I began this letter as we worked our way across New York state this morning, on the last leg of the train portion of our trip. Although we still have a week left of our time away from home, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on our train trip across the country and back. So without further ado:

Dear Amtrak,

Having spent the last three weeks traveling from Albany to Los Angeles and back — a large portion of which was done by train — I’d like to first say that, overall it has been a pleasure. With all of my grumbling about waiting for the train to come on the first leg of our trip, someone asked me why I would ever want to do a trip like this. And, with the two day trip from L.A. to Kansas City nearly resulting in a family room meltdown, there were moments when I did wonder myself. But in looking back, I have to say that I would do it over again. I might try to arrange things a little bit differently, but, yes, I would do it again.

As our train attendant, Peggy, said yesterday, there’s nothing like true train people. They are open and friendly and warm and engaging. To my deep happiness, I’ve found that they are not overly chatty, but instead, at least in my recent experience, seem to be able to tell when one is in a conversational mood. The lounge/observation car is often the scene of these discussions, but I found that taking advantage of the 15-minute “smoking” stops at various train station platforms along the route counted for some of my most vivid memories. The town in Iowa that first night after Chicago that was 100 degrees and humid, the little town up in the Rockies where almost the entire sleeper car got out for a walkabout, and Lamar, CO, where Lucy and the 13-year-old from L.A. (“but I was born in New York, so I’m really a New Yorker”) talked about the differences between a childhood in California (“I’ve never seen snow”) and Massachusetts (with Lucy describing what Cape Cod is to a Californian who didn’t know Mass. had any beaches). I’ll also fondly remember our neighbors in the California Zephyr sleeper car — the 60-something musician couple traveling from festival to festival and the 70-something beyond sweet couple who were on a vacation to the west coast and who sang along until the train attendant came down and told us that we were making a little bit too much noise and all instruments needed to be moved to the lounge car. (I will also, however, not-so-fondly remember our original Southwest Chief neighbors who took one look at our kids and asked to be moved. I don’t think they smiled or even acknowledged our presence once in our 12 hours of shared journeying. Ironically, they and their two teenagers did manage to make more noise closing the doors of their roomettes than I thought was possible, most of that between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. when they finally detrained [to use railroad parlance]. I must admit, if James was going to pick a night to wake up at 4 a.m. and cry for an hour due to a tooth coming in, I’m glad it was that one. I’m also happy to say that the Sourpusses replacements were a lovely woman from Kansas and a couple of semi-retired college professors traveling with their 20-something daughter — real train people all around).

Another major plus is watching the scenery roll by. As I told Lucy and Will (in order to entice them away from their electronic devices): there are parts of the Rockies that can only be seen from the train. There are literally no roads, no people anywhere else for miles around. And coming up out of the New Mexico desert into the Colorado canyons (training directly through the aftermath of a forest fire no less) while eating a surprisingly good oven-baked chicken dinner is quite a memorable experience, not to mention watching the countryside change from state to state to state.

With that said, oh mighty Amtrak Powers That Be, I do have a suggestion or two that might make the entire experience just a teensy bit better for your passengers:

1) Is it really that hard to get wifi service on your trains? If busses and commuter rail have it, then why can’t the cross-country trains? You’re already using satellite service for the credit card machines in the cafe and dining cars, why not tie it into a wifi hotspot and let your passengers take advantage?

2) The second most egregious downside is the lack of cup holders; even baby stroller manufacturers have figured this out. It’s hard enough to convince travelers to choose trains over other modes of transportation. A lack of cup holders does nothing for you. And yes, I do understand that it’s probably ridiculously expensive to retrofit a fleet of trains, but having the current (i.e., newer car) cup indentations be an inch deep rather than a centimeter doesn’t even come close to cutting it. I hear that you’re ordering up a whole new set of ‘revenue cars’ (i.e., sleepers, dining, and lounge cars, a.k.a. we’ve-got-you-where-we-want-you-and-may-as-well-commit-highway-[or maybe train]-robbery-with-our-prices cars). Once you’ve got the safety and logistical things down, I’d make cup holders be the next thing on the list.

3) Along those lines, the space usage in the sleeper cars could be much improved. First of all, there is nothing but dead space underneath the cup [non] holders. Why not break through the indentation, provide a basket-type thing, and, voila, you have yourself a cup holder? Similarly, install some of those cargo-net-type things up and down the walls and sleeper passengers will have something to place their books, phones, etc. in as they drift off to sleep. The current rimless shelves are a sorry excuse. And kudos for the numerous coat hooks in the cabins, but make them just a bit heftier and they become hooks for the purses and bags that otherwise take up precious space on the floor. These are just some obvious things; a yacht or space designer — or, I’m sure, any one of the attendants who spend their days and nights living out of the rooms — could make some huge strides in making the roomettes more livable.

4) Along the lines of customer service, there’s a lot of opportunity as well, with communication being a major issue. Having the PA systems work consistently throughout the trains would be a start. Having the conductors (and lounge car and coach/sleeper attendants) use them regularly would be a close follow-up. For example, all the involved parties on our California Zephyr trip were excellent: the lounge car attendant was wonderfully welcoming and jolly, the conductor regularly informative, and the lounge car attendant reassuringly present. I found it made the trip both homey and comforting, despite the part about getting stuck in a remote area of the Rockies thanks to “track work” whereas the last leg if our trip – the east bound Lake Shore Limited – was silent and, IMHO, kind of isolating.

5) It’s great that you have a seat-assignment process on the long distance trains west of Chicago. (And maybe east — my only recent experience with coach on the east side if the country is going to NYC and that tends to be first-come-first-served.) It would be nice, however, if you mentioned it somewhere along the way. And, yes, granted, it might be in the literature somewhere (although not anywhere I came across it), but even so, maybe the people that sold us the thousands of dollars worth of tickets (or maybe the people who do the checking in part, or the conductor who takes the tickets in the station, or even the coach car attendant who sees the family of 5 that includes three young children, one of whom is an infant, waiting patiently for, oh, TWO HOURS on the floor of the Kansas City train station, in order to get four seats together on a train that’s been occupied since Los Angeles and merely tells us not to get on the train yet) could mention it. Because it sure would be a lot better to know that in advance than it was to wait for the two hours, rush us all to the train so that we maintained our place at the front of the line, find four seats together, only to find put that they’d been given to someone else. Just sayin’. (A special shout-out to 18-year veteran Southwest Chief attendant, Peggy, who, even before learning that we hadn’t in fact been two hours late to catch the train, promised us she’d get us the four seats after some people got off at the next stop.) Even better? Assign seat numbers when you sell the tickets. If my daughter’s dance recital can come with assigned seats, so can a major transportation outfit. I have faith. It would make a lot of people’s rides a lot more comfortable.

6) When you change the starting station of a massively long train trip from Boston to Albany, how about proactively telling folks rather than having them find out because they checked their itinerary online and then called to make the correction. Although we appreciate that you would have bussed us between the two stations, driving was a much better option for us for a variety of reasons. I’m glad we happened upon the information in time for us to plan accordingly.

7) And, finally, let’s talk about train stations, of which you have some beauties. The Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles Union Stations all have some spectacularly beautiful features. The great halls in Chicago and Kansas City are gorgeous, as is much of the detail throughout the buildings, and the leather art deco seats and tilework in L.A. are a surprising and welcome detail. It’s unfortunate that the more recent updates have almost entirely nullified them and rendered them almost entirely inactive. I truly do understand the need to do something about, say, the mightily unused space in K.C. once train travel became supplanted; using large portions of the station for exhibit and theater space most likely saved the building — which I think I read was the third biggest in the country at one point. It’s a shame, though, that the entire Amtrak presence is now relegated to a tiny, out-of-the-way back set of cramped, poorly used rooms. At the very least, someone could remove the no-longer-used information desk (lovely detail though it may be), and allow room for passengers exiting trains to actually exit. As it now stands, they must push their way through people waiting for baggage claim, people waiting to check-in for a train, and people waiting to board. Not a great system.

8 ) Redcap stations would also help. Cross country travelers — even those who are not us — have a lot of bags. Trying to figure out where to be is hard enough without having to also wrestle with bags. In L.A. having an 11- and 8-year old who could stay with bags while one of us returned the rental car and the other tried to figure out where our train left from ended up being key if a little bit unnerving. (With Security neither allowing us to keep the car parked in front of the station once it was unloaded, nor to linger with our bags, we didn’t have much of an option.) (Speaking of which, the Security Dept. at L.A.’s train station is On Top Of Things. Boy, do they keep you moving along!) Although there was actually a well-placed Info Desk (unlike the one in Chicago that is located deep in the bowels of the station, found only after elbowing through the crowds waiting in all the lines that you figure out before you even see the word ‘info’), redcaps were nowhere to be found. As it turns out, they patrol the station and driveways of the station on the lookout for passengers in need of assistance. It would have been nice to know this; it also would have been nice to just be able to go and find someone to help us. Instead, I ended up trekking through and around the station twice only to finally pay $4 for a minuscule luggage cart. Not until the cart was back out by the luggage did I see a redcap to flag down. And as we began loading her cart, who drives up with another redcap but Kelley, who had flagged one down on his way back from the Hertz counter. It was a waste of their time and ours.

Chicago, another big city station, was similarly frustrating. After my first trip to the Info Desk (thus my awareness of its location), I waited ten minutes for their promised paged redcap. I then went back inside and wandered around until I found two men sitting on drivable luggage carts — confusingly, they weren’t actually the people with the red shirts or caps — and decided to interrupt what appeared to be a break in order to ask if they knew where I could find someone to help us. Only after being assured that, yes, I had a lot of bags, and, yes, we were checking some and then traveling in a sleeper, did one of them indicate that he was one. I won’t even mention the guy in Kansas City who was surly and almost completely unhelpful. (On the flipside, once you find a redcap, they are usually invaluable. In Chicago, the guy actually bypassed the line and checked our bags for us. In Albany, our redcap provided a lot of valuable information about what was going to happen where. And I’m sure that tips had nothing to do with it.) Since we didn’t actually depart from or arrive in Boston’s South Station, I can’t from experience say they’re that much better. What I can say, though, is that when I have been there, they are visibly lined up and ready to assist. I will therefore take this opportunity to say that both South Station and Albany-Renssalear seem to have it figured out in terms of station use and design. Their info desks are easy to find, redcaps are visually accessible, and there is adequate sitting, waiting, and moving-around space. Plus they have easy-to-see arrival/departure boards.

Which brings me to (9), my last point: let’s just accept that the train is going to be late. It became clear that the trains are always late. In a way, it’s kind of like that Jimmy Tingle joke about the cost of stamps. To paraphrase: “For [whatever the current price of stamps is], a guy takes a letter from your house , puts it on a plane [boat, train, truck] and takes it all the way across the city/country/world and hand-delivers it to the door of the person you write to — for less than a dollar. Think about what a latte costs. A stamp is kind of hard to beat.” Similarly, Amtrak is traveling over 100-year-old lines, with a fleet of decades-old cars, with a staff of friendly and welcoming attendants/conductors/etc. And, for the most part, they get you there safely despite old tracks, old trains, mudslides, forest fires, tornadoes, and floods that they can’t switch routes mid-stream in order to drive around. Plus, they don’t actually own the tracks they run on and therefore need to often pull over to let a freight train (or two or three or four) through.

So, Amtrak, quit acting like the pre-2004 Red Sox in a constant state of defeat. Yeah, you’re gonna be late: own it. Tell people right off the bat that things run a little slower on the lines. Put some cup holders in, turn on the wifi, and just let people know what they’re in for instead of slipping it in on the B side and shirking away when they find out. After all, if they’re train people, they’ll likely just hang out in the lounge car and chat for awhile longer while watching the scenery roll — or not roll — by.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Doyle
Lake Shore Limited, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief passenger, July & August 2011

P.S. We apologize for the trail of ground up Special K and Frosted Flakes left in the carpeting of our various cars on trains across America. And for the spilled can of Sprite, LSL, Car 4820, Room 3. (But, Herb, we were never in Aisle 4.)

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Note: This post was written several days ago as we were coming into Chicago. I wasn’t able to post it then because the mobile hotspot, although wonderful to have, is beyond slow and sometimes can’t pick up any signal at all. (Thus my slow response to some comments, Facebook posts and emails — apologies!) Despite now being on the second leg of the Amtrak part of the trip, I decided to post as written. 

Well, now that the first Amtrak leg of the trip is (almost) under our belts, I think I can give a pretty fair assessment of how they did. We’ll start with the Albany train station:

The Albany train station is actually the Albany-Rensselear train station, a fact that I didn’t know. It also happens to be a completely useless and unnecessary fact for our purposes. We’ll move on.

Like South Station in Boston, it’s pretty much confined to one big room; the room isn’t nearly as big as South Station’s, though, which meant that we were o.k. letting Lucy and Will wander around a bit on their own. [Um, oops – Mom, you shouldn’t have read that part. Now that you have, though…] Not wander wander – just go on to the bathroom or to the convenience store or to the snack shop on their own. [Um, that probably made things worse.] O.k. So only Lucy went to the bathroom on her own; Lord knows, if Will can’t manage to go into the bathroom at home on his own because he doesn’t like being alone, do you really think he’d head into the Men’s Room solo? Of course not. That didn’t stop him, however, for just taking off at a moment that Kelley was off on a jaunt of his own (moms and dads jaunt, they don’t go to the bathroom; that would be indelicate to talk about; perhaps we should just whisper, >bathroom<. O.k. Done.) Anyway, I had my hands full with James while Lucy and Will appeared to be perfectly fine. Except then all of a sudden Will mumbled something – or maybe it was that he was off and running so fast that the wind had to carry his voice back to me – and he was off. As it turns out, he was only going to the one part of the station that wasn’t visible to me because of the proximity of the ticket desk to where we were: the board that was telling us our train was on time when it clearly wasn’t. This made Will quite irritated. “It’s supposed to leave at 7:05. How long are we going to have to wait?

Well, Will, we’re going to have to wait as long as we need to wait because, (say it with me now): The trains run when the trains run.

“But it was supposed to leave 15 minutes AGO.”

“Yes, Will, I too am aware of the time difference between now and when the train was supposed to leave as you have been making us aware of it since 7:00 when we weren’t boarding even though they told us we’d board 10 minutes before.” [Except it wasn’t nearly that calm. And it also wasn’t right then because, as previously mentioned, Will was gone with the wind.]

Happily, we had nice, dry-humor type red caps – except without the red caps, as you can see by the picture – who

This man has no red cap.

were helping us with all of our luggage and being nice to us and telling us what the latest news was about the train’s arrival (i.e., that there was no news, but still, they were nice about it). (Amazing what tipping a guy $15 to bring our bags in from the parking lot to the train station will get you!) When the train finally did arrive, the lead red cap guy not only came over to us to tell us that he needed to take the lady in the wheelchair down first (no sleeper car for her = no reserved seats; we were happy to oblige) but that he’d be back for us. And, not only did he come back for us as promised, but he loudly and assuredly pushed his way through the restless crowd surging towards the elevator because we’re sleeper car people and we get to go first.

To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about going on first – heck, we had rooms assigned to us and everything. As long as I knew that the train wasn’t going to leave without us, I didn’t mind waiting. That said, I also didn’t mind getting Will and Lucy and James onto the train and out of our waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) area. Thankfully, I was holding adorable baby James kind of like a masthead, so all the people who were annoyed by the special treatment us sleeper folk were getting were then lulled into happiness by the cute smiling baby. Except for the crazy lady who pushed her way right behind us (mumbling, “I just need to pass out my pamphlets” – oh dear), who, as Kelley likes to say in Boston traffic, used her blockers, i.e., us, and got herself on that elevator too.

Happy children in the dining car (even before dinner arrived)

What I did particularly like about being part of the ‘sleeper car’ special people was that they also let us go on the dining car first for our dinner. Given that it was already around 8:45 p.m., I’m not sure that dinner is the exact name for it. ‘Late night snack’ might be more appropriate. Kudos for us, though, that we for once realized that, not only did “train not on time” = “dinner not on time,” but we even acted upon it and got Lucy and Will macaroni and cheese at the train station for dinner. (Bonus: turns out James likes mac and cheese, too! Good to know for those occasions when we forget to bring his baby food. Not that we’re those kinds of parents or anything.) The down side to that was that they weren’t very hungry by the time we got to eat; the up side, however, was that they weren’t nearly as cranky as they (o.k., we) have the ability to be.

Happy Daddy and Baby James

Dinner turned out to be, well, not bad. No steak, despite it being on the menu because, apparently, “The fumes from cooking it will kill the chef and then you,” according to the waiter – which makes me wonder why it’s on the menu other than just to say, “Psych!” but that’s neither here nor there. The roasted chicken wasn’t half bad, though, and the mashed potatoes were the exact kind of processed scoop ‘o potatoes that qualifies for me as excellent. Will’s pizza was the standard kids’ menu pizza fare, so not bad; Lucy’s chicken fingers, though… I wouldn’t recommend them.

Other downsides were that the car was, literally, arctic. Also, we had to walk through about 7 cars of very unhappy non-special-sleeper-car people who were also hungry and wanting the dining car but had to wait for us to go first. (Honestly, if I hadn’t been waiting with three children for over two hours I might have felt worse. I also might have felt worse if I weren’t normally one of the non-special people. Dear Reader, however, I did not.) And at some point midway through dinner, Will’s excitement about being on a train turned into concern that the train was so wobbly. (“Did they do a practice run before this?” Uh, yes, Will. They do this trip every single day.) And then Lucy said that she couldn’t stop thinking about the picture of a burned out Amtrak car that had been on the front page of the Portland newspaper the morning before with the headline “We Were Surrounded By Flames.” (“Are you sure they did a practice run, Mommy????”) Which of course made me have to remind myself not to panic – holygoodlordtheyneverdidapracticerunthattaughtthemhowtodrivethroughawalloflfames – and just say, we’ll be fine (while looking desperately for wood to knock on). (Of course, it just occurred to me that if we did have to drive through a wall of flames wood would be absolutely no help at all. Still, hoping that knocking on metal has the same effect.)

Oh, and the waiter forgot to bring the rolls.

[Editor’s note: Since George did point out that my postings on Facebook so far have not done anything to suggest a reason that traveling by Amtrak is in any way desired, please see the photo below for the view from our dining car.]

Sunset somewhere west of Albany

The Room(ette)s

Enough about the food! What you really want to know is about the rooms, right?

The roomettes are definitely more ‘ette’ than ‘room.’ I’d say that the rooms are about 6′ long by 4′ wide. Actually, I have no idea if that’s accurate because I have no concept of measurement. But the two seats that face each other stretch out into a bed and I think someone about a foot taller than me could lie on it. Also, I’m sitting and looking at Lucy and I think that she might be able to lie with her head at the window and her feet slightly out the door. Then again, I’m not really sure how tall she is either so that might not help much. What I can say with absolute certainty is that they are small. (Originally, we had planned on just getting one roomette for the family. Although the Amtrak guy didn’t laugh out loud when Kelley said that, he did suggest we should consider two. Thank you, Amtrak guy.) I am missing Kelley and James very much right now as they sit in their room across the hall and down one; but when Kelley and I are in the same room I get irritated immediately because of the lack of space (not because of Kelley himself, but because two non-petite adults in one of these rooms don’t work out so well). And did you happen to see the picture I posted of our bags? Although we did check the big suitcases, even with the extra little storage bay up across from the upper berth it’s not nearly enough.

The upper berth is actually on a track that allows it to stay even more upper than for sleeping so that the two people sitting in the room aren’t entirely claustrophobic when it’s not down. To be honest, at 4’11”, it didn’t feel that much worse when it was down. Plus, when it’s down it means someone else is up there, which frees up some space down below.

There’s a table that folds out between the two seats (and has a checkerboard on it – nice touch), that is both not big enough and too big at the same time. Funny how that works. It’s also a hunk of metal – not a good thing for James to bonk his head on. And then there’s the >bathroom< area.

The >bathroom< area is directly next to the seating/sleeping area. In fact, you’ll see from the pictures below that there is little-to-no space between them. Not the most sanitary or comfortable set-up as far as I’m concerned. (And if you’re traveling with a companion you better be sure that that’s someone you’re very close to. Because you’ll either be getting a lot closer soon, or one or the other of you will be spending some time out in the narrow hallway over the course of the trip.) I also wouldn’t suggest having the cheesecake for dessert if you’ve got a bit of the lactose intolerance. Or, under any circumstances, the chicken fingers.

Fold-out sink in Amtrak Viewliner sleeper cabin.

The fold-out sink is quite cute – that’s my favorite part I think – although the cute little cups for water aren’t bad either. I like how there’s no drain until you actually tilt the sink back up into it’s compartment. At the same time, I wish I had noticed that part before spending a full minute trying to figure out what to do with all the water before tipping the sink back up to where it was supposed to go. Thanks to Lucy, I finally figured out that the holes at the back of the sink were what the water was supposed to drain into. The one complaint sinkwise is that that’s also where the outlet is. It seems to me that there are other places for an outlet to go other than near the main water source of the room, but that’s just me.

Oh, dear. I’m sure I could go on for even more time (just realized I never mentioned the back of the toilet that falls onto you when you’re, um, jaunting), but, Chicago is coming up soon. So if you’ll excuse me…

[I’ve had some requests for more photos from the roomettes. Because my connectivity is such a bitch at the moment, I’ll hold off on posting until I’m somewhere that posting pictures is easier; and I’ll probably post to Flickr so that the album is more viewable. I’ll post a link from here, though, once they’re up.]