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Plane Vs Train: Guest Review of Amtrak Business Class

About ready to head north on the Amtrak Cascades. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

About ready to head north on the Amtrak Cascades. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, with NYCAviation.com, recently took an Amtrak train ride from Portland to Seattle and wrote a review to compare the experience to a flight. Here is his review in his own words:

AMTRAK REVIEW

Cheers: On-time, spacious, crazy low price
Jeers: Equal to driving time; three times as long as a flight

Coming off the recent experience with a Superliner car on a Vancouver BC to Seattle trip, we had to admit expectations were high. To refresh, coach class seating on the trip involved a crazy amount of legroom, generous recline, and almost a full window of view for an exceptionally low price. We had wondered at first when boarding in Vancouver if we accidentally boarded the business class car by mistake and were pleasantly surprised to discover we had not. If coach class was that impressive, we figured that business class had to be damn near palatial.

The train station in Portland. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

The train station in Portland. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

So you can imagine our surprise when taking advantage of priority boarding to car one—exclusively business class—and discovering that the legroom we expected to be a sea of freedom ended up being about equal to the exit row on your average 737.

Curses.

But alas, we discovered we were set up. See, apparently the BC cars were an aberration. Normally the route utilizes the ones we were now looking at—Talgo IV articulated tilted—but we had a substitute from the usual cars the day we traveled from BC; the double-decked Superliner, which is normally only used on long-haul routes like Chicago to LA’s Southwest Chief. Because the Superliner is built for long-haul days-on-end trans-cons, coach class is built to enable someone to comfortably call that seat home for long periods of time. The Talgo car we were on, again the usual cars for this route, was built for high-speed. The train set can travel up to 110 but is limited to 79mph by safety restrictions.

Still though, first impressions can be deceiving and we settled into seat 7C in the 2-1 configured cabin. Fresh from an assignment that ended only an hour earlier, we set up right away to get to work while the train pulled away from Portland’s Union Station on time. The massive laptop came out right away. A meal tray easily unlatched and set itself a comfortable distance away, large enough to handle the behemoth computer. Between the wide seat width and sitting along the aisle we did not feel cramped: there was enough room to juggle our laptop, iPad, camera, and paperwork without too much trouble.

Work-space comfort? Check.

Amtrak Cascades Business Class cabin. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

Amtrak Cascades Business Class cabin. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

Thanks to needing to run some high-powered photo editing software, it desperately needed some juice. No worries though, as there is a plug right there by our feet along the floor.

Power? Check.

Finally, we very much needed to catch up on some email and otherwise utilize the world-wide web. While Amtrak’s free WiFi service is much maligned and apparently notorious for being awful, the service ran largely without issue the entire trip. A few hiccups through tunnels and again when trying to attach several large files were the only times that the service stopped or slowed at all.

Connectivity? Check.

The combination of spatial comfort, constant power, and consistent connectivity made getting work done on board a real breeze.

Inside the Dining car on the Amtrak Cascades. Notice the ceiling. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

Inside the Dining car on the Amtrak Cascades. Notice the ceiling. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

Halfway through the trip, somewhere around Centralia WA, we took the opportunity to visit the dining car and grab some grub. We ordered a cheeseburger ($6) with a bottle of orange juice ($2.50). The burger, which was heated via microwave, was pretty good. It was not the same as ordering from a decent restaurant or cooking on your grill at home, but it was fairly large and filling. The orange juice was, well, orange juice: pretty self-explanatory. Thanks to a $3 coupon given to the folks with a biz class ticket, the final bill came out to $5.50: not bad and cheaper than most airline meals.

The dining car itself is pretty nice, reflecting that these particular train sets are relatively new by Amtrak standards. They were introduced to the stock in the mid 90s and serve exclusively on the Cascades route. The ceiling bears tiny lights that we imagine were stars and featured a map of the route. The overall aesthetic was inviting, featuring a flowing bar-style counter and a number of booths. While we were there, the car was mostly empty. There was another passenger nursing a beer and a conductor taking a break.

Getting back to our seat, we finally had time to enjoy the experience more fully. With the comfortable leather seat fully reclined (estimated 8 inches or so), we caught a brief cat nap before spending the rest of the trip soaking in the seriously stunning scenery whizzing by out the window. Our train, scheduled to arrive at Seattle’s King St Station at 2145, pulled in early at 2130.

Amtrak Cascades car. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

Amtrak Cascades car taken in Seattle. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / NYCAviation.com.

The trip was very enjoyable overall: food was reasonable and priced well, the seat was relaxing and comfortable, space sufficient to accommodate work and relaxation; all while arriving ahead of schedule. That being said, we are unsure if upgrading to business class was entirely worthwhile. We had intended to compare and contrast against our BC-Seattle trip, but given how different they were that no longer seems fair.

What we can say is that coach class is configured in a still generous 2-2 layout, with some sections having family style seating. WiFi and power outlets are standard. The recline was still more than your average airline coach recline, and legroom not that much less than in business. Coach was pretty full and fairly loud while business was about 50% full and very quiet. Given that the upgrade cost a measly $16 ($13 after applying a $3 AAA discount), resulting in a $42 total ticket price, the upgrade definitely seemed like a better deal.

And of course you receive many of the other benefits of train travel: no crazy invasive TSA security, no hours stuck behind the wheel waiting for a car wreck to clear, more space and comfort, and the ability to sit back, relax and let the world pass you by.

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22 comments to Plane Vs Train: Guest Review of Amtrak Business Class

  • Nice review. Love riding the rails. 2 trips last year. Chicago-Sacramento-Seattle on Amtrak (California Zephyr & Coast Starlight) was a very nice trip, beautiful scenery, nice staff. The other trip was Toronto-Vancouver on VIA Rail (The Canadian). This rail trip was extraordinary. Jaw-dropping scenery, great food, exceptional staff. If you have the time highly recommend train travel. It’s relaxed. You can take in the scenery and speak with people in an unhurried way. Probably what airline travel was like “back in the day.”

  • Cook

    This review deals with the Amtrak’s CASCADES service, a state(s) supported ‘commuter’ service between Eugene, OR and Seattle, and, sometimes on to Vancouver, BC. Three important points: 1) When it is good, it is Very Good. 2) all too often, the route North of Seattle is a bus and that sucks. 3) Please don’t confuse the limited route CASCADES service with Antrak’s Coast Starlight, Vancouver BC (or Seattle?) to Los Angeles – a whole different animal. CASCADES is usually on time and very clean. The Coast Starlight (CS) is neither. Cheerful Service on CASCADES is the norm; on CS it is not. Food (snacks, really on CASCADES is OK for what it is. Food Service on CS, where you are a captive for about 36 hours and no other choice, SUCKS. I speak from the personal experience of many trips on both services. I will use CASCADES (Eugene, OR to Seattle, WA) in a flash. To Los Angeles, I’d rathere walk on my heels.

  • BobB

    A good and accurate story, apparently from someone not very familiar with trains but who may become more familiar after these experiences. Ignore commenter Cook’s comments about the Coast Starlight–he apparently has never found the dining car, for example, limiting himself to the snack bar in the lounge car, and his experience of service is far different from what I’ve experienced on many trips. The train also is usually on time or very close these days (some years ago it did have problems in that regard). In addition, for those who can afford it–and the price for two in a small room isn’t all that bad–the Starlight has sleeping car service with a separate lounge car for sleeping car passengers (the only Amtrak train with that amenity) and meals included in the fare. And, of course, the coach seats are exactly those that the writer described for his trip from Vancouver BC to Seattle. The scenery, especially northbound out of LA, is outstanding.

  • Traveling from EL Paso, Texas to Vidor, Texas was an interesting ride. I had a single room to myself. Which was fantastic but I did not like that each time the bathroom was flush. The order came through my little room. It stinked bad. I had to leave the room and go to the View car or dinning car just to sit and enjoy the trip. Every time I was tired would go back to my room and lay down.. But that smell kept coming in and it just made it uncomfortable.

  • Brad

    I rode Amtrak from Tampa to Miami a few years ago – the noise level was worse than any commercial jet I’ve flown on. A child played a Disney DVD at full volume, and when the DVD ended she just kept playing it over and over again. A young woman listened to music, without headphones, at a loud volume. When I politely asked if she could turn the volume down, she only turned it up louder. I tried to listen to my own music with headphones, but couldn’t hear a thing over all the noise around me. So, yes, the train was on time and the seating was comfortable, but the noise level discouraged me from trying Amtrak again.

  • Peter H. Coffin

    Further elaborating on the element of timeliness of long-haul trains… Rail travel schedules work a little differently than airline schedules, because there are often MANY intermediate stops. A typical train route will run one train per day on the route and it may stop twenty times a day. Generally all the intermediate stops are terminal stops for the passengers involved. They’re either getting off the train, in which case, the train arriving late isn’t really that big a deal, or they’re boarding the train, in which case the *last* thing they want is the train to show up early. There IS NO OTHER ONE until tomorrow. So, if someone’s ten minutes late getting to the station unavoidably, and the train’s 15 minutes behind schedule, they’re HAPPY. So there’s very, very little reason for a train to be on time or early at anything other than the final stop. The schedule even reflects that. The last few stops of a long run will drop off passengers only. Those stops are allowed to be early. They will also last no longer than the minimum amount of time required to get the leaving passengers safely off. If there’s no one getting off there, the train won’t stop. That’s where the train makes up the majority, if not all, of the 30-90 minutes of delay it’s probably built up over the route. But if you’re riding from LA to Seattle on a train going to Vancouver, you’ll never see that made up time.

  • Ryan Pierson

    Safety improvements are under way for Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland. Will be complete in 2017, allowing cruising at 110 mph between stations.

  • Judy Goodwin

    I have ridden the Coast Starlight from Salem to Martinez many times over the years and I have always had very pleasant experiences. I used to ride the lower level coach but since I’ve gotten older I get a bedroom. The employees have always been nice and helpful. The CS is often delayed because when the government gave the freight companies the track they allowed them to include in the contract that freight trains always have the right-of-way and the Amtrak train has to wait until the freight has gone through. I stood in Martinez one night and watched as a freight made the Amtrak sit and wait for them to pass, then stop and unload. We could see our train on the siding and we waited for about an hour while the freight train unloaded. We could have been in Sacramento by the time the freight train was ready to move but they wouldn’t let the Amtrak train through. So don’t blame it all on Amtrak. I’d still rather travel by train than airplane any day. I find it very relaxing. And I don’t have to go through all the security checks.

  • Gene Holiman

    If you are not in an unnecessaary hurry like so many people are, Amtrak is the only way to go. I’ve been to California twice, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans from Texas and thoroughly enjoyed each and every trip, every minute!

  • John Guidinger

    I have traveled many thousands of miles by rail all over the US and Canada, starting in the 1940’s as a kid. (I remember steam locomotives!) Amtrak has its problems at times primarily with on time issues and cramped conditions. But Amtrak travel is still fun, socially connected, environmentally friendly, and convenient for downtown to downtown travel, especially if there are transit or rental car connections. The Talgo trains between Portland and Seattle that David Brown used are wonderful, but they are limited to lower speeds until track and signal improvements can be made. We all need to get behind the development of fast modern passenger trains and demand the improvements here in the US that were made years ago in all other first world countries.

  • Mary Quidachay

    Hi- We rode the Cascade Talgo train when my daughter’s 4th grade class had an opportunity to go to the Capitol in Olympia,WA!!! The kids & chaperones loved the train ride more than touring the capital! The service was great, we had two cars to ourselves. The kids talked about the ride & the view, we got to watch a movie and by the time we got home they wanted to go back just for the train ride!! My daughter & I have since rode on the Cascade lines and again- it is the best way to commute from Vanc. to Seattle & back!! We normally get car sick or air sick but with the movie, smooth ride & view it was an awesome way to travel!!! The cost was great especially with the price of gas, no traffice to deal with & the train is clean, the passengers are very friendly, and you don’t have to worry about paying or losing your luggage!!! And you don’t even hear any clanging like you do on Amtrak!!! I recommend it to all our family & friends!!! It is a great way to travel with your family-highly recommend the Cascade Lines!!

  • Lindy Califano

    I love to visit train stations, specially the older train stations. It really gives me some sort of Nostalgia during the old days.;,”*;

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    http://www.caramoantourpackage.com“>

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  • Good overview, pretty straight up. I will be traveling this summer on business class via Amtrak, so this article helped ease my mind a bit. I was worried it was going to be really bad. Pretty sure I’m not going to eat the food on the train, lol.

  • L. Fitzgerald

    is there a time schedule for this train–places of departur and cos?

  • Justin

    Why sacrifice comfort and luxury for a faster trip? Trains are the safest form of transportation and the only way to go.

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