TrainWeb Visitor Travelogue
Fall 1998 Train Trip
This tale is not a travelogue as much as it is a travel essay.
The Fire is Sparked
My first experience with Amtrak was in its infancy, way back in 1975.
My grandmother decided to take the entire family on a Grand Tour of
which the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco was a leg.
At that time I fell in love with train travel and vowed to take
longer, trip one day. But life has a way of catching up with you and
that goal took a back seat to finishing college and starting a career.
While the dream was still in the back of my mind, the burning fire
to smoldering embers.
In November 1997, I was part of a company group that traveled on the
City of New Orleans from Memphis to that city and back. As the train
through Mississippi, the winds from the train fanned the train travel
smoldering embers into a blaze.
Planning the Trip
With the Train Schedule and Travel Planner in hand, I begin to plan
my trip. In early January 1998, after looking at several itineraries,
I made my choice and picked my dates for mid-October 1998, where I
enjoy the Fall Foliage of the Rockies and upper Mid-West.
I would take the Amtrak Air-Rail Vacation, flying from Memphis, TN to
spend a few days in Seattle, and then take the train from Seattle back
Memphis via Chicago. (Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, then the
City of New Orleans from Chicago to Memphis.)
The trip actually began on Feb. 20 when I booked the trip. And that is
when the adventure began. I had already talked to my travel agent a
prior to this and had researched exactly what I wanted. It took a few
minutes for the TA to connect to the Amtrak Vacations. We had finished
everything and I made out my check for my deposit when she looked at
check with my name L. Kathryn Armstrong imprinted and asked, "Please
me that Kathryn is on your Drivers License somewhere?" (I have always
used my middle name.) Of course it's not, so we had to re-book the
The problem was not the rail portion of the trip, but the air section
trip. Lesson 1: No matter if you have never used your
first name since you were christened, ALWAYS book your travel in the
name on your drivers license.
NOTE: I will sometimes use the phrase "but then I camp," to explain how
certain features, items or events do not bother me while they might
bother the typical traveler.
Preparing to Pack
Since the last time I had new luggage was over 25 years ago, this was
a good excuse to get new luggage. I bought a two piece set with a
bag and a wheeled airline bag. By packing rather light, everything for
five days fit in the smaller wheeled bag, with books and clean
in a carry-on knapsack.
Serious packing planning began in late September. I had watched the
conditions for my destination, but when the temperature is near 90
and the humidity equally as high, it is difficult to think of warm
Departure Day Draws Near
The tickets have arrived and I now really feel as if the trip is a
It is one week from departure and there is this fear in the back of my
that I will have to stay at work and cancel the vacation. There are so
ends to be tied up prior to leaving, or at least shoved in a drawer
I return. The biggest task looming is to find out if there actually is
desk under the piles of papers.
Of all the people I told about my trip, only two were not envious when
while on the train "I would do absolutely nothing." Think about that.
Often we are snowed under at work, have an equally heavy workload at
plus all the other details of our lives. To sit back and do nothing
a few days does sound wonderful. And this is one group I think Amtrak
marketing is overlooking. Market to the "overworked, stressed out,
too many things to do and too little time to do it in" person.
It is now the day before I leave. It is also Columbus Day. While I
would be no mail deliveries today, it somehow did not occur to me that
would be closed also. This means I cannot get the Travelers Checks I
intended to take. It also means I can not have a supply of $1 and $2
for tips. Lesson 2: Always check for bank holidays and
they may affect your trip.
There is this strange thing on my desk. It kind of looks like the desk
but it has been so long since I have seen it, I am not really sure. My
are almost where anyone can find things while I am gone. My voice mail
e-mail are set up with the "I am out" response. Quick, run before
hands me work to take with me.
The First Leg of the Journey
My roommate dropped me off at the airport at 6:30 a.m. It was two
my flight, but I figured I could check in and find a coffee stand and
coffee until I left. Not! The United stand in Memphis did not open
after 7 a.m. I really could not go to the gate area since that meant
dragging my bags through security then back to check in when United
But finally everything opened, I checked in and departed for Chicago.
On the flight from Chicago to Seattle, one of the channels available
headsets was the Air Traffic Control channel. Maybe that is something
might look into. Put the scanner on one of the channels in the rooms.
I had originally planned to take a few tours while in Seattle.
I lounged around the hotel, spending time in the whirlpool and sauna.
I did do a little shopping, including cleaning out the rest of the tray
at a Cookie place. (I needed something to eat on the train.)
About mid-morning I departed for the King Street Station in Seattle.
I had originally thought I would check in, find a locker for my bags
wander around Pioneer Square for a few hours. That morning the weather
cool, cloudy and a little rainy. For this Southerner, used to warm,
sunny weather, that was a sign to stay in the station and read -- and
I watched the Coast Starlight depart and the Westbound Empire Builder
arrive as well as some of the local train both arrive and depart -- and
ate cookies. I had planned to buy a few Amtrak souvenirs at the
in particular a much-needed tote bag similar to one pictured in the
Travel Planner, but I could not find Amtrak souvenirs for sale
anywhere in the station. Instead I continued to drag around a
sack from the hotel.
They were in the beginning stages of refurbishing the station in
Seattle. They had signs showing what had been done and what was
planned. According to the signs, they plan to return the station
to much of its original design. "Forward into the Past!"
That can be Amtrak's motto!
The call for sleeping car passengers came about 4:20 p.m. I grabbed
my wheeled bag, knapsack and hotel sack and headed for the train.
I checked in with my Car Attendant, Gul, started up the stairs -- and
almost pulled my arm off in the process. I was trying to take
everything up the stairs at one time. I was carrying my wheeled bag
like a suitcase and it caught on the stairwell sideways and stopped
me short. Lesson 3: The stairs on the Superliners
are narrow. It can be difficult to try to take your bags up the
stairs sideways or even all at the same time. Leave a few downstairs
and come back for them.
I had read on Trainweb and in Jim Loomis' book that the Standard
rooms were small, so I was prepared to spend three days in a closet.
I was amazed at how large my room was, or seemed. But then I camp.
I have spent over a week in a tent smaller than my room. (Of course
I am 5 ft, 115 lbs.)
The Superliner II cars have changed the closet to a shelve/coat hook.
And I think that works better. I was able to stow my wheeled bag in
that space and looped the holding belt through the handle to secure it.
My knapsack fit in the area under the bedside stand and for lack of a
better place, I chunked by hotel sack on the other seat. (Darn,
I really could have used that Amtrak canvas tote bag.)
I was a little surprised to NOT find any gifts/amenities, especially
since the Amtrak marketing materials promote this. I was kinda looking
forward to the Empire Builder glass and especially the bottle of wine
since this was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. (Okay, there is the
Gul (pronounced Gool), came around and told me about both the
train and room features. The train soon started up and we were
slowly on our way. The Chief of On-board services came and took
my dinner reservation. I took the one for 5:30 since other than
cookies I did not have lunch and my body clock was two hours ahead
My dinner companion was a lady from Whitefish, MT. I had baked
salmon with dill sauce. As we ate dinner the train skirted Puget
Sound and we watched the sun slowly set. After dinner I went back
to my room to settle in a little more. The drink area only had
coffee and water from the fountain. Since I had reserved so early,
I had room #2 and was right across from Gul. It took a little while
to realize that the soft ping I kept hearing was the attendant call
I stared out the window at the Cascade Mountains until it became
too dark to see. As Gul put my bed down, I made my way to the lounge
car to see if it had any Amtrak souvenirs. I was disappointed to
find the only Amtrak merchandise they carried were postcards and
cards. Amtrak is missing an opportunity here. I realize storage of
these items can be a problem, but items such as t-shirts and tote bags
can take up little space.
I bought a couple of cartons of milk in the lounge car and went back
to my room to have milk and cookies before I went to sleep. I had
read in several places that occasionally some of the noise from the
car can keep people awake, but since I camp I already knew of this
neat invention -- earplugs. With those the noise did not bother me.
It did take a little while to adjust to the mattress but the movement
of the car was relaxing and long before we reached Spokane I was sound
asleep. I barely woke enough up in Spokane to be aware we were moving
cars around but that's about all. I remember looking out the window
and seeing a double row of windows. It took a little while for it to
register that I was seeing another Superliner car, not the station.
The First Full Train Day
It seemed strange to not wake up to a ton of dogs jumping on me.
Needless to say, I slept a little later than I expected, getting up at
almost 7 am. My original plan was to grab a quick shower, eat an early
breakfast and head for the lounge car to stake out a good chair to
have a better view when we went through Glacier National Park.
So much for plans. I did make it early for breakfast -- sorta. I had
biscuits and gravy with a side of bacon, which was more than my usual
breakfast of a pot of coffee. It was early dawn and I ate breakfast
while we were in the quaint village of Whitefish, MT.
I did reach the lounge car in time for spectacular views. One of the
people in the lounge car had actually worked on some of the tunnels we
went through. He said that there was scarcely an arm's reach between
the train and the side of the tunnel.
The scenery kept getting better and better, especially as the sun rose
over the mountain peaks. The leaves had begun to change, and the
higher peaks still had last winter's snow. (At least I assume it
was last winter's snow.)
As we started to come out of the mountains I made my way back to my car
to vegetate a little more, drink coffee -- and eat cookies. Somewhere
at this point, I put down my
notebook, never to pick it up again, so the rest of this tale will
be very vague.
Though I currently live in Memphis, TN, I was raised a little to the
east, in the foothills of the Smokies. I have never really found
beauty in the flat lands. Until this trip. As we went across the
plains, I kept staring out the window amazed at its beauty. It is
There is a BIG difference between seeing the country out of a
car window and a train window.
All I really remember of lunch was good food and good conversation.
After lunch, I made my way downstairs for my first Amtrak shower.
It was much larger than I expected. Based on what I had read both
here on Trainweb and Jim Loomis' book All Aboard, I thought I
a good idea of what to expect. The water at first came full force
but quickly turned into droplets. I decided that this was a bust and
turned the water back off. But as soon as I started to turn the water
nozzle in the opposite direction it came back on full force.
Lesson 4: Yes, the nozzle can be tricky. Don't give
but play with the nozzle until you get the pressure and temperature
you want. Besides, it beats the solar showers I use camping by
a long shot.
Note: Solar Showers are 5-10 gallon plastic bags made out of a
clear, tough plastic with a hook on one end and a hose attachment
at the other. They are left out in the sun to warm the water.
The bag is then hung from a hook and you use the hose end to shower
with. Compare this with the Superliner showers and you will find,
there is no comparison. The Superliner wins every time.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was pretty much a blur.
I just sat in my room and stared out the window at the passing
scenery of fields and small towns. At one point I though I saw some
cats near the tracks but as the train drew nearer I saw that it was a
pair of red foxes. For dinner I had the fish again, then later went
to the lounge car for another two cartons of milk. I quickly went to
sleep that night and again slept very soundly.
The Next Day
I woke the next morning just before we pulled in to Minneapolis / St.
While we were still in the station I grabbed a quick shower this time
knowing what to expect. We were still in the station when I finished,
so I went outside to walk around, with a wet head of hair, wearing just
jeans and a T-shirt, in 40-something degree weather.
After another enjoyable breakfast, I settled down to read the
Minneapolis paper and drink coffee -- and eat cookies. At a conference
I had attended, I picked up a travel mug at the vendor fair. I took
it with me on the theory that since it had a lid, I would not spill it.
Wrong! I guess I can knock over anything, anywhere, at any time.
About mid-morning the train skirted a lake, offering a spectacular
panorama. Later the train began to enter more urban areas as we neared
Chicago. At lunch I had some of the liveliest conversation yet as we
discussed the business aspects of professional sports in today's world.
There were two ladies in rooms #3 and #4 who were traveling together,
a woman in her eighties and her niece. They were traveling to South
Carolina where they would embark on a three-month cruise.
As we passed through the towns surrounding Chicago, I managed to stuff
everything in either my knapsack or suitcase so I was able to ditch
the hotel bag. (And yes, I still needed/wanted that Amtrak tote bag.)
Gul told me that I seemed to have caught the spirit of train travel
very much by totally relaxing. I said that was not normal for me.
Especially for the last year my life had been non-stop. I was
snowed under at work, many times working 12-16 hour days. When I was
home, after a short time, the chores that needed to be done around the
house would get to me. The only way I knew I would get some rest and
relax was to plop myself down on a train for three days with absolutely
nothing to do, at all.
Central Station - Chicago
My first impression of Central Station in Chicago was masses of people.
It even seemed more crowded than many airports. I checked into the
lounge and tried to find a seat. It was as crowded as the rest of the
station and there were few available seats. The first thing I did was
find a phone so I could call my roommate and tell him approximately
to pick me up the next morning.
I decided to take a walking tour of the station and when exploring.
I hoped that Amtrak would have a store that sold its items but the only
thing I found that resembled an Amtrak stand was a display case with a
few items geared towards children at the McDonalds on the upper level.
I would have thought that if any station would have Amtrak items for
sale, it would have been Chicago. With as many trains that pass
through Chicago, this would be an idea place for an Amtrak Store.
But evidently the only way to purchase Amtrak items is through
The two ladies who were next to me on the train were teasing me that
would be leaving much earlier than I would. They were connecting to
Capital Limited, but the Southwest Chief was delayed so my train was
before theirs was. As I grabbed my bags, I teased them about leaving
they retorted that Monday morning when I was back at my office, they
boarding their ship for the cruise.
The City of New Orleans
This time when I went up the stairs, I only took one bag at a time. I
settled into the same room that I had left a few hours earlier. I
Amtrak's concerns on liability, but I really wished I could have left
in my room. Especially since I was in the same room on both the Empire
and the City of New Orleans. All anyone would have found in my bags at
point would have been dirty clothes.
My car attendant on the City was James. When he came around to tell me
the room, I told him I has just spent two days in that same room. On
Empire Builder, the only drinks offered in the sleeping car were coffee
fountain water. On the City of New Orleans, James was unpacking a
soft drinks and bottled water.
I had wondered that with leaving at night if dinner would be served and
Two of the three companions at my table and I had an animated
lasted quite a while. One was a woman from New Orleans that regularly
the City for business travel to Chicago. She said she preferred it
I really did not settle into my room very much since I would be leaving
6:25 the next morning. I only unpacked what was necessary, then ate
the last of my
cookies. I had this fear of sleeping too late the next morning so I
not sleep well that night. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. Because it was early,
coffee was not made yet so I grabbed a soda instead. (And the only
I usually drink sodas in the morning is when I am sick but caffeine is
James got up a little later (about 5:45 a.m.) and when he made up my
he commented that I was probably the neatest sleeper he had seen since
my covers were barely mussed. We slowly pulled into Memphis so I
my things, bid good-by to James and departed.
Arrive Home in Memphis
Jack Swanson, in his book Rail Ventures describes the Memphis
station as dismal in a bad part of town. But when we pulled into
it was brightly lit, there was a covered paved sidewalk down the
brightly lit parking lot and a portable building at the edge of the
lot. They have shut down the old station while they renovate it.
In addition to the new station, this section of Memphis is improving.
drivers meet the trains and will take you anywhere in the city. And if
are planning a trip to Memphis, consider coming during May when Memphis
in May is held. Every weekend in May, something exciting is happening
including the Beale Street Music Festival and the Barbecue
(Imagine a several mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River, four
in BBQ booths.) Life does not get much better than sitting on the bank
of the Mississippi River on a warm spring evening, eating BBQ and
a cold one.
I was walking toward the building when my roommate pulled up in the
Sticking out of the windows were four happy heads with tongues hanging
down and wagging tails. My babies missed me.
My Views on How to Improve Amtrak:
Marketing!!!! Amtrak is one of travel's best kept
It has only been recently that I have begun to see Amtrak ads, either
print or electronic media.
Amtrak services most of the largest Conference and Convention cities.
For those involved in the conferences, it is often a frenzy to pull
everything together in time. Until the last attendee leaves and the
last box is packed to be shipped home, conferences are non-stop action.
So promote the Air-Rail to these people. "Fly to your conference, then
take a relaxing train ride home." Or trying to prepare a presentation
while constantly being interrupted is nearly impossible. In this case
the promotion would be "Tired of being interrupted while trying to
that major presentation. Then take Amtrak to your site, then fly
This would open up not only the market to the traveler, but the
as well. I know that after my trip, another co-worker has taken a
trip and my doctor is planning one as well.
As I said earlier, I had been a little surprised to find that the
amenity" advertised in Amtrak's marketing materials was absent.
For some people this can be a cause for distress. I understand that on
routes, such as the Empire Builder's wineglass, the item can get
However, if you advertise something in your marketing materials, you
deliver it. If you change your policy, wait until you change your
Also, promotional items can and do serve a positive purpose. That is
companies spend as much as they do for them. Having ordered similar
items I offer an opinion. First, instead of route specific items, have
several "generic" Amtrak items. They can be changed periodically.
And they do not have to be expensive. Several items that come to mind
include tote bags (yes, I am stuck on that), travel coffee mugs (with
and/or squeeze bottle sippers. Each of these items would not only be
during the trip, would have a useful life afterwards. And when it was
used afterwards is another opportunity for Amtrak to have a little more
positive recognition. (Provided the traveler had a positive trip!)
Having ordered similar items the costs, especially in the quantities
Amtrak would order, range from $1 to $3. This can not be much more
they currently pay for their items.
When people travel different routes they begin to notice differences
in the trains. I am not talking about promotional items or menus but
general inconsistencies. On the Empire Builder the only drinks offered
coffee and water from the fountain but on the City of New Orleans they
soft drinks as well as bottled water. On the Empire Builder one woman
asked for bottled water but was told Amtrak no longer offered it,
bottled water was available on the City of New Orleans. Consistency
the trains is important. Amtrak must have the same standards for all
Overall, I enjoyed my Amtrak trip and I am eagerly awaiting my next
I had interesting conversations at every meal and enjoyed good food. I
able to completely relax and refresh myself. I have told anyone and
who may be interested about Amtrak.
However, train travel is not for everyone. For those who have to be
entertained every minute of every day, sitting back and vegetating may
be appealing. If your vacation must be action filled and you must be
constantly on the go, then you may not want to travel by train.
But if you relish the idea of relaxing and staring out the window with
nothing to concern you, then you may definitely want to look into
If you are unable to sit down and rest unless you have no option, then
Train travel is not a cruise ship or a four-star hotel either.
Sometimes I feel as if some of the people who write about their train
travel have their expectations set too high.
Trains are transportation. True, they are a comfortable means of
but they are still transportation with limited resources. I have read
some of the gripes where I feel as if these people are never happy and
can never be pleased. Yes, there are legitimate problems. There will
always be the bad experience.
If you travel often, things will go wrong. Sometimes the problems could
have been helped, sometimes they can't. Two different people can take
same trip and have the same experiences and problems. One person will
a terrible trip while the other had a fantastic trip with a few
It is merely a matter of attitude and perspectives.
You just have to "kick back and go with the flow." Schedule your trip
you have time if not only the train is delayed, but the plane also.
Be prepared to wait if the train is crowded. Don't whine and pitch a
temper tantrum if things go wrong. And do not look down your nose at
your fellow travelers.
A train trip is supposed to be relaxing, so relax!
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