2011 Train Trip — Union Station

I recently had one of my best vacations ever, travelling by Amtrak from Los Angeles to Chicago and back (with some side trips by car thrown in). It was lovely, though of course it chewed up a couple of extra travel days. Totally worth it!

I rode out on the Amtrak Southwest Chief, from Los Angeles’s Union Station (LAX) towards Chicago’s Union Station (CHI), and the first nice thing about it was that I didn’t have to go to the “other LAX”, Los Angeles International Airport, a well-known hellmouth. In fact, I just had my friend and cat-sitter Beverly drop me off at LA’s North Hollywood Metro Station (about 10 miles from my house), and took the Metro Red Line in to Union Station, along with my bags.

Ah, the bags. Let’s start with those. Amtrak allows you up to 3 bags checked luggage, up to 50 pounds each, and two carry-on bags (also 50 pounds each), as well as any personal items such as a laptop bag. I knew that I’d be walking with my bags, so I bought two light, cheap rollers bags (one of them a garment bag), and a large light duffel bag. That meant that I could roll along with the duffel on top of the garment roller bag, and the laptop bag on top of the smaller roller bag. All pretty easy to cope with, so long as it didn’t rain (as someone from L.A., I did not plan for rain). I’ll have to think about a solution for that in future; as it was, I lucked out.

Arriving at Union Station about an hour before departure (cutting it a bit close), I could see several long lines, but these appeared to be coach check-ins for specific trains. Hey, a booth for general Amtrak Info, and ooh, no line!

Me (indicating luggage, showing ticket): “Checking bags for Southwest Chief?”

Information Clerk: “Yes, you should still have time to check bags for that train. Go to the Amtrak Ticket Office, right around there.”

So that made sense: If you have to check any luggage, you do that at the ticket office, just as for plane travel. Well, I was only going to being checking my large duffel bag. And yay, almost no line!

Ticket Clerk: “Ok, checking one bag. No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me: “That’s right.”

She does some bag-checking stuff, and has me put my bag on the scale. It’s a bit heavy.

Ticket Clerk (skeptically): “No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me (huh?): “Right.”

Ticket Clerk (sternly): “What’s in the bag, sir?”
Me (must be the beard): “Um, books…why, is it too heavy?”

She gives me a look like, “What the hell, you’re harmless — why are you wasting my time?”

Ticket Clerk (dismissively): “No, you’re fine, sir.”

And that was that. No metal detectors, no naked-body scanners, no blue-gloved groping. When I returned to LA later I noticed some cops with sniffer dogs in various other parts of the station, but they never hassled me.

I had reserved a room in a Sleeper Car for my journey, and it turns out that Sleeper Car passengers are considered to be traveling First Class. The first evidence of this was when I asked what track my train was coming in on.

“Are you traveling by sleeper?”
“Why, yes I am.”
“Just wait right here, sir. A tram will be by in just a moment to take you to your track.”

And sure enough, a nice lady drove up, grabbed my bags and those of several others travelling by sleeper in the same train, checked our tickets, collected a few coach passengers to fill up the tram, and whisked us away, down the corridors, up a ramp, and out onto the platform.

Of course, she had to drive through a crowd of people heading for their trains, but the crowd parted magically before her, none of them having to work any harder than pigeons have to work to avoid your car — step, step, step.

She stopped the tram, turned to me and said, “You sit tight, sir. I’m going to let these people off, and then I’ll take you right to your car.” And so she did, backing up the tram along the crowded platform until she arrived at the chosen spot. My train wasn’t even there yet (it was just pulling up as she dropped me off), but sure enough, she literally dropped me off right in front of my very train car, got my bags, accepted my tip, and took off to take the next group of people to be literally in front of their car. Nice!

Each sleeper car on a train has a number for that trip, so there’s an electronic display on each sleeper car showing the number (mine was 0430).

We were each greeted by our car’s attendant (each sleeper car has its own, who is with you for the entire trip), and were told where to find our rooms. I put my big garment bag in the communal carry-on baggage storage area (each sleeper car has its own), but took my smaller roller bag to my room, on the advice of the attendant — “It’ll fit really well on that ledge: that’s what I do!” In the end, I put my roller bag in my room where they expect you to hang your suit and jacket. I like my way because there’s a strap to secure it, and because it left the other ledge free. My laptop bag fit neatly on a shelf beneath that ledge, too — snug!

My roomette was bathed in air-conditioned comfort, and I was off!

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