My lease was up in New Jersey at the end of September 2020, so I decided to move to Idaho to save on rent, take an extended break from work, and be closer to family during the COVID-19 pandemic. I drastically downsized by selling or getting rid of most of my furniture and possessions, shipped a few boxes of stuff I wanted to keep to Idaho, and then took Amtrak trains from Newark, NJ to Salt Lake City, UT. I could have flown, but I had the time to take the train, and I actually prefer it. I think it’s a much more relaxing and pleasant way to travel, and the scenery on many portions of the journey is excellent as well.
I decided to splurge on this trip and book a roomette. Due to COVID-19, I figured this was also a good way to socially distance as much as possible on the train—or at least more than what would be possible on a plane. I also got a good deal on the fare by redeeming Amtrak points. I had to buy some additional points in order to have enough, but I only spent about $500 on a fare that normally would be around $800.
My itinerary included 3 legs: Newark - Pittsburgh - Chicago - Salt Lake City. I boarded the first train in Newark Wednesday morning (30 Sep. 2020) bound for Pittsburgh. This leg of the journey was on a train that did not have sleeper cars, but I was in business class and it was very comfortable (with very few people in the car). We traveled on the Northeast Corridor to Philadelphia pulled by an electric locomotive that drew power from the overhead catenary lines. Once we arrived in Philadelphia, the electric locomotive was switched out for a diesel one to continue the journey west on non-electrified rail for the remainder of the journey. I got out and watched them couple up the new locomotive. The remainder of the 8 hour trip to Pittsburgh was uneventful. I worked on my laptop for a while, then fell asleep until we arrived.
After about a 4-hour layover in Pittsburgh, I boarded my next train to Chicago at midnight. This one had the Superliner cars with the sleeper and roomette accommodations. The bed was already made up for the overnight trip to Chicago when I boarded. In contrast to flying economy, it is so nice to be able to lie completely flat on an actual bed in your own compartment on the train. I slept until around 7am the next morning—about 2 hours away from Chicago.
A perk of being a sleeper car passenger, is that meals are included with your fare. I went to the dining car and grabbed a sausage and egg muffin for breakfast. While I was getting the food, the sleeping car attendant converted the lower bed into the daytime configuration of 2 seats. On this particular train, they weren’t doing an actual sit-down breakfast in the dining car (I think due to COVID-19 restrictions), so I took my food back to my roomette to eat. We arrived at Chicago Union Station at around 9am on Thursday (1 Oct. 2020).
Union Station is beautiful. I’ve always been awestruck by the grandeur of the architecture at these historic stations, and Union Station is a fine example. According to placards around the station, it has undergone extensive restoration work to preserve it, and a portion that was destroyed by fire in the 1980’s is currently being renovated.
Another perk of being a sleeper car passenger is that your fare gets you access to the lounges in various major Amtrak stations at no additional charge. The Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago is very nice, and the upper level has been designed featuring a modern take on the old Pennsylvania Railroad theme and styling, including a prominent PRR logo on the wall as part of the decor.
One service of the lounge I really appreciated was free luggage storage. This was especially useful for me on this trip, as I had quite a bit of carry-on luggage that I preferred not to check into the baggage car (such as 2 violins). Being able to stash it all at the lounge meant I was free to explore Chicago during the 5 hour layover instead of having to sit and watch it at the station the whole time, or drag it around the city. Free of the luggage, I set out to explore downtown Chicago—a city I’ve never been to before except for a few layovers at O’Hare or Midway.
I was pretty excited when I realized that Willis Tower (formerly called ‘Sears Tower’) was close to Union Station, so I took off walking towards it after stashing my luggage. This used to be the tallest building in the USA. I think it’s now the 3rd, having been surpassed by One World Trade Center and another newer building in New York City. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with this building ever since reading about it as a kid. I really like the design, and it was cool to see it up close in real life. Unfortunately, the observation deck wasn’t open on a Thursday morning, but the lobby was and it was still neat and impressive to see from the ground.
After visiting the Willis Tower, I noticed a very distinctive building while walking around and was instantly curious as to what it was. I headed over to it and learned that it is the Harold Washington Library Center—the Chicago Public Library’s main library. I was curious what a building this striking on the outside looked like on the inside. Luckily, it was open, so I wandered in (after a COVID-19 temperature check) to have a look around.
The interior was very nice and the lobby was ornate. I particularly liked the fountain near the escalators.
I ventured up the escalators and immediately noticed an installation overhead hanging from the ceiling of the next floor. It was thousands of military identification tags (aka ‘dog tags’)—58,307 of them in fact, each representing a US service member who died in Vietnam. Discovering this memorial was timely for me, as I had actually just been reading an article about the Tet Offensive on the train. It’s one thing to read a number like `58,000`, but quite another to see it visualized in such a poignant manner.
After exploring the library a bit more, I headed back out on the street and walked towards Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain. It wasn’t running since I’m guessing it has been shut off for the season, or perhaps maintenance, but it was still pretty cool to see. According to the internet, it is one of the largest fountains in the world.
By then, it was about time to start heading back to Union Station, but I made sure to leave enough time for lunch on the way. No trip to Chicago would be complete without sampling some Chicago Deep Dish Pizza! Boy, was it good!
At 2pm, I boarded the California Zephyr at Chicago Union Station bound for Salt Lake City, UT. Of course, that’s where I was planning to get off, but the train actually goes all the way Emeryville, CA (San Francisco area).
About The Train
The roomettes are compartments on the train with a door and privacy curtain. They contain 2 seats facing each other. At night, the seats fold down into a bed, and there is an additional bunk that folds down from the ceiling for a 2nd person to sleep on. The top bunk has a webbing made of large straps that hooks over the opening so that the occupant doesn’t accidentally roll out. I didn’t have to bother with the top bunk though, since I was traveling solo.
A sleeping car attendant makes the beds up for you when you’re ready to sleep, and stows them in the morning after you wake up. There are also larger (and more expensive) rooms that sleep 4 or 5 people and have their own sink and toilet. The smaller 2-person roomettes don’t have a sink or toilet, but there is one toilet on the upper deck of the Superliner car, and 4 more on the bottom level in addition to a dressing room with a shower.
Several people have asked me about the roomettes and for pictures, so I took some photos and videos of the train to share after we left Chicago.
Here are some videos I took showing different areas aboard the train, as well as some footage of the exterior
The California Zephyr also has coach seating, an observation car, a dining car, and a snack bar and lounge car. There’s also a luggage car for checked baggage.
Usually, the dining car would have wait staff, and you would be seated 4-to-a-table. In the past, this has been a fun way to meet new people when you sit with them for meals, not unlike a cruise. However, on this trip, due to COVID-19, the train capacity was limited, and the dining car was restricted to 1 person (or party) per table. Because the staffing on the train had been reduced as well, there was only one food service employee to manage the dining car and serve the food prepared by the cook.
The food was pretty good, but due to the reduced staffing, the normal ‘finer’ details like tablecloths, silverware, etc. were dispensed with and the dining service was very casual to say the least, with the food being served in the tin trays it was prepared in, and plastic utensils provided. The menu was also more limited than what it normally would be. I didn’t mind though - the entrees were still tasty, and again, the sleeper car passengers get 3 meals a day included with their fare. I had dinner Thursday night in the dining car, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner Friday.
The California Zephr is regarded as “one of the most beautiful train trips in all of North America” according to Amtrak’s site, and I’ve actually taken it twice before between Salt Lake City and Denver. I can attest that the scenery at least for that stretch doesn’t disappoint. Here are some photos I took through Colorado after we left Denver Friday morning (2 Oct. 2020).
The trip went very smooth, and we were actually running a little ahead of schedule for most of it. Then, about an hour away from Provo—the stop before Salt Lake City—I noticed that the locomotive was blowing its horn furiously as we approached a railroad crossing—more so than usual (they blow the horn at all crossings). This was followed by a very sudden stop. It wasn’t violent or anything, but it was definitely a much harder stop than usual, and it felt like the wheels locked up and we skidded the last few feet.
Afterwards, the conductor confirmed over the PA what I had suspected, and what I had seen through my window (albeit very poorly due to the dark). A large truck with a long load had tried to ‘beat’ us across the crossing and the train went into an ‘emergency’ brake application to prevent a collision. Luckily, we didn’t hit anything, and I saw the truck drive away. However, due to the hard stop, the crew had to get out and inspect the train to ensure it hadn’t sustained any damage.
While we were stopped at the crossing (with the gates down), vehicle traffic trying to turn onto the other road began to back up and started pulling unto the shoulder to wait. Luckily, everything was OK and we were back on our way after the inspection was completed about 20-30 mins later.
About an hour later, I arrived safely in Provo. I decided to get off there instead of Salt Lake since it was closer for my sister, who had offered to pick me up from the station.
It’s very fortunate that nothing happened, no one was injured, and that the train was able to avoid a collision by decelerating rapidly at that crossing. It’s also fortunate that an Amtrak train can probably stop in a shorter distance than a much longer freight train. Still, there’s no reason worth living for to try to beat any train through the crossing. It’s just not worth it.
↩︎ Shipping large boxes of household goods via UPS or FedEx is pricey, but it’s worth it to me not to have to rent and drive a moving truck on my own. It’s cheaper than doing that too, or hiring movers, especially for the small amount of stuff I had after downsizing.
↩︎ Airport layovers don’t really count as ‘visiting’ a city in my opinion.