Part Five: Disembark
Let's talk about SNAFUs and what Amtrak is doing about it. Plus: gifts just for readers!
If you've never heard the term SNAFU, I'll fill you in: It's military slang that was shared with me by my eighth grade English teacher (an Army vet). It stands for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up (some may substitute "All Fouled Up"). It implies that things didn't go the way you planned, but that they didn't go according to plan is par for the course.
So it is with Amtrak.
I want to be clear: I loved my 11-day voyage with our nation's rail company. It's not their fault things went awry! In fact, the blame rests with freight rail. Freight delays not only caused my plans to get bumped around, but freight companies treat Amtrak with such disregard on a regular basis that it's unfortunately normal for passenger trains to be upwards of two or three hours late to their destinations.
A true SNAFU.
At the time I booked by trip, I didn't know this. That is the only reason I booked some of my tickets with only a few hours of layover between them. This came back to bite me in California.
Missing the Coast Starlight
I was aboard the Southwest Chief en route from Chicago to Los Angeles, but freight traffic had us so delayed that even though I had a two-hour connection, we still arrived at Union Station an hour and a half after my next train left. Instead of boarding the Coast Starlight in L.A. as planned, I was automatically rebooked aboard a charter bus from Union Station to Bakersfield, where I would then board Amtrak's San Joaquins route to Martinez, California, just outside San Francisco. There, I caught up to the Starlight and boarded the train I was meant to have been on the whole time so that the rest of my journey would be back on track (pun absolutely intended).
Though Amtrak's quick reconnection was masterful and preserved the remainder of my itinerary, this meant I missed the Coast Starlight's famous Pacific Coast views in Southern California. The San Joaquins' views of lakes and orchards were charming nonetheless.
The Coast Starlight made it up to us when we crossed through the mountains as we approached Portland. At an elevation of 6,000 feet, we glided through fresh snow in the late days of May. Cavernous valleys of snow-capped pine descended beneath us, while mist delicately consumed the white mountaintops above. As we passed through a scattering of cliffside tunnels, we were greeted with quaint waterfalls — blink and you’ll miss them.
This is definitely a ride worth taking, even if you forfeit the ocean views at the onset of the route.
A Five-Hour Delay
Aboard the Empire Builder en route to Chicago from Portland, our train was stopped overnight just before Glacier National Park. A freighter ahead of us somewhere had derailed, per an Amtrak coach attendant. Nothing frightening, but still a derailment that meant we would be waiting indefinitely until the freighter was back on its way. Life on the tracks means there's no changing lanes to avoid an accident.
While the situation was handled, my fellow passengers and I held tight. Some disembarked our train and wandered around in the surrounding woods. The boisterous, lovable foursome sitting behind me effervesced to the observation car for breakfast and a continuation of their DND campaign.
Though I'm unsure when the delay began, I can say that we were already at a standstill when I woke up with the sun at about 5:30 AM. Whatever the time, we had not yet hit our scheduled 5:00 AM stops. We were significantly delayed, not moving again until 10:15 AM on the dot.
I missed my connection in Chicago by nearly two hours, despite Amtrak’s best efforts to make up some of our schedule. (There’s just no way to make up that much time.) Originally, I was to take the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, D.C., then the Northeast Regional to Boston, before finally heading back home to New York City.
However, with my connection to the Capitol Limited missed, Amtrak booked me on a route directly to Boston from Chicago, which would have me arrive in Boston two hours earlier than originally planned. Instead of going Chicago - D.C. - Boston on two trains, I was going direct aboard the Lake Side Limited — a train I had originally wanted to book, but was previously unavailable.
Amtrak knows that the freight companies — which own most of the rail across the country — have them in a stranglehold. To make up for it, they're quick on accommodations when necessary. They take care of you as best they can, and they do it with a smile and the patience of saints.
Please understand that as frustrated as you are that your schedule was thrown out of whack, you are the thousandth passenger they've had to re-accommodate today — through no fault of their own.
Did you know that there's actually a law on the books that freight traffic must yield to passenger traffic? There is — but since the freight companies own the tracks, no one enforces that law and Amtrak passengers suffer for it. Amtrak is trying to change that.
Before I close out this series, I leave you with three parting gifts: a video, a playlist, and my itinerary.
See what I saw over the course of 11 days and thousands of miles of track.
"The United States has some of the most beautiful topography," I wrote in Part One of this series. "From the vast plains of the Midwest to the deserts of the Southwest; to the Pacific coastline of the West Coast to the mountains of our northern states that kiss the Canadian border. By train, you can witness them all." And I did. So, too, can you:
Our good friend Rachael came up to visit my partner and me in New York back in April. While we were out viewing an art installation at The Shed, she took note of a song playing in the lobby. She shared that when they travel, she and her boyfriend make playlists of the songs they hear along the way.
This really struck me as genius. I asked permission to steal the idea.
Music-memory association is such a strong, universal phenomenon: As the person who created the playlist I'm taken back to the places I heard these tunes along my journey. For those with whom I share the playlist link, it's a groovy good time; a mix of eclectic tunes compiled from train stations, cafes, the headphone leaks of my fellow passengers, and more. It's a map of our nation you can't see, but you can hear.
I'll admit, the only song in the playlist that I did not hear along the way, but had to be added anyway was "City of New Orleans" (in the style of John Denver). Originally recorded by Steve Goodman in 1971 and named for the eponymous train that travels between New Orleans and Chicago, the song is a timeless retelling of that voyage along the center of the United States (and honestly not much on the route has changed in the 50 years since it was first recorded).
I thought it deserved a place on the list.
Please feel free to save this playlist for future listening in your Spotify app if you've got it.
Lastly, I thought it might be considerate to share my itinerary with you all. Should anyone reading this blog feel inspired to take a similar trip, this is what mine looked like.
Be warned: Not all Amtrak stations and routes are applicable to the Rail Pass. To make my planning easier, I consulted this map page on Grounded Life Travel. I literally could not have planned this trip without their maps. Using the maps on Amtrak's site was a confusing endeavor, unfortunately. (But thankfully, that's my only note for our nation's rail company!)
This is what I did:
(Please note that this table may be more easily viewed on desktop, and that it does not include re-accommodations due to missed connections.)
Train Name & Number
183 Northeast Regional
New York City
Moynihan Train Hall
Union Passenger Terminal
58 City of New Orleans
Union Passenger Terminal
3 Southwest Chief
14 Coast Starlight
28 Empire Builder
30 Capitol Limited
94 Northeast Regional
175 Northeast Regional
New York City
Moynihan Train Hall
You see? Every fxcking station in this country is called Union Station.
Part 5 of 5.
Thank you for reading.