For as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with trains. In fact, as a kid I pretty much usurped the family basement of our split-level for my H.O. gauge model-train layout. I spent thousands of hours in the basement laying track, painting mountains and building entire cities by hand, all the while wearing my favorite engineer’s cap that was given to me by my grandmother one Christmas.
Looking back, I’m surprised I never pursued a career in railroading. I guess it probably never occurred to me back then that a gay man could engineer a locomotive. I went the other direction instead and became a flight attendant. However, throughout my entire 22-year flying career, I romanticized taking a long-distance passenger train trip, accompanied of course by the “man of my dreams.” The man hasn’t materialized yet, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that little detail stop me from taking the trip anyway. Besides, who knows, I might find true love on the rails, just as I did when I was a kid.
So, I finally decided my next business trip to California was going to be done by rail, well at least one direction of it would be anyway. After spending several hours pouring over Amtrak’s ‘Route Atlas,’ an interactive map which allows travelers to explore all the cities Amtrak serves, I determined my possible date with destiny would take place on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited train from Cleveland to Chicago, or more likely perhaps on the Southwest Chief somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Lake Shore Limited
The Lake Shore Limited is the descendant of the former New York Central Railroad’s train of the same name, along with the 20th century limited that plied the same route, albeit with all-Pullman sleeping car named for The Pullman Palace Car Company, founded by George Pullman — which, by the way, was manufactured in the historic Chicago south-side neighborhood of its namesake service. Making its first run in 1902 out of New York’s Grand Central Station, the train ran for almost 70 years. So rich and famous were its passengers that paparazzi would often wait at its terminus with the expectation that somebody in the public eye would step off the train.
The LSL follows some of the nation’s most beautiful shorelines, and combines scenic beauty with interesting history, while traversing the shores of Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River, Finger Lakes and the Berkshires. The train splits in Albany offering alternate routes to either Boston or New York.
I would then connect with The Southwest Chief, an indirect successor to the famed Santa Fe Super Chief, operated until Amtrak took over provision of the nation’s passenger services. It had been the first diesel-powered and all-Pullman train in the U.S., and was that railroad’s standard bearer, making its maiden run in 1936. Known as the “Train of the Stars,” it was famous for its gourmet meals and Hollywood celebrity clientele, fairly setting the bar for luxury rail travel. At the height of its popularity, it made daily departures from both ends of the line.
Booking the Trip
Planning and booking my long-distance train trip on Amtrak was a snap, though choosing which sleeping car configuration took a bit longer as they offer several varieties, and I had several questions like, “will there be a shower on board?” and “Does my room have a private bathroom?” That’s where Amtrak’s Sleeping Car Virtual Tour is so helpful.
This invaluable interactive tool puts you on board so you can survey the various room options in each type of sleeping car before booking. Using it, I was able to explore the layouts of the cars through the interactive floor plans and take a closer look inside each room. I viewed the rooms from different perspectives in 3-D and learned about the rooms details, unique features and amenities available, including bedrooms, bedroom suites and roomettes, each of which come complete with shower facilities and storage areas, and in most, a private lavatory.
The Viewliner and Superliner Roomette I finally decided on was ideal for one, but could easily accommodate two passengers comfortably, with two reclining seats on either side of a big picture window. My sleeping car attendant Michael, (a charming French Canadian, with nearly 40 years of service with Amtrak under his belt) on the Southwest Chief was responsible for providing me and all my fellow passengers ticketed in sleeping car number 330, with what I can only describe as exemplary five-star service, including preparing my room each night, assisting me with my luggage both on and off the train, and if that weren’t enough, he was even kind enough to serve my dinner in-room on the first night of my trip.
At night, he would convert my seats into an extremely comfortable bed, and an upper berth folded down from above if I should have had a companion along with me. Roomettes are located on both upper and lower levels of the double-decker Superliner train cars.
I’ll admit that before my trip, I did have some moments of doubt; I worried about boredom, stiffness and whether I’d be able to sleep or not. But those worries were all for not, because just as the brochure promises there’s still some romance left to travel, especially when done by rail. I met so many wonderful people, and all of them with the most interesting stories to tell, like the grandmother from Albuquerque who writes children’s books; and Bill from Fort Wayne, a dead ringer for Michael Gross (the father on Family Ties) who was kind enough to let me bum a smoke from him during one of our many “quick stops” while en route from Chicago to Los Angeles. I’d packed several books, movies, hours of music and my laptop, figuring I’d need all of them to kill the time, but I can honestly say I never pulled any of them out the entire trip; instead when I wasn’t regaling my fellow passengers with stories or listening to theirs I had my nose pressed against the huge windows, enthralled by the simplistic beauty of the stark Southwest landscape, I’d forgotten I was suppose to be bored.
Each morning, Michael slid a USA Today under my door and there was a 24-hour coffee bar upstairs just above my compartment where I could help myself to coffee, juice and bottled water whenever I wanted. Later in the afternoon I made a dinner reservation in the dining car when the maitre d’ announced they were taking reservations, those ticketed in a sleeper car got first dibs at preferred seating times. Due to the lack of space in the dining car it was community seating, but for me, that is another charming aspect to train travel as you will make a new friend, or in my case several.
There were some minor shortcomings of course. The bathrooms are small, water sprays everywhere when you least expect it. And while both my trains arrived on time and even 45 minutes early into Los Angeles, on many occasions they’re not. Railroads such as Union Pacific and BNSF own the tracks, so Amtrak — a guest on the rails — is really at the mercy of the freight trains’ schedules.
And even though I didn’t find true love on the rails that trip, I know there will be many more opportunities to find him, as Amtrak has become my official mode of transportation. In fact I’ve already booked my next trip to Los Angeles on the Calfiornia Zephyr.
With Amtrak Vacations, you can travel to a wide variety of exciting destinations. Just one call will take care of all the details, from reservations and tickets to hotels, sightseeing, car rentals and more. Select one of their popular vacation packages or create your own itinerary. For reservations, information and to request your free Amtrak Vacations brochure, call 800-AMTRAK-2 or online at amtrak.com.
Bob East at ATB WorldwideTravel atbworldwide.com will help plan the perfect long-distance Amtrak train trip for you. You can reach Bob at 818-633-6179 or [email protected]