If you’re anything like me, perhaps you’ve fantasized about what it would be like to take a train ride. Having watched classic Hollywood films from the Golden Age of film and read books like ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ I possessed a somewhat gilded and maybe over-idealized image of what train transit would look like, however how different could it truly be in the modern age? The fundamentals of the train were all still much the same: tracks, trains, stations, and such. So, as we geared up to make our first trip by train from Portland, OR to Chicago, IL and then on to New Orleans, LA I was planning for something reminiscent of Harry and friends making their journey to Hogwarts (obviously with less magic). I’ve always told myself that expectations are disappointments waiting to happen and, in this case particularly, I really wish I had remembered that mantra for this particular “adventure.”

I’d hate to start right in with the negatives, and despite how many there are to unpack, let’s instead begin with the positives:

  1.  The fares: Taking the train will initially help you to keep some coins in your pocket, as opposed to hoping a flight. The astronomical costs of flights preceding the holiday season were a big influence on our decision to take Amtrak. BUT, be advised that the extension of trip time and high cost of food and beverage on the train might just parallel or even exceed that additional cost
  2. The space: We opted for coach seats as the sleeper car option was too expensive to justify. *I would encourage it perhaps for a party of four where the split might make it more economical.* I was pleased with the spaciousness and layout of the seats in coach and it was easy to recline and find respite – or full-on pass out.
  3. The views: I can’t speak for other itineraries, but ours was quite breathtaking, especially during this fall/winter season. Transiting through northern border-states of the U.S. and seeing the icy wilderness only to have the scenery entirely change after we switched trains in Chicago and become mid-western fields and grain silos, then ending in the mossy swamps of the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans – well, it was more than breath-taking. The views did not disappoint and there was even a car with an upper deck designated for viewing with a mostly glass ceiling and panoramic windows. The views from our actual seats weren’t nearly as viable due partially to the heavy tint on the windows and partially due to having not been cleaned since – what appeared to be – the train’s virgin transit.
Those are all of the positives that I can muster for the Amtrak experience and, as you may be able to guess from my intonation, my preeminent thoughts could be categorized as coming from the “other side of the tracks.”

While there should always be the anticipation of obstacles when traveling, some are reasonable and others are avoidable. Personally, I am somewhat critical of the products and service which require high expenditure – in other words, if I am paying a certain amount, I expect a certain result. Here are the failures I observed on behalf of Amtrak:

  1. Customer Service – Attendants throughout the train were constant custodians of terrible attitudes. We were informed of dining cart times by both the overhead announcements and another attendant to the effect that breakfast ended at 10 am, however upon arriving just after 9:30 am we were brusquely told that it breakfast service had ended by the dining cart attendant. She ended up serving us, all the while continuing to act “put out” by our very presence, as if she were a martyr for doing her job. In a stop just shy of Chicago, the decrease in temperature and a cigarette smoked to quickly caused me to loose balance and I fell from the train platform and sustained a nasty injury on my knee. Apparently this warranted laughter from our train car attendant and not a single inquiry from her as to my condition. The snack cart attendant was constantly nagging guests over the most mundane and unnecessary things, which seemed to be the general modus operandi of the “service” on the train.
  2. Cost and quality of food and beverage – Whatever money we were intending to save by taking the train as opposed to a plane may very well have been equalized by the cost of the libations. Obviously, the train transit took far longer than an equidistant plane ride and so far more food was purchased so this must be considered, but it was truly the exorbitant cost of the food and drink that tipped the scales. Paying $15+ for a meal each time was viscerally painful, especially once the meal arrived only to be a pre-packaged, microwavable pile of rubbish. Every now and then I would find myself pleasantly surprised at the edibility of a food item, but food shouldn’t be surprisingly edible – at least, that’s not the bar I set for my food.
  3. Cleanliness – The train wasn’t clean. Even at the outset, it appeared that certain areas – such as the restrooms and even the seating areas – could have used some maintenance. There were several areas in disrepair and toilets that appeared to be less-than-fresh. This continued to be the situation and one that continued to progressively deteriorate disproportionately with the continuance of the train’s transit. Over-stuffed waste bins and smelly encrusted toilets were apparently only an issue for the passengers and by the trip’s end, I felt ready to be run through a car wash naked if it would only scrub away some of the grime I had accrued in my avoidance of the rest areas.

Would I recommend avoiding the Amtrak Train? No, in fact, I would recommend that you take a chance and try it for yourself, however I would also recommend minimizing your trip down to a day or two at best. The length of our trip (3 nights, 4 days) certainly affected the overall experience. A smaller trip originating in somewhere like New Orleans and ending in Chicago – or vice versa – would give a more accurate sample. Find out for yourself, and let me know what you think or if you have an Amtrak story already, feel free to share it in the comments!

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