Talking Transportation: Cross Country by Amtrak


A recent business trip took me to Dallas on a crowded, turbulent three and a half-hour hour flight from LaGuardia. But the return trip was a real treat:  two days and nights on Amtrak, for free.

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Riding a lot of Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor, I’ve built up a ton of Amtrak Guest Rewards points, augmented by their co-branded credit card. So when I checked my calendar and the Amtrak website, I saw an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely ride home in a full bedroom, meals included, gratis.

The long distance trains I rode from Dallas to Chicago (The Texas Eagle) and Chicago to Washington DC (The Capitol Ltd) were all “Superliners”, ie double-deck cars with a variety of accommodations, including coaches and sleeping cars.

Each train also had a diner and an observation car, though the sightseeing through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois wasn’t exactly memorable But the second leg of the trip through the hills and river valleys of Pennsylvania and Maryland was gorgeous.

“Fly over” country sure looks different from an elevation of about 20 feet.

My bedroom was equipped with a big couch that folded down into an almost queen-sized bed, surprisingly comfortable for sleeping. The private commode doubled as a shower.
Firing up my radio scanner, pre-set to the railroads’ frequencies, I followed the action as the conductor and engineer received instructions from a dispatcher hundreds of miles away.

The food was good, all cooked to order, and included in my first class fare. Dining was communal, one of the fun parts of train travel:  getting to meet real folks from across the United States, chatting about their travels, their work, everything except politics.

In Chicago and Washington D.C., where I had time between train connections, I enjoyed Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge for first class passengers, complete with free Wi-Fi, snacks and priority boarding. I also had time to explore those cities’ beautifully restored train stations jammed with commuters, Amtrak passengers, shops and restaurants.

To their credit, Amtrak does a great job with their money-losing long distance trains. The service is truly first class, the ride smooth and, for the most part, on-time (thanks to a heavily padded timetable). We had only two small delays—one caused by another Amtrak train colliding with a truck at a grade crossing (no injuries), the other by a boulder on the tracks that needed to be removed.

Because demand is high and the supply of sleepers is low, fares for long distance Amtrak trains are pricey and booked many weeks in advance. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Dallas is as low as $230. But one-way on Amtrak is $299 in coach and $700-plus in a roomette. Of course with Amtrak it’s like getting two nights of hotel plus meals, but to me it’s well worth it.

So next time you’re planning a long distance trip, turn it into a journey. Take the train!

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