Sunday, August 11, 2013

One-way ticket on the midnight train

When I planned my trip out to Colorado to deliver the car to my brother, I had another goal in mind for this trip as well – to finally meet in-person one of my co-bloggers on the vegan blog and Facebook page we run together, Vegan Vagabonds.

While Evelyn and I had met up a few times last year, I had yet to meet Tessa in-person.  So, when Evelyn told me Tessa was planning a visit to Colorado near the same time I’d be there, I knew I just had to make a slight detour to surprise her (and a good excuse to finally see Evelyn’s home town of Manitou Springs as well!).

I recently did a blog post about that reunion on the Vegan Vagabonds site, so I won’t repeat that all again here, but the post did elude to some travel near-catastrophes and delays as I started my one-way trip back to Chicago.

When originally making my travel plans, my first thought was to book a flight on Southwest out of Denver, as they always seem to have the best prices, particularly on one-way tickets.   Looking at transportation options to get to DIA from Colorado Springs, there also seemed to be a few good shuttle bus companies to choose from with a number of daily luxury buses to choose from.

But, to get home at a reasonable hour, I would have had to leave Colorado Springs very early in the morning, and I hated to impose on my hosts to wake up so early to drive me to the bus.   So, that’s when I got the bright idea to take the train back to Chicago instead!

Rather than leave at the crack of dawn, I could leave late afternoon the day before and make it home about the same time as the jam-packed airline travel day.  Yes, I’d have to cut my visit a few hours shorter, but most of that time would have been sleeping anyway.  Besides, I’d never taken an overnight train before, so this would be a new “adventure” for me….and, indeed, it was!

I started to feel a tinge of regret the minute Evelyn dropped me off at the bus station in downtown Colorado Springs.  This was not the nice, small, gathering of yuppies waiting for their airport shuttle bus…this was Greyhound in all it’s seedy, miserable glory!  Would it live up to it’s reputation?

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I scuttled my bags up the stairs past a homeless guy (check!), made my way up to the counter to the young clerk in training who seemed to have never seen an Amtrak-issued bus ticket before (check!) and had to ask the older, jaded clerk to help him (check!).   Finally, after the 2 clerks punched all the right keys to generate a new Greyhound ticket (to cover the Amtrak ticket) and got my bag checked in and tagged, the older clerk said “don’t forget to tell her about the delay”.  Say what????

“Oh yeah,” the trainee clerk said, “your bus is running about an hour and a half late.” (JACKPOT! We have a winner!!!)

It didn’t really hit me until I sat down and started calculating this new information.  Knowing that there was road construction between here and Denver, I knew the trip would likely take longer than normal, and “normal” was now supposedly getting me there just 5 minutes before my train was to leave!

Seeing that this was not a bus just dedicated to shuttling passengers to Amtrak, but a regular Greyhound bus route, I thought I’d better check if the train station would be the first stop once we left.  So, back up to the counter I went to play another round of “customer service roulette” with the nitwit and his mean mentor.  Of course, the nitwit clerk said “that’s a good question” and did not know the answer, and equally expected, the mean old mentor said, curtly, “anyone’s guess…it’s up to the driver to determine the stops.” 

Feeling increasingly like I’d be dropped off to a deserted train station in the middle of a deserted downtown Denver after dark, I next thought I’d better call Amtrak to see what they would do about this.

Hold music, “your call is important to us”, more hold music!!! 

Finally, a customer service rep answered  “Good question, let me ask my supervisor”.  “Well, no ma’am.  If the bus is late, and you miss your train, that will be up to Greyhound to determine if they will cover your overnight accommodations.”  But my tickets were purchased totally from Amtrak!! 

And thus, I now realized how stupid it was to ever book a travel itinerary with 2 different transportation providers, (even if only one of them was ticketing the whole trip)!  Ok, lesson learned…now it was time to get desperate and “phone a friend” (Evelyn & Tessa)!

So, as my previous post explained, my Vagabond friends immediately jumped to my rescue and did their very best to get me to Denver on-time to catch that train…only to also fall short due to the world’s worst traffic jam in Denver that night.  But fotunately, a stroke of luck shown down upon us….the train was running 3 hours late!

After a nice, leisurely dinner together in Denver, the gals dropped me off at the Denver Amtrak station about an hour before my train was to arrive.  Perfect!  I found a free plug to charge my phone and a comfy seat to sit and wait.

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and wait and wait….over an hour had passed and still no train at the station…..

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finally, around 11:00pm our train rolled in (now, just 4 hours behind schedule!).

All aboard!
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When I booked my train ticket, I had thought about getting a sleeper car berth, but it was almost $300 more than coach, and I figured for just a 17-hour train trip and one night, I could make due.  So, I found my way to my assigned aisle seat in Coach next to a pleasant young chap from Wales who was touring the U.S.

By the time we got out of Denver, it was nearly Midnight, so I pulled my trusty travel pillow and a lightweight blanket out of my backpack, and reclined my seat for a night of “cat napping.”  Thank goodness I also had put a baseball hat into my pack too.  Those blue “night lights” were still pretty bright!

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As dawn broke, it was finally becoming a calm and pleasant journey.  I walked back to the club car to watch the sunrise over the cornfields of Nebraska looking out the big panorama windows.

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The train was continuing to fall further and further behind schedule.  It was now running 6 hours behind. 

Apparently, both of the 2 Amtrak locomotives had run into mechanical issues as the train went through the Rockies.  At one point, they were stalled on the tracks for almost 2 hours until a freight train locomotive (loaned out by Union Pacific) arrived to start “towing” the train cross-country.  It could certainly handle the load, but unfortunately, it’s top speed was about 10 mph slower than the Amtrak locomotives.  So, the conductors cautioned us that the trip would continue to fall behind, but they promised to shorten each stop to try and minimize the delay.

Stretching our legs in Lincoln, Nebraska and inspecting our “tow truck” locomotive--

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After a pleasant morning and lunch, I was just starting to doze off for a nap when the female conductor came through and said sternly “This is not a question.  At the next stop, I need you to move back 3 rows, and I’ll need your seat mate to move up 5 rows.”   Huh?  I thought we had assigned seats?

Well, there would be a family of 12 boarding in Ottumwa, Iowa and they would need seats together.  Why the preferential treatment?  Because they were Amish and were all riding on the train for the very first time coming home from their grandfather’s funeral.

My new seat was across and right behind them.  Very nice and pleasant folks with one small exception.  They had been waiting on the platform in the hot afternoon sun for the delayed train to finally arrive.  Once they got seated around me, I learned one important new fact about the Amish…they don’t wear under-arm deodorant! Surprised smile

Club car to the rescue!!!

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I enjoyed the late afternoon sunlight views as we crossed the Mississippi river from Burlington, Iowa over into Illinois--

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The poor train, however, continued to be plagued by delays.  We suddenly stopped 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere because one of the air hoses between the cars had become disconnected

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And later, another 20 minute delay when we learned a track ahead that we were on was broken, so the train had to go in reverse a few miles to pick up a parallel track that actually worked.

Finally, as the clock crept closer to midnight (well,10:30pm, actually), I was finally delivered to my destination…

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A mere 8 hours behind schedule, but my little yellow Tracker (that I had dropped off at the station before I had left) was still patiently waiting to reliably transport me home!

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Who’s to say if flying home from Denver might not have suffered a similar delay, but one thing’s for sure… it would never have been quite the cast of characters, nor as memorable as my “midnight” train!

23 comments:

  1. Should have booked the sleeper. That's the only way Hub and I travel on Amtrak.

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    1. Yep, I will indeed do that from here on out! I will also avoid an Amtrak ticket with any "connectors" on different trains or a bus!

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  2. You gotta love those public transportation companies. We've heard about the dilapidated public rail and bus sytem in the U.S. but never thought it to be entirely true.

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    1. That's what my seat mate from Wales said too! I, generally, have enjoyed my Amtrak trips in the past, but those were shorter "same day" trips. I can't wait to try out the European rail system-- I always hear such great things about that! Sure wish the U.S. would get their act together and beef up Amtrak more.

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    1. Something must have told me when I booked my travel that a train trip would make a much more entertaining blog post than a boring old airplane flight!

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  4. I have been wanting to take an Amtrak trip. Glad you posted this. The club car looks great ~ nice viewing spot.

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    1. Yes, all calamities aside, I really did enjoy the slower pace of a train trip versus the TSA strip-searches, rush-rush runs through an airport terminal, and more cramped coach seating of an airplane flight.

      Most Amtrak coach seats are the size of first-class airplane seats, and there's a huge amount of room between seat rows so you can fully stretch your legs out. You can also bring along your own food and beverages and don't need to rely fully on the snack bar or dining car (which turned out to be a GREAT thing for me considering the extra 8 hrs on the train).

      Next time, though, I think I'd do a longer multi-day trip and book a sleeper car berth. The increased price is a bit more tolerable for a multi-night trip vs. just an overnight.

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    1. Well, I think my "travel adventures" were still pretty tame in comparison to your recent mishap with the flat tire in a no-cell zone! Hopefully, much smoother travels are now in store for both of us!

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  6. Lynne, can't believe all these incredible twists and turns and unexpected events! But you survived with your great spirit, and now have an abundance of cocktail party stories to tell for years to come!

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  7. Sounds a lot like my Amtrak trip between Denver and Chicago except mine was in winter so weather slowed it way down and they had to put us up in a hotel in Chicago to catch the next train out. I found sleeping on the coach seats pretty easy and I could get a 2 seater by myself. We didn't have to stay in the assigned seats - just took my chit from above the seat. It was also a good thing I brought my own food because the train ran out of food on the long, long delays. The trip back to Maryland was worse because it was a full train. One thing I hope they fix is to put electric plugs in every car in every seat. It was more comfortable by quite a bit on the train than in airports and planes when I've had long layovers and delays. Nice to know Greyhound is just as nasty as they ever were - not.

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    1. I noticed more electric outlets on this long-distance train than the Amtrak I took a few years ago that just short routes around Illinois and the Midwest. On this one, we had 2 plugs beneath the window for each pair of coach seats....and they actually worked!!! There were also a good supply of outlets in the club car (the one w/panoramic windows).

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  8. OMG! What a great spirit you have, Lynne! We should have taken you directly to Denver to begin with, but you are so thoughtful. You took a bad situation and made it humorous. I have to say that everything I read about Greyhound and Amtrak indicate they are an embarrassment to our country. European trains are completely different, thank goodness! So happy I got to see you! Thanks for a good laugh!

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    1. Well thanks for chauffeuring me up there. Our little road trip in Toots was great fun!

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  9. I know the train is not perfect, but I still prefer the train to an airplane. But I would not go on a greyhound bus. I would find another way to get to the station. And, the train from Denver to Chicago or Naperville is always late. My daughter lived in Denver for 13 years, I rode that train a lot. You could have boarded the "Southwest Chief" in a town south of Colorado Springs to get back to Chicago.

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    1. Yeah, I thought about the Southwest Chief, but the logistics and timing were not as good (at least on paper!) But, yes, no more Greyhound for me, and I'll still prefer driving or taking the train to most airlines any day with the exception of flying first class!

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  10. Wow, what a trip home. I'll bet you were soooo happy to open the door to your Tracker and climb inside.

    I took the train once from Northern California to San Diego. Unfortunately the train didn't go all the way, and I had to catch a Greyhound bus part of the way. I know what you mean. Nighttime in a Greyhound station can be a little scarey, for sure. I was so glad to get there and see my son waiting, and my trip was normal, no problems at all.

    I applaud you for being so calm and doing what was needed to get you home. I'm glad it all turned out okay. :)

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    1. Thanks Barbara-- I sure was happy to get in that Tracker. Not 5 minutes later, the heavens opened up and it poured big buckets of rain! The Colo Springs Greyhound station was seedy enough in mid-afternoon, would not have wanted to be there after dark! The Denver Amtrak station, on the other hand, was perfectly comfortable and felt quite safe.

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  11. Definitely a trip to remember and much easier to laugh about after it was over. Just another reason to travel by RV.....I know you were "delivering" this time and couldn't RV.

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    1. Yes, had I had a big Diesel Pusher motorhome, I could have rented a uHaul trailer and towed the Subaru out there on that. But neither of my Sprinters were going to cut it! At least Millie was happy-- she got to spend the week at her favorite doggie "resort" rather than have to do a boring old roadtrip with me!

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  12. Lynne, I just started reading your blog and you have inspired me greatly. I am in the early planning stages of being a single gal RV'r and every post of yours gives me confidence. Thank you so much!

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