As we got inspired by watching some travel vlogs about travelling on Amtrak and spurred on by Michael Portillo‘s ‘Great American Railroad Journeys‘ on BBC Two we decided to try it out ourselves in 2016.
First we had to decide where we wanted to go, as most long distance cross country Amtrak trains depart in Chicago that would be the obvious starting point. Next up was where to head next, as Timothy was very fond of his childhood experiences in San Francisco and I had never been there we opted to first travel on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, next to San Francisco. When we were at the west coast we took some shorter ‘corridor’ services, which we will cover in detail in the next instalment, before ending our trip on the Coast Starlight all along the Pacific Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles.
The biggest difference between long distance rail travel in the United States of America and in Europe is that in the USA you have to check in your big bags and pick them up from a baggage belt at your final destination, just like on a plane. So make sure you pack a small bag with all the necessities for the few days you are on board!
If you are travelling in a sleeper car you get access to the Amtrak lounge (if there is one in the station) before boarding, where you can sit in some comfortable chairs, have a drink, enjoy the WiFi and use a proper land toilet the last time. When boarding is announced, you head to the ‘gate’ where your ticket is checked before you can enter the platform and walk to your reserved coach and cabin.
The first train would be a real adventure, three days in a train passing through the various landscapes of the USA. While at first we were a bit scared we might get bored, the diversity of the scenery made sure we just had to look outside to be entertained. Of course the necessary ooh’s and aah’s where uttered at the most spectacular stretches.
The Coast starlight would mark the end of our trip, from the green forests surrounding Seattle down to the dry countryside of southern California we were able to see some more diversity in the landscape of the USA.
On both trains we had Amtrak Superliner double decker coaches, these where introduced back in 1978 to improve and standardise service on-board Amtrak long distance services. Luckily they have been well maintained and refurbished during their time in service so they still look and feel relatively up to date. You enter the coach on the bottom level, through a manually operated door (no automatic centrally controlled doors here!). Right along the entrance you can find a baggage storage area for your bigger bags that don’t fit into your room. On the lower floor there are some roomettes, a family bedroom, a handicapped accessible bedroom, toilets and a communal shower. If you head up the stairs you arrive at the upper floor, which is the main level as you walk through the train on the upper level (Like in Swiss IC2000 and French TGV duplex trains), and here you find the deluxe bedrooms at one side, and the remainder of the roomettes, a toilet, a coffee and ice station and the coach attendants room at the other side.
On-board the California Zephyr we splashed out on a deluxe bedroom featuring our own toilet and shower, which we deemed important during a 3 days-2 nights trip.
While the room was compact, it was spacious enough featuring a long bench to sit on, which could be converted into the lower bunk for sleeping at night, at one side. The upper bunk was located above and would be lowered in the evening when it was time for bed. Every bunk had its own netting to store personal items, a reading light and the necessary bedding.
At the opposite side you had a small foldable chair along the window, aka Timothy’s throne, with a small baggage rack above. Alongside you had a connecting door to the adjacent room, the entrance to the combined toilet and shower cabin and finally some cabinets with a washbasin. Soap and towels where provided and refreshed.
On-board the Coast Starlight we booked the cheaper roomette as it would only be a simple overnight journey. The room was only half the size of the deluxe bedroom, consisting of two-fold down chairs opposite each other which converted into the lower bunk at night and an upper bunk which was folded down at night. There was one communal toilet on the upper floor, with two more toilets and a shower cabin on the lower floor.
Of course you also have coach seats on board, they are much more spacious than the average second class seat on European trains and remind you mostly of a business class seat on board airplanes in the 1980’s. They are arranged in a 2-2 configuration and offer a generous recline, so the more adventurous or budget-conscious traveller surely can spend the night here. Toilets and handicapped accessible seats are on the lower level.
On the Coast Starlight we also encountered a business class car, which is similar to a coach class car but with more comfortable leather seats and some extra amenities.
The highlight of the train is without doubt the observation coach, on the upper level it has panoramic windows offering a spectacular view of the surroundings. The coach is divided into two seating areas, at one side you have tables for four persons, while at the other side you have seats angled to the outside view. As this car is accessible by coach, business and sleeper car passengers it can get quite crowded at the most scenic parts of the route, especially when there is a park ranger present to talk about the things you see on the way.
On the lower level there is a small café where you can buy snacks and drinks outside of the main meal times.
On board the Coast Starlight we were lucky in having one of only four parlour cars still in service at Amtrak, these are the last ‘heritage’ cars still in regular mainline service on Amtrak. Originally built for the famous Santa Fe Railroad‘s Chicago to Los Angeles service in the 1950’s they were the first double decker cars built for long distance rail service in the USA and where the inspiration for the later built Superliners.
Nowadays the remaining ‘dome’ cars are used as an exclusive lounge car for sleeper car passengers only, and decorated in a more luxurious style using wood panelling. On the upper level you have a part with swivel seats you can turn 360 degrees for optimal scenic viewing, while the remaining part are table seats and a small bar serving some excellent cocktails.
On the lower level there is a small movie theatre, but this was not in use when we travelled on it. Unfortunately these cars were removed from service in early 2018 and will not be operating anymore.
Catering on board
As we booked sleeper car accommodations on both trains our meals in the dining car where included in our fare, if you are travelling in coach or business class you can still come and eat in the dining car but you will have to pay for your meal.
Meals are served three times a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner and include all non-alcoholic drinks. As this is of course in the USA portions are generous and all mains are hot. When travelling on-board the coast starlight you can have your meal in the parlour car instead, if there is still room, and enjoy a slightly different menu in a cosier and quieter surrounding.
As our trip on-board Amtrak was very enjoyable we will certainly do a similar trip in the future and would recommend anyone wanting to take the slow route through the USA to travel on Amtrak. Next time we will be talking how it is like to travel Amtrak on shorter routes.