From sea to shining sea on Amtrak

I have moved with my family from California to Massachusetts. I got an idea of taking a train. I don’t like to fly and the California Zephyr train goes through the most beautiful parts of this country. It has a “sightseer” car with big windows for watching the view. I thought it would be a four days vacation on train, fun for the kids and for us. I was wrong.


We departed from Emeryville, CA on time. The first problem showed up after about two hours, between Sacramento and Truckee. Someone had tried to drive a bulldozer over a railway bridge and got stuck there. We waited for Union Pacific to clear the mess for 15 hours.
It was actually not so bad for us. We were in a sleeper car. The situation of the people in the coach cars was much worse. Some were traveling with small kids, completely unprepared for longer travel. Some missed their wedding, others the Super bowl (I am not sure what that is but it seems to be very important for people here).
Since there were news reporters traveling on the train, Amtrak got bad publicity on this. This resulted in an Amtrak manager showing up on the train before we arrived to Chicago. He personally apologized for the 31 hours delay, which he assured us was very unusual for Amtrak. He promised that we would be put in a hotel in Chicago and our tickets would be rebooked for the same train departing two days later. It all looked good. We had a day of rest in Chicago which we used to visit the Field Museum.
However, when we showed up at the Chicago station to board the train it turned out that the rebooking part of the Amtrak’s manager promises was not quite true. The ticket counter attendant told us that he does not have space in the sleeper. The customer service representative (very unpleasant) told us that our only option was to take the coach seats. Traveling overnight in the coach seats with three small kids was out of the question. I would prefer to fly from Chicago to Boston. The problem was, Chicago airport was practically closed due to weather and most flights were canceled. Fortunately the ticket counter attendant was a bit more creative in exploring possibilities and suggested that we can take a different route to Boston through Washington, DC. So we boarded a train to Washington.
After traveling about 50 minutes the bad luck struck again. There was a flash flood warning and the train slowed down to 15 miles per hour. We traveled like that through the entire state of Indiana.
The next day my daughter had her 8th birthday. Instead of the new home she spent it on a train.
Since the new estimated time of arrival to Washington was 1 a. m. we were “detrained” in Pittsburg and bused to Harrisburg where we took a train to Philadelphia. We arrived there about 8 p. m. After spending four hours at the magnificent Philadelphia station we took a train to Boston where we arrived on time at 7:50 a. m., about 60 hours later than the original Amtrak schedule.

Conclusions

Traveling on Amtrak for more than one night is a bad idea, especially if you want to travel with kids. Even in a sleeper car it is very tiring. The tracks are sometimes uneven and when the train travels at 80 mph the noise and vibrations make it quite difficult to sleep. You can not open a window on an Amtrak train. The air inside the cars is as dry as on an airplane. The food is tasty and abundant, but it is mostly standard American cuisine, you know, burgers and the like. There are no fruits except bananas that come with the continental breakfast. You are bound to gain weight and the gain is proportional to the time of travel. The showers in the bedrooms are too small to be usable. Taking the family bedroom is a better deal. I didn’t take it (took a standard bedroom and a roomette) because it did not have a bathroom with a shower. There is a comfortable shower next to the (only) family bedroom in the car which was the one we used anyway. And of course the schedule is a joke. Don’t travel if you have any time commitment. Be prepared that you may be stuck on the train for seventeen hours when you expected a two hours trip. This is much better on the east coast which is the “Amtrak territory”, according to one of the car attendants. This means that Amtrak owns the tracks. In other parts of the country Amtrak trains have the lowest priority and have to wait for freight trains.

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