this route is a personal one: of all the major stops for travelers on this Amtrak route, the last destination is where many are headed for their trip: San Francisco. As I went across the Bay Bridge on an Amtrak shuttle bus from Emeryville to San Francisco I couldn’t help to watch other passengers marvel at the city skyline and try to spot Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

Yet all I could think about was going back to work on Monday. I was the only passenger who left the bus at the first stop, the Temporary Transbay Terminal. Everyone else was headed to a hotel — where my vacation ended, theirs was just beginning. I couldn’t help but to feel jealous.

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Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Tickets, scheduling, stations, and boarding

May 10th, 2019

Amtrak
One of many views along the way
 

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the California Zephyr’s schedule is very inflexible. Each stop gets one train per day, per direction. This is not a commuter train.

While planning my trip I purchased the majority of my train tickets directly from Amtrak’s website. These tickets appeared in the Amtrak app on my phone. To make sure internet access wouldn’t be an issue I saved the tickets to Apple Wallet. I assume there’s a similar option on Android.

I purchased one ticket through Amtrak Vacations — the official third party travel agent for Amtrak — because I had a gift certificate from them. They typically arrange package deals but will purchase any Amtrak tickets you’d like as part of a “custom” trip. The price is no different than booking through Amtrak itself. I had to call them to buy tickets, which they emailed to me. The only real downside is you can’t load these tickets onto the Amtrak app.

The total cost for all the Amtrak segments from Chicago back to San Francisco was $602 with an early booking discount. That included three coach tickets and two overnight roomette sleeper tickets.

 
Amtrak app
 

The Amtrak app was a must-have for checking train arrival times, I found it very accurate. Whenever my train was running late I’d go have a coffee or something before heading over to the station.

As mentioned above the app also displays your tickets. The tickets themselves are QR-style codes scanned with a handheld device.
 

Boarding worked differently at each station. The gist of it is that someone scans your ticket, hands you a boarding slip with your destination on it, and directs you to a certain car. Usually your conductor meets you at the door.

The stations vary significantly as well. Some are old stations which serve (or served) multiple passenger rail lines, dubbed union stations back in the day. Others are nothing more than a small waiting room.

 
Union Station, Chicago
 

In Chicago I waited in the Grand Hall of the old Union Station until my train was called. True to Chicago’s form the station is at least two buildings with an underground “pedway” connecting them. From the waiting area they walked us to our trains in a cavernous underground station where they scanned our tickets.

I have to admit this is a confusing station, many of the signs seem confused as well. Fortunately Amtrak has staff to help find your way around. The newer part of the station has a newsstand and a basic mall-like food court. It’s nothing special, I’d recommend going outside for better food and shopping options.

 
California Zephyr
 

Omaha’s old Union Station is now a museum, so Amtrak has a tiny station without much going on. It’s not a major stop but it’s big enough to have an indoor waiting area with a heater.

When the train arrived a conductor jumped off and called us outside. There were maybe 10 people tops so it didn’t take long to scan everyone’s tickets.

 
Denver's Union Station
 

Denver’s old Union Station isn’t nearly as large as Chicago’s, but it’s completely different. For one thing the interior is filled with shops, upscale dining options, and even a hotel. I considered eating at the station a couple times but it was always too busy.

I asked how to board at the Amtrak window, they directed me to a platform where a line of passengers were already waiting in line for the same train.

 
Amtrak SLC
 

In Salt Lake City I might be a little fuzzy on the details because the train was running super late; I think I boarded after 2 AM. It’s a slightly larger version of the Omaha station.

A few people wandered in who had some kind of Greyhound voucher which they exchanged for Amtrak tickets. The conductor scanned everyone’s ticket, told us all to stay inside until he called our group; which everyone promptly ignored and went outside. In fairness I’m sure all the passengers were all as tired as I was.

 
Amtrak's Reno station
 

Reno’s station layout is pretty strange, but essentially you wait in the “basement” next to the sunken railroad tracks. The guy who took my ticket told me which train car to get on relative to the end of the train (this confused many people) and the conductor of that car assigned a seat to me. While sleeper cars are always assigned, this is the first time I had an assigned seat on coach. Realistically you could sit wherever, the “assignments” were not enforced and there were plenty of empty seats.

The weirdest element of the Reno station is in the photo above: there’s an elevator intentionally blocked off by a row of chairs. Fortunately it’s not the only elevator.
 

Of course, not all stations are as large as these. Many stops in small towns are nothing more than couple benches next to sign bearing the Amtrak logo. As a general rule the larger stations tend to be at stops with luggage service.

If I had one piece of advice for Amtrak here it would be this: the boarding procedures should be more straightforward and remain as consistent as possible between stations. Anything to reduce passengers’ cognitive load is welcome… especially when their train arrives at 2 AM.

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Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: The trains

May 8th, 2019

Amtrak
 

As I outlined in my first post about the trip, in spring 2019 I took a trip across America via train on the California Zephyr route with stops in Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Omaha before returning home to San Francisco. In this blog post I’ll go over the trains themselves before delving into other aspects of traveling this route in future posts.

On the California Zephyr Amtrak has to share all the rails with slow moving freight trains, which often leads to delays. There are only a few sections where they can floor it and make up for lost time — and even those sections aren’t exactly high speed. On straighter sections of the track the trains can hit about 80 MPH at most, but on the winding, curved sections of track it may go as low as about 35 MPH. (Take these measurements with a grain of salt as I came up with them from an app on my phone.)

The train layout is relatively straightforward. In the front are two massive engines. Following the engines is the luggage car, which can be used for checked bags if and only if you’re starting and stopping at stations which provide luggage service. Next are the Superliner cars: the sleeper cars, dining car, the lounge/cafe car, and the coach cars.

The way the passenger cars connect on a Superliner is a bit unique. They’re all double decker train cars and the only passageway between cars is on the second level. Downstairs there’s areas for passengers with disabilities, bathrooms, the cafe on the lounge car, or the staff-only kitchen area on the dining car. If you’re in a roomette the shower is on the lower level.

For most of the trip I rode coach. In many ways coach on Amtrak is nicer than what you’d find on airlines; every seat is either a window or aisle seat, and they all have a generous amount of legroom. There’s an outlet for each seat to charge your phone or laptop.

 
Amtrak Roomette Amtrak Superliner Roomette
Superliner Roomette: Day vs. night configuration
 

I spent two nights sleeping on the train in private “roomettes,” tiny rooms with blackout curtains and fold-out beds in the sleeper cars. These are worth considering if you’re a light sleeper and have trouble getting a full night’s sleep in coach.

Each roomette can fit two able-bodied people with a bunk bed, and even features a tiny closet with hangers. Larger rooms are available for families and groups, but they cost more.

Although fairly comfortable and clean, the coach and sleeper cars look old and aren’t always well maintained. The worst thing I saw was a toilet seat that wasn’t at all attached to the toilet.

 
California Zephyr
Enjoying a beer in the lounge
 

Anyone’s free to wander into the lounge and cafe car. Upstairs there’s large windows with skylights and two seating areas, one with booths and one with seats facing the windows.

The cafe is downstairs in the same car — it’s not really a cafe so much as a small convenience store. Depending on the model you’re riding, the cafe will either be a window where you order or a small room where you serve yourself and check out.

At least during my trip the dining car had freely open times for breakfast and lunch, for dinner the staff walked through the train to take reservations. Meal details were announced over the speakers throughout the train. On the dining car the waiters hang out near the center, communicating with the kitchen staff below. To be seated you have to walk up to them and ask for a table.

As for other amenities:

  • The trains have wifi… sometimes. I can’t blame Amtrak for this entirely but I blew through my T-Mobile monthly data cap both months during the trip.
  • The first sleeper car I rode in ran out of hot water before I had a chance to take a shower. The second one had hot water and it was glorious! There’s nothing quite like falling asleep in one place and waking up in another — but trust me, it’s so much better with a shower and change of clothes.
  • The biggest amenity is the windows. Unlike passenger jets there’s a clear view of everything outside as long as the sun’s out. On a route this long there’s plenty to see out there.
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Kicking off my trip across America

April 15th, 2019

"L" platform in the snow
“L” station platform in Chicago
 

Back in 2017 I found a crazy cheap flight to Barcelona and built a month-long trip to Spain, Italy, and Greece around that lucky find.

The following year my Greek friend invited me to his wedding, so I made a three week trip out of it to Stockholm, the Greek island of Hydra, and Oslo.

This year I wanted to do something a little different. For the longest time I’ve had the notion of taking one of those lengthy Amtrak trips across the country. There’s a certain old fashioned 19th century charm to the idea. (I guess “old fashioned charm” is one thing I have in common with the anti-vaxxer crowd, except I prefer not dying from measles.)

After weighing the options I decided on the California Zephyr route, which connects San Francisco (really Emeryville) to Chicago. Originally I planned to hop on the train in Emeryville and start heading east. But once I’d figured out where I’d like to stop along the way that plan didn’t make sense; each stop only sees one Zephyr train per day per direction, and in the eastbound direction many of the places I wanted to stop had very inconvenient times like 4 AM.

So I reversed my plans and decided to begin “Ameritrip 2019” by flying to Chicago and heading west, which has much more palatable stop times for all the places I’d like to see.

Last night my plane landed at Chicago Midway and I took the “L” to my Airbnb here in the Fulton River District, one stop away from The Loop. I’ll spend almost an entire week here before heading to Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno before returning home.

I’ll have more on visiting Chicago in the near future, for now all I’ll say is the weather had a big surprise in store: snow. Yes, it snowed in mid-April. Not only was I unprepared, I’ve never even seen snow fall from the sky in person, only its aftermath. I had no idea what to do at all so I followed the time honored strategy of looking at others and copying them. Here’s to hoping the rest of this leg of my trip will have more vacation-friendly weather.