Our newest guest columnist looks back over his most recent cross-country rail trip, and lays down some solid advice.
By WALT BARANGER
It took three trains and about 63 hours, but I made it to Connecticut from Los Angeles by rail. What a terrific way to span the continent.
As you can see from my somewhat disjointed Quicktime video, there’s quite a variety of scenery. The brown tinge on some shots comes from the brown-tinted windows that are used on all Amtrak cars.
Amtrak gets high marks for meals. The signature steak is usually a safe bet, as is the vegetarian pasta (the recipe for which I obtained from Amtrak’s chef). Breakfast is highlighted by a generous portion of French toast and properly prepared grits that lack the dreadful gummy consistency of most hotel grits. The scrambled eggs are apparently cooked in a square mold, and the breakfast quesadilla lacked queso (cheese). Some trains, such as the Washington Limited, serve brunch. All meals are included with sleeping car accommodations.
The diner uses communal seating, so unless you are a party of four, you’ll be sitting with at least one stranger.
Freight railroads own most of the tracks used by Amtrak. The BNSF track between Los Angeles and Chicago was smooth and consistent, but the CSX track between Chicago and Washington was only a small cut above Indian Railways between New Delhi and Mumbai; at one point I was thrown off my feet. Washington, D.C., to Connecticut is smooth, too, except for the Hell’s Gate Bridge over the East River in New York City. Spectacular view of Manhattan, but a very rough ride.
For $600 including meals and roomette, the trip was a bargain and compares favorably with hotels. Next time, I’ll schedule a layover for a day or two in Chicago (Union Station is adjacent to the downtown Loop) and I might also suggest a layover in New Mexico.
Booking a roomette is the cheapest way to get a sleeper compartment, but roomette passengers use communal showers and toilets. That’s fine for me, but my wife prefers a more spacious bedroom with a private toilet/shower stall.
If traveling between Chicago and New York, the direct Lake Shore Limited is more expensive than traveling via Washington and changing trains to New York. The two routes take roughly the same amount of time, but roomettes and bedrooms can be much cheaper via Washington — $200 or more each way. Simply an issue of supply and demand.
Never book Bedroom A. It’s smaller than the others, and the price is the same.
Never book Roomette 2. It’s directly opposite Roomette 1, where the car attendant lives. You’ll hear noises at all hours of the day and night. Roomette 4 is perfect: near the bathroom, not too close to the car attendant but close enough to give a shout, and close to the stairs that lead downstairs to the exit.
On some trains, the crew car — a sleeper where the train crew lives — will have spare roomettes for passengers. This can be good or bad: Bad because it’s the first (or last) car of the train and is the farthest from the diner. Good because the communal toilet/showers are virtually unused during the day and there is very little foot traffic through the car.
Book early. Amtrak has a generous refund policy, but sleepers sell out many weeks or months in advance and Amtrak has no spare cars to add in case of a sellout. Six months in advance for summer travel is not too early.