Don't miss out! Join the thousands of people who subscribe to our once-daily email or our free miles and points Facebook group with all the best travel news. Some links on this page may pay me a commission - as always, thanks for your support if you use them
Yesterday’s post was all about the good parts of my recent Amtrak train trip. Now it’s time for the other (bad) side of things, and why I’ll probably never take another Amtrak trip (at least not quite like the one I just took)
1. Unacceptable train delays
Let’s just lead with the big one, shall we? I had done some research into Amtrak delays, and I knew that sometimes the trains were late, even sometimes by several hours. So on the outbound leg, even though our train was scheduled to get into Denver at 7:15 a.m., I didn’t plan anything until the afternoon – I figured that should cover any delays. OOOOOOH boy was I wrong on that one!
Let’s just break it down by legs – I had 4 legs on the train trip: 2 outbound and 2 inbound
Outbound: Toledo to Chicago
Our first trip went off without a problem. The only downside was that the westbound Capitol Limited train that we were scheduled on is scheduled to leave Toledo at 5:22 a.m., so we had to get up SUPER early (like 3:30 a.m.) in order to get ready, pack up, wake up the kids, get dressed, and drive from our hotel to Toledo’s Union Station. We got there a bit early, checked-in with no problems, and waited around for the train
The train was about 20 minutes late but we were on our way before 6 a.m.
Outbound: Chicago to Denver
We had about a 4 hour layover in Chicago before our California Zephyr train was scheduled to depart at 3PM Central time. Because we had a sleeper car and that is considered “premium travel” on Amtrak, we were able to spend the time in the Union Station Chicago Metropolitan Lounge. It had free snacks (which were just Frito-Lay potato chips) and drinks as well as marginal free-wifi, but more importantly, it had seats that we could sit down and wait in.
Our outbound train left on time, and was only slightly late through the rest of the afternoon and evening but then….
Some time in the middle of the night, there was a freight train derailment ahead of us (west of Omaha)
From what I understand, the derailment was not major and I don’t even think there were any injuries, but it DID clog up the tracks and we were forced to take an alternate route.
Now keep in mind that I only found this information out in bits and pieces as nobody seemed to really know anything, and the information that you did get (either online from somebody connected, or your sleeping car attendant, or the conductors over the PA) would generally conflict.
But in the middle of the night, we basically sat in Omaha for hours, and all passengers that were scheduled to get off the train any place between Omaha and Denver were woken up and forced off the train, in order to take a bus to meet up with the train. Meanwhile, those of us going to Denver and beyond were rerouted on separate tracks.
We were rerouted north of our original route, through Fremont and Grand Island, and then paralleling I-80 into Cheyenne, Wyoming before turning south into Denver.
Our original 7:15 a.m. arrival kept getting later… and later… At some point in the middle of Nebraska, our original conductors had reached their service limits of 12 hours driving the train, so we had to stop on the middle of the tracks to wait for a new crew to be railed in. They showed up on a pickup truck that looked like this (with regular wheels as well as wheels to go on the rails)
I was working the phones in the meantime. I had plans to pick up a rental car in Denver, and then an appointment in Colorado Springs that afternoon before staying at the Hyatt House in Colorado Springs. As time marched on, it first was apparent that I was not going to make my appointment in Colorado Springs, so I rescheduled that for Friday morning, even though that was going to put a major delay into the rest of our vacation.
Then I started getting worried about the rental car. We had used Autoslash to save a ton on our rental car, to the point where the agent mentioned that I got “a great deal on [your] car – I’ve been renting these for $100 / DAY!“. But the problem was that the downtown Avis office that we had rented from closed at 6:30 p.m., while we were still wandering through Wyoming. I had actually booked TWO separate reservations (another one at Enterprise), but when I called Enterprise they pulled the old “sorry we don’t have any cars left” move.
The lady at Avis was SUPER helpful as I called her. Luckily for us, my brothers-in-law live in Denver, and the lady at Avis let them pick up our cars for us. A silver lining was that because we didn’t get our car until the evening, it cut a day off the rental period, saving us about $45.
In the end, we arrived about 8:30 p.m., had to wait around to get our bags, make the drive to Colorado Springs, and ended up getting everyone set down to bed close to midnight (2pm “our” time).
Inbound: Denver to Chicago
But wait! there’s more!
After a great trip, we returned back to Denver and dropped off our rental car around 6pm and made our way to Denver’s Union Station
(PS – why aren’t you following me on Instagram?!?!)
Our 7:10 p.m. scheduled departure was already slipping, and we watched the train board as our estimated departure went from 8:45, to 9:05, to 9:30, until we finally boarded and departed at 10:39 p.m.
Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that a 7:10 departure means that we get dinner on the train, while a 10:39 p.m. departure means we get bupkus 🙁
Inbound: Chicago to Toledo
Our train from Denver to Chicago was scheduled to get in at 3:50 p.m., plenty of time to make our 6:30 connection to the eastbound Capitol Limited from Chicago to Toledo. But as the train moved along, so did our estimated arrival time into Chicago, to the point where I became very concerned that we’d miss our layover.
Again, nobody from Amtrak on the train had anything to say. Our sleeping car attendant said they’d definitely hold our connecting train, while the conductor said that they might hold it 5 minutes, but if we were 10 minutes late they wouldn’t. Amtrak customer service also had no definitive answers.
Our options if we missed the connection were to put us on the Lakeshore Limited (leaving at 9:30pm and getting into Toledo at (GASP!) 3:30 a.m.), or possibly even having to wait till the next day’s train! To top that off, if we got on a different train, we wouldn’t be able to keep our sleeper cars, and instead would get 8 coach seats for a middle of the night ride!
In the end, our train did get in at 6:35, and they did hold the train, though we were racing through Chicago’s Union Station, Amazing Race style!
But all that racing meant that we were among the last ones on the new train, and all the early dinner reservations were taken, meaning 6 starving kids had to wait till 9pm to eat. But wait, you say! Surely the train into Chicago being late past dinner time (Amtrak starts dinner at 5pm) meant that we got dinner on our Chicago train? Oooh suerie that is incorrect. When I asked about dinner reservations I was informed (somewhat rudely IMO) that the California Zephyr does not serve dinner inbound to Chicago. In hindsight I do understand the logic but at the time it was quite frustrating.
2. It’s kind of dirty
Okay then – moving away from the real reasons, I would also like to point out that the cars and especially the bathrooms are a little dirty. Think airplane bathroom, but instead of a 4-5 hour flight, it’s a 30 hour train trip.
And the “first class” bathrooms, which are what the sleeper cars are supposedly are not much better, and not at all comparable to first class airplane bathrooms.
This wasn’t a huge deal for me, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
3. Amtrak can be difficult to sleep on, even in a bed
We were in the “family bedroom”, which has 2 sets of bunk beds. I slept in the larger bottom bunk, and I slept okay. I won’t say it was a GREAT night of sleep, but it was manageable. Other members of my family were not so lucky.
- My wife said she woke up constantly – every toss and turn of the train seemed to wake her with fears that this was going to be “the one” that caused us to derail and everyone die.
- My daugher, on the smaller top bunk, refused to sleep in her bed and crawled into bed with her mom (perhaps contributing to #1!)
- My son, on the larger top bunk, was constantly worried that he was going to fall out of the bed (Even with the safety harness)
I will admit that the last 2 reasons are a bit nitpicky and the cleanliness and sleeping wouldn’t stop me from taking another train trip in and of themselves, but the unknown delays are really a dealbreaker. In this day and age, delays like this are just not acceptable for anything but a novelty.
Especially with kids, it’s just really a nonstarter. I think the only way I’d consider taking another Amtrak train would be some combination of
- No kids
- A train with no connections (like direct Chicago to Seattle)
- A LOT more care paid to contingencies and the possibilities of being late (and I thought I DID do that!)
Which is a shame, because the IDEA of train travel is so cool! Nearly everyone I have talked to about it is excited to hear about my trip, or wants to take a trip themselves, or both!