The Southwest Chief, running daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, takes its name from its former name — the Southwest Chief and the name of its indirect predecessor — the famed Santa Fe Super Chief.
Long-distance trains travel as far as 2,800 miles and pass through as many as 12 states.
An Amtrak long-distance train typically consists of sleeper cars, coach cars, a diner car and/or a lounge car.
by Alexandra and Sam
In November 2009, my husband and I decided to ride Amtrak to Los Angeles, California, from Chicago, Illinois. I do not like to fly and driving takes too long. It was a new experience for us. However, before we bought the tickets, we did a lot of research, looked at pictures of the exterior and interior of the train, and read a lot of comments from other Amtrak customers. Some were great, others not so great. If you are considering riding the Amtrak soon, or in the future, I suggest that you also do the research so you know exactly what to expect and to prepare yourself if you've never taken the train before. Our experience was just great. We had a marvelous time on our 40 hour trip.
We booked a Roomette, which is basically two comfortable seats facing one another with a huge window to look out and a bunk up top. The two seats fold down into a bed, so we both had a place to sleep for the two nights of our trip. The Roomette is tiny, really tiny. It was just enough room for a couple of carry-on bags, purse and camera. The good part is that there is air conditioning or heat in each little compartment, a little fan, reading lights, a tiny table to set a drink on, or even play cards on, a door that locks and curtains to draw shut. Once the bottom bed is in place, there's not much room to move around, but we didn't mind at all. We were happy to be able to lay down to sleep as opposed to Coach, where you can only recline your seat. Coach is excellent for short trips.
There are attendants on each car that turn your beds down and clean up in the mornings when you've left your room to have breakfast. My husband had the top bunk, which was a little awkward getting to, but once he got up there and settled in he was fine with it. If you're claustrophobic, you may not want the top bunk. It's close to the ceiling.
There are larger rooms at a higher cost than the Roomettes, where you can move around and they have their own toilet and shower. The isles are narrow in the sleeping cars. We suggest the top floor of the train, where the Dining Car and the Sightseer Lounge Car are both there.
The Dining Car has rows of tables on each side with big windows to watch the scenery as you eat. Each table sits four people, so if your party is only the two of you, you'll be sitting with strangers as you have your meal. However, everyone is so friendly and nice that it was really a joy to meet so many interesting people. As for the food, it was superb in our opinion. The meals are a part of the sleeping car accommodations. Coach riders have to pay. Everything was prepared by a gourmet chef, at least it all tasted that way and was excellent. There is also a little snack area in one of the cars where you can get a sandwiches, chips, soda or even adult drinks such as beer, wine and cocktails.
Since Amtrak has to use commercial tracks (it's a shame they don't have their own tracks) sometimes the ride can be bumpy, sort of like turbulence on a plane. It isn't a problem during the day, but if you're not a sound sleeper, it may wake you up. Other times the tracks are so smooth it feels like the train is not moving.
There are no televisions or movies. Entertainment is watching the view from the Sightseer Lounge Car, which has a long row of seats on both sides facing out with huge picture windows. There are booths if you want to play your own cards, board games or just sit and chat with your friends or others. You may bring your own beverages but they must be kept in your room. If you buy any beverages, they can be taken into the Sightseer Lounge Car. We suggest you bring a good book, magazines or crossword puzzles as well.
There were several stops, for boarding or to let people off. No sightseeing at the town stops though. There are a few stops for the smokers (absolutely no smoking on the train) which last about five or 10 minutes. A few stops last long enough to take a short walk close to the train and there is a stop or two to refuel which usually take about 30 to 45 minutes — don’t dare wander too far off though. When the Conductor shouts — all aboard, you have about 15 seconds to get back on the train. No waiting for anyone. Incidentally, the stops are not annoying or noisy. Even stops during the sleeping hours are usually very quiet.
Some people have complained about their Sleeping Car Attendants or Dining Car Attendants being rude, but we did not find that to be true at all. There may be delays, so don’t expect to always make it to your destination right on time. In our case, however, we were an hour early both coming and going.
Remember, if you try this, and I suggest you do, be sure to bring your good sense of humor and the right frame of mind because you may experience a minimal amount of discomfort at times. My hubby and I were prepared and we rolled with the punches, which were few and far between. For us it was fun (we did a lot of laughing at ourselves), relaxing and enjoyable. We can’t wait to do it again.