Amtrak: Getting Back on the Rail

​The best way to see the U.S. is through the giant glass windows of its Amtrak trains.  
Amtrak: Getting Back on the Rail 2
Bundled in layers, a group of kids gets off an Amtrak train, all geared to unleash their skiing skills in Colorado’s Winter Park area. Photo by: Helen H. Richardson/Contributor/Getty images

The reactions to my upcoming nine-day train trip are fairly typical—surprise and apprehension top the list. A school friend is somewhat encouraging. “I have lived in the U.S. for 25 years,” he said, “But I have never done the Amtrak.” That confession isn’t hard to understand in a country with good roads, cheap car rentals and a bevy of well-known fast-food eateries—all destinations in themselves—dotting the way. Throw in laundromats and what’s not to like about an American road trip?

There I am, at Chicago’s Union Station, waiting to board Amtrak’s Empire Builder Train to Seattle. My journey would continue to San Francisco and then back to Chicago, a total of five nights and six days spent on the train. Amtrak Vacations arranges accommodation in both Seattle and San Francisco, giving me enough time to explore them.

There’s nothing to set the silver-grey locomotive apart from the other trains. Charlie, our car attendant, greets us cheerily. My sleeper cabin is upstairs, and I climb up the steep stairs past well-appointed shower stalls stacked with soft white towels and toiletries, and settle down. Two seats fold in to become a bed, which is made every night with fresh white bed sheets and woolly blankets. As the Empire Builder pulls out, the announcements roll in: meal timings at the dining car, special offers at the bar, and periodic reminders to visit the observation deck aka the Sightseer Lounge.

The dining car is perhaps the most lively place to be in on the train. Here’s where conversations with co-passengers are struck over hearty meals.; Admiring sunflower fields and snow-clad mountains through giant glass windows at the Observation Deck is almost therapeutic. Photo by: Jim West/imageBROKER/dinodia photo library (food), Nigel Killeen/Getty images (passengers)

The dining car is perhaps the most lively place to be in on the train. Here’s where conversations with co-passengers are struck over hearty meals.; Admiring sunflower fields and snow-clad mountains through giant glass windows at the Observation Deck is almost therapeutic. Photo by: Jim West/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library (food), Nigel Killeen/Getty Images (passengers)

The lounge car has large windows, a glass roof and plenty of seating, and it’s here that I spend most of my time. There are posh recliners facing the windows and four-seaters around tables, which families with children gravitate to, board games and colouring books in tow. Guides narrate information about important sights as we cross the Mississippi River along the state line between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The wide river ambles along and, much to our delight, some anglers wave out to us. We wave back. There is collective amusement when one fisherman moons us.

We also go past the spectacular Glacier National Park in Montana. It is the first time I see the glacier-carved peaks and valleys that run into the Canadian border. As the ‘Crown of the Continent,’ the glacier is the headwaters for streams that flow into the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Hudson’s Bay. What happens here affects waters in a huge section of North America.

The train now heads to Spokane, where it will split for the last 483 kilometres to either Seattle or Portland. Through my entire journey, I see snow-clad mountains in Wisconsin; plains in Illinois; forests in Montana; the desert in Utah; cultivated fields of sunflowers in North Dakota; cityscapes in Minnesota and California; and finally the coast in Washington.

The route from Seattle to San Francisco is delightfully scenic but most of it is covered at night. Usually, tourists take the Coast Starlight Train from Seattle to Los Angeles along the Pacific Ocean, traversing picturesque places such as Oceanside, Solano Beach and Santa Barbara.

Conversations with co-passengers in the dining car are mandatory because Amtrak has a policy of seating passengers together in spite of vacant tables. Initially, it is vexing to make small talk with strangers, but soon you are greeting people you have earlier spoken to only briefly. I vicariously travel to places these strangers talk about so animatedly. A lady from Oakland is returning home after a cruise to Alaska. She describes the monumental glaciers so vividly that I immediately put it on my must-see list. One retired couple shows me their travel itinerary for the next three years. I also interact with a retired pilot who is now flying drones over railway tracks for a railroad company’s track-inspection programme. Railroad enthusiasts will find it interesting that the Empire Builder is the busiest long-distance route in Amtrak system. This route’s longest single-track is about 43 kilometres and its longest double-track is 185 kilometres. Extreme weather conditions and freight train traffic are two major reasons for delays. Luckily, my train runs right on time.

A train en route from San Francisco to Chicago whizzes past the Union Station, Denver’s main transportation hub. Photo by: Blaine Harrington/dinodia photo library

A train en route from San Francisco to Chicago whizzes past the Union Station, Denver’s main transportation hub. Photo by: Blaine Harrington/Dinodia Photo Library

Seattle and San Francisco don’t disappoint and neither do Amtrak’s hotels in the city centres. There are plenty of restaurants that serve vegetarian food, and I’m finally eating well. The dining car usually provides ready-to-serve meals, which can’t be customised to my vegetarian needs. Thus far, I’ve subsisted on kiddy meals of macaroni and cheese, and the sides from meat dishes—mashed potatoes, stir-fry vegetables and herbed rice.

In San Francisco, passengers can take a bus to Muir Woods, famed for its towering redwood trees, and Sausalito, the touristy fishing village. I cross the island on which comedian Robin Williams lived. Someone points out to a few bicycle stores where Williams once famously waited his turn.

The way back to Chicago takes a slightly different route, and this time I have my own train stories to share. I even manage to write notes for an assignment. American author Alexander Chee once said that his favourite place to write was on an Amtrak and he wished they had residencies for writers. Many fellow writers tweeted this, and Amtrak obliged, offering residencies as a goodwill gesture.

By the time I turn homewards, I’m convinced this is one journey where the destination really doesn’t matter. My week-long sojourn has supplied me with a lifetime of memories, of the kind cut out for memory books.

Essentials

Amtrak offers vacation tours departing from more than 500 stations. Notable destinations include Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. The Northern Rail Experience, which is what the writer opted for is priced around $2000/Rs1,28,000 per passenger. The coast includes hotel stays, meals and hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tours (www.amtrak.com).

  • Jayanthi Madhukar is an independent journalist who seeks out a happy story. She loves to experience new destinations with the curiosity of a first time traveller.

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