October 11, 2012 | Volume 117 Issue No. 41

Train trip OK, but expected better

Wick’s World

Dear Amtrak,

Thank you for the complimentary bottle of champagne. It helped ease the shock my wife and I felt when we saw the size of the roomette that would become our home for the next 40 hours. Make that 48.5 hours due to all the delays that caused both my wife and I to miss a full day’s work.

We bought tickets for a roomette for three times the price of a seat in coach, but only half the price of a real sleeper … our first mistake. The last time we rode in a sleeper was in 1975, shortly after you were established. Our $20 Mexico trip went from Juarez to Mexico City and on to Vera Cruz. We had a brand new Pullman sleeper with a bathroom, shower, two beds and walking space. We remember that train trip as the most pleasant and comfortable one we had ever taken. Only the Copper Canyon Train to Creel, Chihuahua, and The Orient Express to Istanbul, Turkey, had more exotic scenery.

Like the tiny shoebox compartment we were stuffed into, the scenery for the Empire Builder Train from Chicago to the Pacific was a big disappointment for us. I cannot blame Amtrak for this as a higher power is responsible for building the landscape.

The chef you hired for this trip was world class. I never dreamt the food could be as delightful and well-prepared coming from an Amtrak menu. All of the staff on the train, from the conductor to the porters gave us top-notch attention — the exception being the two waitresses we had to endure every breakfast, lunch and dinner. The brunette was just plain grouchy. The blond came right out of a “Dukes of Hazard” rerun. She tried to play the part of a foul-mouthed, in-your face comedian. It never worked at all with this crowd. We were grouchy also, as most of us realized we would either miss our connections or arrive at our destination a half-day late.

Amtrak, you deserve high marks for providing all of our meals for free (actually, they are included in the price of a roomette or sleeper). I also like your policy of placing strangers together in the dining room. We made many new acquaintances, including the mother/daughter riding the train to Washington D.C. The last we saw of them we heard the mother say, “I’ll never set foot on another train!”

The entire trip was not dull and boring; just mostly Montana and North Dakota. We booked this train ride back to our home in Minnesota for the express purpose of seeing the fall colors. Here is my autumn color report: From the western side of Montana, where the mountains meet the prairie all the way to Minnesota, I counted a total of 20 trees. Six were red, five were orange, four were yellow, and three were still green; the other two appeared dead.

We did have a few scenic highlights. The six-inch fresh snowfall in western Montana reminded us of our Minnesota winter to come. A pleasant surprise for us was the thousand wild horses that had recently been rounded up and corralled waiting to be auctioned.

In defense of Amtrak, I must state that it was not your fault that the train continually ran late. You see, Burlington Northern owns the actual train track. Amtrak is allowed to use it. Here is the stickler — any train carrying freight has the right-of-way over a train carrying passengers. In railroad terms, you are officially worth less than an old lump of coal. We often sat waiting our turn while watching trains loaded with everything from coal and lumber to containers of merchandise from China go whizzing by.

Our overall experience was OK but we expected better. The relaxing scenic trip back home that was to be the culmination of a 10-day vacation didn’t happen. We were tired, stressed and cramped instead of relaxed and well rested.

Dear Amtrak, if there is a next time, I will be sure to book the larger size sleeper car. Our cramped roomette reminded me of a Japanese office worker’s pull-out draw rented for sleeping purposes … and get rid of Thelma and Louise.

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