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» RAILforum » Railfans » Trip Reports » Amtrak Crosscountry in August. Part One.

Author Topic: Amtrak Crosscountry in August. Part One.
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My wife and I are UK residents.
Having tasted the delights of the Zephyr summer 2005 and being concerned by the continuing uncertainty surrounding Amtrak funding we decided to do as much as we could this year. Six nights in New york, Lake Shore; three nights in Chicago,Empire Builder; five nights in Seattle, Coast Starlight to Oakland.
Arrived in NY cramped and uncomfortable but passed through JFK in about 30 minutes, helped by a very laid back but welcoming immigration officer. We were very pleasantly surprised as US immigration is gettin a very bad press in the UK at present and our arrival in Chicago two years ago had been hectic and time-consuming.
It amazes me that the vouchers we are given in Britain to exchange for Amtrak tickets in The US are still hand-written; maybe this will change soon. We exchanged these in Penn station and as last time in Chicago this took some time. I do not suppose many Amtrak booking clerks encounter these and they usually have to consult regulations or other colleagues. Once everything has benn confirmed, however, the tickets for all three trains are issued quickly. It is a pity that Penn staion is such a rabbit-warren.
I took the Wednesday midday tour of Grand Central Station and was very impressed, both by the building and the . The one thing the tour lacked was information on the station's heyday and the trains involved then.
By the Saturday of our departure we had just about mastered the Subway system and its confusion of numbers and letters. No matter how well you prepare for a trip there is nothing like hands-on experience of using the various transport systems. We both enjoyed NY and felt amazingly safe.
On Saturday we enjoyed the comfort and calm of Penn's 1st class lounge before departure, which was on time. Our stewardfor our bedroom was usually a dining-car attendant and was not entirely au-fait with the lay-out of the cabin, or how to control the heating. But he was very pleasant and accomodating and certainly tried his best.
Having read various views of SDS I was not quite sure what to expect. We were not disappointed. Both the lamb and chicken were excellent. Yes it would be nicer if dressings were not served in plastic containers, but at least the wine glasses and cutlery were genuine and the crockery more than adequate. How much more civilised thn eating on the plane.
We did feel sorry for our table companion, a Quaker and vegan. She was frequent user of Amtrak and seemingly had no trouble in selecting the vegetables and salads from the menu. On this trip she had problems, and it should be added the dinig-car before Albany was not busy. The waiter could see no problems but the supervisor wondered how it could priced. And the "chef" was not sure what he could do. Eventually a Gardenburger was produced but it all did seem to be rather a hassle. I am sure she could not have been the only vegan travelling on Amtrak. And of course, being a Quaker, I suppose she could not express annoyance!
After we had been seated in the dining-car there was a locomotive failure which meant there was no electricity to heat the food, but were kept informed of the situation. It was very pleasant sitting in the early evening with the Hudson on on side and swampland with plenty of bird-life on the other.
There was further delay in Albany as the Boston connection had not arrived. I presume the dining-car became busier after that as our steward said he had been serving there. This also happened on the Empire Builder. By the time we left Albany the light was fading fast, but I suppose we had seen the best of the scenery by then. We both certainly slept well, me imaging what it must have been like in the days of the Twentieth Century Limited! There is something so evocative about that deep-throated locomotive whistle!
The breakfast omelette was very good, but I did miss the grits. We arrived only 30 minutes late in Chicago. Having collected our luggage the baggage handler told us we were vry welcome to call for it later in the day. If the room was unattended simply to use the phone on the wall.
This was the only day in seven weeks in the US that the weather was a problem, lthough it did have repurcussions for later in the week!
We spent most of the day in the Academy of Arts.
The other museum I particularly wanted to visit was Science and Technology to experience the original Zephyr. We got there by the electric Metra without any difficulty, again impressed by the helpfulness of staff at van Buren station. CTA employess in the staions seemed to be less friendly and more wary of contact with the public. We were both impressed by the diffeent sections of the museum we visited. I also enjoyed a trip round the Loop I took while my wife did some shopping!
The Empire Builder stage of the journey was to be shared with the father of our American friend and one of his other daughters. The daughters had paid for the trip as part of his 80th birthday present and we were to meet them in the Metropolitan Lounge.
We arrived early as we had photos to collect from a branch of Walgreens and wanted to rid of our luggage. But of course, there were the "train cancelled" signs, but also information that the train would leave from St Paul's. My wife immediately worried about our friends. The lady at the baggage reception was very helpful, said they were not accepting luggage, to see about our refund for the loss of accomodation on the first leg of our trip and wait in the Metropolitan Lounge for information. The desk staff in the Lounge were not quite so helpful and I can understand why.They were obviously under instructions to get the buses to StPaul's filled as quickly as possible so that there would be as little delay as possible there and pressed us to get on one which was about to leave. But I felt that Amtrak would be obliged to transport passengers to St Paul's who turned up at Union Station at least an hour before departure time. My wife was concerned about her photos and they also had no information about passengers who had alredy left. A very friendly redcap who had heard what the women were saying confirmed my beliefs, said, I think to the annoyance, of the women, that the train could not leave St Paul's until the buses had arrived and had a calming effect on my wife. We agreed to leave on a later bus and I went to arrange the refund.
Again, considering the trains had not been running since at least the previous Sunday, the clerk who dealt with me did not really seem to sure of the procedure. I surely could not have been the first Empire Builder passenger he had dealt with in that time. He was polite but the procedure took over 30 minutes. It could be that we being from outwith the US caused problems as regards issuing the refund.
From that point things again ran smoothly and I at least enjoyed the comfort of the Lounge. We were called for the next bus, our luggage transported efficiently and with some humour; we were settled on the bus, warned of the dire consequences of smoking and our eta. Water and sandwiches were also provided. The journey was efforless although of course we did miss Milwaukee, the Missippi and Wisconsin dales. We did, however experience a spectacular thunder-storm! In St Paul's all tension disappeared as we met our friends and were supplied with coffee and pizza.
All in all I do not think Amtrak could have coped better they did. The system for getting us ther worked; perhaps some of the staff could have been more clued up. Our refund had not arrived when we returned to the UK.
E-mil provoked an immediate response. It had been wrongly addressed. Within a week it was with us.

Posts: 168 | From: uk. northumberland | Registered: Jun 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator

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