One Passenger’s Experience With Amtrak Train Travel

As a lover of trains, I have been fortunate to have traveled on the trains of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and the United States. So I could not help but smile as I read an AC article on traveling the rails with Amtrak.

My first encounter with Amtrak was traveling from Chicago to the University of Illinois in Champaign, IL in 1972. In those years, meals were still served on china with silverware and white tablecloths. I enjoyed nothing more than taking the early morning train, eating a wonderful breakfast in a beautiful dining room and watching the world pass by.

My Amtrak trips continued over the next three decades as I traveled from Chicago to both coasts on journeys which could take seven to ten days.

While the AC content producer correctly noted that Amtrak allows passengers to view beautiful scenery, especially traveling thru the Rocky Mountains from Denver to San Francisco and along the Pacific Ocean from Seattle to Los Angeles, too much of the scenery in the eastern part of the country reveals only the back side of rusting cities. Once outside these cities, there is some opportunity to see beautiful sites, though not many.

Just to top off the Amtrak travel experience, their customer service is something which could only be dreamed up by a grade-B script writer. On their better days, stewards are surly, and seem to have an attitude that the train trip would be much more pleasant if only there were no passengers aboard. One passenger described this passenger-staff interaction as being similar to a released convict talking with his parole officers.

The once-famed dining cars went through many years of decline in which customers were eating on plastic plates with plastic forks and knives. Mercifully, china, silverware and tablecloths have returned. However, today’s Amtrak dining experience is more akin to having a waiter bring microwaved cafeteria food to your table, as opposed to anything approaching fine dining.

In fact, you order food by the number, rather than the name, and no substitutes are allowed.

The attitude of many of the Amtrak waiters has become renowned among passengers for their portrayals of those actors in movies such as “The Night Of The Living Dead.” The usual alternative to having a zombie-like waiter is one who perennially has gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t dare ask for anything, ever, no way, not today! (I once spoke with an Amtrak conductor who told me he was so disgusted by the attitude of the dining car staff that he had not eaten in an Amtrak dining car for fourteen years!)

On one Amtrak misadventure, my father came to see me off at Chicago’s Union Station prior to my departing for New York City. I had reserved an economy bedroom for the overnight trip. Walking onto the train, my father confessed his only train travels had been in uniform in World War II when soldiers often had to stand for hours, while being assaulted by soot from the coal engines blowing in through open windows. To put it simply, he thought I might consider spending time on a psychiatrist’s couch to understand why I would punish myself by traveling by rail.

Trying to assure this former GI that rail travel was much improved since his army days, I brought him aboard to see my bedroom. The economy bedroom was slightly less than six feet long by three feet wide. Inside the bedroom there was room for my luggage and myself, only not at the same time. I accepted the fact that this bedroom was going to allow me the unusual experience of what awaits me during my eternal rest inside the coffin my bickering children will one day choose for me.

Keeping a stiff upper lip, I suggested we take a look at the new dining car. Standing among the handsomely set tables, the dining room hostess approached us and ordered us to immediately leave that small part of the world in which she had the final word. “What time is dinner?” I asked. “When I tell you!” she snapped. My laughing father gave me a slap on the back, told me to have a great trip, and happily scurried to the first exit.

The only real problems of note on that trip was that as the train stopped to pick up passengers in the hours after midnight, the stewards would scream to each other in the hallways where our bedrooms were. This guaranteed our being awoken every hour.

Another problem was that an Amtrak mechanic forgot to fill the sleeping car’s water tank resulting in the toilets and sinks in our bedrooms not working. Even though this problem was discovered soon into the trip, no employee seemed interested in filling the water tank at any of our many stops. When asked if someone might alleviate this problem, the stewards simply shrugged their shoulders.

A particularly unique form of customer service is Amtrak’s insistence that their staff never be inconvenienced by having to work after a train has arrived at its final destination. This means that the steward insists you leave your bedroom for twenty minutes and stand in the hall so he could strip the beds, vacuum (for the first time!), etc. prior to arrival. More inconvenient was the closing of the snack and bar car one hour before arrival so staff would not have to work beyond the time of the train’s arrival. Too bad, of course, for the fare paying passenger who might want a cup of coffee.

In all of my trips, I do not know that I have ever arrived on time at any destination. Amtrak employees have told me this is because Amtrak does not own most of the rails they travel on and must often stop until freight trains have passed.

And, just to add insult to injury, today’s Amtrak charges nearly as much for a coach ticket as the airlines. So for the same price as flying from Chicago to Los Angeles you have the privilege of sitting up for nearly three days. If you want to purchase a bedroom, you may add $400 to $900 to your fare. This makes the rail price equivalent to a trip to Europe by air.

While I certainly respect my fellow AC content producer’s opinion about traveling on Amtrak, I fear she and I have been on two different railroads. And the worst of it is, in spite of myself I am looking forward to my next trip by rail.

Perhaps my father was right about finding a psychiatrist so I might understand this need to punish myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

nine × 6 =