The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure - (Part 1)

Many Americans fantasize about a romantic vacation via passenger train - hop on and see America the Beautiful through the huge windows of a lounge car while sipping an adult beverage, letting the clickity-clack of the rails lull you to sleep at night after being tucked in by a friendly porter. My family and I did too so we decided to actually take one rather than just continue to idle talk it to death. Living in Arkansas and with there being a train station in the capital of Little Rock, we thought it would be a fun and easy adventure to take Youngest-daughter to Grand Canyon National Park before she heads off to college in the fall. Gather 'round and I'll tell you what we experienced fulfilling our great train vacation fantasy.

Union Station in Dallas
The first thing I discovered was there is usually only one train per day each way out of most places where there is a station. The train into and out of Little Rock is named the Texas Eagle and it is scheduled to arrive and depart at 11:39 pm. As in midnight. And the station is located in a part of downtown that is not a crime-ridden slum, but I certainly would not feel comfortable walking around the area after dark. Plus the parking lot where we would have to leave our car for the 10 days we would be gone is totally open - no gates, no guards, no nothing to at least give a hope it would still be there when we returned. Since we have newer vehicles we would like to hang onto and we didn't want to ask any of our Arkansas friends to drive us that far (we do not live in Little Rock) that late on a work night, it ruled out catching the train in Little Rock. Fortunately, we have family in Dallas (where we are originally from) who would let us leave our car at their house and give us a ride to and from the big Amtrak station there. It meant a 5-hour drive to and from, but we would much rather do that and not worry about our car still being where we left it when we got back.

One of our desires was to stay inside the park at the Grand Canyon. We also wanted a car to be able to come and go as we pleased rather than be restricted to a tour group itinerary. After checking out the schedules for the connecting trains and the logistics of getting a car, seeing and doing what we wanted and getting back home, we concocted plans for our "Great 2017 Train, Car, Plane Adventure." Basically, it consisted of taking a train from Dallas to Flagstaff, Arizona; renting a car and driving from Flagstaff to Las Vegas, Nevada with stops in Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon; then flying from Vegas back to Dallas. Man plans, God laughs (and it turns out, so does Amtrak).

Amtrak requires you to pay when you make reservations and to ensure you get seats on the day you want, you should make those reservations at least several weeks in advance. We made ours a month in advance. We also joined the Amtrak guest rewards program and started receiving e-mails advertising specials. Several weeks later, one of those e-mails advertised tickets to Grand Canyon were on sale for less than what we paid so I called up Amtrak to see if they would do something for us. The friendly reservation person was very helpful and refunded almost $200! However, if I wanted it refunded to the credit card, there would be a 20% charge so I would only get $160 back. Or I could get a voucher for a future trip for the full $200. A friend and I had been planning a train trip later this year so I chose the voucher. Now I wish I hadn't because that future trip is in doubt. If you make reservations on Amtrak, I suggest you watch their emails and call back a few days before you leave to make sure you pay the minimum.

The train leaving Dallas was scheduled to depart at 2:40 pm and arrive in St. Louis, Missouri, our connecting point for another train heading west, at 6:24 the next morning. A week before leaving, I received an e-mail informing me the schedule had been changed and departure from Dallas would now be an hour later. I wasn't too happy about this as it meant the person who was driving us to the station, my brother-in-law, would now be required to drive 35 miles back to his home in rush-hour traffic, a long and unpleasant experience. Great, let's start our vacation by feeling guilty.

Five days before leaving came another e-mail saying there would be no train service between Dallas and Longview, Texas so we would be riding a bus 130 miles and catching the train in Longview to continue on to St. Louis. Turns out Amtrak does not own the tracks it runs on. Commercial train companies like Burlington Northern and Santa Fe own the tracks and the owner of the tracks between Dallas and Longview scheduled it to be shut down for maintenance. Not happy about this, but OK, we can rename our vacation the The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure.

Inside the Dallas station
The Dallas train station is certainly nothing fancy, but the architecture is interesting, it was fairly clean and the ticket agent was friendly and helpful. Try not to get there too early though as the seats in the waiting room are hard and not comfortable. There is also no food except for a vending machine so eat before you get there. 

Our bus arrived on time and much to our surprise, it proved to be a nice, new tour bus equipped with overhead storage and a bathroom. The A/C worked great and the seats were very comfortable. There were plenty of those seats available and most folks took one toward the front so we took 3 toward the back, the wife and daughter sitting next to each other with me right across the aisle from them.

We had been waiting a few minutes when a scroungy, homeless-looking man came on board. There were empty seats all along the way and 3 rows of empty in front of ours, but of course, he decided to come to the back with us. I was watching him closely and saw him staring at my daughter the whole way. She recently turned 18, but looks 14 and this creep was probably in his 30's, dressed in dirty clothes with filthy, greasy hair and smelling bad. Youngest-daughter was dressed conservatively in long pants and a t-shirt so it wasn't like she was inviting stares. 

The bus just before leaving - plenty of open seats
He took the seat right behind my wife and daughter, leaned forward and started talking to them. He said he had just flown in from Mexico City and was taking the train to Little Rock. None of it made sense. I had noticed him walking out of the station and he didn't have any luggage, plus why would you take a plane from Mexico City and then board a train in Dallas for Little Rock? The Dallas airport is miles away in a suburb and it's not easy to get to downtown Dallas without a car or very expensive if you take a cab. It would have been cheaper to stay at the airport and fly to Little Rock. He also said he had to get to Little Rock before midnight, but with the change in schedule, the train wasn't scheduled to arrive there until 12:40 and trains often run late. All lies coming from his mouth. He then announced he was going to get something to drink and left the bus. I got my wife and daughter to switch seats with me. Several minutes later he came back on the bus not carrying a bottle of water or anything else. He immediately looked straight toward where my daughter had been sitting. I very much enjoyed the confused look on his face when he saw me sitting there instead. He sat down behind me and a few minutes later, he "casually" stretched his arms out over the empty seat next to me while glancing across the aisle at my girls. By then it was getting dangerously close to either him getting off that bus or police would be called to pull me off this pervert so I turned and gave him a warning death stare. He saw my look and quickly responded that he was just stretching his arms and does his arms over the seat bother me? "Yes, as a matter of fact, it does." He got the obvious message, mumbled an apology and moved to the empty row of seats in the very back. Fortunately for me, his stink mostly went with him. He remained very quiet back there for the whole 2 hour ride.

Once we pulled out of the station, things went smoothly. I passed the time by watching the scenery and looking down into cars as they passed by. For some reason, it seems most people feel invisible once they get inside their car and become insulated from the world around them. Since it was rush hour, it was almost entirely individual drivers sitting behind the wheel looking totally bored, but occasionally there would be something interesting that came along. Like the guy dressed nicely in shirt and tie driving a clean, new-looking Lexus sedan. It was interesting because the front passenger seat and floorboard was covered in discarded fast food wrappers and bags and the whole back seat was piled from floor to ceiling with crumpled up clothes. I'm sure there is an interesting story there so I spent some time thinking up various scenario's.

Longview station
We pulled into the Longview station just two minutes behind schedule. There are two waiting rooms inside, but it was still very crowded. We managed to find two seats on a bench so the girls could sit with our luggage and I stood nearby. There was a ticket agent standing in a corner who told us the train was there, but we couldn't board until another bus with more passengers arrived and that would be about 30 minutes. Either there was no air conditioning in the station or it was broke so it was very hot and uncomfortably stuffy. We took the time to use the restroom, which turned out to be a good decision which I'll explain later. I then ventured outside and took a few pictures. We would eventually determine that most train stations are not in the better part of towns and Longview was no exception. Because of the number of people there and because it was in the daytime, I felt perfectly safe walking around, but it's still best to be on your guard when there are burglar bars on all the windows and fences with razor wire around the parking lots of the buildings around the station.

Across the street from the Longview station
After the next bus arrived and unloaded its passengers, we were told to line up outside and wait for the ticket agents to direct us to our train cars. Once outside, they sorted us into groups, those with sleeper rooms first, then all the rest of us. A little information here - list price for our three coach seat tickets from Dallas to St. Louis was $379. List price for a sleeper car (called a "roomette" by Amtrak) would have been $745, almost twice as much. For the extra $366 during the 14 hours we were on the train, we would have gotten a private "room" with 2 seats which at night, convert into a bunk bed with an upper bunk bed that is lowered (you either have 2 bunk beds at one time or 2 seats because if you lower the upper bunk, there's not enough room to sit in the seats). You also get free meals and 2 free bottles of water. The roomette is just barely big enough for the seats/beds to be enclosed by a wall about 6 inches from the edge of the bed. The main reason we didn't get a sleeper car on this portion of the trip was because there would only be room for two of us to sleep, we would only be getting one meal and not even getting a full night before getting off at 6:24 the next morning. And the coach seats are advertised as "featuring wide, comfortable reclining seats with ample legroom for your comfort." We figured it wouldn't be worth the extra money just for that one night.

Waiting in line to board in Longview
Amtrak advises you to pack light and use smaller luggage as large luggage will be placed in a car that may not be accessible during your trip. With that in mind, we each had 2 small suitcases and a backpack plus a pillow and blanket. After being directed to our assigned car and being given a little slip of paper with "StL" handwritten on it, a porter watched as we struggled with all of our luggage trying to get up to the second floor of the car through an extremely narrow, steep stairway. So much for the vision of a friendly, always helpful porter assisting with whatever you need. With much difficulty, we finally made it up to our car only to find it was already very full with only a few single seats available. It dawned on me the agent I had purchased our tickets from had assured me we had 3 reserved seats, but she had not promised they would be together. I looked around for a porter or other Amtrak employee, but none were in site. I finally decided to hell with this and walked through our assigned car, through the doors at the end and into another car. Hey, look at this, there's almost nobody in this one! 

The seats are arranged 4 in a row with 2 next to each other and an aisle between the two sets. We chose 2 seats together and an empty 2 seats directly across the aisle, stowed our luggage in the overhead and sat down. We were a bit nervous as we expected someone to come through and tell us to move since we weren't in the car they told us to be in, but the train started moving so we relaxed a bit. A little later a porter came through and walked up to us. Uh oh, I thought, he's going to tell us to move, but no, he just asked for the little slips of paper they had given us and stuck them under a small metal rail along the overhead bin. I asked him what were those for and he explained it indicated where we were going to get off so if we were asleep, the porter on duty would wake us up. He also said if we happen to switch seats, take the paper with us and put it above our new seats. On Amtrak, a "reserved seat" just means you are guaranteed a seat on the train and not any particular assigned seat. Throughout our whole trip we found Amtrak would never really tell you anything unless you asked. It's like they assume all passengers are frequent and know everything there is to know about Amtrak travel so if you don't know, ask!

What we saw from our window for several hours
Excited to finally be on the train, we sat back to watch beautiful views of the countryside glide by our window. That's part of the travel by train fantasy, right? For the next few hours, reality was far different. Right outside of Longview, we started traveling through woods - traveling very fast through dense woods. The trees were very thick and very close to the train. So close in fact that several times limbs would brush against the train. Sit back and relax, read a book or something because you will not be seeing anything on this particular section. I retrieved my laptop and decided to pass the time by wasting time on the internet using the advertised free wi-fi. Nope, can't do that. No connection available. In spite of what the advertisements said, there is no wi-fi on the Texas Eagle. "What? No internet connection? Dad, you said there would be wi-fi available!" Wonderful, just wonderful.

Having eaten a large lunch earlier in the day, we decided to get a light supper in the snack car. I wouldn't say it was bad, but I wouldn't say it was good either. Everything hot was frozen prepackaged items heated up in a microwave. Microwaved hamburgers are not good. No lettuce, no tomatoes, no nothing but meat and a soggy bun. Ketchup and mustard from those little single-serve packages made it kind of palatable. The wife got a sandwich of some kind and the daughter got an individual-size cheese pizza. Add a small bag of chips, a bottle of water and a can of Pepsi and $26.25 later, you have a small meal for three. We did, however, enjoy sitting in a restaurant-type booth eating our food while watching the scenery through the large glass windows even if all we could see was trees. Amtrak allows you to bring on food and that's what I recommend you do if traveling coach. In my humble opinion, pretty much any food you bring on will be better than what's available in the snack car.

Soon after our meal, the scenery outside our window improved greatly. And then the sun began to set and we experienced what we had thought train travel was all about. We sat back, relaxed and watched a wonderful sunset and the lights of small towns flash by. It was a wonderful couple of hours.

Once it got dark, there was nothing to be seen unless we passed through a town. The lights were turned down low, it was quiet except for the rhythmic clicking of the tracks and we were all tired from our busy day so we curled up with our pillows and blankets for a nap. And that's when we found out the seats, pretty comfortable to sit in for a while, were not comfortable to sleep in! There's not a lot of padding and when reclined, the metal bars of the seat frames are raised up and are extremely uncomfortable. I had two seats so I tried to curl up across them, but the bars of the frame forced me to give up that idea within just a few minutes. Youngest-daughter, being short and slender and much more "bendable" than her parents was the only one who managed to fall asleep.

Each coach car has seating in the upper level and 5 or 6 toilets on the lower level along with space to store medium-size luggage. Of course, nobody told us that, but we saw signs pointing the way. Needing to get rid of the Pepsi I had at supper, I made my way down and found all six of the toilets not working. There were signs on three of them saying, "Out of Order" but the other three should have had signs on them also. I went back upstairs and told the girls the situation. They got up and when they came back, they told me a couple of toilets were working in the next car behind us. By the time I got down there though, several people were coming back up saying there were no more working toilets. Going from car to car, I finally made my way to the front of the train where the "roomettes" are located and where us lowly coach travelers are not supposed to go, but nobody stopped me. Fortunately there were a couple of functioning toilets there. A few minutes after getting back to my seat, a porter came through saying, "All the toilets are broken and we cannot repair them until we get to St. Louis. Sorry for the inconvenience." I felt sorry for the folks who had not recently taken care of their toilet business as St. Louis was still 7 hours away. Sorry for the inconvenience indeed!

After a night of very uncomfortable, fitful, off-and-on sleep, I woke up early the next morning, early enough to see the sun starting to peek out. Lord help me, I really needed to make a trip to a bathroom. There's a reason why us "more mature" people have learned to never pass up an opportunity for a bathroom break. Hoping for a miracle, I went in search of a functioning toilet. I was sorely disappointed. You can't go from one car to the next on the lower level so my journey from car to car consisted of going down those tiny, turning stairs and then back up when I found only broken toilets, repeat, repeat, repeat. Desperate, just before suffering extreme embarrassment, I entered one and lifted the lid. It was the nastiest, foulest, most disgusting thing I have experienced in maybe forever - full to the brim of raw human waste. I came close to throwing up right there. Slamming the lid back down, I turned to the sink for relief and was extremely grateful for being a guy right then. Surprisingly, the water and sink drain still functioned so I spent several minutes using paper towels and soap from the dispenser to thoroughly clean the sink. That was most assuredly the cleanest sink on that train by the time the foulness from the toilet drove me out. Lesson learned - if the train stops at a station for more than just a couple of minutes to let people on and off, take the opportunity to use the station's restroom!

Asleep coming into St. Louis
Shortly after returning to my seat, the porter came through and told us St. Louis was coming up in about 15 minutes. He also said the train would be held there to get the toilets fixed. Fortunately for my wife and daughter, they had slept until just before arrival, but after the train stopped, a quick exit and dash to the ladies room was in order for them while I waited with our luggage. We then had an 8-hour wait before our connecting train arrived. So far, our eagerly awaited train trip had been mostly the train trip from hell. We were certainly hoping the next leg would be more in line with what we had expected.

(part 2 will be posted 7/14/17)