Thursday, February 2, 2012

Year of the Train

An eastbound California Zephyr approaches Castle Gate, Utah.
Some people think I was born with a flanged wheel on each leg instead of feet. They're not far wrong, for 2012 is shaping up to be the Year of the Train for me and the Lady Friend.

We are longtime rail travel lovers. We love to watch scenery unfold before our eyes. We love to go to bed on the prairie and wake up in the mountains. We enjoy meeting new friends in the lounge and dining cars. We simply prefer relaxed and unhurried travel.

And we don't miss the exciting experience of strangers prodding and fondling us at airport security.

We're starting the travel year in early February with a round trip on Amtrak's Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington in sleeper roomettes. Our tickets include dinner upon departure and breakfast upon awakening.

Many people think Amtrak sleeper accommodations make train trips far more expensive than flying, and in many of not most cases that is true—but not on this route. We booked early, in December, and got  refundable round-trip sleeper tickets for $588. Two refundable economy round-trip tickets on United or American would go for $577. Of course, two nonrefundable "super saver" airline tickets would be $380, but add $50 (each way) cab rides to O'Hare and the cost rises to $480. Without meals.

The lesson: Don't assume that taking a sleeper room on a train is always going to be more expensive than flying.

Next up is a short 5 ½-hour coach round-trip in early March aboard a workaday Amtrak local, the Lincoln Service from Chicago to St. Louis, where I'll be delivering an address. Roundtrip rail fare: $40.50 each for senior citizens. Roundtrip air fare: $162. Plus cabs to and from both airports.

Pricewise, the Lincoln Service wins. Timewise, air travel is faster—tt's only half an hour. But those taxis might add an hour to the overall trip, and then if you get to each airport an hour before departure, you're looking at 3 1/2 hours in transit. Plus the aggravation of TSA's wandering hands.

Then there'll be a ten-day trip in late March on the California Zephyr to San Francisco Bay, in the service of getting trackside photographs for the upcoming e-book version of my 1994 book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America. We'll stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for a couple of days to take the waters as well as gather information and photos.

On the train we'll spend one night in a roomette and three nights in a large bedroom, all of the latter paid for by points amassed over five months on our Amtrak Guest Rewards Master Card. If we were paying cash, a round-trip in that big bedroom would be a staggering (but refundable) $3,532 for two people. Refundable round-trip air fare for two would be about $1,900, or if one wanted to take one's chances and book a nonrefundable ticket, $1,020.

All that scenery and relaxation on the long Western train trips is costly, no doubt about it. But if saving time is not an object, you do get three days of rolling comfort with amiable fellow travelers as well as Rocky Mountain and Sierra Nevada vistas rather than four intense hours at 30,000 feet among indifferent strangers in cattle-car conditions. Some people would consider that priceless. We do,

Winding up our travel plans for the year: A fall round trip on VIA Rail's The Ocean from Montreal to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a ten-day ground tour of the Maritime Provinces. We'll of course fly from Chicago to Montreal. We could get there by Amtrak (Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to Albany and Adirondack from Albany to Montreal), but that would require a night's layover in Albany, not exactly the City of Gold for us.

It will be costly, of course. VIA's overnight trains are as pricey as Amtrak's, but we haven't yet decided which sleeper accomodations we'll choose—a standard bedroom for two (meals included) or a roomier, more upscale compartment in the classic 1950s Park round-ended dome/observation car that brings up the rear of The Ocean. More about this later.

Of course, I'll put up full reports on all the trips on my rail travel blog at

VIA Rail Park observation cars (here on The Canadian at Capreol, Ont.) also bring up the markers on The Ocean from Montreal to Halifax.


  1. Kisor, you are so tiresome when you write about trains. Just listen to yourself.

  2. Opposing viewpoint: inspirational. Makes me want to drop everything and hop on a train.

  3. Anonymous: Your mother must have been frightened by a train whistle when she was pregnant with you.

    Mike: Thanks.

  4. Here's a second vote in favor of rail writings, the more the better. And a suggestion, time permitting, that you stop in at the wonderful maritime museum on the harbor when in Halifax. Lots of interesting displays, especially those dealing with the hundreds of convoys that left there to brave the U-boat wolf packs in both world wars.

    1. Henry, you forgot that those air fares don't reflect all sorts of add-on fees -- checked baggage, security fees, local improvement taxes, segment fees, yada yada yada. Amtrak charges none of that crap.