U.S., Amtrak: Seeing America First; the travel adventures of Andrew Selden’s invisible 3,593 mile trip

By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; March 18, 2002

Can there be too much of a good thing?

Based on my most recent Amtrak journey, I would say the answer is, “Yes.”

In mid-February, I undertook a four-night, three train, 3,593-mile trip on Amtrak, to return home to Minnesota from the Phoenix area. (A significant footnote: I took one night in a hotel in Portland, Oregon mid-way through the trip, choosing to turn a highly risky, but “legal,” 65-minute connection at Portland into a safe, anxiety-free 25-hour layover.) The trip was largely uneventful, no disasters occurred along the way, and I arrived at my ultimate destination (St. Paul’s Union Depot) on the day I was scheduled for. All good, but … the trip was exhausting, and four nights in close succession in Amtrak beds hurt my back. It was one night too many.

Amtrak doesn’t really serve the Phoenix-Midwest market (or Phoenix at all; Amtrak doesn’t know about the annual migration of snowbirds to Arizona; Delta, Southwest and Sun Country make a fortune on that traffic), so when I started to ponder getting home from a visit in a northern suburb of Phoenix, I first had to explore how one might do that by rail. (Most people would just go to the airport and fly non-stop; a half a day, a couple of hundred dollars, #done. And, 60 years ago, I could have used Santa Fe to Kansas City and changed there to Rock Island, and been home in just over 36 hours.) But, I had time, and I prefer rail when it is feasible.

I rejected using the Sunset Limited for several reasons: it only runs at Amtrak’s convenience three days a week, and it doesn’t serve Phoenix. Instead, it stops in Maricopa, far south of Phoenix, and it calls there at wildly inconvenient times. Eastbound, it stops very early in the morning, requiring a pre-departure night in an area motel; westbound, it calls at an unpredictable but very late hour, but if it’s on time, can arrive at Los Angeles long before dawn, where Amtrak ejects all passengers upon arrival, even at 5 or 5:30 AM. And, the route east (at least beyond San Antonio) isn’t very interesting, and requires a night in a Chicago hotel to connect to the Empire Builder to St. Paul.

So I looked north to Flagstaff, a two-hour shuttle van ride away. The eastbound Southwest Chief calls at Flagstaff around 5 AM, so that too requires a very short night in a Flagstaff hotel, and the same night in a Chicago hotel as the Sunset/Texas Eagle.

But the westbound Southwest Chief is feasible: a 9:40 PM departure from Flagstaff, a reasonable 7:30-8:00 AM arrival in Los Angeles (most days), and a reasonable, if not completely safe, two-hour connection to the northbound Coast Starlight. So that’s the solution to getting out of Arizona. The rest is easy planning: the Starlight to Portland, a one-night layover, and an easy two-night leg on the Portland Section of the Empire Builder.

But because Amtrak doesn’t think people make trips like this, it is all but impossible to book it as a single trip through the website. Fortunately, we have the resource of capable, helpful, agents at the depot in St. Paul, who booked the trip for me in minutes. Amtrak’s revenue from my one ticket is ten times the typical Acela First Class ticket.

Departure day arrives, and I embark, on a Groome shuttle van, uncomfortably crowded, from in front of a Denny’s restaurant in North Phoenix. Two hours later, I arrive at the ex-Santa Fe depot in Flagstaff. It is closed.

The agent is expected a half hour later, so I decamp, with luggage, to a cozy pub across the street for a dragged-out glass of wine and a leisurely dinner. On the tracking app on my phone, No. 3 is coming, and it’s only 20 minutes late out of Gallup. (Two weeks later, a jinxed No. 3 suffers multiple engine failures and passes through Flagstaff about 20 hours late.) Down just 20 minutes is a good thing.

Amtrak offers its own Thruway bus connection from Phoenix, but it is a code-share on a scheduled Greyhound bus and is all but impossible to find on the website. I pass on that. Groome is easy to find, and easy to book, online.

The Flagstaff depot sports intolerably uncomfortable, straight-backed, wood benches, a charming agent, and the 22-year out-of-date “pointless arrow” Amtrak logo. Quaint. It also has a sign taped up to the window: “Federal law still requires masks …” This will become a running commentary on all the trains, with some Amtrak people apologetic about the mask mandate, as the rest of the country moves rapidly past the epidemic and its government mandates. But on board, the interminable mask-up-or-else orders are relentless and totally annoying.

BNSF trains roar by every few minutes on the ex-ATSF Southern Transcon. Finally, just before 10 PM, No. 3 arrives, still down just 20 minutes. I have the dreaded Bedroom A, the pinched off, smaller room at the end of car 331, the second sleeper, which is coupled to the engine—no baggage car and no dorm car to separate first class passengers from the noise and exhaust fumes. But it’s a short night to Los Angeles. At Flagstaff, several detrain and about eight people board the sleepers.

In the morning, when I get to the diner for a cold “continental breakfast”—the only offering—we are on time at San Bernardino, thanks to recovery time between Needles and Barstow. The diner closes at 6 AM, two timetable hours, and 90 running minutes, before L.A., so the crew can race the passengers off the train. Serving the needs of the first class passengers is not part of the equation.

At Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Lounge is open, and soon fills with Surfliner and Coast Starlight passengers. The lounge lady is cheerful and energetic, if somewhat bossy. I slip out to have a chat with URPA’s Paul Dyson, who came in on a Metrolink train for a short visit. We walk the famous tunnel to our respective tracks. I observe that the tunnel and the ramps up to the platforms are unchanged from when my Dad used them to get to steam-powered Union Pacific trains in the early 1950s.

Soon, the Coast Starlight, No. 14, backs slowly in past Mission Tower to track 10. It is a new-normal consist: two P-42s (23, 132), trailing two sleepers (ironically consecutively-numbered cars 32057 and -058), a Sightseer Lounge (33015), a business class coach, a dining car (38007), and two coaches. No dorm car, no baggage car. Again, the sleepers are adjacent to the engines. Why do they do that?

We depart on time at 9:51, with a sharp jolt. I walk the train. The sleepers and coaches are almost sold out, and business class has at least 35 passengers. How many potential customers did Amtrak turn away from this short, under-equipped train?

The “welcome aboard” public address announcement says that lunch and dinner are by reservation only and only for sleeper passengers, and that any passenger who is warned twice about mask compliance will be put off at the next station. Is this what East Germany was like? The diner announcement is offensive to coach passengers, making clear that they are second-class customers, and the mask Nazis on the crew make the rest of the trip unpleasant with their constant hectoring.

Seating in the diner now is not the traditional share-a-booth community seating, but each group, in my case a group of one, by itself in a booth. I strongly miss the social dimension of sharing meals in the diner with fellow travelers.

The San Fernando Valley is a steady parade of graffiti and concertina wire. It’s a relief to leave it above Chatsworth, and enter the green Simi Valley. The lounge car fills up out of Van Nuys. We wait for time at each station through Oxnard, where the railroad meets the coastline. It’s a crystalline sunny day, and the ocean is riveting, with clear views of the Channel Islands. And, we aren’t even to the good part yet.

At Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, we meet a Surfliner with a new Charger engine. We cruise effortlessly along the coast, soak up the always-incredible scenery, and reach San Luis Obispo 13 minutes early. For an hour, I share a lounge car booth with a young woman originally from Poland, now living in Oregon, on her way home from a conference. Underscoring Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner’s ignorance or dishonesty about the profile of people who use the inter-regional trains, on all three of my trains I see no tourists, no drooling railfans, and no nostalgia buffs, just people in substantial numbers trying to get somewhere by using a train.

San Luis Obispo is a crew change point. Except for the increasingly-annoying PA mask screed, the new Conductor is unseen for the rest of his district. Where is he hiding out? And why?

The restored traditional dining service (“only for our sleeping car passengers”) has excellent food in good quantity, but is undermined at breakfast and lunch by using cheap paper placemats on bare tabletops, and cheap plastic utensils and glassware. It looks and feels cheap, and undermines the quality of the food. At dinner, we get nice linen tablecloths, stainless silver, cloth napkins and real glassware. Each table has a pretty spray of two roses and baby’s breath in a bud vase.

Business class passengers (a service offered only on the Starlight, among the inter-regional trains) are allowed to enjoy meals in the diner, for $25 at lunch and $45 at dinner. The pricing is aggressive, especially as the costs of the diner and its staff are already covered by sleeper fares; all Amtrak has to recover from Business Class customers is the direct cost of the food itself, and the napkins and paper costs.

At a pre-dawn breakfast the next morning, in the mountains in the far north of California, Mt. Shasta appears briefly to the east, bathed in bright sunlight while the closer mountains lurk in pre-sunrise shadow.

At 8:27, we take siding for a UP southbound manifest, the first freight train we have seen since leaving LA. Moving tank cars little more than arm’s reach away are a bit scary. It’s good not to know what’s in them. In about three minutes, we are under way again. All the other UP meets this day are perfectly executed, a credit to UP’s dispatchers.

The Conductor announces an impending 2 ½ hour cellphone dead zone as we climb over the Cascade Mountains into the Willamette Valley. The combination of bright sun, blue skies, lots of fresh snow, the dark forest and an on-time train makes for a most enjoyable stretch of great mountain railroading. At 10:02 we crest the pass at Control Point “Cascade Summit” and begin the long, slow descent to Eugene. At 10:10, we execute a perfect rolling meet with a southbound double stack train. A green signal greets us around the curve at the end of the siding.

We reach Portland 11 minutes early. I could easily have made the connection today to the Empire Builder. I have done that on earlier trips (I made the connection once by less than 10 minutes), but found the experience too nerve-wracking wondering all the way up Oregon whether we would indeed make it to Portland in time to catch No. 28, the Empire Builder. Today, no worries, we’ll lay over for a day, and catch up on sleep in a real hotel bed.

The next afternoon, I’m back at Portland’s handsome Union Station. Getting there, however, is depressing—many city blocks are lined with the tents of street people, and the tents everywhere are surrounded by mounds of trash. The occupants plainly are not “homeless,” they live in fixed abodes but on the street, in medieval conditions without benefit of heat, water, sanitation or hope. Portland’s abundant shelters are not full, but neither do they tolerate drug use.

The sleeping car lounge at Portland Union Station is open. It already has a few customers waiting for today’s northbound Coast Starlight. The southbound is finishing its station work, and has already boarded. The agent in the lounge is chatty and pleasant, but the station is ferocious about keeping people off the platform until ticketed passengers are allowed to board a particular train. This might be rationalized as a safety precaution, yet that doesn’t wash when platform access remains completely unregulated at most stations. Perhaps it has more to do with the bureaucratic urge to regulate others’ freedoms just because they can.

Today’s Empire Builder, is spotted at a different location, on track 2, north. Historically, it has been on track 4, south. The lounge attendant says they moved the train’s spot when Amtrak annulled two trips a week, and they decided that the track 2N location was more out of the way, particularly when two Empire Builders were in the station at the same time. It means my train journey home will be some 300 feet shorter than it used to be.

The train is called for boarding at 4:25 for its 4:45 departure. It is a shorter than normal consist, with one P-42, a lounge car, only one coach, and one sleeper (32083, originally named “Iowa”). The coach is a normal 31000-series coach with additional lower-level seating, so with no coach-baggage car to handle the few checked bags, they have added a full baggage car at the rear.

The sleeper is fairly clean and properly set up (except the waste basket wasn’t emptied), but the sliding door between my bedroom and the next is standing partially open. The car attendant tries to lock it shut, but the real fix is wedging a washcloth between the door and the wall. The car attendant is training a new car attendant, so we will have two people working the car this trip.

We leave on time, cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, wait for time at Vancouver despite—we are told—the Conductors throwing two passengers off the train for failing to comply with the mask mandate, and start out up the Washington side of the amazingly scenic Columbia River gorge, carved 12,000 years ago by a series of titanic post-glacial floods. This is one of the best parts of the route, and I am perched on the right side of the lounge car to take it all in as long as the late winter sunlight lasts (in summer, it is often light all the way to Pasco). But upon leaving Vancouver, we go a mile or two to the end of double track, and stop. The Conductor announces that we will be holding here until two BNSF westbound freights come out of the single track territory ahead of us. I silently take back all the nice things I have said previously about BNSF dispatching. When we finally move again, it is dark, so I retreat to my room for an early bedtime.

During the long wait past Vancouver, our car attendant and his trainee come to the lounge to retrieve two very large paper bags with the cold tray dinners (think: picnic) for the sleeper passengers. Coach passengers are left to their own for meals. The café in the lounge car sells really basic sandwiches and snacks (think: airport food, and not in a good way), but few coach customers do so. These tray meals used to be pretty good quality, but they were downgraded earlier and have not been restored as part of the traditional dining program on the western trains. They are a cold version of Stephen Gardner’s reviled “Flexible Dining” inflicted upon eastern long distance passengers. I console myself with anticipation of the dining car, which comes out of Seattle on train 8, being available tomorrow.

The lounge car café doesn’t open until an hour after we leave Portland. Amtrak’s customer service manual requires it to be open upon departure, but it never is and no one at Amtrak knows, cares or ever enforces that. It operates at the crew’s convenience, not the passengers’.

In the lounge car during the long hold, I chat with two families traveling from northern California to Whitefish to go snowboarding. It is their first long distance rail journey, they have sleeper rooms, and don’t know the routines on the train, especially how meals are provided on No. 28. I try to explain the tray meals, how the diner comes out of Seattle and will be open at 6:30 the next morning, and why it is that the café in this car still hasn’t opened so they could get beverages or buy wine to enjoy with dinner.

The former SP&S Railroad track is not what it used to be, and at Spokane we lose electrical power for at least a half hour while the two sections, 8 and 28, are joined into a single train. So, it’s not a good night for sleeping.

The next morning, I wake just as we enter the 8-mile long Flathead Tunnel. After we exit, in first light, I see there is heavy snow all around us, and we are close to on time. But just outside of Whitefish, we stop on the main for nearly an hour, the Conductor reports, to allow freight traffic in Whitefish to clear. Seriously?

While stopped, I walk forward to the diner. The Seattle section also has only a single coach, so it is a noticeably shorter walk than in summer when both sections have two coaches. The diner is very quiet, and with the suspension of the usual community (shared booth) seating, once again I eat alone. Eventually, we roll about a mile forward to Whitefish, stopping about an hour late at 8:30. The crew says that even on this winter day we are putting off 60 and receiving 50 passengers. We are off again at 8:50, just over an hour late.

The lounge car guy offers a trivia question with a free cup of coffee as the prize: Name the two “coffee stands” we pass between West and East Glacier that aren’t in fact coffee stands. I guess the answer is the two railroad control points just east of Essex known as Java West and Java East. (I realize I must have been on this route too many times.) I’m right, but pass on the free coffee.

Twisting up the curves on the 1.8% ascent to Marias Pass, I see that the Seattle section also has its own baggage car and a crew dorm car, and we are being led by three P-42s per BNSF’s winter mandate for the Builder. Are two baggage cars really a better solution than adding a baggage/coach to each section, allowing for more passengers?

We cross the Continental Divide at Marias summit at 10:38 in a strange world of a crystalline ice fog. The iconic mountains to the north, including the highest, Engineer Mountain, which define the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, are not visible from the train. There is no sign of the avalanches that closed the railroad a couple of weeks earlier. The prairie east of the mountains looks Siberian, with heavy snow cover, high overcast, and ice in the air.

Just before noon, we meet two BNSF westbounds, the first freights we have seen today. At lunch, the diner is again very quiet. We are happy that the Empire Builder, unlike all the other western Superliner trains, doesn’t inflict the pointless regimentation of forcing reservations for lunch. It shouldn’t be a novelty to operate the diner to suit the customers’ convenience rather than the crew’s.

The afternoon passes quickly thanks to a good book, but at dinner, just as I notice that the tracking app on my phone is showing an unexpected three hour delay for us at Minot, and a westbound Empire Builder that has been stranded near Devils Lake all day and is more than seven hours late, the Conductor announces the delay and says it is because we must wait for our new engineer and Conductors at Minot to complete their mandatory rest before coming back on duty. That crew will take our train from Minot to St. Cloud.

The Conductor sits down in the diner at a booth right behind me. We chat, and I learn that our next crew had been on the stalled westbound Empire Builder, No. 7, is taking their rest on No. 7, and 7 is being operated by another crew that was vanned out to the train from Minot in near blizzard conditions. It is now about 12 hours late. That No. 7 later is more than 15 hours late in Montana, and is annulled and turned back at Spokane, with buses substituting between Spokane and Portland and Seattle.

The Conductor also reports that we will be detoured from Minot direct to West Fargo on the KO Subdivision, the Surrey cutoff via New Rockford, due to the severe weather to the east, missing stops at Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks. Worse, also due to the weather, passengers ticketed to those three stations will be discharged at Minot with no alternative transportation provided. I am in equal parts appalled at their fate, and relieved it isn’t me.

The detour over the former route of the Empire Builder (BNSF heritage predecessor Great Northern’s Western Star covered the Fargo-Grand Forks-Minot route) is no more than an intellectual curiosity, as I sleep through it entirely, waking in Fargo as it appears that a BNSF engine has coupled to the rear of our train and towed us backwards for a mile or so. What is that all about?

Soon, we leave Fargo, three hours late. Shortly, we slow at the site of last week’s major wreck of a BNSF double-stack train which derailed and knocked over a second train stopped on the other track. Portable lights illuminate a scene with a dozen cranes, scoop shovels and other trucks still clearing the wreck site, in sub-zero temperature. That wreck forced an exceedingly rare 2-day detour of the Empire Builder over its former route (ex-GN) via Morris and Willmar.

We hold our running time, at least, for the rest of the trip, stopping at St. Paul Union Depot at exactly 10:30, 2:43 late.

Assessment: This trip, and me as a 3,600-mile, three-train customer, are invisible to Amtrak, whose systems do not reliably capture longer-distance inter-route (i.e., connecting) travelers. Instead, my trip will appear to Amtrak as three separate one way trips of 566 miles, 1,190 miles and 1,837 miles. The shortest leg matches the reported average trip distance on the western inter-regionals; but does it do so accurately? My trip was seven times longer than the average, and even three times longer than the average sleeping car passenger’s trip. Amtrak’s data don’t reveal that, blinding management to the simple fact, not to mention the opportunity value, of people choosing to use rail for longer trips. When you live in the fishbowl of Northeast Corridor commuter trains and trips, you tend to miss the real action outside the fishbowl.

Second, any number of little things are well within Amtrak’s span of control that would materially improve the customer experience on longer trips, and by doing so improve Amtrak’s appeal, financial results and political standing outside the NEC.

Cars can be a lot cleaner than they are, inside the sleeping car rooms and outside the windows. The cold tray meals served on Trains 27 and 28 are an embarrassment and should be immediately upgraded (at trivial added cost). Stop running the dining cars for the convenience of the employees, and re-orient them (e.g., hours of service, reservation requirements) to the needs of passengers. Enforce your own rule that cafes open upon departure, not when the attendant gets around to it. Re-open the diners to coach passengers, and price the meals at the marginal cost of the food and disposables (napkins, etc.), not the fully-allocated cost. Add carrying capacity to the few trains you do run.

ADVERTISE THE TRAINS—most Americans have no idea what you offer. Publish maps and timetables so people can see where you go, when, how long it takes, and what to expect on board. Nobody can run a service business in the dark, with no advertising or promotion.

A lot of issues that were problems 30 years ago aren’t any more. On board crews—Conductors and car attendants alike—are almost universally good people doing their best to take care of their passengers. The restored traditional dining offers decent food (you could use a bit more variety, if you understood that people do use the trains for two and three night trips), but you cheapen it needlessly by serving it on plastic plates on bare tables. Where is the promised china? Will you use it only at dinner?

A final personal note—four nights is one too many, even in a Superliner Bedroom. But the four nights is a product of Amtrak’s own lack of strategic vision that prevents more direct routings, reliable daily services, and interline connections. It takes most travelers three long days (and winter weather driving risk) to drive from the upper Midwest to Arizona or New Mexico. Amtrak could get people there in 36-40 effortless hours if it ran a feeder train between Minneapolis, Des Moines, Kansas City and Dallas/Ft. Worth, interconnecting all the western transcon routes with safe daily connections, avoiding the 23-hour layover in Chicago.

Amtrak is the architect of its own manifest shortcomings. It can and should do better, and it can with the financial resources it already has. That it fails to do so is solely the responsibility of its short-sighted senior management.

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