Taking the Train from California to Chicago

Amtrak train

After taking the train across Russia in 2011 and most of the way across Kazakhstan in 2012, I added another train trip high on my “to do” list – crossing half of the United States, going from Chicago to California. As it turns out, a work trip took me to San Francisco just before Memorial Day weekend so it seemed like a good opportunity to make the trip, albeit it in the opposite direction.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, I made my way from my downtown San Francisco hotel to the temporary TransBay terminal to catch a connecting bus to Emeryville. Hopping on the 7:30 a.m. bus, I was in Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco, by 8:00, leaving me with more than an hour to kill before I would board my train from California to Chicago – a 51 hour journey. Although we were scheduled to depart Emeryville at 9:10 a.m., the train was barely in the station at that point and it would be 10:00 by the time we actually departed.

I reserved a “roomette” for the trip, a small compartment designed to hold one to two people with two reclining chairs that converted into bunk beds for sleeping. So as I boarded the train, the attendant sent me upstairs to where the sleeping compartments were. I was in number two, right across from the attendant’s compartment and quite close to the restroom. My roomette was smaller than I anticipated and I was quite glad I had it all to myself – while it was cozy for my party of one, I couldn’t help but think you’d have to really like someone to spend two and a half days with them in that cramped space! Shortly after we departed, the attendant came by to show me all the features: air conditioning controls, an electrical outlet, a pull-out tray and, of course, a light switch. He would return that evening to help me convert my comfy chairs to a single bed for sleeping.

Roomette chair

working on the train

A couple hours later, the call went out for lunch to begin in the dining car. This was my first opportunity to meet some of my fellow passengers as it was community seating, with four to a booth. I joined a grandmother traveling with her two granddaughters as far as Truckee, California. They chowed down on macaroni and cheese and opened presents (it was one granddaughter’s birthday) as I enjoyed my first of several cheeseburgers and chips. The menu was pretty limited, especially for someone with Celiac like me.

cheeseburger

I spent the afternoon as I would spend much of the next two days – writing and listening to music, with occasional breaks to stare out the window and take pictures. I saw this trip as a mini writer’s retreat for myself (possibly inspired by the Amtrak Writers’ Residencies that were offered last year). With life back home so busy over the past few months, I had seriously slowed down on my writing and had pretty much stopped working on my book about my career break trip at all. This two day train trip was my chance to spend some serious time writing with few interruptions (it helped that there was no wi-fi on the train and by mid-afternoon, no cell phone signal either!).

view from train

storm clouds

Dinner was at 7:30 and this time I saw with a couple from Sri Lanka and an older gentleman who was heading all the way to New York to visit his son, who is a cruise ship entertainer. He said he had taken the train cross country at least 40 or more times in his life as he hates to fly. The menu at dinner was still pretty limited, but I ended up full, with chicken, grilled vegetables, a baked potato and ice cream for dessert. After dinner, my attempt to pull the bed out in my roomette was a complete failure, so the attendant came to help me and made it look easy. By 10:00, I called it a night, leaving my curtains open so I would just wake up with the sun the next morning.

view from train

I was awake Sunday morning by 6:30 or so and just 30 minutes later, the first call went out for breakfast in the dining car. I had packed gluten free bagels, apples and cereal for the trip, so I decided to skip breakfast and instead check out the showers. Yes, the train had showers! There was just one per sleeping car, but it was surprisingly good. Large towels and soap were provided, the water was fairly hot and the water pressure was far better than expected.

day two on train

After showering, I decided to head to the dining car to at least get a Diet Pepsi to go with the rest of my breakfast (water and soft drinks were included in the price of my roomette). However, they were already out of Diet Pepsi and instead encouraged me to go to the lounge to see if they had any. I explained to the lounge car cashier that I was in a sleeper and that the dining car was out of Diet Pepsi – could I get one from him? He was shockingly rude in his response, basically telling me that’s not his problem before begrudgingly giving me one of the cans of Diet Pepsi that he was using for mixed drinks (so not a full size can). The dining car never did restock Diet Pepsi so I ended up back in the lounge several times over the next two days spending $2.25 a can to get my caffeine boost.

Colorado River

Lunch was a cheeseburger again, this time sitting with two sisters heading to Denver and a girl from San Francisco heading to Chicago. The afternoon took us through the most scenic part of the ride, up into the mountains of Colorado, where we even got a glimpse of snow. Crazy, considering that just an hour earlier, we were treated to a massive rainbow.

rainbow

For dinner, I mixed things up and went for steak as I was joined by a cute guy just going from Aspen to Denver and a woman who may possibly have been the least intelligent person I’ve ever met. Words can’t even describe my experience trying to talk to her. Not long after dinner, we pulled into Denver, running more than two hours behind schedule. I had hoped to head into the station to stock up on Diet Coke, but the station was a bit of a hike from the platform and the attendant strongly advised me not to go far as we may leave earlier than the 30 minutes scheduled. As it was, we ended up in Denver for at least 45 minutes, pushing us even further behind.

Iowa

While the first two days on the train were a fun, yet relaxing, adventure, on Monday morning everything started to get annoying. It started at breakfast, when I learned that we were running more than three hours behind schedule. By lunch time, the dining car was running out of food and beverages. They had only hamburgers and hot dogs left to eat and only water and iced tea to drink. I still couldn’t figure out why they didn’t restock in Denver or borrow drinks from the lounge (other than they just wanted to make more money from people having to pay for everything). By late afternoon, though, even the lounge was running out of supplies, with most snack options completely gone.

We rolled into Union Station in Chicago shortly after 7:00 p.m. – more than four hours later than scheduled. I was lucky in that I was home – dozens of other passengers would have to spend the night and part of the next day in the city after missing their connecting trains to other parts of the country.

More Iowa

So what was my final verdict on my longest train ride since I went from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude in Russia nearly four years ago? I was definitely glad I did it. The scenery was lovely as we rode through California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado (not so much through Nebraska and Iowa). I sometimes forget how beautiful this country is, so the train ride was a good reminder. The mini digital detox was also a welcome reprieve from some of the stress back home and I made some very good progress on my book (although I still have a long way to go!). At just over $400 all-inclusive, I thought the price was reasonable.

Would I do it again? Maybe. If I did, I would probably schedule stops along the way, while allowing enough time to deal with the inevitable delays.

Have you taken a long distance train? How was your experience?

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13 thoughts on “Taking the Train from California to Chicago”

  1. I have taken trains cross country in both Canada and USA. I was told that Amtrak is more responsible for missed connections. In reality they are/were the best at fixing things. Upon entering hotel in Portland, an email popped up on my phone. Due to unforseen circumstances our train to Chicago, Reno was canceled. Some one used train to meet God, melted tracks etc. We went to station and csr got us to Chicago via Seattle. We went from seats to 3 person bedroom. No hesitation from us using Amtrak for any trips.

    1. Glad to hear you had a good experience! From my experience, they just always run really behind schedule – usually due to freight trains getting priority on the tracks but on my trip, there were numerous stops for electrical problems and they had a to change a faulty wheel along the way too. I thought the running out of food and beverages was inexcusable, especially when we stopped at a major hub where one would think they could have restocked. But for the most part everyone was as helpful and friendly as they could be (the passengers who all missed their connections did seem to be well provided for).

  2. Very interesting! I adore long distance trains and you’re so right that those without wifi are the best for writing. (Annoying for everything else though). I’d love to travel across the US by train though I probably should do it across Australia first (it’s quite pricey though which is why I always fly …). I also can’t wait to read your book!

  3. Your trip echoes much of what I’ve heard about Amtrak, but I still want to try it someday! I don’t love flying, and while i love road trips, you don’t get to zone out as much and just enjoy the scenery. 4 hours late into Chicago is not as bad as a lot of the stories I’ve heard!

  4. I enjoyed hearing your Amtrak account. The U.S. should be highly embarrassed with their train system. Most people don’t have 51 hours + to go from California to Chicago. Older people who do have the time don’t want to be locked into a train for so long and have continuous delays. I really wish we could have train travel like Europe. I assume this is all more $$ for the airlines though.

    I might have missed an earlier post – what is your book about?

    1. Thanks!

      Haven’t posted much about the book – working on a travelogue/memoir about the year I spent traveling through the former USSR.

  5. I did the Denver-SF part of this trip a few years ago, and your photos bring back memories! I nearly missed the train at a small station in Colorado because I ignored the conductor’s warning about how short the stop was and I really wanted to buy an icecream and a postcard from the station shop… I was in the regular seating section and brought all my own food, so I missed out on the (in)famous Amtrak dining experience – though I didn’t really bring enough variety of food so at least I got that part of it, anyway 🙂

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