West Coast Business Travel on Amtrak

As I write this, I’m on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train about 3 hours outside Eugene, Oregon, on January 2nd, 2013. This is my first trip on Amtrak. So, what prompted me to travel via Amtrak?

  • The fact that I wanted to get to Oregon and return when it is convenient for me and not be restricted by twice-a-week travel schedule limitation offered by a low-cost airline.
  • Portland is a 3-4 drive during the rush hour from Eugene—not a great choice.
  • My one-way Amtrak ticket was $124. Couldn’t come close to that air fare.
  • A one-way plane ticket is generally more expensive than a round-trip ticket. I knew when I wanted to arrive but I am uncertain about when I will return. Not a good formula for flying unless you’re flying Southwest into and out of Portland.
  • The 550-mile drive is expensive and potentially problematic due to winter weather this time of year not to mention exhausting.
  • I think I’ll arrive more relaxed and ready for business by using Amtrak.

I traveled overnight and will arrive in Eugene before 1 pm. Amtrak picked me up in the shadow of the new San Francisco 49er’s stadium in Santa Clara, about a mile from my home, at 8 pm. I traveled to Oakland where I picked up the Amtrak Coast Starlight which goes all the way to Seattle. There are only eleven stops between Oakland and Eugene.

I booked a reserved coach seat which gives me the equivalent of most domestic airline’s business class seating—it is roomier. There’s a power outlet to charge my phone, computer, etc. I probably got 5.5 hours sleep after we left Sacramento, California at around 1 a.m. Not bad.

The scenery has been beautiful for the daylight portion of my trip. There’s no TSA security lines, the Amtrak staff has been pleasant, and I discovered ardent Amtrak fans who really like this mode of traveling the United States. This trip would have been more fun if my wife was with me.

Will I do this again? Yes.

And, so I did on the 8th of January–I am returning home on Amtrak. The train left at Eugene, Oregon, at 5 p.m. and will get me back to Santa Clara about 10 a.m. the next morning. It’s a bit of an adventure to travel via Amtrak but it’s the good kind of adventure. It’s nice meeting people and spending time with them. I don’t do this when traveling by air. And, I got some work done on the train.

Some surprises:

  • It was pretty amazing watching a big rig stuck at a railroad crossing for 15 minutes at 2:30 am in Chico, California. Imagine the driver’s bad luck to be heading somewhere in the middle of nowhere and stuck waiting for a passenger train to pull away from the station. I couldn’t see the driver’s face through the train’s tinted windows. I would have been pretty incredulous were I the driver. But, what was the driver going to do?
  • In vast open areas, there are homes less than one hundred feet from the railroad tracks. I’ve got to believe the impact of our 14-car Amtrak train hurling by is disruptive, especially in the middle of the night.
  • You can meet people and have real conversations with people on the train. The pace of life slows a bit. On the Coast Starlight, there are many hours where there is no cell phone service due to the extremely remote route the train takes. It’s okay to be off the grid for a while—it changes the frenetic pace we live and work at.
  • My seat mate was from San Francisco and takes Amtrak all the time. I learned a lot from him.
  • A table of 4 with 3 at it will be filled by a solo traveler like me. I had a delightful breakfast with a Santa Barbara-based attorney heading to Bend, Oregon, with his wife and a friend.
  • The train is quite comfortable.
  • The food ranges from pretty decent (I’d give it a 6 on a scale of 1-10) in the dining car to quite mediocre in the lounge car (I’d give it a 3). I couldn’t grab a burger at night in the dining car—they had only higher-end meals with a limited selection in the evening. I tried the lounge car and was pretty disappointed in the microwaved cheeseburger; it seemed like a 1970’s food-dispensing machine quality. I’d almost forgotten how bad that era was.
  • The lounge car was closed for an hour or so and, when it re-opened, they announced they were unable to take credit cards for about 20 minutes after the lounge car re-opened. That consumed what little cash I had on me for the trip which was inconvenient. I had already waited over an hour to grab food—I didn’t want to wait another 20 minutes at 9:15 pm at night.

I found the Amtrak employees try pretty hard to please given what they have to work with. If Amtrak could pick up their game a bit on the food side, it would enhance the experience.

Amtrak has done a pretty poor job explaining to the general public what they have to offer. If they would work harder to create desire and show they are a viable alternative to flying in many instances or simply can create an alternative great experience for their customers, they would attract many more riders. But, they really need to pick up their marketing game.

I’d love to talk to Amtrak about how to accomplish that. And, I do plan to use Amtrak more for future travel.

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting http://www.gardnerandassoc.com

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