YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Train trips: when time is not of the essence

Rail travel has much to offer, particularly scenic views and no airport hassles. But getting to your destination may take much longer, and delays are common.

September 14, 2004|Lee Godden | Special to The Times; Lee Godden is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the author of "ZenWise Selling."

If you fly enough, you'll have an airline epiphany. Mine came the day I was bumped from my original flight, talked my way onto an overcrowded later one, then cringed through two straight hours of turbulence.

After earning hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles in the last 20 years, I'd had it. I decided to find out whether the train was a viable alternative for business travel.

My test, a Los Angeles-to-Chicago trip on Amtrak's Southwest Chief, offered some eye-opening comparisons.

Were the train's higher fare and greater travel time worth avoiding airport hassles, flying jitters and crowding? Not entirely. Was seeing the heartland of America at 79 mph through a train window all it's cracked up to be? Absolutely.

In the end, I didn't regret the experience, but I'm not sure I'd do it again.

The journey begins

The round-trip coach train fare to Chicago cost $300, about the same as coach airfare. The thought of spending 44 hours sitting upright -- the seats recline but not all the way -- made a private sleeper appealing, so I paid an extra $1,000 for the upgrade. That's a lot of money, but I thought it worthwhile considering the increase in comfort and privacy for two days and nights each way.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief runs daily, traversing the Southern California deserts, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa before reaching Chicago.

Along the way, I saw young horses racing the train in Arizona, Native American homes in New Mexico, trestles over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and boxcar graffiti so striking that it blurred my definitions of tagger and artist.

I arrived at a nearly empty Union Station at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, about an hour before my train's scheduled departure.

I was surprised at the nonchalance of the boarding process. The 30 sleeper car passengers and the 150 or so coach passengers were ushered down a long corridor toward the tracks. I assumed there would be metal detectors and X-ray machines, but no. Amtrak uses bomb-sniffing dogs, and its own police force that coordinates with local police departments.

Less than 10% of passengers on the Southwest Chief are business travelers. Contrast that with Amtrak's shorter-distance routes in the Northeast, where many ride the rails for business.

Just like with an airplane, taking the train doesn't always mean you'll be on time. Delays often occur. Unlike the airlines, Amtrak hold-ups are not usually weather-related. Amtrak owns the rail lines in its Boston-to-Washington Northeast corridor, but elsewhere it has to share the tracks owned by the freight railroads. As a result, Amtrak trains often must stop to allow freight trains to pass. Amtrak says its trains arrive on schedule 70% of the time nationwide, but that figure drops to below 60% on long-distance routes such as the Southwest Chief. Major airlines, by comparison, arrive on schedule about 75% of the time.

My worries about security and the slowness of the journey disappeared when I saw the Southwest Chief, which instantly brought out the 12-year-old in me. A conductor looked at my ticket and pointed toward my sleeper car.

Sleeper compartments come in four varieties: standard, deluxe, family and handicapped. Standard sleepers, located on both levels, have only a narrow upper bunk and two convertible chairs below. Deluxe sleepers -- all on the quieter upper level -- have wider chairs and beds, plus a sink and an odd toilet that doubles as a shower. On the lower level are two larger rooms, a family bedroom and a handicapped room.

These two rooms stretch the full width of the car, allowing a both-sides-of the-train view. By the end of the business trip I would experience three of the four rooms.

Amtrak's well-known money woes were apparent from the moment I stepped aboard. Nothing on the train was falling apart, yet everything seemed minimized and spartan. The average passenger car is more than 20 years old, a fact evidenced by frayed curtain edges, misaligned doors and a cacophony of creaks and groans.

When I first saw my standard sleeper compartment I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Two seats faced each other, with a window in between. A fold-down bunk bed -- no window view -- was above. Sliding the curtained door closed, I realized there was barely enough room to turn around. I lowered the top bunk and used it as a shelf for my luggage. Could I handle two days of near-claustrophobia?

As we crept away from Los Angeles I wandered down the corridor and stared longingly into an unoccupied deluxe room. Ah, the extra space, the bigger bed, the private sink, toilet and shower. I yearned for an upgrade, mine for another $1,000 round-trip -- on top of the $1,300 I'd already spent.

Back in my compartment, the sleeper car attendant came by to say hello. I pressed $20 into his hands and asked with a wink if there were any unassigned deluxe compartments where he could move me.

"I'll have to check," he said, pocketing my tip. "But even if there was, I couldn't move you until tomorrow morning."

Los Angeles Times Articles