Why you should ride Amtrak at least once

There’s still a certain romance about train travel and especially overnight rail journeys. Tonight, after his successful programmes in the UK and Europe featuring Bradshaw’s guide, Michael Portillo begins a new series and this time he’s heading Stateside. I’ve ridden a few Amtrak trains, mostly on short hops such as New York to Philadelphia, but last summer did a few longer legs, making the journey from New York to New Orleans with stops in Syracuse, Chicago and Champaign-Urbana. Here’s what I learnt.

Don’t rush

The biggest cause of complaint from my fellow passengers was the slow speed of the train.  Freight takes priority so it’s common to crawl along or sit for ages in a siding until a long line of containers rumbles past.  Go with it.  Don’t book any tight connections, pack a book or something to pass the time and make sure you have plenty of snacks and drinks in case the station café is closed.  Break your journey and savour your surroundings.


Chicago is a good choice for a stopover

It’s worth stopping off en route

I had some work to do on my book Hammond, Me which took me to Hammond NY (nearest station Syracuse), Hammond IL (nearest station Champaign-Urbana) and Hammond LA (which actually had its own station!) Of these, I really enjoyed Hammond LA which had a sleepy charm and a café selling the best iced lemonade I’ve found in a long time. Many people think that you can’t see America without a car, but that’s not true of everywhere. Do your homework (and check where the station is located) and you’ll find you can do a rail trip without needing to drive.

It’s worth paying for a bed

In terms of cost per hour, the price of overnight travel using Amtrak is more expensive than comparable journeys in Europe, especially if you book sleeper accommodation. Needing to take two overnight trains, I decided to break my journey in Chicago, opting for a seat on the first leg and the quaintly named Roomette on the second leg down to Louisiana. The overnight part with a seat from Syracuse to Chicago cost about £51 while the overnight Roomette from Champaign-Urbana to Hammond Louisiana cost £156.


The cosy Roomette: great for one, cramped for two

That’s steep. Are you sure it’s worth the upgrade?

For the extra money, I had a Roomette for single occupancy, whereas the reclining seat was in a full carriage. Travelling with a lockable wheelie, I wasn’t worried about the security aspects; in such a busy carriage, it would have been hard for a thief to operate. But many people, despite the late hour, were glued to smart phones or tablets and my allocated seat was next to a young man playing video games. Even with the sound off, the flicker and movement of the screen wasn’t conducive to a good night’s rest. I managed to move, but didn’t really arrive rested. In contrast, I had a solid seven hours’ sleep on the comfortable bed in my snug Roomette (think cupboard with a door) and enjoyed an included breakfast. Service was attentive and all in all it was a pleasant experience. But yes, it was expensive for what you got. For less than a third of that price, I travelled from Munich to Berlin in a luxury private compartment, en-suite toilet and shower and breakfast delivered to my room.


Make friends with the train staff

Any tips?

Befriend the onboard staff as they can help make your journey extra comfortable, supplying extra pillows, making your room up first and ensuring you get the meal sitting of your choice. Also, book early, as prices do go up considerably and sleeper compartments sell out. Make sure you’ve worked out how to get to the rail station as they aren’t always central as they are in Europe. Transport connections can be limited and you’ll either have to take a taxi or walk. But above all, do it. This is one American adventure that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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