It was two years ago in October, I took a trip to Seattle, Washington for a reunion of the Army unit I was with when I served in Vietnam. I wrote a couple of stories about the reunion, but I never told anyone about the trip. I used Amtrak to travel across the country. Train travel has a unique feel to it and I like it. It’s not quick at all, and these days, it’s not cheap either. In fact, the airlines can be quite a bit cheaper when you consider you have to feed yourself for the days you are on the train, where the plane has you there in hours. There is also the problem of having a place to sleep on the train. The coach seat can accommodate, but is not very comfortable, and the reservation of a sleeping berth really brings the cost up for the train travel.
But sometimes, it’s not about the money. I see it as you have to eat anyway, whether it is boarding a plane and getting there in a few hours or riding for 36. I prefer the adventure of the train ride, the scenery, the people watching and interaction, the small towns and big cities, the ability to get up and move around, and time to think.
In the case of the trip to Seattle, I needed to think a lot. Going there, I was anticipating what the reunion would be like, who I’d see there, what would be said. On the way home from such an experience, I just needed time to debrief what had just taken place. After all, it has been over forty years since I got home from Vietnam. I knew I’d have a lot to contemplate after getting in touch with so many old memories.
|The platform at Minot, North Dakota|
The passenger train routes have names. Here in the USA, if you were to travel West from Chicago, the hub of the Nation, the Empire Builder, which made the trip along the Northern reaches of the country, took you to Seattle or Portland. The Zephyr, which traversed two mountain ranges and crossed the midsection through the Rockies and Denver and The Sierras through Sacramento, ended near San Francisco at Emeryville, just on the East side of the San Francisco Bay. The Southwest Chief, took the route through Albuquerque and on to Los Angeles in the Southern part of the United States.
I’ve been on all these routes at one time or another. My trip in 2009 for the reunion was the Empire Builder to Seattle. I boarded at St. Paul, MN at around eleven PM and arrived just about 36 hours later, a little after ten AM.
If you’ve never been on a train, let me give you a blow by blow description of a normal no frills coach passenger trip. I bought my ticket on line. I had a print out and simply held the SKU bar code under a scanning light at a small kiosk which was well marked and there for just that sort of service.
My tickets were promptly printed out. If I had bags to check, I filled out label cards and attached them to the bag handles and brought them to the manned ticket counter to check them.
I did not check any bags. There is a large area as soon as you step into the passenger car where you can stow bags before you ascend a flight of stairs to the upper deck and claim a seat.
It can get tricky here. Some seats are marked reserved, and in my case, I got on after the train started in Chicago. Some seats were already taken and could usually be seen by a bag or jacket if the passenger was up and away from their seat. But sometimes people were up walking around or grabbing a breath of fresh air or a smoke outside. I’ve seen folks sit down only to have to move if they weren’t paying attention.
The train whistle blows, the train pulls out of the station and this scene gets repeated at every stop along the route. The train keeps on going down the tracks and the passengers boarding in the middle of the night negotiate the seating process in the dark.
If you are in coach, you have one seat. If no one is next to you, you can stretch out a bit, but if you have another passenger next to you, you might be a bit cramped, especially when trying to sleep. And you will have to sleep at some point as 36 hours is a lot of time to sit in one spot awake!
In my case, I got on pretty late at night. The lights were turned way down and I did stretch out and get some sleep as I had the entire pair of seats to myself. The bathrooms were downstairs when you boarded the train, so if you needed to do any of that business, you had a flight of stairs to negotiate.
|View from the lounge car in the Cascade Mountains|
During the daylight hours, the country whizzes by. Hour upon hour will see many changes in landscape. On the Empire Builder, you’ll cross the plains and wheat fields of North Dakota and Montana. In Western Montana, the mountains will appear. There are large tunnels. Then the Palouse of Eastern Washington before crossing the Cascade Mountain range. The train pulls in to Seattle and Puget Sound is nearby.
I’ve seen a lot of wildlife along the way. Deer and antelope, hawks and eagles, coyote and small animals. As I’ve taken this route in both Summer and Winter, the scenery is fantastic in either while climbing and descending through the Northern Rockies and the Cascades.
You can walk along from car to car of the train. As the train sways back and forth and to and fro, you have to have some balance. The elderly or someone with a cane had a hard time. Handicapped seating is available on the bottom floor of each passenger car.
|The Rocky Mountains in Montana as seen from the train|
One of the places to walk to was the scenic or lounge car. This car had a seating area like a lounge, with some seats together, some facing each other and even a couple like a living room sofa. People sat in this well lit space and read, listened to their iPods, used the computer, engaged in conversation or gazed out the large windows at the scenery as the train sped through the countryside at 69 miles per hour.
Downstairs in this scenic car was a snack bar that served food, snacks and beverages. The prices were higher than a restaurant, but less than a major league baseball game. There were places to sit down below in the snack bar, but many people took their food upstairs and ate in the seating portion of the lounge car, or even back to their coach passenger seats.
There was also a dining car where you could sit down, order a meal and be served, all while riding the rails steadily to your destination. I like the dining car early in the morning. They start serving breakfast around 5:30 AM. The coffee, a tart hot black affair, is served in china cups and was adequate for my taste. I’d usually order the regular standard bacon and eggs with toast.
Lunch and dinner are available in the dining car as well. Dining times are announced through a public address system that broadcasts in all the cars. The dinnertimes are reservation. A steward comes to each car and signs you up for a place at a table at a specified time.
In the dining car, you wait at one end of the car when you walk in. A steward seats you. You may see many empty booths, but the steward will place you with others. In the dining car, they fill every seat. Each booth holds four people. You will sit with a stranger or strangers if you are traveling alone.
I have never not had an interesting lively conversation while having a meal on the rails in the dining car. I’ve also had some small world experiences and have met people that knew a place or a name from my home town or a place I have visited before.
After dinner, back to the scenic car or my seat for some relaxation. At a stop, I might get out and stretch my legs, grab some fresh air and just watch the hustle and bustle of the station platform. There are bathrooms in the depots of the larger stations and the usual array of vending machines. Many people will smoke at the longer stops.
Personally, I like the train experience. If you’re not in a hurry, it may be an option for you. At this time, there are no inspections of your bags or your person like the airlines have, and certainly no one will grope you. That might be the turn off for you, who knows??!!
I have some traveling coming up soon but it will involve travel by car. Although there is talk in the Spadoville household about taking a train named The City of New Orleans from Chicago to, you guessed it, New Orleans, for a few days of chicory coffee, beignets, muffaletta, jambalaya, po’ boys and gumbo. Not at the same seating of course.
|Illinois Central City of New Orleans back in the day|
With the world changing rapidly and the economy faltering here in the US, many train routes have been cancelled. Rails have been torn up and competition for business is non existent. Amtrak is publicly operated and extremely under funded. The equipment, once sparkling stainless steel, is dull to the finish and maintenance struggles to keep up with demand for door knobs, light bulbs and services.
It’s a shame that options for travel are so limited, and the option of flying carries so many ever changing restrictions it seems impossible to know who will charge you for what. Baggage fees, carryon luggage limits, liquid allowed, packaging requirements and the highly controversial screening policies.
For me, I usually drive to where I’m going. My second choice is always the train. I prefer to never fly again in my life, but would if I had to. Have you been on a train in America? How about the country where you live? What’s it like in other places around the world?
Thanks for letting me take you along for the ride.