Day 76: Chicago to Santa Fe, NM and the Amtrak vs. TME Report

After setting off from Chicago late in the afternoon, we enjoyed an idylllic train ride plying the Midwest from Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. We passed the Mighty Mississippi and wheat fields to enjoy a peaceful sunset.

On arrival, we had a look around the city and enjoyed a sunset the following evening from our hotel roof deck. See view above.

Preliminary Evaluation of the Amtrak vs. Trans-Siberian Express (TSE)

As for the evaluation between Amtrak and the Trans-Siberian Express (TSE) a la Trans-Mongolian Express portion (TME), here’s my interim report below.

If you recall, on Day 71 I established a self-inflicted competition between the American Amtrak system and the Trans-Siberian Express (TSE). You may be confused when I refer to the Trans-Mongolian Express (TME). The TME is a significant portion of the TSE, and differs only in the start point. the TSE begins in Vladivostok on the eastern coast of Russia. The TME begins in Beijing and traverses through Mongolia to Moscow, where both the TSE and TME meet. See map below.


If you are not particularly interested in either, skip this post as it will be a bit long-winded, self-admittedly, and only for those die-hard train afficinados.

Here are comments based on the original criteria I established:

1. On Time Record

So far, the two long haul trips we have taken on Amtrak (Philadelphia to Chicago, Chicago to Santa Fe (Lamy), NM) have been on time or early, and the shorter legs through New England have been on time or slightly delayed. Trains on the TME were either on time or early, but we were not able to verify the arrivals or departures due to fuzzy time zone changes (!!)

2. Comfort (Bed strength, ability to rock a baby to sleep and keep them there; access to lights, camera, action; no annoying overhead PA system used at free will for the comfort of the system and not the passenger; and good padding and ergonomics for blogging)

Beds on Amtrak are comfortable, non-formed foam pads over two seats pushed together in the roomettes, with an overhead bunk that does not allow you to sit up straight. One passenger complained about the pillows and beds being too flat, but seating ergonomics and padding seem fine in both systems. Beds on Amtrak are in the direction of travel, whereas the TME beds were perpendicular to the direction of travel. Not sure either makes much difference in terms of rockability, but the Amtrak trains definitely sway more at the top due to the double-height cars. Most of the sleepers were on the upper level so more passengers would experience the sway, so I’d give Amtrak a negative point for this.

There are more stops at night on Amtrak due to the higher population along the route, so it may appear to be slightly more disruptive at night. However, the train starts and stops are smoother on Amtrak compared with the Chinese bump-and-grind at each stop. The Chinese trains did not appear to have any or much cushioning between cars so they slammed into each other when the trains departed or arrived at each station.

Lighting and controls were sufficient on both systems so no particular comments. In contrast, the use of the PA system was notable on Amtrak. The dining car made repeated comments about availability, MIA’s, and hours of operation; there were none on the Chinese cars (perhaps because there were so few or no passengers! or the multiple languages spoken by passenger on the train would render the effort fruitless). We did take a Chinese train on a different trip last year that piped overly loud and annoying announcements and music on their PA system. At one point, the speakers were disconnected (i.e. ripped out) to our car by a passenger and it seemed to take care of the problem.

3. Service (attentive staff, no back talk or attitude–i.e. Courteous; visible but not obtrusive; professional but not hollow friendly delivery of information)

As you know, we found the service on the Chinese trains to be very good, but that’s because we spoke Chinese. I am not sure foreigners would find the staff as friendly. Surprisingly, the Amtrak staff have been generally friendly and attentive. They must have improved their customer service training since we took the trains a generation ago. There are still vestiges of the long-timer staff person here and there who crack canned jokes every now and then, or a raspy voice yelling out instructions by someone who cumulatively earned the distinctive voice quality. Overall, both appear to be genuine in intent and concern.

4. Cleanliness (no spit on counters; toilet paper unfailingly in supply; Windows you can see through; stainless upholstery and carpets)

Well, can’t say I went looking, so I didn’t find any gross evidence in either system. In general, the toilets in the Chinese trains were not well attended, but in defense of the system, we were only 2 of 3 passengers in our car. There were four toilets available in one Amtrak sleeper car for some 24 rooms; only one toilet and one washroom per car on the Chinese train. You can do the math.

Toilet supplies were plentiful on Amtrak, nada on the Chinese trains. Bring your own.

Windows were a little soiled on Amtrak. Hard to see through some windows on Chinese cars.

Upholstery on Chinese cars were old but clean; no carpeting in rooms.
I noticed a few stains on the blankets of the Amtrak, and maybe on the carpeting. The concierge announced that shoes are required on all Amtrak trains.

5. Food (real food; reasonable prices; no cheap shots using lots of salt and sugar; no bar codes on wrapping; cold beer; wine list; nuking; no plastic, polystyrene, or jewel boxes)

Food to date on Amtrak was decent, and better than I remembered. When you book a sleeper you get free meals. Dinner options included salmon fillet, steak, chicken, or pasta. The only disappointing aspect were the frozen vegetables.

Hard to compare the food from the Russian dining car. The food appeared to be freshly cut and prepared, and although small portions, the food was fresh, tasty and healthy. Gee Kin’s vote for the staff’s home-cooked pasta and meat buns unfortunately do not qualify for this evaluation of customer-consumed food. Interestingly, I asked Sean, our Amtrak attendant, what he did for food. He immediately remarked that the food on the train was unhealthy for service staff. Assuming that they ate it frequently, the food would take a toll on your weight and BMI. The food is included in their benefits, but he mentioned that he beats it over to Whole Foods whenever he gets in to Seattle. Staff stock up on their own food but are not allowed to bring anything requiring refrigeration. That poses some limitations, but he said they work around it (wink, wink). Occasionally the house chefs make family meals for the staff and they really appreciate it.

I am copying and pasting the earlier post comments for convenience and adding any additional notes or changes.

Pros of the Trans Mongolian Express:
1. Decent food in the Russian dining car at reasonable price
2. Service in the sleeping car was very good and attentive by the two attendants assigned to our car (even though we and one other woman were the only passengers in the car after Ulan Bator!)
3. The compartment was tidy and toilet at the end of the car was adequate.

Cons for the Trans Mongolian Express (TME)
1. The tracks are not universal in Mongolia thereby requiring wheels to be changed on every car going between China and Russia through Mongolia
2. The trains do not have Internet access
3. The schedule and arrival times at any station were a mystery due to fluctuating time zones

Pros for Amtrak trains
1. The trains are very comfortable
2. The trains have Internet access (10/7 correction: none on the long hauls!!)
3. The information for time, stops and scenic opportunities is helpful (10/7 update: excellent handouts available at every seat)

Cons for Amtrak
1. Service staff are surly (10/7 update: I would delete this comment that was based on historical experience)
2. Stations are antiquated (10.7 update: true, but they have installed First and Business Class lounges with internet access that overnight passengers can use)
3. Seating is not reserved (10/7 update: all seats are reserved on the long-hauls)

This report includes two long hauls:
1. Washington DC to Chicago on the Capitol Ltd.;
2. Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico on the Southwest Chief;

The last report will include the third and final leg:
Santa Fe to Los Angeles (continuation of the Southwest Chief), then the Coast Starlight train from LA to San Francisco.

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