amtrak review: the lake shore limited on a crowded holiday weekend


We took the Lake Shore Limited* to visit my BIL's family for Thanksgiving, in Chicago. NYC - Chicago = roughly twenty hours on a train. We did not upgrade to a sleeping car (even though after the first leg I really wanted to).

Mostly, taking the train is just like I'd imagined: nice scenery, much more comfortable/ roomy seats than an airplane, no hassles with security/ liquids/ baggage, no pressurized air issues. More fun than driving because you can get up and walk around and don't have to stop the car for breaks/ sleeping. We had one or two spots of boredom, but I downloaded the new Angry Birds Star Wars game in Chicago and that kept Remy entertained for hours. (I flirted with buying a new portable DVD player**, since neither of our laptops has a DVD drive, but decided not to. We also didn't preload any movies, which would have been a good idea, since there was no wifi on the train. Oh well.)

But there are two things that keep me from seriously considering taking this train ever again. (And since we're averaging over one visit to Chicago a year, to see my BIL's beautiful, growing family, that really says something, since I hate flying and our aging car is not up to doing many more cross country road trips.)

One: the bathrooms. Holy Awful Wow! It's been a long time since I've had to deal with bathrooms that bad for such an extended period of time. A cleaning schedule would be good. I know everyone is cutting personnel  but just swiping it down for three seconds once a day would be seriously helpful. Hell, if there had been gloves and a mop/ rag/ cleaner available, I would have done it myself! It was that bad. I did not get the sense that the bathrooms had been deep cleaned in a mighty long time, they had what felt like months of grime and smelly buildup. (I do not get that feeling in most airplane bathrooms. They're not as clean as someone's house, but they're usually not disgusting in this extreme sort of way.)

I suspect that design played a huge part in this awfulness. It was hard for my son to aim at the toilet correctly because of the shape/ awkwardness of the seat. I cleaned his mis-aiming up, but I doubt many other people did that for their kids or themselves. And there wasn't a sign (like in airplanes) telling you to close the lid before flushing. Eeee. And no, that isn't Amtrk's fault, per say, but design matters. And having someone, anyone, cleaning those bathrooms daily would really have helped. It takes a few days for pee to start stinking like that; I have a six year old, I know these things.

Two: the overhead lights were kept on overnight. After our first leg, I called Amtrak and asked about upgrading to a sleeping car (it was just significantly more $$ than I wanted to pay, sadly) and the lady on the phone assured me that usually the overhead lights are out at night, with only one set of "dim lights" being kept on to be able to see where you walk. This is how the lighting on a red eye flight works. It is doable. (I can't sleep on an airplane for totally different reasons, light has nothing to do with it.)

But no: the same "dim light" was kept on for the second leg. It is not dim. At all. Since I can't sleep with anything covering my eyes (sensory issue), I hooded my face with a sweater, which sort of helped.

I did get much more sleep on the way back because  instead of sharing a seat with a stranger, I took the seat next to Remy; this helped a lot. M, sharing his seat with someone who talked on the phone until the wee hours, had a worse night sleep coming back. Also, I bought a good neck pillow*** while we were in Chicago and used my coat to support my back, which meant I didn't hurt my hips the same way, thank goodness.

Now, we were taking the train on an unusually crowded holiday weekend. I get that. The train was full. I understand that, too (it would have been nice to have a row of four seats to ourselves, but the train was sold out).

And all of the employees we came into contact with were totally pleasant and helpful (contrasted to airline employees who are seriously overworked and unhappy these days, poor souls). A lot of our waking experience was good (except those bathrooms).

But overall, I wish more resources were being used to upgrade/ better our US train system. Having taken long train rides now in four other countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada), I can honestly say our trains do not compare. I wish we would put national resources into creating a high speed (solar? biofuel?) train that *at least* connected the coasts.

Or at least clean the bathrooms more than once a month.

One can dream, right?

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* I think it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: we paid for our own tickets. Amtrak does not know who I am and did not sponsor this post. I do hope they address my issues by cleaning up the bathrooms, but I wouldn't hold my breath (except if I'm actually in one of those bathrooms!).

** One day I will get around to writing out the full story of our 3 week trip to Europe with a two year old, including tips. There are glimpses here and there on the blog, but I have a lot of photos and thoughts I've never shared.

*** All links are unaffiliated. Meaning I do not get paid to promote anything, I'm just telling you what works for me.