Category Archives: News

My Amtrak Story: From Milwaukee to San Francisco

From Progressive Railroading:

By Gina Doyle

Fifty-one hours train time — plus 90 minutes from Milwaukee to Chicago. When my husband and I told friends and family about our plans for travel from Milwaukee to San Francisco, we got one of two responses:

  • “Are you crazy? Why would you want to spend so much time sitting?”
  • “Wow! I’ve always wanted to do that. You’re going to have a great time!”

What made us decide to use Amtrak as our mode of transportation? Honestly, I don’t believe there was one specific thing that inspired us. My husband originally suggested the idea and said it was something he had wanted to do. So, I agreed to try it out on a one-way trip to San Francisco.

Neither of us had much experience riding trains. I had taken Amtrak’s Hiawatha route from Milwaukee to Chicago a couple of times for convenience, and my husband’s passenger-rail experience came only from European lines. Riding Amtrak for an extended period was going to be a first for both of us.

Choosing a route West

There are three routes that could get us out West, but ultimately we landed on the California Zephyr. Its final stopping point (Emeryville, California) was closest to our destination of San Francisco, and we were really looking forward to winding through the Rockies and seeing the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas.

Next, we had to decide which accommodations to book. We chose a roomette, which consists of two seats on either side of a big picture window. For sleeping, the seats convert to the bottom bed and a top bunk folds down from the wall. According to the Amtrak website, the dimensions of a roomette are 3’6” x 6’6”. So, while it would be by far the smallest accommodations we ever elected to stay in, it really was all we needed for a couple days. A step up from a roomette is a bedroom where the toilet and shower facilities are included. This comes at a price that we were willing to forego. Instead, we used the shared facilities that are found in each sleeper car — three restrooms and one shower room.

A number of people asked if cost was a driver in choosing Amtrak. We were clearly not paying for convenience like you would a plane ticket, but rather for the experience overall. That said, our price of $928 for two train tickets cost more than airfare from Milwaukee to San Francisco. However, the train tickets also included meals and lodging — logistics we would have had to figure out if we had chosen to drive.

Our tickets bought us our roomette for lounging and two nights’ sleep, three meals a day in the dining car and access to a hot shower. Another item to note: Amtrak was extremely gracious in offering partial refunds on our ticket prices when we noticed — just a few days after booking — that the price had dropped. That’s something that can’t always easily be done with airline tickets.

Boarding the train in Chicago

Our route left on a Friday morning and, before we were even out our front door, we received a call from Amtrak stating the Zephyr train was delayed by roughly four hours. With that information, we still decided to go ahead and catch our scheduled route from Milwaukee to Chicago. Once we arrived at Union Station, we were able to take advantage of the lounge access, which was included in the price of our sleeper car tickets and proved to be a nice convenience.

The lounge provides drinks, snacks, chairs and TVs, plus we were able to store our luggage there. Access to the lounge — if you do not have a sleeper car reservation — costs $50. After dropping our bags off, we made the most of our time in Chicago. The delay gave us the opportunity to kill a few hours in a fun city, fill up on Giordano’s pizza and walk a good number of miles before our (mostly) sedentary trip ahead.

We boarded the train by finding our sleeping car and then our room number. Each sleeping car has an attendant who is available for most of the day, save for very late night or early morning. He or she can answer questions, provide clean towels, open the main door at stops for stretch breaks and make up and fold down the beds.

Our attendant, Cy, a Chicago native, stopped in and greeted us soon after boarding to give us the lowdown. Over the course of our trip, we enjoyed talking to him about the train and learned that he does two to four of the Zephyr trips a month.

Considering our delay, the dining car started dinner service soon after we left Union Station in Chicago. For dinner service, a dining car attendant comes around to each sleeping room and writes down your reservation. When it’s your turn, they call reservations over the public address system. My husband and I were not sure what to expect as far as food or service — or even where to find the dining car.

Chatting with other travelers

Once we found the right place, we were asked to sit on the same side of the booth and quickly learned that we would be sharing the table with other passengers, not unlike a cruise ship. Throughout our meals, we met a lot of friendly, interesting people. From our first co-diners — whose destination was Omaha, Nebraska, and had taken the route several times — to our last co-diners — people who didn’t speak much English — we conversed with a number of new people.

I was pleasantly surprised with the fact that, on two separate occasions, we were seated with passengers who lived outside the United States. It was interesting to learn where they were visiting from and why they decided to take an Amtrak trip.

As for the food, I found it tastier than I expected. I wish I had the opportunity to visit the kitchen facilities because I can only imagine the small scale the staff must have to work with while trying to feed a continuous stream of people. For dinner, you could choose from menu items such as salmon, chicken, risotto or even a signature steak. Lunch options consisted of a hamburger, veggie burger, or chilaquiles; breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, pancakes, oatmeal or breakfast quesadilla options. Water and soda are also included with meals along with dessert, which we indulged in a few times. We highly recommend the pecan tart!

Initially, we were looking forward to spending time in the viewing car, which is located between the sleeping cars and coach. The top portion of the car has lounge seats with floor to ceiling windows, while the bottom part of the car has a few dining booths and a snack stand. This car was almost always at capacity. Coach passengers have access to this car, too, so the seats fill up quickly. We did have one or two opportunities to sit in the car, which provided nice views. But we mainly found ourselves in our personal sleeping car, using our large window to take in the scenery.

Spectacular scenery

Our route took us through some spectacular places. The highlights were winding through scenery next to the Colorado River, taking in the views as we made our way up and through the Rockies and seeing the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas.

My husband and I agreed that our favorite stretch of the trip was between Denver and our final destination, which provided the best views — and would have been a great place to begin the trip if we didn’t have to get from Milwaukee to Denver.

A lot of our friends and family asked if we were able to get off the train during our trip. There’s a misconception that passengers can get off at every stop and explore. It would be fantastic if that were the case, but it also would add a huge amount of time to the journey. “Stretch breaks” came once every few stops — and we took full advantage to breathe in some fresh air and walk around outside for a few minutes. I believe Amtrak must plan these breaks based on the popularity of the stop and the number of people boarding and disembarking.

We also noticed that Denver was many passengers’ final stop. The train became noticeably quieter and less crowded from Denver on to California. All in all, we were two of only a few dozen passengers who rode the train all the way to Emeryville.

Overall, I had three main takeaways from our trip. First, you’re forced to slow down — but in a good way. There’s no hurry to get anywhere. Second, the change of scenery is constant. The views can’t be had by car or road. And third, you meet a lot of people, some who were veterans of these trips and others who found their way from Australia to the Amtrak route.

Since our return from San Francisco, the question my husband and I are often asked is: “Will you take another Amtrak trip?”

My answer is that we’re definitely open to considering another Amtrak journey. And the next one will be easier, because we’ll know what to expect. However, we’re also sure that when we take our next long-distance Amtrak ride, it will be a bit shorter on the distance. Fifty-one hours is a long time to be jostled back and forth while sitting or sleeping on a train.

In the end, we were incredibly happy to have had this experience. We highly recommend train travel if you’re looking for a unique trip or another way to see our beautiful country.

Gina Doyle is program manager of education and conferencing for Trade Press Media Group, parent company of Progressive Railroading. Email comments or questions to

Passenger rail service in northern Michigan being studied: Part two

by John Amrhein, Michigan State University Extension

Part one of this Michigan State University Extension article introduced a feasibility study of passenger rail in northern Michigan being conducted by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and discussed current passenger rail service in Michigan. The potential value of such a service becomes clear as we review some of the points made by Program Director Jim Lively in a presentation to the Northern Michigan Counties Association.

The State of Michigan developed its first statewide rail plan in 2011. The executive summary provides an overview of the current status of rail service in Michigan, cites the benefits of rail in Michigan, and makes recommendations for moving the state forward.

Lively also pointed out that there are over 100,000 college students at 6 colleges along the A2TC corridor being studied. Great potential exists for student travel from home to college and between colleges on the A2TC route.

Significant economic development is also anticipated along the A2TC corridor. As of December 13, 2016, 17 local government bodies and business associations have signed on as supporters and are listed on the Groundwork Center’s website. The website also cites a 2009 study by Grand Valley State University that “found that Michigan cities with once-a-day train service boosted their downtown economies by up to $45 million each year.

Additional benefits of passenger rail service would include increased tourism, providing business travel options and attracting talent to the state.

Plans are to complete the study by fall of 2017, and to also do outreach and community engagement during 2017. The study will include analysis of track status, and cost estimates for needed improvements, analysis of station status and support infrastructure at proposed stops, estimates of service demand and potential revenue, funding and finance options, estimates of economic benefit to the communities along the route, and proposals for a management and operating structure and potential public/private partnerships to operate the line.

Excursion trains are being planned for summer and fall of 2018 to demonstrate the potential. Rail improvements and funding would likely be addressed in 2018 and beyond.

Phase two of the A2TC effort would bring further engineering study between 2018 and 2021 with weekend service beginning in 2012. Securing equipment would occur in phase 3 in 2022-2024 with regular passenger service beginning in 2025.

If you are interested in learning more, or keeping up to date on A2TC progress, check out the A2TC page on the Groundwork Center website. To learn more about the Northern Michigan Counties Association, email John Amrhein at

Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive

Please join us for an early evening hosted by MSU Archives and MSU Press featuring an enlightening retelling of the history of a World War II-era steam locomotive and the determination of two generations of volunteers to keep it running!

Kevin P. Keefe will be speaking October 26, in Conrad Hall, Room 102, from 5:00-7:00 p.m. regarding his new book Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive.

Pere Marquette 1225 was built in 1941 at the peak of steam locomotive development. The narrative traces the 1225’s regular freight service in Michigan, its unlikely salvation from the scrapyard for preservation at Michigan State University, and the subsequent work to bring it back to steam, first by a student club and later by a railroad museum. Milestones along the way include 1225’s retirement in 1951, its donation to MSU in 1957, its return to steam in 1988, a successful career hauling tens of thousands of excursion riders, and its starring role in the 2004 movie The Polar Express.

The MSU Archives will host an open house featuring unique historical documents and photographs of the 1225.

Keefe will have books available to sign and light refreshments will be served.

Date and Time

Wed, October 26, 2016

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM EDT

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Conrad Hall

888 Wilson Road

East Lansing, MI 48824

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Dowagiac man leading efforts to fund repairs to local train station

From Dowagiac Daily News:

For the past five winters, the bright white lights hanging from the roof of Dowagiac’s historic train depot have shined like a warm beacon during cold evenings downtown.

That brilliant visage may soon burn out, though, without some generosity from the local community.

Dowagiac’s Ron Leatz has recently began a new fundraising campaign to pay for repairs to the 1903 train depot’s outdoor lighting system, which has begun to fail due to ongoing wiring problems. Leatz is seeking to raise $5,200 in donations to fund the work, in hopes of having it completed by year’s end, he said.

Leatz, a volunteer with the Michigan Association for Railroad Passengers who serves as the “host” for travelers
riding the Amtrak trains that stop at the depot, was responsible for organizing the initial “Light Up the Depot” campaign in 2010 that funded the installation of the lights to begin with.

The Dowagiac man was inspired to install such light fixtures on the historic train station after seeing the efforts of the Niles’ Four Flags Garden Club, which pays for the installation of Christmas lights every winter at the city’s own vintage Amtrak station, Leatz said.

In order to accomplish his goal of lighting up Dowagiac’s depot, Leatz collected $8,000 from residents and businesses throughout the Dowagiac community in 2010. The city, which maintains the depot, then used the funds to pay for a contractor to install Christmas lights atop its roof.

“They used a very low wattage for the bulbs, to make it look like the kind of lighting used at the turn of the century when the station was built,” Leatz said.

Instead of serving as temporary decorations for the holiday season, the lights placed atop the Dowagiac station were installed permanently, switching on every season at the start of daylight savings time and switching off when daylight savings time ends, Leatz said.

“I did not want to collect such a large amount of money and only have them up for only 30 or so days,” he said.

The elements have taken their toll on the more than 2,200 feet of wiring powering the light bulbs, though, with the damage causing issues to the building’s electrical system, he said. In order to fix the problem, the wiring will need to be completely replaced, though the installer should be able to reuse the 1,700 light bulbs currently in place, Leatz added.

With the winter season rapidly approaching, Leatz said he is beginning to go door-to-door asking for help with the new fundraiser.

“When we did this the last time, we had people donating just a dollar or even pocket change to the effort,” he said. “When you are trying to raise this much money, every little bit adds up.”

People wishing to contribute to the cause can write checks to “Light Up the Depot,” and can either drop them off to the city treasurer office inside Dowagiac City Hall or mail them to the city at P.O. Box 430, Dowagiac, MI 49047.

For more information, people can call Leatz at (269) 782-0635.


Metro Detroit leaders reach regional transit deal

From The Detroit News:

An eleventh-hour deal was struck Aug. 2 by the top elected leaders in Metro Detroit to save a $4.6 billion transportation millage proposal to help fund regional rapid transit.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Tuesday that a “deal to make the deal” had been reached.

“It’s a huge breakthrough today,” he said.

The agreement comes after the Regional Transit Authority’s board voted 4-5 Thursday against placing the 20-year, 1.2-mill tax on the Nov. 8 ballot that would fund rapid transit.

A recent rift between counties threatened the authority’s millage proposal, but the secret afternoon meeting Tuesday addressed the concerns raised by county executives Mark Hackel of Macomb and L. Brooks Patterson of Oakland, and secured their support.

At issue was whether future funding votes would protect the interests of a few or each county, guarantees on funding allocations and concerns about when the authority would take over the M-1 Rail system now known as the QLine. In addition, Oakland received assurances that transit service would be granted to more communities in the master plan, officials said.

Patterson also said the deal addresses concerns such as ironclad assurances that every county receives 85 percent of what they raise in terms of tax revenue from the millage and that each county will have to approve any funding allocations in future votes.

“Now we’re going to set about memorializing it in writing so we know where we stand,” said Patterson.

The group of regional leaders met in downtown Detroit on the last day to move forward to have the ballot language for the transportation millage certified by county clerks in time for the Nov. 8 ballot.

A tentative meeting was set for Thursday to vote on the plan for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and RTA chief Michael Ford also attended the meeting.

The 20-year millage would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

“I congratulate the other members of the Big Four, because nobody went in there with the idea to sink it,” Patterson said. “We all wanted to save it.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the eleventh-hour negotiations addressed his concern about governance of the transit authority with representatives from Detroit and Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

“There will be at least one vote from each county and the city of Detroit,” he said, adding that the structure ensures no community will be marginalized.

“It’s a great way of resolving the issue,” he said.

The latest development was good news for Ford, the transit authority’s CEO.

“We’re pleased that the regional leaders have reached agreement on a regional transit plan to place before voters in November and look forward to a successful vote at the special RTA board meeting Thursday morning,” Ford said in a statement.

Evans said after meeting that he remained hopeful that residents will be able to vote on the millage in November.

“While there are still minor concerns that must be addressed, our goal is to improve the public transit system in southeast Michigan,” Evans said in a statement. “The improved public transportation system that the RTA is proposing will build upon the progress that Detroit and Wayne County have made in the past few years, progress that has strengthened our region. With this plan everybody wins.”

Duggan also issued a statement Tuesday following the agreement.

“We appreciate our partners agreeing to come together and move our region forward,” Duggan said. “This regional transit plan will bring not only independence and opportunity for people all over southeast Michigan, but it will allow us to compete with metropolitan areas across the country for development and investment. This agreement also signifies that our region is starting to move beyond a half-century of infighting that has served only to divide us and hold southeast Michigan back.”