Update! Amtrak contacted me and offered me $180 voucher for future travel! I’m not sure how they arrived at the math, but the customer service rep said it was the difference between a coach fare and the business class fare.
In a prior blog, I mentioned my 10+ hour trip on Amtrak. In this blog, I’d like to tell a little bit about my experience on the The Vermonter between Brattleboro and Washington, DC.
When it comes to trains, I’m a hopeless romantic. I love, love, LOVE the idea of train travel. It’s an adventure, it’s relaxing, it’s environmentally sound, and “riding the rails” is an integral part of our American culture and history.
Plus, it’s a great way to find kit homes. My little pretties were often built right along the rail lines.
However, after my most recent experience on the Vermonter, I’d have to say that this country’s rail system needs some big help.
First, the good parts.
Frequent flyers will have culture shock when they board a train for the first time. The train slows down and stops at the platform, you climb on board, stow your luggage, pick a seat and get comfy.
No full body-cavity searches, no presentation of ID, no long wait to board. A few minutes into the trip, the conductor will walk down the aisle and ask for your ticket. Rarely do they ask for any ID. In my 20+ trips on Amtrak, I’ve been asked to produce ID only twice.
Our seats in “Business Class” were spacious and comfortable, and the long, tinted windows offered a broad and comfortable view of the world outside. There was an abundance of leg-room, and our brown-leather seats had foot rests and cup holders.
If you’re going to go Amtrak, Business Class is the way to travel. It’s been my experience that passengers in this car are usually well-coiffed, quiet, and mature (35+). The cost to upgrade to Business Class is minimal.
Business Class is typically located within the Cafe Car, and the plus is, you have ready access to all manner of tasty treats (chips, drinks, pizzas, etc.). The downside is, Hubby spent $52 on snack food during our 10-hour ride back to DC. His sub sandwich, with a bag of pretzels and a small bottle of orange juice cost $22.
The other plus is that a train trip offers views that you’re not going to see on our highways and byways. And there’s a little splash of voyeurism too. You get a sneak peak into America’s back yards, as well as abandoned factories, dilapidated buildings and forgotten farm houses.
Train travel can be so very relaxing, and for the most part, fellow passengers are in good spirits. The rhythmic clicking of the wheels against the metal tracks soothes the weary soul. The gentle to and fro rocking can induce a meditative, almost euphoric state of mind.
With every train ticket you buy, you’re supporting an alternative to flying and driving. America desperately needs alternate modes of transportation.
Those are the good things.
Ready for the not-so-good things?
The trip from Brattleboro to DC (the trip home on Sunday) was less pleasant than the outbound trip, because every seat on the train was sold. This meant that the bathrooms saw a lot of use. Within three hours of our departure, the smell from the bathroom (within the cafe car) was horrific. And the bathroom looked worse than it smelled.
There were small puddles of urine on the floor, together with a few wads of used toilet paper. (My husband reported that on an earlier train trip, the bathrooms in coach had much bigger problems than “just” puddles of urine. Yikes.)
The bathroom trash can was filled well past overflowing. I skipped the paper towel portion of my visit so that I could avoid placing my hand into the mass of used debris stuffed into the trash receptacle. Again: Ick.
Fortunately, I had an adequate supply of disposable wipes in my briefcase.
A not-so-well-coiffed woman in Business Class threw her McDonald’s bag and an empty bottle of soda on the floor when she was finished with breakfast. And there it remained for four hours (despite several conductors stepping over it). When I arose to use the facilities, I picked up the bag and carried it to the overflowing trash can in the cafe car.
Admittedly, slobs and litter bugs are not the fault of Amtrak, but Hubby and I were both surprised that the conductors walked right past it repeatedly.
As my closest friends know, I’m highly allergic to little children, especially when they scream loudly and jump about and make lots of unexpected, dramatic movements. Less than an hour into the trip, a young father came into Business Class with two children (ages 5 and 7, I’d guess). The children crawled all over the seats and made a fair amount of noise and I don’t think they sat still for more than 20 seconds at a time. That took away a lot of the enjoyment of a “peaceful, quiet ride.”
Whey they got off the train, my husband, who’s far more tolerant of little children than said, “That’s a relief. Those kids were nerve-wracking.”
It was disappointing that the conductor didn’t ask those children to remain seated – especially in Business Class.
Which brings me to the next “Oh Dear” comment.
Some of the staff onboard the train were not pleasant. One conductor came into our car and literally yelled for all of us to produce our tickets immediately. It was a piercing, strident voice and really not needful for the 20 passengers seated in the small section. Another employee – the cafe car attendant – made no secret of the fact that he was annoyed when someone showed up at the snack bar, and he had to get up out of his seat and wait on them.
On the north-bound journey, the Vermonter is moved onto a track at Palmer, Massachusetts and a new engine is put on. From Palmer to the end of the line (in our case, Brattleboro), the train goes backwards. If you’re in the Coach Section, you can switch seats (if there are openings) and find a backwards-facing seat. If you’re in the Business Class section, you’re kind of stuck.
Both Hubby and I have a bit of a tendency to motion sickness, so going backwards was a no-go for us. We moved to the cafe section and sat at a table, so we could face the right direction.
And there was one really big surprise.
Occasionally, the conductor would tell the passengers that they had “five minutes for a smoke break” at the next stop. Whenever these announcements were made, I’d hop out of my seat and go stand outside for a couple minutes to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. At one such stop, the rear door in the Business Section was opened. I wasn’t sure how long we’d be at that stop, so I stayed inside and admired the view from the safety of the car.
Good thing too, because without warning, that door slammed shut and the train started rolling. In other words, there was no conductor checking for passengers at the back of the train and no one yelling, “All aboard!”
I didn’t realize it until that moment, but those doors can be – and ARE – operated remotely from the front of the train. Had I stepped out of the car, I would have been left on the platform! Let me tell you, that would have taken a lot of fun out of the trip!
Factoring the four-hour drive between DC and Norfolk, the trip from Brattleboro to Norfolk took 14+ hours of travel time. (Not counting parking, and other miscellaneous travel events.) Fortunately, the train was on time both ways. However, this is a trip that takes about 9-1/2 hours by car.
The two round-trip train tickets were $566 and it cost $132 to park at DC’s Union Station.
It was an adventure, and there are some good memories, but I shant be riding The Vermonter again, for all the reasons outlined above.
To Amtrak’s credit, I must add that during the many years I lived in the Midwest, I rode the rails at least a dozen times. I’ve been on The Cardinal (2010) and the Texas Eagle (2004). In 2005, I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. That was 48 hours of bliss! I also rode the commuter train between Alton and Chicago too many times to count.
Those train rides were great fun. The service was good, the cars were clean and the trains were on time 75% of the time. In 2008, Hubby and I took the Silver Star to Orlando, and that was also a pleasant ride.
As I said in the beginning of this blog, I dearly love train travel and our country has great need of ecologically sound alternatives to flying and driving, but Amtrak has some major issues that need to be resolved. And the Vermonter’s run along the Northeast corridor has a lot of room for improvement.
As of 2008 (the last year for which I could find stats), the US taxpayers were subsidizing air travel to the tune of $13 billion per year. Perhaps it’s time to do more for Amtrak, in the hopes that they could find better staff and get the restrooms cleaned up and establish high-speed rail in more areas.
In short, Amtrak needs some re-tooling so it can be a viable contender in the transportation industry.
To read what I found in the Vermont area, click here.
Updated in Summer 2018: This has remained a very popular blog. My complaints about this train trip seem absolutely inane these days. My husband, the man shown in the photos below, committed suicide on April 18, 2016.
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To read about the future of train travel, click here.
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You have given me some dejavu. I took a ride from Chicago to San Francisco and back.
The stories might curl your hair. It was quite a few years ago so I’m surprised to find such happenings today.
Pity to spoil what could be a nice ride. Thanks for sharing.
Being a fellow train enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed your story.
Do you mind if I send the link to your story to a few business associates at Amtrak?
What a well-described journey from Brattleboro to DC!
I, too, love the trains and take when the opportunity presents itself.
The ease of train travel is the big pull – no airport routines and waits – heaven! Thanks, Rosemary!
The EMD AEM-7 train model you were riding was built by Electro-Motive Division of General Motors (EMD).
The first model (900)went into service in late 1979. 901-946 went into service between 1980 and 1982.
Numbers 900 and 903 were destroyed in the disastrous collision with a Conrail freight train in Chase, Maryland in 1987 that killed 16 people.
So the number 914 you were riding most likely went into service in about 1980.
Please do, Keith.
Frankly, I’m really disheartened by the whole experience. I’m a big fan of Amtrak, but this was not a good trip. We need rail service in this country – but Amtrak is missing the mark.
I was just going to ask if you had complained to Amtrak. I hear Marc Magliari on the news sometimes.
Sadly, like the kit homes, I think that era is gone.
But, if you want to spend some money and go on some of the private rail car tours you can still find the old days.
Wow, your post saddened me, but I really appreciated your “truthiness”. Firstly, the bathroom hygiene failure has no excuse.
That’s just common decency. It seems our society lacks good etiquette to begin with, but in an enclosed tube, you’d think Amtrak would have hourly bathroom cleaning (drop off trash in station stops).
Secondly, the children in Business is another bummer. Parents are failing at teaching kids public behavior. We were all raised in a different era, no children worshiping.
I really thought not announcing station departures sucked as well. A host of WTH happened to Amtrak could take up pages, but glad you and hubby made it home safe. What an expensive adventure, btw.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKLnhuzh9uY This should be on trains and planes!
My EE hubby and I use the Los Angeles subway system all the time ($5 day pass for all the subway routes), and thought about an Amtrak trip roundtrip to San Diego.
Next National train Day event (free- in many states-online info) I’ll be less of a train romantic, and be wide eyed aware. Thank you, Rose.
I assume with your schedules, a letter to Amtrak is being composed and not sent yet. I know with you hubby’s legal mind, and your extraordinary ability to phase visual concepts, the final result will be mastery.
I am a huge letter writer myself, and it does make a difference.
Amtrak needs to know Jed Clampet and Daisy Mae Moses (Granny), aren’t paying the exorbitant prices to ride the rails. As a taxpayer, I applaud your letter nudge at Amtrak.
Amtrak and the bathroom situation REALLY bothers me. I had no idea. Yeah, it’s just one data point, but it says something.
@Laura (So Ca)
I did end up writing Amtrak a letter (and a friend forwarded this blog to someone at Amtrak), and I got a response yesterday. They called and offered a $180 voucher for future travel on Amtrak.
Still, I’m staying away from that Northeast corridor in the future. Those bathrooms were haunting!
Thanks for the kind words.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my inquiry.
There is a difference between social infractions, and bad facility hygiene. Glad to hear, they cared enough to contact you, and offer you their form of “compensation”.
My wife and daughter went by Amtrak from Columbus WI to Chicago IL for a play. They loved the adventure and did take along a “Picnic”.
Chicago Museum Of Science and Industry has the Silver Streak: Pioneer Zephyr on display and you tour most of the areas.
It was a hit when my kids were in the early teen years. It was a 20 minute ride that felt like we were moving.
PS. I still have one more picture to take and then I can send photos of 3 Crescents in around Madison WI area.
Sorry to hear of the unsavory conditions you encountered on your Amtrak adventure, but glad you made it home safely in spite of them! Your story brought back memories of adventures my then-fiance and I experienced with Amtrak in the mid-1970’s, around and including the Holiday season.
We both traveled from Newport News to Illinois, but at separate times, and to different destinations, and returned to Newport News together immediately after Christmas.
I ended my outbound journey in Chicago’s Union Station, and Don disembarked in Kankakee, Illinois. My journey included such adventurous experiences as the under-car generator falling OFF the under-carriage in the middle of the cold, dark night somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia.
This device had been providing lights and heat, and once the train personnel determined what that awful crashing noise was, as we sat motionless on the track in the dark, we were all moved up into the next available car, which just happened to be 1st Class, which waas quite a change from Coach!
My husband-to-be followed me up there a few weeks later, (it was his family with whom I was seeking refuge from intolerable home conditions of my own, since I was 18, we weren’t yet married, and I was not living on my own yet) since being in the Air Force, stationed at Langley AFB, he had limited leave time, which we decided would be best used over Christmas, and our journey back to Virginia together. (The rest was spent on our wedding and honeymoon.)
He had some interesting experiences of his own, not the least of which involved him being stuck on a freezing train car in Beckley, WV, while I think they tried to fix the heat for some time, and finally had to get another train car to replace it and move everyone and their belongings to it, because being so close to the holiday, the train was full up. That wasn’t his only inconvenience, besides also being very late into Kankakee, but it certainly was the most impressive.
Our journey back wasn’t without challenges, either. It would seem Amtrak’s trains back then were suffering from continuously failing heating systems, because the heat in our car on the return trip stuck ON to the point where it was thoroughly roasting everyone on board ~ in our car.
We were moved once into the Club Car, and later when that car got “dropped” at a station and not replaced, we were crowded into another First Class Car.
Comfortable, but no food before we got back to Newport News! The dining car was dropped off early in the morning, after we had stood in line for 20 minutes, and had just ordered our breakfast, when we were all informed the car was being dropped in 10 minutes at the next stop! We had to leave without eating.
Bathrooms were small, well used, odiforous, but I don’t recall people being so blatantly disrespectful of others as you had described.
Children were present of course, being the Holidays and time to visit family, but nothing really sticks out in my memory in that regard, and I also have a very low tolerance level for misbehaving miscreants.
I absolutely agree that Amtrak needs some serious overhauling, and if it could be properly managed (ahem) it could take a considerable load off the other forms of transportation that are much less “green” and harder and more expensive to maintain. The abject lack of body searches, luggage searches, rude TSA agents and other time delaying tactics could be a major selling factor right there! As long as the trip time isn’t an issue, I can’t imagine why this could not become once again the preferred means of travel for many people. Of course, returning to rail travel would not mean an immediate return to the thoughtful manners of bygone days either, such as shown in the pamphlets and other advertising of the late 40’s and into the 50’s, so I suppose one must become aware of and able to function in spite of others’ crudeness. Sad, infuriating, yes ~ but true nonetheless. Maybe a return to a more thoughtful, less selfish, self-indulgent, “me first” attitude would be helpful, but I don’t see it coming around the bend anytime soon…..
Amtrak is like the little girl in the nursery rhyme–when it’s good, it very, very good, and when it’s bad it’s horrid.
It all depends on the local management and the crew.
The problem in the northeast with crews goes back to what a friend used to call the Penn-Central charm school.
Things have improved, but not nearly enough. You have to wonder what kind of training these people get, if any.
Thinking of riding Amtrak from Spokane, Washington to Pittsburg, Pennsyvalina, via Chicago with a six-hour layover there. Is the depot in Chicago safe?
I’ve spent more than a few hours in the Chicago station between trains and it’s safe.
It’s busy so you need to mind your things but there’s a visible police presence in all areas.
Any updates on taking the Vermonter in 2017?
We are traveling from Philadelphia to Jay Peak and will be carrying our luggage and ski equipment.
The train no longer switches direction, so you don’t have to switch seats anymore!
They should clean those bathrooms.
The bathrooms were still dirty. We traveled in January 2017. Disappointing.
Thanks for your Vermonter info. Like you I’m a train enthusiast – have taken almost all routes over the years.
America’s rails are in a sad state. I blame the government and voters who don’t seem to care.
Canada rail travel is night and day different. Shows what could be done. But it’s not happening in the US, at least in my lifetime.
Am planning a Vermont trip soon and that led me to your blog. Really did like it. Thanks!
Took a Vermonter trip from Maryland to White River Jct. (10 hrs) in business class July 2019.
Mercifully I had none of the horrors you endured in 2014.