Tag Archives: Amtrak

A More Human Way to Travel – Part 2

Climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe we ran into snow flurries so I didn’t get great view out the window for the prettiest part of the trip, but the falling snow was a treat in itself. One thing I’ve really come to appreciate about train travel is the quiet. In my compartment with the door shut, it’s quite peaceful. Unlike an airline, there’s no engine noise and unless you’re moving between cars you don’t even hear the “clackety-clack” of the tracks. Even though I bring stuff to read and typically make plans to use all that time on the train to get work done, I usually end up just sitting, staring out the window, watching the world go by. Before I realized it, we had crossed over Raton Pass and into Colorado. It was already getting dark again.

After dinner I retired to my roomette, worked a little more on my presentation then found Rene to get the room ready for sleeping again. Knowing I would lose another hour overnight I set the clock on my Blackberry ahead to Central time and turned in.

The tracks were a bit rough through Kansas overnight. As I rocked in my bunk I dreamed I was riding the luge down the Olympic course at Whistler. After breakfast we stopped in Kansas City for about 40 minutes. I had time to walk around and take a few pictures inside the beautiful Kansas City Union Station. If you’ve ever been to Union Station in Washington DC, it’s a bit smaller, but similar. As I stepped out front to get a few exterior pictures I saw Barb. Her trip was over and she was waiting for her ride. I told her it was a pleasure traveling with her, wished her a safe journey home, and made my way back to the platform.

Leaving Kansas City we crossed the Missouri River. The rest of the way to Chicago, I saw a lot of snow. It was everywhere – on the ground, in the trees. It blew past my window as the engine stirred up whatever was lying on the tracks. We passed countless farms and rolled through several small towns as we made our way across Missouri. At one stop in La Plata, MO I noted that you know you’re in rural America when the only vehicle waiting at the railroad crossing is a John Deere.

At Fort Madison, Iowa we crossed the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. My last meal on the train was with a couple from Kansas on their way to Chicago for a little vacation. She was a retired Kindergarten teacher. Funny how I keep running into teachers. We shared school experiences and I talked about ways education has changed over the years (and how it hasn’t). I also explained some of the things I planned to teach in my ICE presentations.

Passing through Princeton & Mendota, I knew my journey on the Southwest Chief would soon be coming to an end. As I gathered my things Rene came by to help. Naperville was the last stop before downtown Chicago. Since my conference was in St. Charles, it made sense to arrange for transportation from there. I found my way downstairs as the train slowed to a stop. Rene opened the door and placed my bags on the platform and I thanked him for making the trip an enjoyable one.

As the train pulled out of the station on it’s way downtown, I meandered toward the front of the station where my friend Anne was waiting for me. My 42 hour Amtrak trip to Chicago was now officially over.

The train arrived in Naperville, Illinois 15 minutes early. My flight back to California the next Saturday was over 2 1/2 hours late due to mechanical problems. As I stood in the security line at O’Hare with my shoes off, laptop out, and carry-on ready for inspection, I noticed ads for Amtrak pasted to the bottom of those plastic bins at the x-ray. The modern day equivalent of “Next time, take the train.” You don’t have to tell me that.

A More Human Way to Travel

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit another online journal of another train trip across the country. This time I used the 2010 ICE Conference in St. Charles, Illinois as an excuse to ride the Southwest Chief.

When you ride the train they know you by name. At least your sleeping car attendant does. Rene was in charge of car 430. “Mr. Dennis”, he called me looking at his passenger list as I boarded the Southwest Chief in Fullerton, California eastbound to Chicago. He lifted my large bag up onto the lower baggage rack and directed me upstairs to my compartment. I was in roomette #5. The roomette is a small compartment with two seats facing each other and a sliding glass door & curtain for privacy. By the time I set my backpack and coat down on one seat and plopped myself down on the other I realized we had already started moving. I barely noticed. “They’re still serving dinner.” Rene advised, “You should go get something to eat.”

It was 7:20pm. If I had known they would be serving dinner that late I wouldn’t have eaten that burger before arriving at the station. Meals are included in when you purchase a sleeping compartment. Entering the dining car, Annie, the dining car steward directed me to my table. Amtrak dining cars are community seating, so you get to know your fellow passengers during meal times. Next to me sat Barb, who got on with me in Fullerton. Her compartment was right across the hall from mine. She was traveling back home to Kansas City after visiting her grandchildren in San Diego. The gentleman who sat across from us was a businessman “training” his way to back to the East Coast. We introduced ourselves and shared about our occupations. The ribs and chicken looked good, but since I had already eaten I opted for just coffee and slice of cheesecake. Over the meal we had a lively discussion over ways deal with the glut of information online, the need for “fact-checking”, and how to teach kids to determine bias. We agreed that the loudest opinion is believed and shared more often than the actual truth.

By the time dinner was over we were already past San Bernardino and heading up Cajon Pass. I was about ready to turn in for the night and before I could ask, Rene was there. In less than 2 minutes he had converted my two seats into one bed. When the sleeper is made up it’s about as wide and long as a standard sleeping bag. With the slider to the compartment shut and curtains pulled I had about 12 inches of space between the bed and the door. Not much room to change, but I managed. I suppose I could have used the changing room downstairs. Maybe tomorrow. This was my third overnight train trip, but the motion of the car and the unfamiliar surroundings still took a little getting used to. I woke up several times but eventually found my way to dreamland.

Shortly after 5:00am it was still dark when the train stopped in Flagstaff. I woke to look out my window and see snow – lots of it. I snapped a couple of pictures and debated going back to sleep, but then realized my time was wrong. Blackberry’s don’t update the clock when you change time zones. It was already after 6:00am. Time to get up.

Showering on a moving train can be a challenge. Each sleeping car has a changing room with a shower. It’s like a glorified RV shower. Amtrak provides towels & soap. You set the temperature and press the button for about 45 seconds of water. It took a few presses to get hot water – I never really got the temperature right. The water pressure was pretty weak but after several presses at least I felt clean and somewhat refreshed which is more than I can say for my fellow passengers in coach. One man who got on with me at Fullerton was headed all the way to Rhode Island in coach. All I remember thinking was, “Good luck, pal.”

The dining car opened at 6:30am for breakfast. The sun was just coming up as we rolled East across Arizona. Barb was at my table again for breakfast. She had travelled on the Southwest Chief several times before so I asked her to advise me where the prettiest part of the trip might be. She told me my best photo opportunities would be climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe and into Colorado. While we ate, the train made a quick stop in Winslow. I did a quick check to see if I could see anyone standing on a corner – taking it easy. Nope. The train moved on.

9:00am. Crossing into New Mexico there was snow on the ground once again. After passing through Gallup, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the coffee & juice station at the center of my sleeping car and tried to get some work done on my presentation for the ICE Conference – my excuse for taking this train in the first place. Rene had already changed my room from a bed back into two seats. Each room has a power outlet so I plugged in my computer and was able to get online by tethering it to my Blackberry. I tried pushing my luck to see if I could Skype with Jen Wagner so she could give me some advice on my presentation. We got a few words in, but the connection kept dropping, so I went back to texting.

Lunch time. We pulled into Albuquerque 20 minutes early. That gave me over an hour to explore before the train was scheduled to depart. I walked around for a bit but got hungry. “Back so soon Mr. Dennis?” Rene asked as I climbed back into car 430. “The dining car is empty if you want to eat lunch.” My thoughts exactly.

This time my meal companions were a couple of seasoned train travelers, one a retired college professor, on their way to New York. Teachers always have stuff to talk about and before I realized the hour was up and the train was moving once again.

Go to PART 2

The Joy is in the Journey

It’s nice sometimes to take a day or two get away and clear your head. Riding the Coast Starlight last weekend from LA to Portland for ITSC and NCCE was my chance to do a mental shut down and restart, clearing out some brain space for the massive information download I’d be experiencing at these back to back conferences.

The 30 hour rail journey was just that. Even though I brought reading material I spent most of the time just staring out the window. Saturday the train hugged the California coast up to San Luis Obispo then headed inland through lush green hills toward Paso Robles, then north to San Jose, Oakland, and over to Sacramento. Sunday morning I woke up to snow flurries as we crossed into Oregon. Passing Klamath Falls the train chugged up into Cascades toward Cascade Pass (about 5000 ft) and eventually down to Eugene. From there it was a straight shot up the Willamette Valley to Portland.

Some Random Observations from the journey:

  • A dozen deer leaping through the hills outside Santa Barbara
  • 12 foot surf crashing along the coast near Pt. Conception
  • several startled cattle scrambling ungracefully away from the train as we climbed out of San Luis Obispo
  • Rolling hills near Paso Robles turned a velvety green from recent rain storms
  • Sipping coffee early Sunday morning in the Parlor car, watching the wind & snow swirling outside through the Shasta/Trinity National Forest
  • peeking through snow covered evergreens at the view of Odell Lake climbing up toward Cascade Pass
  • Clear blue skies and views of Mt. Hood outside Salem. (Oregonians would say, “The mountains are out today.”)

During my rail trip last summer (see Amtrak Adventure blog post from July ’08) I lamented the fact that I was unable to get Internet access on the train. This time I was armed with my Blackberry and it’s 3G connection to keep me in touch with my twitter & plurk friends. This also allowed me to post pictures, videos, and even do a couple of Skype video chats from my compartment. The laptop tethering worked great when I was able to get a cell phone signal. (See photo slide show and video below.)

Arriving at Portland Union Station late Sunday afternoon I hopped on the MAX light rail to the ITSC Conference at the Portland Airport Sheraton. With work 1000 miles away and my head clear it’s time to do some learning. Let the conversations begin.

Amtrak Adventure – Part 4

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 18th – California Zephyr

Slept much better last night. After waking up and enjoying a nice hot shower we learned that delays and rail work overnight now had us running more than 2 hours behind schedule.

A morning stop in Omaha gave us a chance to stretch our legs for a few minutes and take a look at the beautiful old abandoned Omaha train station. This must have been quite a sight back in the days when rail travel was a primary mode of transportation. According to Bob, its been boarded up for more than 20 years, but the building is still here so there’s hope it might someday be restored to some of it’s former glory.

Here in Omaha, Bob also took the opportunity poll us on what we thought was the most scenic part our trip so far. I’ll let you experience a little bit of Bob for yourself…

After our last breakfast on the train, Dad & I retreated to our compartment for a lazy day of reading and watching the Iowa farms pass by our window. Bob told us that our engineer would try to make up some time along the route, but that we would likely be delayed another 15 minutes as we pass through the flood area in Iowa and Illinois. After we crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa I was surprised to see how much water was still around even after 3 weeks. Many of these farmers must be devastated.

Once past the flood area we were running about 3 hours behind schedule. Stopping in Galesburg, Illinois we said goodbye to some of our Zephyr friends who’d been traveling with us since Emeryville. For the rest of us, it was on to Chicago.

The Chicago skyline was a bit of a contrast to the farms and small towns we’d been seeing all day. It was also clear that our Chicago-based Zephyr crew, who started here 6 days ago was glad to be coming home. They seemed anxious to see their families and take a few well-deserved days off.

We pulled into Chicago at 6:20 pm, only 2 1/2 hours behind schedule, and in plenty of time for Dad and me to catch the 8:05 Hiawatha train to Milwaukee. It also gave us time to explore the cathedral-like great hall of Chicago’s Union Station.

The Hiawatha was a fast commuter train that zipped us up to Milwaukee airport in only 80 minutes. At the airport we picked up a rental car and headed out to stay with family for a few days. Our Amtrak Adventure was officially over.

Overall, it was a great trip. I’ll definitely have to try this again. Next time I might take the Coast Starlight all the way up to Portland or Seattle. I hear the ride through the Oregon Cascades is really beautiful in the winter. We’ll see.

Surprises and Advice
If you’re thinking about trying a train trip yourself here a few things I learned…

1) Go first class. If you’re taking an overnight trip and can afford it, get a sleeper. Traveling this way is more expensive than air travel, but if you compare the cost of driving, hotels, and meals, you’ll find you might just save a few bucks.

2) Throw out the time schedule. If you find yourself worrying about why the train has stopped, or focusing on your destination you won’t enjoy the beauty that is around you. On the train it’s all about the journey and having a “we’ll get there when we get there” attitude. Besides, arriving 2 1/2 hours late after 4 days is not bad. I’ve had flights that are delayed even more than that.

3) It’s all about the people. One of the biggest surprises for me was all the interesting people I got to meet. Our Amtrak crew was great. I’ve already shared about Bob, but I must also mention Frank, the lounge car attendant/bartender, who looked like Dean Martin and sounded like Al Pacino. His regular intercom announcements always had us smiling. I was also surprised by all the interesting people we met at meals and in the observation car. Some were seasoned rail travelers who shared stories of other rail adventures and others were first-timers just like us. Don’t just sit in your room all day. Take the time to introduce yourself and get to know the people traveling with you. It might just be the best part of your trip.

Amtrak Adventure – Part 3

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 17 – California Zephyr

The upper bunk was a little narrower than I expected. Thankfully there were safety straps from the edge of the bunk clipped to ceiling of the compartment that kept me from rolling out during the night. The rocking of the train took a bit of getting used to, but eventually sleep found me. I think I dreamed I was in that old “I Love Lucy” episode where they slept in the upper berth on the train from Hollywood to New York.

During the night we passed through the Utah salt flats, Salt Lake City, and Provo.
Morning included another first – a shower on the train. Nothing glamorous here. Think of a tiny tent trailer or RV shower. Were not talking about the Hilton suites but there were plenty of clean towels.

Breakfast was an added surprise as Dad discovered that the people sitting across form us were Iowa relatives of one of his best friends. As soon as I can get a WiFi signal Dad plans to e-mail Jules and tell him we had breakfast with Chick & Opal.

The ride through Utah, Glenwood Canyon, and the Colorado Rockies was stunning. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. We rode through some beautiful canyons and valleys that can only be seen by train passengers and backpackers, following the Colorado River all the way to the town of Granby. You might remember this little town was in the news about 4 years ago when a disgruntled citizen built his own “tank” out of a bulldozer and destroyed a 13 town buildings including the Granby City Hall.

The Moffat Tunnel was our passage under the continental divide. This 6.2 mile long tunnel takes about 12 minutes for the train to go through. During that time, passengers are warned stay in their own cars and not open the doors between cars in order to keep out the diesel fumes and coal dust.

Dinner included a very interesting conversation with a man from the Canadian Coast guard. He shared his first hand experience with the staggering effects of global warming on the Arctic ice pack. “Icebergs used to break off in the summer and reform in the winter, but now they’re not reforming,” he shared noting that estimates predict that by next year the ice may have thinned out enough to create a shipping lane from Greenland to the Bering Strait. We also discussed the drastic effects a minute change in ocean temperature, salinity, and acidity could have on algae growth, fish population, and the formation of coral. Its amazing to think about how all these seemingly separate systems are actually connected and dependent on each other. I just hope we haven’t figured all this out before its too late to do anything about it.

Sunset brought us to Denver’s Union Station and a last chance to get out and stretch our legs before turning in for the night.

CLICK HERE for Part 4

Still No WiFi?
I tried to locate wireless access point at every station stop today, but I think I’ll just have to accept the fact that I won’t be able to get online until arriving in Chicago or Milwaukee.

Amtrak Adventure – Part 2

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 16 – California Zephyr

The horn blast of an early morning freight train was our wake up call this morning. The balcony of our hotel room overlooked the Emeryville station. At 7:55am the California Zephyr, our home for the next 3 days, pulled up to the platform. We found sleeping car 632 and met Bob, our 6 foot 6 1/2 attendant. He had hot coffee already for us in the car and not long after had we settled down in our room, he popped his head in our compartment and invited us to breakfast in the dining car. Our dining companions were a couple of musicians from the Bay Area. We shared stories and had a great discussion about the need to teach our kids how to find truth and validity in the glut of information available online, and promote creativity and innovation in the classroom. We chatted until the attendants politely kicked us out of the dining car, encouraging us to continue to solve the world’s problems, but to work at it in a different car.

After a brief stop to stretch our legs in Sacramento, the Zephyr started chugging uphill into the Sierras following pretty much the same route as the original Transcontinental Railroad. From here to Reno we were joined by two history experts from the Sacramento Railroad Museum who narrated the journey and answered passenger questions in the observation car. They were more than willing to fill me in on the history of the railroad and it’s construction, along with great bits of Sierra history and little know facts. I was even able to pry one of them for some information about a great spot on the Truckee River for catching native brown trout (but was sworn to secrecy).

The view from the observation car was spectacular as we climbed through Emigrant Gap & Donner Pass, then followed the Truckee River down to Reno. Lunch in the dining car was accompanied by a view of Donner Lake and the Eastern Sierras, along with some nice conversation with some Zephyr regulars who served as personal tour guides during the meal.

What About Bob?
I’m learning that train travel is a much about the people as it is the scenery. One of the joys of this trip so far is Bob Heath, our sleeping car attendant. Bob is a 35 year Amtrak veteran and Chicago native. Car 632 is HIS car, and we are HIS people. He’s always ready to serve with a warm and friendly smile and makes an extra effort to get to know his passengers.

In the evening he can convert a 2 seat roomette into upper and lower bunk beds in less than 2 minutes flat – complete with fresh linens and mints on the pillow. Dad and I had a great time getting to know him on this trip and hear about some of his experiences working on the train for the last quarter century. And yes, after 35 years, he still bumps his head occasionally as he maneuvers his 6 foot 6 1/2 inch frame through the train corridors.

Evening brought us into the relatively flatter part of western Nevada and dinner with a couple from New Zealand traveling across country to Connecticut. Their idea was to use cross country train trip to work off the jet lag of a 12 hour flight to San Francisco. Interesting idea.

Tonight is our first night of sleeping on the train. I’ll have to let you know how that goes tomorrow.

CLICK HERE for Part 3

Amtrak Adventure – Part 1

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

I got this hair-brained idea standing with my shoes off in an airport security line muttering to myself, “There’s got to be a better way!” I knew that I needed to get to Washington DC for the Discovery National Institute by July 21st. I knew that I didn’t want to take a “red eye” flight and arrive in DC at 5:30 in the morning. I also knew that driving from LA to DC with motels, food, and $4.50 per gallon gasoline was also not a desirable option.

Why not take the train? According to those “Great Rail Excursion” shows on PBS, the California Zephyr is one of the most scenic rail journeys in the US. Booking a sleeping compartment would not only gave me a private room to sleep in, but also included all meals in the dining car and first class treatment on board and at train stations. It seemed like a no-brainer.

So rather than take a “red eye” from LA to DC, here’s what I chose instead.

Coast Starlight from LA to Emeryville, CA (near Berkeley).
California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago.
Hiawatha commuter train from Chicago to Milwaukee.
Visit with family for a few days then fly from Milwaukee to DC for the National Institute.

We’ll see as these blog posts progress if this was a good idea.

July 15 – Coast Starlight

As we boarded the train we met Howard, our sleeping car attendant, who showed us to our compartment, explained how to work all the gadgets in our “roomette”, and told us where to find the dining, lounge, and observation cars. Leaving Los Angeles the first thing I noticed was the quiet. The superliner compartment was blissfully silent. No loud jet hum, coughing or sneezing passengers, or crying babies. I didn’t have to be told for the 100th time how to put on my seltbelt because there aren’t any. And there was no talk of oxygen masks falling from the ceiling or reminders that my seat cushion also serves as a flotation device in the event of a water landing – which in my mind is still called a “crash”.

Shortly after we were underway, Chris, the dining car steward, popped his head in our room and asked what time we would like to reserve seating for lunch. Meals are included for sleeping car passengers. Then, just before lunch Howard came back to deliver our complimentary champagne. (I think I’m starting to like this.)

For lunch Dad and I shared a table with a husband and wife who were traveling to Oregon to check out colleges for his graduate studies. Wonderful conversation – along with a nice plug for the DEN – was accompanied a fine meal with real silverware! Did I mention to beautiful ocean view right outside the window?

At San Luis Obispo, the train headed inland and the rest of the afternoon was spent reading in the observation car and enjoying the peace & quiet of our “roomette”. I took advantage of the time to make a few phone calls just because I didn’t have to shut off my cellular phone – or any electronic devices for that matter. We even had a standard electric outlet in our room for plugging in the laptop computer. Internet access is another issue. There is no WiFi or ethernet connections on the train and I’m too cheap to buy one of those mobile wireless cards so I’m dependent on whatever free WiFi I can find. No luck today.

At 7:30 Chris announced over the intercom that it was time for us to head up to the dining car for dinner. I had the steak and dad had half of a roasted game hen. Another fine meal.

We pulled into Emeryville at about 10:20pm, just a few minutes behind schedule. Ack! No free wireless at the hotel across from the train station – should have checked that when I made the reservation. Not sure when I’ll get to post this or what kind of access I’ll be able to find for the next few days on the train to Chicago. We’ll see what happens…

CLICK HERE for Part 2