60 Hours On Amtrak

I have a goal this year to spend a full 2 weeks on Amtrak, working as I go. (When it’s time, I’ve figured I can do a whole loop from Seattle, through Chicago, south through New Mexico to Los Angeles, and then back up the coast to Olympia, all in 15 days or less and use the $460 Amtrak Rail Pass.) But this last week I had the opportunity to take a little trial run. I had no idea if it would even be possible to work a meaningful number of hours on the train. So before I set out for the full loop around the West, I decided on a quick 60 hours departing from Olympia, changing trains (and reversing directions) in Salinas, California.

I had a few questions that needed to be answered on this shake-down trip:

1) Power supply? According to the internet, most Amtrak coach seats have a power outlet at the seat. There is also a Siteseer Car with outlets throughout. But some people report spotty power to the outlets, and some of the older cars don’t have outlets at all. There doesn’t seem to be a way to know ahead of time what the actual power supply situation is in the car you will be on. I have my fully charged laptop and phone, a backup battery for the phone that will charge it fully at least twice, a backup battery for the laptop that will get me one full charge, and a solar panel that will charge either of those backups. The solar panel and larger backup battery are from Voltaic Systems. I have this panel https://www.voltaicsystems.com/17-watt-panel and their V72 battery. It works great and I’m happy with it, but it doesn’t have enough charging power to really get me a full day’s work every day unless I can supplement with plug-in power. (And of course, it only works if it’s sunny, and you get a seat on the sunny side of the train.)

2) Internet connection? I know that cell reception is going to be in and out as the train moves. I’m used to working in the car on the road, and I’m in the habit of having two projects queued up at any time, one that I can work on with internet reception and one I can work on offline. That way I can easily transition between the two as cell signal comes and goes. But I wasn’t sure how the train route was going to affect that. A significant part of the route through Oregon and California is away from the I-5 corridor where you can count on reasonable amounts of signal. Theoretically, there is a paid wi-fi connection if you upgrade to Amtrak Business Class, but I read online that it’s not reliable and basically tied to cell signal anyway, so it didn’t seem worth upgrading just for that.

3) Can I eat reasonably well while traveling by train? There is a dining car on the train. The food sounds good and is reviewed well online, though expensive and a very limited menu. There is also a snack car with crazy overpriced gas station food. You are allowed to bring whatever food you want with you, as long as it fits in your regular luggage allotment.

4) Focus? Would it be possible to actually work on the train? Besides the logistics of connection and power, is there a comfortable enough spot with minimum distractions to get in a full day of work?

5) Is it possible to sleep in coach on the train? I read a lot of reports on the internet about this, with really mixed information. I understand coach seats on Amtrak are way better than airplane, but I’m not exactly a champion sleeper. Can I get enough sleep to actually function at work the next day?

tl;dr: Yes, all these things will work out. With some caveats. But if this is a trip you are pondering, you should totally do it.

While Amtrak has really abundant luggage allowances, I wanted to be able to carry everything with me in a backpack. I have a pretty good routine for fitting my mobile office setup and a couple changes of clothes in my large backpack.

In addition to my laptop, chargers, backup battery, solar charger, and a notebook (the mobile office), I also have two changes of clothes, a large cotton sheet, a down pillow, and enough food for three days in the pack. I packed food with the idea that if I had to eat nothing at all from the train for three days, I would have enough calories with me to deal but I’d probably be a little hungry. But the plan was to eat at least one meal a day from the dining car, and that would be my more usual amount of daily calories.

Power Supply On The Train

Had a little scare upon first boarding. Boarding in Olympia, I was assigned a seat on the second level of a coach car. When I arrived at my seat, there was a power outlet conveniently located at my seat, but it had been duct taped over and showed no sign of providing power. So right away, I went to check out the Sightseer Car to see if there was easily accessible power there. Sure enough, there was hardly anyone in the car and every seat had an outlet. Even when I eventually got re-assigned to a different seat that had a working power outlet, I spent almost all my time working in the Sightseer Car.

Internet Connection on the Coast Starlight

I was without a 4G connection most of the time that the train route diverges from I-5. That worked out fine, because that section of the trip was mostly at night. The part that wasn’t at night (very brief heading South, a couple hours heading North), was incredibly scenic and I didn’t mind being forced to take a break from work and just enjoy the surroundings. This particular criteria doesn’t tell me much about other train routes of course, but it at least lets me know that the 4G connection from the train works similarly to driving in a car. It might be spotty at times, or even non-existent for a stretch, but as long as I have my usual flexible schedule and no hard deadlines coming up, I can probably work with it. I was even able to have a work meeting via Google Voice somewhere north of Portland.

The view from the SiteSeer car during part of the time I didn’t have internet connection.

Train Food

My experience was similar to most reports I saw on the internet. I didn’t bother at all with food from the snack car. I ate one of each available meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) in the Diner Car and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, particularly for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a gourmet dining experience, but it was tasty and well-prepared. I was very happy to have brought my own food for most meals, just because the menu is quite limited and the same every day, so I would quickly have grown tired of the dishes that appealed to me.

I had brought a lot of camping-type food with me — light-weight, compact calories — and was able to use water from the train to make some powdered smoothies and such. I didn’t notice any microwave available to passengers, but there may have been one in the Snack Car that I didn’t notice. I hadn’t brought anything that needed to be heated. The Dining Car has assigned seating, so that means you get seated with strangers unless you happen to be traveling in a group of 4. Other people on the internet wrote about their charming and interesting dinner companions. I assume my meal companions were all interesting also, but I’m not the kind of person who is able to bring out people’s most interesting stories. My meals were all with perfectly nice people who were content to make non-intrusive small talk, and that was fine.

Is it really possible to work on the train?

YES. I swear I was more productive on this three days of train travel than I normally am in a week at my home office. This was the most awesome part about working on the train. The views from the Siteseer Car were spectacular. There was enough interesting things going on — conversations to overhear and people passing through — that it was like working in a coffee shop. I could easily listen to headphones if I needed to block out some noise, but I often enjoy some background chatter. It was also interesting to see many of the same people over time, longer-term than you usually get in the coffee shop, so it was more fun to learn some parts of their stories by seeing their interactions. Many people stayed in their regular assigned seats during the trip, and I never had trouble finding a spot to set up shop in the Sightseer, including that I almost always had a 4-top booth to myself. I was worried that it would be too loud to work on the train — they sound really loud from the outside when you hear them go by. But it was not loud at all inside — you could have conversations at normal talking volume. There were a few times when the track was bumpy enough that it made my laptop screen vibrate and that was annoying, but in general it was a completely work-able environment.

I also was able to easily get a couple hours’ work done in Salinas while waiting for the train switch-over. I didn’t have any particular connection to Salinas — I had chosen that spot because that’s where it’s possible to reverse directions, getting off the Southbound train and back on the Northbound one, without having to pay for a hotel to stay overnight. The layover is a few hours in the middle of the day, and Salinas is a small walk-able town. Besides the Janis Joplin song that you may be humming inside your head right now, Salinas’s other claim to fame is being the home of John Steinbeck. I’ve driven through the area a couple times on longer road trips, thought it looked interesting, and the train schedule was right.

From the train station it was an easy couple blocks to walk to the main downtown area, where I found a delightful little coffee shop with free wi-fi. While I was there, the Cherry Bean Coffee House even featured two curmudgeonly old men sitting at the front counter debating about the nature of free will and salvation.

From there, I still had time for dinner before the train arrived, so I walked around the downtown area for a while until I found a place that looked like it would have a good salad. Thank goodness for Monterey Coast Brewing, just up the street.

After the previous two days of train food and camp food, something with real vegetables in it really hit the spot, and they had plenty of room for me to get a table in the front window with room to stash my backpack out of the way. Back at the train station, the Northbound train was running late, as is the way with Amtrak. (If you need to be somewhere at a particular time, I don’t think Amtrak is the way to go.) So I wiled away an hour or so talking with a friendly gentleman also waiting outside enjoying the sunset. I’m a pretty extreme introvert, so I was worried that train travel would require too much inter-personal interactions, but almost all my experiences were to have really pleasant conversations with very interesting and quirky people, or that people were polite and kept to themselves. Both ways worked great for me.

Is it possible to sleep on the train?

Well, kind of. First, I should say that a lot of people totally slept in coach seats on the train. If you are the kind of person who can fall asleep on the living room floor or in the back of an access cab pickup or places like that, then sleeping in coach is going to be no problem for you. I’m not a complete Princess about this, but I do need to be not actually touching a stranger in my sleep, and I need to be able to get my feet at least up to the same height as my hips and have my head/neck comfortably supported. I actually asked the train attendant nicely if it was possible to get a seat to myself for the overnight section of the trip. I could see by looking that it wouldn’t be possible for everyone to have their own seat, but also not everyone asked. He was able to move me to a new spot and didn’t assign anyone to the seat next to me until the next day. With two seats fully reclined and the foot rests extended, I could lay diagonally in a kind of relaxed fetal position and got a few hours of sleep. (I’m 5’6″.) I was reasonably comfortable.

I often don’t sleep well my first night in a new situation no matter how comfortable it is, so getting a few hours of sleep that night was definitely better than it could have been. The next night, I didn’t get a double seat to myself until sometime around 3am when my seatmate got to her destination. I was able to kind of doze off just reclined in my own chair, and I bet lots of people would be able to sleep fully like that. I noticed that there was hardly anyone in the Business class cars on the overnight stretches. If I was traveling for any longer stretch of time, I would definitely consider upgrading to Business class just for the overnight stretches, since I think you’d be much more likely to get a row to yourself in that car. I otherwise didn’t see any great benefits to Business class. People on the internet were correct — it does get cool in the train at night. I was glad I had my large sheet that I used doubled over as a blanket. I also used the women’s lounge area downstairs in the car to change into pajamas and do a sponge bath each night, for maximum sleeping comfort.

Will I take a longer trip on Amtrak?

Absolutely. I got a ton of work done. Neither the sleeping nor eating situation was a deal-breaker. For a longer trip I might make it a point to either spend a night off the train or splurge for a sleeper car every 3 days or so. By the time I made it back to Olympia, I was ready for a break from people. But I can’t think of any better way to work on the road and see some scenery that you can’t see from the freeway.