3 days on a train – Amtrak, Portland-DC

Straight up, I will admit to a fib. This trip should have been 3 days on two trains. 2 days to go from Portland to Chicago, then a tight 1h45m connection onto a different train, and into Washington the next day. I had only made a provisional booking in DC, reasoning that the connection might be too tight.

Sunset in Montana
Sunset in Montana.

America is a huge country, with a large railway system, but one which is far from serving everywhere. The route I took, across the top of the country via Montana and North Dakota, stops at some very small places, ignoring some larger ones to the South – though you can connect to them via buses. This quirk, though all a part of the massively wasteful ‘drive to here, errand, drive to there, errand, drive to this friend, drive to that friend’ American lifestyle, means that the trains are an oddity, and that makes for a great atmosphere. On each train I have been on, conductors have walked the length of the train, chatting and laughing with passengers, making jokes and generally keeping people entertained. They will even wander through after a few hours just to check if “everyone alright down here?” It’s pretty great, and even the reported presence of a screamer in the observation car, and people getting on the train in the early hours and chatting, couldn’t spoil it.

Food given to me
Food, and bag, given to me by kindly fellow passengers.

I had the cheapest possible ticket, $186 to go across the country in coach. Those seats are massive, and the leg room is enormous, but it still isn’t a patch on a sleeper. That said, I was lucky enough to have no one next to me for the first couple of nights (other than a sketchy lady, but she occupied her journey by walking the length of the train, seeing if anyone would front her money on the promise of taking a loaded debit card from her) and so with the leg rests (yes!) stretched, I could curl onto a makeshift bed. The seats recline, but that doesn’t suit me so well.

Murals in a small town
Murals in a small town.

I was right in the mood for the trip. I think you have to be, really, otherwise it must seem an awfully long time. As it was, with power available at the seat, plenty of time to use and a big bag of food from Safeway in Portland – which is only a few minutes’ walk from Union Station – I was set, and pitied the people who got off a mere 6 hours later.

I was mostly happy at my seat, though I did get a reassuringly expensive can of Budweiser from the cafe – 330ml, $5.50 and sit in the observation car. If you want to talk and have quiet neighbours, that car or making a reservation for lunch/dinner will probably sort you out. Plus people are generally up for chatting. An Amish girl got on halfway through, and did not join in with the conductor’s light-hearted “Broken arm? Have you been taking on the boys?” but talked for a little while with a gentleman who walked past with a coffee and stopped to ask her about the different religious groups in the area. It’s okay to talk – I will miss that, back in the UK.

As Thursday morning passed, I realised we were some way behind schedule. We’d stopped in the night, and there was an ambulance parked outside. “Oh, probably someone died,” said one of my neighbours. Then floods in Wisconsin meant there was some doubt over whether we’d get through, communicated by the train’s announcer emphasising that “we are being told that we will get through”. Well, yes. None of us had doubted it until you seemed to. At any rate, that was a slow bit, and then we screeched to a halt in Pewaukee, with a couple of policemen mooching past the train to check something out.

All of that added up to that Chicago connection being too tight. And that was hugely to my benefit. Announcements assured us that Amtrak would be on the case, but wouldn’t decide much till we got to Milwaukee. I received my new ticket, for the same train on the next day, long before that, via email. Then when we arrived – 3-4 hours late – I joined a queue at passenger services to be offered a room at Swissotel, taxis there and back (no thanks – under 2 miles, I’ll have a walk in Chicago – I was one of the first off the train, early in the queue, so was still at the hotel by 9.15pm) and a $10 food voucher for the station’s food court. All in all, that’s the cost of my ticket returned. Plus it made for a much better itinerary, with a proper bed for the night and a day to wander round Chicago’s waterfront in the sun. Had I booked that itinerary, though, I’d have paid for the hotel stay, and probably more for a split ticket, too. A huge bonus.


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