Advice on Taking the Amtrak Cross Country? Maybe Don’t.

Well, Joe and I made it back in two pieces from our Amtrak trip across the country, from D.C. to San Francisco. But only because we radically altered our plans along the way and didn’t actually take the train across the entire country. Otherwise, we would have gone insane.


Our trip ended up looking like this:

Amtrak DC→Chicago→Denver→Greyhound to Colorado Springs for a rental car→Drive Colorado Springs to the Grand Tetons→Return rental car in Salt Lake City→Amtrak Sacramento→Give up and fly home early.

The main problem is that the train is always late.

When I say always, I feel I have the authority to make that claim—every single train we took arrived at least 5 hours late to its destination. Some were more like 7 or 8 hours late. We were so late getting into Chicago that our planned 7 hours of stuffing pizza in our faces turned into a 1-hour rush to a nearby French market to grab salami and bread for lunch (which, to be honest, was delicious). Then, from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, we departed at 2:30 am rather than the scheduled 11:00 pm, therefore causing my Saturday afternoon with my cousin in Sacramento to turn into a late-night glass of wine at her house before we passed out from exhaustion.

Barn on Train

That Derek Low guy made his cross-country train trip seem like unicorns and kittens in this blog post, but I assure you he was beating his fists against his plastic tray table just as much as we were when the train stopped cold for 2 hours in the middle of Nebraska for no explicable reason. Amtrak employees mentioned over the loudspeaker that they rent the tracks from freight companies, and therefore have no say in timing their use of the tracks. This might be true.

But it also leads to the second problem—Amtrak is hilariously inefficient in almost every other way.

I know, I know, this one is obvious to many. But we bought the USA Rail Pass, thinking it would be an easier, all-in-one deal. All you have to do is call to book your trip! All you have to do is call. All… you have to do… is call. You’ll float, too.

Switching to a sleeper car on the 2:00 am Salt Lake City train to Sacramento was like enjoying an extended vacation in each of Dante’s 9 circles of hell. The train does not operate like a self-contained entity. Instead, Step 1: Call 1-800-USA-RAILS from your seat on the train to ensure there are sleeper cars available (the conductor cannot possibly go back and look). Step 2: Find the conductor where he is eating a breakfast burrito in the dining car and ask him to release your ticket. Step 3: Call back 1-800-USA-RAILS to purchase your sleeper car. Step 4: Lose cell phone coverage in the middle of reading your credit card number (because Utah). Step 5: Call back 1-800-USA-RAILS, re-explain your situation, and finally buy your seats. Step 6: Search for and find the conductor in the back of the train so he can check you in with his handheld beepy machine.

This occurred at 4:00 am. It was not our finest moment.

Surprise Lake

I’m not saying definitely don’t ride across the country on the train. Just maybe don’t. Or, better yet, fly to Denver and go from there to see the mountains without experiencing the grinding down of your soul that happens around the fourth late train you ride.

P.S. I have to say that the Amtrak employees on the train (the conductors, the dining car employees) were all lovely and occasionally seemed to enjoy their jobs. So that’s something.

Until next time,

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 3.49.47 PM

2 thoughts on “Advice on Taking the Amtrak Cross Country? Maybe Don’t.”

  1. Amtrak’s long distance trains do operate over freight-owned tracks so the employees are right. The 1971 law creating Amtrak stipulated that the freights would give passenger trains priority access, but careful lobbying of the Surface Transportation Board by the freights has meant they now routinely delay Amtrak significantly. Sorry.

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