PDX to Seattle By Amtrak: A Review

amtrak-cascades.jpg[NOTE: The following is not an advertisement for Amtrak :)]

So with the road conditions as bad as they were last week, and with my wife and I heading to Seattle to visit friends, we decided to try Amtrak. I’ll admit I’ve never really ridden the train before at any length, though I’ve done plenty of commuter trains in my day on the San Francisco Peninsula as well as the occasional Metro North train from New York City to the suburbs. Here is a brief recounting of our adventure.

We purchased our tickets for Amtrak Cascades (the name of the regional line) through the Web site, choosing to upgrade to Business Class for the roomier seats. Easy enough. We got to Portland’s Union Station plenty early last Friday, which was good considering the trains were sold out due to I-5 conditions (BTW: park at the nearby Smart Park garage – a short walk and you save $$). Union Station, while in some need of cleaning up, was a nice experience in seeing part of our city’s history. If you want to get a picture of how rail travel used to be more a part of our country’s focus, I’d suggest checking out this historical location.

Anyhow…we got to the station and I hit up this Express ticket printing station Amtrak offers. You know, like one of those self serve kiosks at airports where you can check-in and print your tickets. The only problem is you have to know your Amtrak confirmation number. You can’t just swipe a credit card and up pops your reservation. Since we’d left that number at home, I ended up in the check-in line. That was fine, though the train was already boarding by the time people ahead of me were helped and our tickets printed for us by the nice desk agent. The upside was I got to ask a lot of questions about riding Amtrak, providing me a helpful primer for the journey to come.

We walked down to the business class car and boarded. It was a relatively painless affair. The seats, as promised, were quite roomy and comfortable. You get a little storage area for magazines, a fold out desk which is somewhat of a pain to put back and a foot rest. There’s also overhead storage for bags and a closet area for larger luggage. We settled in and off the train went.

Now I don’t know what the scenery used to be like riding Amtrak during its heyday but it was an interesting mix of ugly and beautiful. Bland train yards followed by gorgeous Washington water and farm views. Conversation with people around us was easy when we chose to do that. We also sank into our books, did some work on our laptops and took naps. One thing which Amtrak has the airlines beat over is that you can pop out your electronics immediately without waiting to hit that magical altitude.

Another place I’d give Amtrak high marks is for its food. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first. Now much of the menu is quick prep food since this is grab and go to your seat type service, but what they offered seemed to be tasty and of good quality. I was also quite shocked to see they had a very limited but decent selection of Northwest microbrews. Nothing helps the train trip pass quite so quickly as watching rolling hills go by with microbrew in hand.

Also of pleasant disposition was the Amtrak staff. Whether it was the conductor on-board who offered to call us a cab (we were exiting at one of the smaller stops prior to downtown Seattle) or the desk agent mentioned earlier, everyone seemed quite happy to help us. I can’t say I’ve always had that same fuzzy feeling at the airport.

Suffice to say our return trip Sunday was just as pleasant, though the Seattle station is in major need of a facelift (which the city is in the progress of doing). We’ve decided we’ll take Amtrak again in the future when we head up to Seattle to visit. It beats driving…and like I said, the microbrew, comfy seats and great views help alot as well.

11 Comments so far

  1. Steve (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 8:03 am

    I can’t imagine why anybody would fly PDX-SeaTac. The train goes downtown to downtown, there’s no security check, no bag check (you could carry on a piano if you wanted to) and it ultimately doesn’t take any longer point-to-point.

    My advice for scenery is to get a seat on the sound side (i.e. left side northbound or right side southbound). Things get purty after Olympia.

  2. dieselboi (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 8:06 am

    Yeah, we did that in October for a game. The ride up was great and I even got my first glimpse at the famed Mima mounds north of Chehalis and Centralia. Woo hooo. The return trip wasn’t so good. It was on the Coast Starlight, one of the older passenger trains and I felt like I was back on a plane. It just wasn’t comfortable and it was 1 hr late. 3hrs on a train is fine, but 4.5 isn’t. Oh well, 50% good isn’t bad.

  3. jonashpdx (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 8:20 am

    Anytime I ride the train to Seattle, my only gripe is the teeny-tiny televisions on the train cars– and the use of what appears to be 20-year-old VHS copies of movies, what with them being all grainy and such. Otherwise, if you’re not too worried about what time you’ll get there, it’s not a bad alternative to driving.

  4. The Guilty Carnivore (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 9:23 am

    Hey Nino – thx for the great post. I’ve considered this route as well. Can you tell us:

    * Do they have wi-fi? (That’s probably a stretch?)
    * How much was the business class round-trip?
    * What was the total one-way trip time?

  5. Montag (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 9:41 am

    @Guilty Carnivore:

    Looks like the price for a random weekend in January is $28 one-way, plus $13 to upgrade to business class. They also charge five bucks if you want to bring a bike on board.


  6. Steve (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 10:00 am

    It’s a three hour trip. Here’s the current time table (PDF):


  7. Nino (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 10:16 am

    To Guilty Carnivore:

    * No wireless Internet. I believe some Amtrak routes offer it, but not the Cascades one. You’d think being such a tech heavy area they would though…
    * I see the business class fare question was already answered. It’s worth the upgrade I think.
    * Three hours one way, give or take. It depends in part upon (1) if the train is running on time and (2) how heavy freight train traffic is. Weather can definitely hamper the schedule.

  8. Dave (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 10:22 am

    I agree–Amtrak is a great way to go downtown-to-downtown. I probably do two train trips up there a month, and another two on the Horizon shuttle. Here are some of my thoughts:

    – Regarding wifi, no, they do not offer that (but they should! Puget Sound’s Sounder trains do now…). But my Verizon Aircard can maintain a decent connection nearly the whole trip, making the trip very productive. It’s like being in the office… without the distractions, and a better view!
    – Don’t pay extra for business class. Coach has the same legroom, still has a power outlet, and is usually just as empty as business class.
    – As the other commenter mentioned, make sure that you don’t plan either leg of your trip on the Coast Starlight. It is perenially late, and does not offer power outlets. Also, the riders are generally less day-trippers, and more long-distance haulers who were looking for less expensive fare than flying… meaning that they are generally noisier and less respectful.

    Now lets just hope that someday they build a super high-speed line like in Europe… Seattle in an hour and a half… that would really open up the market!

  9. Russ (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 1:36 pm

    Guilty Carnivore,

    Amtrak PDX-SEA does not have WiFi but almost the entire route except for some isolated sections between Kelso and Centralia, is within Sprint EV-Do reception area.

    Last year when I blogged about BlackBerry for AOL, and had to put up a couple of breaking news posts during the ride, I simply plugged my EV-DO enabled laptop into the electrical outlet by my seat, went back and forth between the blogging tool and the news site I kept monitoring for the info I needed. Then when the info became available, I was able to put up my post for our readers to see!

    All while looking dreamily at the boats on the South Sound! (Northbound, you’ll want to sit on the left side for that, preferably in business class)

  10. chris (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

    PDX->Seattle 11 hour train ride for me.

    At least the bar car was open and you could talk comfortably with the other passengers.

  11. anon (unregistered) on December 18th, 2007 @ 1:54 am

    I just took the Amtrak Cascades from PDX to Centralia (same route/train to Seattle) and I was able to check in at the Express ticket kiosk with my credit card… I wonder if it was because I was only going to Centralia. I plan on taking the Amtrak to Seattle soon so let’s hope it works again. Fortunately the line never seems to be long. Amtrak on the West coast kicks the East coast’s ass… I have nothing but horror stories back East.

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