Back in 2000, I took one of Amtrak’s tour packages, the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, with a stopover for a few days at the historic Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Mont.
In 2010, wanting a bit of a rest, I decided to again take the train a long distance, this time from San Diego to Santa Fe, NM, via Los Angeles and Lamy, NM on the Southwest Chief.
Both times, I had a roomette, an extra-cost compartment that also includes all meals. This trip was much more enjoyable than the first one as I could actually get some sleep. In fact, on the eastbound trip, it turned out I got too much sleep.
Amtrak’s long-distance trains aren’t anything like the short line Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Los Angeles and points north. At least in the west, they’re all two-level cars, with most of the seating upstairs. The ride can be bouncy at times, as they go through switches and junctions, but when they’re on the high-speed (90 mph at times) main lines, they’re smooth and quiet.
I booked a roomette, two facing chairs that combine into a fairly comfortable single bed. If two are traveling, there’s an upper berth that folds down from the ceiling. Like everything else on the train, there’s very little room to stand up when the bed’s folded out and the door is closed, but it is a private compartment.
Decor is spartan and identical to my 2000 trip, but it looked like there had been some recent refurbishment. Upholstery was in good shape and the little curtains on the windows and doors looked new. Down the hall is a bathroom that was kept clean by the car’s attendant and downstairs was a shower. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a shower on a train.
Sleeping is another thing. Friends have heard the story about how I couldn’t sleep on the train, even though, as with the Santa Fe trip, I had a roomette.
No problem this time. I wouldn’t call it my best night ever sleeping, but I did get enough. An hour or two at a time before the ruble-woosh of a passing train or something else woke me up. Probably as good as I’d have done in a motel along I-40. The single bed was in good shape and comfortable. Big enough for my 6-1 frame.
It was a New Moon, so the stars were bright enough to be seen through the heavily tinted train windows. I kept my curtains open and could see them twinkling; even though we were traveling as fast as 90mph, I’d expect the stars to pretty much stay where they are. However, the track curves and wanders a bit, so they sort of spin and twist at times. Well, you’d have to be there.
The food was better this time as well. About an hour before meals, one of the dining car attendants comes by and gets your reservation. The diner experience is one of the great things about riding on a train. Amtrak’s diners are high above the rails in cars where the roof is almost all glass. Tables for four still go by the old railroad tradition of filling each table before moving on to another, which means can mean you’ll be dining with new friends.
The big attraction is the scenery, which glides by as you dine. Eastbound, the Los Angeles freeways and backyards were visible in the gloamin; westbound the New Mexico plains faded away.
Amtrak sets a nice table, but hardly a five-star restaurant. Unlike the airlines, you’ll have real flatware but plastic dishes (Amtrak says it recycles). As I mentioned, sleeper passengers have meals included in their fare; spend the money for at least one diner meal if you’re in a coach. Eastbound, they had a flatiron steak on the menu, which was tender and cooked just the way I liked it. The crispy skin on the baked potato invited me to finish the whole thing, which I did. Scampi was the special westbound and it was equally good. I saved room for the lemon sorbet dessert eastbound, opting for chocolate ice cream westbound. There was also baked chicken, a vegetarian pasta, seafood… not a huge menu, but a good variety. A rather Spartan salad started the meal, with an assortment of dressings in plastic packs; not exactly gourmet, but good for the train. Check out the menu.
Timing is everything when you’re talking about meals on the train. Eastbound, I was able to get dinner (following departure at 6:45 p.m. from LA), and with arrival in Lamy not until 2 p.m., I also got breakfast and lunch. Westbound, we didn’t leave Lamy until 2:30 and with arrival at LA around 7:45 (early!), food is served from 5-6 a.m. I decided to sleep and pay for breakfast later (it ended up being on the Pacific Surfliner on the way to San Diego).
Eastbound, I had the cheese omlette with a side of bacon for breakfast. Lunch was a choice of sandwiches, salads and burgers. I opted for the salad.
The staff was also better than I remember, with attentive attendants in my sleeping car in both directions, plus friendly folk in the diner and observation cars. Same goes for the staff that works the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA, and the folks in LA who answered my questions.
The scenery wasn’t to be beat. If you check Amtrak’s national schedule, it shows where the train is in daylight, which on my legs were between roughly Flagstaff and Lamy headed east and Lamy to Gallup headed west. The best views are through the western part of New Mexico around the Continental Divide, Red Rock State Park and the Red Cliffs. Unfortunately, I was dozing in my roomette when headed west; I’d wake up, look out the window and think I was in a John Ford movie, then doze off again and the camera remained in the case. Headed east, I found myself a spot in the Observation Car with the camera and poof… the sun went down before we hit the real red stuff. Still, the view was pretty good.
Stations were interesting places. The Southwest Chief’s first stop is in Fullerton, Calif. As we pulled in, the windows started vibrating and music flowed through the car. Turns out a band was playing in the patio next to the bar/restaurant at the Fullerton station. As soon as we pulled out, the music faded. The restored Barstow station and former Harvey House hotel is an elaborate hulk in the dark at 10 p.m. Santa Fe’s station and the one in Lamy — two ends of the rail shuttle in the old days — are near twins and very similar to ones in Pratt and Kiowa, Kan. that I photographed back in 2002. The Santa Fe railroad built several similar stations. Albuquerque is an hour stop while they refuel and clean the train; there’s a new station there.
As for the folks on the train, a couple looked liked the Unibomber, while there were several who skipped their session with the psychiatrist and instead broadcast their problems to their unfortunate neighbors. Across the hall leaving LA was Mr. Train, who was giving tie-by-tie descriptions along the way to his roomette-mate and several other friends down the corridor. On the other hand, everybody was courteous and generally friendly, just hanging on until they reached their stop.
All in all, I think Amtrak is working hard and provides good value. If you have the guts to leave the car at home, it’s certainly an alternative to air. The scenery’s still there, as if you were driving, and the price was pretty good.
Update: Here’s a video I took northbound on the Coast Starlight in 2011. An experience not available in a car or plane.