Sunday, October 26, 2008

Taking the Train

The airline industry is in a sad state. I've been on planes since I was three weeks old. I've traveled all over the world and gone on different airlines. Foreign carriers are still pretty good (I love Singapore Airlines the most) but domestic carriers are sad, sad, sad. Gone are all the freebies that were included in your ticket price. Now you have to pay to check your bags, for your drinks, for your meals (depending on each airline's new policies). A long time ago we lost the hot meals in the little trays. Flying is no fun.

I've really gotten to appreciate Amtrak. I've taken it a few times now and recommend it if you can deal with rail time, which I'll explain first. Rail time means you have patience and your schedule is flexible. You see, Amtrak has a lot of delays. So you have to be able to roll with it. The number one reason for delays is the fact that they don't own their tracks. The tracks are owned by the freight railroad companies. So if a freight train and an Amtrak need to use the same track or cross each other, the freight train gets priority. How stupid is that? Like a trainload of cars, vegetables, cows and ipods need to be on a schedule.

The second part of rail time is the schedule. There is only one train per day that goes along the route (we are not talking about commuter routes like the Capitol Corridor train). So each day in Sacramento there is one train going south from Seattle to L.A. and another one going north from L.A. to Seattle. Basically you need to make your schedule fit the train's.

Once you are on the train, though, you can relax and enjoy the scenery. If you pay the big bucks you can get a roomette which includes a little bunk so you sleep and some privacy. I've only traveled coach so far and it ain't that bad. Airline seats are jammed in there so that you have no leg room and you have to worry about the size of your seatmate in case they start invading your personal space. Not so on Amtrak. There is so much leg room that my short legs can barely reach the footrest on the seat in front of me. I can stow my smaller bags at my feet and still have room. Plus, the seats recline really far and have legrests that come up from underneath so that it's like an extended Barcolounger. Most of the time you can end up with a row (2 seats) to yourself so that you can really spread out. There are overhead bins as well and each coach car has five bathrooms below.

If you've got electronics, outlets are at a premium. The coach cars only have one each and so you have to try and snag that row. There are a couple of outlets in the Lounge car as well, that people compete for. There was also an arcade on the lower level of one of the coach cars, but the games were pretty lame.

Speaking of the lounge car (or observation car)... A lot of people like to hang out there for their entire trip. The upper floor has tons of windows for enjoying the scenery outside. There are different seating arrangements and there are some tables in case you want to play a game of cards. On one trip up to Oregon there were a bunch of volunteer ladies who got on at Klamath Falls and gave a history and trivia talk about Oregon all the way to Eugene. On the lower level of the lounge car is some more table seating and the snack bar. They carry items such as pizza, burgers, breakfast sandwiches, beer, coffee, and other snacks.

The first class passengers (in the sleeping cars) had their own parlor car. I imagine that it is very similar to the lounge car, but perhaps a tad more upscale. During each direction of my trip they offered a wine tasting in the parlor car. For the first class it was $5 and for the coach passengers it was $10.

Then there is the dining car. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A server will walk through the train to take down your desired reservation time. When you arrive at the car you will be seated at a table with other passengers, so it is very social. The tables are set with linens and silverware and you can even have wine with your meals. On my recent trip I went in for dinner. The special for the evening was crab cakes with a lobster cream sauce. The fish was ahi tuna that was fake grilled. (They put grill marks on it, but it is finished in the oven.) The pasta special was cheese ravioli with marinara sauce. There was also a flat iron steak with baked potato and veggies, but I opted for the half herbed chicken. Although the menu said it came with rice, I was given the choice of rice or either mashed or baked potato. We had a nice warm dinner roll, a small salad, and then our entree, which was piping hot. WAAAYYYY better than airplane food (or the lack thereof).

My coworkers might have had a 5 hour roadtrip in cramped cars dealing with traffic and construction, but my 8 hours was a nice relaxing trip where I could walk around, read, sleep, dine, and enjoy the scenery. I think I chose the better choice.
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