Penn Station isn’t the nicest place on earth, but it didn’t take long to find the baggage drop off and the haven of the nearby Club Acela Lounge, which is open to sleeper passengers. The staff here seemed friendly but stretched. One really nice touch here is that an Amtrak agent escorts you from the lounge down to the right track ahead of it being announced in the station, so that you are first on the train and avoid the stampede of coach passengers.
The Lakeshore has to navigate through some old tunnels under the Hudson River, and for this reason and some complex health and safety rules, the double-decker Superliner isn’t used on this route. Instead, the train is made up of regular coaches, a dining car, and a couple of single-deck Viewliner sleepers. It’s maybe only six coaches long here in NYC, but the train will get longer when it connects with the 449 train from Boston later in the evening.
There are a few advantages and disadvantages of the Viewliner when compared to its double-decker big brother, the Superliner. Viewliners have double windows – one above the other – which makes them slightly brighter inside, especially if you are in the top bunk. There are no stairs to climb, and wait for it, there is an ensuite in every roomette. But this is a double-edged sword – its more of a commode right next to your seat, and crucially there are no other toilets in the coach. I’m not sure I’d like to share a roomette with anyone else! Sure, the roomettes are old, but I like the way they work compared with European sleepers – you sleep in the direction of travel, and if you are lucky enough to be alone, the lower bed is quite wide and pretty comfy. (Just to be clear this toilet set up does not apply to the Superliner – more on this experience on my next journey).
The views out the window were great, better on the NYC – Albany stretch, where the track follows the banks of the Hudson River northwards.
If you are up to date on all things Amtrak then you will know that the food offer was changed on train routes east of the Mississippi in 2019. I would like to say its all okay, but sadly the heart of the train has been taken away with a microwaved dinner and no community seating/reservations for dinner. Amtrak calls this ‘contemporary fresh dining choices’, but let’s face it – it’s just cost-cutting.
I had the chicken fettucini for dinner with a side salad which was edible but only average. For breakfast, I had the sausage & egg sandwich, which looked awful but actually tasted better than I had guessed it would. The presentation in plastic bags and cardboard doesn’t help. The coffee was really good – fresh and strong enough to set you up for the day. But there is no elan to the service, in that you have to go and fetch anything you need from the end of the car. This is functional airline-style catering, not dining in the much-loved traditions of Amtrak as we remember it.
The huge kitchen is mainly empty now, and one member of staff operates the microwave. This evening it’s a man who takes no prisoners and doesn’t like to answer any passenger questions that distract him from his quite narrow interpretation of the brief. The drinks list has been simplified too, and half bottles of wine are no longer available. This is just like flying – the great lure of proper dining will be hugely missed. I know Amtrak once took their observation cars out of service and people complained so much they decided to reinstate them put them. I hope that one-day passenger feedback will force a rethink. I could forgive Amtrak if it ran a simplified breakfast like this as it’s fast and easy, but a decent dinner is hugely missed. So after my ‘click and ping’ meal I retired to my roomette and enjoyed a bottle of good Pinot Noir from Oregon, there was more atmosphere here, but I had to play chess by myself!
‘Big Robert’, the carriage attendant (ex-basketball player), made my bed up at around 10 pm and I slept very well in the lower berth. The seats fold down and a mattress topper goes on making it a firm but comfy bed. The PA was switched off and the ride was fairly smooth – much smoother than the bumpy line from Penn to Albany earlier on in the day. Best of all the temperature was perfectly controllable. I have heard people complaining that it is too cold at night on past trips. The fix for this is to bring a roll of cling film and wrap it over the air vents.
The train seemed only 20% full in the sleeper carriages, and I had the dining car to myself most of the time. It would have been interesting to have checked the price before setting off to see if it was demand-based or not. One other discovery I made is that the sleeper carriage from Boston has no attached dining car, just the cafe used by coach customers. I doubt the food is any different now, but it’s not quite as grand. Amtrak seem to want to distance themselves from the dining car concept, so they now call it a ‘sleeper customer lounge’ on this service.
Everything else ran to plan and we were ‘on the bumper’ at 09.40 CET, a one hour time zone shift from the previous day. I’m saving my experiences of life on the rails for a forthcoming book, so please forgive me for just blogging about the nuts and bolts of the journey. From Chicago, I’m off to New Orleans in just a couple of days. It’s a Superliner, but also the same food arrangement, as it runs east of the Mississippi. Thankfully after then, all my journeys will be back on the Amtrak Superliners with dining arrangements that I know and love.