I had the opportunity to accompany my parents as they traveled with my grandmother during her move from Chicago to the Washington DC area. Her physician did not want her to fly. Fortunately, my father had a stash of Amtrak points. Most travel blogs focus on airline redemptions, but Amtrak Guest Rewards points are particularly lucrative for sleeping car arrangements with multiple passengers. A passenger paying cash pays a price for the room; additional occupants up to the capacity of the room pay coach fares. However, when redeeming points for rooms on Amtrak, there is a flat rate for the room regardless of the number of occupants. My father initially booked a handicapped accessible bedroom for my mother and grandmother (40,000 points for two zones) and a roomette for himself (20,000 points for two zones). When I asked to join the trip, he was able to add me to the reservation for his vacant top bunk at no extra charge.
Chicago Union Station
The only problem we had with Amtrak on this trip occurred right at the start. My father dropped my grandmother, mother and I off at the Canal Street entrance to Chicago Union Station. I picked up the courtesy phone to request a Red Cap (agent who typically offers baggage services but also provides other services like handling the handicapped) bring a wheelchair for my grandmother. After waiting for ten minutes with no sign of anyone, I called again. The lady in Amtrak Passenger Services sounded surprised that nobody had showed up and said they’d put the request out again. Some more time passed and there was still no sign of anyone. My grandmother was getting tired of standing with her walker (but of course was too stubborn to take a seat on it). I went downstairs to try to wrangle up a Red Cap in person, but the Passenger Services office was empty. Maybe twenty minutes after the initial request for a wheelchair, I met my father (who had returned the rental car in that same span of time!) and explained the situation. We went back to the Passenger Services office and found a Red Cap going in. He was unaware of the request but quickly brought a wheelchair upstairs.
Once we had the wheelchair, everything went smoothly. The Red Cap was very friendly and polite. We took my grandmother downstairs to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, which is a waiting area for business and sleeping car passengers. It has comfortable seating and restrooms. The desk attendant let us pick our dinner reservation times. There is complimentary computer access and fountain beverages. There is a room in which you can leave your carry-on luggage until you’re ready to board your train. We exited from the lounge directly to the platform when boarding was announced. While we waited to board, I explored the Great Hall and went outside to get a look at the Sears Tower (excuse me, Willis Tower).
From the perspective of travel efficiency, Chicago to DC is easiest by air, which takes 1/10 the time that the train does. Still, the Amtrak experience has its own charms. The games that airlines play to raise “ancillary revenue” are largely absent from Amtrak. There are no checked baggage fees, carryon luggage allowances are generous, and tickets can be changed without fees. All but the lowest fares are refundable and even non-refundable tickets funds can be used for another train. Forget same day standby fees- if the same route is available in the same class, a phone call to Amtrak is all you need to change your ticket. While coach seating on aircraft resembles a sardine can more and more, Amtrak’s coach seats are comparable to aircraft first class. Although the aerial views can be amazing on many flights, traveling by train is one of the best ways to experience the countryside. Traveling from Chicago to DC by car and you’ll mostly experience a dull interstate highway. The Capitol Limited on the other hand follows the historic B&O Railroad route along unspoiled rivers and through hilly forests in Pennsylvania and Maryland mere hours outside the asphalt and concrete of the Northeast megalopolis.
Boarding for sleeping car passengers was announced a few minutes before coach boarding. A Red Cap accompanied my mother and grandmother to their room while my father and I boarded with the other sleeping car passengers. Sleeping car attendants stood outside their assigned cars to make sure passengers boarded in the right place. The Capitol Limited uses Superliner two-level equipment. It’s one of only two Amtrak trains running east of Chicago that uses the double deckers. Amtrak had to design two types of long haul cars- two-level Superliners and one-level Viewliners. The Viewliners were designed specifically because of height restrictions in two very old but vital tunnels- Baltimore and New York City. Since the Capitol Limited doesn’t pass through either tunnel, Amtrak can use the taller Superliners on the route.
Superliner sleeping cars have a single handicapped room (spacious, with two bunks and a toilet in-room), a family bedroom (with beds for two adults and two children), bedrooms (two bunks, small attached toilet/shower), and roomettes (two bunks taking up the entire compartment, no en suite toilet). The handicapped and family rooms take up the entire width of the car, which is perfect for viewing scenery.
The handicapped room also has plenty of room for luggage, which came in handy because my grandmother didn’t want to take advantage of Amtrak’s checked baggage. (Just as well, because checked baggage is not available at every station.) The roomettes don’t really have much room for anything more than the smallest bags. There are baggage racks outside the rooms. I can’t claim to be thrilled leaving my belongings unattended overnight, but I’ve never been the victim of theft when riding Amtrak. Superliner cars have stairs in the middle connecting the two levels. There is coffee, juice, and water available at the top of the stairs in the sleepers. Cars are connected at the upper level. Since the occupants of the handicapped rooms are generally not in a position to move to the dining cars for meals, meals are delivered to their rooms.
I visited with my grandmother as we pulled out of the station right on time. She reminisced about how she and my grandfather used to take the train to visit us when I was very young. The gritty Chicago rail and industrial sights moved by at increasing speed. We overtook an oil train leaving the railyard to the east of Union Station. America’s railroads have been chock full of them since the development of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and the Canadian tar sands. They have an unnerving tendency to derail and blow up, but nobody wants to pay to improve the structural integrity of the entire fleet of cars. Mile for mile of course they’re still very safe, but with the increased traffic a rash of incidents have occurred in recent years.
Dinner on the Move
Dining on Amtrak is always an interesting experience. Meals in the dining cars are complimentary for sleeping car passengers (alcohol excluded). Coach passengers may dine if space is available but the prices are rather high. (The Sightseer Lounge car also has a snack bar on the lower level.) If your party is less than four people, expect to make some new friends during your meal. There are about five choices for dinner with a choice of side dishes.
We sat down for dinner as the sun set over Indiana. I kept my eyes pealed for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which I’d been intending to do for the past two years as a day trip while visiting my grandmother in Chicago but never quite managed to do. The tracks were a bit inland from the dunes, but there were views of forest and ponds. It appeared that a wildfire had just burned through the area, as there were blackened patches and some areas still smoldering. It seems wildfire is common in the park.
I was surprised to learn that the man across the table from me was traveling for business. A Virginian with a thick southern accent, he advised he’s been in the military for twenty-something years before entering the private sector and had no intention of being searched invasively by the TSA in some airport. Although his colleagues laughed at him for traveling by train, his company gave him the latitude to depart a little earlier for business trips than he would if he were flying.
I may be biased because I’m a bit of a pesto fiend, but I have to say my pesto tilapia was one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a train- definitely better than the meals I had on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight last year. The fish was grilled perfectly, the pesto was tasty, and it went perfectly with a brown and red rice medley. I told my dad it might even have been better than the meals on Via Rail Canada’s Canadian that I’d had last fall. Now you may think that because my father spent much of his career at Amtrak that he would be happy with that assessment. But he’s also an unabashed Canadaphile and the Toronto to Vancouver Canadian is his favorite train on Earth. Maybe this one meal is better, he scoffed. But if you traveled several days on American trains, you’d get tired of it, he said. Certainly, the Canadian varies the menu every dinner; Amtrak’s is very similar from train to train- steak, vegetarian pasta, herb roasted chicken, and variable light entrees and fish dishes.
Squeezing into the Top Bunk
The top bunk on a superliner roomette is not for the claustrophobic or the not-so-physically able. There’s no window and the accommodations are only marginally larger than a coffin. I’m afraid my lack of a wide-angle lens on this short trip means the above photo really doesn’t do justice to the experience. The bunk is easiest to get into if you remove the safety netting that protects sleeping passengers from a nasty fall. Even then, you have to contort your body to get up there in a way my father affectionately compares to the Fosbury Flop. This may be why Via’s roomettes are designed with only one bunk. The top bunks on the other Superliner bedrooms are easier to enter thanks to their removable ladders. The bunk was comfortable enough, though Amtrak’s pillows are pretty bad. I caught about five or six hours’ sleep, awakening east of Pittsburgh.
Date: Thursday April 23, 2015 to Friday April 24, 2015
Distance: Amtrak timetable says 780 miles (1255.3km) – Wikipedia says 764 miles
Train: Amtrak #30 Capitol Limited
Equipment: GE Genesis P42 diesel locomotives (2, including special livery “Big Game Train”) and Superliner cars
Performance: On-time departure from Chicago Union Station 6:40pm CDT, arrival 5 min late Washington Union Station 1:10pm EDT (17.5 hours)