5 Things I Learned Riding the Train from Seattle to Los Angeles

Amtrak trip
Andy Cochrane

The brakes squealed loudly and we came to a gradual stop, with cows on one side and sporadic farms on the other. Even with powerful rotors on multiple axles it takes a quarter mile to slow an Amtrak train from full speed to a full stop. Despite the commotion, it took a moment for us to notice. The start-stop rhythm of train-life had lulled us away from our typical fast-and-furious existence. We were just along for the ride.

Amtrak Train
Andy Cochrane

For those unfamiliar, Amtrak is the national railroad service that offers rides to passengers from city to city across the contiguous United States. Nearly 50 years old, the network boasts 44 routes that combine for over 20,000 miles of track.

The for-profit entity is subsidized by state and federal governments, allowing it to run 300 trains daily to 500 destinations. Typical speeds are similar to cars on the interstate, but can get as high as 150 mph.

Amtrak Surfliner
Andy Cochrane

Sitting in the observation car with our seats facing outward, Emma and I chatted about work projects, future trips, and the snack we’d buy when the food car reopened. The train groaned to its resting spot and we glanced up at rain-drenched pastures of rural Oregon, somewhere east of Portland and north of Bend. Not the most scenic vista, but beautiful in its own, unassuming way.

Over the intercom the conductor calmly stated “the bridge in front of us has some mechanical issues, so we’ll be here for a bit. At this point there is no way to know if it’ll be five minutes, fifteen, or longer.”

We had another three days of riding, so a small delay didn’t mean much. The purpose of our train trip was to learn a different means of travel, which (at the moment) meant patience. We had a dinner reservation at 7 p.m., still a few hours away.

Amtrak window
Andy Cochrane

The beauty – and occasional frustration – of trains is that you’re not in control of much. Their team of conductors, engineers, and logistics coordinators manage movement on the tracks, doing their best to keep to the train schedule. Usually this means a few minutes ahead or a few behind, but once in a while it’ll mean a miscalculation of an hour or more. For my “Type A” personality, this took some getting used to.

With time away from the normal patterns of life, here are five things I learned while riding the Amtrak.

Amtrak stop
Andy Cochrane

Say Hello to Strangers

It sounds easy, but is less common than ever. Saying “hi” to a stranger on the street makes you liable for the gamut of shock, shrieks of fear, and total stonewalling. But when you’re stuck inside a fast-moving aluminum can together, all bets are off. I’ve made some great friends on train trips and all started with a simple “hello.”

Upgrade to Deluxe

On previous Amtrak trips I’ve always ridden coach, primarily because I’m a modern day Scrooge and will do whatever it takes to save a penny, even if it means suffering. But this time, with two of us to split the cost, we opted for a sleeper car and – spoiler alert – damn was it worth it.

Having your own space and a bed to call home at night made our trip much more enjoyable, even if we still spent most of the day in other cars.

Delux cabin
Andy Cochrane

Get to Know the Crew

Unlike buses, planes, and taxis, getting to know the train assistants, dining car hosts and conductors was a huge joy on this trip. We spent the better part of two days with Danny, our jovial car assistant, trading stories and learning how they keep the country-wide network moving.

The crew was fun, friendly, and laid-back, which feels quite a bit different than other forms of transportation.

The Food Isn’t Half Bad

I was skeptical going in, working under the assumption that we’d be served meals similar to the fine dining on airplanes. Freeze-dried beef teriyaki has its time and place, I just don’t think my stomach is one of them.

We opted to roll the dice and try at least one meal in the dining car. And then another. And at least three more. Mussels, veggie burgers, salads and other entrees were all better than expected. Maybe not Michelin star, but tasty by our standards.

Amtrak observation car
Andy Cochrane

Getting On and Off Is Easy

This relates to both small stops for fresh air, and overnight stops to explore a town or city. On the Amtrak you are allowed to hop off the train and stretch your legs at designated breaks, as well as simply grab your bags and stay at a station stop for a day. We opted to do this three times, getting off the train in Portland, Oakland, and San Luis Obispo. This gave us time to get to know each community by running trails, walking streets, and eating local food.

Amtrak rear train car
Andy Cochrane

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