AMTRAK 30 DAY NORTH AMERICA Rail TRIP

Copyright 2003 by Dave Tahija
 

I did a 30 day tour of the U.S. and southern Canada in April-May, 2002, covering 11,682 miles on Amtrak and VIA trains and 524 miles on Amtrak coaches.  This is an unpolished description of the trip, mostly intended to help others thinking of doing something similar.  Unless otherwise noted, all descriptions are mine.

Of course, other people have had other experiences and their opinions are at least as valid as mine.  I am including such comments and links to other sites where they seem appropriate and in a section at the end of the page.  Most of these come from or by way of the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board, where you can post all sorts of travel questions and have them answered by all sorts of helpful people.  Naturally, you should use common sense when reading the responses on the Tree; I certainly don't vouch for all of them.  There is a search function on the Tree as well; please use it before posting questions, as many very similar questions are posted repeatedly and your question may have been answered already.  Anyone may visit the Tree and read all the current posts but you need to register before posting yourself.  Registration is free, easy and you do not need to publicly reveal any personal information.
 

GENERAL COMMENTS

The 30 day North American Rail is a great bargain.  No other way of seeing the large sections of the U.S. and Canada is anywhere near this cheap or convenient.  The trains are safe and, with some minor exceptions, quite comfortable.

The Canadian passenger rail system is head-and-shoulders better than Amtrak.  The people who work for VIA Rail actually care about doing a good job and making the trip a pleasant one for all.  The service is better than on Amtrak, there is a real effort to stay on time and the food is much, much better.

Amtrak is legendary for being late and always has been.  Nobody familiar with Amtrak expects any train to be on time, with two-hour delays being typical and longer ones not unheard of (my worst was six hours late).  Amtrak crews will blame the delays on freight trains, which is often true, but the fact is that nobody in Amtrak, from top to bottom, can remember when on-time performance mattered and nobody in Amtrak seems to care about the situation.

The train cars were, by and large, clean and comfortable.  By the end of very long runs, the restrooms were a bit dirty but usually they were very clean.

The Amtrak buses were the biggest surprise on my trip.  They were all clean, pleasant and well maintained and held their schedule when going to a train departure.  When coming from a train arrival, they waited for the train and then held their delayed schedule (see San Francisco note for the sole exception).  Usually they were pretty empty although there were a couple of full ones.  The drivers were generally pretty nice too.

There were tour groups of older people on most of the trains I was on.  While most of the people in these groups were perfectly friendly and nice, several of the tour guides were obnoxious.  They couldn't accept that there were other passengers on the train besides those they were guiding and that these other passengers had the same rights to seats, windows and services as their group members.
 

PLANNING AND BOOKING THE TRIP

I went to Amtrak.com and downloaded the system map and all the timetables that I thought I might need.  The automatic feature for planning the trip (Fast Fare Finder) turned out to be mostly worthless.  It wasn't flexible and an itinerary, once started, couldn't be easily changed.  The feature was handy for getting up-to-date departure/arrival times and train numbers for each leg however.  It also turns out there is no good interconnection between the Amtrak web site and the VIA Rail web site.  You need to go to the VIA site separately and cobble the interconnections together as best you can.  Since you are required to do at least one leg in Canada and one in the U.S., this is a bit of a hassle.  The information you need is on the two sites though, if you dig for it.  The Site Map on the Amtrak site was very handy.

After that, it was a question of setting up a word processing file with dates, times, cites etc. and building possible itineraries on that.  This took probably 12 hours over a period of a week or so as I examined the various possibilities and considered my options.  Finally, I called 1-800-AMTRAK to find that the regular reservation desk doesn't handle Rail, there is a special desk with its own 800 number (which I have misplaced) for that.  They regular agent will transfer you but be sure to get the Rail 800 number from him as it's not on the webpage and you'll be needing it again.

Plan on a long wait when you call the Rail 800 number.  I had to wait 40 minutes on two occasions although it was pretty quick two other times.  The agents were quite capable once I reached them and I think it's an advantage to have this separate system since these agents are specialists in exactly the type of trip you're setting up.  You really need to have your entire itinerary in front of you before you call though.  You can change your route any time, even after you're on the road, but you are required to have a complete itinerary when you book your trip.  I changed my trip several times en route by calling the Rail 800 number, changing the booking and exchanging the tickets at the next staffed station.  This worked very well and everybody was courteous.  To do this though, you must present the actual Rail (one for Amtrak, one for VIA) that you will receive with your packet of tickets.

The agent I booked my initial itinerary with estimated that about 40% of the people using a 30 day Rail booked the same sort of trip I did - one that maximized the distances covered and different regions visited.  I wanted to spend about half my time traveling and wound up spending 16 days on the train, which turned out to be a bit much.  By the end of the trip I was a little tired of being on a train and if I did it again I'd cover a little less ground so I could spend more time some place.
 

Sleepers

I've ridden Amtrak quite a bit over the years and always get a sleeper on any overnight trip longer than, say, twelve hours.  The cost of doing that on this trip would have been exorbitant and I wound up getting a sleeper only on the 3 day Canadian run from Vancouver to Toronto and the 2 day California Zephyr run from Chicago to San Francisco.  The sleeper upgrade rates on the Canadian trains are so reasonable that you just can't pass them up.  The included meals are first rate and are almost worth the cost by themselves.

The Amtrak sleepers cost quite a bit more and the food and service is not nearly as good but I still would recommend them for any leg longer than one night for the sake of the privacy, better sleep and shower access. If you want to gamble, sometimes when the sleepers on a given train are not fully booked, you can negotiate a cheaper rate after you're on board.  If they are well booked though, you might be out of luck altogether or be forced to take a first-class sleeper (really expensive but has a private shower) at the full rate when you could get by with a standard one.

You should tip your sleeper attendant at least US $10 per day at the end of the run or when there is a crew change.
 

TIPS WHILE TRAVELING

The 1-800-AMTRAK phone number has an automated feature which will tell you how late a given train is running.  This worked very well and was invaluable when I was waiting in and around various stations.  You need to know the train number and your station code to use this.

Grab one each of all timetables that you see on display in stations.  Their availability is pretty spotty and they're very convenient to have.

Bring many pairs of disposable foam earplugs with you. I found these essential when I was sleeping in the regular coaches.  I'd suggest bringing a minimum of one pair per night, with 50% extra actually being a better amount.  They show movies in the lounge car most evenings, often in the afternoon and sometimes all the time, depending on the lounge car attendant.  Usually, they have the volume for these cranked LOUD so your earplugs can come in handy during the daytime and evening too, especially if you didn't like the movie the first time you saw it.  Since there are only about four movies being shown on all of Amtrak at any given time, you are sure to be subjected to the same one several times.

You'll want a lot of reading material.  Not only is it nice to have something to read on the train after dark, when the scenery is unpleasant or boring or when you're tired of looking out the window, but you'll be spending a lot of time in various stations, waiting for the perennially late trains.  Some stations have news stands or gift shops and you should always stock up on newspapers and magazines every chance you get.  Once in a while there will be newspaper or two in a lounge car but you can't count on this.  If you're in a sleeper, you will be provided with a free newspaper every day on both Amtrak and VIA Rail..

The temperature on board was generally comfortable but sometimes a bit cool at night or in the lounge car.  Be sure to have an extra shirt, sweater or jacket or two handy at all times.

Generally, you're better off waiting for the second or third seating for lunch and dinner in the Amtrak diners.  There are a lot of bored passengers who are eager to get their meal  so the first seatings are crowded.  This also tends to be the seating that attracts the rude and demanding traveler, so the whole dining experience can be ruined.

Most trains have a pay phone in the bottom of the lounge car, on which  you can only use credit cards.  At some times, it is out of range of a station and so not working while at other times there is a line of passengers waiting for their turn.  If you are patient, you can get on it at some point.
 

Luggage

You can check your bags or bring them on with you.  I've heard dire rumors about luggage losses and damage but I found the checked bag  system to be reliable and convenient when I could use it.  Many stations don't have a baggage section though, even in some large cities, so you'll often have to carry everything you have on board.  There is a baggage rack at each car entrance and good-sized racks over the seats so generally this is not a problem although, as always, there are some passengers hogging space with more luggage than I would need on a round-the-world trip.  In any event, you should have a large carry-on with at least a change of clothes, necessary toiletries and your books, snacks and other supplies.
 

Food and Drink

Most Amtrak trains have both a dining car and a snack bar in the lounge car.  The dining car food quality is fair and the prices a bit high but it is an acceptable deal.  The snacks in the lounge tend to be limited in variety and more overpriced.  You can bring food on board with you but are not allowed to eat it in the lounge but only in your regular seat.  The VIA Rail meals are excellent and so plentiful that I never managed to waddle to the snack bar on the train to check it out.

You hear all sorts of horror stories about Amtrak food but it's not really that bad.  You are assigned the next empty seat in the dining car so you are forced to meet strangers over your meal, which I found interesting and enjoyable.
 

RAILROAD STAFF
 

Central ticketing

The people on the phone ticket lines were generally pretty good (although there are a very few unhelpful, incompetent and stupid ones) but there were simply not enough of them  You can plan on being put on hold when you call 1-800-AMTRAK, sometimes for 40 minutes.  Once I got an agent, they usually did a good job but were too busy to help much with advice.  Always know the numbers of the trains you want and the scheduled departure times before you call.
 

Station staff

Amtrak station staff were, on the whole, very decent and competent.  The ticket agents were invariably polite, helpful and honest about arrival/departure times and the state of the trains.  If you want to change a schedule or get a different ticket, they generally will do whatever they can to help you out.  The VIA Rail people were every bit as good.
 

Train staff

Some Amtrak on-train people were nice, many were simply indifferent and a few were downright hostile.  There was a steady gradient of niceness from the northwest to the southeast, with the crews on the most northern (Empire Builder) and western (Coast Starlight) being pretty decent (rarely as nice as the Canadian crews, though), while the crews on the trains in the southern and eastern trains (Silver Meteor/Silver Star and Sunset Limited) exhibited a great deal of rudeness and hostility.  There were a couple of decent  people on these trains but they were the exception not the rule.  The California Zephyr crews were more of a mixed lot, mostly pretty comparable to the Empire Builder/Coast Starlight staffs but with a few indifferent/unpleasant ones in the mix.

The crews on the Kentucky Cardinal and Texas Eagle were indifferent rather than hostile.  They just didn't care about passenger comfort or problems or about doing more than their basic duties.  Except when the train was entering or leaving a station, I rarely saw a conductor in a passenger car; they were in the lounge or diner cars, gossiping with other crew members.
 

TRIP NOTES
 

Spokane station.  The station is a block or two from the edge of downtown, in a slightly dodgy part of town.  It's fine in the daytime and evening but there are some spooky characters on the streets late at night.  The station has an adequate waiting area but was closed in the afternoon/evening, opening about 10 at night.  There are a number of restaurants, bars etc. within easy walking distance.

When I returned here at the end of my trip, I stayed at the Travel Lodge about four blocks away for about US $60.  This place has decent motel rooms and  a courteous staff.  Since it was the middle of the night and the neighborhood is a little spooky I took a cab for US $5.  A number of hotels and motels of all classes are available within 6-10 blocks.

The bus lines use the same station and there is a fair cafeteria upstairs that is open from midnight until the last train leaves.  The Empire Builder splits/joins here, with separate trains to/from Seattle and Portland so there is a very long layover.  It's a good chance to get a reasonably priced meal in the middle of the night, if you're passing through and are hungry.

During my long wait here, I hung out at the Spokane Riverside Park (very nice) all afternoon and in the coffee shop at Aunties Books downtown in the evening.  I also used the internet access at the Kinkos (open 24 hours) about a block from the station.
 

Spokane - Seattle.  Empire Builder.  Left Spokane at 2:15 am ON TIME.  I did the same trip a couple of months earlier and the train was also on time.  The Empire Builder habit of staying on time is remarkable for Amtrak and may be unique.  No other Amtrak train I took was on time.  Since most of the trip was at night, there was no scenery until daybreak near the summit of the Cascades.  There was some very nice mountain scenery in the morning, turning into some nice coastal scenery in the last hour before Seattle.  There is no observation/lounge car on this train, however; it goes with the Portland section that splits off at Spokane.
 

Seattle station.  The station is on the edge of downtown, in a pretty gritty area.  The station is one of the grand old ones, sadly run down.  There is ample seating but the men's restroom was filthy and much too small for the number of users.  There is no reasonably priced lodging nearby so plan on taking a cab anywhere you want to stay.  Downtown is within easy walking distance and the area is safe in the daytime.  You can leave your luggage with the ticket agent for a $3 fee.
 

Seattle-Vancouver. Amtrak Thruway.  Amtrak buses are clean, comfortable and usually half empty.  In other words, they are a good way to travel.  They held this bus for the train passengers and delivered us to Vancouver quite promptly.  On the way, the bus stopped at the border to clear Canadian customs, which was courteous and efficient.  There is a duty-free shop at the border with snacks, bottled drinks, souvenirs etc.  Canadian liquor is more heavily taxed than U.S. booze so this is your last chance to pick up a bottle.  You'd be better off getting your booze in Seattle though.
 

Vancouver station.  Near downtown but a far enough walk that you need to take a cab if you have luggage.  Cabs and everything else in town were pretty reasonably priced.  I stayed at the Jolly Taxpayer, a cheap hotel above a pub.  Small room, shower down the hall, but friendly and well located.  There are any number of affordable hotels and hostels in Vancouver; do a Google search for 'Vancouver budget hotels' or some such.  The whole area was very safe, even in the middle of the night.
 

Vancouver-Toronto.  The Canadian.  I got a sleeper berth for this run and it was a very good move.  For $300 Canadian, which was a steal, I got a berth to sleep in, access to the lounge car and three outstanding meals a day.  The lounge was an old dome car at the rear of the train and was a fine way to see the country and meet people.  VIA Rail is a very large step above Amtrak in performance and service.  The crews were better, the food was better, the train was pretty much on time until near Toronto.  My only mistake was doing the Canadian leg so early; it really made the rest of the trip on Amtrak seem painful in comparison.

The Canadian stops for an hour or so at a number of towns on the way across Canada, including Banff, Edmonton and Winnipeg.  These stops were wonderful opportunities to get out and have a stretch, see the local town and buy some souvenirs, snacks and reading material.  Amtrak has very few similar stops.
 

Toronto station.  In the heart of downtown and the hub of the public transport system.  There are a number of hotels very near the station but of course most of them are fairly expensive.  I stayed at the Strathcona Hotel about a block from the station.  Moderate price (by U.S. city standards) but perfectly nice.
 

Toronto-Chicago.  This is an all-day run with only a snack car.  Midway, the train stops at the border for U.S. customs.  The customs inspectors were extremely rude and obnoxious, not just to me but to other passengers, especially the Canadians on board.  I was embarrassed to be an American.  The train was over an hour late getting into Chicago but this is routine for Amtrak.
 

Chicago station.  The station is very large and busy, the hub for all of Amtrak as well as local public transit.  Still it was clean, well maintained and staffed, and safe.  I stayed at the Quality Inn Downtown, about five blocks from the station and pretty pricey at about US $100 per night.  I took a cab there but it is close enough that I walked back when departing the next day.

Union station in Chicago is on the western edge of the main Chicago downtown area.  There are no reasonably priced places to stay anywhere nearby but if you get a cheap place farther out, the cab fares to and fro will eat up any savings.  Better to bite the bullet and pay the $100 or so minimum nearby rate.  The station area is pretty safe, even at night.  A few blocks west is Greek Town, with a number of interesting restaurants and shops.  Just west of there, the neighborhood get gritty real fast and it's pretty spooky walking, even in the daytime.  To the east is the main downtown which is fine at all times.

There is a Kinkos right across the street from Union Station which is one of the few places around with internet access.

        NYRed from the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree notes: "Chicago Union Station isn't really a hub for local public transit. The station in Chicago is
        certainly  a hub for local commuter rail, but the L doesn't even run into the station at all, and it's several blocks west of downtown."
 

Chicago-Washington, D.C.  Kentucky Cardinal.  This is supposed to be the more scenic of the two trains between Chicago and D.C., running through Kentucky and West Virginia.  It does have some nice scenery but, as a westerner, I didn't find it all that impressive.  This was the first really disappointing leg of the trip.  The train was only a little late getting out of Chicago in the evening but was several hours behind schedule by the next morning when we crossed from Ohio to Kentucky and stayed late all the way to D.C.  There was a diner and observation car and the the train crew was pretty indifferent.
 

Washington D.C. station.  Large and clean but with a pretty scary crowd of gangsta wannabes running around.  I found a secluded seat near my boarding gate and kept a close eye on my belongings.  This is the hub of the local public transit and across a parking lot from a Senate office building.

The trains run underground for a long way entering and leaving this station and I found the experience rather claustrophobic.  I've never felt this anywhere else and I've worked, and sometimes still work, in small hardrock mines over a mile deep.

        NYRed from the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree notes: "Washington Union Station is also a well-known shopping mall, with a multiplex theatre and a
        huge  food court.  When I lived in DC, people I knew would regularly go to Union Station to hang out, catch a flick and have lunch, not just to
        catch trains. That makes it quite different from most other train stations I know."
 

Washington-Jacksonville.  Silver Meteor/Silver Star.  This was the worst segment of my trip.  The boarding agent was horribly rude, arrogant and obnoxious to everyone getting on the train, herding us like cattle in a chute (and I've herded cattle in chutes).  The train was crowded, making a decent sleep very difficult and there was no lounge car.  The train was late departing and late arriving, as usual.  Most of the trip was at night and the morning scenery going through Georgia to Jacksonville was remarkably dreary and uninteresting.

I am very sorry I did not book a sleeper for this run.
 

Jacksonville station.  In the middle of nowhere, with no restaurants or shops anywhere near but surprisingly comfortable and well maintained.  The excellent air conditioning was much appreciated and there is a nice little outside seating area which was pleasant in the evening.

I took a cab to the Riverfront area downtown ($15 each way) which has a nice little maritime museum, a good park and a rather touristy shopping center.  If you have a layover of any length here, as you likely will, this is about all there is to do.  The cab drivers both ways were very nice but both were very new to the area (from Ghana and Bosnia) and neither knew his way around at all.  Be sure to allow plenty of time for the cab ride back since the cabs downtown can be hard to find and you might get lost going back to the station (we did).
 

Jacksonville-Tampa. Palmetto.  The best that can be said for the service on this train is that it's not as bad as the Silver Meteor/Silver Star.  The on-board crew spent all their time after sunrise at least in the lounge, debating the relative merits of different weed killers and similar subjects.  The run was mostly at night so there was no scenery to speak of.  Only an hour or so late.
 

Tampa station.  An older station and seemed pleasant enough but I spent almost no time here.
 

Tampa-Sarasota.  Amtrak Thruway bus.  Clean, punctual, competent.  They hold the bus until the train arrives so there is no concern about missing the connection.
 

Sarasota.  The Amtrak coach dropped me off and picked me up at a stop on a street in the middle of town.  The stop is equipped with a sign but no seats or any place to keep your bags off the sidewalk while you wait.  The Motorcoach was right on time however.
 

Sarasota-Orlando.  Another fine ride in a clean and comfortable bus.  I cannot understand why Amtrak coaches manage to keep to their schedules while the trains always run late.
 

Orlando station.  Not near much.  There was a cafe across the street but it was closed on Sunday.  There are no other public facilities nearby.  The station is a nice older one but pretty small for the volume of traffic so it was tough at times to find a seat.
 

Orlando- New Orleans.  Sunset Limited.  The crew was more indifferent than hostile but still were far from friendly.  Managed to get a fair sleep in before morning dawned over the Alabama/Mississippi coast.  The views were interesting to me because of their novelty but not especially scenic.  The train has a three hour stop scheduled in New Orleans but since it was about two hours late getting in, the stop was only supposed to be an hour.  Of course, the train was still about an hour late when departing.
 

New Orleans station.  The station is a reasonable (not grand) old one but half shut up, with a sorry snack bar and souvenir stand.  It's quite a ways from the French Quarter, about a 15 minute, $15 dollar ride each way.  I had enough time to walk around a bit, grab a few postcards and get back to the train.

A lot of cabs wait at the train station but there are very few available in the French Quarter.  I had a tough time getting one to take me back.
 

New Orleans-Houston.  Sunset Limited.  No changes from the Orlando-New Orleans run.  The train runs inland all the way, with mostly nondescript scenery.  There were a number of drunk people on the train going between New Orleans and Lake Charles/Beaumont - it seems to be a popular party ride.
Train several hours late as usual.
 

Houston station.  This station is an absolute disgrace.  It is a miserable, cramped building stuck out in the middle of nowhere, far from any public facilities, including motels, restaurants, stores or, as near as I could see, public transit.  You cannot even check bags there so if you're going to or leaving Houston you must carry all your luggage on the train.  The station is understaffed and the ticket agent was simply overwhelmed.  I was told that on the Labor Day holiday, the station was completely unstaffed.  It was astonishing to find such a wretched station in a major city.

        Eric Zeliff notes: "Other than some big delays westbound, I enjoyed myself on Amtrak, and hope that it doesn't get pushed off a cliff. The
        eastbound trip, Los Angeles to San Antonio and New Orleans to Charlotte, was actually on time and the service was good. ( I've had some
        good meals in the diners, but would not rave about them. ) Westbound, I hopped off at Houston and did not find the station to be such a bad
        place. Remember, that cutbacks in staffing have resulted in reductions and ticket office hours, and the end of checked baggage service at
        locations with limited service."

        For Eric's full descriptions of his U.S. train rides, as well as train rides in other parts of the world, please see the link at the end of this page.
 

Houston-San Antonio.  Sunset Limited.  The train was late but not overcrowded so I was able to sleep fairly well all the way through the overnight run.
 

San Antonio station.  Small, but clean and well maintained.  It's near the main part of town, I was told, but I had no inclination to find out at 7 a.m.
 

San Antonio - Chicago. Texas Eagle.  The train started late, lost time between San Antonio and Dallas, then lost about an hour and a half between Dallas and Fort Worth, which are only an hour apart.  The train was six hours late getting into Chicago.  The train was only half full until St. Louis and so was comfortable enough, although there was little evidence of an on-board crew.  The scenery was the rather dull southern plains until we got to the Mississippi River for a few hours before St. Louis.  The train leaves the river after that and the scenery returns to being not much.
 

Chicago station.  See description above.
 

Chicago - Emeryville. California Zephyr.  About an hour late getting out of Chicago and pretty full.  I found the prospect of spending the next two days next to my rather unpleasant seatmate not encouraging so I asked about getting a sleeper.  A lot of other people did too but they all bailed when they found the only open berth was a deluxe sleeper at the full fare.  I decided that privacy and comfort were necessary at this point (I'd been on the train steadily since Houston) so I took the sleeper, though it cost more than the entire 30 day pass.  Once in my sleeper, I didn't care that the train ran several hours late all the way to San Francisco.

This is probably the most scenic U.S. train route, with excellent daytime crossings of the Rockies and Sierras.  The crew was efficient and courteous, especially compared to the southeastern crews I was used to.

At Grand Junction, Colorado, there is a service stop, lasting about a half hour.  There is a very nice little stand here selling snacks, fruit etc. at reasonable prices.  At Sparks, Nevada, just east of Reno, there is a similarstop but with  no services at all.  There is also a service stop in Denver, Colorado, with ample time to go into the Denver station to a good gift shop/news stand.
 

Emeryville - San Francisco - Emeryville. Another Amtrak bus, clean and well maintained as usual but delayed a long time before leaving due to a large tour group of senior citizens, many of whom were very difficult and troublesome for the bus driver to deal with.  To top it off, the bus broke down on a city street in San Francisco and the driver was absolutely baffled as to what his next move should be.  I finally persuaded him to give me my bag from the luggage compartment under the the bus and grabbed a cab at the next corner.

The ride from San Francisco was on time and uneventful

These were the only difficulties I had on any Amtrak bus.
 

San Francisco station. A modest and rather small, undistinguished building on the waterfront, a few blocks from downtown.  There's a lot to do in the area but it was a little spooky in the evening.  There is good public transit nearby and plenty of cabs.
 

Emeryville - Portland.  Coast Starlight.  This is the best train on the Amtrak system.  I've ridden it many times over the years and can vouch that the run between San Francisco and Los Angeles is very scenic and pleasant, although I didn't do that leg on this trip.  The sleeper service is particularly nice, being modeled after the VIA Rail service in Canada, although it was booked full so I couldn't get a sleeper on this trip.

The train was late getting into and leaving Emeryville and stayed late all the way to Portland.  The train leaves in the evening so it is dark until about the California-Oregon border, in mountain forests, followed by an all day, very scenic run through the Willamette Valley all the way to Portland.  The on-train service was good as well.
 

Portland - Spokane.  Empire Builder.  An evening run on a mostly empty train.  There is no diner on this train (it's on the Seattle section, which joins up in Spokane) so the only food available is in the diner.
 

Spokane station.  See description above.
 

SUMMARY

It may seem like this description dwells mostly on flaws and problems with my trip but I had a really good time overall and would do another trip somewhat (not exactly) like it any time.  You have to take Amtrak for what it is, reliably late but reliable also in getting you from Point A to Point B safely and comfortably.  The price of a 30 day pass is amazingly low when you consider how far you can go on one.
 

OTHERS' EXPERIENCES

NYRed is a frequent and knowledgeable poster to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board.  In response to a query about travel between Toronto, New York, Boston and Washington D.C., he posted:

                           The train is the most scenic and pleasant way to do this trip. Our trains are not terribly fast,
                           but they're comfortable and you get to see the countryside.

                           Sleepers don't apply on this route. The only train from NYC-Toronto is a day train, taking 12
                           hours (all day.) New York-DC is a three and a half hour trip, and NY-Boston is four hours. To
                           get between any of the other places you have to pass through New York - go look at the
                           route map on www.amtrak.com.

                           The trains have spacious coach seats and are very safe and middle-class. They have a cafe
                           car that serves absolutely awful microwaved food. You can book online or in person; booking
                           in advance does get you lower rates, but not this far in advance. Wait until a few months
                           before your trip and see what Amtrak's sales are.

                           I have no idea what you're talking about with 'bear country.' Explain?

                           DC is fabulous. I'd allot two or three days: one for the Smithsonian and federal buildings
                           and at least one to roam fun neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan and Old
                           Town Alexandria. It's a lovely city, and one day is not nearly enough.

                           January in Toronto, Boston and New York will be m'f'ing cold, well below freezing. It'll
                           probably be around freezing, or slightly above, in DC.

                           Some alternate ideas: if you don't want to spend 12 hours on a train and want to go to
                           Niagara Falls, JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) offers cheap flights from New York to Buffalo, by the
                           Falls. You can then take local transit over the border to Niagara Falls, ON, where you can
                           catch the 2-hour train ride to Toronto.

                           Between New York, Boston and Washington many people take buses, as they cost half as
                           much as the train and are tolerable for those short trips. (I wouldn't take a bus to Toronto -
                           too cramped and not much cheaper than the train for that route.) The buses to Washington
                           are at www.greyhound.com; the cheapest buses to Boston are at www.ivymedia.com/bus/

As a followup to this, he posted:

                            Wow. I have no idea what you mean by Bear Country. Upstate New York is definitely rural
                           and pretty, especially in the Finger Lakes region and in the Adirondacks, a range of low,
                           green mountains. But the pretty, rural areas are almost impossible to access or enjoy without
                           your own car. They're all winding roads and very non-pedestrian-friendly towns. Unless others
                           can come up with better ideas, I think you may have to enjoy them from the train window.

                           You can find out train prices at www.amtrak.com. Just use their reservations system. They'll
                           give you the prices on everything. Use discount code 'V529' to get something like 20% off.
                           I'd check for sales a few months before you travel - they usually offer a winter sale during
                           the fall. Then I'd book the tickets online, because you can get discounts of up to 20-25% by
                           booking online, during a sale, and more than two weeks in advance of travel that you can't
                           get by booking at the station or by booking at the last minute.

                           If you're using point to point tickets rather than a Rail, I STRONGLY suggest using the
                           bus between New York and Boston. The train prices are absurdly high.
 

Eric Zeliff has posted a series of travelogues as Eric Zeliff's Fabulous Adventure, describing his travels in the U.S., the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Laos, England and France.  He is a former railroad worker and rode trains when he could.  Countries where he describes train rides are:

USA - #1 and #16.  The Crescent and Sunset Limited.
Australia - #4 and #5.
Laos - #9
New Zealand - #13, #14 and #15.
England and France - #17
England - #18 (mentions only)
 
 

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