Back on the Rails Again

The Antiplanner is enjoying Amtrak’s California Zephyr through the Colorado Rockies today. Assuming all went well, I boarded the Coast Starlight in Portland on Saturday, then changed trains to the Zephyr Sunday morning, and will arrive in Chicago on Tuesday. From there I’ll take the Capital Limited to Washington, DC, all part of my research on the viability of passenger rail transportation in today’s America.

The California Zephyr near Granby, Colorado. Detail of photo taken by William Kratville for Amtrak in 2000.

I love passenger trains, but I planned this trip with some trepidation. I took Amtrak across the country many times in the 1970s, but since then Amtrak has succeeded in making its trains boring at best. My experience during the 1980s was that the seats were less comfortable, the overnight accommodations were prohibitively expensive, and the food was mediocre, leading me to switch to air travel for most long trips. Now I’m taking this trip to see if things have improved or are as bad as I remember them.

I could have taken a three-day trip by going from Portland to Chicago on the Empire Builder, and while I have strong feelings about that train (which was named after one of my heroes), the scenery on the California Zephyr is better and I also wanted to try business class on the Coast Starlight, the only western long-distance train to have such a class.

Except for the last night on the Capital Limited, I’m not getting a sleeping room, partly because it would be hard for me to justify in my own mind spending three to four times as much to take the train as it would cost to fly. But I also know that when I ride in a sleeping car I tend to spend all my time there, while when I ride coach I take the opportunity to meet more people who may tell me why they chose to take a train instead of another mode of travel.

One thing I know already is that the on-time performance of these trains is dismal: 39 percent over the last year for the Starlight and Cal Zephyr and 61 percent for the Cap Limited. By comparison, Alaska Airlines, my airline of choice, has an 87 percent on-time record. If I miss a connection at Sacramento or Chicago, I may have to fly to get to DC in time for scheduled meetings. But with four-hour layovers in both cities, the chances of this being a problem in April are remote.

Amtrak has wifi on almost all of its short-distance trains, but none of its western long-distance trains except, supposedly, for business class on the Coast Starlight. I’ll try to write a report on the first leg of my trip for tomorrow either on the train or by finding wifi in Sacramento, while a report Wednesday will depend on having wifi in Chicago.

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3 thoughts on “Back on the Rails Again

  1. Sandy Teal

    I remember taking a cross-country Amtrak as a kid going east to visit grandparents. One night of travel was July 4th and we were treated to a dozen different firework shows in various towns and cities we travelled through. It was a lot of fun as a kid because we could move around, but I remember the bathrooms as being very noisy when you “flushed” the toilet.

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