Friday, August 2

Amtrak Lessons

I love to travel by train. I’ve done it many times and have a tried and true method. First pack light. People are always lugging too much carry on when it’s easier to check it. Unlike the airlines it’s highly unlikely it will get lost.

Bring a pillow and a blanket if you are traveling overnight. The seats are not very comfortable but an improvement from the earlier models. They are designed for a six foot 185 pound man, the rest of us-eh. They provide pillows that are nice but small. I have one of those padded collars that I dearly love. I also have something to cover my eyes. Blinding sunlight at dawn is not good. Also, they announce breakfast in the dining car pretty early if the crying kid doesn’t wake you first. If you are traveling in a sleeper-never mind. They are quiet, comfortable and expensive but meals are included. 

Amtrak decided to make travel either steerage or luxury with no middle ground. The two level train I was on recently ( the Coast Starlight) had some empty compartments that I thought would be an excellent place to put in a dozen pullman bunks that Amtrak could sell for $50 a pop but they haven’t figured that out yet. I did some hardy souls curled up on the floor with the little pillow tucked under their head. Right where a bunk would be. See.

Bring a snack. There is a dining or bistro car on most trains but meals can be pricey and are of moderate quality. I like to have my own snack as back up.  However, a beer or cocktail is most enjoyable while watching the scenery. They used to show movies in the lounge car but now with wifi on board everyone has their own gadgets. By the way put that stupid gadget away and enjoy the scenery. 

Keep your schedule open. Amtrak tries to be on time despite Union Pacific’s attempt to thwart their plans so the train can be late. I had no problems with the shorter Cascadia train from Eugene to Seattle but the Coast Starlight which runs between Seattle and LA is often late. If you’re traveling by train you’re not be in a hurry anyway. Enjoy the scenery. Waking up to Mt. Shasta is always amazing. I do however have a bone to pick with Amtrak about one thing. 


You’d think people in the passenger rail business would know better but no. It leads me to think that the Emeryville station was a mistake from the start. The location sucks, a few miles north of the Oakland station which loads passengers for the same train.The late night train passengers have nowhere to get snacks because everything is closed. During the day one must get tokens for the restroom from the surly and often busy staff because, god forbid the homeless should use them, so let’s make it inconvenient for the passengers. The heavy door is punishment for those hauling heavy carry ons.

Amtrak runs pretty well considering it’s problems. Delayed trains, old equipment, no advertising to speak of, indifferent upper management, poor pay. The US government gives huge amounts to the airlines but a pittance to rail, yet the trains are running at capacity. And everyone hates the airlines. Every president makes  hollow promises of increasing rail spending but nothing happens. Europe and China have efficient high speed rail on dedicated track. In this country the old slow moving trains have to move aside for priority freight. Nevertheless I would rather travel by train than by airline any day. No hassles with security theater, roomy seats, friendly staff and the scenery is great.

All aboard (except in Emeryville CA.).

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