Some things happen too fast to be captured in a photo from a train window.
A speckled gray horse in New Mexico running to meet the train and galloping alongside until we are out of sight.
Two boys, dressed all in black and teenage angst, giving the train the finger, somewhere in Arizona.
A huge flock of Canadian geese, resting in a farmer’s pasture, on their way south for the winter.
Rural towns, sliding by, some picturesque, some not. White clapboard farmhouses will forever be juxtaposed against banged-up trailer homes with outhouses and water tanks.
Amish women and little girls in their starched white bonnets standing on the platform, waiting for the train.
These are only a few of the thousands of images I will keep in my mind forever from this trip.
In November 2017, my mother and I took Amtrak across the country from Los Angeles to Washington DC. The trip was to celebrate my mother’s “big” birthday last year. This was our first long distance US train trip and we took the Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago, spent the night in Chicago, then took the Capitol Limited to Washington DC where we spent three nights before flying home.
Union Station Los Angeles
Union station is a study in contrasts. On one hand, it’s a gorgeous example of 1930’s architecture with soaring coffered ceilings and art deco leather lounge chairs. It’s not uncommon to see weddings complete with multiple bridesmaids and a full Mariachi band in one of the courtyards. On the other hand, it’s always been a way-station for people without a place to go, some without a clear grasp on reality. On a busy workday, take care not to get run over by commuters in a hurry to get to work via LA’s blossoming Metro lines.
The Metropolitan Lounge is a nice place to sit out of the fray in Union Station, but it’s certainly not on the level as most airline’s premium airport lounges. Only open to passengers holding sleeper car tickets, there are comfortable seats and if you want, red caps will take you and your luggage to the train via motorized cart (we walked). In terms of amenities, there are some canned sodas, a water dispenser, cookies, potato chips and some odd, plastic wrapped pastries.
On the train:
Amtrak’s cross country trains in the West and Midwest are all “Superliners” which are double-decker trains. Six months before our trip we booked our tickets in a “Bedroom”, Amtrak’s larger sleeper accommodation which is a private room that’s approximately 6’x8’ and has its own bathroom. On the Superliner the Bedrooms are all upstairs on the train.
The Bedroom has a sofa which pulls out into a bed at night, with a bunk above it that also pulls down. The upper bunk is about a foot narrower than the top bunk and close enough to the ceiling that one cannot sit upright. In addition to the bunks, there’s a fold-out table and a chair opposite the sofa. The room has its own toilet/shower combo and a tiny sink with mirror in the room, next to the door. There’s one large double window in the room as well as a window in the sliding door to the hallway which is on the opposite side of the train, so there is plenty of natural light.
On both trains, we had bedroom “E”. This is in the middle of the car, but only shares one wall with the other compartments with the other wall facing the stairwell. This is good because the walls are thin (we could hear our neighbor’s toilet flush every time), but we never heard noise from the stairs.
There is another, less expensive, sleeper car option called a “Roomette” which is basically two wide seats that face each other in a tiny compartment. These rooms are on either side of a central hallway and share a common restroom at the end of the train car (photo above left). I wasn’t able to get a good photo of a roomette, but you can find them on the Amtrak website. At night a top bunk folds down and the two seats turn into the bottom bunk. They also have access to a shared shower room. They have very limited luggage space. The other option on the train is a coach class seat, which have a ton more leg room than any airplane coach class, but you’re still sitting up for the whole trip. These tickets do not come with food or access to showers.
Below, the bunks are folded out at night. I found the top one to be a bit claustrophobic because I could not sit fully upright. Also, Amtrak could do better by offering nicer linens. The pillows are firm foam and inflexible, the sheets are ok, but the worst was the thin blue acrylic blanket. Even most airline’s business class seats offer duvets on their long-haul lay flat seats. The blue blanket was warm enough, but it felt cheap, as well as charged with static electricity every time it moved (hello, synthetic fiber). The lower bunk was wider, but never quite level because the “mattress” is made up of the back and bottom seat cushions wedged together. The sleeping component of the trip is probably my greatest criticism of the experience.
I showered in the room on our Southwest Chief leg of the trip and I probably wouldn’t do it again. It’s too tight and the water pressure was poor. I’m a fairly “small” person, but I suspect someone of a larger size would have a hard time just using the toilet in the room. Mom used the communal shower room in the bottom section of the train car and said it was fine. It’s much more spacious.
The photos below are of the bathroom sections of the compartment (from the second train of the trip, the Capitol Limited). These compartments had clearly been refurbished. The sink is right in the doorway to the compartment and the toilet/shower combo is on the other side of the wall with the mirror, with the entrance across from the chair.
Below is the difference between our Southwest Chief compartment and the one on the Capitol Limited which appeared newer. The Capitol Limited had “wood” paneled walls with a real mirror on the partition wall between compartments (the one on the SWC looked like a metal funhouse mirror). The cabinets on the CL are rounded and the bathroom feels a tiny bit larger inside. The shower itself even looks better.
There are three electrical outlets in the compartment; two next to the sink and one next to the closet at the lower bunk/sofa. There are none on the upper bunk, though there is a reading light up there. There are also reading lights over both ends of the sofa and the chair as well as an overhead light. It would have been convenient to have an outlet next to or under the folding table like we did on our overnight train in China.
We brought a multi-unit USB charger with us to charge our phones and tablets. There is wifi on some of the trains, not all. We had it on the Southwest Chief, but it was spotty at best. There wasn’t any wifi on the Capitol Limited but we did have service on our phones for much of that route.
Anything larger than a standard 21” rollaboard suitcase will probably have to be stored on the luggage racks on the lower level of the train or loaded onto the baggage car. In our bedroom, we were able to store one 21” suitcase underneath the single chair and one on the shelf above the chair (see photo below). We were able to put smaller bags under the sofa seat and on the floor next to the chair. In the Roomettes, there is even less space and I’m not sure where you’d put bags like this.
The chair in the photo above folds up and rotates toward the window. This is because the wall behind it can be unlocked and slid open to combine two compartments into a suite. That would be a lot of fun if traveling with friends.
Food on the train and the Dining Car:
Both the Bedrooms and the Roomettes have all meals included in the cost of the ticket. For us, that meant two dinners, two breakfasts and two lunches on the trip from LA to Chicago and dinner and breakfast from Chicago to DC. For both lunch and dinner, any main course item on the menu is available and both meals come with dessert and non-alcoholic beverages but any alcohol is extra. The dinner meal also includes a salad Current menus can be found on the Amtrak website.
Based on the Dining Car menu prices for what we ate for the trip, this worked out to be a value of about $70 per day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for one person (varies with what is ordered). While you can certainly spend less if you dine a la carte, if you are in a sleeping car it’s all bundled into your ticket cost and you get all the extras with each meal (coffee with breakfast, side of bacon with your eggs, dessert at lunch and dinner etc.).
Breakfasts are open seating (no reservations) but both lunch and dinner require a reservation and the dining car attendants go around taking reservations early in the day. Diners are seated together randomly as they arrive at any meal period, with no choice of companions, so it really is the luck of the draw who you sit with. We certainly had some interesting people to chat with along the way.
Our first meal was dinner out of LA and we both ordered the flat iron steak medium rare. It came out perfectly cooked. The salad is a basic iceberg, tomato, shredded carrots, etc with Newman’s Own dressing packets on the table. Dessert was a chocolate tart with too-sweet raspberry sauce. The cheesecake was not bad.
I assumed that everything was pre-cooked but at our short stop in Raton NM, we met one of the cooks who was hanging out the window of the kitchen on the lower level of the dining car. He told us they have a grill in the kitchen and the steaks were cooked to order. Many of the other items are cooked sous vide and then finished to order. As someone who is a former chef and has worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years, I am very impressed with what these cooks can do in a limited environment that is moving while they are trying to cook.
Our first breakfast was scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, side of bacon, and a “croissant” which really wasn’t a croissant but more of a biscuit. On another morning I had an omelet which came with way too many peppers and onions inside and the cheese on the outside, on top. In what world does the cheese go on the outside of the omelet?
Lunch on day two was a beef burger for mom and a black bean and corn veg burger for me. Both were totally fine, and while I had the beef burger on another day, I actually enjoyed the black bean burger more (more flavor and not as dry as the beef). On another evening the dinner was a bit disappointing; mom’s salmon was way overcooked, and I had a butternut squash risotto with chicken that was overly salted and topped with an inexplicable mound of green beans that seem to go on every plate. My recommendation? Stick with the steak.
We brought our own snacks and it was too much extra food. With three meals a day in the Dining Car, we didn’t really need that much. We also brought our own alcohol and cocktail fixings and managed to have a cocktail and hors d’oeurves (cheese, crackers, truffled salami) each night before dinner. Note: sleeper car passengers are allowed to bring and consume alcohol on the train (only in their compartment), coach passengers are not.
There was no hot water easily available on the train (like on our train in China which had a big hot water dispenser and provided a thermos in every compartment), only coffee in the morning (which was horrible) in a large urn near the stairs of each train car. However, my mother was able to ask for a cup of hot water for tea from the dining car. The sleeping car attendants brought us a bucket of ice when asked (for cocktails and to keep the items in our mini cooler chilled) so ice is available.
Coming next…part 2, scenic views and stops along the way.