San Francisco to Boston by Amtrak
September 15th - October 1st, 2011
We are an Australian couple, who so enjoyed using Amtrak to travel from Boston to Tucson a couple of years ago, we decided to travel from San Francisco to Boston for a 2nd trip.
We were again surprised at how cheap this travel was - 3 nights in a (tiny) roomette and 9 meals included, traveling around 3700 miles, all for about 1600 USD for the 2 of us. Before we left, I obtained a DVD of the route, so I had some idea of the best side of the train for views, and brought along a good map. Amtrak’s website (amtrak.com) is one of the best I’ve used and we booked it all over the internet. We also used the OTOL forum to get tips on traveling by Amtrak.
I should get my major complaint about Amtrak off my chest now. My wife is Celiac and needs Gluten free food. Amtrak states clearly they will NOT cater for GF which is a disease, but they will provide Kosher food. I really object to catering for someone’s beliefs over someone’s physical needs. Considering how well America caters for other disabled people (full disabled bedrooms available on train), it is a surprise Amtrak has not responded well here. She managed to choose two items off the menu which seemed GF, but no waiter could provide any information at all. They could not, or would not even toast a piece of GF bread she had.
So here’s our trip story…..
Our first leg was from San Francisco (Ferry Building) to Sacramento. We took a shuttle bus from SF airport to the Amtrak 'bus shed’ where we obtained our tickets and joined the bus over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville. The 'virtual commuter' train to Sacramento is a beautiful 2 hour ride along the water for the first hour (even if through some oil refineries!). The 2nd half is in the beautiful Sacramento River valley. We stayed at the Vagabond Inn Executive-Old Town, virtually across the road from the station - a good economical choice. The next day it was just a 3 minute walk to the California Railroad Museum. Very nicely presented, concentrating on quality not quantity - there are probably only a dozen locos but very well laid out. The volunteers explaining the exhibits were a great addition to the experience.
A couple of days later we joined the California Zephyr for what I now consider one of the best train trips in the world. This is a double deck train. We had a Superliner roomette, which is tiny but a nice private space.
Only 2 other cabins were occupied as the line beyond Denver was closed due to flood damage. Obviously most people had made alternative arrangements. Coffee and juice provided free in the centre of the car. The front (3?) cars were sitting up coach, then the sightseer/cafe and dining cars, then 3 sleeping cars. We were in the last luckily, as far from the 3 horn blowing locos as possible.
At first there is the climb over the Sierra Nevada while enjoying lunch, then down along the Truckee River to Reno.
The Dining car was quite nice. Food was good with a choice of 5 mains for dinner and lunch and 3 desserts. Meals were served on plastic plates but with paper tablecloths and linen serviettes. Unfortunately for Pauline, only 2 of the meals and one dessert seemed gluten free so she had limited choices. And the menu didn’t change from train to train, so after 4 days it was a bit boring. The steak was really good both times I had it.
We spent most of the afternoon in the sightseer car. Great views all the way, improved immensely by the commentary provided by volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum. Only negative was the terrible wine (Chardonnay) we bought in the Sightseer car. After dinner, it was getting dark as we entered the desert of Nevada.
Slept like a baby so didn't even wake at Salt Lake City. Next morning we woke to the fantastic desert cliff scenery of Utah. Then we picked up the Colorado River and followed it all day for the most fantastic canyon scenery. Even the dull weather was not a great problem. Sometimes narrow canyons, then opening out into secluded valleys, then another canyon....etc...ALL DAY. We spent all day in the sightseer car jumping from side to side as the train crossed and re-crossed the river. Too bad there was no commentary here.
Amtrak should publicize this much more. I've done great scenic trips in Switzerland but they generally last a few hours. These 2 days are awesome.
I guess the main negative was the terrible small, desert towns with wrecked cars and junk all around. A scrap merchant could make a fortune! But then train travel usually shows the worst of towns.
After passing through the Moffat tunnel we wound down into Denver, where luckily we were staying for 10 days (the line beyond was reopened a few days later.) No comment on the temporary Denver station!
We rejoined the train, and discovered that there is an old and a new type of roomette. This was our first old one - if anything the roomettes seemed roomier, but the toilets and shower were more cramped. This was not a great trip. Obviously we traveled faster, and it was a very rough ride. I was almost thrown out of bed a couple of times. Both of us were feeling a little queasy by the time we reached Chicago - unusual as neither of us suffer travel sickness.
Creston had a giant rail yard full of coal trains. Iowa seemed to be corn fields and dirt roads. Surprisingly few towns - I expected intensive farming - but it was not as flat and boring as I expected. Too bad many of the nice old smaller station buildings are boarded up and the new building is a concrete block monstrosity.
I don't think the dining car had been restocked since San Francisco, and food (and wine) was running short and stale. Breakfast was really bad/cold/tasteless. The car attendant virtually said nothing to us. Not even a morning paper delivered. Amtrak was running this leg to suit themselves, not the passengers. Lunch served at 11am and all coffee etc removed/closed 2 hours before arrival in Chicago.
Chicago station was a real eye-opener to us. It was the first time we'd run across a really busy station, with queuing to get through a gate, to then sit and wait to be allowed on the platform. We're used to wandering onto the platform to wait for a train. Anyhow, it sure seems Amtrak has plenty of patronage out of Chicago.
After a 3 hour layover we joined the Capitol Ltd for Washington at 6pm. What a difference the crew makes! This car attendant had flowers at the end of the car, came and explained everything to us, asked what time to turn down the bed and when we wanted to be woken. He even provided chocolates on our pillows. Needless to say he got a good tip. It was dark having dinner but good fresh food and good wine (Pinot) this time, so we took another bottle back to our room to celebrate our last night.
Unfortunately it was misty passing through the Alleghenies next morning, but seemed to be nice scenery. For some unknown reason we were stopped for 1/2 hour with no lights/power at breakfast time. Never were told why. Then we followed the river into Washington, but too many trees blocking the view.
Washington Union station is truly amazing. What a difference between the decrepit platforms and the insides!
After a 4 day break, where we walked our legs off seeing all the sights, we joined a Northeast Regional train for the 7 hour trip to Boston. The cities seem to run together, with Baltimore looking particularly terrible from the train, but I am assured it is a nice city. It was good to see the number of different commuter trains in use. I was surprised at the lack of open farming country anywhere on this route – I wonder where the dairy farms and crops are?
Food offered in the cafe car makes MacDonald’s seem really gourmet, but we had brought o ur own fruit salad and chocolates as I knew there was no gluten free on the train. Couldn’t even get an ice cream. The best part of the ride is north of New Haven, where the line travels through very scenic 'water meadows' (swamps?) with good coastal glimpses.
Overall it was a great experience. I’d probably recommend flying east from Denver but the SF-Denver leg is a MUST SEE for everyone. No train was more than 30 minutes late which is a pretty good record.