To someone whose usual experience of a train is the NIR stopper from Bangor to Belfast, the first sight of an Amtrak train is a quite breathtaking.
After waiting in Chicago Union Station, amongst a throng of passengers aiming to get to Los Angeles, or one of the many stops in between, I walked onto the platform and was met by the sight of a giant double-decker train that stretched as far as the eye could see.
My recent trip to the USA incorporated 3 of the most iconic railway journeys that the country has to offer, and allowed me to the chance to see more of the place than most Americans have!
My first train was the Southwest Chief which, for the most part, follows the old Route 66 and part of the Santa Fe Trail. The trip takes around 40 hours and travels 2200 miles across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing through places like Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas on the way.
The second train was the Sunset Ltd which journeys from Los Angeles, along the Mexican Border, and onto New Orleans. This trip takes 48 hours, if all goes according to schedule and allows you to see some incredible places, such as the Arizona Desert, the Mexican border at El Paso and the Bayou of Louisiana.
The third train was a relatively short 2 hour excursion on the Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, taking in some stunning views of the California coastline.
On all the services a basic ticket entitles you to a recliner seat but you do have access to the café, observation/lounge car and the dining car. Some people upgrade to a sleeper, which means you get a proper bed for the journey and all your meals are included in the price.
I had been pre-warned, via other blogs and articles to bring a change of clothes on the two longer trips as facilities were comparable to an airplane bathroom. That, I feel, was unfair to airplanes as I suspect those on the train were actually smaller! However, luggage storage was right beside the bathrooms, so getting a change of clothes wasn’t a major issue.
Whichever route you take, you do have to be adaptable, especially if your ‘home’ for 2 days is a recliner, because if you are travelling alone you will have a total stranger sitting, sleeping and probably eating well within your personal space. Passengers are seated according to destination, so I knew the other passengers in my section were all in for the long-haul. I actually found that apart from a few hours overnight, I spent the majority of my time in the observation car, which was surprisingly quiet. Whilst I had brought books to wile away the journey, I found my eyes were constantly drawn to the view out the window. We passed vast cornfields, deserts, mountains, plains, ghost towns and bizarre 12ft cacti. We stopped at fabled one-horse towns, which appeared to have a train station and not much else. We also stopped in major cities, like Kansas, Albuquerque, San Antonio and Houston. I found the smaller places quite intriguing, trying to figure out how residents spent their day to day lives, particularly out in the desert.
Onboard, time is very hard to keep track of (unintended pun!). Trains frequently pass through time zones so passengers find themselves abiding by “dining car time”. The Dining Car, though, is a world of its own. There is a policy of shared seating which means that single travellers and couples will find themselves seated with strangers at mealtimes. This is enforced rigorously by the staff who can be friendly but very firm at the same time. The menu, especially breakfast, is very well priced. I thought the dinner menu quite expensive, so used the more moderately priced café in the lounge car for that meal.
With regard to timetables, a bit of research will tell you that they are great in principle, but Amtrak time is somewhat different and the train will get there when it gets there. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the trains I used arrived either on time or ahead of schedule, despite delays along the way.
Given I had 40 hours spare en route and had the timetable in my hand most of the time, I discovered that it does allow for some slippage (another unintended train pun) between stations.
One word of warning, the cross country trains do not have Wifi. I prepared in advance by getting a Data Sim for my Ipad from Holidayphone.co.uk which meant I had 3G coverage for the bulk of the journey.
Overall, my Amtrak experience was a good one, I got to see many “off the beaten track” places in the USA and meet all sorts of people