Because The City of New Orleans. Folsom Prison Blues. The Wabash Cannonball. King of the Road. John Henry. I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. Every train song you have ever heard.
Because nobody sings songs about flying Spirit Airlines or Ryan Air.
Because our childhoods were filled with songs and stories about trains.
Because, in the 1986 movie: Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal astutely put it: “Every great romance or mystery has a train in it.”
Because Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” on up to “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”
And yet; many of us view train travel as an almost abstract, theoretical thing; the stuff of old movies, or, at least something that other people do. When I went off to college, I was stunned to learn that there were adults who never, in their lives had ridden on a train, and therefore never viewed it as a realistic method to get from point A to point B. I was amazed that there were entire states where taking a train anywhere was simply not an option (Wyoming, etc). That major cities such as Pheonix, Louisville and Columbus, Ohio, had no option to take the train. Indeed in Upstate New York, one could drive over a hundred miles and still be nowhere near a train station.
I was lucky. I grew up about a mile away from a fairly busy Amtrak route. My hometown had an Amtrak station. Since, for the better part of my childhood, I lived in a one-car household. If my dad needed to go away for a conference, he’d take the train and leave my mom the car. We’d see him off and pick him up from the silver train that would pull in and out of the station a mere two miles from my house. As a child, I’d lie in bed at night and sometimes hear the horn of the train on the tracks that ran by the river a mile away. To me, the train was always very, very real. Today, as an adult, my wife Mary and I use it to visit my family; taking the train to the station a couple of miles from the house I grew up in. We also use it to go to Boston, Washington DC or Albany.
When I mentioned that Mary and I were going to take the train (in a sleeper car) from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, many people were fascinated. Many of the responses were along the lines of , “Wow, I didn’t know you could even DO that.”
People had questions and wanted me to tell them all about it.
This is the type of sleeper car used in the Eastern US. The two levels of windows give each berth its own window.
So I am going to attempt to give all the important details, complete with words, pictures and videos. So:
A: WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?
(HINT: You will rarely save money, and almost never save time)
Most people who take the train long distance have a reason for doing so. A good portion are older people who simply don’t care to fly, but there are other reasons: areas where no airport is convenient, people on the no-fly list (I am not kidding), and people who prefer train travel, as well as any other reason you can think of.
The reasons to take the train, especially overnight in a sleeper car are rarely economic and almost never in the interest of time.
To take the train to Fort Lauderdale takes twenty-six hours. To fly there from New York takes a little over three hours. And while you might save money if you travel in coach, under most circumstances, you will not save any money if you opt for a sleeper car. I have heard of some people who have snapped up an amazing deal that undercut a plane ticket, but I have no idea how.
And while you could tough it out in coach overnight, in that the coach seats on the long distance trains recline and are pretty comfortable, the luxury of being able to sleep lying down, fully stretched and in a bed out cannot be overestimated.
Enter us, and our reason for taking the train overnight:
Most years, Mary and I go to visit her family just outside Fort Myers, FL, either on Christmas or early January. We typically fly right into Fort Myers, just a short drive from the house. However, this year Mary had ear surgery. In addition to many health restrictions following surgery, such as not being able to blow her nose, or lift anything over 20 pounds, she also couldn’t fly for a month. Rather than miss out on a visit with family, and deprive her mother of seeing her daughter, we looked into taking the train there. For me, it had always been a viable option, and something I genuinely wanted to try. Mary seemed game for it, too. So there you go.
B: YOU MAY CHECK YOUR BAGGAGE, FREE.
Checking the big red suitcase
That’s where Amtrak has one up on the airlines. Each passenger may check two bags at 50 pounds each into the baggage car. That’s 100 pounds, per passenger. In the sleeper, space is limited, so you should only bring one small suitcase and/or an overnight bag. Stow the rest in baggage. Since Mary was restricted from lifting anything over twenty pounds, the onus of carrying our bags was on me. The video below is me testing the bags:
(to get full screen, click on “vimeo”. You can do this for all the videos on here)
Rob testing bag’s weight
C: SLEEPER CAR ACOMMODATION IS CONSIDERED FIRST CLASS, AND HAS SEVERAL PERKS.
The first perk you will get is that if you are in a major city (New York, Boston, Washington DC, etc,) you will get to wait for your train in a first class lounge, called Club Acela. The ambience of New York’s Penn Station is not very pleasant, (see pic below) so the privilege of waiting for our train in Club Acela was welcome.
Penn Station in all its Grimy Glory
I wish I could say Club Acela was exquisite, but I’d be lying. There were comfortable armchairs, free coffee, soft drinks and dry snacks. Best of all, you could use the nice, clean Club Acela restroom, instead of the regular Penn Station restrooms which have historically been far from pristine. However, the lounge is dark, dank, poorly lit, the snacks are unoriginal (Rold Gold pretzels and Goldfish crackers) and the beverages are unimpressive. Moreover, it appears to have a rodent problem, as evidenced by the mouse trap in a corner.
Mouse trap in Club Acela
Club Acela Concierge desk
Club Acela Lounge
mouse trap in Club Acela, concierge desk, and Club Acela lounge
That said, in the lounge there is a secure place to put your bags, and a monitor screen that keeps you updated on the departures. About a half hour before a long-distance train is to depart, the sleeper car passengers are called to gather at the concierge desk, then led down to the platform to their sleeper car for early boarding.
D: IF YOU WANT THE “ORIENT EXPRESS” YOU WILL NOT FIND IT ON AMTRAK
There are overnight excursion trains owned by private companies for old rich people. They are tremendously expensive, and cater to those who simply want the experience of luxury train travel. They have an impressive wine collection, the accommodations are luxuriously appointed and the dining car is fully gourmet. It will be an artificial experience, in that is not about viable transportation, rather, about luxury. You will not find this on Amtrak. Amtrak has no such service.
Amtrak is transportation.
And while it is a comfortable, agreeable way to travel, it is not a luxury excursion train. Don’t expect it to be. The sleeper car is comfortable and clean. The attendants are attentive, courteous and committed to their jobs. The food is good. It is everything you need and much of what you want.
Mary in our roomette just before we pulled out of Penn Station
E: SOME INTERESTING INFO ABOUT THE TRAIN AND THE ROUTE:
The particular route we took was called the Silver Meteor, which runs between New York’s Penn Station and Miami. We went as far as Fort Lauderdale, which is two or three stops from the terminus at Miami. From New York to Fort Lauderdale, the scheduled time is twenty six hours and change. The train leaves Penn Station at 3:15 PM and begins with the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor: through Newark, New Brunswick, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington DC. It stops in Washington for a little while to switch from electric engines to diesel. The overhead electric catenary wire ends at DC. After DC, it goes through Richmond, VA and into North and South Carolina: Fayettville, NC, Charleston, SC, and into Georgia. Once in Georgia, the train goes through Savannah, Jessup and over the Florida border into Jacksonville, through Orlando, Winter Haven, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and to Miami.
The Silver Meteor Route
It’s late at night when the train enters North Carolina, so it is likely you’ll sleep through the Carolinas and much of Georgia. Assuming your sleep hours are like most people, and the train is close to schedule, you’ll probably wake up in Georgia, between Savannah and Jessup.
The consist of this train:
(consist refers to the combination and order of the locomotives and rolling stock that make up a train. It is determined right down to the particular car used, often months before the scheduled train, barring last-minute substitution of equipment. Pronounced CON-sist)
Two electric locomotives or two diesels, depending on which side of Washington DC.
One baggage car
Three sleeper cars
One dining car
One cafe car
Four or five coaches.
The coaches are the standard equipment one sees throughout the Northeast: the “tin can cars,” formally referred to as Amfleets and manufactured in the 70s-80s by Budd (now defunct). On overnight routes, they are designed with less seating to create more space to stretch out (59 seats vs the standard 72). The seats have a slightly greater recline, as well as leg rests for a little more comfort.
The cafe car is of similar “tin can appearance”, and features booth seating and a snack bar in the center, where one can buy sandwiches, small pizzas, snacks, alcoholic and soft beverages.
The Dining Car is the oldest car in the consist: about sixty years old, and is referred to as a “Heritage Car”. Heritage refers to any equipment that predates Amtrak as a company. More about that later.
All of the sleeper cars that route through the Northeast are known as Viewliner Cars. They have two levels of windows, so that each berth has its own window. They were conceived in the mid-late 1980s, but not put into service until the mid 1990s. Pictured below:
Viewliner Sleeper Car
A note about the equipment: When Amtrak established in the 1970s, they inherited equipment from different railroad companies. The equipment had to be modified for universal compatibility, as well as updated with Amtrak’s livery and interior design. This is known as Heritage equipment. Over the years as new equipment was made for Amtrak, the Heritage equipment has been phased out, in favor of this newer equipment. While well built, a common problem with the Heritage equipment was that the lavatories were of the “direct dump” style: That is, the toilets flushed directly onto the tracks below. While it is convenient to send waste away to “Not My Problem Land,” local and national environmental agencies understandably and rightfully viewed it as a sanitation problem. Retrofitting this older equipment with retention tanks was not cost effective so they were gradually replaced with more modern equipment. At this time, the only Heritage equipment you will see in an active consist are dining cars and a few baggage cars. However, recently Amtrak placed an order for new baggage cars, new dining cars and new sleepers. Amtrak has no money, and while some of the new baggage cars are now in service, it is anybody’s guess when we’ll see the new dining cars and sleepers. The dining car on our route had a very old-school, classic look, and it’ll be sad when they retire it. However, its days are numbered. Pictured below: interior and exterior.
Silver Meteor Heritage Dining Car, Interior
Silver Meteor Heritage Dining Car, Exterior
Shortly after we boarded, I made a video tour of our train, from the sleeper car on down to the coach. The tour is below:
Tour Part 1
Tour Part 2
F: SLEEPER CAR ROOMS ARE CALLED “ROOMETTES” FOR A REASON
And the emphasis is on “ette”. They’re tiny. It’s likely you have a walk-in closet bigger than a roomette. It’s likely you could fit two roomettes into your bathroom. The roomette is about 7×3.5 feet, and this does included the space the bed takes up. To that end, it is close quarters, so having a close relationship with the other person in the room is recommended (as in spouse, significant other, family member etc)
When you enter the sleeper car, you’ll walk down a corridor that is a couple of feet wide to your roomette. You’ll find two comfortable seats that face each other, a fold out table and two large picture windows: one on top of the other. There is an overhead light, as well as smaller reading lights above each seat and bunk. There are adjustable vents and temperature controls. There are two power outlets for your electronic items. There will also be a sink and a toilet, right there in the room. No, it is not behind a door, or even a curtain. It is literally right out there in the room. A cover makes the toilet somewhat discreet, and the sink folds out of the wall to save space. Most people don’t like an audience when they “go”, and most people don’t like to be the audience to such an event, so expect to take a walk every now and then. Especially for #2. While I appreciate the amenity of a toilet in each room, I personally feel this arrangement creates more problems than it solves, and would prefer walking down the corridor to a bathroom to this, even if I had to share it. Rumor has it that the new sleeper cars on order have the bathrooms down the hall and not in the roomette.
Mary in Viewliner room
Corridor outside bedrooms
The roomette has a sliding door with a window that looks out into the corridor, as well as a light blocking curtain, for privacy. I found that during the day, I preferred to keep the door, or at least the curtain open so the roomette wouldn’t be too claustrophobic. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to pack light for the sleeper car; there is not much space to put anything. Even the toilet paper roll for the in-room toilet doesn’t have a core tube, in the interests of space.
Here is a tour of our roomette. It is so small, I had to make much of the video outside the room in the corridor.
G: THE SLEEPER CARS EACH HAVE A SHOWER, AN ATTENDANT, AND ARE OFF-LIMITS TO COACH PASSENGERS.
Entering the sleeper car is like entering your own private little club. The car has an attendant, who introduces himself shortly after you board the train. He’ll show you the amenities of the room, take your dinner reservation and try to get a general idea of when you’d like the room changed over to the night configuration into beds.
The car itself has twelve roomettes, and two bedrooms, as well as a handicapped accessible room. If you want to fork over some considerable extra dough, you can have one of the two bedrooms. They’re bigger than the roomettes, and have a fully enclosed bathroom, complete with a shower. Expect to pay significantly more for them. At the end of the car there is a coffee and juice station, as well as a shower, for the roomette passengers.
This is the layout of the Viewliner Sleeper Car. The larger rooms are the bedrooms, the smaller rooms are the roomettes. We were in Roomette 4 on the way down, and in Roomette 3 on the way back
The sleeper car was designed with a smooth ride in mind, so taking a shower on a moving train is not hard at all. The shower stall is tiny, and there is a little dressing room with a small seat to dress/undress. There is plenty of hot water and water pressure, although it is on a timer: you press a button for about a minute or so of water, then you have to press it again.
The sleeper cars are off-limits to coach passengers, and at first it made me feel guilty for being so elitist and un-egalitarian. However, remember the corridors are narrow, so there isn’t a lot of space. Also, the roomettes do not lock from the outside; that is not a reflection on the character of coach passengers (Which I am 99% of the time), but the restriction meant we could leave our stuff in our room without worry. In addition; that shower: If I were a coach passenger, without such a restriction, I’d be wanting to use that shower the next morning, so it was nice that it was available to me as a hoity-toity sleeper car passenger!
H: THE SLEEPER CAR IS RELAXING, BUT BUNK BEDS AREN’T VERY ROMANTIC.
🎶To Niagara in a sleeper, there’s no honeymoon that’s cheaper, and the train goes slow….🎶
The only part that’s true about that statement is the part about the train going slow. Now, I know the song was written in more innocent times, but generally, mention of a honeymoon implies a certain activity.
I’m going to say it right here: Unless you are very small, an excellent contortionist, or desperate for a barely-conducive space, you will probably not be “getting it on” in a sleeper car roomette. If you did not know this and booked a roomette for your wedding night, you will be sorely disappointed.
You have bunk beds. You have a tiny space that does not allow much freedom of movement. Usually, after your train ride, you will have access to a much more conducive space somewhere else (like a king or queen size bed in a hotel).
Honestly, the weirdest part of the roomette was sleeping in a separate bed from my wife. I’m up there on the top bunk; she’s down there on the bottom bunk, and it’s strangely infantilizing: like we’re a pair of kids at camp. We’re used to a queen size bed, sleeping side by side; and neither of us are particularly small. Much as I would like to report the experience of sleeping in a roomette as romantic, this is what it is like:
I: YOU WILL EAT WELL, YOU WILL EAT A LOT, AND YOU WILL MEET NEW PEOPLE…….. WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT!
Silver Meteor Menu
As a sleeper car passenger, meals are included in your fare (although paying for alcohol is on you….as in: not included! They take cash or credit cards for that).
Take a look at that menu.
For a clearer look at the menu, click here
It’s not extensive, but does have a nice variety. I tried to vary my meal selections to try some different things, and everything was good. How good? Well, that is subjective, but it certainly was as good as any restaurant with similar menu prices, and therefore worth it (of course, our meals were included: those prices are for coach passengers). I would, however say, that if you have a lot of particular preferences and dietary restrictions, you might not find everything you need, but for more mainstream tastes, it would not be hard to find something you enjoy. I enjoyed every meal. Thoroughly.
The portions are not small, though, and before you have digested your previous meal, it will be time for the next one, but you WILL eat it and you WILL enjoy it especially since it is included in your fare! Best thing I can say is study the menu and plan your meals with foresight.
Another thing to remember is that you will not get a table to yourself in the dining car. In a traditional restaurant, if you are “flying solo”, they’ll seat you at a deuce, all by yourself. If you are a couple, they’ll seat you at a deuce. If you are a party of four, you get a four top.
In the dining car, all the tables are four tops, and dining cars have a limited amount of space.
Therefore, couples will sit side by side, and will be joined by another couple or single, across the table. Dining alone is not an option.
Eating your meal in stony silence or only in interaction with your companion is not an appropriate option on the train, so you will meet new people……. whether you like it or not! That’s the social expectation, and it is the rare environment you can meet people so organically and randomly. Best thing I can say is if you are a recluse, and don’t like interacting with people, don’t eat in the dining car. Having your meals brought to your room(ette) is an option. Just make sure you tip accordingly.
Mary & I had dinner the first night on the train. That’s my herb roasted chicken, right there. Comes with rice pilaf Because Mary had to ride facing forward, she was opposite me. She had the crab cakes. We got some Pinot Grigio with that (we had to pay for that)
Mary & I don’t have this problem. We are social and pretty friendly. Mary’s only stipulation is that she needed to be riding forward, on account of her ear surgery and tendency towards motion sickness. Everybody was happy to oblige. Our only hiccup was our first night on the train: being that our dining car was an older car, it rocked and bumped considerably. Poor Mary had to retire to the roomette early before dessert. Fortunately, they can give you dessert to go, which we had later in the evening.
Rob & Mary, Breakfast
Mary & Breakfast
What I had (refer to menu):
DINNER: The Herb Roasted Half Chicken
BREAKFAST (the next day): The Omelette. (The best deal. you can get fried potatoes or grits, a biscuit or croissant, and as a side you can get sausage or bacon)
LUNCH: The Angus Steak Burger (med rare, with swiss cheese)
On the way back:
BREAKFAST: The Omelette again, (exact same way as before)
LUNCH: Smokey BBQ Pork Shanks
DINNER: Amtrak Signature Steak, med rare.
BREAKFAST: Omelette (exact same way)
I forget what Mary had.
Lunch and dinner was with beer or wine.
Here is a video of breakfast:
Of course, outside of meal times, you can get something at the cafe car. You can also get beer, wine or booze there at any time if you feel like a drink. They take cash or credit cards, too.
And as an added bonus, I managed to get a video of the kitchen of the dining car (after they closed). Check out the space they have to work with.
J: MUSSOLINI DOES NOT RUN AMTRAK, SO DON’T EXPECT IT TO ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION ON TIME:
Actually, on our trip it was not too late. We were scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale at about 5:40 PM, and we arrived around 6:15. That’s pretty good, considering the distance covered: over a thousand miles. Moreover, south of Washingon DC, Amtrak does not own the track, and therefore has no right of way. They are at the mercy of the freight company that owns the tracks, both in maintenance and priority. That means that there are portions of track that only allow the train to go at a certain speed, and there is nothing Amtrak can do about it. Moreover, if there is a freight train anywhere in the vicinity, it gets priority over the Amtrak, always (because it owns the tracks). So the Amtrak train will have to wait until it clears. Much as it is fun to make jokes about the punctuality of the train (or lack thereof), there are a lot of factors that are beyond Amtrak’s control.
This is where your vote comes in to make passenger rail a priority.
This is not high speed rail, by any stretch. Here is a video clip I made in Central Florida that gauges the speed of the train. It’s actually moving at a decent speed, all things considered.
K: YOU WILL SEE A LOT OF THINGS YOU NORMALLY FLY OVER
If you cover any major distance, you will get to watch the transition of climate, landscape and architecture; those things you miss while flying. You’ll get to see the North dissolve into the South. You will get to see the more mundane sides of towns you pass through, giving it an authenticity. How many times, when asked about a certain place, you answer, “I’ve only seen the airport.”? On the train, you are present in all the places you travel through. And while sometimes it is not much to look at, just as often it is. At night, if I woke up briefly, I’d peek past the curtain of my window and get a look outside. It was very cool, even if it was dark and all we were passing through was a freight yard.
A strategically placed Sheriff car in Central Florida. Photo taken from the train
L: THE TRAIN DOES HAVE WIFI, BUT IT’S TERRIBLE.
Sorry, Amtrak does a lot of things well, but wifi is not one of them. Assuming you can even get connected (and a good portion of the time, you can’t even get that far), it is painfully slow. It is so slow, it is not functional. I gave up and used the cellular network on my iPhone. If wifi is absolutely essential to you, either get a hotspot device or set your smartphone as a hotspot. Of course you could always be unplugged for a little while and enjoy the ride. If you want lightning fast wifi on Amtrak, you are out of luck. Hopefully one day they will improve it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
M: YOU SHOULD TIP
Remember the dining car is a restaurant on rails. And like a restaurant anywhere in the US, unless clearly stated otherwise, tipping is the social expectation. Even though the meals are included in your sleeper car fare, look at the sticker price of the meal on the menu and tip your appropriate percentage based on that. It requires you to do the math.
If you purchase alcoholic beverages to go with your meal, you’ll be expected to pay for that. Since they do take credit cards, when it came time to settle up, I simply factored in the cost of the meal and tipped on that on the credit card slip.
You should also tip your sleeper car attendant. Remember, he is responsible for welcoming you aboard, taking your dinner reservation, and setting your room up for daytime and nighttime configuration. $10-20 per night, per room is appropriate. Those guys work hard; they have to attend to a total of fifteen rooms and their requisite passengers. The space is tight, they have to work around different people’s sleep schedule and sometimes deal with the occasional unsavory maintenance issue. Most train passengers are a courteous group. However, there will always be that one person who, were I in the attendant’s shoes, I would be inclined to throw out onto the tracks. Instead, he must have the patience of a saint. So tip your attendant.
N: WHAT IS MY TAKE-HOME FROM ALL THIS?
In this world of tight deadlines, minimizing down-time and a “speed above all” ethos that is prevalent these day, the judgment call on when to take such a trip can be a tricky science.
If your itinerary is extremely time sensitive, or you are short on time in general, you should probably wait to do this until you have a more time-generous itinerary. Remember, for the duration of the trip, your schedule will be at the mercy of Amtrak. If that scares you, this is not the time to take such a trip.
In our case, we were lucky enough to have time at our disposal: The trip each way was close to twenty seven hours. That’s fifty four hours, total, on the train. More than two days. For us it was two days well spent.
If you genuinely dislike train travel, you should probably not do this. It will be a lot of time in a situation you dislike. You will not forget for one minute of your trip that you are on a train. For us, that was a good thing, because we enjoyed it.
There were a lot of unsaid advantages besides the uniqueness of the experience: No liquid restrictions, indeed, no TSA. No invasive searches or humiliating pat-downs. Most stations are right in the city or town, and those that aren’t are close by and easy to get to. Onboard, there is the freedom to stand up, sit down and walk as often as one pleases. There is a relaxed, shopworn gentility to train travel that gives it its place as a classic mode of travel. Yet it is functional and viable enough to not be derided as a sacred cow, or relegated to history museums.
As the future of rail travel is often discussed, and new high speed rail projects are proposed, one thing is certain: This country is so vast that even with high speed rail, overnight train travel in a sleeper car is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s been around for well over one hundred years, so isn’t it nice that it is going to be here for a good long time?