The last time I travelled by rail in North America must’ve been when I was in Grade 4 and took a train with my entire class for 1-2 hours into the middle of nowhere…to stay at a Coast Salish Longhouse for three days. This year, I knew that I needed to be in Portland, Oregon for the World Domination Summit in July. The thought process then went something like this:
Since I was going to be on the west coast anyways, I figured I couldn’t go to Portland without tacking on a side trip to see friends and family in Vancouver.
If I’m going to be spending more than one weekend on the west coast, I’d love to visit San Francisco again (absolutely cannot get enough of this city…plus I reconnected with a cousin there late last year and was interested in meeting up with him after 15+ years).
How am I going to travel cheaply between all of these cities?
I don’t want to spend all of my vacation time for this trip…maybe I should take some unpaid leave?
Unpaid leave gives me 5 weeks off. Maybe I can fulfill a lifelong dream of taking the trans-Canadian rail through the Rockies!
And that is how I decided that aside from an initial flight from Ottawa to San Francisco – as there is no quicker way of coast-to-coast intercity travel than flying – I would be traveling by rail. No reliance on cars or the Greyhound (the smell inside the coach bus makes me sick). After three legs on the Coast Starlight and Amtrak Cascades trains, I have a few observations about rail travel:
The perceived “slowness” of rail travel is not wholly the truth. Yes, you must have the luxury of time to spend 18 hours on the Coast Starlight between San Francisco and Portland but the 4 hours from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada is really comparable to the total time it takes to take a flight between those two cities.
Airports tend to be placed outside of the city center while train stations remain in the heart of most cities (or at least in the older hearts of cities). For those traveling without cars or who are strict tourists in a city, it saves travel time (and associated costs) to and from an airport…not to mention any time spent waiting in line for security.
Speaking of lines for security, there isn’t one at the train station. You also don’t need to come over an hour early for your train. If you want to check baggage, you should plan to arrive an hour ahead of departure time but if you don’t have checked bags, just come half an hour before and you’ll be on the train before you know it!
By train, you’ll see landscapes that you won’t typically access by car. Farmland, industrial plants and factories, abandoned buildings, beautiful houses, bridges and bodies of water, fields, forests, mountains, and the backsides of towns.
There’s wifi access on most trains nowadays, with the exception of the Coast Starlight and one other Amtrak train. But that’s just a great excuse to sleep, read a book (remember what that is?), and enjoy the scenery.
The plane does not lull me to sleep. Especially when there’s turbulence. That is not lulling in any way and I’m not particularly fond of feeling like I’m on a roller coaster…in the air. The train, however, does lull me to sleep. Any time of the day. There’s much more foot space and chair space on the train than a plane (and yes, I sat in coach class, which is the lowest class), there are multiple washrooms available for your use, you can stroll between numerous cars or to the on board bistro.
Speaking of time, you start to lose any sense of time passing whilst on the train. Sure, the train stops several times at stations along the route and there’s a monitor in each car to tell you where along the route you currently are and how much time there is until the next station…but somehow, it still becomes quite hard to tell whether half an hour has passed or four hours. It’s fabulous.
“Stopovers” on the train (proper term is de-training) are ridiculously quick. Compared to airplane stopovers of at least half an hour, the train stops for as short as five minutes before you’re on your way again!
The boarding process for trains is also ridiculously quick compared to the tedious boarding process of an airplane. Not to mention the plane is so squishy!
The interior of the train does not smell like chemicals as a plane or many coach buses do. There is also no issue with pressurization or depressurization (no achy ears).
Rail travel is also not as cost-prohibitive as I had first had been expecting. It was $175.50 for the entire trek from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s one way. I did cost out travelling by Greyhound when I was researching travel costs and bus and train were pretty much on par. If you’re calculating cost with time as a measure, the entire rail trip took about 25 hours. You can further reduce costs by bringing snacks and meals on board yourself (but there is a cafe and sometimes a restaurant if you didn’t get a chance to pack anything).
The Amtrak portion of my trip is complete and I am absolutely satisfied with the rail experience that they provided. It was a bit uncomfortable sleeping on the Coast Starlight train (I boarded at 11pm in Emeryville, California, bound for Portland on an overnight train) but you had far more space than you would’ve on a plane (unless you can manage Executive class, which I can’t) so can’t really complain. Oh yes, the train also provides pillows on the Coast Starlight! And they’re better than the cheap ones that you have to buy aboard planes nowadays.
Otherwise, it was a great experience. Obviously there are pros and cons with traveling by train, just as with any other mode of transport, but I hope that more people consider rail as a valid travel mode. More relaxing and beautiful scenery.