Amtrak and Train Travel

Over many years I’ve commuted on trains for work – the light rail Metra in Chicago in the suburbs and the “L” tracks in the CTA in Chicago. However, I’ve never taken the Amtrak trains so I was excited to take the opportunity to travel between Portland and Seattle and avoid the horrendous traffic that I’ve heard plagues Seattle. Plus, you can have a drink along the way, which is frowned upon nowadays while driving (good for a Friday evening).

You can buy your train ticket online, but you don’t get seats for coach class. When you get to the train station, there is a line that forms before the train departs and you physically stand in the line to get your ticket. At that point they assign you a seat on the train, and if you buy two tickets in the same online purchase, they will plan to seat you together. This is the ticket that they manually wrote out for us coming back from Seattle to Portland on Sunday.

Not very high tech, I’d say. But the experience on the train was fine. You get all kinds of folks on the train, from families with kids to people who look like they can’t afford a plane. The Amtrak personnel were all very friendly and seemed to know what they were doing.

Since I’ve flown for years and years on business and rarely taken a train long distance, I kept thinking I was in an airplane, for instance when I was in the restroom and holding on to the handle in case of turbulence (the train does rock from side to side, especially when you are up top on a two floor passenger car). It also seemed odd not to have your seat belt on. I finally decided that the train was a 2-D airplane.

One thing that you realize immediately on the train is how big the USA is. The train from Seattle to Los Angeles is scheduled to go for over 33 hours (and probably takes longer, since delays are inevitable with all the stops). That would be a long, long time on the train.

Security is also very light on the train – they don’t search you when you board the train and thus boarding is very quick. I assume that this is because there haven’t been terror attacks in the USA yet on the train, so after one inevitably occurs, this will change. I don’t really know how they can police all of these tiny stations in small towns across the country. We will cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess. For now, however, the lack of security and subsequent lines and limitations on what you can carry (you can carry booze / wine for example) is a decent plus for train travel.

I had a good time on the train and was glad that I took it rather than driving to Seattle. However, the stations in Portland and Seattle are unusually nice overall for the Amtrak system (in terms of remodeling as well as location near the city center) I believe and the traffic in Seattle is horrendous, making train travel and driving a relative toss-up in terms of travel time. I also think I would start to go stir crazy on the train after more than 4 hours and thus a longer or overnight trip isn’t too appealing.

Cross posted at LITGM

13 thoughts on “Amtrak and Train Travel”

  1. Metra is not light rail. Some of the Metra tracks are used by through freights (at night), and by Amtrak.

  2. Metra’s operations and engineering people would not be amused to be called light rail. They are a commuter rail system that functions under FRA rules and in some places shares tracks with freight (and AMTRAK).

    Light rail is the modern version of streetcars–look around in Portland, they have a big light rail system.

  3. I traveled via AMTRAK on the Northeast corridor often between the 70’s – 90’s. The ridiculous delays could be unfathomable, but I enjoyed it mostly. The club car scene between New York and Boston could be downright festive on Friday nights back in the day, and I met a lot of interesting people. If you’re fortunate to board at either the origin or the terminus of a line you often have better luck with seating, particularly during busy or holiday times. Depending on the crew they may or may not enforce the one-person, one seat rule. I have seen people standing for the length of their trip. There was a recent ugly incident involving a professional athlete, so I’m guessing things have devolved aboard that line as they have in much of public space. Got a lot of good reading done on the Boston-D.C. run I did for a year.

  4. We have taken a number of Amtrak trips over the years.

    Our most recent was out to Glacier National Park. There the is station is perhaps a quarter of a mile from the lodge. The park was amazing and the trip there and back was a 100% wonderful experience.

    All of our Amtrak trips have been fantastic! Amtrak staffers always seem to be overworked. Yet they all remain extremely friendly, courteous, helpful and professional at all times. As far as we can tell they never seem to sleep :-)

    The public dining car is a cool place to have good meals and to share a table with others and have very interesting conversations. The observation car is another great place to meet new friends. If you can be in it for snacks in the early afternoon you can experience the real magic of train journeys first hand.

    I would recommend Amtrak travel to those who wish to make every minute of vacation a true holiday.

    Leave airports and jet airplanes to those oh-so-boring business trips.

  5. The California Zephyr from Chicago to SF is offers especially outstanding scenery from Denver to Glenwood Springs and then over the Sierra Nevada. Not all long distance trains have proper dining cars, but when available you get properly prepared food. Otherwise it is out the microwave.

  6. “You should try the Eurostar. I think it’s wonderful”

    We were planning to take the Eurostar to Brussels last September until we saw the photos of “migrants” trying to get into the cars and blocking the Chunnel.

    I think the worst problems were with the return to Britain through the Chunnel.

    We took the surface ferry and it was fine.

  7. We took a line between Paris and Amsterdam that was very pleasant. I can’t recall the name of it, don’t think it was Eurostar. As we got out into the rural farm country North of Paris, I realized we were really hauling, noticing that the power poles were a blur, and that we were banking into turns. They served us lunch, like an old-fashioned American airline trip. We could have rode that thing across the continent. We’ve also traveled CN between Montreal and Toronto with good results. Nice trip along the lake. My parents spoke of train travel in the U.S. in the forties and fifties being much more efficient and pleasant.

  8. I feel an obligation to mention that back in 2008, the Sage of Delaware (our VP)
    bragged about commuting to DC by Amtrak. Claimed to have ridden the route 8,000 times over a 32 year legislative career. At a reputed subsidy of $50 per ticket sold, taxpayers forked out $400,000 so Joey could get to work in the morning. Divided by 32 years, that is a $12,500 subsidy, every year.

    Aside from that, as a youth, in 1966 or ’67 my grandmother took me on a month long tour of Alaska. We boarded a train in Anchorage, bound for Fairbanks. We stayed over for a few days at Mt. McKinley (now Denali). Then the rains came and flooded the tracks headed north. They brought in bush planes to get us travelers north. Got to Fairbanks, which promptly flooded as well. So they moved my grandmother and I onto the Army base, then she into the base hospital as the trauma of the event had precipitated a heart attack. I remember buying a pair of hip waders so I could get off base and at least wander around some. Spent a week or so on base in married enlistees apartments and eating C-rations while my mother flew up from CA to help transport my grandmother back home. Then I was given a wad of cash and travel tickets and finished the tour alone. Nome, Point Barrow, Juneau and Sitka I believe. The flight to either Nome or Point Barrow was via an old Douglas multi-engine prop plane, while the other was on a passenger jet (Boeing I suppose) that landed on a graded gravel runway. I hadn’t known they did that.

  9. “My parents spoke of train travel in the U.S. in the forties and fifties being much more efficient and pleasant.”

    Europe is much smaller and train travel makes more sense. I took the train to California from Chicago in 1956 when I first went to college. No sleeping car. I sat up for three days.

    I have taken the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux and it was fine. I have taken a night train from Venice to Nice and it was uncomfortable.

    The sleeping car is attractive but very expensive and I don’t know that AMTRAK is very well run.

    I could see doing the Canadian Pacific tours.

    It does seem a bit expensive. Wow! Wouldn’t that be a trip to do! At $8,000 per person, it may not be of interest to most reading these forums or travelling to the area, but in the interest of providing complete information, it deserves a mention. (Now I”m off to buy a lotto ticket…..)

  10. The Royal Canadian is worth it if you can afford it. There are about 30 people on the train, the food is great and the company is congenial. What is unusual is the use of heavyweight six axle cars, which , of course, have been air conditioned.
    Much more affordable is the RockyMountaineer, which offers spectacular scenery. I have used it twice.I would recommend the Calgary or Banff to Vancouver ride: Jasper-Vancouver is just not as interesting.

    Sleeping cars have been decimated by high speed trains in Europe and Japan. France has no domestic sleepers. You have some night trains,but with couchettes and reclining seats only. Germany is getting rid of domestic sleepers later this year. Japan has one sleeping car train left from over a dozen not that long ago.

    India has number of luxury train tours. India is worth seeing,once anyway. I would recommend the Palace On Wheels but there are others.
    I guess you can see that I am a railroad buff.

  11. I feel fortunate to have had the experience of an ocean voyage on a class-divided transatlantic liner, and traveled in a Pullman with a dining car.

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