Why take a 17+-hour (one-way) train trip from Chicago to Washington, DC, when you can fly there in less than 2 hours?
That was the question that some people asked when I told them that myself, my wife, and my 8-year-old son (as well as our good friends, Greg and Nancy, and their children) planned to make this trip. Why? For many reasons, including:
- Because my son loves trains and wanted to take a long trip by train
- For the opportunity to enjoy a trip with friends (and have some built-in entertainment for our kids)
- For the opportunity to travel like Americans did in the past before jet travel; some of our trip even followed a railroad route established in 1827
- To avoid the dehumanizing aspects of modern aviation (although riding on Amtrak is not always a day in the park)
- Because we’d never done it before and it sounded like an adventure.
So, that’s what we did—booked passage on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.
I was excited about the trip—despite hearing a vast range of opinions about the pros and cons of traveling by railroad. We heard it all: “Amtrak is always late.” The food is terrible.” “The food is surprisingly good.” “It’s boring!” “It’s exciting.” “Worst trip of my life.” “Best trip of my life.” We decided to find out for ourselves the true train facts by experiencing an Amtrak journey. On the weekend before Easter, we took the Metra from our home on Chicago’s northwest side to near Union Station in downtown Chicago to embark for Washington, DC.
We met our friends in Amtrak’s recently remodeled Metropolitan Club and waited for our boarding call. We enjoyed our drinks, the kids raided the upstairs candy bar (jamming clear plastic cups with high-end Amtrak candy), and the excitement grew. Finally, we were told to board, and the journey began.
Because we’d booked rooms, we were directed past the long lines for coach boarding and sent down to the end of the platform. Soon we headed up the stairs into the sleeper car, walked up the narrow winding stairwell (NFL offensive lineman and sumo wrestlers might want to steer clear of Amtrak), and were directed to our room.
We rolled out of Chicago’s pretty skyscraper-filled downtown at around 6:50 PM, passing Chinatown, Comiskey Park (as lifelong Chicagoans still call the park where the White Sox play), and then several South Side neighborhoods. Soon, we were traveling along Lake Michigan heading south.
Growing up in Chicago, one already knows that its southern lakeshore is loaded with heavy industry, but until you see it up close you do not realize that one of the 9 circles of hell exists on the shores of our beautiful lake. Who knows what type of life-shortening toxins are being emitted from all these processing plants. (Well, environmental scientists do; US Steel and BP are some of the biggest offenders). I kept thinking, what would the south end of our lake look like today if the robber barons of the 1800s had not decided to use it as a manufacturing mecca and industrial dumping ground? On the other hand, would Chicago have become a major city without these things? We’ll never know.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, heavy industry gave way to wetlands, dunes, and still-bare trees. It was cool to glimpse the once-massive Chicago skyline reduced to a line of distant, jagged “mountains” from the window of our train car. Night fell as we rolled and rocked down the tracks.
Amtrak Sleeping Accommodations
As we sat in our room and waited for dinner, we took the opportunity to get a closer look at our accommodations. You can travel on Amtrak at many price points. In coach seating, you will basically sit (with the occasional trip to the snack and observation cars) in a standard seat for the duration of your trip—whether it’s for 3 or 33 hours. You can also choose to reserve a bedroom or roomette that features a small amount of living space, beds, and, most importantly, privacy. Having spent 15 hours jammed into a tiny seat (with kicking kids behind us included in the price of airfare) on a flight from Chicago to Jordan a few years ago, we selected the latter options. Click here for more on seating, which includes business and first class options.
On the way to Washington, DC, we stayed in a bedroom. It had a bench seat (that the car attendant converted to a bed at bedtime), single-user chair, a tiny sink, a combined bathroom/shower, and a big picture window. The room was just big enough to be comfortable before the seating was converted to beds. But don’t get me wrong, Amtrak bedrooms should never be compared to those at the Ritz. They measure 6’6” x 7’6”. But our room worked fine for us. Because there were three of us, we were actually assigned two rooms, but the boys commandeered the other one for a clubhouse. We were okay with that. Anything to keep them occupied on the long trip.
On the way back to Chicago, we stayed in a roomette, which has two comfortable seats (that convert into two beds). There was no sink, bathroom, or shower. We missed those amenities, but they were an easy walk down the narrow hall. The roomette’s dimensions were 3’6’ X 6’6, so it was especially tight after the chairs were converted to beds. Once the beds are set up, you have about 10 inches between bed edges and the door. Not much room to change clothes, retrieve items from your luggage, or otherwise move in the roomette. I actually filled a bag with my cellphone, water, and other important items so I wouldn’t have to try to search for things in the dark room during the night. Up top, there is also netting that you can use to hold these valuables.
Both rooms had electrical outlets, a fold-down table, reading lights, climate controls, fresh towels and bed linens, a car attendant call button, and bottles of water. Meals and soft drinks were included with the cost of rooms and roomettes. The rooms only lock from the inside, so you’ll need to take valuables with you when you leave your room. Note: There was little or no Wi-Fi for most of our route, but other Amtrak lines have Wi-Fi. Click here for more info on sleeping accommodations.
Dinner was served about an hour or so after we departed Chicago. The dining process was different traveling to and coming back from Washington. On the way out, we were told to come to the dining car and stand in line in the aisle as we waited to make our food and drink selections at the counter. Young and old, tipsy and not tipsy, hung on for dear life as the train rocked and rolled as they ordered, waited to order, or waited for their food and drinks, which are handed to you in a green canvas bag that you might use to bring your groceries home from Jewel. For people just getting their “train legs,” this was challenging, but other than flailing around and looking silly when the train lurched or hit a bump, we survived.
On the way back to Chicago, civilization and decorum reigned—at least to some extent. Soon after boarding, our excellent car attendant, William Bennett, met us in our roomette and explained the dining process, took our food and drink orders, and asked us when we would like to eat—5:30 PM for us. At 5:30, we walked into the dining car, picked up our already-prepared dinner and drinks, and headed to a table to sit with our friends. Easy-peasy.
Because we’d booked a room, our food and nonalcoholic drinks were free. Actually, the first alcoholic drink was free, too. Thank you, Amtrak. Beer prices—$6.50 (Bud Light) to $8.50 (Stone IPA and New Belgium Fat Tire)—were better than those sold at a Nationals game ($12.50-$15.50) we attended later in the week, but not as low as specials at our neighborhood pub. Money-saving tip: You can bring your own alcohol, soft drinks, and food to consume in your room, but you can’t take alcohol brought from home into public areas of the train.
How was the food? It was better than what you can find at a ballpark, as good as some meals that I’ve enjoyed at home, but, of course, not on the Michelin-star level. But that’s not the goal of an Amtrak meal. On our trip, there were four main course selections (Chicken Penne Alfredo, Beef Provencal, Asian Noodle Bowl, Antipasto Plate), and a wide array of alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, coffee, and water. I liked the Beef Provencal and Antipasto Plate. The Asian Noodle Bowl was just okay. As the only vegetarian option, the noodle bowl went quickly, so be sure to ask your car attendant early to save a meal for you if you’re a vegetarian.
Lounge Car Conversations and a Kids “Clubhouse”
After dinner, we hung out in the lounge car as the train sped east through the night. Eventually, our wives and kids headed back to their cabins (the boys hung out in their second bedroom “playhouse,” and we decided to let them have a sleepover). It was up to Greg and me to sort out the problems of the world. There’s nothing like having a good friend whom you can talk to about anything (from Thomas Merton and our favorite beers, to the history of the areas we were passing through, to the organization of the Japanese rail system…he’s a transportation expert), or be comfortable with each other so as not to have to say anything. This is also true of our friend, Nancy. Traveling with friends certainly made this trip much more fun and relaxing.
Greg and I lingered in the lounge car over several Stone IPAs, Fat Tires, and maybe a Stella Artois, and the train began making it’s first stops:
South Bend, Indiana: 9:09 PM
Elkhart, Indiana: 9:29 PM
Waterloo, Indiana: 10:23 PM
As we talked, we’d catch glimpses of small towns, and then blackness, until the next little hamlet appeared in the window. During both day and night, it was great to catch a glimpse of so many towns, most which you’d never see from the interstate.
We talked and enjoyed each other’s company until we arrived in Toledo, Ohio, at 11:39 PM, and then we decided to head to bed.
Sleep…Well, Sort Of
I slept on the top bunk, and my wife took the ground-level bed. I’d be lying if I told you that it was easy to fall asleep or that I had a restful night. Sleeping on the top bunk is a test of flexibility, one’s ability to scale a foot-wide ladder on a fast-moving, wobbling train, and one’s comfort with claustrophobia. There are only 10 or so inches above you as you sleep. There’s also a harness that’s available to catch you should you roll off the top bunk, which is about 6 feet off the ground. I couldn’t decide if that made me feel better or freaked me out regarding the possibilities of a 6-foot face plant in the middle of the night.
On the top bunk, I felt every bounce and sway of the train. The train’s horn blasted intermittently throughout the night, and I heard something that sounded like ice pellets hitting the side of the train much of the time. In the end, I decided that sleeping on the top bunk was akin to flying inside a wobbly missile launched by a tinpot dictator.
I eventually fall asleep, but never deeply—stirring as the train made stops in Sandusky (12:40 AM), Elyria (1:15 AM), Cleveland (1:45 AM), and Alliance, Ohio (3:05), and Pittsburgh (5:05 AM) and Connellsville, Pennsylvania (6:59 AM). The only REM I received was “really excessive movement.” Of course, other people may sleep fitfully on the top bunk, but not me.
Note: I had the same trouble sleeping on the way back to Chicago, so I headed to the dining car and watched the nighttime sights—the moon out the train window, hundreds of orange lights that looked like little orange campfires in the darkness, the occasional American flag waving above a town square, and then sleepy Cleveland. I was alone in the dining car, and the space, solitude, and scenes of nighttime America mostly made up for my trouble sleeping.
Hello, Hills and Mountains…and Spring
When I finally woke for good, we’d left the flat farm fields of the Midwest. I looked out the window of our room to see rugged stone cliffs and hills. For some reason, it was a very satisfying feeling—as if we’d really accomplished something as we slept.
For much of the rest of the trip, the train followed the paths of creeks and rivers. At times, the scenery was breathtaking as we journeyed along the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the Monongahela River, and later the Potomac. Boy, our country is beautiful. We saw the occasional waterfall, as well as fly fisherman, boaters, and hikers enjoying the rivers and nearby trails. We saw cows, wild turkeys, sheep, horses, and the occasional migratory birds. We traveled up and down hills, alongside farm fields and forests, through train yards, and occasionally crossed interstates and country roads. We saw poverty and some plenty. We passed what seemed like pristine wilderness, and occasionally ravines loaded with tires, entire cars, and other garbage, as well as forests that had been clear cut. We rolled through countless towns—from sleepy villages with one-block main streets and lots of American flags, a 9/11 memorial or two, and church spires, to larger historic towns such as Cumberland, Maryland (9:20 AM). Around the Cumberland station and further east, our train traveled on the historic B&O Railroad line, which was chartered in 1827.
The other cool thing: as we headed east and eventually southeast, the trees became heavy with early spring leaves, the fields became as green as the Wrigley Field outfield grass in high summer, and we caught glimpses of tulips, daffodils, and irises in town squares and in people’s backyards. The train had become a sort of nature time machine-taking us from mid-April in Chicago to mid-May in just 12 hours of travel.
Breakfast and Morning Travel
If you reserve a room, you receive a free continental breakfast (cereal, bananas, snack bars, yogurt, breakfast sandwiches, orange juice, coffee, etc.) in the lounge car. We all hung out a bit for breakfast. It was nice to be outside our rooms and have a little more space to spread out.
After breakfast, we checked out the glass-walled observation car, where any passenger can sit to watch the scenery. Everyone raves about this car. It was fine, but a little “busy” and loud for my taste. A guy playing U2 very loud next to me prompted me to move back to the lounge car, and a couple loudly discussing politics prompted others in our group to move along about 10 minutes later. I think I would have loved this car if I was heading west toward the Rockies.
It was much more relaxing to sit in the lounge car. The views were just as good as those available in the observation car, the tables allowed you to spread out, and there were far fewer people, although a lady next to Greg and me spent an hour talking very loudly about her intentions to schedule various elective body improvement procedures once she returned home. She and her friend seemed to be enjoying their free Amtrak drink times three or four.
Greg and I hung out and occasionally chatted as we watched the scenery. We played a fun phone game with his daughter. Nancy sat with us for a bit. The kids wandered in and out of the cars, often stopping to talk to us, or to load up on pop, water, or brownies, as they enjoyed their time together. We gave the kids a lot of freedom on the trip. As long as the boys stayed together, they could have their own adventures. It was great to see them act responsibly and grow a bit as young men.
During the trip, our group (or various members of it) sat together often, sometimes went our separate ways, and met again later in different spots on the train. I liked the unpredictability of this aspect of our trip. A train trip is kind of like channel surfing: every few minutes the scenery changes, people come and go through the cars, you have the occasional interaction with your sleeper car or dining car attendant, and you hear bits and pieces of interesting conversations from your fellow travelers.
We reached Martinsburg, West Virginia (11:01 AM), then Harper’s Ferry (11:31 AM), which provides access to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. By the time we pulled into Rockville, Maryland, at 12:16 PM, we were only about 45 minutes from Washington, DC. Our thoughts transitioned from beautiful train views and the idiosyncrasies of Amtrak travel to plans to visit the National Mall, museums, the Capitol, and the White House, as well as being reunited with our respective DC family members.
About 17.5 hours after we’d left 54 degree Chicago, we arrived in humid, 77 degree Washington, DC, which was green enough to make Kermit the Frog jealous.
We’d made it, and it was a great trip overall! Soon, we’d left the comfort of the train, said goodbye to our friends, and began the walk into busy Union Station in Washington, DC, to retrieve our luggage and catch a cab to my sister-in-law’s condo. After we picked up our luggage, our family went from first-time train travelers who’d just completed an exciting journey across 7 states to simply another pack of eager tourists eager to see the sights in our nation’s capital.
Would I do it again? That’s the most-frequent question I’ve been asked since our return to Chicago. The answer is an enthusiastic yes…if I was booked in a room or roomette, if I was traveling for no more than 24 hours at a time (unless I was disembarking for a day or so in several towns on a longer journey), and if I did not have to sleep in the tinpot dictator, upper-bunk missile.
The pros of an Amtrak trip easily outweighed the cons.
- Spending time with my wife, our friends, and our kids
- Closing my eyes in the flat Midwest and waking up in hilly Pennsylvania
- Letting time slow down and getting the chance to watch the world go by outside the windows, read a book, talk to friends, or simply relax
- Occasionally being off the grid when our Wi-Fi wasn’t working
- Meeting other travelers and having short talks with the train crew; I met an interesting man who had just retired from being a pediatrician and serving in the Navy (in a 20-minute conversation, we discussed everything from his time serving in Vietnam, to the U,S.’ “forever war” post 9/11, to his love of Amtrak (he was traveling all the way to Oregon…what a trip!); talked with the great “heading to Washington, DC” dining car attendant about his favorite travel spots in the Caribbean; and discussed Chicago hot dogs and Mag Mile shopping with our return trip dining car attendant
- Watching the scenery change every few miles
- Seeing the train pins that our boys received from the Amtrak crew that they can keep to commemorate their trip
- Traveling along rivers and creeks for many long stretches of the trip
- Waking up on the return trip to see Pittsburgh (including two of its sports stadiums), and then seeing Cleveland
- Sitting in the food car at 3 AM and feeling like I was the only person on the train
- Letting go and not having to drive or worry about all the aspects of modern air travel
- Sleeping on the train
- The 3.5 hour delay on the return trip
- Some of the bumps and swaying (but these were not deal breakers)
Here are some tips to keep in mind when you plan and take an Amtrak trip:
- Take advantage of Amtrak’s station lounges before your departure or as you make connections to another leg of your journey. If you book a room or roomette, or meet other criteria, you automatically receive access to the lounge. If don’t already have access, buy a day pass for $25 to get full access to all the lounge amenities, which include free coffee, water, soft drinks, and snacks; Wi-Fi and power for your devices; work areas; and a place to safely store your luggage should you have time to explore the city during a layover.
- If you’re taking an overnight trip, book a bedroom or a roomette.
- Bring a few beers or a bottle of wine to offset the cost of drinks in the bar/dining car. You can drink in your room, but you can’t take any alcohol brought from home into public areas.
- Bring ear plugs if you are especially sensitive to noise.
- Bring a light jacket—even if you’re traveling in the summer; the dining and observation cars can be cold.
- Buy motion-sickness prevention bands or pills in case you have trouble with travel-induced nausea.
- Don’t stay in a bubble—you’ll find that people like to chat, and you can meet some very interesting characters.
- Get to know your car attendant and dining car staff; I had some great conversations with these people, which made the down times go much faster.
- Tip your car attendant ($20/night) and food staff.
- Travel with friends or extended family, if possible.
- Some trains allow you to bring your bikes.
- Be flexible; Amtrak trains can run late, lunch or dinner selections may be unavailable, or other problems may arise.
- Check out this Amtrak article on train photography and other sites for tips on taking quality photos during your Amtrak journey.
- Read the Amtrak blog to learn a lot more about travel by train.
- Amtrak staff ranged from great (our car attendant William on the way back from Washington, our dining attendants in both legs of the trip, and the Acela club greeters in Washington, DC) to occasionally indifferent. Be prepared for every type of service level, and savor the great people that work for Amtrak.
- Be ready for a possible challenging transition back to regular life. For the next day or so after we disembarked, it still felt like we were traveling on the train. Our sense of balance was a little off, and I could feel my body slightly swaying to adjust to the now-gone sensation of the train cars moving from side to side. The feeling gradually went away, but it was an odd sensation.
Copyright (photos/text) Andrew Morkes