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S.W.A.K, Amtrak

S.W.A.K, Amtrak

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All aboard the Sunset Limited.

All aboard the Sunset Limited. Source: mokolabs hide caption

toggle caption Source: mokolabs

The romance of the rails is about as long-standing a cliche as you can find, but in these days of mass moonings and fare hikes, Amtrak's lost a little of its luster. There are encouraging signs of a turnaround, however, and travel writer Catherine Watson decided to give train travel a go. Onboard she found more than just train buffs and scenic vistas: travel instead of mere transportation. I vividly remember when a trip on an airplane felt like an event — my sister and I had "airplane dresses," because air travel was an occasion to dress up for. And sometimes when I take the Metro to the end of the line, I squint my eyes on the above-ground portions of the trip and pretend I'm traveling, not commuting. Watson truly traveled, from Minnesota to New Mexico, by way of three lines, the Empire Builder, the City of New Orleans, and the Sunset Limited. She didn't get to New Mexico quickly — or inexpensively — but she arrived at her destination having fully enjoyed the ride. When was the last time you could say that?



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Train travel would be alot better if AMTRAK were allowed to die its natural death. AMTRAK is a money pit with little incentive to be better. It's okay if being on time doesn't matter to you. Allowed to die, entrepreneurs would rush in to fill the void. Train travel could be again be possible, until then AMTRAK can keep retirees entertained with lame schedules, tardiness, and the regularly unscheduled derailments.

Sent by MO | 2:17 PM | 7-15-2008

Late May, in Switzerland, where the rail system is fast, incredibly efficient, spotlessly clean, easy for even a foreigner to navigate, and reasonably priced.

Sent by Thos | 3:17 PM | 7-15-2008

My recent trip to Alaska featured transportation by the Alaska Railroad. It was more expensive for the group of us, but the novelty and the freedom to relax and enjoy the scenery was more than worth it.

Sent by Amanda | 3:25 PM | 7-15-2008

Have you read Tom Allen's book: Rolling Home about traveling across Canada? LOVELY book.

Sent by Jennifer | 3:43 PM | 7-15-2008

I wanted to travel by train for an upcoming conference. I live in California. The conference is being held in Atlanta. It would take me four days each way. Unacceptable. We need high-speed trains to handle business travel

Sent by Betsy Harden | 3:44 PM | 7-15-2008

Is there talk about expanding the rail? If so, are they discussing building along the interstate routes to avoid eminent domain issues

Sent by Lars Peterson | 3:47 PM | 7-15-2008

Is there an internet site that we can shop for train tickets on similar to

Sent by Bret English | 3:51 PM | 7-15-2008

Travel by train is the best way to see and meet America and Americans. I've traveled on every route Amtrak makes available. If you have the time, it's the best way to go!

Sent by dorrie lane | 3:51 PM | 7-15-2008

My wife and I traveled from Tucson to Arkansas by rail a few years ago. We were bussed across Texas in the middle of the night when we got to the point where we were wayyyy too far off schedule. The coach cars were disgusting and everything we owned smelled like the broken train toilets. We actually had a suitcase that still smelled after 3 years before we tossed it. To top this off, we caught something like Norovirus while on board the train and were deathly sick for most of our visit back east.

Amtrak would be much better if they actually were given priority on the rails and weren't underfunded.

Sent by AndyS. | 3:52 PM | 7-15-2008

I have recently traveled from Denver to Glenwood Springs and loved it, even in "coach" great views, great ride, great legroom, and good meals. You can talk and move around. Question:
Could you repeat your remark about management of the western rails, and second, could you recommend a trip across Canada? Thanks Joe

Sent by Joe Foss | 3:53 PM | 7-15-2008

I don't travel by rail because the nearest station is over 100 miles away in Denver. I would love to do so. I believe that it is imperative that our nation develop rail infrastructure so that we can use energy more economically. I just returned from visiting my family in Pennsylvania and I fear that I have just traveled by air for the last time.

Sent by Cindy Schmid, Cheyenne, Wy | 3:55 PM | 7-15-2008

One of the worst train rides was on AMTRAK from Charlotte, NC to Washington, DC while on vacation with my family. We paid a hefty additional sum for an upgrade car well ahead of our trip, but it was not available at the time of departure. I was never reimbursed for the extra amount I paid. During the trip in the jam packed coach, we were confronted with an out of control individual, who was kicked off the train several hours later and arrested by local police. The language from riders was horrible and the coach smelled terrible. I'll never gat on another AMTRAK.

Sent by Eric Moore | 3:55 PM | 7-15-2008

Growing up, we used to take the train to visit my grandparents. Now there is no rail service in my state. Union Pacific found that hauling freight involved fewer complaints and more profits, so they discontinued their passenger service. Amtrak served the area for a while, but didn't find it profitable enough either. So now we have to take a bus 300+ miles just to catch the train. NOT.

Sent by Brenda Cronin | 3:56 PM | 7-15-2008

My father is coming home by Amtrak tonight. He's coming up from Thousand Oaks area which means he's taking a bus to catch the train that starts in Bakersfield. He'll ride from there to Modesto.
He rides because it's cheaper for a single person to travel. And he's in his 70's. It's good for him because he enjoys the families he meets; gets to get up and stretch his legs. And he enjoys the views.
He also uses it to go to see friends in Texas. Amtrak from Modesto, bus from Bakersfield to LA,(12 hour layover) to catch the train to Alpine, Texas.

Sent by Shannon S | 3:56 PM | 7-15-2008

Huge seats, the ability to walk around, and for me, half the price of gas from Kansas City to St Louis. Even with old tracks and 5 stops it took only 40 min. longer than the interstate. We spend billions on airports and pavement but have neglected rail; we need dedicated tracks and high-speed lines. the public would catch on quickly and wonder how we ever got by without them. Trains can run on electricity from the cheapest available source, a boon as oil prices spiral.

Sent by Dave Randall | 3:56 PM | 7-15-2008

I think the interstate highway system was a big mistake. We should have rail transportation instead. I've had nothing but wonderful experiences on Amtrak--although there are some glitches, which I attribute to lack of funding.
I had no problem navigating the rail system in Europe. I think that a traveler coming to the US would face many difficulties trying to get around here without a lot of foreknowledge and planning.

Sent by David Wilder | 3:56 PM | 7-15-2008

I love trains and love travel and when I have the time, I love to travel
Amtrack. But rail travel in this country is still an anachronism and
something for folks who are afraid to fly or have lots of time. Seventy
mile per hour trains cannot share track with 35 MPH freights, let alone 175
MPH passenger trains. Until passenger trains run on dedicated passenger
rail - high speed, they will remain an oddity. Imagine Chicago to NYC,
city center to city center, in comfort in 5 hours or less!

The other requirement is good intra-city public transport at destinations.

By the way, the Amtrack trains share only name and sometimes approximate
routes with the grand trains of the past - otherwise they bear no

Sent by John Vogelpohl | 3:57 PM | 7-15-2008

We could have passenger trains reaching every major city and crossing every state if the car manufacturers had not begun dismantling and purchasing the rail system beginning in the late 1940s.

Sent by Janice Kitzler | 3:59 PM | 7-15-2008

Yes, the rails are romantic to me. I wish we could go back to steam power. I have watched as our rail infrastructure has been allowed to rot as, since WWII, Detroit sought to build more highways to sell more cars. I recently heard on NPR that one gallon of diesel can move a ton of freight 250 miles on the rails. This is a no-brainer! Get the trucks off the interstate and on to the rails. Then take the profits and plow them into passenger travel, we'll all happily comply and get to know more of our fellow Americans in the process.

Sent by Carmine Picarello | 4:11 PM | 7-15-2008

Most years I take the train either to Arkansas or Seattle by train. Two years ago I took the Texas Eagle to Jonesboro from Tucson. It was pleasant and we were about two hours late into the little town outside Johesboro. Here is the kicker on the way back to Tucson we were TWO HOURS Early. We were so early the agent was not there. I guess the dispatcher found a slot between the freights. You might have mentioned in your piece that the freights measure about 100 cars. The Amtrak is about 8-10. When there is a siding about 50 cars long and it is necessary to pass, guess who has to wait.

I have a complaint against AMTRAK and cannot get a response. The Texas Eagle leaves Tucson in the middle of the night as a part of the Sunset Limited. At San Antonio a chair and a sleeper car are put out and become part of the TExas Eagle at about 5:oo am. As A sleeper passenger I have been trying to get an answer as to why, after the train arrives in San Antonio,n I cannot rent a room the remainder of the night, tour SA until about mid-night and then climb on my next day sleeper as it waits to become part of the Texas Eagle. I have heard from AMTRAK that I could not board until just before departure. This seems strange because a friend of mine took the Eagle chair car and went to a bar for a few hours while he waited and then returned to his chair car seat.

On another matter, the food was OK but could not match the food served by Fred Harvey (Santa Fe) when i worked for them in the 40's.

Sent by Thomas Neel | 4:15 PM | 7-15-2008

Amtrak would be on time everywhere like it is in the east coast if they owned the rails... I lived in Japan and the trains ran on time and went everywhere...the goverment subsidizes them...just like we do the airlines... we could do it but choose not to... don't complain about Amtrack being late... they are set up to people who beleive that goverment should not involved... these are the same people that are happy they are involved in our Airports...

Sent by Cliff Kessler | 4:34 PM | 7-15-2008

In June I rode from Malta, Montana to Alliance, Ohio and found the trip enjoyable despite having to drive 288 miles just to arrive in Malta (the nearest stop for me). Time wasn't an issue. If I were to critique this system it would be some of the "train stations." Alliance was nothing but a sheltered but stop (really, that's it). No toilets, no heat, nothing and in the worst part of town. Add to that the only time to catch a train out of Alliance or into Alliance is in the middle of the night. That's just bad PR. Amtrak needs to upgrade in a big way train stations like Alliance.

Sent by morgan Tyree | 5:07 PM | 7-15-2008

Gas is not the only cost of driving. The real cost is reflected in the new mileage reimbursement rate of 58.5 cents per mile or $357 roundtrip to Chicago, versus $46 I'm paying Amtrak roundtrip. And, I have to fight off sleep at the wheel and fight traffic as well. Recently Amtrak increased the service by 2/3 (from 3 to 5 trains each way per day) and ridership virtually doubled on the Chicago-St. Louis route.

Sent by James Pakala | 6:23 PM | 7-15-2008

The trains were once the elite way to travel. Movie stars took the train, and anybody dressed up for a train trip, and it was a real self-treat. People often traveled in group/parties and enjoyed the socializing as well as the landscape. It was a great way to enjoy some "quality time" away from all the stress and craziness - something we need badly right now.

Somebody with a lot of money, a moderate common sense, and just a little bit of heart, ought to invest in the trains, and make them fabulous again. (Not Bullet trains, though they would exist too.) Just pleasure-trains (and it really is a great pleasure to travel by train for just a day or two.) It would ultimately make money, and that money would subsidize the coach seats so the not-rich people could have a stressless getaway too.

Hey, millionaires and bigime investors - THINK about it!

Sent by Victoria | 6:25 PM | 7-15-2008

A year ago this month (almost the whole month), my wife and I made our honeymoon entirely by Amtrak, with overnight or multi-night stops in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans, before we returned home to New York City. We both agreed that it was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. It was just incredibly relaxing and the best way imaginable to actually see our broad nation. We were glad to take the most environmentally friendly option available. We wrote about it here:

Sent by Aaron Donovan | 7:17 PM | 7-15-2008

It would help if you had railroad companies. Like the Union Pacific Railroad. Was not against Amtrak Train or Commuter Train. And allowed Amtrak to run on time. I often ride Amtrak trains. Such as the Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, Pacific Surfliner, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. And If that Train is on a Union Pacific owned Track. Your train can get a from a on time departure. To several hours late. Because of a Long freight train. Which might be few miles away. It would also help. If you didn't have a President. Like current President George W Bush. Who wants to kill Amtrak as well

Sent by Jerry Martin | 8:08 PM | 7-15-2008

Amtrak as it stands now is the starving, neglected stepchild of the US government. Their withholding of funds is truly criminal. Thank goodness people are starting to smell the coffee - i have faith that with a little care and a lot of funding, Amtrak will be great. Even in its current sorry state I prefer it over all other methods of domestic travel.

If you want to see the true extent of the neglect, look for pictures of the Amtrak "stations" in the western US. With proper funding, these small-town stations could have revitalized the towns they occupy. Instead, many are sitting in shambles (literally!).

Sent by Cindy | 9:06 PM | 7-15-2008

Caroline Watson's journey was a tad roundabout(and required coordinating with a tri-weekly train). As late as the early 1960's one could have traveled south from Minneapolis, any day of the week, on Rock Island's "Twin Star Rocket," changing in Kansas City to the Rock Island/Southern Pacific "Golden State Limited" for El Paso. True, Ms. Watson may have seen better scenery -- Louisiana's bayous. Still, her circuitous routing required by Amtrak's skeletal system of today argues for expansion of the network, not its contraction. Enactment and funding of legislation currently in Congress will be a step in the right direction.

Sent by Richard Nicoles | 11:50 PM | 7-15-2008

I have traveled by train all over the U.S., Canada, and indeed in many parts of the world. My train travel started as a child for family vacations; later, I took the train between home and school. When available where we live, my wife and I use the train--and public transport in general--whenever at all possible. Access to Amtrak, rail transit, bus, and safe walking and biking routes has played a role in our past decisions regarding where to live.

I note that most of my train trips are on full trains. Amtrak ridership would be even higher if funding was provided to repair the approximately 100 out-of-service cars in storage.

Train travel is not for everyone, but if we had a robust rail transport network with long and short distance trains, more people would go by train, and this would actually improve both the airline and roadway experience.

Sent by Eric Schneider | 5:37 AM | 7-16-2008

Several years ago when we rode the train from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis for a football game, Gary and I promised ourselves that we would take a longer trip when we retired. This year we were ready and so was Amtrak. We set out to visit friends and relatives in California and Washington starting on the morning Friday the 13th. That date would be a portent for what ensued. Just as we were setting off from the Ann Arbor depot, we learned that our original train through Colorado was off-line due to the floods in Iowa. But, the Amtrak people offered us accommodations on the train going to Los Angeles. As we were leaving Chicago, a bit late, we were stopped a few minutes later by a passenger needing medical attention. By the time the ambulance arrived (in rush hour), she needed a coroner instead. After 1.5 hours or more we were on our way, until we got to the Mississipi River. We were just barely across the river when the Engineer stopped the train for fear that the tracks might not hold the the train because the trainbed was very mushy. After some deliberation, he decided to continue. Certainly we couldn't have gone back over the bridge where the Mississippi was cresting. The rest of the trip was much less dramatic, but very much comfortable and exciting. We had the luxury of a roomette which not only gave us a bed to sleep in, but included all the meals, which were very good. After a few days in the Berkeley, California area where we spent time with college era friends, we continued to Seattle where we visited family. Five days later we were back on the train to Wenatchi with another stop to see friends. As we returned to the train a few days later, we began our last part of the trip, which ended up being one of the longest. We learned pretty early on that the tracks were out in Wisconsin, so we would have some more water problems before getting to Chicago. In Minneapolis our train was diverted to a freight line track that could circumvent the waterlogged tracks but allowed the train to only 40 miles per hour. We finally arrived in Chicago at 4 am, about 8 hours late.
This would have been inconvenient and maddening, but the professional engineer, conductors, stewards, dining car personnel and all the others that it takes to make the train possible, were absolutely wonderful. We were always kept informed about what was happening, they were courteous and pleasant to all.
Now we are planning another trip. It is the best way to travel, bar none! I would much rather take the train than the airplane any day!!

Sent by Liz Elling | 9:24 AM | 7-16-2008

Every time I want to take a trip on the Crescent out of Birminham the sleepers are sold out, so I find myself traveling by airplane. When is Amtrak going to have enough equipment?

Sent by Donald W. Basenberg | 10:30 AM | 7-16-2008

It would now take a herculean effort to revive the fabulous rail network that made America the strongest nation the world has ever seen. I'm a pilot, so I fly; but, when I'm in northern Europe, I ride the train with all the excitement and enthusiasm of a child. I'm seriously believe the freeways and the Hummer won out; afterall, just look at California and its governor who are still expanding its freeway system in the richest state in the richest country in the world!

Sent by Carl Friberg | 2:26 PM | 7-16-2008

It's time for our nation to get back to passenger rail transportation. However, and unfortunately, our congress MUST endorse it and get out of the partisan/political arena. Now's the time and opportunity support passenger rail.

Amtrak management must become more creative in their route structure.

Amtrak must put more emphasis on a national system and not only the NEC. Recognize the rest of the USA, please!

No reason why the Sunset Limited cannot be back in place and on a daily basis. Recognize how successful the Empire Builder is and ask, "why can't the same results be gotten from a daily Sunset Limited"? Look at all the "feeds" that the SL gets. Amtrak - WAKE UP!

Adjust arrival and departure times so passengers along the Empire Builder route can connect with the Southwest Chief and the California Zephyr without a 24 hour layover in Chicago. What's the problem, Amtrak?

Return some of the amenities to Sleeping Car passengers that were there just a few years ago. Prices certainly are costly enough to allow this.

Is not Amtrak management embarrassed to be always asking for financial handouts and seldom (if anytime) illustrating what they do, or have done, best?

I'm a die hard passenger rail fan. There's so much room for improvement, though, and see so few areas that really stand out. Exception: I've seen/witnessed numerous Amtrak employees who are dedicated to customer satisfaction.

Sent by J. C. Tietgens | 4:31 PM | 7-16-2008

Contrary to the ill-informed comment by MO, Amtrak cannot "die a natural death" because the Fed gives it just enough "life support" to prevent it. I suggest this person do a bit of research as to why entrepreneurs have NOT rushed in and he would realize how the Fed destroyed rail travel in the first place when it was held by the PRIVATE freight railroads. Amtrak surprised everyone in the Congress by remaining alive despite their efforts to starve it of suitable capital. To put it into perspective, more is spent to mow the grass along the interstate system than Amtrak gets to run the passenger system.

Sent by P. Streby | 6:31 PM | 7-17-2008

for those who wish see more/better service:

and google: ohio hub plan
midwest high speed rail association

Sent by P. Streby | 6:36 PM | 7-17-2008

I took a long round, as in a circle, trip on Amtrak 3 summers ago. I chose Amtrak because I was going to Kalamazoo from Tucson (2 non-hub cities for the airlines), and because I love to drive, look at this BIG country from the road, but because my eyesight will no longer allow me this privilege I took the train. My reasons were financial (round trip airfare to Kalamazoo was more than roundtrip coach fare on Amtrak) and just for fun: seeing the country, meeting strangers in a safe environment. I enjoyed the trip very much. On my return from Kalamazoo through Chicago, I stopped and stayed in Minneapolis, West Glacier, had nice morning / early afternoon in Portland, stayed in Santa Barbara and was only 3 hrs. late getting into Tucson. I strongly disagree with Ms. Watson about the food. The food is palatable PERIOD. I had the same problems with delays in the west as most bloggers.

Sent by Susan Sotelo | 8:39 PM | 7-17-2008

One of the biggest mistakes our government made was letting the big three automakers buy up and shef all the local trollies and many of our rail roads so they could sell more cars.
The country needs to reclaim any local rails they can for commuter trains and for travel.
I personally dont like to fly I would rather take a tain rather then fly. We need to make rail travel more accesable and bring down the price, people aren't going to take the train when they could fly for less and get there faster. It would also free up some of our overcrouded airport runways to reduce the chance of accidents. The nations passenger railroads need there own tracks they can't share with freight rail roads that cause delays due to accidents and 100 car freight passing on mainline while passengers wait.
The passenger railroad should be privately run not government subsidised to be viable, once government gets involved they screw it up and it becomes to expensive to operate. If you want efficentcy and proffit it should be privatized. If I had the money I'd do it there is a fortune to be made.
I live in New York on Long Island our roads are maxed out we are running out of room for roads we could get millions of cars off the roads and arrive at our destination refreshed and rested.
Vinny , Long Island RailRoad Employee

Sent by Vincent Prestia | 9:01 PM | 7-17-2008

This county's short sided love affair with adding pavement and highways is now home to roost. Enjoy your long commutes at $5 a gallon and your 2 hour waits and delays for your one hour flights. There are flights from Our elected representatives are to blame. I remember once receiving a letter from Sen. Richard Lugar responding to my inquiry about increasing train travel. He said it was not in "our nation's best interest" to continue to waste money on trains. That letter is dated 1981. Wake up you losers in Congress..restore our passenger service that you allowed to die by de-regulating the trucking industry and subsidizing airports and highways..bring back inter-city rail to the heartland!

Sent by Bob | 11:31 PM | 7-17-2008

Would love to travel more by rail but don't because the closest station is over 70 miles away. For both the advocates and detractors of rail support - did you know that in recent years, rail has gotten only about 1/8 the funding (read subsidy)from Congress as the airlines (even b4 9-11). For all the talk about rail "self sufficiency" how well would the airlines do on funding parity. If you like or support rail travel, visit to find out more, see the proposed new routes, etc.

Sent by James Reynolds | 11:53 PM | 7-20-2008

i just wish they had cheaper sleeper cars on Amtrak, and that they had more routes that can accommodate bikes. Caltrans and Amtrak work together to provide several routes here in California that are not only clean, quick, and mostly on time, they are also quite comfortable and have spaces for bikes so I can travel to a city and know I'll be able to get around there easily.

Sent by brian goldner | 3:37 PM | 7-25-2008