A journey from Washington DC on the east coast of the USA to San Francisco on the west coast. This coast to coast journey involved two trains and took 3 days in total:
- The Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago, IL and
- The California Zephyr from Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA with a transfer bus to San Francisco
This is a fantastic journey that passing through hills, mountains, vast open corn fields and empty, yet spectacular desert landscapes.
Day 1: Washington DC
We arrived in Washington DC in the afternoon and more or less on time. Virgin Atlantic was not a bad experience, although they didn’t quite live up to the hype I’d heard. Once in the arrivals hall the great experiences to be had with US public transportation could begin.
Washington DC has a reasonably good (and currently expanding) metro/subway system. But of course this is yet to reach Dulles – a major international airport serving the capital of the US – but at least it is being built. The transport authority for Washington DC claims there is an express Metrobus route that regularly connects the airport with the nearest Metrorail station. 20 minutes+ of searching failed to locate such a bus and asking staff at the airport achieved equally little. In the end we found a much slower local bus that went to the same place and for much cheaper anyway. Eventually we got to the metro station and the ride was smooth from there.
Spent the next day and a half sightseeing in DC – the National Mall, White House, etc. The National Air and Space Museum was certainly a real highlight with the Apollo 11 command module on display – and entry was completely free. In typical US fashion, the museum „restaurant“ was in fact a branch of McDonald’s.
Day 2: Washington DC to Chicago
The first leg of our great rail journey starts at Union Station to catch the Capitol Limited. The building is enormous, easily as big as any major European station – but with decidedly fewer trains, despite being one of the busiest in the US. That said, there were still plenty of people about in the vast waiting room (pictured). Beyond this waiting room there was a multi-level food hall and what I can only describe as a „boarding area“.
I boarded long distance trains on 3 different occasions on this journey across the US and the „boarding process“ was differently disorganised at each station. At DC they announced that our train to DC was boarding at „gate D“ (or similar, I forget exactly). There was a queue system leading to this „gate“ with a guy checking tickets. Still no sight of a platform. After passing the ticket inspector we passed through to a dark and dingy train shed where there were several trains standing. The train to board wasn’t overly obvious, however it was a safe bet that we needed the train that actually had people milling around it. There was a rather brusque member of staff standing at a door to the first carriage of the double-decker train. We had coach seats reserved for this leg of the journey but I had no idea which carriage we needed – but this lady seemed to magically know we needed the next carriage along without looking at my ticket. Reaching the next carriage the door attendant looked at the ticket and handed us a hand-written piece of card with 2 seat numbers – apparently our reserved seats. The whole experience was rather odd from my European perspective.
Once on board, the differences continue. These superliner carriages are extremely spacious with HUGE amounts of leg room – even for the general riffraff such as myself and a generously sized fold out tray table. Most of the seating in coach class is located on the upper deck with toilets and luggage storage downstairs. Seats recline and are surprisingly comfortable – which is a good thing as the journey to Chicago will be about 18 hours.
There is a restaurant carriage on the train as well as a cafe bar in the observation car – a carriage with huge windows up to the roof and plenty of seating specially set up to enjoy the view with your drink. Dinner in the restaurant is excellent and not terribly expensive – the food on the Capitol Limited is certainly better than what you might expect to get on a European train these days. The night goes well in the coach class seating – the seats are comfortable enough to get some actual sleep.
Day 3: Chicago and the California Zephyr
We arrive on time in Chicago early in the morning. Also called Union Station, this rail hub in Chicago is the start and end point for several long distance Amtrak routes. A huge and thoroughly confusing station which also retains it’s grand waiting hall like that of Union Station in DC.
We have a few hours to kill until the departure of the California Zephyr that will take us to Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area. As this is a journey that will take 2 days, I booked a 2-berth sleeping compartment or „roomette“ as Amtrak likes to call it – more on that later. I asked a member of station staff where we could leave our luggage for a few hours whilst we went into the city. It turns out that sleeper car passengers can use the first class „Metropolitan“ lounge at the station to wait for their trains and even store your luggage there for free if you want to head off out – so that’s exactly what we did.
I like Chicago. This is my second visit here and I don’t know what it is about the city, but it feels like a great place and is not overly threatening like other US cities. We walk down towards Lake Michigan, but once nearly there the rain starts – heavy. We decide to start making our way back and find some lunch on the way as there’s still over an hour before our train. After a fantastic and typically enormous sub and fries we head back to the station.
The Metropolitan Lounge is now offering free snacks (nothing overly spectacular, mind) along with free wine tasting and – most importantly – free coffee with free flavoured syrups. These a proper sized serve-yourself coffees from Pete’s Coffee – a great coffee chain I discovered during this trip. And you can have as many as you want. Other great features include plug sockets and USB ports for charging your gadgets.
The California Zephyr is announced as ready for boarding so we make our way to the platform. A long and confusing walk – I’m sure this station is easy to use once you know what you are doing, but the layout seems baffling to me. Much easier boarding process that in DC. A guy at the entrance to the platform checked the ticket and we headed on down, no queues. Head down to the sleeping cars where the car attendant greets us and shows us to our „roomette“ and where all the facilities are located.
All Aboard the The California Zephyr
Considering all the negativity I’ve often heard about Amtrak, this train is fantastic. The Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago had impressed me already and the California Zephyr did now too. Coach class amenities were basically the same as we had on the last train. However, as we now had a „roomette“, the facilities were much better. Almost all „roomettes“ and bedrooms are located on the upper deck. Our carriage had an attendant who was responsible solely for our carriage, there was luggage storage on the lower deck as well as several toilets, a „ladies room“ and even a shower room (limited to 5 minutes water at a time though). The other thing I learned at this point was that sleeper passengers receive all meals included – breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as free tea, coffee and juice in the morning – and there’s no separate menu, you just order whatever you want off the normal menu. Soft drinks during meal times are also free. Considering what I paid, I find this deal to be remarkably good value. The only thing I ended up paying for were any drinks I wanted outside of meal times.
The train starts to pull out of the station and we’re on our way to California – 2 days away. Our carriage attendant comes to introduce herself and tell us what’s available – she’ll come and turn the seats into beds around 21:00 and explains where the facilities are. The restaurant manager then also comes around to explain how meal times work. Water is available at all times from water coolers along the train.
Rather than spend all day hidden in the roomette we head off to the observation car to get a better view of the world passing by. The observation car on this train has a bar downstairs for drinks and snack with a few additional tables that is open from about 6/7 in the morning until almost midnight. It turns out that the observation car is simply the best place to spend your time on this train – it wasn’t long before we started to chat with fellow passengers, the first of many. And there were certainly quite a few „interesting“ characters on this train.
In the bar we speak with a lady who is traveling with her fairly young daughter. I forget exactly where they were heading but she would be best described as mildly kooky with a not-entirely-under-control daughter who seems to decide that tipping a cup of water all over the table is fun. Later on we start chatting to a guy who is on his way to Burning Man in Nevada. He’s a organiser for one of the many camps. He explains that whilst all his friends are flying out, he prefers to take the train due to environmental concerns. He shows us the meticulous planning he’s put into their allotted camp site at the festival – a highly detailed plan on his laptop showing exactly where cars will park and exactly where tents will go so that everyone can fit into the lot.
At breakfast, lunch and dinner you are put at tables with other passengers – all tables in the restaurant have 4 seats and they need to cram everyone in! It can be hit and miss who you get, but most people are fairly chatty. The food itself is excellent considering it’s „train food“. I opt for fried chicken.
After dinner we sit up for a while before retiring to the cabin which the attendant has now made up into bunk beds. It’s a bit of a squeeze if you’re on the top bunk like me… but the bottom bunk is pretty comfy.
We wake up in the middle of Colorado. Denver is just a short while away. I scramble down from the bunk, awkwardly get dressed in the cramped space and help myself to the freebie coffee. They’re going to stop serving breakfast at Denver, so need to get to the restaurant. There are no seating times for breakfast, just turn up. Menu is again surprisingly good. „Railroad French toast“, continental breakfast, omelette selection, grits…
The train has a fairly long stop in Denver. Once we leave Denver we will be heading straight into the Rockies, so nabbing a seat early in the observation car is essential. We plonk down on one of the few seats left with an older couple from Devon. They’re with their family doing a similar trip to us. Eventually the train sets off and the terrain quickly starts to get decidedly more rocky(!). Over the next several hours we gain altitude and pass through fantastic canyons and increasingly mountainous scenery. The thing that strikes me is that the Rockies are not at all like the Alps. The Alps are rugged and pointy, but the Rockies are „smoother“ and more rolling I guess, but still impressive. Commentary is provided in the observation car by a guide from the National Parks Service who gives plenty of information about what we are passing and answers questions.
We cross the continental divide through the impressive 10km long Moffat Tunnel, which opened in 1928 to replace a long and winding route that used to be impassable at times in winter. The train makes several stops to drop off and pick up passengers. Often no more than 5 minutes, but you can still get off to stretch your legs and enjoy the mountain air, including Vail, should you fancy a spot of skiing (or snowboarding, of course!). A stop later in the day at Grand Junction is long enough to make food and souvenir purchases at the „last stop before the desert“. The store clearly has a deal with the Amtrak conductors as the train stops for quite a while here and the location of the store was announced on the train before arriving – with great emphasis on how we could get chocolate and sweets not available on the train!
Lunch and dinner follow throughout the day with further conversations with yet more new people. A deeply religious couple from the south who are friendly enough and are taking the train to California to have a change from flying. There’s a guy from Chicago with his young wife from Puerto Rico. For dinner today I opt for the famous Amtrak steak. Yet again I’m impressed with the quality of food available on the train. The steak is perfectly done (medium, of course) and served with a baked potato.
As the evening arrives we are entering Utah and the desert really is starting. Impressively barren landscapes are appearing – at times these are almost lunar. These views are not accessible from the road, there’s no road as far as the eye can see. The sun is slowly setting which makes the landscape even more spectacular. I chat with a guy on his way to visit his son in Salt Lake City – he find the train easier than flying as it calls in his small town in the Rockies.
As it gets dark we chat in the downstairs bar with the couple of Devon again with a few drinks. They retire to bed and we get chatting to the group of younger people at the next table – definitely a more eclectic bunch. Around midnight we reach Salt Lake City where there is a 45 minute wait. We step out on the platform and continue talking with the group – a Nepalese guy who is going back to San Francisco after deciding he hated his job in New York, a hippie guy who basically seems to travel the wherever he feels.
We eventually head off to bed after the train departs Salt Lake City.
I wake up as we are travelling across the vast deserts of northern Nevada. Nothing as far as the eye can see in all directions and just the outline of a few mountains visible in the distance.
Again we head off to breakfast. We will arrive in Emeryville today just after lunch, where the train finishes its journey and a bus will take us across the bay to San Francisco.
We have several stops for leg stretching today. We have a stop at the delightfully concrete station in Reno, NV. The guy heading to Burning Man leaves the train here. It’s fantastically hot outside, which is very noticeable the second you step off the air conditioned train.
„All aboard“, we now continue on into California through across the Sierra Nevada mountains. The landscape has suddenly turned a lot more green after the great deserts of Utah and northern Nevada. More signs of civilisation are also appearing. Once again a guide has joined the train to provide commentary in the observation car.
After lunch we leave the mountain valleys and slowly begin rolling into the San Francisco Bay Area with several brief stops for people to get off. We’re passing more towns and signs of human activity that we’ve seen in total since Denver. Plenty more industry too.
We roll into Emeryville ahead of schedule. The conductor makes an announcement to apologise for arriving about an hour early and promises that they will try not to be so efficient next time. The train empties out onto the platform. Plenty of photos follow with the engine that has dragged us all the way from Chicago. The train will be starting its return trip to Chicago a few hours later.
The weather in the bay area is super hot, though at least the station building is air conditioned. It’s quite a small and modern station building – nothing as grand as the Union Stations of DC and Chicago. It’s functional for the small numbers of passengers it sees. We are told the Amtrak connecting bus to get across the bay to San Francisco will arrive out the front of the station and to wait there – the driver has supposedly been notified that the train was early and is supposedly „on the way“. We stand outside for a loooong time. Some Amtrak connecting buses to other places turn up and leave, but not the San Francisco bus. The station staff assure us that it is coming though.
The bus finally arrives – at the originally scheduled time. Oh well, at least we’re not going to arrive late! Some of the people we’ve got to know on the way are heading off in different directions so we say goodbye and head to board the bus. Now the staff on both trains between DC and here have all been great. Efficient at times, but never rude and mostly very friendly. This Amtrak bus driver on the other hand had clearly decide
d that he despised passengers and that having to do one’s job at the scheduled time for the scheduled duration is a supreme inconvenience. He rudely barked that bags for different stops in the city go in different parts of the hold. He barked this only once and refused to speak to people when they wanted to check with him that they’d put their bags in the right place. We got on the bus and finally departed.
The views of San Francisco as we crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland were brilliant. The traffic in the city is predictably terrible, more so as it’s getting towards rush hour on a Friday. We arrive at the bus terminal, the first of a few stops the bus makes and where we get off. We fetch our bags whilst the driver gets furiously angry and shouts at a passenger who had put his bag in the „wrong“ part of the hold – the poor guy had not been stood by the bus when he originally barked his orders.
Rather than take 3 seconds to open the other hold door, the driver preferred to be angry and shout. This bus terminal is actually a temporary corrugated shack, for lack of a better description. A huge new multi-model interchange is currently being built a few blocks away which should be a much better point of arrival as this temporary terminal has no direct access to the subway or rail services.
The whole journey has been wonderful except for this fantastically unpleasant bus driver. We head out of the bus terminal to find the hotel by foot. There is quite a bit of public transport here, but the hotel is not so far away and easier than figuring out how to use buses with all the luggage. San Francisco seems like a great city (and it was!).
Crossing the US by rail on the Capital Limited and California Zephyr was overall a great experience. There are a few routes from Chicago to the west coast and I’m very keen to
try the others in the future. Even better, I booked quite a few months ahead and the whole trip from DC to San Francisco cost about $350 – with a sleeping compartment and all meals inclusive. A fantastically good deal!