We just took a trip to Chicago and back on Amtrak, and it was wonderful! Our three-year-old railroad enthusiast was thrilled, and Daniel and I had a great time too. It’s dramatically different from airline travel. Some of the differences are absolutely positive, others are better from our point of view but wouldn’t suit everyone, and others are not so much better but at least acceptable to us.
The customer service
When I called to reserve our tickets, I was amazed by the effectiveness of the “automated agent” that answers the phone and responds to voice commands. I felt sort of like I was having a phone conversation with C3P0. Although I did reach a point where the robot wasn’t able to do what I asked, she recognized that and politely transferred me to a very pleasant and well-informed person.
We were traveling to visit my brother in Iowa, so we planned to change trains in Chicago. However, the floods in eastern Iowa destroyed some train tracks. Amtrak called me (using the phone number I’d given when making my reservation) and told me this news three days before departure, explaining that we could cancel the Chicago-to-Iowa part of the tickets and get those fares fully refunded. This was easy to do at the ticket counter when we arrived at the station. (My brother and his fiancee drove 6 hours each way to get us from Chicago to Fairfield and back! Thanks again, Ben & Jessie!)
The train between Pittsburgh and Chicago only runs once a day, giving us no choice of times. Our outbound train was scheduled to depart at 11:50pm, and the train home arrived at 5:30am. It was kind of weird, but it added to the sense of adventure! We were grateful that Nicholas is flexible about his bedtime.
The train to Chicago was delayed before it reached Pittsburgh, so we actually left at 1:20am. Then there were further delays while we were on the train. Ultimately, we reached Chicago at 2:15pm instead of 8:50am. Yeah, those are some long delays, and it would’ve been very upsetting if we’d been trying to arrive on time for some event…but we weren’t, and in fact Ben & Jessie weren’t able to get to Chicago until noon, so if we’d arrived on time we would’ve had to find something to do (I’m sure there’s plenty to do in downtown Chicago, but we hadn’t made any plans) and someplace to store our luggage. Since this was our first long-distance train trip, we welcomed the extra time to explore the train and enjoy the adventure.
Our train home ran exactly on schedule. The conductor knocked on our door half an hour before arrival in Pittsburgh to make sure we were awake.
Yes, the trip took much longer than it would by airplane. That’s not the point. The train trip was a vacation in itself, and the time spent traveling through the landscape did a lot to smooth the transition between one place and the other. Compared to driving, the train was much more efficient, because we didn’t have to stop traveling to sleep, eat, or use the bathroom.
The train stations
Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station is sort of a utilitarian growth on the side of the elegant old station now turned into condos. The ambiance is halfway between a Greyhound bus station and a small airport. It’s conveniently located near many city bus and train routes, so we were able to leave our car at home. Chicago’s station is huge and bustling with local trains as well as Amtrak. It has some shops and a food court and plenty of restrooms. It’s right in the middle of everything, near the Sears Tower. If we’d had to kill a lot of time in either location in the daytime, we’d have had an easy time finding food and amusement within walking distance of the train station–unlike an airport, which has to be in the middle of nowhere and thus is a frustrating place to be stranded.
The boarding experience
After the boarding call, we walked from the waiting room onto a sidewalk between tracks, between two tremendous, thrumming trains. It was really cool–but loud! Many of the train cars have two stories, so they towered over us. We had to walk past many cars to get to ours. It was so much more interesting and exciting than being sort of injected into the side of an airplane you can barely see.
We were not treated like criminals. If we walked through a metal detector, I didn’t notice. Nobody searched our bags or made us empty our pockets. We were allowed to have toothpaste. We simply walked up to our car, handed our tickets to the conductor standing outside the door, listened to his directions about how to find our sleeping compartment, and walked into the train. We stashed Nick’s car seat in a luggage rack near the door before going up a narrow staircase to the narrow hallway that led to our room.
The sleeping compartment
Because we were traveling overnight, we reserved a bedroom. Nicholas and I slept in the wider lower berth, while Daniel slept in the upper berth. There was also a seat, on which we piled our luggage. The floor space was less than a foot wide between the edge of the lower berth and the tiny sink with trash cabinet beneath, tiny counter space (with raised edge to keep stuff from rattling off), and mirror and cabinet (holding towels, soap, and cups) above. There was a toilet in a tin-can-like enclosure that doubled as a shower. The room was filled with cleverly-tucked-in lamps, coat/towel hooks, clothes hanging space, table with chessboard, cup holders, announcement volume control, and so on. It was cozy and fun! The beds were made up with sheets and those strangely crispy pillows and blankets airlines have, over foam mattresses. Windows ran the entire width of the outside wall. The compartment closed with a sliding door with a window in it, so in the daytime we opened that curtain and could see through the hallway’s windows on the other side of the train.
The sleeping experience was exactly like sleeping in a bed in a moving vehicle! I had thought it might be smoother and quieter, but we were very aware of the train’s motion: going forward, rattling over bumps, and swaying slightly from side to side. Daniel and I woke frequently. It was kind of pleasant in an adventuresome sort of way, though, and much better than trying to sleep sitting up. At moments when I felt wide awake, I looked out the window, and if the scenery seemed interesting I put on my glasses and looked at it until I got sleepy again.
The dining car
Meals in the dining car were included in our fare. The dining room also was on the upper level, a few cars away from our room. The space between cars has flexible walls and is entered by doors that open with a push-button and close automatically. Nicholas was fascinated but also very close to terrified.
The dining car is a sit-down restaurant with booths along both sides of the train. There are several choices of food, and it all was pretty good in an “American-style mid-priced restaurant” kind of way. We got real utensils and cloth napkins, but everything else was disposable, including the white paper-towel-like tablecloth which attempted a touch of elegance but reminded me of the doctor’s office.
Although our train home left at 7:05pm, which might be considered “after dinner”, Amtrak gave us dinner. The conductor told us our reservation was at 8:00. The reservations helped everyone get a table as soon as they came to the dining car. The waitstaff seated lone travelers and small groups together so that almost every table had four people. The narrow aisle creates a space in which, despite the train noise, people easily overhear conversations at other tables; we were amused when Nicholas told our dining companion about the silent film The Great Train Robbery (which he recently saw on YouTube) and, a few minutes later, people at two other tables were talking about The Great Train Robbery.
The really impressive thing, compared to airlines these days, was that when our westbound train was delayed so that we were on it at lunchtime as well as breakfast, Amtrak fed us lunch too! They couldn’t offer the full menu (the train ends its run in Chicago so wasn’t stocked for lunch) but they served leftovers: rice, steamed veggies, biscuits, apple juice, and for meat-eaters they’d made a stew out of leftover beef.
The slightly bumpy ride didn’t interfere with eating any more than “slight turbulence” on an airplane. What was more distracting was the strangeness of eating while surrounded by scenery speeding past. We were very grateful that none of us is prone to motion sickness!
$951 for two adults and one child to travel 924 miles, spend two nights in hotel-like accommodations, and eat three meals. A quick look at airline ticket prices tells me that that’s roughly twice as much as flying from Pittsburgh to Chicago. But airline tickets buy cramped seats, little to no food or drink, aggravating “security” procedures, and tight luggage restrictions. Imagine what it would cost to rent a little bedroom on an airplane! Our train trip wasn’t just a way to get to Chicago; it was two nights of extra vacation, with a totally different mood from airline or car travel. Getting there was half the fun, not something to get over with as quickly as possible!