Steve - for some reason, I never got around to sending your this trip report last year - this was our first Amtrak trip taken a year ago:
Friday, May 10, 1996: California Zephyr Emeryville, CA -> Chicago, IL
I've noticed that there are other trip reports that go into a great deal of detail about the routes I took, so I thought I would skip the details and just offer my observations.
This was my very first cross country train trip. My first observation after we got on the train (which was on time) was: Oh Gosh, did I overpack!!!! Those airline bags designed to fit into an overhead compartment WILL fit under the couch in the deluxe bedroom - AS LONG AS YOU DON'T OVERSTUFF THEM!!
Everyone one was quite courteous, our car attendant made sure that we were settled in and knew the workings of our deluxe bedroom, all that was left for us to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.
Somewhere out of Sacramento the train pulled over onto a siding and the conductor got out and kept looking under the carriage of the dining car (this is where a scanner would have come in handy!). After about an hours delay we were on the move again. It was time for our first trip to the dining car for lunch. The menu, although not 4 star restaurant quality, was pretty good. There was something for everyone. However, I was under the impression that the menu changed from day to day, but they used the same menu for the entire trip. What sounded GREAT for lunch on day 1 was beginning to become tedious by day 3. The trip through the Sierra's was absolutely spectacular, unfortunately, I am not able to do it justice - you'll have to go and see for yourself!
Sleeping on the train. By the time my husband and I were ready to turn in for the night, we had gotten onto some fairly rough track. If you are small enough and on good enough terms with your spouse, you might consider sharing the lower bunk rather than climbing up the ladder to the upper bunk. For some reason, the track roughness seem to be magnified from the upper bunk. Climbing down the ladder in the middle of the night is not for the faint-of-heart!! (note: sharing a lower bunk would not appear to me to be an option in the economy rooms, only the deluxe).
Our first breakfast out was quite an illuminating experience: don't travel coach unless you absolutely have to. While no one complained too loudly, our tablemates who had ridden coach during the night did not appear to have gotten as much rest as my tablemates who did have rooms. Additional tip; take your camera with you to the dining car, you never know when you're going to see spectacular scenery & wish you had your camera!! Also, ask for lemon in your water. Although the water is drinkable, it sometimes has a slightly stale taste (if you have room, bring some bottled water with you on the train as well!)
By the second day Jerry (my husband ) and I realized that we were running about 1 1/2 hours behind schedule and began to become concerned - we only had a 2 hour window to catch the "Twilight Limited" - the train between Chicago and Detroit. That 1 1/2 hours hung over our head the rest of the trip.
Day 2 was quite stunning - the eastern portion of Utah and all of Colorado. I thought the Sierra's were spectacular - but the Rockies are quite a sight as well. Most of the afternoon was spent following the course of the Colorado River. Warning to parents with small children: there are a lot of rafters on the Colorado river during the warm summer months. It appeared to be some type of "thing to do" - we got mooned 6 times!! My husband and I found it amusing to keep score - also we wondered about the advisability of standing up in a raft (they're not all that stable) for the sake of a joke - go figure!! Because we were running behind schedule - we didn't get to Denver until dinner time. What a spectacular sight coming out of the mountains and winding our way to Denver. I suspect that it is more spectacular if you hare headed east. One thing that disappointed me - because we were running behind schedule, the train was not washed while in Denver. The windows were pretty dirty after going through Moffit tunnel, I really wish they had taken the time to clean the train.
Although I'm a midwesterner, I found day 3 rather boring - one can only look at just so much flat farmland. The highlight of day 3 was crossing the Mississippi. The amazing thing to me was despite the fact that we had been over 1 1/2 hours late in Denver on day 2 - we actually pulled into Chicago's Union Station nearly on time!! (5 or 10 minutes late).
Sunday, May 12: Twilight Limited (Chicago to Detroit).
This train uses the single level coaches and had a snack car as well. Suggested travel tip: The line in the waiting room for this train was pretty long, and contained a lot of impatient, pushy (rude), people. If you can, upgrade to the Custom Class - it's not much more, but you get to board first and avoid the line of rampaging travelers.
Thursday, May 16 - Back to Chicago
Interesting Sights While in Chicago: On the trip back, Jerry and I decided to take the train back to Chicago a day earlier and spend the night at the Palmer House - which at one time had quite a reputation as a hotel with excellent food and service. Perhaps we went at a bad time, but the room was extremely overpriced ($200/night) and the food was edible but not memorable. Service was atrocious. When we arrived at the hotel in a cab we couldn't get a bellhop to help with our luggage, the lines at registration were long and the food servers while not rude didn't exactly go out of their way to give good service. Bottom line: if you were hoping to stay at the Palmer House in Chicago based on their former reputation, either brace yourself for disappointment or find a cheaper hotel!!
There are lots of things to see and do in Chicago, Jerry and I caught a cab to Grant Park and went to the Field Museum of Natural History. Most of the museums in Chicago are in or near Grant Park - within walking distance of one another (Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium), the Art Museums are nearby (short cab ride). If you've got children, the Field Museum had a lot of exhibits with geared for children (buttons to push, hands on exhibits, etc).
Friday, May 17: Southwest Chief: Chicago to Los Angeles
After such a wonderful ride on the Zephyr, I was really pumped for the Southwest Chief. One advantage to booking space in a sleeping car is that you can use the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago - it's a lot nicer than the coach waiting room - the seats are more comfortable, there are complimentary beverages, and it's pretty easy to get a redcap. I began to get concerned though when our train, although in the station, kept being delayed. ( Another time a scanner would have come in handy.) We got several different stories about why the train was being delayed. One Amtrak person said the yard chief wouldn't release the train, another said there was a problem with the dining car. Our car attendant told us later that there was a problem with one of the 3 locomotives pulling the train. We finally boarded over 1 1/2 hours late!! After the experience on the Zephyr though, I wasn't concerned. It wasn't until the next morning that I began to get worried. The train kept losing head end power whenever we were stopped, and we seemed to keep losing time. By the next morning we were almost 3 hours behind schedule. Finally, in Kansas, they added a freight engine to the front of the train. That certainly solved the power problem, but freight locomotives can't go as fast as passenger engines (at least this particular one - I don't know about others) and we were now losing even more time!! By the 2nd evening we were 4 1/2 hours behind schedule!! Since we only had an hour window in LA between the Chief and the Coast St arlight I was beginning to think of getting on my cell phone and calling 1-800-USA-RAIL to rebook the Starlight for the next day. However, we decided to wait until the final day to see what the situation was. The Amtrak Locomotive was finally repaired and the freight locomotive removed from the train - we could now make good time - where allowed. Our car attendant explained that what would probably happen is that we would be able to make up some of the time (we were 6 1/2 hours behind at this point). The passengers for the Coast Starlight would be removed from the train before LA and bussed - probably to Santa Barbara or San Louis Obispo so we could catch our train. I consulted a map - if we could make Santa Barbara we would still be able to see some of the coast so we elected to get off early rather than try to book the Starlight the next day. When the announcement was made - we were being removed from the train in Barstow - a bus would take us to San Louis Obispo and we would meet the Starlight there. I was disappointed, but by this point I was ready to go home, so we got off the train. Now, in all fairness, Amtrak treated us very well. However, my one complaint is that we were not given the correct information. Once we had detrained and found our bus we learned that we were not going to San Louis Obispo - we were going to Emeryville! (for those unfamiliar with the area - this was about a 7 hour bus ride). At this point I was extremely unhappy with Amtrak. Had they been upfront and told us what would really happen I would have elected to stay on the train. While a bus ride of a few hours is acceptable, I was not in the mood to be stuffed onto a bus (bus seats are made for slender petite people - I'm not slender and my poor husband is 6'2"!).
In all fairness, Amtrak supplied us with a box lunch (from Kentucky Fried Chicken) and later in the day stopped at one of the nicer restaurants in central valley (Harris Ranch Restaurant). I was completely disappointed that I was going to miss the last part of my trip PLUS suffer on a bus all day. I suspect that this is where a scanner might have come in handy!!
All in all, it was a good trip. My husband and I are already planning our next one (we're going to take the Coast Starlight down to LA, spend a day at a museum and come home - I'm really disappointed in missing the coast on the last trip!). So I hope that I'm not discouraging anyone from traveling Amtrak, but I sincerely hope that Amtrak makes some improvements in the communication department - I don't object to running late, but I want to know that when get off the train and put on a bus that I know what to expect!!
Additional observations: If you are traveling to a smaller train station (i.e. - not one of the hubs like LA, Chicago, New York, etc) be prepared. Once you get off the train you're on your own. When we got off in Barstow and Niles, MI there was no help with the luggage. No problem in Niles as we were met at the train by my parents. But in Barstow there was a very long walk to the bus. Jerry and I managed fine, but there were a lot of retired (i.e. elderly) people on the train, and many of them struggled with their baggage - don't pack anything you can't carry easily!!!!
Things I wish I had packed: more film, bottled water (the water on board was drinkable, but didn't always taste great), a scanner.
Things I wish I had left behind: most of the clothes I packed (1 or 2 pairs of jeans, and shirt, possibly a jacket if you get chilly) - I packed several pair of nice pants and jackets and felt overdressed and had to hassle with the luggage too! Books - I packed a couple of books and spent all of my time looking out the window anyway - the only 1 I read was "USA By Rail".
Things I am glad I took with me: Cellular Phone (it came in handy when I wanted to call the pet sitter from the train and check status - there weren't any phones (that I saw) on the Zephyr or the Southwest Chief. Atlas of the United States - this was one of the things I used the most. We found an Atlas that contained major U.S. Highways PLUS major rail routes - it was very helpful to us for figuring out where we really were. Snacks. Yes, the lounge car has snacks and stuff, but if you're concerned with fat and sodium content, take a few safe snacks along with you.