As I wrote in a previous entry, we opted to take the Amtrak California Zephyr home, rather than fly.  Our youngest loves trains and we thought it would be a fun thing to do.  As a bonus, airports are always a bit stressful with 3 kids so the train had to be better, right?

We took the free city bus from the Sheraton Denver to the end of the route at Denver Union Station.  We arrived around 6pm for a train expected to arrive at 8pm and depart at 8:24pm.   First lesson, phone first.  Trains are no less susceptible to delays, apparently.  Ours was moved back to 9:30pm.  The ticket agent advised us that we could store our bags in the gate check area and said he would reimburse us up to a fixed amount for dinner, since the dining car would be closed by the time we boarded and our meals were included since we paid for a sleeping car.

Dinner at Dixon’s was great.  We walked around the very nice downtown along 16th street.  We had to be back by 9:15pm to claim our bags.  I phoned the number and there were no changes.  Second lesson, don’t trust the recording- find a number for a live agent. They simply hadn’t updated the recorded information, because it was delayed another hour when we got back to the station.  The train finally arrived around 10:30pm.

Sleeping car passengers are apparently “first class” so we got to board first.  Well, it wasn’t really organized so we were passed by the mad rush, of course.  We emerged from the ramp at the back of the train at a sign for car 530.  The portly conductor told us car 630 (the number on our tickets) was all the way at the front of the train.  3 kids and a full load of luggage including the monster of all suitcases is a lot to carry to the front end of the train.  Especially since car 630 wasn’t there.  It’s also a lot of stuff to carry back! The conductor at the first car said 630 was the last car on the train.  Back we go, with a number of other travelers.  Of course, the two conductors at the back were confused and had the number wrong on the last car.  Apparently the number on the train car had been broken for a long time.  That didn’t really explain why they had the wrong sign on the ground and told us to go up front, though.

The cars were really, really dated.  1970s era and showing it.  At least the sleeper car was clean and well kept.  The accommodations were small, but no one was using the any of the adjacent rooms.  Sleeping was rough for us.  The creaking, squeaking and bumps were enough to keep us up most of the night, though the kids seemed to sleep fine.  At dawn when I was finally sleeping they screeched on the loudspeaker for breakfast 1st call.  Then 2nd call… 3rd call…  next stop…  4th call…  Did I mention the announcement that we had slipped another couple hours overnight?  Yup.  Add a couple other unexpected slowdowns and we ended up being about 5 hours behind schedule.

The food was fair.  Certainly not worth the price if you paid for it.  Main dishes were $6-$9 for breakfast and lunch and no where near as good as an entry level chain restaurant or even fast food.  It wasn’t bad, mind you, just nothing special at all.  Our meals were included, thankfully.  Service was quite good, though. The staff was very professional and helpful the entire trip, apart from knowing which car was which at boarding time!

The observation car was really in need of a replacement.  Seats were worn, torn, carpet stained, windows scratched.  I guess Amtrak doesn’t do well, even with high gasoline costs.   I avoided the observation car until the conductor suggested we grab a seat as we approached the devastation from the recent rains.  The flooding on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa was an epic disaster.  A miles-long ocean engulfed farms, roads, towns, everything.  Slimy green algae had taken over on the surface in areas where trees were under feet of water.  Apparently, the train had to go slow through this area because they had just finished rebuilding the track a few days before- it had been washed out of service for a couple weeks.  We were only seeing the flood many days after the worst point!  No more complaints about our train trip, it now seemed pretty darn good, all things considered.

In all fairness, the kids really loved it.  They got to play their games, read books, move through the cars or just look out the window.  Sort of like a car trip with no stress on the driver when the kids go nuts.  My 3-year old loved running up and down the train, opening the doors from car to car.  People knew his name after a few trips lol.  It really wasn’t so bad in retrospect, the delays weren’t a big problem because we weren’t in any hurry and losing 1 night of sleep at the end of the trip wasn’t an issue.  And, last, but not least, no worries about carseats on trains!  With no LATCH or seatbelts, they are not even a consideration.  Still, for $300 more than one-way airfare on reliable Southwest airlines, I’m not sure I’ll be taking a long train trip again anytime soon.  Yeah, it would have been a lot cheaper without a sleeping car, but I saw the people sleeping in their seats and THAT would have been a nightmare, at least with our kids!

Kim was a great conference.  I didn’t learn a lot, but did some networking and was able to visit with Heather, Emily and a lot of other CPS advocates.  Hopefully we will have more to report from ABC Kids Expo in September if this wasn’t enough for you!