As someone who has travelled long distances by train at least eight times, I have some advice that perhaps you will find useful. A series of fourteen train tips follows (updated June 2013).
1. Why the Hell the Train.
When you travel by train there is practically none of the demeaning bullshit one has to deal with when flying. During my train trips, attendants just wanted to make sure my signature on my driver’s license matched the signature on my ticket which also matched the name printed on the ticket. Sure, it’s the government, they’re pushing those names through their Super Duper Terramist Spotter 2000 computer program, but it’s way better than subjecting yourself to airport nonsense. No one touched my bag -- I could have packed it chok full o’ booze, drugs, illegal immigrants and more drugs [2009 update: “random” searches (at least in Chicago) of unknown intensity make us all feel safer that there’s not a guy with a, I don’t know, pie iron on the train1]. In addition, I like the slow pace of land-based travel, but sometimes the train is travelling zero miles an hour for a long time and you’re thinking to yourself that you could walk to your destination faster which is a lie and you know it is, be realistic here. Anyway, on a train you can get up, stretch your legs, and walk up and down the train cars making furtive eye contact with people who are working on their deep-vein thrombosis projects.
2. Human Tetris.
Unfortunately, there are times when the train car attendant will assign you seating because they want to keep all of the people getting off at the same destination together. Because this is a government operation, there are many styles of keeping track of all you proles, but the one most favored is color-coded strips of card stock with your three-letter destination station written on it. They like playing human Tetris with these strips, they don’t care about nor have time for your needs and wants. Be ready for him/her. Know what you want, read the list below, prioritize, etc. When you are getting on the train, there’s a rush to get everyone seated, especially if the train is full. You (and everyone else) will have at least a big clunky carry-on bag, maybe a supplemental bag of Human Chow (see #10, “Train v. Non-Train Food”), and perhaps five seconds to explain that you have to sit near an outlet (see #9, “Power”). It is a very brief window of opportunity that could greatly influence the amount of suck you have to deal for perhaps the entire trip. If you do get a horrid seat and the train is nearly full, in most cases you can probably get away with switching your seat if you stay within your own grouping so he/she doesn’t flip out and put you back in suckseat (if your card reads “SAC” (Sacramento) for example, stay within your new SAC clan). If you secretly move, move your card as well!2 Also, if you’re lucky, you may not be assigned a seat, just told to sit anywhere in a car ... it depends on the number of people on the train. Since seats are configured in groups of two, you’d also like to have both seats in your configuration, unless you are looking for Train Love (see #12, “Train Love”). There is practically no way to influence the attendant’s decision (they’re in the weeds during boarding, and you’re an Obstacle), but you can try to look unapproachable enough that potential seatmates (usually the last few human Tetris pieces on any particular level) won’t want to sit next to you. Do the thing Alan Abel does on airplanes (these are much faster and cost about the same) to keep people from talking to him: hang a small piece of string out of the corner of your mouth. Inject your own whimsical variations on this, say, keeping only one eye open or talking to an invisible friend named “Jimmy Jam” but is not related to the famous pop/R&B songwriter/record producer of the same name.
3. Train Throat.
A train is basically a sealed box. You can’t open the windows, and the doors between cars open into a short enclosed passageway riddled with inviting buttons and switches. You have no control over the environment -- you don’t even get those little fans that are available on most planes (costs the same, quicker). I don’t know exactly how the Amtrak life-support system works, but it’s probably not far off to assume it’s nearly the same as those on a plane. I’ve read that while in flight you’re exposed to air “drier than a desert.” On a train, it’s the same thing, only ten times longer. You don’t get to trundle off the train for a bit during each stop -- there are stations every one or two hours, but a lot of these are small and there’s no time allocated for anyone to just hang around on the platform. You will be able to do this once every two-four hours, on average. So. Bring a medium-sized bag of lozenges, enough to share with all of the interesting/weird-o people you’ll meet, and at least 1.5 liters of water per day, because you don’t want to drink train water. Occasionally there will be enough time to re-fill your water bottles at the station, so save them. Save them. This is priority one for you, keeping yourself healthy during your travels. I came down with a nasty sore throat on two of my sojourns, it took almost two weeks to get over the last one ... just in time for me to re-board for the return trip. But I was ready. With what? With lozenges and water, didn’t you even read this damned paragraph? Skimmer.
4. Don’t Touch My “Stuff.”
So you’ve got this big rolling case of your valuable ugly clothes, and you’d rather some random jerkoff didn’t walk off with it when they de-trained. Okay. First, you need to get some locks. You don’t have to get those weenie TSA locks, at least, currently ... I’m sure TSA culture will seep entirely into the rail system and eventually our cars and boats. I got some cheapo zipper locks, and a long steel cable from PacSafe. It has this completely non-intuitive “system” to enable you to “choke up” on the cable so it binds the case tightly to whatever you’re locking it to but (A) I always forget how to lock it and (B) when travelling by train, I want a loose cable so I can flip the case around and get to different compartments. So I ignore all the “secure draw wire bead in locking device and then light three candles to summon Eris for protection” junk. There is also a wire mesh thing you can buy from PacSafe but it weighs a ton and makes you look like (A) a jerk (B) you’ve got some REAL GOOD STUFF in your bag.
When you first get on the train, the lower level is all about bathrooms and baggage storage (there’s a small area for lower-level ticket holders ... it’s for people who can’t climb stairs etc). But the baggage storage area doesn’t seem to have anything you can lock your case to. Schlep your bag upstairs to the seating compartment. You can put your bag on the overhead shelf, but then you’ve got to haul it up and down every time you want to change your clothes, put your laptop away when you go on platform breaks, etc. The best thing to do is to find the little empty space that is in each car just forward of the stairwell, behind a row of seats. That’s a nice storage space, has various bars to lock the case to, and is attendant-approved. I can sit down on a little rail there, open up my case, take as much time as I want pawing through my stuff and I’m not in the way of anyone which is another Train Thing That Gets Annoying After Awhile.
5. The Very Young and the Very Old.
They are not like you and me. When you are a young adult, you sleep about two hours a day because you’re hopped up on chemical stimulants, and you are inconsiderate of others because you think the world revolves around you. When you are old, you sleep about two hours a day because you’re kept alive via pharmaceutical supplements, and you are inconsiderate of others because you know the world doesn’t revolve around you but you no longer give a shit. The most extreme datapoints of these two demographics are the Two Chatty Young Women Travelling Together and the Three+ Sheltered Old Men Travelling Alone But Sitting Near Each Other. Avoid these passengers on a train at all costs unless there is an needed electrical outlet nearby (see #9, “Power”). The Chatty Women talk continuously, which is annoying when you want to relax, but if they pace themselves like burbly motorboats, then sometimes your brain can shift the din to the background. The real terror is the Three+ Sheltered Old Men because they don’t sleep and they don’t have normal conversations. They’re completely sporadic: an observation is made, perhaps it is agreed on, then anywhere from two to forty-five minutes pass before the next one. That’s the random non-rhythm your brain will feed on like an indeterminate box of small, enjoyable foreign chocolates3, and you’re never going to relax or get any sleep.
6. Coach v. Sleeper: The Decision is Ea$y.
A sleeper costs approximately three times as much as a seat in coach. Add a private shower (in coach you get no shower), now you’re getting into some serious bills. Have you ever tried to sleep on a train, even in a sleeper? I have, but in foreign countries only. I found it difficult, though I’m talking about lurchy tracks with frequent stops. Perhaps you can take some Ambien to help you sleep then wake up four hours later to find yourself driving the train.
7. Sleeping in Coach: Now You’re Talking My Type of Crazy.
Are there lots of crazy people riding on Amtrak, or does not sleeping for n days make them crazy? I didn’t get to sleep the night before a two-night train ride ... and I didn’t sleep at all on the train. I can fully account for all the hours I spent on the train. This is probably not the best thing for my body, which is a temple (visiting hours 9am-5pm; ask about our “special weekend tours” and group rates).
Oh God Where Do I Sleep Where Do I Sleep
- Your seat. No. Look around during the day. You will notice that nothing on a train is designed for a human body, including the very seats on which you’re supposed to sleep. Oh, they give you a little retractable foot bar, and a little seat extension, but what did they put between the pair of seats? Yeah. Hard metal bar. Thanks, Amtrak. So for stuff like this, you need little bits of padding. You can use your clothing, or snag some extra pillows from galley areas when no one’s looking. But now that we’re all trying to scrimp and save our dollars before they become completely worthless and we all resort to a funky mix of street action, alternative building methods, and cannibalism, train reservations have soared. If you are travelling alone, you will most likely end up with a seat partner or two the entire way who probably doesn’t want you curling up in their lap. I’ve never been able to fall asleep in a single Amtrak seat and this is after days of near-zero sleep. The secret to sleeping in your seat is to not sleep in your seat. The entire train is a big ole’ sleep lab. Can you sleep on the floor in the observation car? Can you sleep on a bench in the lounge car? Try. Many other people will dare to dare! You need to find your spot first.
- Forward storage area. Eh. Via direct experience, I have also discovered that this area is also a slightly more comfortable to sleep in than a single seat, as long as you don’t mind curling up like a hamster and being pointed at. You can do better.
- Observation car. Eh also. You will need something to cover your eyes if you end up in the observation car or the like, they leave the lights on. I used my colorful sarape which also served to keep me warm -- the observation car was a bit colder than the coach cars. You may also want to bring earplugs, an eyemask, sleeping gas, etc. The table benches here are not long enough but you can make do. The double seats aren’t long enough but you can make do. The floor is a shaky ride and a little bit noisier.
- Snack bar. YES. Make the observation/snack bar car (where applicable) your second home. The former (upstairs) is for talking to people; the latter (downstairs) for avoiding people and resting/“sleeping.” When the snack bar is closed, you’ll probably be the only person in that area. The benches are longer than any one person could possibly be, with the exception of fancy-ass supertalls. Stretch out, shim the rattly bathroom door with an official Amtrak broom and cardboard from discarded food cartons, grab more cardboard for a makeshift sleep mask, and relax. Of course there are variations in snack-car layout, so check it out before you start carting sleeping bags and the like there. Sometimes after the snack bar closes for the night, they place a trash container in the stairwell to keep people out. Why? Who cares. A completely random observation: the container is made out of cardboard and is very light.
8. The Dressing Room: The Money Room Where It All Happens.
Ignore the dressing room at your peril. It is smaller than the largest bathroom, but kicks it in the throat (its train throat) because it’s got everything you need to get through your day. It is actually two small rooms: a small carpeted area with a seat and coat hooks, along with a smaller toilet/sink area. There are different varieties of dressing rooms: some are not lockable and have a lockable bathroom hidden inside, some have two stools and a big ole’ mirror. Try not to think to yourself that if someone was all gung-ho on Trainsex, this would be Scouting Location Numero Uno.
There are anywhere from zero to many electrical outlets on your modern Amtrak train. These are placed in sporadic, kicky out-of-the-way places. Repeat: there are not outlets for every pair of seats. It’s like a fun game you can play and lose many times as you walk up and down the aisles avoiding eye contact, preparing a mental list of passenger destinations and Outlet Recon missions. The last time I rode Amtrak, my entire car had no outlets, while the car ahead of us had one for each person. While in my first seat during a return trip, there was an outlet on the wall -- inaccessibly parked right behind the armrest4 and an Australian travelling to San Francisco. This sort of outlet is completely unusable unless you were smart and brought one of those flat plugs specially made for travellers unless I’m just making that product up. In the lounge car, I found an outlet on the ceiling and another one hidden under a bench. Later the first day I was able to switch to a seat with a non-obscured outlet. Using a “public” outlet (like those in the lounge car) brings with it the drama of everyone else wanting to use the same outlet and you’re all like “you’re just charging your cellphone, I’m working on the Hendrixson account! Go cry to your mommy.” It’s not a good place to be. Bring a power strip so several people can power their various tinkly devices. Yes, you’re extending the life of their horrid ringtones. Just be the power savior already.
Beware: A computer is a magnet for the non-computer user, who is atypical in the general population but you’re on a train. Have a bunch of stock phrases ready to go for the curious like “Ha ha! Yeah ... well, back to work!” and “Make way for the e-future!” Keep the string at the ready.
10. Train v. Non-Train Food.
In America, we treat food like the Lowest Common Denominator in our lives. We process the hell out of food so it has sellability™ for years, even decades. Because Amtrak has never run at a profit, and because there’s no room for a working garden/abattoir (I originally typed “abbattoir” here ... “you can dance, you can dine, having the time of your life”) on a train, train food is modular and crappy and overpriced. One of my random dinner companions nailed the experience to the wall: “Well, that was adequate.” You may think eating on the train is going to be this romantic, regal occasion. It’s plastic plates (apparently a 2006 innovation) and high fructose corn syrup. It’s nice that they group random people together at the same table, engendering conversation (unless of course you don’t want to talk -- bring your stringy), but there’s not much else I can cheer about. Wait: real tablecloths ... is that spinning your propeller? Sample prices from May 2007:
$7.00 Railroad French Toast (average)
$11.00 Cheese Ravioli with Selected Vegetable That You Do Not Get To Select (bland; the menu audaciously suggests a wine to go with this)
$14.50 Roast Chicken
$16.50 Seared Catfish (an Amtrak employee un-suggested this option)
If you can’t afford stuff like this, perhaps the snack car/lounge car is more your style. It has a variety of low-cost pretend meals like pre-packaged 100-ingredient pizza and subs. Quick contraindication note: the Gardenburger and Blueberry Yoghurt (both purchased in the lounge car; there is an augmented ($7.75) Gardenburger option in the dining car) fought for contention in my stomach -- yummy/YMMV.
In Grand Junction, Colorado, there is a fruit/candy stand along with a bathroom. I don’t know if any of the other stations have this sort of thing, but on the California Zephyr route, this is about it.
Your last option is to bring your own food. You can’t borrow the lounge car microwave, you can’t ask anyone to “heat up” some food, so just forget about that. I brought a bunch of oranges and bananas, breakfast pastries, sugar bars (you will find these in supermarkets labelled “energy bars”) and other snacks. Somehow between this, two dining car experiences, and occasional visits to the lounge car, I fulfilled all my basic eating requirements during the trip (the longest, a two-train journey with a six hour delay, took around 77 hours).
11. Platform breaks.
I call them “platform breaks” because that’s what most people do -- go out onto the train platform and smoke, smoke smoke. When I end up with an empty 1.5 liter water bottle, I try to get it re-filled at the station, but the success of this endeavor depends on a lot of different factors -- how long the train will stay at the station, how many people are smoking, how far the station is from the train, if I can find a water fountain. Better than paying 2 USD for a tiny water bottle on the train. I also get out into the sun and soak it in, that vitamin D junk keeps surprising scientists with how important it is. Lastly, it’s a break for my throat and lungs sick of that train air.
12. Train Love.
Ask yourself, do you really want this? Your potential train buddy is travelling by train. What the hell is wrong with this person? After two days on the train you’re both going to be overly ripe and wiped out. You’re not at your Personal Best™, but maybe that will work in your favor ... I don’t know how you approach these things. I wish you the best of luck in finding a soulmate via subsidized government transportation.
13. California Zephyr. A few tidbits about the California Zephyr route (August 2009):
- Slack is built into the Denver stop and you may end up having time enough to go get some real food in the city -- do restaurant research beforehand! I was able to walk a few blocks, get some pizza, and walk back with oodles of time to spare.
- Some days the Zephyr goes through the beautiful and dynamic Rockies. Some days it goes through some flat plains that are clearly not the awe-inspiring and mountainy Rockies. They have an alternating schedule; ask Amtrak for more information so you can plan accordingly. No Rockies = more time in Denver. [2013 update: the Amtrak ticket seller did’t understand what I was talking about when I mentioned the detour. Apparently it doesn’t happen anymore.]
- Denver is key. A lot of people are flushed out then, and a lot of people are brought in. If you need to switch to a car that has outlets (for example), get this arranged while you’re coming into Denver. Don’t even try it during boarding, and afterward forget it.
- Chicago is so bollixed it gets its own entry.
14. Chicago Union Station.
Raze it. A meaningless jumble of deplorable dysfunctional signage and an absymal floor plan. Exit your train, there are people crossing each other everywhere, it’s like a giant pinball machine with hundreds of pinballs scattering every which way. If you have baggage, most of them look at you with sour faces because you’re taking up more valuable pinball room than they are. What is your deal? Maybe two Union Station workers will end up behind you making comments about the broken wheel on your bag. Very helpful. Eventually find some signs that read “food court” indicating you should go up an escalator bank. That people are streaming, running, flowing down from. You are probably not salmon. Go to the information desk. “I would like a map of this place.” “I don’t have one.” Laugh. Stick around and watch the info-clerk flail around trying to tell the Japanese businessman to walk three blocks to a specified destination. “Blocks? Streets?” He does not understand. That would be hard, having some foreign language dictionaries on hand that you could use or even a map you could point at. Finally find the food court and selections like that great Chicago deep-dish pizza institution, “Pizza Hut.” Bail, pinball around some more to your gate, stand for a half-hour because there’s never enough seating.
Do yourself a favor. Get maps of the facility before you arrive. See if you can find some restaurants outside the station to visit as well. If there are two or more of you, split duties. Somehow you will survive Chicago Union Station.
15. 2013 Trip Updater.
For some reason I again rode the California Zephyr from stem to stern both ways in the middle of 2013, along with adjunct trips on the Feral Wolverine 5000 through Michigan.
- When you exit the train in Chicago, you go from your climate-controlled seating area to a long walk through the subterranean train “yard,” an immersion in a 95-degree broth with hissing trains on either side of you. It’s pretty dynamic.
- Chicago has updated their information booth with large panels indicating where you are in the station etc. I didn’t even bother eating there, I just plopped down in the “Big Hall” or whatever it is and zoned out for two hours (times two). The “Big Hall” has a lot less foot traffic, it keeps the insanity at bay. They also don’t have TVs endlessly playing a 10-minute documentary about Amtrak police dogs like the cooped-up waiting area (“These dogs can track your bad thoughts to under 0.7 Ångströms and are trained in the ancient potable art of Hai Karate”).
- If you’re going West on the Zepyhr out of Chicago, there are going to be way more people on board than starting off going East out of Emeryville. I was able to hold onto two seats the entire way going East, but going West I didn’t shake my seatmate until around Denver.
- There are different configurations of the snack bar. The train that I rode this time didn’t have any super-long benches and all of the tables were the same size as the upstairs observation area. The gap between the seat and the table is tight so you can’t lie down sideways. The train does not like it when you try to sleep.
- It’s still thousand-ingredient processed food at the snack bar. Because all hamburgers should have “Corn syrup solids.” I remember when I was a kid, pre-soaking the patties with a gallon of Karo in the BBQ trough ... salivating, diabeating ... Americaning. Not sure what’s worse, a stomach in distress from starving or a stomach in distress from eating. “Shut UP down there.”
- Put your case in the secret space on its side so things can’t get crushed by another pack on top of it.
- Some short-haul Amtrak trains have wifi, but the long-distance California Zephyr does not. Because why would you need to access the internet over the course of three days? People will ask you how you are getting connectivity if you are typing on a laptop; just tell them you traded a sleeper car for it.
- Princeton Illinois theoretically has wifi at the station, but I couldn’t pull up a signal while the train was parked there.
- You want to stake out your seat in the observation car long before you get to the eye candy. Going East from California/Nevada/Colorado is easy, drop your stuff off at your seat then head straight to the observation car with water, snacks, and your incredibly old laptop. Going West, I am legally married to the Colorado River, so I make sure that I’m in the car by the time it shows up. I try to get a table, and a view that is angled so I can see forward (the tables and windows aren’t aligned with each other). Then I camp out there, probably about half of the trip. Sure you can sit across from me, just don’t dangle a camera near my face when you’re trying to get arty with your shots. I will eat it. I will eat your camera German man.
- In Denver they cleaned the South-facing windows. I used to think that sitting North was where it was at, stunning vista-wise, but really it was a draw until this Denver washy thing.
- Idea for movie: Space Train 2049 (The Train That Accidentally Went Into Space In The Year 2049 Featuring Rip Taylor As Conductor Slippington)
- Of course now everyone has little electronic swipers and endless apps so I look like the luddite with my antiquated “laptop.” A conductor indicated that swipers are the most frequent thing swiped, so keep an eye on your little distraction machine.
- I had a string of going-to-the-bathroom-then-the-train-stops incidents because it wanted to lovingly bash my head on its walls. I learned to use the facilities shortly after the train left a station for the most part. You don’t want to use the bathroom while the train is in a station because (A) there are a lot of passengers moving about and clogging the aisles (B) this is the exact wrong time to not watch your stuff. Your stuff.
- I still love playing the “what the hell are you making” game with the endless factory backlots.
- We were roughly on time going East on the Zephyr, but on the way back the train was seven hours late. The complimentary dinner we were offered was some meat thing that looked and tasted like cafeteria food. I looked on the menu but couldn’t figure out what we were eating. Beef in a sauce on rice with a bun. The bun was the best part, but I'm a big bread fan. Go bread. Yay team.
- If you are caught smoking on the train you will be de-trained at the next available stop. They will announce this repeatedly after major stops. One morning there was pot smoke in the cabin and in a completely unrelated incident a DEA agent boarded the train at the next stop (Wherearewe, Nebraska), searched three bags, and whisked someone off. In a completely unrelated incident an hour or so later a cabinmate discovered that a ridiculously large amount of cash and a non-swiper olde-tyme cellphone had been stolen from the “easy access” portion of his baggage which he had left downstairs in the baggage area. Am I insuinating that the government rolled that guy for big money? Hey, they’ve gone out of their way to earn that reputation over and over again throughout history. Could have been the guy that was pulled off, could have been another passenger, only thing I know is that it wasn’t me. Don’t bring large amounts of money on the train, don’t put your baggage where you can’t see it, don’t bring/use drugs to/on a federally-run transportation system.
- Conversely, the TSA seems to have ratcheted down a notch in Chicago. There is a screener station, but my first time through the woman went on break and I went zooooop right in; the next time no one was screening. No one matched my driver’s license to my tickets like in 2007. They’re bored of it ... train security theatre is totally passé.
- I should really make a PDF of the whole trip. No, an app [SFX: choking noises].
- Took me a week to shake EST ... waking at 5am, lunch at 9am, etc. Bizarre. Related: I like you Detroit, but you have snow. Deal-breaker.
- I’ve beaten all of the novelty out of the whole experience. Next time I’ll open up an underground localvore snack bar. “You want Idaho potato chips? We’re in goddamned Wyoming, you heretic.” I still like the clouds though. Turns out they’re different every time.
1 It is a square-shaped pie iron, not the round ones. It splits in two, you could have had a half pie iron fencing exhibition in the aisle. Three shows daily. See history come alive. Visit our gift & fudge shoppe.
2 Some trains split into two like a pie iron secretly squirreled away in your luggage -- one section goes to City A, another goes to City B. If you secretly move without doing some research to figure out which car goes where, and you end up in the wrong city, let me know ... I can always use a chuckle, and you’ll receive a Cardhouse t-shirt5.
3 I almost said “JuJuBes®” here but then I realized that no one I know eats “JuJuBes®.” Does anyone eat “JuJuBes®”? “JuJuBes®.”
4 Why the hell was an outlet put behind the armrest? 1) All Amtrak seats rotate in place. That’s what that big lever on the end seat is. This is so you can always “face forward” in a car that can be coupled to the rest of the train facing either way. So why didn’t they put the outlets in the middle of two rows so the outlet would be clear all the time, or move it up three inches so it was always clear of the armrest? 2) Government.
5 These do not exist and you will not receive one.