At the end of November my mother-in-law and her travelling companion embarked on an Amtrak trip from Havre, Mt. to Tucson, Az. As I discussed her journey with her I was interested in her impressions of the trip and I’m writing this post as a recap of how they felt about long distance train travel.
I personally was excited for her adventure and I hoped that she would experience the same comfortable stress free ride that I have had in the past. With the snows she was experiencing in Montana it seemed to be the perfect way to make her way around to see family especially when it was a trip from central Montana to southern Arizona. However not all seemingly good ideas end up that way.
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight arrives into Vancouver, Wa. on time.
The trip didn’t start off so well. BNSF derailed a Z train at Kintyre, MT east of Havre throwing a big wrench into the start of her vacation. The good news was the eastbound version of the Empire Builder was already in Havre so all they had to do was run the power to the other end and suddenly the westbound Builder was in town! The other passengers on the westbound version were bussed from Wolf Point around the derailment and the train with my mother-in-law aboard ended up departing Havre around 9 hours late. Sadly Amtrak and BNSF did not turn the train so they rode backwards to Spokane.
9 hours late and getting later is not enough time for Amtrak to turn the Builder around at Portland and Seattle. Amtrak made the decision to put everyone on buses at Spokane and turn the train there. This did not please many folks including my mother-in-law’s travelling companion. He’s tall and doesn’t fit well in the cramped spaces of a motor coach. They did enjoy their complimentary Subway sandwich though the comment was made the food on the dining car was better.
Tired from not sleeping well on the train and from the stress of the previous day the travelers arrived in Vancouver the next afternoon. The one thing my mother-in-law said about the service disruption experience was that the station agent in Havre was wonderful. She went out of her way to ensure they were informed and she made got them to the station in a timely fashion so they would get a good seat on the train.
After resting for a few days their trip continued on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to Los Angeles. Departure from Vancouver was on time and arrival was on time into LA! Whew! The travelers overnighted in LA in preparation for the last leg on the Sunset Limited to Tucson. When collecting their bags at Tucson they realized that one bag was missing. Unfortunately my mother-in-law’s travelling companion had packed his CPAP machine in that bag (he was warned about checking vital luggage). Fortunately Amtrak knew where it was (somehow got off the Starlight in Eugene) but it would still be a couple of days before it arrived in Tucson thanks to the tri-weekly schedule of the Sunset. Again he was none too happy but the station agent in Tucson did bring it out to where there were staying right when it arrived.
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, with a very important passenger aboard, crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
The return trip would be pretty much non-stop from Tucson to Vancouver with 2 overnights on the train. Based on their comments to me sleeping on the train was not at all comfortable for either of them. They struggled to find a position which was restful and the constant goings on seemed to be quite distracting. It also didn’t help that on the Starlight one of the sliding end doors was not working correctly (have they worked right since the first Superliners were introduced?) so it would be stuck open for long periods of time until someone would close it. The result was they were very tired after two straight days of riding.
With one leg remaining from Vancouver to Havre the travelers were both quite done with riding the train. They had been excited about it beforehand but it didn’t seem to meet their expectations. The travelling was easy but not entirely restful thanks to the the inability to sleep well. The food was good and in fact the Thanksgiving meal they ate was quite good. They had few issues with other passengers though at times they felt like the clientele was entirely from another place (I would agree Montana and California are very different places). The attendants, conductors, and agents all seems to be a positive part of the trip. In the end though the positives were not likely enough to cause them to line up another Amtrak long distance trip.
The trip from Vancouver to Havre was uneventful and totally on time. Less than 24 hours from when they left Vancouver they arrived at their home. Sleep was the first thing on the agenda.