I’m on board the Amtrak Empire Builder, which is the iconic American rail service between Chicago and Seattle. This being the last night of my round-the-world trip, I treat myself to a sleeping car. In the process, I experience the very unique brand of customer service that only Amtrak can provide.
I spend my first night on board in a coach seat, much the same as I did when traveling from New York to Chicago. I again get two seats to myself, so I’m able to curl up and get a reasonably good night’s sleep.
For my next and final night on board, however, I treat myself to an upgrade. While booking a sleeper car is usually prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler, doing so only for a short segment of the trip (in this case, from Spokane, Washington to Seattle) costs only $100 extra. I consider this well worth the price considering that I have slept sitting up for two of the past three nights. The price also includes breakfast. The catch is that the transfer takes place at 1:40 a.m.
Since I’m transferring to a different passenger class, I’m issued two tickets, and, confusingly, I need to change trains in Spokane, from the #27 to the #7. The attendant explains that the two trains are joined together, but that eventually they split and head in different directions, one to Portland and the other to Seattle. She tells me that I will need to collect my luggage, get off the train in Spokane, and then re-board again in the proper car. When I ask whether I can just walk the short distance through the train to my awaiting sleeping chamber, she tells me through narrowed eyes that such an action would be very complicated indeed. She agrees to discuss the idea with the attendant of my sleeping car, but makes no promises.
When night falls and the view out the window is dark, I find it hard to stay awake, and end up falling asleep. At about midnight, I’m shaken awake: it’s the attendant again.
“Did you just get on the train?” she asks.
“euhhhhhhhh?” I reply dozily, clearing the sleep from my eyes. “No, I’ve been here for two days.”
She looks irritated. “Oh, right.”
I fall back asleep, and set my alarm for 1:30 so that I won’t miss the transfer. When I awaken and check the GPS on my phone, however, we’re nowhere close to Washington State yet, let alone Spokane. The train is running hours behind schedule. How it’s possible to be late while crossing an expanse of empty land with no stops at night in summer, I’m not sure, but here we are.
“I have a roomette booked from Spokane,” I remind the attendant. “Do you know if it’s available now? We’re supposed to get in at 1:40.”
“Like I said before, I’ll have to ask the person in charge of the sleeper car,” she replies.
“Did you ask?” I inquire.
“No.” She walks away.
Hours later, as early signs of dawn are beginning to show on the Eastern horizon, we finally pull into Spokane. I grab my bag, stumble off of the train, walk three cars up, re-board, and find my roomette.
The anatomy of an American sleeper train
Americans don’t generally travel by rail, so the overnight sleeper trains popular in Europe don’t exist here. Instead, Amtrak has built sleeper cars targeted at luxury travelers, and unfortunately there are no basic options for less-affluent customers, like the four- or six-berth shared rooms available in other countries. Instead, Amtrak provides private rooms suitable for two to four people, and you must pay for the entire room—no sharing. The best rooms come with a large bed, separate seating, and a private washroom and shower, but these can run upwards of a $800 a day, so I elect for the most economical option, the two-bunk “roomette” with no washroom.
When I transfer cars in Spokane and find my room, the attendant is still cleaning up after the previous guests, who apparently just got off. He has folded away the top bunk, and makes up the cot-sized bottom bunk like at a hotel, with fresh white linens and a soft pillow. I get some fresh air outside for a few minutes, and when I return, the room is ready for me.
My roomette is tiny, about the same size as the footprint of the bed, plus about 50 cm to one side for shimmying in from the hallway. The glass sliding door can be closed or left open to let in air and light, with optional privacy provided by dark curtains. There are several clever space-saving ledges and shelves, however, so I have no trouble fitting my luggage and self inside. I imagine having two people in here would be a tight squeeze though. All of the necessary amenities are here—outlet for charging my phone, tiny garbage pail, ancient analogue radio dial for in-bunk listening, a reading light, a bar of soap, and even a bottle of water. In fact, it’s quite similar to the capsule hotels I stayed in in Japan.
I get a good night’s sleep (or, rather, morning’s sleep, since the sun is already starting to rise by the time I finally get my bunk), and the next morning I indulge in a shower in the little shower booths on the bottom floor. It’s fun to watch the water drain through a little hole and directly on to the tracks as we clatter by. When I return to my roomette, the attendant has magically transformed the bottom bunk into two seats facing one another, and my belongings have been neatly arranged to one side, making for a comfortable and private little chamber in which to spend the remainder of the journey.
A dangerous coffee
I’ve already explained how lovely the dining experience on board the train is. I have also hinted at the surprising lack of focus on customer service. The two collide at my final breakfast.
Breakfast is included for sleeper-class passengers, so after my shower, I saunter down to the dining car, this time approaching from the direction of the locomotive, where the first class passengers reside, not the caboose, where the rabble are seated. I am seated with a lovely older lady who is a joy to chat with. Our waitress, however, is thick and flushed, with a deep, throaty voice and a twitchy face.
“Soooooorrrrrry for the delay folks, I’m run off my feet here. God! I can’t keep up. I’ll take your order later.”
Minutes pass. Then ten minutes. Eventually she returns. “What do you want?”
“I’ll have the cheese omelet, please,” says my companion.
“We’re sold out of omelets.”
“Ok, I’ll have the egg sandwich then.”
“Do you want cheese on that?”
“Wait, you have both eggs and cheese, so can’t the kitchen make an omelet?”
“I told you, we’re sold out of omletes.”
Right. I order eggs sunny side up with grits and sausage. The waitress pours us both coffee, and some time later, my breakfast arrives: scrambled eggs and potatoes. Right. My companion also gets something different from what she ordered, and points this out to the waitress, but after a threat of “the kitchen is really backed up…” we decide to just stick with what we got.
After we finish our food, we ask for more coffee, mostly so we have an excuse to stay and chat longer (there are no more customers waiting in line to be seated.) “Coming right up,” our waitress says. 5 minutes pass, no coffee. “Oh right, I forgot the coffee, didn’t I?” she says when she passes again. 5 more minutes. Nothing.
I decide to take matters into my own hands and walk to the adjoining passenger car, where there is a large stainless steel dispenser bearing the label “complementary coffee for sleeper-class passengers.” I pour myself a cup, but when I try to return to the dining room, an attendant appears out of nowhere and blocks my way.
“You can’t just take this coffee; it’s for sleeper passengers only,” she says, glaring.
“Actually, I’m staying in a roomette one car down,” I explain, “but I boarded late last night, so you probably didn’t see me.”
“One car down is not MY car,” she retorts. “This coffee is for MY passengers only. Do you realize that I have to make this coffee myself? Now I might have to make more.” I find this prospect doubtful, given the enormous size of the reservoir, and wonder why it matters, really, since coffee is easy to make, and this is her job, after all.
“Would you like me to pour this cup of coffee back in the carafe?” I offer. She snorts and moves to one side to let me by. As I leave her fiefdom, she mutters loudly: “some people are so inconsiderate.”
As I walk back to my table, the waitress notices me carrying a full cup of coffee. “Oh, I’m sorry honey, I forgot your coffee, didn’t I?” No matter, I say, because there is plenty available next door, although the attendant was very reluctant to let me have any. As I take a seat, the indignant attendant bursts through the door.
“What’s wrong with you?” she steams at our waitress. “Your customers are stealing my coffee.”
“It’s not your coffee,” the waitress spits back. “It’s supposed to be for all sleeper passengers.”
“But now I gotta make more!”
“So make more!”
An argument ensues, in full earshot of everyone in the dining car, with accusations of sloth and ineptitude slung in both directions. My companion and I shrug at one another, drink the rest of our coffee, and sneak off.
Return to the Pacific
The train pulls into Seattle King Street Station at noon, only 90 minutes late—apparently we recovered several hours since Spokane. Juan, the scholar from Argentina, is excited, because today is Seattle Pride, and he has never seen a gay pride parade before. Unfortunately, I am unable to join him, because my onward bus to Vancouver departs in less than an hour. Seriously, Amtrak—get your scheduling on track.
King Street Station is gorgeous, with white pillars, elaborate molding, and a beautiful ceiling. Apparently all of this was covered with a false ceiling many years ago in an attempt to “modernize” the station, and was only rediscovered recently. I walk from the station two blocks to 5th and King and wait for my onward bus to Vancouver, the last connection in my long journey.