Trains and slow travel are virtually synonymous, and night trains are the old school form of train travel. During our 2013 and 2014 annual migrations between Montana and the Mediterranean, MudGuide had the opportunity to ride night trains across the US and Western Europe. In addition to Amtrak, we journeyed between Lisbon and Madrid and Rome and Paris in sleeper cars. In this article we review and compare US and European night trains. We think that you’ll be surprised by the results of our night train experiences.
Amtrak: An Uneven Renaissance
The US has actually seen a major uptick in train travel due to the re-emergence of religious warfare in the 21st century and the concomitant economic collapse that have driven up the human and monetary costs of sadomasochism at 30,000 feet. And while most American train passengers are trying to save money, Amtrak is also making a play for those travelers who can afford to fly first class but have come to fear the spontaneous erection of guillotines just behind the curtain barrier while loathing the company of their obnoxious companions in big seat/free cheap booze/bad food land. Except for the flagship Acella and other trains plying the Boston-Washington corridor, first class on Amtrak means sleeper cars, and the (admittedly oxymoronic) publically funded for-profit company is trying, in fits and starts, to bring back a little of the romance and glamor of the bygone days of train travel.
In general, we have found that Amtrak night trains deliver a very comfortable travel experience when compared to any form of domestic commercial air travel. While Amtrak staff can be rude and incompetent at times, such incidents occur far less than during a typical US domestic post-9/11 air travel experience. More importantly, most Amtrak passengers are much nicer to each other as well as far less evil and vicious in dealing with staff than is the case in the unfriendly skies.
Mago Tip: If you’re a jerk on the plane, don’t even think about it on the train. A more lenient approach to passenger service and safety should not be taken as a license to behave badly on an Amtrak train. The train staff can be tough when they need to be, detraining smokers and drunks to the gentle embrace of local law enforcement officials. There are worse things than having an extended chat with the FBI after you are deplaned for acting out. For example, you can be turned over to the tribal police at one of the many stops on Indian reservations in the western US. I learned to respect tribal police growing up in Montana, and I can guarantee you that they are 100% color blind in their treatment of obnoxious drunks. So unless you want to be body slammed, cuffed, thrown in the general direction of and bounced several times off, a squad car, don’t smoke, get obnoxiously drunk, or even threaten violence on the train.
There is a noticeable (though diminishing) stratification amongst Amtrak night trains. In 2013 and 2014 we rode the Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) four times, the Capital Limited (Washington DC to Chicago) and The Silver Star (Boston to Miami) twice, and once each on the City of New Orleans (Chicago to NOLA) and the Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago). Of these, the Empire Builder and the Lake Shore Limited (along with the LA to Seattle Coastal Starlight, which we plan to review in 2015) are usually cited by Amtrak night train veterans as the premier routes. Mago Guide’s experience to date confirms this local knowledge. Firstly, these trains usually are equipped with the more modern two floor sleeper cars that have ground floor compartments designed for mobility impaired passengers. The second floor compartments have a much better view of the countryside than the older single floor cars, because they are the same height as the observation car. Amtrak’s “bedrooms” are very roomy and secure compared to European night trains. With a nominal capacity for a family of four, they are very roomy for two adults. The lower bunk is larger than the upper one and allows for two medium-sized top bunk-averse adults to pass the night, although the trade-off would be rather warm and intimate (or hot and crowded depending on one’s point of view) As an inveterate misopedist, I would not care to comment on the family of four experience (although the term “scarred for life” does leap to mind).
The non-sleeping layout is a long bench seat that holds two adults very comfortably, as well as a less comfortable but still quite serviceable opposing jump seat. A sink and mirror combination with small cupboards for towels and other sundries, and a floor-to-ceiling canister that contains the toilet/shower combination make up the rest of the cabin. Many of these compartments have interior doors that allow access to the adjacent sleeper for larger parties. The fairer sex will also appreciate the large mirror affixed to that door.
One of the lesser-known advantages of slow travel is that it actually boosts productivity. If you are comfortable, rested, and well fed, it only stands to reason that you turn out more and better product. Thus, the number and positioning of power outlets becomes a major issue. The newer cars have three plugs, but they are suboptimally positioned. It is impossible to plug a laptop brick into the one mounted above the bench seat by the compartment door. The other two are situated on the sink area, but mounted in such a way as to only accommodate a single brick, and thus awkward to use from either seat. We have been able to keep our various devices charged on journeys of twenty-four hours and longer but it requires both disciplined device rotation and courtesy towards one’s co-workers. Finally, the little table against the window between the bench and jumper seat is useful for holding food and drink, but not a lap top computer, dating as it does to the pre-IT era.
Mago Tip: Bring a power strip and use it to charge all of your devices at once. This way you can set up personal hotspots with your cellphones. Although Amtrak is in the process of installing Wi-Fi Internet access on their trains, 1) priority is being given to the commuter trains of the northeast corridor and 2) given current trends (see below) you just know they are going to charge you for it. Team Mago uses smart phone tethering to get on line and it works at least 50% of the time.
The older single floor sleeper car configuration is decidedly inferior. The layout is very similar but there is less overall square footage. This means that the bunk beds are shorter than in the newer cars, which makes them far less comfortable for anyone in the neighborhood of six feet. Although configured with larger windows than the newer cars, this does not compensate passengers in terms of light or views vis-à-vis the second floor compartments. There are only two electrical outlets, which removes a third of one’s charging options. Finally, the air conditioning and heating usually work better in the newer cars. There actually is more luggage room in the older cars, however it is located on high railed-in shelving about seven feet from the floor. Stowing heavy bags even while the train is stationary is not for the faint hearted in these first floor compartments. Another compensation (this time without any drawbacks) for getting stuck in an older sleeper car is that they are better lighted with more lighting combination options than the newer cars.
Mago Tip: Book a bedroom, not a roomette. Although these sardine cans with windows are much cheaper than bedrooms and can nominally sleep two adults, they are actually suitable for adolescents and single adults only. Also, their shared toilets and showers are located at the end of the car, which can be a long way away in the middle of the night. Be a traveler and bite the financial bullet or be a tourist and fly.
Both the old and new cars share two features, one quasi-endearing, the other not so much. Due to the execrable state of train tracks on so many of Amtrak’s routes, the cars have been subjected to intense abuse for so long that Amtrak engineers have turned to the ubiquitous employment of duct tape and wash cloths to dampen the attendant noise and vibration. In the last two years, Team Mago has noted the use of duct tape to seal the doors into adjacent sleepers when not in use to keep them from swinging open; as a replacement for the sink cabinet latch; and to soften sharp edges about the cabin that can become quite injurious on a severely lurching train. My favorite, however, was the use of duct tape as a surrogate for a failed rheostat on the air conditioning duct. Our steward told me to “just peel some of it off if you are too hot and seal it back up again when you get too cold”, and this process worked just fine.
Washcloths, however, have only one function. They are inevitably pressed into service to cushion the toilette/shower canister from the wall of the compartment so as to minimize lateral motion during ablutions or employment of the seat of ease.
The other feature involves soundproofing, or the lack thereof, between cars. One can follow most conversations in adjacent compartments, while flushing the airplane-style toilet in the next car could wake the dead.
Mago Tip: Book a sleeper that has only one adjacent compartment rather than two (at the central stairs or at either end of the car). Bring earplugs if you are a light sleeper.
The Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited also seem to have the best staff. In particular, sleeper car stewards on these trains have invariably been professional, friendly, fast, efficient, and discrete. The dining room staff is also a notch or two above their colleagues on the other night trains in handling food orders, efficiently seating passengers so that dining reservations are honored on time, and executing very commendable service as the train navigates particularly bad sections of track. Presumably the Coastal Starlight also evinces the same high quality staff (we’ll let you know).
All Amtrak sleeper cars are stocked with a self-serve coffee, juice, ice, and water bar that is very convenient (the coffee is actually quite decent). Morning newspapers are delivered to your compartment by the steward, who is also responsible for the security of your belongings when you are not in your sleeping compartment. The steward is there to assist with mobility challenged passengers throughout the trip, and he or she will also help the baggage impaired move their luggage about the train and stow it in specially built racks or compartments located on the first floor of the sleeper cars. However, do yourself, your fellow passengers, and Amtrak staff a big favor and check any luggage except for an overnight bag and electronics through to your destination. Since only large, usually urban stations allow checking and retrieval of luggage, it is doubly important to check bags through when you can; because many passengers bound for rural stops in the middle of the night with tight arrival/departure times do not have such an option and must rely on storage in the cars or in their compartments.
Mago Tip: If you are satisfied with your steward’s performance give her or him a nice tip when you detrain. I tip at least $10 per night per person and more if I particularly like the steward or if I have tasked him with a lot of requests during the trip. I also tip the dining room staff at least 20% of the cost of a meal sans alcohol for good service, even though meals are inclusive with first class Amtrak tickets.
The food on the three top-tier trains seems better prepared, based on our experiences, but the menus are basically the same across all Amtrak night trains. Meals in any Amtrak dining car are quite decent and certainly compare favorably to any type of domestic airplane food. One of the reasons Amtrak food trumps airplane swill is that the majority of dishes are cooked onsite, as opposed to partially cooked, frozen, thawed, and finished on a plane. Food is prepared in a galley adjoining or below the dining car, where you can glimpse the chef in full kitchen regalia (including a toque).
As mentioned above, sleeping car fares include all meals served during one’s journey. Tables usually seat four people and single travelers and couples are seated together for efficient service. Unless the train is seriously undersubscribed, you are going to eat with strangers at every meal, but that almost never turns out to be a bad thing. I would go so far as to credit communal dining as a major factor contributing to the general civility that is part of the Amtrak experience, and so lacking in every aspect of post-modern air travel. It ain’t the diner scene in North by Northwest, much less From Russia With Love (e.g., if you order red wine with your fish the waiter won’t bat an eye), but it is very pleasant to eat real food while chatting amiably as the countryside rolls by.
Sometimes trains have a slightly different dining car configuration (an older model?) with three person semi-circular booth seats at one end of the dining car. This is a nice change from the usual two across from two booths, because there is more room, a better view of the dining car, and couples often get to sit by themselves.
Mago Tip: If you want to minimize your interaction with other travelers at meals for whatever reason, book the latest possible time offered by your steward. Amtrak travelers like to eat early for a combination of reasons: 1) passengers tend to be in an older age demographic than air travelers, 2) they frequently have offspring in tow, 3) the views are much better during daylight hours.
Breakfast is quite good on Amtrak. The coffee is not bad, especially when stacked up against the swill passed out on airplanes, and portion sizes are quite large. Omelets, quiches, and scrambled eggs are quite decent. The potatoes with paprika and a little cayenne are down right tasty, while the maple chicken sausage patties are far superior to their pork brethren. Steel cut oats were at least a notch above edible. Unfortunately, the bacon sucks—too thin, par cooked long ago, limp, and insipid. But the biscuits ain’t bad.
Lunch is usually dependable if unexciting. We have found the salads to be the most reliable. The Angus burger is OK if you must have meat, but the specialty sandwiches are almost always much better. Since veggie burgers are uniformly vile throughout the macrocosmic universe, it seems unfair to single out Amtrak’s version for special abuse. The soup and salad combo is a reliable stand-by, but if soup is the test of kitchen, it is hard to give Amtrak anything higher than a C. Finally, for reasons that I have never been able to fully comprehend, the rotating special at lunch (as opposed to dinner) never seems to live up to its potential.
Dinner is definitely the best meal; as good as first class domestic air travel used to be, with live carnations on the tables nestled in little steel vases. The menu invariably includes steak, chicken, fish, and a vegetarian option along with a rotating special dish. Dinners are composed of first course salad, the main dish with sides, and dessert. The safest, and often the best, entre is flat iron steak. This cut from the neck of the animal has become very popular in the last ten years because it is tender, very flavorful, easy to cook, and not as expensive as other types of steak. Amtrak does a great job with their version, which is usually accompanied by a tasty morel sauce, decent baked potato (although you can usually substitute rice pilaf or fries), and a vegetable medley that has never been overcooked in my experience. Braised beef short ribs are hit or miss, but if the kitchen is on they are served with a very nice sauce that delivers decent flavor and a nice amount of heat. When the kitchen is having a bad night, the ribs are tough and the sauce diluted.
Mago Tip: You will find that all food venues on the train prefer exact change if at all possible and cash in general over credit cards. There is in fact a service charge for credit card payments. If you are desperate to break a large bill, try the dining car where such requests are always completed with alacrity due to the high probability of a tip, but don’t complain if you get all ones and be sure to leave them a little something if you want to assure decent service at the rest of your meals on the trip.
Another first class (sleeper car) perk is free access to Amtrak lounges. Located in all of their major stations, these havens are more comfortable and secure than the rest of the station, provide free drinks and snacks, good free Wi-Fi, luggage storage, and early as well as assisted boarding for all first class passengers. The desk staff at the lounge will happily arrange for porters to collect your luggage and deliver it to the train during the boarding process.
Mago Tip: Book early to secure bedroom compartments, especially in non-winter months. For the summer vacation period, as well as hunting and ski seasons in the west, you have to book a sleeping compartment four to six months in advance. There is a large and growing amount of demand for these berths, so be aware that slow travel often requires long-term planning.
Unfortunately Amtrak and the airlines have a converging business model due primarily to the need to cut costs to the bone in order to appease profit-hungry shareholders in the airline industry, and in the case of Amtrak, the cavalcade of clowns that camp out on Capital Hill at our expense. In March 2014 Amtrak announced that it was discontinuing many of the perks associated with their three top-tier trains. No more welcoming sparkling wine and chocolates, amenity kits, or wine and cheese tastings. All these cuts are being made in the name of satisfying the providers of Federal funding with revenue increases derived from cutting down on “food and beverage wastage.” It seems that Congress in all its unwisdom is forcing an airplane model on Amtrak where anything but the barest basics will become add-ons to the ticket price. Other evidence of cost cutting in the last year involve the replacement of glass and china tableware along with metal utensils and table linen with Styrofoam and plastic crap. Oh and you used to be able to get eggs cooked any way you wanted, at least on the top tier trains. Now the only “choice” you get is between scrambled eggs and omelets. What will be next? If I had to guess I would say that checked baggage, free meals, access to lounges, and Internet access in lounges and onboard will all become add-on fees.
This is a very worrisome trend indeed and one MudGuide is going to be monitoring very closely going forward. Alone among all Amtrak night trains, the Coastal Starlight route from LA to Seattle is semi-luxurious with a separate first class lounge for sleeper car passengers, movies, dining options that allow you to opt out of sitting with other passengers during meals, a nicer club car, etc. We are going to check it out in the first half of 2015 and report on whether these perks are being used for “revenue enhancements” or if they are going to be dispensed with altogether. We’ll let you know.
But I can live with escalating fees for those little extras that make night trains such a wonderful alternative to being packed into a metal tube at 30,000 feet and treated like chickens on a Tyson’s truck in rural Arkansas. Where I draw the line, however, is when you mess with my vino. The Amtrak wine catastrophe needs several paragraphs of its own (rant alert!). Sometime in 2013 the bean counters forced a policy change on Amtrak that will go down in oenological infamy. You used to be able to bring your own wine to the dining car where the staff would obligingly open it for you. However, while wine for personal consumption is still allowed in one’s compartment, it is explicitly banned from the dining and non-sleeper cars, where one is now forced to buy Amtrak’s offerings or have your booze confiscated and perhaps face criminal charges. The little martinets even go through the trash to locate empty illegal alcohol bottles and cans, so that they can regale the passengers with threats over the intercom.
This blow has been softened somewhat by an effort to upgrade the wine list in the dining room and club car, but I do not consider decent plonk to be adequate compensation for banning my aged Bordeaux from the table just to make a few extra bucks. Charge a corkage fee if you must (I understand that everyone should get to wet their beaks, I’m not a communist after all) but do not infringe on my Dionysian rights to good wine, the price for which I am more than happy to pay. This is airline behavior of the worst sort that directly undermines Amtrak’s efforts at differentiation. What were those clowns thinking? Here’s an idea for the morons that thought they could get away with such blatant discrimination: let us trade Amtrak loyalty points for the privilege of drinking our own wine. Like the airlines, I am sure that Amtrak has thoroughly debased that particular currency hoping to purchase the loyalty of travelers and will soon have to face the opprobrium of its ridership in order to shore up their “profitability.” So just think of the points you could claw back from the likes of me, who hates “loyalty programs” to begin with and just wants to enjoy the fruits of my cellar when I travel. Patti and I have jumped onto the Eurostar, TGV, and Spanish high speed trains at the last minute with a whole chicken just off the rotisserie, a loaf of bread, and several bottles of excellent wine and proceeded to feast in first class with nothing but an envious glance from our fellow passengers. Why can’t we at least have an enlightened food and wine policy on Amtrak?
On the other hand, I must defend Amtrak from its critics regarding the most frequent complaint lodged against it, that of chronic lateness. For example, over the last year the Empire Builder has been on schedule only 22 percent of the time and is currently experiencing delays of five to seven hours, even with a change in schedule that takes the train through some of the most beautiful scenerey in the lower 48 states in the middle of the night. But the reasons that Amtrak’s trains almost never make their scheduled arrival/departure times are completely out of its control. Its all about the tracks: 1) they are in abominable shape and 2) Amtrak leases space on the tracks from the freight companies that own them. In an act of mass insanity, Congress long ago privatized the nation’s railroad infrastructure, thus encouraging private industry to grind it into dust for the sake of short-term profit, as well as giving priority to freight traffic over passenger traffic throughout the US. These two facts alone go a long way to explaining Amtrak’s chronic delay issues.
Yet despite its hit or miss service and food, not to mention chronic schedule slippage, Amtrak remains very popular to judge by the packed trains we have encountered in the last three years of train travel in the US. Note to the US Congress: pull your collective head out of your collective nether region and fund an infrastructural upgrade that will force US railroads into the 20th century before the middle of the 21st. MudGuide would be happy to put up with constant surveillance by the national security state, invasive left and right wing social engineering, and income inequality that makes the French ancient regime look like a modern Scandinavian social democracy by comparison, in order to have a decent passenger train system in the US. If you have to offset the costs, take it out of the helium and mohair subsidies (or whatever porkage has replaced them), or add an income tax bracket aimed at soaking elite members of the airlines’ loyalty programs (rate to be determined by the amount of accumulated mileage in their accounts) and the owners of corporate jets. Frankly, Team Mago does not care how you do it or how you pay for it—just give us a passenger rail system on par with Uruguay (where pot is not only legal but grown and sold by the government, hint hint).
Night Trains in Portugal and Spain
We traveled on the RENFE night train from Lisbon to Madrid after crossing the Atlantic on a transitioning cruise ship. The tickets were easy to purchase on line from the Petrabax US website (www.petrabax.com/renfe/), but follow-on service once they have your money is not so good. You receive an e-mail asking you to confirm receipt of the e-tickets, which you have to print out. I confirmed receipt and asked Milagros Godomar of Petrabax East via e-mail if these tickets should be presented at the departing station or onboard the train to the conductor. He replied in e-mail that “You will need to scan your tickets before you go to the train platform.” I e-mailed back asking for clarification as to where you scan the tickets, at a ticket office or in a machine on the platform, etc. (it tends to vary by country in my experience). He never replied to this or a subsequent query.
It turns out that you do not have to scan your ticket for this train (although you do for the high speed RENFE trains). We found this out and several other important pieces of information Petrabax failed to tell us about because we had plenty of time to kill. If we were in a hurry it could have been a problem.
First Petrabax tickets list Lisbon Oriental as the departing station. These tickets, however, will actually work at Lisbon’s Rossio train station from where the train actually originates. This is important for two reasons: 1) there is a shuttle from the cruise ship port to the Parca dos Restauradores, which is right next to the Rossio station, otherwise the taxi to Lisbon Oriental costs around 20 Euro; 2) you have a nominal two minutes to board the train at Lisbon Oriental vs. half an hour at Rossio and many people, especially travelers from the US, will have a significant amount of baggage with precious little time to get it all on the train. Although they will probably not leave you behind, you will almost certainly have to get all that luggage down the hall and stored in your room while the train is moving on some rather shaky track (which ain’t easy, see below). I suspect that Petrabax cuts its tickets for Lisbon Orientale because it is close to the airport, but even those passengers who fly into Lisbon probably won’t go directly to the night train. At the very least the boarding options should be explained in an e-mail with the e-tickets.
Something else Petrabrax doesn’t tell you is that the platforms for international departures are not all that easy to locate in Lisbon Orientale and information is scarce, especially around 9PM when the train leaves. You have to find the international ticketing booths (numbers 22, 23, and 24), which are isolated on one of the upper floors of the train station. These booths have multi-lingual personnel (at least they speak English), and they are helpful (in a gruff sort of way), but they will be long gone when the train boards at 9:27PM (they are only there for ticket sales). From these personnel we learned all the important things listed above that we did not find out from Petrabax.
Nearby the international ticketing booths there is a nice lounge that we chanced upon, went in, presented our tickets and asked if they allowed us access to the lounge. The young lady at the desk spoke good English and informed us that yes, our tickets allowed access to the lounge two hours before our train’s departure (again, nothing from Petrabax about the lounge or its location). I suspect that this rule is not hard and fast and really depends on how crowded the lounge is. When we returned at 7PM the young man at the desk, who also had very good English, did not even ask to see our tickets. He was very helpful in facilitating our use of the free and very fast Wi-Fi in the lounge.
Mago Tip: Do not plug a US power strip with a European plug converter into the power outlets in the lounge. In fact do not try it in any 220 volt outlet without a step-down transformer. Patti did and not only killed the power strip (the big flash and ozone smell can be acutely embarrassing) but also tripped a circuit breaker. Fortunately we were a long way from the desk and there was evidently a large junction box, because we could use other nearby outlets, so our damage was localized and we did not have to go find the breaker and restore it.
There are monitors in the lounge that give the platform and boarding times for trains starting thirty minutes prior. There is a schematic of the train composition by car at the escalator to the platform, this is sort of important because half the train goes somewhere else than Madrid in the middle of the night and if you get on the wrong car you will have to lug your bags a long way on a moving train.
Our compartment was weird, but not a disaster by any means. The side-by-side seating area was small, but the toilet/shower was quite large. The shower was actually separated by a curtain from the rest of the bathroom instead of being a waterproof cylinder containing a commode and a showerhead.
There was a lot of overhead space for our luggage, although I had to stand on one of the seats while Patti handed me the bags. You do not want to try this on a moving train if you can possibly help it, which is why boarding at Rossio station makes a lot of sense.
The access ladder to the upper bunk was built into the side of the car opposite the beds and expanded into three small steps rather than the usual rung ladder, much easier to use but another claim on space. The beds were normal sized bunk beds. There was a plastic key card in the door when we got to the compartment, which made it safe to leave all our stuff there when we went to dinner (the train stops throughout the trip to Madrid affording people access to the hall outside your compartment, although the staff in our car were quite vigilant and attentive). Dinner and breakfast were the best part of the trip. The dinning car was the next one on from ours and nicely appointed for a train in the 21st century. The cushioned velvet seats were comfortable and there were cloth napkins, metal utensils, and real plates and glasses. Of course Petrabax did not tell us that all meals were covered in the ticket price (to include wine), but our steward made sure we knew as soon as we boarded. One side of the dining car held tables for two and the other tables for four. One problem was that the heat was on full blast and soon became quite uncomfortable, but I spoke with our server and he quickly corrected the problem.
Dinner began with excellent bread rolls, which had been warmed (nice touch). There was a menu with multiple choices of appetizers, mains, and deserts. We were also presented with a decent wine list of four reds and whites. We had a 2010 Monte Velho, whose grape varietals “included” Tricadeira, Aragonez, and Castelo. The wine had a nose of damp earth and leather with black fruit and oak on the mid-palate and a medium length finish. It was much better than any I have had on Amtrak or even the Eurostar recently. The French tortilla appetizer turned out to be a huge omelet natur. The green salad was not bad, fresh and tasty, dressed with good olive oil and red wine vinegar. Salt cod (properly soaked and cooked) came baked in cream with fried potatoes (dry) and onions (good), as well as a hard boiled egg (hard to screw that up), grilled eggplant (dry but a little olive oil rescued it), grilled zucchini (good), grilled tomatoes (quite good), black olives (bland, what is up with that in the land of olives?), steamed broccoli and carrots (properly cooked, nice and crunchy). It turned out that the wisest approach would have been to order the salt cod either grilled or baked with cream. The steak (probably rump) was correctly cooked medium rare and had great flavor but was much tougher than US beef, which is usually the case in Europe where it is often grass fed. The potatoes with the steak were good, well seasoned and correctly roasted. We went with cheese to finish off the wine. The plate had three kinds of cheese served with strawberry jam. Two were good, one was bland.
Breakfast was continental. The coffee was great, served with lots of hot milk, each cup poured by the server and freshly made. This came with decent orange juice and a big basket of warm pastries and toast served with butter and the redoubtable strawberry jam.
Mago Tip: Remember that you gain an hour between Portugal and Spain. They wake you around 7 AM by banging on your door, but you think its 6 AM. You do not want to be caught in the shower when the train rolls into the station. They want you off pretty much when the train pulls in (not that they are going anywhere else any time soon, they just want to clean the train and get off work).
The worst part of the experience was the terrible condition of the tracks in Portugal and far western Spain. This led to a lot of lurching about and noise throughout the night, which peaks when they split the train and half of it goes off somewhere else. This is not at all the case with the high-speed rails that link most of the major cities of Spain, which has built more high-speed track in the last decade than any country except China. As an example of the discrepancy between the old and new tracks, consider that it took us ten hours to travel 399 miles from Lisbon to Madrid and three hours and forty minutes to travel 383 miles from Madrid to Barcelona.
Connecting to most of those high-speed trains, however, requires transferring to another station in Madrid. The Madrid to Barcelona train leaves Atocha station, for example, a 20 Euro taxi ride from Chamartin station where the Lisbon train terminates. Transfer via the Madrid metro is theoretically possible, but if you have a lot of luggage it will be a bitch, especially given that the train arrives at the peak of Madrid’s rush hour. Be sure to leave yourself at least 30 minutes to travel between stations and another 30 to get through security in Madrid.
Night Trains in Italy and France
MudGuide has taken the night train from Rome to Paris and vice versa many times over the years. Our most recent trip, however, was our introduction to the new Thello trains, which are a Franco-Italian joint venture that recently replaced Trenitalia’s venerable (if not geriatric) service. The most notable improvement from previous years was the ease of booking on www.thello.com. It was a much easier process than Petrabax with no nasty little surprises that can cause a bad experience or a missed train. You simply print out the ticket, or just cite the code on the ticket to the conductor after you have boarded the train and found your compartment—amazingly efficient for an organization having anything to do with Italian rail travel.
Train adept Mark Smith provided us with a scouting report, so we had adjusted our expectations appropriately prior to boarding:
“Thello is unfortunately not the best-run sleeper train in the world, but I enjoyed travelling on it and I’d use it again if I needed to go to Italy time- & cost-effectively. It’s a fun way to travel if your expectations are realistic, a ‘camping on rails’ attitude is needed.”
The first challenge associated with the Rome to Paris night train is boarding. The Stazione Termini is a perfect example of trying to put lipstick on pig. Despite design features that incorporate ancient artifacts and a modern shopping mall, as well as a semi-permanent law enforcement presence and convenient access to Rome’s metro, it remains filthy, chaotic, and rife with petty crime. During the May to October “season” you get the added bonuses of debilitating heat and American families in hand-to-hand combat with battalions of Han tourists bent on obtaining a half-meter advantage in the race for reserved train seats that are anything but.
This translates into a requirement to arrive at the station very early. Getting to the Termini at least an hour before your train is scheduled to depart (ninety minutes would be better) allows you to make multiple observations concerning the relationship between the ever changing signage, the sometimes helpful but often clueless “information” booth denizens, and what is actually happening at any given moment on the tracks themselves.
Upon entering our sleeper car we learned that the bloom was already off the rose concerning the recent makeover for the aging denizens that Thello had bought from Trenitalia. Specifically, the plastic flooring, which had replaced the stained and worn carpeting of earlier times, had begun to bubble and crack. Although there was not a molecule of duct tape in our sleeping compartment, it already looked scruffy and worn out after less than a year of Thello operation. The sitting area was adequate, but no better than that, for two adults. There was, however, ample storage for our luggage—although as with RENFE it took a high wire act to get it in place.
The bunk beds, however, were comfortable and roomy. There was even a funky mirror on the bottom of the upper bunk providing, one presumes, an erotic venue for those choosing to occupy the lower one. In its stowed position, the bunk bed ladder clumsily blocked both the sink and half the window until Patti figured out that you have to move it over the adjoining cabin door (thereby obviating the hanger knobs but at least it was out of the way). The adjoining door was locked but it appeared as if a larger party could book connecting cabins. Some aspects of the sleeper were inconvenient. The trash container was awkwardly set up with a large plastic bag that was not fitted to the aperture.
Some were just plain weird. There was a blinking light panel at the of head of the lower bunk with a series of inexplicable and/or scary functions written in English: yellow stood for “busy”; green for “on-line” and red meant “break down.” The panel cycled through the various lights randomly throughout the night with no obvious correlation to actual events.
The sink was badly positioned and its light did not work. The handy fold-away chamber pot from the old days had vanished in the Thello renovation, making the bathroom at end of car the only option. It was dirty, lacking in toilet paper, paper towels, and potable or hot water. The commode was very old school, a direct drop onto the tracks that made for a rather drafty sit-down experience.
There were actually some improvements over Trenitalia’s tenure. The compartment had three very serviceable plugs for charging devices. There were two amenity kits in our cabin that, while secured with what for all the world looked like bailing twine, contained a bunch of actually useful items: hand sanitizer, ear plugs, paper toilet seat cover, Kleenex, tooth brush and paste, mouth wash, and slippers. In the nice try category there were two niches for holding cell phones mounted by the headboards next to electrical outlets. Unfortunately, these were sized for the pre-smartphone era and ours would not fit even with the cases removed.
The staff was another improvement over previous night trains to Paris. Mainly French, they all spoke very good English. Our porter in particular was very helpful, quickly getting the air conditioning going full force in our sleeper to compensate for the stifling heat of July in Rome as well as making up the room in the evening and in the morning with non-Gallic alacrity. Needless to say, he got a nice tip.
On the other hand, the complimentary drink that came with our tickets turned out to be either cheap sweet sparkling wine or orange juice. You could, however, buy decent red or white wine in the bar car. I can corroborate Mr. Smith’s approval of the Chianti. Patti said that the Pino Grigio was not bad either. I should add that we were forced to purchase our wine enroute due to a very regrettable accident wherein we managed to break two vintage bottles Cesanese del Piglio, sigh.
The food was still as execrable as I remembered: over-cooked pasta with a gluey institutional sauce served on Styrofoam plates and eaten with plastic utensils, followed by dried out chicken or some form of mystery fish. As we had in the past, we bought a wonderful meal in Rome before we boarded consisting of gourmet cheeses, prosciutto and salami, artisan bread, and wonderfully ripe fruit. Thello’s complimentary breakfast consisted of mediocre coffee and a rancid croissant that bore greater resemblance to a roofing shingle than a bread product.
Two other nits involved the fact that you cannot lock your compartment from the outside as you can on RENFE sleeper trains and the lengthy nature of the journey. Mr. Smith says that you can get the porter to lock the compartment while you have dinner, but then you would have to eat Thello “food” and hunt the porter back up after dinner. The Rome to Paris night train is in many ways the mother of all locals, stopping frequently at stations large and small, often for extended periods to let priority traffic have the right of way. In and of itself this is not that big a deal, but we were treated to amazingly loud buzzing sounds at every stop, which included an hour plus at two points somewhere in Northern Italy.
Finally, the train was on time, which is to say only an hour late. I have never been on a Rome to Paris night train that arrived at its scheduled time. If you are booking an on-going rail journey it is imperative that you build at least a two-hour temporal budget into your plans. Not only will the train be late arriving but you will almost certainly have to change stations to catch your next train.
Mago Tip: The absolute best resource for planning and executing any type of train travel in Europe and many other parts of the world (although sadly not the U.S. or Canada) is The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com). Mark Smith is a retired railway professional who conveys massive amounts of very valuable information using witty and entertaining prose. For example, his website takes you step by step through the various ways to book trains on-line in multiple countries. He also provides photographic and text descriptions of the rail cars you can expect to travel in. My particular favorites, however, are his excellent directions on how to transfer between all of Paris’ main rail stations via either the RER network or taxi.
Comparisons and Conclusions: U.S. vs. European Night Trains
- Amtrak night trains are roomier, better maintained (notwithstanding the duct tape), and in general more comfortable than European night trains.
- Amtrak bedroom cars all have ensuite bathrooms, while some European trains do not.
- Food is better (amazingly) on Amtrak.
- Amtrak’s dining and club cars are larger and nicer than their European counterparts.
- You can check bags on Amtrak.
- Amtrak lounges are better.
- In general the state of the rail beds in Europe is far superior to that of the US, but this is not always the case and European night trains often travel on inferior track for part of their journeys.
- European trains, even Italian ones, are far more likely to depart and arrive on time.
- European train stations are much better than those in the U.S.
- Wine sold on European trains is better.
- You can bring your own food and wine onto a European train and eat or drink it anywhere on the train.
- Staff is a mixed bag on both Amtrak and European night trains (they are like tomatoes, when they are good they’re really good, but when they’re bad they suck).
- Safety and security are about the same.
- Ease of ticketing is basically the same.
The fact that Amtrak provides a better night train experience than its European counterparts actually is not as counter-intuitive as it initially appears. Even acknowledging the caveat that MudGuide has surveyed only Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French night trains to date, the inescapable bottom line is that while night trains are the only way to accomplish long haul train travel in the U.S., the growing density of European high-speed rail networks is pushing night trains toward if not extinction then cast-off status, which means they will be increasingly confined to older equipment on less capable tracks.
Especially in Western Europe, passengers can now travel significant distances in a day on marvelous modern high-speed trains. This allows travelers the option of long distance train travel broken up by nights spent in some the greatest cities in the world or charming towns and villages in the countryside. This is indeed the mode of travel that MudGuide will adopt during our annual migrations taking advantage of the European Union’s plan to link all major cities throughout its 24 country membership by high-speed rail over the next decade or so.
We will, however, endeavor to sample night trains in Northern and Central Europe in order to keep our readership informed of developments in those countries. Additionally, we will continue to ride Amtrak whenever we travel long distances that do not involve our infamous road trips such as the MudGuide Winter Tours 2012 and 2013. We are also looking forward to a journey on Canadian Rail’s famous and reportedly luxurious transcontinental service. It’s a tough job, but MudGuide is always up to the task of helping travelers avoid the human and environmental atrocities of commercial aviation while insuring that the journey is every bit as enjoyable as the destination.
Update: The End of European Night Trains?
MudGuide’s UK and Commonwealth correspondent, Tobias Blake Durant Trotter has alerted us to the slow and mainly silent death of European night trains. Taking a break from his selfless defense of a the UK from Scottish separatists, Toby located this melancholy yet well-written article in The Guardian:
This night train death spiral explains the anomalies we documented between European trains and Amtrak. It seems that by December of this year there will be no night trains between Paris and Rome, Paris and Barcelona, Paris and Berlin, Munich, Hamburg or any night trains from central to eastern Europe. These venerable services have fallen victim to the curse of budget airlines but also to the boon of fast trains that will connect most major cities in the EU by the end of the decade. While MudGuide will miss our romantic night trains, we can’t wait to catch the fast trains between all of our favorite cities. As for budget air travelers, well they probably don’t read slow travel sites like ours, so let them lose their souls.