A training guide for first-timers

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 15, 2014 16:43

photo-1Something went wrong with the dining car north of Eugene.

“A mechanical problem,” said the steward. “We should have it repaired in Portland and be ready to serve you dinner.”

But they didn’t, and instead we Amtrak passengers got take-out – more than 150 boxes of Popeye Fried Chicken that left the LA-to-Seattle Coast Starlight smelling like a greasy dive.

But the deep-fried banquet briefly warmed our “deluxe bedroom,” which had been at the temperature of a meat locker for much of the 36-hour trip north.

It did nothing, however, to stem the tide of PA announcements that came into our rolling home. Upcoming stations, dining-car seatings, explanations for momentary stops in the middle of nowhere all warranted air time.

“Our emergency braking system has activated,” went one disconcerting alert issued after we had screeched to a halt in the hills above San Luis Obispo. ”We will be looking into this and keep you informed.”

The plus side: What if this had happened on a 737?

All of the above came to pass on an unfortunate ride two years ago. So, does it give you the sudden urge to book an Amtrak trip?

It didn’t stop me: I’ve been riding trains for nearly 60 years and minor glitches are part of the charm. But, because it pays to be informed before boarding the Zephyr, the Starlight or the Chief, here’s my how-to guide for first-time riders:

Mellow out: Amtrak is snail slow. Just last week I went to Phoenix by rail: It took 24 hours — twice as long as driving and a dozen times slower than a 737. Also, trains can on occasion run many hours behind their already undemanding schedule. So chill out, enjoy the ride and calendar no business meetings, surgical procedures or weddings within 24 hours of your scheduled arrival.

Don’t sweat security: You don’t have to take off your shoes, get scanned, get frisked or even show your ID to board Amtrak.. Your luggage isn’t searched or X-rayed, you don’t have to pull out your laptop, the TSA is nowhere to be seen and nobody cares if you bring a full tube of toothpaste on board. You can even pack in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and guzzle it in your room.

Sweat security: Someone could probably get on the train carrying a bazooka zipped in a golf bag and not be noticed.

Stretch out: Legroom is not an issue on Amtrak. Recline your seat and you’ll hit no knees and elicit no curses. If you put thoughts of bazookas out of your head, you might even be able to sleep. And if you can’t, you can upgrade to a sleeper (privacy, dinky bed, free meals in the diner, much higher price).

Eat in the dining car: This will carry you decades back in time or, perhaps, into a Hitchcock or Capra movie. Forget airline peanuts, and order a steak (Amtrak’s are very good). And, gulp, talk to strangers. Communal seating is a diner rule, and you’ll be eating with fellow passengers – who are almost always affable and engaging. Like everyone else on the train, they have time to talk. A final tip: Skip the vegetarian lasagna.

Unplug: Amtrak’s working on it, but at this point there’s no WiFi on most long-distance trains running in the West. So for a day or two forget Amazon, email, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Instead try something truly novel…

Look out the window: Squint from an airliner’s tiny porthole and you’ll see the crosshatch of tiny roads, the gentle rise of mountains and the spread of farmland 35,000 feet below. It might as well be Google Earth. Aboard a train, you’re in the middle of it all. You climb passes, wind through canyons, cruise along coastlines and go right through those amber waves of grain.

But the view from Amtrak is not all National Geographic. You’ll also see the wrong side of the tracks – the dives, junkyards, slums, shacks, warehouses and crumbling buildings from a bygone era. photo-2

With the exception of riding a bike across the country (I did it with son Ben back in 2008 and it took 66 days), there’s no better way to see the U.S.

“It’s a view no one else in the country enjoys,” said my dining car companion during the first day of my Arizona trip. Outside, there were no highways, drive-ins, 7-Eleven stores, car lots, traffic jams or even roads. We were cruising through a long, starkly beautiful stretch of Southern California coastline.

How good was that view? Well, Popeye Chicken, a chilly bedroom and repeated announcements that we were approaching Oxnard seemed like a very small price to pay.

To book a train trip, visit Amtrak.com, where the online service isn’t much slower than on airline sites.

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 15, 2014 16:43
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1 Comment

  1. Jason Reed November 16, 08:35

    Sunday – November 16, 2014


    Your blog fairly well reflects my several cross-country AMTRAK trips. Overall it is an enjoyable time despite the too-many PA announcements and the seemingly frequent delays. Recently my seven-year old granddaughter loved the ride into Chicago from Ohio and then overnight to Santa Fe – we had cross-aisle roomettes with her parents. Like you, I will keeping riding the train.

    For new riders wanting information about sleeping accommodations there are a couple of good You Tube videos with excellent narration and tips about how to pack for the small space. I found them useful.

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