Before embarking on our third leg from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, a two hour layover allowed us to explore the Lamy Historical Train Museum. It was actually part of the hotel and dining hall from the old western days before automobile and air travel stole the thunder from the railroads. A knowledgeable local guide provided insight to what made Lamy a boom town with a Harvey Girl hotel and restaurant service.
The final train from Los Angeles Union Station to Oakland/San Francisco on the Coast Starlight chugged through Pacific Ocean beach views, verdant fields of the Salinas Valley, oil rigs and vineyards lacing voluptuous hills. This final leg was a day trip for us, but the Coast Starlight featured movies and wine tasting for the overnight passengers to Seattle.
I was thrilled to reach home after 80 days and see hubby Gee Kin after 58 days, and to soon see daughters Melissa and Julianne. I want to give each of them a big kiss and hug for allowing me to have this twice-in-a-lifetime journey to explore the world, learn and see, create, think and be.
I also want to thank Gee Kin especially for joining me on our hysterically fun and funny saga through Russia and Mongolia. I would do all the rest with you if time constraints were not upon you, but we have each day’s memories from visa applications to our own private carriage to treasure forever.
At this time, I would be remiss without mentioning the numerous friends with whom I have traveled, visited and met:
1. Professor Wang from Beijing’s Tsinghua University;
2. Helena and Hans from Brunnen and Wallins and Patrizia from Zurich in Switzerland;
3. Schwäbisch Hall Goethe Institute’s new friends Tom, Irene, Marie, Wayne, and Tony;
4. Josephine from Munich;
5. Beynisch Architects from Stuttgart;
6. Lisa and Dick from New York and June from Ross;
7. Niece Pam from Albany, NY;
8. Pam and Tom from Chicago;
9. Travel buddies Karen from Oakland, Doreen from Alameda, and Dennis from Santa Fe;
10. Friends from Dresden Hanne, Jens, Vladimir and Mellina
Thank you all for making this journey possible! You are the people that make traveling so delightful, worthwhile, exciting, and fun. I hope blog followers enjoyed the virtual traveling with me and others. I really appreciated your support and encouragement!
And thanks to all hotel, train, food and other travel services I have touched to make this adventure achievable, without incident or sickness, and safe.
THE AMTRAK VS. TME COMPETITION
Last but not least, here is the final report that includes the third and fourth legs of my Amtrak train travel across the United States. This report includes Santa Fe to Los Angeles (continuation of the Southwest Chief), and the Coast Starlight train from LA to Oakland/San Francisco. If you read the earlier one before, you can skim final edits that are shown in italics.. The final comparison of Amtrak vs. the Trans-Mongolian Express (TME) votes are in bold.
1. On Time Record (FINAL VOTE: A TIE)
The four long haul trips we have taken on Amtrak (Philadelphia to Chicago, Chicago to Lamy/Santa Fe NM, Lamy/Santa Fe NM to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to Oaland) 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) FINAL VOTE: TME WINS
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. There are no views from upper bunk outside on Amtrak trains, but there are views on the TME from above. 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) FINAL VOTE: TME WINS
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.
When the service is good on Amtrak, you want to hug them and kiss them, but when it’s bad, you really want to write a letter to the head of Amtrak.
4. Cleanliness (no spit on counters; toilet paper unfailingly in supply; Windows you can see through; stainless upholstery and carpets) FINAL VOTE: AMTRAK WINS
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 sometimes missing on Amtrak, nada on the Chinese trains. Bring your own.
Windows were cleaned on Amtrak, and we witnessed evidence of this. 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. However, the blankets were hermetically sealed and presented on each bunk. Doreen thought that was a pretty decent feature until she heard the stains were inside the sealed package. 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) FINAL VOTE: TME WITH RUSSIAN DINING CAR
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. Red and White Wine selections available on all meals.
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) 10/12 update: No, I would not delete this comment.
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 four long hauls:
1. Washington DC to Chicago on the Capitol Ltd.;
2. Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico on the Southwest Chief
Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief
Los Angeles to Oakland/San Francisco on the Coast Starlight
For the curious, you can google Amtrak service on discuss.amtraktrains.com
FINAL FINAL ANALYSIS: IT WAS CLOSE, BUT TME WINS!!!
Note: there may be a couple of posts after the official 80 days, to help me wind down. I hope you have enjoyed the virtual travels with me and others.
All the best to all who live and breathe travel as I do.