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Life onboard a long distance train

Onboard an Amtrak train

I'd like to provide photos of what to expect onboard a long distance train, but it's hard to take a shot inside a train. It's especially hard to get a shot inside a room in a sleeping car. I'll use the best shots I've got and hope it helps. If you've never had the chance to ride a train or in a sleeper, I'll try to provide a description for you.

Superliner is the name of Amtrak cars which run west of the Mississippi. Mostly. These cars have 2 levels - 2 stories if you prefer. Passage between cars is only on the upper level. There is a small and narrow staircase to move between the upper and lower levels.

Sleeper cars
Sleeper cars are just that. Cars with accommodations for sleeping. These cars have 3 different sized rooms. A Standard bedroom which has 2 beds, a Deluxe bedroom with 2 beds as well as a private toilet & shower, and a Family bedroom with 4 beds. Most, if not all, of these rooms are located on the upper level. Some of the cars also have Accessible bedrooms, "for passengers with special mobility requirements." These are always on the lower level.
The standard bedroom has seats that face each other during the day. There is a small fold out table and a cup holder on the wall for each seat. At night the seats are folded down to make a single bed. A second bed can be folded down from the ceiling if needed.
There are port-a-potty sized toilets on each car. There's one on the upper level and a few on the lower level There is a community shower on the lower level in each car. Taking a shower on a train when the train is rocking can be an eye opening experience. Fortunately this doesn't happen often. If the train isn't rocking, it's just a normal showering experience. BEFORE getting wet let the water run for a minute (or maybe longer)! I've found that the water that's in the pipes is usually COLD until the heated water finds it way thru the pipes to the shower head.

Superliner standard bedroom foldout table Superliner standard bedroom bed Superliner standard bedroom

Dining car
The meals are prepared onboard on all long distance trains. There are tables on the upper level of this car. The kitchen is on the lower level. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served.
There is an aisle down the center of the car. There are tables with seating for 4 on both sides.
Meals are included in the price of the ticket for passengers with accommodations in a sleeping car. Anyone who is sitting in coach and desires to dine in the dining car is welcome to do so but they must pay for their meal.
There are always multiple choices of meals on the menu. For dinner there are 3 or 4 main courses to choose from as well as side dishes and deserts.

Dining room on a Superliner Superliner Obsevation car

Observation / Lounge / Snack car
Amtrak's official name for this Superliner car is a Sightseer Lounge.
The upper level has windows running the length of the car, including windows which curve overhead. This provides a wonderful way to see America. There are individual seats as well as benches for 2 or 3 people. The chairs swivel allowing the occupant to face the window or the inside of the car. The benches face out the window.
The lower level has a snack bar with sandwiches and other munchies as well as soft and not-so-soft drinks for sale. There are a few tables here for eating and socializing. Superliner Sightseer Lounge are a great place for sightseeing during the day. At night they're good for socializing. But at night it is virtually impossible to see outside the car.

These cars also have a TV in the wall at each end of the cars. Movies are shown on the TV at various times during the day.

Sit on the north side of the car for the best viewing unless there's some particular sight you know will be on the south. Why, you ask. The sun will be south of the train and the sights you view from the north side of the train will be lit better. There will be less shadows to look at. If you want to take photographs while onboard it is best to be on the side of the train away from the direct sunlight.

When I travel on a train I'm more interested in seeing the USA than meeting other passengers. But there are exceptions to this. One exception is when traveling for hours across barren plains. After the first hour, there's really nothing worth looking at.

I like to go to bed early and wake early. I try to wake up just before sunrise and head for the observation car to watch the sunrise. There are no words to describe this sight. Of course, I don't sleep much on the train as I'm too excited to be on the train and I can't stand to miss anything that happens.

Coach car
Coach cars have rows of 4 large reclining comfortable seats; 2 seats, an aisle running the length of the car and 2 more seats. Unlike the coach seats on an airliner there's LOTS of legroom. Bathrooms are also onboard the coach cars. There are large, open, overhead storage racks as well.
Superliner Coach car

Viewliners are on the trains east of the Mississippi. These are single level cars. These cars are not as tall as the Superliner cars because many of the bridges over the railroad tracks are not high enough to allow the 2 story cars to pass underneath. They have the same types of cars; sleepers, diners, coaches, and lounge cars with snack bars.

Sleeper cars
The standard bedrooms in the Viewliner sleepers all have a toilet and a fold down sink in the room. The newest cars also have a tiny TV screen with 3 or 4 movies that can be viewed.
Everything else that was described about the Superliner applies to the Viewliner standard bedroom. The standard bedroom on the View liner also has two beds. On the new Viewliners the accommodations for the upper bed are great. Individual lighting, small storage pouches and a small shelf. These beds don't fold down, they slide down poles.

Viewliner standard bedroom fold down sink in the Viewliner bedroom

More about Sleeping cars
Provided in the standard bedroom on all trains is an AC electrical outlet and a couple of lights. The window has a curtain. The door has a window with a curtain. This affords privacy. During the day while in your room you have the option of closing the door for privacy or keeping it open and maybe meeting another passenger.

There is not much storage space in the Standard bedroom on both the Superliner and Viewliner cars. At night much of that space is lost when the bed is set in place. Bring a small bag with change of clothes, toiletries and a few small other items you think you'll need. The Superliners have a very small closet. The Viewliners do not have a closet. All bedrooms have a couple of hangers for clothing. There's a small table that folds out underneath the window, and cup holders nearby. There's a couple of small shelves for items such as a small alarm clock, book, walkman, magazine and the like. The Deluxe bedroom has more space as well as a chair. I've traveled in one of these only once and that was years ago.

If you'd like to listen to music, I suggest a walkman and cassettes or CDs. A boombox is not a good idea. It will take up too much of the limited space. Radios don't work well.

Newspapers are delivered to your room in the morning. It will be USA Today or a local newspaper; local being a city or town that was recently passed through.

All the sleeping cars have a Sleeping Car Attendant. This person does just about everything, including setting up the bed at night and putting it away in the morning.

Sleeping cars provide beverages in the morning (juice and coffee). There is water, as well as bottled water and soda. You can bring your own snacks onboard or purchase them in the cafe car.

There is no internet network connections on long distance Amtrak trains. You can't check your email. You can't surf the web. Get out of your room and meet other folks riding the train!

Almost all of the train staff is very friendly. In 2000 when I was on the Sunset Limited for 3 days, I became friend with the chef, Bryant, and the cafe care attendant, George. I also had a nice long chat with one of the sleeping car attendants on the last day. Before leaving Los Angeles, Bryant took moment to say hello to all the passengers in the sleeping car he was passing through on his way to the crew car.

Hints for taking pictures. There are lots of opportunities for taking photographs of the scenery outside the train. One of the problems is that the windows are like mirrors. It's likely that shots will not be as spectacular as what you see. One way to reduce the reflection is to place the lens of the camera against the glass. The glass isn't always clean. After traveling for long lengths of time and miles, the windows get a bit dirty, just like the windshield of your car.
Shooting the outdoors at night isn't easy. The widows on the train reflect almost all of the light from the lamps back into the car. The best place for shots outside of the train at night in in a bedroom where you have control of the lighting.

Smoking policy
Smoking is not permitted anywhere on the train. Passengers who need a cigarette can do so when the train stops at a station for fuel (for the locomotive) and water (for the cars), once every 6 to 12 hours. These stops can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as an hour. Typically they are about 20 minutes. These stops also provide time to step off the train and stretch your legs. Or inspect the outsides of all the cars as well as the locomotives if you are a rail fan.

National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) Amtrak travel tips
More NARP Amtrak travel tips

©2002,2006 John Simakauskas