As readers of these pages know, I love train movies. What may not be as obvious, though perhaps could be extrapolated, is that i love traveling on trains.
I haven't traveled on trains a great deal since moving to Los Angeles, though I did regularly in Chicago where the Chicago & Northwestern line was a great commute between the northern suburbs and the city, with wonderful double-decker trains. (I only say "was" because the line, which still exists, is now part of the Metra system.)
I did take the train one year from Los Angeles to Chicago -- stopping on the way for a night in Flagstaff, Arizona, to see the Grand Canyon, and then picking up the train coming through the next day. I've had other long train trips, but that's probably the longest, at 2,000 miles.
(On my Los Angeles to Chicago trip, I was maybe 15 years or so out of grad school. I decided to get a basic, reserved coach seat, rather than a roomette which was much more expensive. It wasn't bad since train coach seats are hugely more comfortable than airplane seats -- much wider, a lot more leg room and greater reclining -- and it was fine for the trip, though it's still not ideal for really long journeys, as L.A.-Chicago obviously was. Still, I'm incredibly happy I traveled that way on that particular trip. For a very specific reason. For the first leg of my journey, the reserved seat next to me was empty, and I was quite pleased about that. I knew my luck wouldn't hold out all the way to Chicago, of course, and kept wondering when it would eventually be filled. At various stops, passengers of all ages and sizes and temperaments got on, but still no one had booked the seat to be my companion. And then, in Albuquerque, someone did finally take it. And if this was a movie, you wouldn't believe it because she was an absolutely beautiful young German girl, who looked sort of like the beautiful German Olympic figure skating Gold medalist, Katarina Witt -- only prettier. (Honest.) In fact, first name was Katarine. (And yes, I still remember her last name, but there's no need to include it) And even better than that, which is saying a lot since after all she would be my traveling companion for the next 1,500 miles to Chicago, is that she was working as a summer au pair for a family in San Diego. And we got along so well, that we exchanged phone numbers for when we both got back to the West Coast. Indeed, we did get together -- she came up to Los Angeles -- and spent a nice day. Alas, nothing really came of it all, but it certainly made the case for loving train travel all the greater...)
Anyway, back to the point of this all. I was thinking of another L.A.-Chicago trip, or even one longer, fully cross-country. And in very early preparation, I checked out schedules and prices. And let me say quite clearly that while train travel is a joy, the Amtrak scheduling system online is mind-crushing insane.
I'm not gong to get into all the many ways it was lunatic, but will point to only two examples to stand in for it all.
The first is that I looked at the cost of a roomette from Los Angeles to Chicago. (I figure at this point, I've already had my lifetime fill of train-luck, and don't expect another Katarine Experience. Though there are always surprise meetings in the observation car or dining car -- o the joys of traveling on a train.) What I discovered is that prices oddly were wildly different without any seeming reason. While I fully expect some days to cost more than others, what surprised me is that Tuesdays usually cost more than Mondays -- and why only "usually"?? It seemed totally random. The main oddity, though, was something else. Here's the thing: $500 is a basic, one-way fare for the L.A. to Chicago trip with a roomette on a Tuesday. Fine. But I then checked the return trip for any Tuesday. And the price boggled me -- it was always $760 to go back! Even the same day. (Yet if you traveled back west on a Monday, it was only that basic $500 fare.) In other words, it is 50% more expensive to travel in a roomette from Chicago to Los Angeles on Tuesdays than the reverse direction. But the same on Mondays. (Regular coach seats also had major prices increases, though not to the same extent.) Other days of the week had their own oddities. It's just inexplicable. Most especially 50% more for the reverse route on the same day.
(By the way, yes, I know an airline will have different prices on the same day, depending on when a flight more-conveniently leaves, but -- a) there's only one direct Amtrak train trip each day in either direction, not multiple times to choose from, and b) I checked American Airlines, and their flights between Chicago and Los Angeles cost the exact same in either direction when leaving at the same time on the same day.)
But it's the second insanity that is far worse. And one I only discovered purely by accident when clicking on the wrong link.
Okay, here's the deal. Traveling back to L.A. from Chicago, there were two arrival options -- the main, downtown Union Station, and a branch in Westwood, near me on the Westside. What I discovered by mistake wasn't just bizarre but otherwordly. As I mentioned above, a roomette trip from Chicago to Los Angeles (to the Union Station) on a Monday cost $500. But if you select "Westwood" instead as your destination -- only about 15 miles to the west -- the price jumped to (are you ready?...) -- $850!!!!!
And as ghastly as that price leap is, it's even worse than that seems. That's because this extension is no longer traveling in the same roomette-seating on the train -- the train doesn't simply keep going west -- but rather...you get off the train and take a BUS for the next 15 miles.
I checked several dates to see if this was just a one-time glitch, but that was the case all the time, any day. So, in other words -- it was a $350 bus trip for 15 miles!! Maybe it's just me, but personally I think that's a bit steep...
To be clear, there has to be something very wrong with this listing, though for the life of me, I don't know what it is. Perhaps if one called Amtrak directly to book, you could get around this insanity when talking to a real human. The "Excuse me, but can you please double-check that, because it seems insane, doesn't it?" gambit. Though I don't know. After all, keep in mind that even just going from Chicago to Los Angeles is inexplicably 50% more expensive than the reverse route. So, perhaps lunacy simply rules on Amtrak.
Please know that I'm only giving two examples of the many outlandish oddities I came across trying to find routes and prices on Amtrak. I'm not nit-picking two totally-accidental peculiarities. There were quite a few others I found, and I didn't check all that many routes. So, the best I can figure is that Amtrak has a board filled with price numbers, spins it, and then tosses a dart -- and then they combine that with the results of another dart board spin for days of the week and also one listing destinations. The official scheduler then mix-and-matches everything and whatever bizarrely comes up, you have your ticket.
Then again, it was insane luck of the draw that got me sitting next to Katarine back then, so I can't completely complain...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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