Saturday, February 19, 2011

AMTRAK adventure begins...

Day 15, Feb 17th

Today is the day we’ve been waiting for for some time. It is with some trepidation that we undertake this huge train trip aboard AMTRAK. We have committed ourselves for a BIG first time experience of long distance rail travel and if we find it is not for us, it is going to be a long 2 weeks until we meet up with Clive and Lorraine in Reno.

We took the opportunity to sleep in and it was a pretty easy thing to do, the bedding and pillows were magnificent where we stayed, the Sheraton LAX Gateway. They gave us a 3pm checkout although we were out of the hotel and on the shuttle to LAX by 1:30pm. We caught the shuttle back to LAX where we jumped off at the arrivals terminal and boarded the ‘FLYAWAY’ bus which shuttles passengers back and forth from LAX to Union Station in downtown LA, a trip of about 30-40 minutes. This is the Los Angeles equivalent station to Central in Sydney or Southern Cross/Spencer St in Melbourne. At $7, it is a quick, efficient and very cost effective mode of transfer.

At the unload spot at Union Station, the guy who unloads the bags from the buses offered to take our bags and walk with us to the AMTRAK ticketing window. It was a fair walk and well worth a $5 tip for the service, delivering us right to the sleeping passengers ticketing window.

It took a while to get us ticketed, but the lady behind the desk was very efficient and had all the legs of the journey printed, sorted in order and stapled to a sleeve so the conductor just tears off the top ticket each time we travel. We checked our 2 biggest bags thru to Boston after repacking a few items to reduce the weight and make sure we have our essentials in our carry-on baggage.

After the check-in process was completed, we still had about 3 hours to wait until departure. Being complete noobs, we needed advice on what we should do with our bags if we wanted to look around etc. From reading AMTRAK Unlimited, an independent travel forum and an absolutely excellent source of information of all things AMTRAK, I knew to look for the guys with ‘Red Caps’ who were AMTRAK employees who acted as porters, hosts, information guides and just about any other job needed in the terminal. I bailed up a guy, Mark, who was only too happy to help. He checked our bags at the secure check-in/office so we could wander around the station or beyond and gave us instructions to just return to that area later to retrieve our bags and he would transport us up to the platform when it was time to board.

We firstly needed to get something to eat as we hadn’t eaten at all. We decided on Wetzel’s Pretzels, a typically American fast food outlet that made the pretzels and different pastry items behind a glass wall in full view of everybody, putting on quite a show in the process. I had a Wetzel Dog which was a thick frankfurter wrapped in pastry with strips of Jalapeno encrusted in the pastry. I have to say it was very tasty...

We briefly ventured outside where I managed to grab a few shots of the outside of the building before we came back in and I grabbed some of the old style interior...

We retrieved our bags and found some comfy chairs in ‘Mark’s’ area and waited for the call to depart. The train was a bit late getting prepared but soon enough Mark had loaded us and our bags onto a cart along with 2 other couples. We made our way to the platform via the pedestrian underpass which was very busy with commuters as you’d expect at 6pm on a weeknight. As we drove along, I’m sure I heard “Hey Timmy, there are the cart people. Wave at the cart people Timmy”. Seinfeld fans will

As we drove onto the platform, the Southwest Chief was reversing in from the far end and the first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the carriages, they are so high. I will get some good shots of the train when the light is suitable and hopefully it will show the enormity of them, but I took a few anyway which shows the carriages almost scraping the roof of the terminal. Mark dropped us off at where he said the carriage would come to rest and after receiving the tip he so richly deserved, departed, probably never to be seen again by us...

We boarded the train and were directed to our roomette. Almost immediately the fears we held due to the jibes we’d received about being crammed into a roomette were alleviated. The seats are plenty wide and comfortable enough. Legroom is certainly an issue if you want to stretch your legs, not because there is no legroom per se, but sitting opposite each other you just need to work out a strategy with your partner. So far we’ve worked it out pretty well.

The SCA (Sleeping Car Attendant) came around and introduced herself as Cindy, although her nametag said Cynthia. Each carriage has a dedicated SCA who looks after all your needs. From early impressions, it appears we have been lucky enough to get a good one. Nothing is too much trouble and she is very accommodating. For example, when it came time to make up the beds, we were not long back from dinner and weren’t ready for bed just yet. She told us she would come back in about 30 minutes after she had fixed all the other beds and if we still weren’t ready for bed, she whispered there was a spare roomette downstairs that we were quite welcome to use until we felt ready to go to bed.

Stepping back a bit, not long after we rolled out of Union Station, the Dining Car Steward, who is more or less the boss of the dining car, came through the car and introduced himself as CJ. He asked us what time we would like dinner and we chose the late sitting of 8:15pm. He informed us that breakfast was from 6:30am until 9:30am and was first in, first served. Lunch and dinner are strictly by reservation only, yet he comes through before each meal and agrees a time. We went to the dining car for dinner where I had a BIG steak, cooked rare to perfection whilst Diane had crab cakes which she said were ‘nice’. Our dining car attendant is ‘AD’, an older smooth talking African American guy who I would guess has worked the trains for years, such was his level of expertise.

It’s obvious from first impressions that AMTRAK take customer service very seriously. Maybe I have hit the jackpot first up with a good crew, but in a fortnights time I’ll probably know the answer.

If the sleeping arrangements are satisfactory, early signs are that we are on a winner. The expectations in the sleeping department are not high, so they will have to be pretty bad for me to regret the trip at this early stage.


1 comment:

  1. Casey Jones
    Steamin' and a-rollin'
    Casey Jones
    You never have to guess
    When you hear the tooting of the whistle
    It's Casey at the throttle of the Cannonball Express