Monday, August 14, 2017

Amtrak journey

I took my first train ride on Amtrak when coming back home from a family vacation in Wisconsin. I took the Empire Builder train from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Seattle, Washington. Since I've been stranded by airlines on my last few flights, I had decided that I wanted to try a different method of transportation. The train ride was 44 hours and I left Milwaukee around 4pm on Friday and got into Seattle around 10am Sunday, so I spent 2 nights and 1 full day on the train.

Another reason I wanted to take the train is because I've always loved trains but have never been on one. They're also a lot more scenic than a plane, with the added bonus of this route going through Glacier National Park and the Cascade Mountains. The scenery was definitely the best part of the ride, even though I had seen a lot of these landscapes before due to driving across the country multiple times. However, I did get to visit a new state that I hadn't been to yet - North Dakota. The train cut right across it, so now I know what it looks like and can say I've been there. That's 34 states down and 16 to go!

Wisconsin sunset over the Mississippi River

North Dakota

My favorite picture from the trip - cows grazing in a North Dakota pasture

Pros of Amtrak:

  • Scenery. The train has an observation car with floor to ceiling windows and seats directly facing the windows. 
  • Spacious seats with nice features. I couldn't even reach the footrest on the seat in front of me (since I'm short) and because there was so much room in between the rows of seats. If this had been a plane, they would have crammed another row of seats in that space. Each seat also reclined (further than airplane seats), had an adjustable footrest that essentially extended the seat, and had a footrest on the back of the seat in row ahead. 
  • No TSA or security and generous bag allowances. We were allowed two huge carry ons and two personal items. In other words, I could bring all of my luggage, personal items, and a full size pillow and blanket on the train with me. There was no need to check a bag. There was no security at all - we just lined up in the terminal, they scanned our tickets, and we got on the train.
  • Time to accomplish things. Since my journey was so long and because there was no wifi on the train and limited data on my phone depending on where in the country we were, I had time to finish things I'd been putting off and I wasn't able to be distracted by everything on the internet. I finished reading a book that a coworker gave to me months ago, I worked on something I've been writing since December, I sat and listened to music, and I wrote this entire blog post so that I wouldn't end up putting if off for weeks after getting back from my trip. 
  • Amount of bathrooms and the lounge area in one of the bathrooms. The lounge area had two sinks and a bench, which was much appreciated for brushing teeth and taking out contacts. It would have been difficult to do that in the bathrooms themselves. There were five bathrooms in the car I was sitting in, as well as bathrooms in other cars, so there was never a wait like there can be in a plane. 
  • Outlets in each row. I believe most planes have outlets at this point, but I appreciated being able to plug in my laptop and charge my phone several times throughout the journey.
  • Gentle ride. Some reviews said the ride was bumpy, but I didn't find this to be the case. Sitting on the upper level of the car, the motion was a gentle swaying and it was easy to sleep on the train. The only issue is that it was harder to walk around due to the swaying, and most people had to hold on to something or sometimes got knocked off balance.

Window seat

Inside of the train

Huge amount of space between the rows


Cons of Amtrak:

  • Confusion. Not everything was intuitive. The Amtrak website could have had more information, and there wasn't much information on the train either. I was under the impression that we were assigned seats, but when I got on the train it became apparent that we choose our own. However, some rows were blocked off as "reserved for parties of 2", so as a single traveler I had to find a row without one of these signs. I wanted a window seat but none of them were available when I got on. I sat next to a nice older woman, which ended up being a good choice because she got off a couple hours later, and I moved over and took the window seat. Sometimes the train attendants moved people around to accomodate families and people traveling together. I was lucky to not have to move from the window seat and had the row to myself for over half of the journey. There was also no information about where the different cars were located in relation to the entire train. I had to walk through the cars to figure out where the observation car, cafe, and dining car were. A train map would have been helpful.
  • Small bathrooms. The bathrooms were the same size as airplane bathrooms and had a similar layout. 
  • Being stuck with rude passengers for a long time. On planes, everyone only has to deal with rude passengers for 5 hours or less when flying within the US. On the train, whatever was annoying was going to last for days and not hours. This included screaming children, bad parents, and inconsiderate people who played music or movies out loud. There were some families who took over entire tables or sections of seats in the observation car, and it was obvious they had been there camping out for most of the day. This was unfair to the rest of the passengers since it wasn't easy to fnd a seat in the observation car. One mother in my car had two poorly behaved little girls, one of which who would scream at the top of her lungs often when she was upset. Other passengers were remarking that she needed to make the effort to discipline her kids, especially when everyone was trying to sleep and the girl was throwing a screaming tantrum. 

Shortly before heading into Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park - still a lot of hazy skies due to wildfire smoke

Sunrise in central Washington

I got a picture of the front of the train as it curved around the track

My tips for Amtrak:

  • Try to get a window seat, and if not, try to visit the observation car a few times. Also take advantage of the Trails & Rails program, which is a partnership with the National Park Service. Park volunteers ride on the train and provide information on what passengers are seeing. For the majority of their time, they were present in the observation car.
  • Bring a blanket. The train cars can get cold since the air conditioning is constantly running. I also brought a pillow but wasn't sure I needed it since the seats reclined sufficiently. 
  • Bring your own food or a few snacks. I didn't try the dining car since I didn't feel like trying to get a reservation, and I didn't want to spend the money. I did get a hotdog from the cafe, but the food is all fairly basic since it's being made on a train. I brought enough food to last me the entire journey (although supplementing that food with the hotdog helped). 
  • Bring earplugs and/or an iPod/music player. There will be shrieking children with parents who make no effort to deal with it. You'll also be less likely to wake up when the train makes a stop in the middle of the night and other passengers have to detrain or board.
  • Bring a change of clothes. Not taking a shower within that 44 hour period was fine, especially since I was just sitting around on the train, but changing my clothes each morning did help me feel better. 
  • Bring something to do. The scenery provides entertainment, but it's still nice to have a book to read, something to work on or music to listen to. 

I believe this was near Leavenworth

There's a rainbow in the upper right corner

Would I take the train again? Yes, but I would either take it for a shorter trip, or I'd do things differently for a longer trip. One of my relatives has taken this train twice and sat in coach once and had a room the other time. She didn't think the room was worth it. I would have to try it myself before I make that decision, but I think it could be helpful on a longer trip. One pro to having a room would be to get away from the noise of the other passengers, and it would also be nice to have my own space for a multi day trip. I'd also like to take a different route so I could see different scenery. Overall, the train was a good experience and was a unique way to see a lot of our country that I wouldn't otherwise see.

Bonus: The train had national park volunteers ride on it from Montana through Washington to provide information about Glacier National Park and the Cascades over the train intercom. While in the Cascades, we traveled through the Cascade Tunnel, and I took notes while one of the guys was talking about the tunnel.

The Cascade Tunnel is the longest train tunnel in the United States at 7.8 miles. It was built in 1929 and took 3 years to build. They started at either end and when they met in the middle they were only a few inches off. The tunnel is 16 feet wide and 21 feet high. There are huge fans in the tunnel, and it takes a half hour to ventilate the tunnel after a train comes through. No other trains can go through until the tunnel is ventilated.

Coming out of the tunnel and riding through the Cascades among the misty forest was my favorite part of the train ride. The train curved through the trees and came very close to boulders and rock walls on either side of the tracks.

I'm so glad Washington greeted me with this weather <3

When the train got to Seattle, it went through the trainyard I used to run by several times per week, right along the sidewalk I ran on, and then behind the condo building I used to live in. It was cool to see all of those places from the perspective of the train!

Traveling on the bridge near the Ballard locks

Engines in the trainyard in Seattle

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