Now that I am a veteran train traveler (having ridden the train twice—there and back again), I thought I’d answer some questions that people have thrown my way.
(1) What’s it like to sleep on a train?
There are two ways one can sleep on the train (not including heavy sedation). You can pay roughly the same price (or less) as you would have spent on airfare to ride in coach. (That’s if you’re on U.S. Amtrak. Fares are considerably higher on Canadian trains.) In coach, you would spend the night on a reclining chair in the company of your 50 new best friends. Or you can pay an extra $350 to $1000 to get a sleeper car. (That’s divided among the occupants of the car, not per person. And it includes meals. And it assumes you’re starting in Seattle and finishing in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.)
I can’t speak for the sleeping conditions in the sleeper cars, but I couldn’t believe how well other people slept in coach. I awoke several times a night to find only a handful of people moving around. Everyone else seemed to be out cold. (Tip: bring blanket and neck pillow. Regular pillows are supplied.)
I was also amazed at how few people snored during the night. All sorts of people ride the train—young, old, male, female, thin, chunky—you’d think there’d be at least one monster snorer in the bunch. Of course, a monster snorer might be among those who couldn’t sleep well, and thus never reached their full decibel levels.
Hmmm. . . maybe I was the monster snorer . . .
Nah, Jules would have said something.
(2) What’s the food like?
On our train, the lower level of the observation car included a snack bar where you could buy coffee, bottled juice/water, and assorted packaged snacks. They also had a breakfast sandwich (I never saw what that looked like) and hamburgers. Jules and I ordered the hamburgers one night when we couldn’t get a dining car reservation until after 9:00pm. The attendant pulled a couple of plastic wrapped packages from under the counter, tossed them in a souped-up microwave and whamo! Dinner in 15 seconds. The beef patty was thick and wide and the color of aged asphalt. The cheese had vaporized and reformed as a thin coating around the interior of the plastic wrap. The taste of the ensemble was adequate, if you didn’t think about it too hard. Ditto for the price.
We ate the rest of our meals in the dining car or nibbled on some granola we brought along. The dining car was like a restaurant. You make a reservation and either go at a preset time or go when they call your name. The upper deck is lined with tables covered in white cloth. A waiter seats you, gives you a menu, and takes your order. The food is prepared in a kitchenette on the lower level and sent up to the dining area via dumb waiter. (The dumb waiter made my older daughter, Hannah*, extremely happy. She wants one installed in her bedroom.) Dinner prices range roughly from $14-$24. Breakfast ranged from $8-$12. I don’t remember lunch prices.
During the course of our journey, I had braised beef ribs, roasted half of a chicken, French onion soup, and pancakes. The beef was actually pretty good. The roasted chicken was good in a reheated sort of way. Both dinners came with steamed veggies that had little flavor other than the plastic wrap they were steamed in. The soup was tasty for the first few slurps and then became tiresome—but that can happen with French onion soup. The pancakes were at least as good as your average restaurant pancakes.
As I said before, if there’s only two of you, the maître d’ will seat total strangers at your table. One couple that sat with Jules and me ordered hamburgers for lunch. The burgers arrived looking suspiciously asphalt-like, though they did come with the lettuce and tomato that our lounge car burgers lacked.
To summarize, the food quality was variable but edible. The prices were a little high, but not Disney World high. My recommendation: Go ahead and eat in the dining car once or twice, but pack a small cooler with cheeses, condiments, fruit, and raw veggies. Bring crackers, rolls, and individual portions of cereal.
(3) What are the bathrooms like?
Short answer: A lot like airplane bathrooms.
The bathrooms (or, if you prefer, washrooms/toilets) in our train were in the lower level of each passenger car. There were at least 5 bathrooms per car. Some bathrooms were roughly the same size as an airplane bathroom, but with higher ceilings. Others had changing areas attached, in case you spill coffee in your lap. As with all such public facilities, the ability to levitate and use mind powers to operate all fixtures is desirable.
(4) What are the seats like?
The seats in coach are reasonably comfy for riding and better than an airplane for sleeping. However, Amtrak is not a plush, well-funded operation. The foam in some seat cushions seems to have hardened with age and some foot and leg rests don’t work properly. Make sure to test all such functions before nestling in for the long term. Of course, if you don’t board at a hub, you may be stuck with the only remaining empty seats. In that case, be prepared to cherry pick as soon as someone departs. (Tip: Do not steal anyone’s seat when they depart for dinner. Wait until you know they’re gone for good. Remember, they know where you sleep…)
Oh, and the stairwells are lit more brightly at night than the rest of the car, so maybe you don’t want to sit across from them.
(5) Can I recharge my laptop/cell phone/iPad/Kindle/electric toothbrush?
For all you electronics junkies, the answer is “yes.” Two outlets were available for every pair of seats on our train. But from what I read, not all routes have this luxury, so juice up before you go. (But really, you’ll be too busy looking for antelope out the window and chatting with your NBFs to drain your toys dry, so there shouldn’t be an issue, either way.)
(6) What’s it like to travel on a train?
Our waiter told us that the train would go about 79mph, once we got out of the mountains. You’d think that the engineers would put in a little more effort and make it an even 80mph. Trains go through more and longer tunnels than cars do. One tunnel lasted 15 minutes. I think it was in the Cascades. We were told it was the second longest train tunnel in North America.
Passenger cars are fairly sound proof, so it’s easy to forget how loud they are from the outside. The train’s whistle (I would say “air horn,” but whistle is more romantic) sounds like it’s five miles away. Very atmospheric and nostalgic, unless your house is at a train crossing.
Much of the time, travel was smooth, with a constant, low-level vibration of wheels grinding on track. Sometimes we hit stretches where the train rocked gently, side-to-side. I found both the low vibration and gentle rocking soothing. I actually slept better when the train was moving than when it idled at a station. Occasionally, we hit patches where the train rumbled and shook a bit, but nothing alarming. Sometimes the train jerked slightly, front-to-back, as if the driver had tapped on his brakes. This seemed to happen only at night, when I was mostly asleep, and I’d shoot awake thinking we had hit something. (Who knows, maybe we had…)
One last thing—on a train, time and distance become confused. You get up to stretch your legs, grab some coffee in the lounge car, maybe sit at a table and play a few hands of cards. All the while, the miles roll by, mountains falling into foothills, crumbling away to dry prairie, and you’re in a new time zone. A few hours later, the train slows to thread through flooded wetlands. Flocks of migrating birds dash helter-skelter across the water’s surface, just a few feet from the window. And you’re in a new time zone. And distance becomes time becomes distance . . .
You sit back in your seat and meet your neighbor’s eyes. “How far are you going?”
“I’m getting off in Grand Forks,” he says, and he checks his watch. “About two hours away. You?”
“Detroit Lakes . . . maybe three hours further down the track.”
The train eases through a small town. Pedestrians stop to wave. “Why do they do that,” you wonder, waving back. But you know the answer.
They want to ride the train.
*Jules and I were by ourselves on the way to Minnesota, but all four of us made the return trip by train.