FRIDAY SURPRISE: Riding the rails – my first experience with Amtrak.

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On Wednesday I mentioned that I’d attended a shooting instructor’s conference; what I didn’t tell you is that I decided on a slightly unconventional (for 2013) mode of transportation to get there: I took a train from my home in Oregon to Bakersfield, CA.

Anyone who knows me knows how I hate to fly. I don’t mind airplanes, you understand; in fact, I’m fascinated by them. What I dislike is air travel: airlines, airports, crowds, intrusive security, and all the stuff which goes along with them. As a result my general rule is that if I can get somewhere in less than nine hours of driving, that’s exactly what I’ll do. In this case the drive time would have been about 12 hours, and while I’ve done that on many occasions I don’t relish the prospect. At that point the irritations of airline travel equal that of driving, and I’d usually opt for the airplane.

This time, however, I decided to go Amtrak. There is a station not too far from where I live, and the destination station was two miles from the hotel in which I was staying. It was the perfect setup, so I went online, booked the necessary tickets, and hopped aboard for my first train trip!

I must say that I enjoyed the trip immensely. I don’t want to overly romanticize the train, but I came away with the feeling that it is a more civilized way to travel. You simply walk up to the train, show your ticket to the conductor, and he assigns you a large, comfortable seat with plenty of leg room and the ability to recline sufficiently for a good sleep. While the train is underway you can walk around, enjoy the views from the lounge car, get something to snack on in the Cafe, or have a full meal in the Dining Car.

At night you can recline the seat, pull down the footrests and pull up the leg rests, and have a passable imitation of a reclining lounge chair. I had absolutely no trouble getting a good night’s sleep, and when I woke up I simply sauntered into the Dining Car and had breakfast!

How was the food? Quite good, actually. In fact I’d say that the food on the Coast Starlight was better than at least 75% of the restaurants I’ve patronized in the last six months – and the service was better than all of them. Yes, the meals are a little spendy but not quite as much as in an airport restaurant. I’ve been in restaurants which charged just as much for lesser meals!

On this trip I ate breakfast twice and dinner once, and everything was quite tasty. (One bit of warning: if you’re used to the rather bland food sold in most restaurants these days, know that Amtrak chefs actually season their food. I had a terrific braised turkey shank for dinner and loved the interplay of tastes they’d come up with, but one of the ladies at our table complained that it was “too peppery”.)

One of the interesting parts of rail travel is the amount of conversation amongst passengers. On an airliner you’ll hear the occasional discussion, but people in general retreat into their own little worlds until landing. On the train, people seem to always be talking. This is probably because a) the trips take much longer, and people need to occupy themselves with something; and b), the cars are quiet when underway as compared to the interior of an airplane, which facilitates those conversations.

This is especially true in the Dining Car, where people are seated four to a table at all times. This means you’re always sitting with someone new, and it seems rude to stare at someone across the table without at least acknowledging their presence. As a result, I had some great conversations during my meals. As I said: civilized.

I did learn a few things during this trip:

1) Bring a small fleece blanket; they turn down the heat at night to help people sleep, and it gets a bit chilly. Not cold, mind you, just a bit of a chill. A fleece blanket is more than enough warmth, but unless you’re particularly cold blooded you’ll need it.

2) Book your tickets online, but be aware that Amtrak’s website is horrendously bad. I tried to book a round-trip ticket, but the system routed me in such a way that there was an hour-long bus ride to connect the two trains I needed to take. My cousin, a rail buff, knew that wasn’t necessary and told me how to get around it: book one-way tickets from my house to a stop which occurred after the stop where they insisted I get on the bus, and another from there to my destination. That was neither obvious nor easy to do, as Amtrak’s shopping cart won’t let you put in a bunch of tickets and pay all at once – they force you to check out for each ticket, which meant I had to enter my information four times!

3) I think I mentioned this some time back, but Amtrak inexplicably doesn’t go to Las Vegas – except by bus. Seriously bad decision making on their part.

4) Train stations are scary places after the sun goes down. The ratio of the mentally disabled and those with poor personal hygiene jumps at night, and there are always seemingly unsavory characters simply hanging around. Sit near the ticket office and keep your eyes open.

5) Speaking of that, make sure you book your reserved tickets ahead of time. The cars with unreserved seating tend to attract a less pleasant clientele, but if you have a reserved coach class seat you’ll generally be spared much contact with them. The reserved seats tend to attract a) retirees and b) “hippy” types, whose political and social positions tend to be polar opposites but are generally always well read and interesting to talk with.

6) You’ll run into many Europeans on Amtrak, as they’re used to traveling by train in their native lands. It’s an opportunity to talk with people you might not usually meet, such as the fellow from Belgium I sat with at breakfast.

7) Except for the largest stations, where the train gets resupplied and the trashcans emptied, stops are very short: most stations along the Starlight route are one- or two-minute stops. Have your tickets ready and be on the platform when the train arrives or you can easily miss it.

8) When you book online Amtrak emails your tickets in the form of PDF files. Keep them on your phone and you won’t have to deal with any paper. (2015 update: they now support the iOS Passbook app!)

9) All reserved coach seats have two 110-volt outlets. Keeping phones, iPads and laptops charged isn’t hard, and even the Lounge Car has plenty of outlets so you can work while you enjoy the scenery.

10) Well, you might be able to work! The Lounge Car can be crowded, noisy, and a bit dirty after a long trip. The tables are often filled with people playing cards and board games, and there are lots of small children. If you’re easily distracted you’ll probably be more productive (and comfortable) in your quiet coach seat.

11) Speaking of coach: they enforce a quiet rule in those cars at all times. If you want to have a phone conversation, the Conductor will usually tell you to go to the Lounge car to do so.

Would I travel Amtrak again? Yes, I would. I enjoyed the trip enough that I’d have no hesitation booking another train for an appropriate-length ride. It’s not an ideal way to get across the country (unless you have a LOT of time), but for a 900-mile (or so) trip it’s both useful and pleasant. Now if they’d just fix their website and go to Las Vegas….

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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