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Planning a Trip on Amtrak? Get in the Right Frame of Mind

Passengers board California Zephyr at Chicago Union Station (left); passengers enjoy spectacular view of Mississippi River from Sightseer-Lounge car (right).

Passengers board California Zephyr at Chicago Union Station (left); passengers enjoy spectacular view of Mississippi River from Sightseer-Lounge car (right).

Have you been thinking about taking a long-distance trip on Amtrak?

Rail travel has been getting more and more popular, especially as air travel has become less pleasant and more crowded, and many travelers are uneasy about getting either zapped with X-rays, groped by T.S.A. handlers, or both, as they try to catch a flight nowadays.

Especially for first-time Amtrak travelers, it's important to embark with the right frame of mind. From comments posted to travel sites, feedback forums, blogs, and other online resources, it seems that some travelers come away from their trip dissatisfied because they started out expecting way more than Amtrak can possibly deliver.

I thought it would be helpful to offer a kind of broad overview of the "Amtrak experience," and some tips on what to expect and how to "psych" yourself, putting yourself in the right frame of mind to enjoy the experience of traveling in the U.S.A. by rail.

Be Properly Prepared

First of all, it's good to come adequately prepared for a long-distance train trip—the top of my list would include plenty of bottled water, a light travel blanket, and a change of clothing with you in your overnight bag at your seat (or in your room, if you're traveling in a sleeper).

One of the main issues to address is the time of foodservice. People sometimes board the train hungry, expecting a nice meal in the dining car. For example, I've seen passengers board at 9:30 in the morning expecting to order breakfast, or perhaps at 2:30 in the afternoon, expecting to enjoy lunch in the diner.

Well, not necessarily—meals are served according to a set schedule (this varies among trains, and is routinely announced on board). For example, breakfast generally is served somewhere between 6 and about 9 or so in the morning; lunch, between about 11:30 and perhaps 2:30, but that varies, so be sure to check. Sometimes you're unlucky and find that you've boarded just after the diner has closed.

You won't go hungry, however, because there's still the snack bar. However, some savvy Amtrak travelers will pack a lunch or some snacks to get them by until the next regular mealtime. Just be forewarned, and you might try checking with Amtrak's station personnel (although the final word is with the dining car crew).

Expect a Leisurely Pace

I'm sure it's no surprise that long-distance travel by Amtrak is considerably slower than air travel. In fact, Amtrak's scheduled travel times tend to be even slower than those of intercity buses, like Greyhound. Why?

Rail Congestion

The biggest reason is that Amtrak's long-distance trains spend almost all their route running over the tracks of private freight railroads, which basically call the shots as to who goes when. This is a matter of dispute, but many Amtrak supporters, political allies, and industry professionals see evidence that the freight carriers give preference to their own freight trains, dumping Amtrak's passenger trains onto sidings, where they wait for long freights to pass and clear the main track.

There are exceptions. The B.N.S.F. Railway, for example, does try to expedite Amtrak trains and maintain its commitment to the agency. But several other big freight railroads don't seem as committed to good service.

This situation stands in contrast to the publicly owned highway system—especially the Interstate highway network—which permits fairly consistent highspeed travel. The glaring exception occurs when you encounter traffic congestion. (But that's not the work of a dispatcher deliberately letting trucks zip through. Everybody is equally stacked up because of roadwork, an accident, or the familiar peak-hour crunch.)

Congestion is related to the freight-passenger rail delay problem, however, over the past several decades, many railroads have systematically sold off extra track. This has reduced their capacity and shoehorned both freight and passenger trains running in both directions into narrow single tracks. Serious bottlenecks have resulted, and that's often where the freights get priority over passenger trains. What would happen if an Interstate highway were to be narrowed to a single lane to handle both directions?

Equipment Issues

The second problem contributing to slow schedules is the breakdowns of Amtrak's equipment. Washington has been extremely parsimonious with its funding of Amtrak (which is basically the Oliver Twist of the U.S. public transport system). This has restrained both adequate maintenance and the procurement of spiffy new rolling stock.

Thus, Amtrak is trying to keep rolling stock running that's decades old. Much of it has been refurbished, but is it so surprising that, on rare occasions, anything that old, from a locomotive to plumbing to electrical wiring to an A/C system, might cause problems?


Then there's a third problem disrupting rail passenger schedules fairly often: the weather! How does this happen?

While public spending (including motor fuel sales taxes) helps clear highways of landslides, storm debris, and snow, the private railroads must do this for their tracks on their own dime. This means that there are many more occasions when the rights-of-way are blocked by weather events, resulting in problems such as fallen tree limbs, rockslides, and snow.


Finally, there's another major reason for schedule delays: accidents. And most of the time, this means collisions with motor vehicles trying to outrun the train at level crossings (and, on occasion, pedestrian trespassers being struck on the tracks). Besides the tragic death or injury and property damage, every accident, of course, results in a substantial delay for the passengers aboard the train.

In contrast to the rail lines in Japan, China, Europe, and many other countries, which have mostly "grade separations" (bridges, overpasses, underpasses), a high proportion of rail alignments in the United States consist of level crossings, intersecting streets, and highways at grade (on the surface). Politicians talk a lot about "infrastructure upgrades," but very little interest, planning, or money is allocated to this critical problem of separating tracks from road traffic.

Check Your Expectations

Given all of the above, what I usually tell prospective Amtrak travelers is that Amtrak is basically a kind of Third World traveling experience. You're using infrastructure that's worse than in many Third World countries; rolling stock that's even older; and a funding level that's much worse. Nevertheless, you can still have a pleasurable experience if you just stay laid-back and enjoy your journey.

For example, don't make plans for a dinner or theatre date immediately upon your arrival. If you're trying to make a critical special event, like a birthday or wedding, plan to get there a day (or at least half a day) early. Treat Amtrak more like a Third World cruise ship, where anything might happen, and you'll have more fun.

Anticipate Social Experiences

Given all the problems described above—slow schedules, waiting on sidings for freight trains to pass, equipment breakdowns, weather disruptions, accidents—why do so many people opt to ride Amtrak, anyway?

Answer: It's fun, it usually works well, and it's an utterly unique riding experience.

One aspect that makes it so unique is the social experience. Even if you're a hopelessly shy introvert (I sort of fall in this category), you will probably meet new people. Or maybe people you already know. At the very least, you can have a chat with a member of the train crew (they're often very interesting people).

There's a huge mixture of people that travel on Amtrak, including young, old, American citizens, visitors from other countries, people traveling for all sorts of reasons, people with unusual jobs (I've met circus performers, artists, oil fire specialists, and quite an assortment of others). And there are several different places on the train where you might meet and end up talking with strangers.

First, there's your seat, of course, and who knows who might be sitting in a nearby seat, in a coach car, or a nearby room, if you're in a sleeping car?

Next, there's the diner, where community seating means you will probably sit at a table with a couple of total strangers. Then, in the Superliner-equipped trains on the western routes, there's the Sightseer-Lounge car, where people sit in the upper level, in single seats or booths, watching the scenery or the cityscapes drift by, working on their laptops, watching videos, reading books or Kindles, or maybe just waiting for somebody to strike up a conversation.

Then there's the snack bar or dinette area. This can be found in single-level cars on the Viewliner rolling stock used mainly in the East. On the more spacious Superliner Sightseer-Lounge cars running in the West, the snack bar and dinette areas are usually located on the lower level, with booths next to the wide windows.

Especially since beer, wine, and liquor are available at the snack bar, these areas often tend to turn into a kind of pub in the evening (but quite a bit quieter, without some band playing live music at 140 decibels) . . . which, curiously, seems to make the Sightseer-Lounge car and snack bar especially (but not exclusively) attractive to young people.

Interacting With the Train Crew

Some first-time Amtrak travelers file complaints about their experience with train personnel. Now, while on rare occasions I have indeed encountered a rude or unhelpful member of the train crew, this is by far the exception, and probably no more likely than what you'd encounter traveling by airline or bus. I tend to think that novice train travelers may be expecting too much.

First of all, the primary responsibility of the crew is to ensure safety. Their next responsibility is to make sure you, the passenger, are comfortable and happy, as much as possible. With all the difficulties I've described—delays, breakdowns, and so on—plus other problems (like running out of food on occasion), this task (making your trip pleasant) can be demanding.

Your best frame of mind in this respect is to have some empathy with the crew. An adversarial role will definitely get you just about nowhere, and possibly escorted off the train. Be prepared to give the crew lots of positive feedback for what they do well, but the service is not designed to rival that of a five-star hotel.

If you have a problem with a crew member, you can try speaking to the conductor about it (the conductor is in charge of the train). Otherwise, your best bet is to make some notes, save them, and then report the problem to Amtrak's customer service.

Expect a Decent Dining Experience

My experience is that the service and food on Amtrak dining cars have both improved dramatically in recent years. However, if you go to the diner expecting a five-star dining experience, you'll probably be disappointed and will spoil for yourself what could otherwise be a uniquely enjoyable experience—dining while rolling past scenery and other views you'd almost never otherwise see. Plus, of course, meeting new people you wouldn't otherwise meet.

If you figure that the food is almost on a par with, say, Cheddar's or Hard Rock Cafe, then you'll probably be pleased with what you get. Amtrak has been making an effort to feature more regional cuisine, and their desserts are usually spectacular. The portions are usually substantial, so be forewarned.

As with the train crew in general, your best mindset approach is to empathize with the dining car crew. Because Amtrak has struggled with funding for years (some politicians would apparently like to eliminate it entirely), the dining car crew, in particular, has found itself trying to do more and more with less and less.

I've found that 99.9% of the time, every member of Amtrak's diner crew tries hard to please. Sometimes that's difficult, especially if an unexpected number of customers flood into the diner, if there's some kind of equipment failure, or if they run out of some food items (as sometimes happens). Service may get sluggish, but just about never because your dining car attendant is neglecting their job.

Take things in stride. Share experiences with the other passengers seated at your table. Enjoy the food at a leisurely pace, and enjoy the passing scenery. You'll almost surely have a dining car meal that will add to a memorable overall experience. And be sure to leave a tip.

Summing It Up

Amtrak is a unique travel adventure, but be sure to expect the unexpected. For an Amtrak trip, especially an overnight trip, attitude—your frame of mind—is everything.

Travelers that have unrealistic expectations are almost invariably disappointed. Instead, I've tried to convey a taste of what to realistically expect (and the unexpected is included). Think of it somewhat as a land cruise that happens to also provide important surface transportation. Think of it as an adventure, with all that that notion implies, including in terms of social interaction.

Basically, psych yourself into enjoying the trip, and the adventure, and you'll probably have a great time.

© 2011 Lyndon Henry