The Amtrak Experience
We made our way from our Chicago hotel to the train station in an Uber taxi. The driver was very friendly and suggested he drop us off at the original entrance to the Union Station so we could see its splendour in full.
Another wow moment when we saw the station hall. It was grand on a large scale! It reminded me of the great stations in Russia where Stalin wanted the people to experience grandeur on their way to work.
Union Station Chicago
The Union Station in Chicago was full of ancient looking statues and columns. The old booking office was clad in wood along with the waiting benches. Having travelled to London a lot I am used to seeing fantastic architecture at stations. St Pancras station for example is a sight to behold, especially from the outside. But Chicago Union Station captured my imagination and reminded me of how important the rail road was to this country in decades gone by. The station left me in awe and was a great way to start our Amtrak experience.
After a while we were called to the platform for train number 5, the California Zephyr to San Francisco. Experienced rail travellers say this is one of the most beautiful journeys in the whole of North America as it goes through vast plains, the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. The service runs daily.
We queued up alongside fellow passengers waiting to be shown to our carriage.
Many people choose to have cabins, but we had chosen to ride in the ‘standard’ seats on the upstairs level of this Skyline train. There was obviously an advantage to having a cabin, privacy at sleeping time being the main one, but having been on overnight trains before I have found the cabins very cramped and the top bunk quite claustrophobic. I don’t personally know if that is the case in an Amtrak cabin, but one passenger did confirm to me that she had found it so.
I was attracted to the larger airline style seats of the normal cabin which I felt would be more comfortable in the day time than the cabins. I also liked the opportunity to ‘mix’ with more passengers. I was keen to experience the journey to its full and not be hidden away in our own cabin.
We left Chicago station at 2pm and after putting some of our items by our seats made of way to the Sightseer carriage. I have to be honest I was worried about leaving my bags in the carriage and did take all my valuables with me, but after a while I came to realise that actually no-one was interested in anyone’s bags. There was good security in the train with guards coming through day and night.
The sightseer carriage was a mixture of seating styles and being there early we had a choice of which seats to take. We chose the seats that rotated and gave us the best all-round view. There was a power point by our seat, which was useful to keep my electronic devices charged. The skyline carriage feels really airy with its glass rooftop. I have travelled on trains in the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy and Russia, some of them sleeper trains, but this Amtrak train was the best I have ever been on.
Shortly after departing from Chicago we heard a voice over the tannoy that we would become familiar with. It was “Mike” in the downstairs bar telling us the bar was open for drinks and snacks. With no driving to worry about we could sit back with a beer to literally watch the world (well this part of America) go by.
The scenery out of Chicago was typical of leaving any train station. It was a bit dull and full of railway cargo. But it wasn’t long before we were onto open scenery.
The stops on our journey by States were:
- Illinois – Naperville, Princeton, Galesburg
- Iowa -Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Oscealo (Des Moines), Cresta
- Nebraska- Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Holrege, McCook
- Colorado – Fort Morgan, Denver, Fraser-Winter Park, Granby, Glenwood Springs (Aspen), Grand Junction
- Utah – Green River, Helper, Provo, Salt Lake City.
Some of our stops were for at least 10 minutes, time to stretch the legs, mingle with other passengers, take some photos and enjoy the fresh air – although there were a lot of people taking the opportunity for a ‘smoke’ as it is not allowed on the train.
From what I could see we appeared to be on time at most stops, although they did make up some time for us and we arrived in Salt Lake City an hour early.
The landscape on day 1 was mainly miles upon miles of open, agriculture land, wheat, maize etc. There were plains that stretched on as far as the eye could see. It was our first realisation of how big a journey we were undertaking and how vast this country is.
As we watched the miles pass by, I couldn’t help thinking about the early settlers covering huge distances on horse back or on the old stage coaches when they travelled to the new Wild West.
It was taking us 32 hours on a modern train – no wonder it took them months and many died on the way. How would they know how long to pack provisions for?
Dinner on Amtrak
The dining Car tries to offer something from the past. With a traditional three course dinner available with waitress service and linen tablecloths.
There was also Mike’s snack bar offering a selection of food, but being the first night on the train we thought we would have a proper dinner.
Places in the dining carriage are booked in advance and priority is given to cabin customers first for their preferred times. We had a late slot which suited us. The tables are designed to accommodate four people and you find other passengers will join you for dinner.
Our fellow dining traveller was a music student. She was returning to college after visiting her family back home for weekend. She said that over the next three years this will be her preferred method of travel to get home, although she was only going through one State on her journey.
Dinner was a steak with green beans and jacket potato – nicely healthy and we declined the starter and desserts. All washed down with a bottle of wine!
After dinner the carriages were getting noticeably quieter as people started to settle down to sleep. The train crew advised that if you wanted to talk you should go to the snack/bar carriage or the Sightseer carriage.
We had brought our large travel towels for use as Beach towels later in our journey and used these as ‘blankets’ and had our own ‘blow-up’ pillows. The seats reclined and foot rests came up so I was quite comfortable.
Through the night we stopped at stations so more passengers came and went. The rail crew put a ticket above your seat and during the night will come through with a torch to give people a 15 minute warning that their station is coming up – a personalised alarm clock! This process was quiet and not distracting to others and ensured that people did not miss their stop by over-sleeping!
Day 2 – on the train
I did manage a few hours of ‘on and off’ sleep and after setting my alarm to ‘vibrate’ mode so as not to wake my fellow passengers I moved through to the Sightseer lounge at 4:45am to ensure we had the best seats for when the sun came up and we had the amazing views to experience through the Rockies.
To my surprise the lounge already had people in it, but I was able to get the seats we wanted. It reminded me of the old holidays when I would get up early to put my beach towel on the sun beds!
I was thinking, won’t be long before it will be 6am and the carriage would be filling up. But I was wrong, close to what I thought was 5:45am my watch then changed back to reflect the Central time zone and it became 4:45 again!!! One of my fellow early risers was a lady who had been in a cabin and had not enjoyed it, her bed was top bunk and she didn’t like the close proximity to ceiling. She was accompanying her Aunt to San Francisco before she would return home to Philadelphia. Her holiday was the train journey and stop overs in Chicago and San Francisco.
An hour or so later the carriage started to fill up and there were no seats left. It wasn’t even light yet! Passengers were obviously keen to have a good view for when the sun came up. A lot of the passengers were experienced rail tourists and were on an organised American Rail Tour complete with a guide. It was interesting listening to their stories and inspired us to consider other rail journeys in the future.
At 6am the breakfast Car opened and there was a surge of people moving. We had prepared (well actually I had!) and we enjoyed our own breakfast looking at the views and didn’t have to worry about losing our vantage seats.
We came into Denver at 7am and a lot of passengers left or alighted. It was the first ‘big stop’ on the line. We had been told to ‘get ready’ for the views out of Denver. So on a wet, miserable day we left Denver and crossed the Old Man River, the Mississippi – a highlight of the journey. Cameras were clicking in every direction.
After the River, people sat back and relaxed and engaged with fellow passengers. This was a real treat for me to mix with so many Americans, many of whom who were using this train as a cheap mode of transport, they were not tourists.
A couple of characters included:
Tyrell, a young guy from Philadelphia travelling to San Francisco to move to a warmer climate, so friendly and alternated his time between dancing to his music and sitting reading while eating the biggest pineapple in the world;
An aunt and niece travelling together. The aunt must have broken the world record for how long it can take to eat one apple!
A lady who had visited her son and was returning home. She had 10 kids!
The journey after Denver started to take on a different landscape. We went through the highest stretch of railway in the country and saw our first glimpse of the Colorado River. It was quite small at this stage as we were high up in the mountains. Little did we know that we would be following this river for so much of our journey by road over the next two weeks.
The scenery through the Rockies was stunning. From mountains with miles of fir trees to open prairie land where the Colorado river snaked its way around. For miles my jaw was wide open, astonished at the wonderful views. Then after Grand Junction the views changed again, to an almost lunar landscape. Very strange and very different.
In summary, I loved this train journey: the whole experience; the views were stunning; the camaraderie of the passengers really enjoyable; and watching places and time go by whilst having a beer.
Amtrak California Zephyr provided a fantastic way to see so much of this country and we looked forward to moving on, with our own 4 wheels.
We pulled into Salt Lake City at around 10pm, ordered an Uber taxi and made our way to our hotel for a much needed night in a bed!
Tomorrow we head off to see the Lake and a drive as we are ‘going to Jackson’.
Footnote: Travelling in an Amtrak train overnight- some useful tips.
For those thinking of going on Amtrak skyliner here are some things you may wish to consider:
Advantages of a cabin
Some have their own toilet and shower
Bed to lay down flat
You need to sit on toilet when showering
Uncomfortable seats in day time
No 360 degree view
Advantages of the open carriage
Plenty of room for your luggage
Great views unless you are by the water stations and stairs
Comfortable seat in day time
Disadvantages of the open carriages
People walking through even at night when stopping at stations
Not a lie flat bed
Some points to note:
The air conditioning in the open carriages went from freezing to warm. You definitely need some form of blanket to feel cosy enough to sleep.
There were larger-than-toilet rooms for changing and washing in the morning, but no shower
I would recommend taking something comfy to sleep in and change before ‘lights out’ it made a big difference to me to feel like I was going to bed. I wore leggings and T shirt and changing helped me have more of a comfortable night’s sleep.
There was no wifi on the train and for much of journey no phone signal at all.
Take a small bag packed with all your necessities for the train journey including change of clothes. You can leave your larger bag packed up on the storage racks and not worry about trying to get things out of it.