Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief From Chicago to Los Angeles

Trip Reports

Long before my grand adventure through Canada and the Midwest was hatched, I was planning to take the train home from Chicago. I’d always wanted to do a long distance train in the US, and here was a great opportunity since the kids didn’t actually start school until the middle of the following week. As much as I wanted to ride the rails, I had to convince my family to do it too.

After all, airfare was expensive but the train was MORE expensive. Our two roommettes for the four of us ended up costing about $500 a person. But this wasn’t just buying transportation. This was buying a 40 hour experience of pure entertainment… with meals included. The kids were excited, and my wife was… willing. So, the plan was put into place.

We thought about the family suite, but a friend suggested that it was better to do the roommettes. They automatically assigned our cabins and we were in two of the rare first floor roommettes. But I’ll get to that later.

I had to drop the car off at O’Hare, because Dollar had nothing anywhere closer, so I drove out and met a friend for lunch. He dumped me at a Metra station, and I met the family outside Union Station from where this guy was apparently trying to get to Florida.

Since we were in the sleeper car, we had access to the Metropolitan Lounge. We quickly got lost in the maze of underground tunnels but eventually found someone to point us in the right direction.

Once inside… oh my, this was not a good first impression.

The lounge was dingy, and that’s being kind. The main sitting room was filled with worn and stained couches. There were TVs tuned to some sporting event.

A meager snack area had a few bags of chips, sparkling water, and a coffee machine that appeared to be out of order. Separately, there was an area to pay for drinks if you felt so inclined.

We were scheduled to leave at 2:50pm, and they called for boarding about 40 minutes prior. We were led into a corridor that dumped us out into the boarding hall. Then it was out to the tracks. The sleeper cars may be the highest class of service, but they are also the longest walks. We had to pass three coach cars in the back, the lounge car, and the dining car before getting to our sleeper. Ahead of us was a transition sleeper — which I later learned is mostly for the crew but also has a few roomettes — and then two locomotives.

Our particular sleeper car was built in 1981, and it sure showed it. Being in the dark underground track area really highlighted the dull yellow lighting that was pervasive throughout the car. The recently-announced upgrade plan is a good start, but I’m guessing $28 million is not nearly enough.

Down on the bottom deck, there were three bathrooms and a shower on one end along with an accessible cabin/bathroom together. The other end had a family suite and four roommettes. We were in the two next to the family suite, across the aisle from each other. Upstairs, there were (I think) 5 bedrooms along with 10 roommettes. Everything was full.

Our energetic cabin attendant Luis greeted us and helped us get acquainted. We didn’t realize that there was no room for our carry-on-size suitcases in the roommette itself. That was unfortunate, because we would have packed differently. Instead, we could bring a personal item into the room, but it was constant shuffling out to the luggage racks to get anything else.

Within the roommettes, there are two large, comfortable seats that slide down toward each other in the middle and form the bottom bed in the evening.

It looks like there was at least one upgrade — an LED reading light — which was helpful, but only one side of the cabin had a power outlet. I took a seat with my son while my wife and daughter were in the other roommette across the aisle. Their door was broken, so we had to wait for someone to come and fix it. Luis looked frustrated. He said they had called that in to have it fixed and were told it had been done. Apparently not.

Though I can’t be sure, I’m guessing that ended up creating our slight delay. They didn’t even really fix it — just said it would likely hold once they got it on the track — but they told Luis how he could get it back into shape if needed. Despite all the horror stories I’ve heard of Amtrak delays, we started moving less than 10 minutes after scheduled departure.

We had gone upstairs which is where the pass-through doors would allow us to visit other cars. We went through the dining car which had yet to open and took some seats in the lounge car with the big overhead windows that allow for great views of… the south side of Chicago.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t start out so great, but it wasn’t long before we were chugging into Naperville and then beyond into the corn and soybean fields of middle America. It was a pretty afternoon, and I sat there reading as we watched the country go by.

Illinois got more scenic when we crept up alongside the Mississippi River. We followed it for a bit toward the south before crossing over on a railroad bridge into Fort Madison at the southeast corner of Iowa.

That was our first big stop, and passengers were allowed to hop off and stretch if they wanted. That’s also a point where they switched out our conductor. We learned that the engineers and conductors don’t work for overly long hours, but the cabin attendants stick with you the entire ride. That is a tough job that Luis had, though he was fairly new to it and did a great job the whole time. (He had previously worked the Pacific Surfliner, so he didn’t have those long distances.)

The dining car can only be used by those in the sleeper cars. Everyone else can access the cafe on the bottom level of the lounge car to pick up food and drink, but then they have to go elsewhere to find a place to actually sit and eat.

For those in the sleepers, you have to make a reservation for dinner either at 6pm, 6:30pm, or 7:30pm. They call you over the speakers when your group is ready to be seated.

Upstairs we found that they had nicely outfitted the tables with tableclothes and a rose. There was one menu for the entire trip, though it had different offerings for different meals. Dinner is a three course affair where you pick an appetizer, a main, and a dessert. You also get one included alcoholic beverage.

The food was served on plastic, so it didn’t quite live up to the “fancy restaurant” vibe that Amtrak seemed to be going for. Still, I was surprised that some of it was actually pretty good. No, not all of it… but the desserts were great, and the steak was pretty decent. I suppose I didn’t have high expectations, so it was easy to exceed them. Here’s the menu.

After dinner, we went back to the lounge car to hang out and watch the sun go down as we got nearer and nearer to the big evening stop in Kansas City. Luis had made our beds up, turning the bottom seats into a bed and then folding down the bunk up top. There is a separate, comfortable mattress with bedding that sits on top of the bed and a really, really great blanket to boot. I laid down to read and fell asleep before we got to Kansas City.

I didn’t wake up again until Topeka when we found ourselves in the middle of a nasty line of storms. That was enough to wake me up, but not for long. I went back to bed and didn’t wake up until the next morning when the sun was rising over western Kansas. The lush terrain of northern Missouri had changed overnight to the drier plains of Kansas. But yes, there were still plenty of farms.

Over a surprisingly tasty breakfast, we passed the Colorado line and then stopped at another sizable stopping point, La Junta — which is pronounced “la hunt-uh” according to the conductor. They should know since that’s another station where the conductors get swapped out.

As I understand it, the Albuquerque and Kansas City crews come to La Junta the day before, overnight, and then they get on the train to ride it back. While that happened, we stepped off for some morning air.

This is where things started getting interesting. We were following the Santa Fe Trail and reached the highest point just before the New Mexico border. I took a short video just before we got there.

We had been chugging up the mountains, twisting our way through valleys.

Right on the border, there is a lengthy tunnel.

And shortly after coming out the other side, we were in the Raton — (prounced “raa-tone” I think).

This is a beautiful part of the world, as is Las Vegas, New Mexico not much later on. After that, it was all downhill until we reached Albuquerque. I took that as an opportunity to take a shower. It is not the most comfortable experience, though the water was warm, so I can’t complain all that much.

When I was done, we went for lunch, and I had a loaded baked potato as we got closer and closer to Albuquerque.

Coming down the mountains just provides a really nice contrast in scenery. We had some wooded mountain areas the led us into lower, drier climes.

Albuquerque is a big stop, and we were supposed to be there for about an hour.

Like in Kansas City, they refuel the engines in Albuquerque, and they do maintenance inspections to make sure everything is running ok. Though the train was ok, the doors were not. My wife and daughter’s door had again broken, and Luis told us there were two others onboard in the same shape. The maintenance people came, and seemed to sort of fix it again. But Luis told us that the people in the family suite had gotten off in Albuquerque and it was empty the rest of the way. If we wanted it, he could put us there.

We thought about it over dinner as we passed through the wide open expanses of western New Mexico. The terrain was just stunning with red rocks, big mesas, and distant, powerful thunderstorms creating a panorama like no other. We decided to stick with the roommettes for two reasons. First, there are two normal beds and two short beds in the family suite. I’m not sure my son would have even fit in the short bed. And second, the main beds go side to side in the family suite, so slowing down can knock you right off the bed. That’s not the case in the roommettes where the beds face front-back.

Instead, we just used the family suite as our own sitting room as we made our way toward Arizona, giving us a truly memorable backdrop out the window.

After awhile, it was our turn for dinner, and this is where I tried the signature steak. Like I said, it wasn’t bad at all.

We pulled into Gallup on the western end of New Mexico as our last daylight stop. After stretching our legs, we came back on and decided to head to our rooms to watch the sun set. There is nothing like a sunset in the Desert Southwest.

with nothing to see outside, we’d call it a night. I was still awake and reading when we reached Flagstaff.

I had asked Luis what the morning was looking like, and he said we were only about half an hour behind, but you never knew what would happen. I asked him to explain that, and he said that Barstow in California can be a real mess since that’s where there’s so much freight traffic rolling through. Amtrak takes a back seat to them in priority, so you never know if you’ll be stuck.

We were also told that breakfast was only served from 5am to 6am the next morning, so we figured we’d just skip it. After a good night’s sleep, I found myself awake before the sun rose. This time we were in Victorville, in the high desert just outside of the LA Basin, well past Barstow. I was glad I woke up, because after Victorville comes the Cajon Pass through the mountains toward San Bernardino. It was fun to watch the twisting and turning, playing games with the 15 freeway winding back and forth.

Once we reached San Bernardino, the fun was coming to an end. We went through Riverside and then paralleled the 91 freeway. Little did I realize that there was a stop in Fullerton before getting to LA Union Station. Fullerton is a little closer to our house than Union Station, but it is tiny, easy to navigate, and would shave off about an hour from our trip, so we hastily threw our stuff together and got ready to jump off.

Throughout the train ride, I had been surprised to see so many Amish people onboard. Apparently they can ride the trains as long as they aren’t operating them. Luis told me that many of them come out this way and then go down to Tijuana for medical care. Sure enough, others got off with us at Fullerton since that was the first stop where you could transfer to the Pacific Surfliner down to San Diego.

Unlike those connecting travelers, we were basically home. We waved goodbye to Luis, hopped in a Lyft and got home before 9 in the morning, ready for a full day of work.

So how was it? I absolutely loved it. Would I like a more luxurious experience with a more comfortable and larger bedroom? Yeah, of course. But the stars of the show were the never-ending panoramic vistas of America, and that did not disappoint. If you ask my wife, well, she liked the views as well, but I’m pretty sure she won’t be doing this again.

And so ended my Planes, Trains, and Automobiles adventure. If you missed any, you can see the past posts here.

19 comments on “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief From Chicago to Los Angeles

  1. Amazing. I’ve done three long distance Amtrak rides in sleepers, and it’s a great experience, as long as you’re in it for the experience and don’t view it primarily as efficient transportation. I’ve also done a bunch of shorter coach trips on long distance trains, which I also love (and if you’re starting at the beginning of the line, the reliability is fine and the price is good). We used to frequently travel Seattle to Wenatchee, WA: take the train east from the beginning of the line then fly west on Horizon.

    (Re on time: my experience is pretty good at the beginning of the trips — D0 in airline parlance — which makes sense because that’s what Amtrak can control. It’s when they’re on the freight railroads and thus at the mercy of the freight lines that the delays can get epic. This is also why the northeast Acela/Regional/Keystone trains are quite reliable: Amtrak does know how to run a good operation when they control the tracks. We had a 12 hour delay and ultimately cancellation 15 years ago while on the Amtrak Cardinal from Chicago to Charlottesville, VA due to a freight derailment up ahead. Stuck in a rail yard in the New River Gorge, which is absolutely stunning and which I had never heard of. There was a very large contingent of Amish travellers on that trip too. The worst part of that was, when the buses came and to pick us up after 12 hours, we got three hours (!) on the road before our driver got a radio call that he was the only accessible bus and we had left the wheelchair passenger behind. Time to turn around and pick him up!)

    1. Great article! You have lived one of my dream vacations. I wanted to go cross country in the United States and Canada on the train. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be possible. It was great to live the experience vicariously through you. The photo were great.

    1. Legally, they do, but only if they’re in their slot. Once they miss their slot (even if they missed their slot because a freight train delayed them), they can get hosed. And good luck enforcing that law against freight railroads on tracks owned by freight railroads.

  2. Great report! Thanks!
    While I’ve never taken a long distance train journey in the U.S. I’ve taken lots in Europe – but in the ‘good ole days’.
    I’ve always wanted to do what you did, but I too would probably have trouble getting my wife to come along!
    Thank you for a well written, very entertaining report!
    I look forward to lots more – in addition to your usual excellent fare!
    Kind Rgds

  3. Nice review and a good read

    But if you think the Chicago lounge is bad, checkout the 1st class lounge at Union Station in DC……10, no, make that 20 times worse.

    And don’t get me started on the Acela 1st class “enhanced” WiFi ….. dial up is faster.

  4. The truly awful thing about the Metro Lounge at Union Station is it was just relocated and renovated four or five years ago.

  5. A little trick to keep your carry-on bag with you in the roomette during the day is to put it in the upper bunk and close it up. Most of them fit up there.

  6. Now we know why Thomas the Tank Engine was on your mind yesterday.

    I do wish the US had more rail; I enjoy flying but love the ability to see the land and allow someone else to get me there. Far easier to do in Europe and parts of Asia than most of the western hemisphere.

    Thanks for a great travelogue series. These types of reports are the icing on the cake of a well-rounded and well thought-out blog.

  7. Great trip report! Between 2011 and 2016 I took four overnight trips on Amtrak’s long-distance Western routes, covering all routes except the Southwest Chief (so that’s still on my to-do list). Always with children. Back in the day you could transfer Continental miles to Amtrak and redeem for very good sleeper car deals, so right before that ended we transferred all of our family balances to Amtrak and used that over the next several years. We did find that amenities went down during that 5-year period; most disappointing for the kids was that around 2014 the dining car stopped serving pizza. Still it was a great experience, and I hope to get to do this again some time.

  8. Excellent review. I went from Flagstaff, AZ to Naperville, IL in June. Had a roomette. Perfect for one and a carryon bag.
    You didn’t mention that they will serve your meals in your room which I did once otherwise I enjoyed meeting people while I dined.
    Such a memory of days past.
    We were only about 2hrs behind schedule.
    I couldn’t turnn off the shower so had to have attendant help before I drowned. Big pile of towels in bag in shower made it a little difficult.
    All told…so.much fun I want to try another route. Remember you can’t get dining car if not a two day trip. Other routes just have club car. So I’m told.
    Take your iPad and books and music..chill your way across the USA

  9. I have heard that wifi isn’t good on the Southwest Chief and other routes. This would be a deal breaker if unable to work on a long Amtrak trip. Union Station in Chicago is where the Untouchables movie was filmed so it’s cool for movie buffs but the lounge isn’t too great. That station also gets very cold in the winter months. The big bonus is you didn’t get shot while going through South Chicago :) Nice review and I learned more about the Amish, strange.

    1. Dan – You did not hear correctly. The wifi on the Southwest Chief isn’t bad… it’s nonexistent! To me, this was a bonus, but if it had fast wifi I would consider taking it for other trips that aren’t true vacations. (I mean, not all the way to Chicago, but if I had to go to Albuquerque or something, it might be a good option.

  10. Thanks for your informative travel journal.
    I love taking amtrak. My experience is mostly in the NE corridor between DC and NY. I really want to take a long distance overnighter in a sleeper car.
    I visited the auto train station in Lorton VA a few months back and was surprised to see the size of the station and large amount of travelers. (Virtually packed) I had no idea that route was that successful.
    I am planning for my retirement and not one for just hanging out , chillin. I would love to still contibute while enjoying the beauty of our great land.
    Thanks crankyflier for taking us along!

  11. I’ve taken a few long distance train trips but haven’t been on 1 in several years. I’ve loved them all but my favorite was from New York to New Orleans about 45 years ago. They had the most beautiful lounge car in service back then. It was an older car. You walked a staircase with an etched glass panel on the top. There was a piano in the car and some comfortable seating. From people who have taken that train recently it seems the car is no longer in service. I loved going across Lake Pontchartrain. It seemed we were floating on water!

    I always purchase a roommette. I like the privacy. If I want company, I can go to the lounge car. People are quite friendly on trains. There’s always someone to talk to. One interesting thing, there are private semi-bathrooms in the roommates on the single level east coast trains. Not so much bathrooms as a toilet disguised as a seat and a small pull sink. It’s the double level trains that have shared bathrooms. My dream now is to take a coast to coast train trip across the country.

    The souther route out, the northern route back. I love train travel. It’s lots of fun!

  12. Back in 2012 I took Amtrak New York – Chicago – San Francisco – Portland – Seattle and I highly recommend the California Zephyr route. It sounds like the food has gone downhill a bit (at least they are serving it in the restaurant car on long distance routes) and the rolling stock is even older, but I had a great time. I came back across Canada on Via Rail which was even better – the food was really good, and they have one-person cabins while Amtrak makes solo travelers pay for two-person roomettes. It pays to book early for Amtrak, plus there are assorted discounts including for for seniors. (Trip report here: https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/the-lake-shore-limited/ )

  13. Enjoyed your trip report Brett, a great experience for your family. My mother was a Courier Nurse for the Santa Fe Railroad on the Super Chief in the mid 1950’s based in Chicago. She was a registered nurse but served more as an ambassador/hostess on board the train, she did help deliver a few babies and met several movie stars. As a family we rode from LA to Kansas City in 1971 shortly after Amtrak was formed where the service still resembled much of the iconic Santa Fe markings of great service, food and elegance as the American West unfolded out your window, a memorable childhood experience.

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Cranky Flier