(Okay, it was actually my second. But a two-hour sight-seeing circuit in the Black Hills when I was seven hardly counts.)
Our first train departed from Pittsburgh at midnight. We took a city bus downtown, and followed Google maps to the Amtrak station. Google made it look like the station was in this beautiful building:
I wish we'd taken one ourselves. This is from 2008 and doesn't do its scariness justice. At midnight, downtown Pittsburgh is nearly deserted. You'll notice there aren't any street lights in this picture. There were also no signs save for the logo on the roof there. Paint was peeling everywhere, and my husband compared the inside lobby to a poorly maintained prison waiting room.
On the bright side, security was a breeze! We took all of our Christmas presents for my family with us in an IKEA shopping bag. Many of the items were fragile, but they all made it to Omaha safe and sound.
On the train itself, we found our accommodations to be much friendlier. We got a sleeper car for the first leg of the trip. Here's the diagram from the Amtrak website:
|Night and day set-ups for a sleeper roomette. Source|
The thing I didn't think about is that the front of this image is a wall. That means that with the beds down and the door closed, the floor space was about two feet by six inches. Once I stopped giggling and my husband picked his jaw up off the floor-patch, we settled in nicely.
An attendant knocked on the door before the train started moving and explained that he and another attendant would help us with anything we needed. There was a button built into the wall to summon them (which I affectionately think of as the "panic" button). Next to that was climate control for our room. And there was an endless supply of free juice and coffee at the top of the stairs. Did I mention there were two floors!? There were totally two floors.
I took the top bunk and slept well enough. I woke up every time we stopped or hit an especially bumpy section of track, but I think it was better than a chair would've been. It was certainly better than taking a car! Not pictured above is the net made of seat-belts which hooked into the ceiling to keep me from rolling out of bed. I thought it was silly at first, but I ended up waking a few times to make sure it was still there.
The next morning, we took turns dressing and freshened up in one of the tiny bathrooms. They're like smaller airplane ones, but there are more than enough to go around. Then we headed to the dining car for breakfast. I was very happy to find that it looked just like the "Snow" song scene from "White Christmas"!
|"White Christmas" is a really fun old movie.|
You should watch it sometime if you haven't before.
I think the word they used for the seating style was "communal" which has such a profound ring to it. What it really meant was that we got to talk the ears off of some stranger from Virginia while we ate. The food was like good diner food, which I found impressive considering it was prepared on a moving train. The prices seemed reasonable too, but breakfast was included with our sleeper car.
The waitress was very nice. They had Scantron-style sheets for us to fill out with our orders, and she was patient about helping us figure them out. While we were eating, the attendant from the night before found us and told us he had tidied up our room! I think he would've put away the beds if we hadn't already done it ourselves. My deepest regret for the whole trip is that it wasn't until a full week later that I remembered we should have tipped the waitress* and the room attendant. Sorry Amtrak employees. We'll be better next time.
(*Correction: Shane tells me he did tip the waitress. Way to go, Hubby!)
|Me in the sleeper after breakfast|
After the first train arrived in Chicago, we had about five hours to kill. We rented a locker at the station and took to the streets. I'm a very worry-prone person, so I always have a binder full of maps and itineraries when we travel. Having good maps allowed us to wander without being lost!
|Beautiful! Quaint! The Chicago train station was a refreshing contrast to Pittsburgh's.|
I should mention that while the Chicago station was much prettier, it was also much larger and more crowded. The commuter trains go through here too, and we had to ford a river of morning rush travelers when we arrived. Later, we got lost twice trying to find our departure gate. They could probably do with a major make-over to improve traffic flow and seating space.
We visited the bean (cloud sculpture) in Millennium park. Shane thought the underside reflections looked like the inside of a tornado! We looked in vain for a local coffee shop, and settled for one of the half a dozen Dunkin Donuts instead. We enjoyed authentic Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, and got back to the station with time to spare!
For the second leg of our voyage we traveled in coach. I didn't take pictures of it, but it was like super comfy/roomy airplane seating. Seriously roomy. I could stretch my legs straight out in front of me and not hit the next seat! The daylight journey made me more acutely aware of the occasional bumpy patches. I was surprised by how the bumps weren't an up-and-down feeling but a side-to-side sway. Daylight also provided more views of the countryside.
|Views from the train|
Our seats had their own electrical outlets! We watched several movies on our netbook to pass the time. Dinner was concession snacks and breakfast bars as we didn't need much after that giant pizza. Concessions were a bit spendier than I'd like, but they also had individual-serving-sized bottles of wine, so I was happy. Here's one of my favorite pictures from the trip, taken just before nightfall:
|Rural Illinois at dusk.|
We arrived in Omaha twenty minutes early. The station there isn't much to talk about. It was dingy, and remote, but I feel like it was more honest about it than Pittsburgh was somehow. Anyway, we didn't stay long because my grandpa and sister were waiting to pick us up.
We took a plane home because the Amtrak lay-over in Chicago would've been less long, and we no longer had Christmas gifts to transport. We threw out all of our toiletries at Grandma and Grandpa's. At the airport, we passed through the new security scanners, slightly increasing our chances of getting cancer. It was faster, and way less bumpy. But the train was roomy, and friendly, and charming. I think the two vehicles are about even in my book. What I choose in the future will depend on the kind of trip I'm taking. But from now on, I'll always try to make time for the train.