We have just returned from a train trip to visit our son in Oakland, CA. Traveling by train is by nearly all accounts a better environmental choice than airplane, and car, unless the car is crammed full of passengers.
Since we are retired now, we have less schedule pressure, and are no longer carefully counting out precious vacation days in planning our trips to see our diasporatic children. More time means less need to fly, and more ability to be greener.
However, unlike Europe, ( and other areas of the globe) America does not have a robust train network, nor a very coordinated transit system to mesh with the long haul routes. Lot's of politics and short sightedness there. On top of that, the web info available to get logistics planned and make sure the experience is simple are lacking, both on the Amtrak website, and on the various amateur blog entries and youtube videos.
So here are some observations on our experience, filling in some gaps in case anyone thinking of Amtrak stumbles on this quiet corner of the net. Our route was the California Zephyr, from Galesburg IL ( the route actually starts in Chicago) to Emeryville CA ( the San Francisco bay area, with a short bus hop to SF, for those going all the way) , so I'm not sure how they might extrapolate to other routes.
Riding in a sleeper car:
Above is the layout for the sleeper cars. We stayed in a lower level "roomette" on the way out. The two seats face each other, and they flatten out in to the lower bed. The upper bed is tilted ( mostly) up out of the way during the day. The attendant asks you what time you want the beds set up, and he/she comes to do that. I think the latest they will schedule is 10:30 PM. After you leave your room in the morning, they come back and remake the beds and set up the seats for the day.
There are two reading lights for the seats, but one of ours would light but could not be aimed, so couldn't use it. The upper bunk used the ceiling light for reading in bed, but there was no light useful for reading in the lower bed. There is a climate control knob, as well as a louver adjustment for the air flow, but we could not detect any change when these were twiddled with. There are privacy blinds on both the door and window, and they are pretty good, with velcro patches to keep them tightly shut and make sure no pervs can glimpse you in your jammies.
Upper bunk can be tricky to get in to. If you are large or less agile, it might not work for you. There is a nylon netting mechanism that supposedly keeps you from falling out if an especially large side sway happens. It also makes it trickier to climb in. A couple of steps are built in to the side of the room for clambering up.
The attendant left bottled water with us each time he made the beds, and always asked if we needed anything, but other than that, didn't see much of him.
You have a tiny "closet", with two hangers and a couple wash cloths and hand towels. Towels for showering are provided in the shower area.
Meals in the dining car are included with sleeper room fare, and the menu is limited and the same every day. The food was pretty good most of the time. Liquor is of course extra.
Which side of the car is best for sightseeing is luck of the draw, so not much point in trying to second guess that. We spent a lot of time in the observation car, which is good for watching as well as getting in to some interesting conversations. It's also the hangout spot for night owls, no quiet hours 24/7.
There are also full rooms available, but they are even more expensive, and not many to a train, so if you have a set date of travel, reservations need to be made far in advance.
We decided to try coach on the way back, to see if the cost savings was worth it. The climate control in the coach cars was of course not in our control ( no individual nozzles like in an airplane), and was much warmer than we prefer at night. I assume the temperature was based on the fact that you can't bring a lot of bedding with you, but we prefer it cool at night, so felt stuffy to us.
They say seating is first come, first served, but in reality, they give you a seat number, and it might be anywhere in the car. We knew from the ride out which side we wanted to sit on going back, and were able to get things switched, but only because we did it quick, and we were the initial stop of the run.
The chairs are comfy enough, with leg and foot rests, kind of like a slimmed down recliner chair. They recline back more than an airline chair, but not as much as a true recliner. We decided that we just can't sleep well sitting up anymore, and would probably spend the money on the sleepers next time.
Food for coach riders is bring your own, or buy from the snack bar on the lower level of the observation car. Virtually no healthy food, but you can get microwaveable sandwiches, so you won't starve. This will save you money compared to the dining car, but you can still take meals there if you want, you just have to pay for them like any restaurant.
Other general observations:
The crew gets switched out every so often to keep fresh eyes in the engine car, and conductors on duty, but the food crew stays the full ride. We noted that they are not all consistent with announcements and enforcing rules.
You can carry on two carry ons, plus a small item or two ( purse, outer wear,....) but the overhead stowage rack is not that large. There was plenty of linear rack, but the opening height would not admit some of the larger "carry on" style luggage. There is also separate luggage shelving down by the exit doors, so some stuff can fit there, but it's not as handy. More and/or larger ( over 50 lbs) can be checked, but costs money. They will go in the baggage car, and will be pulled by the conductors at your stop.
"Facilities, WC, toilet, bathroom, head, etc..."- various sizes, configurations, but mostly small, no larger than airplane restrooms. They even use the vacuum sucking flush system like on an airplane. One weird detail- the sink water pressure and faucets were way too high pressured, and always sprayed water all over the place, making the room messy much quicker than your typical public restroom. So stupid, and you would think easy to fix.
Some bathrooms get used a lot, and get nasty. This also is affected by how well the train crew keeps up with things, and of course, your luck in what kind of fellow passengers you end up with.
The shower was fine- push a little button and get a minute or two of water. Push again to get more. Nice and hot, reasonable pressure, but one time the shower did not shut off for quite a while. Oh, and showers are only available for travelers in the sleeper cars, so keep that in mind if you take a multi day trip riding coach.
Amtrak does not control the tracks, so we had to sideline a lot to let freight trains go by. A serious mass transit system would not be run that way, and travel times could be reduced considerably just by adding more track or separating the two.
If I remember more, I'll add them later. Or ask me questions!