Train Adventure: Part 1

Prologue

Jaeger and I started talking about holiday vacations in September. We concluded that while traveling wasn’t going to be completely safe, it was safer than last year and it might be years before it was truly “safe”. At that point, everyone but Julian was vaccinated and we had hopes/dreams that Julian would get vaccinated in October or November. So, we decided to pick up our normal holiday schedule. This year my parents for Thanksgiving and Jaeger’s parents for Christmas.

Jaeger loves to travel and see new things and the last year+ of very little traveling has been very frustrating for him. Both he and I had a full week off after Christmas and Jaeger was interested in traveling in addition to a family gathering. I wasn’t as fond of the idea because I get overwhelmed easily and need weeks off between trips before I’m back to equilibrium. Thanksgiving and Christmas are particularly stressful times because they are so close together1.

Toward the end of October I started reading Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. When I finished, I watched the 1974 adaption of the movie2. That put trains in my head. About the same time, I was thinking about cruises. I liked the one cruise I had been on. However, I don’t foresee a time in the next couple of years where I’ll be comfortable going on a cruise3. I spent some time thinking what it was I liked about being on a cruise. A lot of it was being by myself with no other obligations. However, I also liked that I traveled between destinations in a relaxed way with room to spread out and enjoy the journey. Don’t get me wrong, I think planes are magical. They make it feasible to visit family anywhere in the world. However, flying economy is not a comfortable experience. After mulling things over in the back of my head for a bit, I realized that trains had the potential to include many of the things I liked about taking a cruise but had what felt like less risk.

I tentatively floated the idea of a train trip to Jaeger and he seemed interested. I think he was just relieved I was willing to do something. We decided to test the experience by taking the train down to LA the week after Christmas. San Jose to LA is a whole day experience, just under an 11 hour train ride. We decided to spend one day going down, two days to explore LA, and one day for the return trip.

Once we settled on the general plan, we had to decide what type of tickets we wanted to get. After a bit of research, I decided for our purposes either coach or a roomette would make the most sense. Coach was clearly the cheapest, by more than half, but I’ve always wanted to take a trip in a sleeper car. One other consideration was that, because of COVID-19, only sleeper cars were allowed to order food from the dining car. There’s (probably) a snack area everyone can order from but the food did not sound inspiring. After some discussion, we decided to take coach on the way down and get two roomettes on the way back. Our thought was that it would be easier to pack food for lunch/dinner on the way to LA versus on the way back.

Our Thanksgiving trip went well but that was also the week that the Omicron variant was identified. I thought about it some more and decided I would feel more comfortable on a long train ride in a roomette that allowed more space between passengers. So, I went ahead and upgraded our tickets. Getting a roomette also had the advantage of letting us sleep if the train ended up behind schedule.

Day 1

The day before we were suppose to leave I installed the Amtrak app on my phone. The train we were taking is the 11 Coast Starlight that starts up in Seattle. I looked up our train status and realized that our train was already wildly behind schedule. On one hand, this was good as we could lounge in bed and take our time with the final packing. However, this also meant that we were estimated to arrive in LA slightly past midnight. When I woke up, I checked the status and it was even more behind schedule. I re-evaluated our packing scheme and packed pajamas in one of our carry-on bags.

Around 1:00pm we meandered down to the San Jose Diridon station (our train was initially scheduled to leave at 10:26am). We got there an hour prior to when it claimed the train would arrive so we could check our bag. It was very unclear what the parking situation was. The website said that the Amtrak ticket agent could give us a parking pass but at the same time, referred us to another website to reserve parking online. There was no online parking for the entire time we were going to be gone. So, our plan was to check at the Amtrak station and if there wasn’t parking, Jaeger would drop us off, park in airport parking, and take a Lyft to the train station. Fortunately, Amtrak did have parking for round-trip passengers. The San Jose station is functional but not very luxurious. It reminded me a lot of the Kelso Amtrak station. This is also a Caltrain station and the status boards only had Caltrain info on them, not info on our train. Our train’s status kept slipping later and later. Eventually, the train arrived and we boarded at around 4:00pm.

When we boarded the cabin steward showed us where our roomettes were located. Julian and I ended up in one roomette and Calvin and Jaeger in another. They were right next to each other, rather than across from each other, so it was easiest most of the journey to communicate via chat/text rather than popping over to the compartments.After we started our journey the cabin steward introduced herself and double checked if we needed anything. Shortly after that, a dining car attendant came by so we could reserve a dinner time. After that, we were mostly left to our own devices, aside from the occasional station announcements.

I was a little worried the roomette would be too cozy with two people. Most of the reviews I had seen online were for single travelers. However, I was pleasantly surprised. There certainly isn’t a lot of space but it was comfortably cozy for Julian and I. After closing the door and curtains it felt like we were in our own little world. Here’s a good overview of what the room looked like (around 6:20): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXlgd7vQm08. The seats are a good size but there isn’t a lot of space for carry-on. However, both my little red suitcase and Julian’s backpack fit under the seat. That left our old Rick Steve’s bag to awkwardly perch on the “stair” to the top bunk. However, it just contained Julian’s sleeping bag, my pillow, and our pajamas so it was nicely squishy. There was also a hanger for our coats as well as additional hooks for coats4.

Because of COVID-19, we were required to wear masks except when we were eating in the dining car or when we had the door closed in our roomette. So in practice, this meant we didn’t have to wear masks most of the time.

Prior to leaving, I had created a long checklist of relaxing things to do on the train. This included things like catch up on emails to friends (of which I am desperately behind), read books, organize my digital books, and journal (something I am also terrible at finding time to do). As far as I could tell, there wasn’t WiFi on the train. My phone’s internet connection was sporadic. Much of the time it worked fine but occasionally we went through areas with no service. Fortunately, there was an outlet (one per compartment) so I was able to hook up a USB charging station and hook in most of our electronics. In any case, I didn’t have as much time as I expected to get through my list because of how late the train left our station.

At 6:00pm we headed for dinner. My understanding is that usually passengers share tables with others. However, because of COVID-19 they currently only allow people on the same ticket to sit together. This greatly reduced the dining car capacity and presumably is why they weren’t allowing coach class the option of buying dinner (at $45/person!). They did end up with a couple of extra tables (probably because of other families like ours that took two compartments but only one table) and did give business class the option of buying dinner. The snack car was available for everyone. I did not bother checking it out as I had brought lots of snacks with us. They had white tablecloths on the table and real roses in vases on each table.

I was expecting something along the lines of airplane (economy class) food but was pleasantly surprised. We were able to pick our food from a menu. There weren’t a lot of vegetarian choices but enough. Vegans would have been out of luck. Unfortunately, Julian spent most of the dinner perilously close to melting down. I don’t think it was because he was hangry, I had been feeding him snacks just 10 min prior to eating, but he was definitely out of sorts for some reason. At one point he broke down it tears for reasons that were a complete mystery to me. My best guess was he was more tired than hungry.

We finished dinner around 7:00pm so it was theoretically time to start Julian’s regular bedtime routine. I got Julian changed to his pajamas and read Ottoline and the Yellow Cat. Then I pressed the attendant call button in hopes of getting the beds setup. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear back, my best guess was they weren’t expecting anyone to go to sleep so early and were taking a supper break. However, Julian noticed that the tray had instructions for how to setup the beds so we were able to do it ourselves. I did discover that once the beds were laid down, I could no longer access the luggage under the seat. I pulled out my red suitcase and put it in front of the door so I could grab various things like charging cables and books.

I decided to give Julian the bottom bunk to reduce the chance he would somehow manage to roll off. I belatedly realized I had miscalculated my reading material, leaning more toward physical books rather than eBooks. There is a reading light for the top bunk but it wasn’t great and Julian was still having trouble settling down so I eventually turned it off and read an eBook instead. I couldn’t sit up in the top bunk so was reading lying down and the rocking of the train was making me sleepy. I gave up around 9:30pm and settled down to sleep for the rest of the trip. While I was a little disappointed I hadn’t made much progress on my train to-do list, it was very fun to be sleeping in a train. There were regular station announcements so it wasn’t a fantastic sleep experience but I did still manage some high-quality dozing.

Our cabin attendant woke us up about 20 minutes prior to arriving in Los Angeles. In spite of the sporadic sleep, I felt pretty good and gathered up our stuff. We arrived right around 2:00am to pouring rain. Parts of the underground walkway to the station were flooded and we had to walk around large puddles. We got to the station too late to take the underground Metro to our hotel, our initial plan. Instead, Jaeger tried to summon a Lyft. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of Lyft cars designed to take four passengers so we had about a 20 minute wait. Union Station is a beautiful train station. Though, it was also immediately clear that Los Angeles has the same housing and homeless issues that every city I’ve lived in has (and I’m including smaller cities such as Boulder and Santa Cruz in this).

We exited our Lyft and I did a bag check to make sure we had gotten everything out of the car. It was at that point I realized I had left Julian’s backpack under his seat on the train. I hadn’t pulled it out when I converted the seats to a bed so it was hidden and I just didn’t think about it. However, it was now close to 3:00am so I decided to try to problem solve later.

We checked into the hotel without incident and then tried to go back to sleep. I had gotten enough sleep that my body wasn’t interested in going back to sleep right away but eventually I nodded off again.

First thing the next morning I filled out Amtrak’s online lost luggage form and later in the day we went back in-person to see if they’d found the backpack. They hadn’t but noted that the massive amounts of rain was making it hard to be as efficient as normal. I was afraid the backpack, and the things I had packed in it which included our iPad 2 were lost. However, I got a call on Friday that they had found it and everything was still in the backpack. This definitely falls into the “where we got lucky” part of the trip.

Overall, I really enjoyed this train ride. Though, I would have preferred more daylight hours. That said, being able to sleep on the train was a decent consolation prize for getting in so late.

  1. I envy the Canadians their Thanksgiving.
  2. After spending way too much time trying to figure out what version I should watch. I eventually followed thefandomentals.com’s recommendation and watched the 1974 edition. Good but Poirot was kind of weird.
  3. It’s not just concern over getting sick but also concern about being stuck in a tiny cabin quarantining for weeks.
  4. This ended up being particularly handy when I was in the top bunk as I used it to hang up my mask for easy access.

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