How Emily Feels about Trains and this Journey
I am a rail fan and would like to take public transportation everywhere I can’t walk or bike. It fits into my Slow Travel Philosophy. And the idea of taking a sleeper train got stuck in my head and I knew the only way to get over it would be to go through with it.
My earliest memory of trains is a scenic trip my grandfather and I took from Greenfield, MA through the Hoosac Tunnel to North Adams when I was five. I see that Amtrak, after 20 years of only freight traffic has started running annual excursion trains on that line. I also took a memorable 6th grade trip to Washington on the train from Springfield. As a teenager I took the Montrealer from Brattleboro to Montreal for a brief adventure and loved the dining car breakfast where I chatted with an older traveler companionably over eggs. Exploration in Europe during and after college was train travel, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris and lines in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and England. And I would take the train home to MA from New York when it worked with my schedule and my budget.
In December, feeling stuck in winter and the moving process, I hatched a plan to take the train to Denver to attend an important conference. I lined up schedules and vacation days and did extensive research on the current rail experience. The best book I read was Waiting on a Train by James McCommons, a snapshot of the state of passenger rail in 2008-2009 and a plea for investment in the rail system to support communities and our economy. It hinted at the dramatic history of the railroads in the 19th century, but focussed on the present and McCommons traveled 20000 miles by rail to research his book.
I’m so glad I took the trip. I experienced many of the frustrations that I had read about or seen on video reviews. I didn’t arrive in Denver well rested, despite having a quite comfortable roomette for both nights of the 45 hour journey. However the pace of the trip suited my mood although I didn’t read much or write anything on the trip too busy staring out the window at snowy upstate New York along the Hudson and dramatic thunderstorms on the plains in Nebraska. I loved the communal dining and chatting with the unique folks who choose to travel long distance by rail.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was how much my marriage has changed me. As a single person in my twenties I loved traveling alone and the flexibility and freedom I felt. Now, I wanted nothing more than to sit in our room at night and discuss ad infinitum with Nick every little observation from the train and the stories I’d heard over my veggie burger. I wanted him to have seen it all. It was a bittersweet pleasure how much I missed him, especially once I got to Denver which is full of breweries to explore and our mutual friends here for the conference.
Actual tips for travelers:
- Think about what you are doing when you get to your destination. I met a couple who were going to Denver for one day from Pennsylvania. For them, the round trip train journey, not the destination, was the meat of their vacation. I found that I didn’t have a lot of energy for tourism once I arrived in Colorado, because I was so stimulated by the trip.
- Consider purchasing a travel immersion water heater if you like tea, oatmeal, or Ramen Noodles. Although the sleeper cars have free coffee in the morning, I want to drink tea approximately every two hours, every day of my life. And a homemade oatmeal mix would have been a great alternative to the rich, salty, animal based breakfasts.
- Although meals are included for sleeper car passengers and there are cloth napkins and tablecloths and metal silverware, the meals are frustratingly served on disposable plastic plates! I was seated with an Amtrak Executive traveling who explained that this was a shortsighted cost cutting measure since 2014. He knew that many travelers choose the train for environmental reasons, from talking to folks on all his business trips, but certain legislators nickel and dime the service without considering sustainability.
- I tried the vegan enchiladas and the vegan burger and was quite pleased with the burger. My dining companions pointed out that the “best value” was the steak, and my waiter insisted on bringing me sour cream for my enchiladas, but I am happy there are options. If I take the train to Florida next year I will choose the Silver Star so I can choose my own food and keep it clean. With a trusty immersion heater.
- Although I thought I would hate having the sink and toilet in my roomette on the Lake Shore Limited, it was actually convenient and I preferred the layout to the Zephyr. I slept in the top bunk and enjoyed the view out the upper window. But the shower was nicer on the Zephyr.
- I took advantage of the layover in Chicago to walk by the lake and stretch my legs. If I’d been more confident that my train would arrive on time I would’ve scheduled lunch with my wonderful cousins, but I hated the idea of leaving them waiting while I sat on a track somewhere in Ohio. (some of McCommons’ trains were 14 hours late)