The Person on the Night Train

You open your eyes in the wee hours, wondering what woke you, and you hear a distant train whistle. Do you find yourself wondering where the train is bound, who is riding it though the darkness, whether they have just begun their journey or are nearing home? You drift off again, and the haunting sound of the whistle weaves itself into your dreams. In the morning, do you remember those dreams? Do you remember hearing that train? Maybe you just feel a vague restlessness the next day; maybe you start thinking about a long rail trip, or find yourself looking up train schedules. You want to know what it is like to be that person on the night train.

I can tell you!

My husband and I have taken long-distance, overnight train trips three times in the past three years: from Denver to DC; from Emeryville, CA to Denver; and from DC to Albuquerque. The first and third were three-day, two-night trips with a change in Chicago. Emeryville to Denver was one night between two full days.

We reserved a bedroom in a sleeper car for each of the three trips, since we were not too keen on trying to sleep in train seats, and having to share passenger bathrooms was pretty much a deal-breakerNote 1 There are other ways to overnight on a train, from just dozing in coach seats, to a single bed with no bathroom, to a four-person bedroom. I have only ever done the 2-adult bedroom, so that is what I am addressing here.. The bedroom has a comfortable double seat that converts to the lower berth at night (the top berth gets pulled down at night and is completely out of the way during the day), a single swivel seat, a fold-down table, a private bathroom (albeit a “wet” bathroom, i.e., you shower while sitting on the closed toilet), a tiny sink, towels, a trash receptacle, a narrow closet with four hangers, storage for towels and toiletries, a shelf for overnight bags, and electric outlets for phone charging. The rooms are remarkable feats of engineering, using every spare inch of a small space while still feeling roomy and not the least bit cramped.

At bedtime, though? Yeah, not so much. When the seats become beds, life in the sleeper becomes claustrophobic. There was enough space left in the room for one of us to change, while the other sat trying to make him/herself as small as possibleNote 2 You can, of course, step into the hallway while your companion changes into nightclothes. But you probably will prefer not to do that in the morning in your PJs.. And the only reasonable way to use the sink is to kneel on the foot of the lower bunk. Unless you are skinny. We are not.

Once we crawled into our beds, though, we found them quite comfortable and we slept easily. Well, except for the first night on the first trip we took; every time we hit a stretch of rough track, I was 100% convinced the train was going to derail and we would all become statistics out in the middle of pitch-black nowhere. By the second night I slept soundly, rocked by the swaying, and occasionally waking up to peek out the windowNote 3 Sadly, the top bunk does not get a window view..

With our sleeper accommodations came free meals in the dining car (sit-down seating with wait service, as opposed to the cafĂ© car). And train food, contrary to what you might expect, is quite good! Except . . . they use what is euphemistically called “community seating”. Which sounds lovely, but actually means awkward small talk with strangers. Each table has four seats, and they fill those seats up as people come in. Which meant there were two strangers at our table at every meal. Sometimes we all clicked and it was OK; other times it was a little strained; and once in a while we came to an unspoken understanding with our tablemates that we would not even try to pretend. Smile, nod, and eat. So much more civilized.

Anyway, if you are curious about the details: When your train is announced, you walk with your luggage to your car (your car and room numbers are printed on your ticket). An attendant places your large bag in a cubby at the end of the car, where it is out of the way but accessible if you need something from it, and you keep your overnight bag with youNote 4 There is also a baggage car but we did not use it, so I will not go into that.. Find your room, sit and relax, watch the bustle in the station while you wait for departure time. Your sleeping car attendant will, ideallyNote 5 I say “ideally” because on the last leg of our last trip, the attendant never came to our room and never asked when we would like the room turned down. The result was that he did it while we were at dinner, which was at 7:00. We came back at 7:30 to a room full of bed. The observation car was crowded so we channeled our inner Senior Citizens (which was not too hard, since we are almost there anyway) and were asleep by 8:30., visit and introduce him/herself and ask when you would like your berths turned down. The dining car attendant will also come by and ask what time you would like to be seated for the next meal. If your train has wifi, they will announce the password (having wifi, of course, does not guarantee you will have a signal for the whole trip). The train starts and your trip begins.

Stay in the privacy of your car – it really is quite comfortable – and watch the scenery speed by. Take all the photos you want; there is a plug right by the window to keep your phone charged. Or stroll to the observation car, with floor-to-ceiling windows and swivel seats, so you do not miss out on whatever is on the other side of the train.

And the scenery can be spectacular. I had heard that the countryside between California and Denver is the most beautiful in the country. It is; when we took that trip I was glued to the window. Mountains and valleys, buttes, cliffs, rushing water, deep lakes, and blue, blue skies.

1. The California Zephyr approaching the Emeryville, CA station; 2.Near Thompson, UT from the California Zephyr
1. The California Zephyr approaching the Emeryville, CA station; 2.Near Thompson, UT from the California Zephyr 
3. Colorado River near Kremmling CO from California Zephyr; 4. Union Station, Denver, CO
3. Colorado River near Kremmling CO from California Zephyr; 4. Union Station, Denver, CO
But even the flat land between Denver and DC was fascinating to me. Acres and acres, miles and miles of farmland and flatness can become tedious, especially when the growing season has not begun and it is pretty much just BROWN flatness. But I am New York born and raised, and ensconced in New Jersey, so what I am used to is tall buildings/woodlands/suburban sprawl, and this was like nothing I had ever seen before. I had no complaints. And I could see stars at night.
5. Sunrise on the Missouri between NB and IA, California Zephyr; 6. Ghost sign in Ottumwa, IA, from California Zephyr; 7. Iowa, from the California Zephyr. A lot of Iowa looks like this
5. Sunrise on the Missouri between NB and IA, California Zephyr; 6. Ghost sign in Ottumwa, IA, from California Zephyr; 7. Iowa, from the California Zephyr. A lot of Iowa looks like this 
Our last trip, DC to Albuquerque, was interesting in its own way. Cattle ranches, lots of them. Horses. Dirt roads lined with old-fashioned telephone poles winding away into the distance. A Native American village, ponies in the backyards. Pronghorn antelope springing away from the noise of the train. Small towns–our train forced a Labor Day parade to wait, and instead of glaring at us, making rude gestures, and hurling imprecations like any good New Yorker, Jerseyite, or Philadelphian would do, they actually waved to us. I even waved back!
8. Pulling out of Union Station, Washington DC; 9. Farm, through the window of the moving Capitol Limited
8. Pulling out of Union Station, Washington DC; 9. Farm, through the window of the moving Capitol Limited
10. B & O Roundhouse, Martinsburg, WV, from the Capitol Limited; 11. Approaching Chicago on the Capitol Limited; 12. Iconic stairs in Chicago's Union Station
10. B & O Roundhouse, Martinsburg, WV, from the Capitol Limited; 11. Approaching Chicago on the Capitol Limited; 12. Iconic stairs in Chicago's Union Station
13. About to cross the Mississippi between IL and IA, Southwest Chief; 14. Dirt road to nowhere, somewhere in MO, from the Southwest Chief; 15. Random horses, from the Southwest Chief
13. About to cross the Mississippi between IL and IA, Southwest Chief; 14. Dirt road to nowhere, somewhere in MO, from the Southwest Chief; 15. Random horses, from the Southwest Chief
Every so often there will be a longer than usual stop where you can get off and stretch your legs. I recommend you take advantage of this. A rail trip can end up being nothing but sitting and eating, and you may find that you really, really need to get up and move around. Just do not get off unless they say you can, and for goodness sake do not wander too far to hear the “all aboard!”

It is not for everyone, train travel. The bedrooms are expensive; to tell the truth, we did all three trips completely on points. And taking three days by rail instead of three hours by air can really cut into your vacation time. But if you have the days to spare – or if you consider train days as part of your vacation – you can be the person on the train that the people in their beds wonder about.

Here are Amtrak’s websites for the three trains we have ridden:

The California Zephyr

The Capitol Limited

The Southwest Chief

Here are a couple of sites about Amtrak’s sleeping accommodations. They explain the details better than I can!

Sleeping Accommodations Part 1: Roomette vs. Bedroom

Sleeping on Long Distance Trains

This site has a diagram with details and dimensions of an Amtrak bedroom similar to ours:

Amtrak - Experience - Onboard - Sleeping Accommodations - Superliner Bedroom

It is easy to find plenty of books in the Mercer County Library System about train travel. Here are two good ones if you are thinking of planning a trip. They are both excellent sources of information and practical tips on traveling by rail. Go with the Jim Loomis book if you can, simply because it is more recent, and things do change.

USA by Rail, Plus Canada’s Main Routes (Bradt Travel Guide) by John Pitt (2012)

All Aboard: The Complete North American Trail Travel Guide (4th Edition) by Jim Loomis (2015)

Are you more of an armchair traveler? For a more conversational (and international) take, try these:

TRAIN: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner (2014)

The Journey: The Fine Art of Traveling by Train (2015) edited by Sven Ehmann, Robert Klanten, and Michelle Galindo (this is a coffee-table book illustrated with beautiful color photos)

NOTES

Note 1 There are other ways to overnight on a train, from just dozing in coach seats, to a single bed with no bathroom, to a four-person bedroom. I have only ever done the 2-adult bedroom, so that is what I am addressing here.

Note 2 You can, of course, step into the hallway while your companion changes into nightclothes. But you probably will prefer not to do that in the morning in your PJs.

Note 3 Sadly, the top bunk does not get a window view.

Note 4 There is also a baggage car but we did not use it, so I will not go into that.

Note 5 I say “ideally” because on the last leg of our last trip, the attendant never came to our room and never asked when we would like the room turned down. The result was that he did it while we were at dinner, which was at 7:00. We came back at 7:30 to a room full of bed. The observation car was crowded so we channeled our inner Senior Citizens (which was not too hard, since we are almost there anyway) and were asleep by 8:30.

—Barbara Smith

Comments

  1. Awesome blog Barb.I love train rides since I did it a lot when I was in India.

    ReplyDelete

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