U.S., Amtrak: Mr. And Mrs. Selden Take A Train Trip; The Harsh Reality Of Differences Between The Lake Shore Limited And Empire Builder

Editor’s Note: Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Selden took a train trip home to Minnesota from Springfield, Massachusetts earlier this month. Both Mr. and Mrs. Selden are seasoned Amtrak passengers, having traveled thousands of miles in Amtrak sleeping cars. Here is Mr. Selden’s recounting of their experiences and especially the stark difference between Amtrak East and Amtrak West. Corridorrail.com Editor

By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; October 30, 2021

In late October, we returned from Springfield, Massachusetts to Minnesota on the Lake Shore Limited’s Boston Section (Number 449), and the Empire Builder.

Reservations were hard to make — my wife and I splurged on two Roomettes on 449 and a Bedroom in the Portland sleeper on the Empire Builder. The website reservation system choked on that, however, and crashed at the payment stage. I called the 800 number, and after a 12 minute wait, a competent res agent booked exactly what we wanted. No other info was offered on the website — no map, timetables or route guides are available, and information about the route and onboard services was also missing. How do people who are infrequent travelers, want to use an overnight train, and don’t already know what they want, figure out what Amtrak offers and how to buy it? Or, is depriving prospective customers of useful information about train services part of Amtrak’s campaign to sabotage the national system?

Train 449 is posted on time at 3:23 PM at Springfield when we enter the depot at 2:50, sit for 15 minutes, and at 3:05 look for the track and platform assignment. The monitor says “Platform B, Track 2.” We walk into the tunnel of the nicely renovated depot, and see there is a Platform C and a Platform D, but no B. Hmmm… As we ponder this challenge (is this like Platform 9 ½ for the train to Hogwarts?), a station guy calls the train on the public address system and tells the quickly assembled group, “Follow me.” He leads us to an unmarked elevator near the Platform C sign, up to the high-level Platform C, where we walk west and down a ramp to an unprotected walkway across a live track (where we wait for an inbound shuttle train from New Haven to pull in) then cross over to a crummy asphalt ground-level platform, with canopy posts but no canopy, where the station guy says, “Wait here” and wanders off. He is a man of few words.

Soon, a headlight to the east announces the arrival of 449 from Boston: three P42 engines, one Viewliner I sleeper, one Amfleet café and business class car and two Amfleet II coaches. There is no baggage car, hence no checked baggage service. More sabotage?

Ralph, the sleeper attendant, helps us hoist our bags up the steps. (Can’t Viewliners load at high platforms?) About 18 passengers board and six detrain at SPG. Our sleeper already is nearly full. We do a quick change of clothes to train travel-friendly attire, grab our free drink vouchers, and head to the café. Thirteen of 18 business class seats are occupied, but five train crew and zero passengers are sitting in the small lounge section, taking up three booths. We cash in the vouchers for small bottles of wine and sit at a booth. Café attendant “C.J.” politely introduces himself and describes what he has for sale. A plexiglass shield walls off C.J. from his customers, but he announces that he is now accepting cash in addition to plastic.

The sleeper has Amtrak’s new linens, especially a nice light comforter replacing the thin blue acrylic blankets long in use.

As we begin the long, twisting climb into the Berkshires, we note the subdued fall colors and many scenic scenes, but only dimly because the café’s windows are not clean. The sleeper’s windows are just as dirty.

The coaches are also nearly full between Springfield and Pittsfield. Amtrak’s Post Road track coming down the hill into Albany, New York is in thoroughly rotten condition and the train lurches violently.

The dining car comes out of New York on 49, the main section of the Lake Shore Limited. Ralph tells us to wait until he talks to the diner’s Lead Service Attendant at Albany (where the trains are joined) before we walk back six cars for dinner. This is not a reservation system as on the western trains, just an informal way of preventing the one employee in the diner from getting too many people in at once. We are a very, very long way from the dining car experience on the Twentieth Century Limited, the spiritual/historic ancestor of the Lake Shore Limited. For some unexplained reason, we are expelled from the café car for the stop at Albany.

We step out to walk the platform, as we have an hour before departure. We see the power cut off and run ahead into the shops area, where one engine is cut off, and two return and re-couple. When 49 arrives, its P42-DC engine goes away, and our train pulls ahead, then backs down onto the New York section. The New York section, Number 49, adds two coaches (normally four, pre-Covid), a CAF Viewliner diner and two sleepers, plus a baggage car.

In the sudden dusk, we leave Albany on time at 7:05. On New York State-improved track between Albany and Schenectady, we very briefly top 100 MPH, but soon settle back to 79. Ralph comes by to say we can go to the diner at 8:00 PM. It’s a mixed blessing. The “food” in the diner is an enhanced version of Amtrak President Stephen Gardner’s “Flexible Dining” — there are more choices than two years ago, but the quality hasn’t improved. These are still TV dinners, and basically terrible. They are an embarrassment to Amtrak and an offense to customers who have paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for sleeper class service, “meals” included. Coach passengers, still banned from the diner, aren’t missing much. Only one guy staffs the diner. He is not overworked, because only three other people are dining after 8:00. We wonder if Mr. Gardner has ever actually eaten one of these horrors. We are pretty sure neither he nor Board Chair Tony Coscia has ever ridden one of the company’s overnight trains.

The next morning, I awaken at 5:30. Overnight, we have traversed some very good track, and some very bad. After 6, we trek to the diner for the included “breakfast.” It’s what we used to see on airplanes when they served meals (think rubber omelets), and it’s just as dreary as dinner was. At 7:15, three other passengers are in the diner, and just four are eating in the café. The café doesn’t carry yogurt.

We double-spot the long but breaking apart platform at Toledo. Many, many people get off and on. We are about a half hour down, and basically chasing the heels of Number 29, the Capitol Limited. Our coaches are about 3/4ths full, and Business Class appears to be full. The two restrooms serving the café/Business Class car are especially foul.

We arrive Chicago about 20 minutes down, which allows plenty of time to walk into the Loop and find a restaurant for a decent lunch. The Empire Builder departs during Amtrak’s lunch period (11:30-3:00) and according to Amtrak’s own Service Standards Manual should offer lunch in the diner before departure, but it never has.

While we are out walking around Chicago, the spacious, attractive club room for sleeper passengers is taken over by “Nazis”. Polite questions about when trains will be called for boarding are met with sharp and unhelpful responses. Other questions are simply rebuffed. When trains are called, the public address announcements are harsh orders (“Do this! Don’t do that!”) that infantilize the customers, most of whom appear to be unfamiliar with the process and are intimidated by being ordered around. Not enough Redcaps appear for our train, and the Club attendant helpfully suggests to the waiting sleeping car customers that if the elderly and infirm who want a cart ride to the gate don’t walk and carry their own bags, they might miss the train.

Onboard the Empire Builder, the Conductor never welcomes anyone aboard, but gives a long, demeaning series of mask orders, some of which she obviously made up herself (even when actively eating, you must put your mask back on between bites or sips — no word on what to do while chewing; in sleepers, you must keep your mask on in your own compartment “if the sliding door is open” — no word on whether that means wide open, partly open, or open just a crack; no mention is made of social distancing).

The train rolls on time at 2:15. It’s Saturday, but we are still stabbed at the station throat by an inbound Metra commuter train. The windows are all dirty (we learn later that Chicago’s car washer is out of service). Someone on the crew makes the Amtrak-prohibited announcement not to go to the lounge car until your ticket has been scanned. (We ignore that one and go anyway.) Our car, the Portland sleeper, is generally clean, a nicely refurbished Superliner I, Number 33021, and the car attendant is polite and cheerful. At 3:20, 65 minutes after departure, the lounge car café finally opens — an hour late — but the attendant forbids using the downstairs booths. More made-up rules…

In western Wisconsin, we enjoy a fine dinner in the under-staffed diner. The restored traditional food service involves meals that come onto the train pre-cooked and vacuum-sealed in plastic pouches. In the galley, they are heated and plated. In the foodservice trade, it is called “sous vide” service, and you’d be surprised how many normal restaurants do exactly the same. The test is whether what hits the table in front of you is an appealing meal. These are. (Flexible Dining on the eastern trains is not.)

Ours is one of the occasional charmed trips where nothing else gets in the way; at several stations we wait for time. At Winona, the imperious Conductor mercifully detrains. We stop at our destination station of St. Paul 15 minutes early.

Overall impressions from a customer’s eye point of view: The western Superliner trains are night-and-day superior to the eastern single-level trains in all respects. The Superliner coaches are light and airy; Amfleet II coaches in the east are dark and dungeon-like; their restrooms always smell bad. A Superliner Sightseer lounge is the epitome of openness and serves two key functions: the snack bar on the lower level, and a social center for the entire train on the upper deck. Amtrak management is utterly clueless about the second function, and in terms of passenger experience and quality of the trip, the openness of the lounge car is more important than the snack bar function. Amtrak sabotaged three long distance trains by removing Sightseer lounge cars altogether (the Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, and Texas Eagle).

The onboard food service is the biggest difference. Flexible Dining is an insult to human nutritional needs, while the restored traditional dining on the western trains is more than acceptable, it is actually pretty good (and will be even better once Amtrak depletes its inventory of throw-away cheap plastic plates and forks and brings on real china and glassware).

It only makes sense that the trains that provide the best travel experience, capped by the western Superliner inter-regional trains, also are the best-performing trains Amtrak operates, generating the most passenger miles, the most intercity ridership, the highest load factors, and by a wide margin the greatest return on taxpayer’s capital investment into Amtrak, of any group of trains in the Amtrak system.

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