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I won a raffle at the 2011 Flatonia (Texas) Railfest. It was for two round-trip tickets from San Antonio or Houston or Austin to New Orleans or Los Angeles or Chicago. My wife and I chose Chicago due to the expectation that we could rely on public transportation to get us around the Windy City.

We upgraded the coach seats to a roomette. For us, a room was beyond what we wanted to spend. We are also the kind of folks who do lots of research before we go anywhere. We had each day planned out.

We chose to begin our excursion from a whistle stop; San Marcos. The Amtrak stations in both San Antonio and Houston are in scary parts of town, and the notion of parking our car in the open lot at either location was ruled out. I called the San Marcos police department and found that there had been only one vehicle break-in reported in the station lot there in the previous six months.

For a whistle stop, we were surprised that perhaps 20 people got on that Saturday morning at 0832. The train was too long for the platform, so they spotted first to board the coach class and front sleeper, then for our sleeper (last car on the train). Our car attendant was Reggie; he was diligent and polite. He informed us that breakfast was being served, but first things first: the depot (and its restrooms) had not yet opened, and we just drove 2 hours from our home. The small Amtrak lavatory fit our immediate need. We dropped our luggage in our roomette and hurried forward to the diner, with that short pit stop.

You can see the Amtrak menus on line. Our meals were generally good, but more than a few times items that were on the menu were not available. The dining car staff was again efficient and affable. Three times we ate breakfast, but never had the chance to try the famous railroad French toast.

After breakfast we settled into our room. The Superliner Roomette measures about six and one-half feet by three and one-half feet. The two seats face each other and don’t leave a lot of leg room when you are 74 inches tall. The seats themselves are wide and comfortable. Walking the train, one notices that the coach seats are also wide, with a huge pitch. They also recline to a level that allows for a decent place to sleep, with leg and foot supports. This is probably what airline seats looked like in the 1950’s.

After dinner, Reggie made up our beds. We jokingly referred to the top bunk as the ‘shelf’ and it’s mattress as contact paper. What was not a joke, however, was the night we spent. We turned in about the time the Eagle reached Arkansas. My wife noted that the rail was no longer welded, but most-likely joined with wood screws, or staples. We were nearly tossed out of bed numerous times due to the deplorable condition of the track. I don’t know how freight can even traverse track that bad. Note to parent railroad- you should be ashamed!

We arrived in Chicago on Sunday at about 1400, on time. We grabbed our Rick Steves’ backpacks and hoofed it over to the Quincy Chicago Transit Authority (cta) station. On the Elevated (L) platform, things looked odd. (Remember, I said we planned things thoroughly?) We curiously watched a few trains go by. I went up to the station attendant and asked what was going on. She said they were running the trains backward that weekend. We went down to the street level, crossed, and inserted our passes (purchased on line, well in advance) into the turnstile. They weren’t accepted. Another inquiry and we learned that you can not use your pass at the same station or on the same bus within a thirty minute period. They showed these yokels through the gate.

Over the next week we rode the cta buses and trains for our sightseeing. You learn to avoid the rush hour, if at all possible. It is amazing how many people can be jammed into a train car or bus. The L motormen (or motor women?) admonish the passengers, beyond the automated voice telling you “[ding dong] doors closing”. Both the trains and buses are very informative, telling you the next stop, and, in the case of the trains, on which side the doors will open. We found Chicago commuters to be generally good-natured. Everyone is plugged into their music device, texting, sending e-mails, or computing, that is if they aren’t asleep. You are reminded, by wall placards, to give up your seat to the handicapped and elderly, and Chicagoans readily comply, usually without being asked. The cta vehicles and stations were cleaner than we expected. (I had to wonder what it’s like to climb the stairs and wait on an L platform when it is snowy or icy.)

Friday came all too quickly. We rode the Red Line south toward downtown, transferred to the Brown Line, and made our way back over to Union Station, in the shadow of the Willis Tower. The Amtrak waiting area was very crowded and we boarded our train about 2 hours late due to equipment problems. Visions of 1971 sprang to mind.

What a different trip this was. Our car attendant pointed us to our Superliner, now the one directly behind the locomotive, in the dark cavern that held our platform. He told us to go upstairs and “take any open room”. I walked back out and informed him that there were no open rooms. He told us to stand in the side entry door area and wait for him. Once well underway, he directed us to a room after he (I suspect) evicted a squatter. Even the air conditioning was sluggish, being extremely slow to cool our entire car.

The dining car staff was not nearly as friendly as the crew on the way up. (I will cut some slack for one of the attendants, as he may have suffered some brain injury in the past.)

Nighttime brought Arkansas, and the train apparently riding on the roadbed again. If you haven’t experienced this first hand, you really can’t imagine it. The Circumvesuviana in Italy was a mag-lev in comparison. At least this time the top bunk was more than six feet long, so I could spend half the night up there, spelling my poor wife who was nauseous from the car’s violent pitching. The horn can also be quite loud when you are about 100 feet from it, even through the sealed windows.

Nearing our stop, we pondered the options of future travel.
On the train- Pros: You can walk around, you can get food that is actually edible, and you meet and talk with your fellow passengers. Cons: Slower than air travel (if you don’t count all the ‘extras’ of parking and getting through security), Roomette can be a might cozy, and parking at train stations can be risky.
Either mode offers its own unique views of the passing scenery.

So, would we do it again? Perhaps, but differently. We might just travel coach. And we would spend more time in Chicago so we could eat more Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, and eat at Buca di Beppo again, and eat at, well… you get the idea!
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New Member
I'd be curious if you called the police in San Antonio and Houston if your perception of the risk to your car parked at those stations matches reality.


Active Member
I did not call the respective police for those cities. But living, or having relatives in each of them heavily weighted my decision to not utilize their stations.
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Active Member
Oh, I forgot to mention- Flatonia will be a stop for the Amtrak running between San Antonio and Houston.

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